BOSTON —> OSAKA
It is Lucia’s theory—and she is a creature of theories—that any young woman who travels alone will not travel alone for long. She surges with a tide of gray commuters across a rainy tarmac and onto a tiny plane, and after the crowd storms the stair Lucia is pushed into a seat next to a Young Man. The other passengers bustling around them do nothing to mask the fact that Lucia and this sleepy stranger are alone together, seated elbow to elbow like a couple facing a diner window.
They are distracted from each other by the roar of the propellers and the rumble of thick rain against the hull, distracted enough that the Young Man is asleep before they even take off.
He huddles against the window, eyes wrenched shut, as though he is upholding a vow to sleep through the flight on force of will alone. The leap to New York is so short and artless, and their aircraft so ancient and rumbling, that they are like explorers, the two of them, hopping between airfields in the Congo.
Like the Young Man, Lucia planned to sleep through this flight. But the drone of the engines doesn’t hypnotize her as she thinks it should—in fact, it is alarmingly irregular. The propellers roar at different pitches, and their rumblings beat against each other. The noises conspire to put the whole prospect of flight into question, insinuating that maybe staying aloft is not a simple, symmetrical truth.
She turns toward the man.
He has pressed his face against the window, curled his fingers between his cheek and the plastic pane. His breath leaves a wet wreath around his lips. He looks beseeching, almost cranky, like a hamster fitfully napping. His jaw—a weak jaw—is slack, and tiny bubbles of spittle have collected at the vertices of his lips. Around those lips spreads a neat field of stubble that cuts a precise line across his cheek. The shadow-beard is clearly an affect, not an early-morning oversight. The lashes that so keenly drew Lucia’s attention are tangled, and move as one mass when his eyes dart beneath the eyelids.
He wears a shirt Lucia has seen throughout Boston this summer: deep blue oxford with stark white buttons. A cheap belt—brassy yellow buckle—holds up gray linen pants that are almost certainly from Banana Republic. Judging by the youthful slump of his body he is either recently graduated from college—Harvard or Tufts—or working a summer internship. There is so much rigid energy and anxiety in his scrunched eyelids that Lucia assumes he will need therapy, if he’s not getting it already. Something is battling inside him: perhaps the adversaries are his philosophy classes and his business shirt.
If she were to ask him where he was going, he would most likely just answer, “New York,” or even more cryptically, “JFK.”
“Yes, but where in New York?” Lucia might ask. “Visiting family?”
“Oh no, I work at—[where?]—I’m interning at Sotheby’s. Unpaid.”
“You’re from New York originally, aren’t you?”
He would be startled. His eyes, Lucia decides, are blue. “Well, yes, how did you know?” he would then say.
“I have a gift for these things.”
They might laugh lightly.
When the flight attendant passes, Lucia is unsure whether to request a drink for the unconscious man. He would probably take an apple juice or—there are fine lines at the corners of his eyes—a Bloody Mary. She gets an orange juice for herself and sips it, oscillating her stare between her seat pocket and the man. She suspends her eyelids in mid-flutter, so that if he suddenly awakens she might look asleep. She feels like she knows him well already. She feels like she knows everyone she meets well.
It had been another of Lucia’s theories that if she were to stay up all night, she would board her morning flight, fall instantly asleep, then sleepwalk through her layovers and blink awake just as she arrived in Osaka, perfectly rested and adjusted to the Japanese time zone.
She hit upon the idea as she was packing her suitcase (hurriedly purchased on a street in Chinatown), stuffing clothes into a black nylon contraption that had the heft and feel of a giant three-ring binder. A fit of intense, overwhelming boredom came over her in the middle of packing her panties. She crossed to the narrow window of her room, stared at the gray, sun-baked courtyard, and realized that she wouldn’t need to keep packing, then, if she packed the next morning instead, and she wouldn’t have to worry about getting up early if she never went to bed, and the lack of sleep wouldn’t matter because she could sleep on the plane, thereby simultaneously escaping the tedium of the flight! It was genius. And so she went drinking with her friends until 4:30 a.m., crammed her remaining clothes into the bag, and cheerfully waited at the curb for the airport limo.
She realizes, now, that she has forgotten to pack socks or tampons or pants.
She gets up and weaves unsteadily down the aisle to the bathroom.
