Friday, December 1, 2006

Chapter 4. Without Turning My Head

Without turning my head to look, I felt his presence as he moved behind me to the back of the plane. My sensitivity to his maleness surprised me.

I had gotten my second divorce many years before, a very successful one in that this time I divorced marriage itself. My gift, greater than any alimony could have been (which people like me never get anyway) was humility. Unlike the desperate years after my first marriage ended, I was no longer endangered by the notion that I was entitled to a great love. I finally understood that I had neither the judgment to select a sane man nor the strength of spirit to manage a crazy one.

This humility extended to the rest of my life as well. Once a willful girl with grand ideas, I had become docile. I didn't like dreams anymore and longed only for steadiness, an honest job, some solitude, and my bills paid. And so I began my career with The Abominable Import-Export Company, an unpleasant but tolerable place where I quietly built the safety (I thought) of becoming indispensable. That was my goal in life, and I was not discontented.

My actual job was protecting the health and retirement benefits for the other unfortunate employees from the greedy, unprincipled owners who had actually hired me to help them keep abreast of the latest rules so they'd avoid getting in trouble with the government. More specifically, they had hired me as a spy, coddling me in their nasty way so I'd help them slide around these rules, but they didn't get what they wanted.

Instead I entertained myself by delivering my weekly reports about each and every statute as it came into being -- as well a few old ones no one even knew about -- and dryly drawing up frightening pictures of the disasters that were sure to rain down on their heads if they bent a rule by so much as an inch.

Although I let no one know where my heart resided, the bosses suspected I was on the side of the employees, but there was very little they could do. They had hired me because they were cautious and each year they became more and more terrified to let me go. Their conversations with other business owners showed them how much more conscientious I was than anyone else.

If they had talked with those other owners for the whole eight years, I think they would have suspected I was overdoing the rigors of compliance, but they didn't. After a few lunches at the Stage Deli, telling their horrified colleagues the rules they had paid me to discover, and having those colleagues fix their own businesses without paying a cent, their natural selfishness took over, and they kept my revelations to themselves. They were always secretly hoping and waiting for their friend's businesses to get into terrible trouble with the government and I believe they even helped the process along now and then, by secretly reporting them to the authorities whenever they felt particularly competitive.

To add to my value, there would occasionally be some spurt of ethics or politics in the city that would expose via newspaper headlines that a business had been closed because of a secret sweatshop here, an illegal alien there, a relative on the payroll who wasn't really working, and this confirmed their beliefs that nothing protected them from the same fate but me.

To say they didn't like me would be an understatement, but I wasn't looking to win a popularity contest. They satisfied themselves by paying me as little as possible, and I made up for the lack with my satisfaction in their torment. For someone in my state of mind, it was an absolutely perfect match. The 45-odd employees wandering around the halls, carrying sheafs of yellow and pink bills of lading, heading out to stand in line at the customs offices at the docks or cutting open boxes downstairs, suspected in some dim way that I was looking out for them, but I kept to myself for the most part, partly so the bosses wouldn't sense my sympathies but mostly because by then I didn't have much to say.

I never expected to be fired. It was odd.

The large, graceful man returned to his seat across the aisle and slipped into it easily just ahead of the food cart. Instead of looking at him, I deliberately pulled my mind away and turned my eyes to my watch. I realized they were serving a bit late. I eagerly anticipated the arrival of the cart because airline food always entertains me.

I once wanted to be a writer, but gave it up, and now, absolutely the only writing I will do is about bad food. My friends, on receiving my letters, used to call me "The Raving Gourmet." I had considered a weblog type of food column, but keeping it up seemed tedious. I knew it would take the fun out of the enterprise. As time went on, of course, the airlines pretty much stopped serving food at all, but my story begins before that time. And I believe that even now they still feed you on cross-Atlantic flights, don’t they?

Back then I always managed to be impressed with the new ways the airline chefs managed to make the food detestable. From the little yellow ponds of peppered grease that float the morning scrambled eggs, sitting in sallow lumps on the speckled gray plastic plates, next to small stacks of tiny scalding white squares of potato with their insides still frozen and soggy, to the chilly muffins -- or, at lunch-time, sandwiches of wondrously flavor-free hard bread rolls holding slivers of lunchmeat in a tight butter glue -- the inventiveness of airlines chefs never fails to evoke admiration from me.

There had been a time that desserts evaded my attempts at description, but that ended on one trip where I was confronted with a specimen which appeared almost benign, but was somehow more ghastly than anything I'd seen before. I couldn't put my finger on what it was that was so horrible, however. The dessert was supposed to be a square of cake with bright pink frosting sitting on the top. It was a little cheap-looking like a bath mat cut into a tiny square, but aside from a deafeningly high sugar blast to the taste buds, it was totally unidentifiable in flavor.

I remember squinting at it, thinking "Who are you? Why are you so terrible?" and then I heard a passenger behind me say to her friend, "Don't eat that piece of cake. Did you know that if you left it out on your kitchen counter for 3 weeks it would look exactly the same as it does now?"

Perfect. Beautiful. Silently I'd thanked her and immediately wrote a note to myself about how airline desserts are embalmed look like perfect little dead things dressed in pink.

When I was handed my tray, I put it down on my tray table, pulled back the metallic lid of the steaming entree and gazed at the brown lumps, the white mounds, the limp green and red strips. How to describe these? What were they? I watched them patiently, waiting for the words to come to me.

Slowly I became aware of someone's eyes on me and looked up. Across the aisle the huge, light-footed man, his face rough-hewn like wood but sparkling clean and pleasantly rosy, a fork in his left hand and a knife in his right hovering above his food (which seemed to consist of plate of a different kind of lumps that were probably made of chicken, cunningly blanketed with a blotchy beige sauce) gazed across the aisle at my plate and then at me with calm, green, slightly slanting eyes. He spoke with a thick Russian accent.

"I fear to begin eating until I know why you are looking at the food in that way."

I couldn't help smiling. "I'm sure it's all right. See, I'm going to eat it," I said, and dug into my beef-like lumps.

He seemed reassured and turned back to his plate and began to eat. Without looking at me, his mouth half full of food, he continued to speak. "Why would someone look so long at the food, I think to myself. And I am curious."

"Well, I entertain myself by thinking about how to describe how bad it is."

"You are a writer?" he asked, turning to look at me, with interest.

"Oh no, not at all, not at all," I said with slightly too much emphasis. He caught it and looked at me more carefully.

"And if I may ask, what do you do?"

"Well," I said, shoving the limp cold, red and green strips in my mouth after a glancing at it briefly -- they seemed to be peppers -- "nothing actually."

He seemed to like that and nodded his head in approval. "You are rich?"

I smiled a little at that, and grunted a little chuckle with my mouth full. His eyes closed and his eyebrows lifted as he nodded with understanding.

We both navigated silently around our food for awhile.

After awhile, to continue the conversation, I said "Are you rich?"

"I am making a film, no, a number of films, about the Silk Road. I am being paid."

"Being paid is the same as being rich." I decided.

"True," he nodded slowly, looking at me, his big face folding into a beautiful, warm smile that reminded me of someone, an uncle or grandfather, from my very early childhood. Except, of course, for those eyes. They were unusual, yellow-green.

There was a long silence as I looked into them and then I said, "Do you think it's possible that you look like Genghis Khan?"

He smiled even more, almost as if he recognized me, which was unsettling and completely out of the question since we'd certainly never met before. "Yes, it's possible," he nodded, "more possible than you know. I am Kalmyk."