I have to be careful what I read while I’m writing. The style and feeling of what I’m reading tends to seep into, drown, and dominate what I put on paper.
Last week I plowed through Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. I’ll write about that book… maybe the day after tomorrow. But in the meantime… this is what happened.
Thelma bent and reached under the seat in front of her, pulled out her briefcase, and opened it on the meal-table which folded down from the seat back. Arranged in neat, alphabetical folders was information on a hundred cities that she had visited, either for work or for pleasure alone.
Anchorage, Birmingham, Cairo, Dallas… on and on. She was assiduous about collecting what would be useful on a return trip: lists of restaurants, business cards of important contacts, tourist magazines taken from hotel rooms – and would file these upon her return home. Thelma was especially fond of the compact maps that the rental car agencies would give out – she found these to be carefully designed for maximum help. They were the exact size and scale to get a renter around a city without any superfluous information or ornamentation.
She thumbed through the folders, one by one, allowing the memories of the previous visits to flood over her, hoping to jar loose a recollection of her present destination. She remembered getting a phone call in the middle of the night ordering her to go to the airport before dawn and getting on a flight, but she couldn’t remember where. All she remembered is thinking at the time that not only was that a city she had never been to, she had never even heard of it before that moment. It was odd that there was a city unknown to her (human geography had always been a passion)… but there it was. She couldn’t even remember getting on the plane, but assumed the ticket had been pre-purchased by her company… the way they always were.
Her memory was so bad because she was so tired. She had not had a good night’s sleep in weeks. Her nightmares had become so severe that her doctor said she was suffering the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – caused by the terrible subconscious memories of the nightmares – yet she could actually remember nothing from the dreams except vague impressions of deep, cold water, things moving in darkness, and breaking pipes. Awakened by the nightmares in her bed, she would lie in terror – confused about exactly where she was and even who she was. It was mid-summer but she would shiver with bone-deep cold, rising up from within.
The folders did not succeed in giving her a clue to her destination, so she closed the case and placed it back by her feet. She looked at the man sitting in the seat next to her – perhaps she could ask him their common destination. He was a large man, dressed formally, with an oddly-shaped beard, reading a book. Looking at the pages, all she could make out were squiggly lines in some unfamiliar alphabet. He probably didn’t even speak English – and how could she possibly ask a total stranger a question as stupid as, “Excuse me, do you know where this plane is going?”
Frustrated, she let out a sigh and tried to relax. Quicker that she imagined was possible, she slumped sideways against the reading man and fell asleep. For the first time in weeks she did not have a nightmare. She dreamed she was in a large green meadow, surrounded by steep, granite, rugged mountains capped with bits of snow. The meltwater coursed across the meadow in a hundred swift streams and as she walked up to a watercourse and began to step into it her foot began to rise up and she stepped again and again, higher and higher, as if on a rising stairway of air.
Soon, in her dream, Thelma was floating and then flying, rising and moving. She could see the patterns of the little streams in the meadow far below which, instead of joining into a larger river, meandered in a random pattern, sometimes joining together, sometimes splitting apart, so that the same configuration filled the entire area and it was impossible to determine where the water entered and where it left.
She rose higher and moved closer to the ragged vertical walls of rock until she could clearly see the small remaining nubs of snow and ice which were melting in the summer sun. Still higher, she began to look closer to see what was on the other side of the mountains… some sort of shape was emerging from the haze of distance.
But at this point she woke up. She felt refreshed from her first undisturbed sleep, but had to wipe a bit of spittle that had formed on her lips and she saw that it had stained the sleeve of the man sitting next to her. She turned to apologize but saw that he was still immersed in his reading and was paying no attention to her. She became aware of a noise and realized that the flight crew was making an announcement.
“We are now pulling up to the gate and will turn off the seatbelt sign as soon as the doors open. Will all passengers continuing on to Chicago, Paris, and Tokyo please remain seated while everyone debarking disembarks. We will only be on the ground for a short time. Thank you for your attention.”
Thelma frowned. She had missed the announcement of their location… but she was sure her stop was the first one on the flight, so at the ding of the bell, she collected her briefcase, rose, and retrieved her carryon bag from the overhead bin. She was the only person that left the plane.