“Miss,” the Young Man might say as she rises.
“What?” she asks.
“Think of three things to say.”
He means, of course, that Lucia should think of three conversation topics while she is in the bathroom. It is a dating strategy she herself has come up with. Perhaps this man is her soul mate.
She smiles as she folds herself into the lavatory. Someone has scrawled a surprisingly deft likeness of Grover above the toilet. How odd to find graffiti on an airplane: first topic. The pink hand soap has dripped and pooled in the metallic basin: not a topic. Lucia is flying to Japan to visit her forty-year-old boyfriend: second topic, should the first topic not go over well. She is an assistant to the editor of a travel magazine: second topic, should the first go well. She has never before had a pleasant conversation with someone next to her on an airplane: possible third topic.
Lucia returns to her seat just as the Young Man finishes contorting into a new position. He is now virtually horizontal, the top of his head battering against the window and his hands pinioned between his narrow legs. He smacks his lips, and Lucia notes that his jaw isn’t so weak after all. His feet hang over into Lucia’s knee space, and as she slides into her seat, one foot drapes over her leg. She holds her arms away from his Florsheims.
The man gives a soft groan in his sleep.
“Well?” his eyebrows say.
“What three things did you come up with?” Lucia might ask.
“I didn’t go to the bathroom. You have to say first.”
They beam at each other, but Lucia can imagine them breaking up in six months over the childishness behind his voice.
‘Well, come on!’ the man could say. Lucia is a little thrilled by his insistence. It promises a good kisser.
The captain announces the plane’s descent into New York. A stereophonic clamor of stretching and yawning spreads throughout the small plane. The man sits up, elegantly unhitches his foot from Lucia’s leg, and mumbles “Excuse me” into the window.
Lucia nods, staring at the maroon and gray squares of the seat back. She sees that the man has left a handprint of wrinkles along the inside of his pant leg. She has run out of time, now, to say “Sure,” or “No problem,” or “What’s your name?”
The man is fake sleeping. He has piously clasped his hands in his lap. Lucia stares at her own hands. They are pale and lifeless, as if underwater. A day without sleep: she must look a mess.
JFK —> TYO
Lucia is to fly on the sole All Nippon Airlines flight leaving JFK that day, and it won’t leave for five hours. She buys tampons and coffee, and deliberates over the purchase of a pair of Statue of Liberty socks. She devotes the rest of her time to searching for the All Nippon gate. No one seems to know where it is. In fact, no one seems to have heard of All Nippon Airlines at all.
“Which?” ask the sock vendor, security guard, and janitor, in matching tones.
“All Nippon. ‘I’ll Nip On.’ Or maybe it’s ‘All Nigh Pone.’ ”
The responses are three versions of “Never heard of it.”
For two hours, Lucia grows increasingly worried that Cliff purchased her a ticket on a faux airline. In the middle of JFK’s largest concourse, however, she finds a television screen that knows about All Nippon. Hers is the first flight on the monitor. At the end of the last concourse Lucia finds the All Nippon doorway. Her confusion might have arisen, it turns out, because the flight departs from a decommissioned Air Canada gate. The door is handle-less, gray, and unmarked, a witch’s portal. Lucia plants herself on the ground in front of it.
The terminal is a sixties vision of the new millennium: soaring plaster archways have been glossed to look like oversize plastic containers, fluorescent lights sit in dingy sconces, vendors wearing matching sea-green polyester uniforms sell muffins. Lucia has not brought a book (she was to sleep! to sleep!) and has nothing to do but read the tampon box. No one sits near her. She can now, however, say “absorbency” in French and Spanish.
A dozen beaming flight attendants are summoned through the portal, and they usher the few dozen passengers (it is only a Wednesday flight) through an upholstered tunnel and onto the jumbo-liner. It is bright and new. The Japanese businessmen crowd into the front of the plane, and Lucia arranges herself in the rear section.
She is alone until a young couple barrels through the dividing curtain. They stand breathlessly at the threshold, as if having fled a prank and about to collapse into each other’s arms. The girl is voluble and Japanese and the man is handsome and White.
“It’s so empty!” the girl exclaims.
The man nods reservedly, apparently figuring a verbal affirmation would be an oblique insult to Lucia. The girl bounds down a row to the other side of the aircraft.
