An Aisle Seat to Vladivostok
Awaiting departure from Seoul on Vladivostok Air: I look to see whether the plane is a Boeing or an Airbus. I now incorrectly recall reading “Vulva” embossed near the tail wing as I traversed the open hatch and boarded. I know the plane can’t be named “Vulva,” but I like the idea that it could.
The plane is nearly empty. The upholstery is a faded and frayed light blue with a darker light-blue, lightening-like pattern stitched through the fabric. It is a throwback to a failed and oppressive Soviet state. My seat is occupied by a stocky woman in her sixties with overly red, shortly cropped and disheveled hair. She seems fixated paging through the in-flight magazine. An equally zaftig stewardess barrels down the aisle and promptly checks my boarding pass. She sternly instructs the woman in my seat to move. The other two seats in the row and most of the seats around us are empty. The woman rolls the magazine into one hand, and before hoisting herself up with the other she faintly coughs twice. She then tumbles into the middle seat. I methodically wedge myself into the now vacated seat, soon finding myself lodged up against her while looking around at all the empty seats. I deliberately crane towards her, thinking that I could not more clearly indicate for her to move to the window. There is no reaction.
My seat cushion is lopsided. Neither the overhead lights nor knobs to turn on the air vents work. The buttons on the armrest are illuminated in Cyrillic. All the seatback pockets within sight are bare of any inflight reading materials apart from the aircraft safety card. The woman seems to be reading the only copy.
Another young and blonde stewardess in a stained uniform purposively traipses down the aisle passing back and forth a blue tray with individually wrapped hard candies evenly spread across the surface to make it appear like there are more candies than there are. The wrappers are all the same color. The woman next to me momentarily diverts her attention from the magazine and reaches over me to gladly clutch a handful. I scan the tray and deliberately pick one as if it were somehow special. I squeeze it between my thumb and forefinger hoping that it could have a soft center, but it doesn’t. The thin, silver wrapper crackles over my fingertips as I pop out a hard honey square onto my back teeth. I immediately grind it into sweet jagged shards. The taste is nondescriptly pungent but not anything recognizable, and the more I try to identify it I become bothered that the only thing I can recall is the smell of dried semen on my crusted childhood mattress.
The young stewardess soon returns going the same way up the aisle towards us, but this time she is fashioning a pale yellow basket in which passengers dispense their used candy wrappers. The woman next to me ignores this as she’s now seemingly transfixed on a trifold map of Russia protruding from the back cover of the inflight magazine.
A few rows down and across the narrow aisle, a woman in her twenties stands up and opens the overhead compartment and then begins shuffling through a bag. Now in full view, her arms sway above her unintentionally lifting her shirt and revealing her naval. From her thighs up through her torso she is firm, her naked pelvis smooth and tan. Her hair is died jet-black, and it is stiffly cut around her sternly sharp yet innocently unaware pale face. She is not profoundly beautiful yet she exudes a lustful exoticness. She could be from nowhere else but Far East Russia, where the centuries bleed into harsh remnants but are exalted by a dizzying abundance of unearthed femininity.
An American pilot surprises me when his slightly southern brogue bellows over the PA. He announces that we are commencing our final approach. Unprecedentedly, he warns to not be alarmed by our imminent landing. He informs us that Vladivostok’s airstrip is one of the roughest in the world. The plane soon thuds down the tarmac after which the scattered passengers endearingly applaud. Many immediately split open their seatbelts despite the semi-audible announcement to keep them buckled being muffled by the aircraft’s tumbling down the runway.
Through the windows across the aisle a utility vehicle flashes a yellow light and parks below the cockpit. Our terminal bus is driving towards us. On the runway a militantly uniformed man and two women are already waiting to greet us. One of the women cradles a clipboard. Both are propped up in overly stylish boots.
I undue my seatbelt, and as I am about to alight I am surprised to hear the woman next to me blurt out in feeble English, “Help me.” I must look startled as I turn towards her, and she says it again, “Help me.” It is then when I realize that she is unable to dislodge the buckle to undue her seatbelt.