The airport was crowded. Thelma could only see a few feet sideways through the surging sea of passengers. They did not seem to be the usual airport denizens – businessmen, families on holiday, students with backpacks – the mob wore tattered, wrinkled, out-of-style clothing – and had a thin, desperate, hungry look about them. Although there were men, women, and children of all ages and races, they did not seem to be in any family groupings – they all seemed to be struggling to get to their various destinations alone. The few that were carrying luggage had crude bags or parcels wrapped in dirty cloth.
Looking up above the crowd, Thelma realized that the airport looked exactly like every other airport – beams of steel or wood arched overhead, supporting a corrugated roof of light blue or cream metal. Large windows let in an orange light of either sunset or sunrise. Signs hung down with directions printed in several languages, none of which Thelma understood, and also included simple iconic drawings of mysterious objects. Finally, she spotted one sign that seemed to sport a sort of crude suitcase and an arrow beneath the puzzling lines of text – so she pushed her way in that location to get her checked luggage. She thought she remembered checking bags.
In complete contrast to the main concourse, the baggage claim area was deserted. A thin layer of dust covered the floor and Thelma could see her footprints as she walked across. A half-dozen huge metal belts emerged from openings in the wall that were covered with finger-shaped strips of rubberized cloth. These were all motionless and festooned with cobwebs. In some corners a hint of rust was beginning to appear on the machinery.
However, in the center of the room, there sat two bags, one large and one a bit smaller. They looked familiar to Thelma and she realized they were the same style and almost the same color as the carryon she held. She tried to check to make sure but the paper ID tags had been torn off.
Still, she collected the bags, attaching her carryon to the top of the smaller, and extending the handles, she lumbered out toward the twilit line of windows and glass doors. The automatic portal hissed open at her approach and she pulled her bags out to the curb. The thick humid air and oppressive heat struck her like a blow as she emerged from the cool air-conditioned terminal.
The orange light from earlier must have been sunset because it was now getting to be quite dark. She was happy to see, right in front of her, a large van parked along the curb. Large red symbols of some unknown language blazed across its side, but beneath, in smaller black block letters, were the welcome words “AIRPORT SHUTTLE”.
A man in a dark blue uniform and a jaunty cap stood beside the door and smiled at her. She stared at him – he looked familiar.
When Thelma was twelve, her parents had taken her on a driving trip across the continent, ending in New York. They had crossed the Mississippi on a huge bridge made up of silver steel beams and then had stopped in a tall Holiday Inn right on the Memphis riverbank. As they were checking in, she kept staring at the family in line in front of her. Outside she had seen the family which had already pulled up in a station wagon that was facing in the opposite direction. The father was untying a large valise from the rack on the roof. Thelma imagined that they were going on the same trip, coast to coast, but the other way, from East to West. There was a young boy about her age and something about him had drawn her to gawk. In her own way, she had fallen instantly in love with this boy.
Her family only stayed there for a day before they continued their journey, but everywhere Thelma went, to eat in the hotel restaurant, to swim in the pool, down the hall to fetch some ice from the machine, she would see the boy, sometimes close… sometimes at a distance, and her heart would ache. She never spoke to him and the boy never seemed to even notice her, but the day and the boy were etched deep into her head and heart forever.
Thelma realized that this man waiting at the Rental Car Van looked exactly like she imagined that boy would now. This could be him grown up. But what could she say? It would be silly to ask if he had been in a Holiday Inn with his parents decades earlier. And what if it was him? They had never spoken to each other.
“May I have your bags please,” he said with a sparkling smile.
She stood mute while he climbed into the van, carefully placing her bags on a tubular rack.
“And your purse, Ma’am?”
Thelma didn’t even think about how odd this request was as she handed him her handbag. Another flash of smile and he turned and climbed into the driver’s seat. She let out a soft sigh and began to follow but as she stepped forward the folding glass door of the van snapped shut an inch in front of her nose.
Shocked, Thelma staggered back a few steps as the van screeched its tires, sped away from the curb, and went careening down the street, disappearing around a concrete wall. Thelma felt panic welling up, she was now stranded in a strange city – she didn’t even know its name – without clothes, without ID, without money, without a credit card. She turned and retreated to the doors that she had emerged from, but found them locked.