“There will definitely be enough blankets for us!” she declares. She is wearing a wrap drawn tightly beneath her breasts, and sports a loud, sexpot haircut. She is a girl who will surely complain, upon arriving in Japan, that she feels more at home in America. The man is resigned, attractive, and nothing more.
After they watch an animated safety video, the plane roars and takes off easily. Lucia feels safe and insignificant inside a machine so enormous and empty. She imagines her tremendous nylon bag rolling around the cargo hold.
The man is to be introduced to the girl’s parents.
“There’s nothing to be worried about,” the girl says, twice.
“I’m not worried. I’m just listening to Hendrix.”
“Oh! I love that kind of music.”
“Really?” the man says. Lucia detects his yawning. “Who else do you like from the era?”
“Well, I like him. All those guys.”
Maybe, the man says in the silence, you don’t know any of “those guys.”
His subtext is clear to both Lucia and the girl, apparently, because the girl says, “I’m sorry, I feel totally weird today.”
“Stop being sorry. You don’t have to be sorry.”
“Oh, I know!” The girl laughs. She has, as Lucia already imagined, a horribly high-pitched laugh, that of a happiness faker. Lucia sees the man’s hair bob as he shifts in his seat. The girl leans against him dramatically, swooping her arm over her head as she does so. The arm is gorgeously toned, and jangles with bracelets that refract the light arcing across the cabin.
The couple is quiet for a few moments. In the respite Lucia wonders how she and the man will make it through the flight.
Unexpectedly, she thinks of Cliff. In her three hours sitting in front of the unmarked gate, she worried that by not wondering about him, not compulsively writing him notes on the back of her boarding pass, she was expressing a symptom of some decline in feeling. But it’s good not to be obsessed, right? Obsession would be a sign of youth, another hurdle between their ages.
Lucia met Cliff a few months earlier, before she graduated. The college hosted a career information day, and the travel publications panel met in the basement common room of one of the dorms. In the halogen gloom of Pepsi-stained industrial carpeting and greasy couches, Lucia listened to three panelists describe the eminent occupations that had brought them there. Lucia already had a job lead (her mother called the only company she had ever worked for and cashed in her last threadbare publishing contact), so she went to the panel more to sample lifestyles than to hunt for positions. She was disappointed as the hour progressed. One man collated research into a fact column, another copyedited for Lonely Planet, and the third, Cliff, was the Southern Japan Bureau Head for the Associated Press.
At least Cliff had the decency to look interesting. When he walked in, Lucia thought he might be an explorer, the type to dash amid archipelagos or herd antelope. He wore a vest and loose pants, and his hair and beard seemed recently doused in saltwater. He spoke in a gruff tone but was surprisingly long-winded, recounting his history in such grand and minute detail that Lucia was simultaneously bored and engrossed. As she sat listening, fixated and restless, she sketched out a note, first in her head and then on the back of a fluorescent flyer:
Cliff, it said, this is the girl perched on the edge of the couch. I would like to speak to you more about your experiences. Care to meet me?
She added her e-mail address and dropped the note onto his chair as she left. She could never ask a man out in person, but was unstoppably bold in writing.
Within an hour she received an e-mail saying Cliff would be pleased to meet for coffee. For coffee!
They met at a Starbucks. Cliff was a beautiful khaki man, and Lucia was instantly proud to be there with him. He ordered Lucia’s drink for her without consultation—a pleasant shift from boys who couldn’t decide on their own drink, much less hers. Cliff was no conversationalist and, perhaps because he was nervous, repeated every story he had told at the career panel. Lucia was excited but at the same time had to devote most of her energy to stifling her yawns, which she resourcefully directed into her mochaccino foam. She found herself regarding Cliff on mute, thinking “Bureau Chief for the Associated Press!” and watching his hairy, muscular forearms. He had rolled up his shirtsleeves and perched his wrists on the veneered edge of the table. There was no wedding ring. He would rarely move as he talked, only occasionally pivoting a hand to emphasize a point. These points were: advancing at the bureau was hard but doable, and travel writing was enjoyable but depended on having connections. He stared at Lucia from beneath blond eyebrows so thick that Lucia wondered if he raked them into order each morning.
Cliff took Lucia by surprise by posing a question: Did she speak Japanese?
