|Jul/Aug 2011 Travel|
Photo by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
On the plane I sit next to a man cradling the Qur'an in his hands. Its pages are the pale green of Easter candy and the Arabic script is thick and loopy. I smile. He smiles. I open my sketchbook. His eyes are thieves; they run off with glances at the drawings and always come back for more.
This keeps up until the plane bursts into the stratosphere. Then we stare at the seas and castles of the clouds. I wonder if this glory is new to him, or if he finds it inside a Mosque. I have never been in one. In middle school we studied Islam, and I failed the quiz. The five pillars got me every time.
I think, if there are no temples or churches or mosques or holy ground that have the sky on the inside, someone should build one.
I land in New York at JFK and stare at the skyline because it can't be real, just something from books. I add New York City to the list of things I know exist but cannot believe in.
I find gate fifteen. I want Berlin-Tegel. It says Dakar on the scrolling sign. I ask a woman with thick black hair, and she says the boys over there said yes, this is the gate for Berlin. They all look German. My voice is timid American. I'm in my Walmart cargo pants and my Walmart boots and my Walmart boys' section sweatshirt.
A tired blonde German woman comes and asks—this is for Berlin? We say yes, well, we think so. They say so, the German-looking boys.
We are all speaking in English, even though I'm the only one who wouldn't understand German.
Next is a Thai-American lady, dressed up fancy in black leggings. Her body and clothes say here's sex, here's your future wife. Her face says so much fun if you're rich enough.
When she asks is this the flight to Vegas, we're not surprised.
Then the lady with bushy black hair and the straining accent comes back and says it's gate 12 now. The boys hear, and the tired blonde who needs to smile hears it from me.
When I tell her, I am not brave enough to twist my words into the scattering of German I know. She allows this.
Such deference to a single language.
We sit, and black-haired one gives me pineapple from one of the nearby shops. It is the strange camaraderie among travelers.
We're just past the mid-Atlantic ridge, and dawn is bringing shape to the cloud world. It is creation from blackness. This is an unnatural daybreak, sailing over the horizon when it's not even one in the morning. Dawn at midnight, and shapes dance before my eyes.
This time I sit next to a vagabond man, and we talk for five hours out of the eight. This is because the conversation can roam anywhere and we don't care—we follow it like dogs on the hunt. There is a tracker in his bag that shows where he has been.
He is middle-aged and looking for something. I am sixteen and wishing that I could be him.
Outside it's as if the normal night was scrunched up like sheer fabric, bunching and folding somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, spurned by the continents on either side. It holds all the darkness of a real night, but condensed.
Day comes and seems like an exhilarating and beautiful mirage.
The vagabond man gives me his number, and I say I won't call it—probably. Anyway, he says.
She asks me while she drives away from the airport, did you I see the tower?
I think so.
She says, the one with the uh... the circle, the...
Ball. Yeah, we flew right over it before we landed.
I'm eager to speak. To feel out who she is. We've met before, but she was silent.
Red light and a gentle, firm stop. I have never seen a smoother stick shift. Teenage driver, green with envy. Offhand she mentions I could go up the tower and look out over Berlin. I think, tourist trap. Saw it in the guidebooks.
Though it used to be more interesting, she continues. I stare at the northern trees. Maybe maple, maybe pine. I know only mangrove and southern oak and Brazilian pepper and cabbage palm.
She says, back during the wall, only I hear "war" for a moment. Still not grasping. No sleep for a long time—can't do the math, but I missed a night. Almost 24 hours. Maybe thirty.
She says, back during the wall, I would go up the tower and look out over West Berlin where Andreas was.
I catch this because I know her husband. He is tall and thin with a shock of black hair, glasses on a long nose supported by a wide grin. His English is perfect.
She was 16, and their schools met on a fieldtrip. Andreas said he'd come back to see her, and—she laughs—he did. She lists capitals: every place in the Soviet East where they were most free, where Andreas would come for her. All I would remember later is something about Budapest. Something about a Berlin train station between the split sides, where a wall ran, and they stood on opposite platforms, unable to see the other, but so close.
I think of the boy back home. Simply think, no pleasant or unpleasant strings attached.
Some day, some year, when there are no walls, I will take him transatlantic with me.