At that moment, all the lights in the terminal went out. Thelma realized how late it was and how dark it had become. Still, who ever heard of an airport closing like that? What about the crowds trapped inside? She stood there for a long time, waiting for someone to come along or for something to happen, but no one did, and nothing occurred. The only thing she could do is start walking. In the distance, beyond the wall where the van had sped away, she could see the blue glow of streetlights.
She walked along the sidewalk as the road curved away from the airport. The way was well lighted by the ring-shaped streetlamps suspended high above on metal poles. She felt herself sweating through her clothes but made good time walking along the sidewalk. After a bit the sidewalk split away from the road and became a separate, paved trail. Thelma wasn’t sure about following it, but the road crossed a dark, swampy-looking patch on a bridge that had no walkway, so she had no choice.
The path entered a thick wooded area and curved first to the left, then to the right, and the streetlights were far enough distant so that the only thing visible was the bright concrete between the trees. The path became rougher and then the paving gave out until all that was left was a narrow, sandy lane. Thelma struggled along as best she could in the dark. The branches tore at her clothes and snipped at her face, thorny weeds underfoot sliced at her ankles.
Thelma decided she couldn’t go any farther and turned around to retreat. The path improved slightly but then began to go wild again and she realized she had made a wrong turn. Fighting back panic, she could think of nothing except to sit down in the soft sand along the widest patch of trail she could find.
She sat curled up, hugging her ankles and sobbed. The crying wore her out and she slowly gave up, stretched out in the warm sand, and fell asleep. She found herself in the same dream as she had on the plane, walking through the mountain meadow. As she approached a stream she began floating upward again, and looked ahead eagerly toward the rim of the surrounding mountains, hoping to get farther this time… and she was able to.
As she soared over the snowfields of the mountains she felt herself drifting lower on the other side, moving gently through waves of warm rising air. As she moved downward through the mist a shape began to form on the ground below. She saw long straight stretches of pale pavement, all emerging from a large building made of a complex series of giant halls. As the mist fell away she realized it was an airport and, though she had never seen it, it was the airport she had just left. As she drifted closer she saw the spot where the van had left her and the curving road away.
As Thelma’s dreamself passed high over the airport she saw a huge sign at the spot the largest road came up to the terminal. Though it was in an alphabet strange to her as she looked the symbols began to feel familiar and in her dream she realized the sign spelled out “Nepenthium International Airport.” That was the name of the city, Nepenthium.
The scene dissolved and she woke feeling the hot morning sun on her cheek. Aching, she gathered and pulled herself erect. Thelma was ravenous and thirsty, her clothes were torn and patches of sand stuck to her skin. Still, the peaceful sleep and pleasant dream had done her a world of good and she felt new hope welling up.
Looking around in the light of the rising sun she saw there was a barbed wire fence only a few feet into the woods on one side of the sandy path. There seemed to be light and space on the other side. She pushed her way through the tree branches and began to struggle over the wire. A barb jabbed her thigh. Fabric caught on the wire and she felt her clothing tear, but she pulled her way over. With a final rip as a hefty piece of cloth was left behind she fell clear and found herself on a strip of cool grass. She stood up and realized she had lost a shoe in the exertion to get over the wire. She kicked off the other and started moving barefoot. A trickle of blood ran down one leg.
The grass lined a road and on the other side was a large building. She waited for a gap in the passing cars and crossed the road. The building was undoubtedly a hotel and, although again the symbols on the sign were strange, she recognized a familiar logo of an international chain. Under the sign was a lettering board with black plastic letters lined up on a white glowing background.
The top line was a grouping of symbols, but underneath that was an English translation. It said, “Free Breakfast.”
Beyond the sign was a concrete apron in front of what must be the registration desk. Parked on the apron was the van from the airport. Thelma limped towards it, despite her torn clothing and desperate appearance.
Next to the van was the driver, standing there with the same bright smile. He had her luggage in a neat pile next to him. As she approached his grin expanded even wider and he reached his hand out and handed over her purse.