No, she didn’t.
Lucia then learned about Cliff’s history with the language. At length. The particular menace of memorizing a new syntax, the blissfully abbreviated system of hierarchical forms of address required of a foreigner. She giggled throughout. Inappropriate, yes, but surely winsome as well.
Cliff hopped into a cab, and Lucia took the subway home. They met twice more that week. Lucia thought about him regularly when they weren’t together and realized that—yes—she wanted to be touched by him. The third time they met he invited her up to his place, and she gave him a blow job, because she was supposed to. He stroked her back and asked her if she would like to come visit him in Japan, then fell asleep.
The quickest route to Tokyo is over the North Pole. Lucia’s window shade glows and is hot against her cheek, transferring the searing fury reflected off the ice below. She is halfway through the fourteen-hour flight. A romantic comedy film has just ended. Lucia has read the in-flight magazine twice, and she hopes to fall asleep. The Japanese girl has just told her boyfriend a joke. She laughs.
“Bill seemed to like you,” the man says.
“Really,” she says in a sex-kitten voice. Lucia is certain that the girl is afraid she will have nothing interesting to say.
“Yes, he did. They all did.” He sounds unconvinced.
“I’m wishing we got more sleep last night.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she titters.
“I’m being serious. I feel totally grumpy.”
“Grumpy grumpy, smumpy smumpy.”
Lucia has a momentary and hopeful revelation that perhaps the girl is just a method actor practicing a role.
The couple disappears below seat level, and Lucia can hear a murmured conference. The woman’s head suddenly shoots above the seat, like a sprung toy. She looks directly at Lucia. Lucia’s eyes, only slits before, narrow and close.
“I think she is.” The girl giggles.
Lucia can’t help but suspect that she is being teased. She is maddened to realize that by ignoring the couple so entirely, yet so intently focusing on them, she is reacting in the same way she would have when she was thirteen. The couple rearranges on the row of seats. Lucia cracks her eyes open and spies a blue felt blanket trailing in the aisle. It shakes. Then shakes again. Rhythmic shakes. And then Lucia hears it—yes—a young woman’s moaning.
The night before Cliff left for Japan, he and Lucia ate at an Ethiopian restaurant. He passed her the plane ticket on the way in, and she was unsure whether it was proper to thank him. At dinner they talked about the other bureau chiefs in Asia: Mei-Pin, apparently, was the most disciplined, but Isaac had most experience in the field.
Cliff expensed dinner. They strolled out (“Summer nights,” Cliff proclaimed grandly, “are made for strolls”) and wandered about Beacon Hill. Cliff’s apartment was on a shallow rise, and as they came to the summit he took on a serious pose and said he had something to ask Lucia . . . did she want to come up?
She had hoped he might have been about to offer her a job with the Associated Press.
Cliff’s apartment was much cleaner than it had been the last time. The table was no longer dusty; the bathroom no longer smelled public. He pulled out a bottle of wine, and as he cut away the foil Lucia informed him that she had worked at a vineyard between her sophomore and junior years. He had trouble opening the bottle so Lucia helped him. She felt it was a disarmingly cute moment: they were regular old friends tackling a bottle. The evening stretched out before her happily—she could admire him, be close to him, and yet not be responsible for his orgasm. An odd disconnect: she wanted to be everything to him—inspiration, infatuation, obsession, but not actually to be with him. She felt full with the pleasure that she might become a foreign journalist’s girlfriend, that she might be Cliff’s girlfriend. But the actual mechanics of it seemed repulsive, that being the woman she always wanted to be should require her to be with someone she disliked.
Lucia excused herself to the bathroom, and when she returned Cliff had lit two candles. Friends don’t light candles. Lucia stared straight at their soft glow and was momentarily dazzled. She stood at the door of the bathroom, blinking. Cliff asked her if she would like to kiss him. She wouldn’t like to kiss him, but she smiled and flashed her eyelids madly, trying to rid herself of the purple ghost burned on her corneas. Maybe if she kissed him, she would start to want to kiss him.
She kissed him. She was infinitely aware of his taste buds.
The couple has finished and is apparently asleep. Lucia is not asleep. She screws her eyes shut and thrusts her head into the foam of her seat. Her hands are sweaty beneath the synthetic felt blanket. Her face is greasy, her eyes burn and prickle, and her swollen ankles press against the hard edges of her shoes.