Without thinking I thrust one hand upon the buckle and the other between the belt and her flabby side. She is properly stuck in her seat. After a few tugs and a yank and two faint exacerbated coughs from the woman the seatbelt promptly comes undone. She may or may have not said “Thank you,” I was already gone.
Caught in Qatar
I’m at one of the Movenpick Hotels in Doha, and I’ve just had another smoke. The first one was before taking a 15-minute dip. There is nothing quite as therapeutic as floating and shimmering through a swimming pool at night. I have laid out clothing for tomorrow and packed a piece of luggage for Kuwait. Mike Myers’ ‘The Love Guru’ is playing on my laptop, which I began watching on the plane from Dubai that evening.
There is quick banging on the door, then nothing, at least for a while. And as suddenly, the banging comes again. I tread towards the peephole where I’m looking down on a grey fringe surrounding a bald crown in its early old age.
”Who is it?”
The man shouts, “We are men!” His voice is angry with purpose so I am scared, but for the time being, I think, at least there is the door between us.
“Who ARE you?”
“We are men!” The pounding continues.
He materializes a cigarette, lights it and walks away.
I retreat to the desk now aware of my heart pumping. I think to steady myself. It then occurs there could be cameras in the room. Is that even possible? I look around.
I consider that I should only smoke in the bathroom. I then doubt that secret police would monitor the bathroom.
I turn to my laptop and it dawns that the volume could have been up too loud. I listen around the room and hear nothing. The laptop reads 10:31 pm. That can’t be too late to watch a movie.
And before I can form a cohesive thought the banging commences. It’s the same scenario on the other side of the peephole.
I’m now on the phone. I calmly explain the situation to the receptionist who says she’ll call security and then call back. The banging continues.
I again peer through the door, and I now see a much younger man in his forties with a stylized head of salt-and-pepper hair.
“Who ARE you?” I almost plead.
But then from one side of the hallway a hotel employee walks past the threshold, and the two men as briskly walk the other way.
I continue to stare not knowing quite what to think. The thought to relax hasn’t yet struck me.
I call the front desk again.
The receptionist’s English is hard for me to understand. She says something about 911. Is there 911 in Qatar, I think to myself. I slip back to the call and implore her to call back when she has an explanation.
She doesn’t call back. The minutes pass with weights, and so I have to call her back.
Now I am speaking to a manager. He describes the implausible scenario that someone had lost their room key so was trying to find where he was staying.
This would have made sense if the man, the men, were drunk. But it still wouldn’t be excusable. Not in a dry hotel in an essentially dry country. But this didn’t even seem a remote option. Hearing this explanation I conclude that if this were a lost-key story then there was clearly something very wrong with the man himself. I considerer he could be medicated, but this seems a long shot. And besides, there were two men. It just doesn’t piece together. The man on the phone apologizes, but it is too brusk to feel much relief.
I have already hidden all evidence. I’ve crushed the diet Pepsi can and shoved it in the dustbin.
The manager apologizes again. He says how the guest in room 911 had called. Perhaps he was the second man I saw through the peephole. He explains how the one man was banging on all the doors from rooms 901 to 912 looking for his room. And the last room he checked, room 912, was the one where he was staying.
I realize I am not that nervous. I know this because I am also not that relieved.
Before going back to the movie, I jump on Facebook and smoke a cigarette. There is a message from Julie. I haven’t spoken to Julie in years, so I’m excited to hear from her and eagerly read:
I wish I was writing you under different circumstances but I have some really sad news. Stephan took his own life on Tuesday.
Without quite processing what I’ve just read or having perhaps not really paid attention, I quickly plough through the email.
I got the news on Friday from his ex boyfriend Matt who heard from another friend of ours from NY. I’m in shock and totally distraught…I just can’t believe it…he had been doing so well over the past year.
I’m sorry. xo Julie
I haven’t spoken to Stephan since I last spoke to Julie. But we had known each other for many years until then, or at least on and off. And in my head I compiled our timeline together through Korea, Thailand, New York, and Portland.
In layered dazes, I scroll through other Facebook posts. A high school friend is finally engaged, and I think about it long enough to be happy for him.
I reread Julie’s post from beginning to end, this time letting each word soak, as if doing so would somehow reveal more than what I already know; as if I could ever really know; as if really knowing makes a difference.