The future, as she imagines it:
A fun cab ride back from the airport. He will spin her around the bedroom and she will kiss him madly, as fiercely as if she actually wanted to. His hands will soon be beneath her shirt, so she will put her hands beneath his. Cliff’s back feels very smooth, though peppered with raised moles, and crêpey-soft. He is her first older man. He looks as handsome as any man her age would, but when she touches him his skin moves more than she would expect. Cliff’s hands will be in her pants, so she will put hers in his. She will hold the loose weight of his ass up in her fingers. She will recall a splash of detail from their last encounter: the skin beneath his underwear is red and pebbled, as if rubbed raw. She will pull her hands out of his pants.
“I don’t feel comfortable,” she will whisper.
“I’m so sorry. This doesn’t feel right.”
She will fear she has exasperated him.
“Why doesn’t it feel right?” he will ask.
“I don’t know, I guess I just felt we had moved into something more friendly, not like this.”
“Do you not like this?”
What will she say? Do real adults fess up when they are repulsed? “Maybe we could just sleep next to each other,” she will try.
“That’s more of something you do when you’re younger. It’s out of fear.”
Lucia won’t be scared, not really. “I’m sorry, I just don’t want to.”
“I’m not going to force you.”
Cliff will step back. He will cock a hand on one hip and stare at his candles.
“One thing,” he will say. He will grasp Lucia’s hand tenderly, look at the palm for a loving moment, and then will press it over the bulge in his pants.
“No, really,” Lucia will say. She will snap her hand back and look to her coat. Cliff will throw his hands in the air in mock surrender.
“Of course,” he will say. “Your mind is your own to make.”
Lucia will step toward her coat. “I think it might be simpler if I just slept back in the States tonight,” she will say.
“You don’t have to be so dramatic about it.”
“I’m not. I’ll e-mail some thoughts to you when they make sense.”
Cliff, affecting the demeanor of someone bewildered but definitely, definitely not put out, will hold open the front door. “You should probably take a cab,” he will suggest.
TYO —> OSA
Lucia’s connection in Tokyo is short and frenetic; judging by the chaotic evidence of the customs hall, everyone’s connection in Tokyo is short and frenetic. She swarms with the milling crowd into an entrance cavern and through customs. She loses the Japanese-American couple when they file into the “National Citizen” line.
Most white women who come to Tokyo remain in Tokyo, it seems; the short uniformed man with white gloves whom Lucia asks about her connection adopts an illicit, somewhat scandalized tone as he directs Lucia to the domestic terminal. As she works her way through the horde of Japanese, it dawns on her that she is in Japan, not just an American tourist site thronged with Japanese. All Nippon is no longer the mythic unknown it was in JFK; it is everywhere. The airport abounds with All Nippon pageantry: proud All Nippon banners, costumed representatives, and technical wizardry. She has come out on the other side of the portal.
Lucia learns through repeated viewings of a video looping on a TV screen outside of her gate that the new airport in Osaka is built not on land but rather on a floating hydraulic barge. Lucia will be landing on water. Blinking into the screen, Lucia cannot decide if this fascinates her. She would appear to be fascinated, but she would also appear to be comatose. It hurts to keep her eyes open, and her ankles feel ready to burst. She bobs to sleep in her chair, snorting awake whenever the weight of her head swings forward. The repetitive motion starts to annoy her, but sleep keeps assaulting her against her will.
The flight to Osaka will be short, but the plane is huge.
Lucia files onboard with a horde of businessmen and an oddly large number
of schoolchildren. The flight attendant who escorts her to her seat
in the belly of the plane speaks an improbably perfect American English
that makes her greeting sound like an excerpt from an audio book. She
seats Lucia on the aisle, next to a pair of matronly women. They are
deep in conversation, and clearly resolved to ignore Lucia. She puts
her shoulder bag under the seat. Her hands shake.
The plane shudders, once, as it goes airborne, and Lucia jolts awake. Slumber keeps sneaking her away, and she snaps awake twice more without ever going to sleep. A line of drool curves around her chin. One of the matrons glances at her apprehensively.
A flight attendant brings around tea, and Lucia takes controlled, regularly spaced sips from a plastic cup. She runs her tongue over the rough edge of the cup’s lip. She wakes up again, and sees that the cup is already down on her tray, empty. She feels her pants; she hasn’t spilled any of the tea.
Whichever part of her brain responsible for understanding that what she hears around her is not English has fallen asleep and refuses to awaken. She knows that the matrons are speaking Japanese, but she still parses their sentences, pulls together scraps of meaning.
“Insouciance is not heady,” one says.
The other nods sagely. “Certainly as colors go freely!”
The first gives a smug little laugh at the second’s profundity. Lucia smiles at them to indicate that she is in on the deeper meanings.
“As I go, being not in loverlymotion.”
“Loverlymotion? Self loverlymotion is?”
Lucia engineers her head to the near side of her headrest to better hear the coming revelation.
“Loverlymotion. Eh? Nineties true, but pillow up the earth.”
Lucia’s jaw falls and another dribble escapes. Why can she not understand? She looks about her madly. Conversations everywhere that she cannot understand. A man in front of Lucia expounds on moony apples as his son, unimpressed by celestial horticulture, plays a video game. A flight attendant passing through pauses to listen patiently to an old man’s complaint of elbow flare.
Lucia scratches at her eyelids. She has been awake for how many hours… the math slips away, is impossible to compute. She keeps trying to factor in the time zone change, and then realizes she shouldn’t, but it bullies its way into her computations nonetheless.
She thinks back to the man who sat next to her on that tiny plane, the Sotheby’s intern on that tiny, tiny American plane, leaving Boston for New York. Is he at work now? Is he staying with his parents on York Avenue? He probably has a girlfriend in the city, someone who bought him those nice pants but didn’t get a chance to buy him a belt, and will find him one now. What did Lucia say to him? Anything? She remembers having had a conversation, but she can’t recall the way his mouth moved, that thin pink opening amid the constructed stubble of his face. She wishes he were here now. He has tons of issues, she is sure, but also seems tender, awkward, the type who will continually ask questions because he can’t think of interesting things to say about himself. He is a good listener, she is sure of it, and she desperately wants to talk to someone. She would gladly put up with his neuroses.
There is a satellite phone installed in the middle seat. Lucia presses the release button and pulls it toward her. The cord grazes the cheek of one matron, and she glances at Lucia, startled. Lucia, wild-haired and bleary-eyed, stares back. The phone is thick and uncomfortable, and she feels silly holding it to her face, like a little girl playing telephone. An automated announcement issues from the receiver in Japanese. How does an airplane phone work? With a credit card, probably. Or maybe the charge is automatically added to the airfare. Something about that doesn’t make sense. Will there be someone at the gate to collect money from her? Oh, no, that won’t do. Lucia gingerly places the phone back in its cradle.
Who would she call, anyway? She had considered calling Cliff—she has his information somewhere in her bag—but he scratched down his phone numbers in the most abbreviated, “in the know” form, lopping off country and area codes, just assuming that everyone knew the dialing prefix for the Kansai Prefecture. Cliff will already be at the airport, anyway, waiting for her. She wants to call her mother, but the idea of that yellowed old phone ringing in her mother’s linoleum kitchen, beaming a signal from her daughter panicking miles in the air between Tokyo and Osaka, threatens to rip apart the logic of her already precarious situation.
She can’t call her friends, because they think this trip is a bad idea, and all she wants is to hear how she can make it into a good idea. The only possibility left is the man from the first flight, and she doesn’t know his number, no matter how well she knows him.
Lucia snaps her head up. She has fallen asleep again. She smacks her lips and is fascinated by the sensation, as if experimenting with a new mouth.
A flight attendant is walking down the aisle, soliciting after each customer in turn. Her voice modulates to an impossibly high pitch as she talks to the businessmen. “There’s a heavy slut?” she asks.
She is at the row in front of Lucia. “There’s a heavy slut?”
Some people nod, some shake their heads, and the flight attendant smiles at each one magnanimously.
“There’s a heavy slut?” the flight attendant asks the matrons. One nods, one shakes her head.
“There’s a heavy slut?” she asks Lucia.
“There’s a heavy slut?” There is suddenly something less than kindly in the flight attendant’s smile, and she chews her lip nervously. She probably claimed she spoke English to get the job.
“She ask . . .” one of the matrons starts to explain, in real English. But she doesn’t know enough words to finish the sentence. The flight attendant moves on, and they arrive in Osaka shortly after.
Three young women hover over the entrance to the baggage claim, smiling anxiously and beatifically as the arriving passengers pass. They are dressed in All Nippon corporate colors: one wears green, one wears blue, one wears red. They are fairy godmothers. They nod in unison at Lucia and shout out an incantation. Lucia shuffles past.
After a siren fanfare, luggage begins to parade along the luminous black river of the conveyor belt. The suitcases, precisely rectangular incarnations of green and gray, file neatly past, shoulder to shoulder. Until, that is, Lucia’s nylon ogre barrels down the ramp and scatters a polite cluster of flight attendant–size luggage. Lucia muscles her bag over the lip of the conveyer.
The green fairy dispatches and glides over to Lucia.
“I just check claim,” she announces, beaming.
Lucia rummages through her pockets and produces her ticket envelope and claim sticker. The fairy nods encouragingly as she checks the labels.
“Thank you!” she cries. She gestures Lucia toward a pair of frosted doors. They open of their own power when travelers approach, revealing a chaotic and expectant crowd of greeters. Lucia is daunted.
“Can I help you?” the fairy asks.
Can she help Lucia?
The fairy waits expectantly as Lucia debates what to say. Her steadfast beam quavers a moment, and the red and blue fairies fly over to fill her break in composure. They flank the green fairy, surround Lucia.
“Actually,” Lucia starts. Her voice is new; it is the first time she has spoken in days. She wishes she were in a coffee shop booth with these women, hunched forward and intimate. “I’m here to see someone, a man, whom I don’t want to see.”
The blue fairy shrieks and laughs once, loudly. She covers her mouth.
“Also in mud resting,” she explains to the other two. They all fixate on Lucia, eyes wide.
In front of the smooth whir of the luggage belt, amid the quiet uproar of businessmen and schoolchildren collecting their bags, Lucia explains her situation in slow, textbook-perfect English, as if conducting a language lesson. She avoids her sexual history with Cliff—she is certain none of them understand the term “blow job”—but conveys in repetitive detail the dilemma of knowing that certain doom awaits her on the other side of the frosted doors. The fairy claim-checkers listen in rapt and polite astonishment.
“I don’t know what to do,” Lucia finishes.
“Heralds of bowling,” the red fairy announces as she produces a cell phone. Lucia takes it. The impossibly small phone is weightless in Lucia’s hands, like a brooch.
“Call,” the blue and green fairies implore.
“He’s already here.”
Lucia shakes her head. The three fairies cluck in dismay.
The green fairy throws her silver voice in the air, but Lucia cannot make out the meaning of what she says.
Lucia pulls a bent spiral notebook out of the zipper pocket of her luggage and opens it to the page where Cliff scrawled his home telephone number. After a moment’s hesitation, she points to the number and holds the phone out.
The red fairy dials the number. “Man is Japanese?” she asks Lucia.
Lucia shakes her head. The fairy squeals as if bitten, and tosses the phone to Lucia.
Cliff’s voice clicks on. “Hey, uh, this is Cliff. Please leave your message.”
Lucia explains into the answering machine, still speaking her oversimplified English, that unexpectedly she will be unable to meet up with him after all; she is in Japan but doesn’t know where she can be found. She hangs up.
Lucia hands the phone back to the ring of fairies. They stare at her expectantly. She feels ridiculous—how could it take her so very long to find what she doesn’t want? Why has she met no one but herself for so long? Lucia glances at the frosted doors in trepidation.
The blue fairy detaches from the group and beckons Lucia away from the sliding doors.
Lucia wrestles her bag forward and follows the blue fairy through an unmarked door and down a glowing tunnel. The fairy holds the far door open for Lucia, who steps out onto the radiant concrete before her eyes can adjust to the sunlight.
“Babe singing!” the fairy jubilantly calls.
Lucia waves goodbye and blinks into the sky. Gradually she shifts her gaze to the streets before her, and chooses one.
Eliot Schrefer’s debut novel, Glamorous Disasters, will be published in April by Simon & Schuster. Visit his web site at www.eliotschrefer.com.
© 2007 Swink, Inc.