By Nathan Deuel
So deep was my sleep on a recent flight from Moscow to L.A.— a complete darkness, as if I was where I should be—and yet when I opened my eyes, seeing instead the hard light of a plane and not that place I suppose I hoped I had finally found, I clenched my teeth, it having become clear yet again that we were neither here nor there, and it was with a bit of anger, some disappointment, and not a little bit of regret that I found myself thinking again about the Rome of a day before as much as I was anticipating the heat of the California I’d see tomorrow, all the while attempting to forget a Phnom Penh that had started it all, not to mention the various cities in between that my wife and I had tried and failed over 15 years of roaming—this long and more or less continuous effort to make some place the place.
I’d done it so many times: Experiencing the hardness after the soft edges of whatever had come before, so that—in the going from here to there—I found myself upset or at least a little wistful and yet this time, on the flight from Russia to America, let’s suppose I felt no choice but to stand up, to demand more wine or at least something like an explanation.
Here’s the thing: You can only go to Italy a second time once.
So what happened is this young boy stood up. It looked like the flight was going to be grounded. People rushed up to stop him from doing whatever it was that we all thought he might be able to do.
But the previous evening, in Rome, where several years earlier we’d sought refuge from what was happening in Syria, we had on this occasion started with wine and continued with gin and then we walked to the square, where it was more gin, and all of a sudden it was two a.m. and we were at a bar across from the hotel, and then with Shakespeare’s help it came to light that you might, in this kind of light, come to trust the instincts of a reporter, especially if she was your wife and especially if she asked nicely enough, even if the questions concerned the day you thought you almost died.
Is this making any sense? I am saying some of this because of what happened next to and in Syria but also because of something more general and altogether indistinct but suffice it to say that when we should have gone to bed I decided instead to buy more cigarettes, because a beautiful woman I was married to more or less asked me to,and yet I couldn't stop thinking about the plain lady at another table, who had told me how, and who in this moment maybe mattered nearly as much.
I’ve been to some bars. In some places. The lady in this case who was my wife, who I’d been trailing the globe for what felt like my whole life, was in contrast in this instance with another, who was happy enough, it seemed, when with gratitude I extended from a box she’d helped conjure a single cigarette. Which she took.
So I lit cigarettes for two women in Italy, instead of being at home, wherever that might be. I was drinking until dawn. You could have these brief connections. You could decide to enjoy them and seek them out. The life out there is good or it is bad and somewhere in the middle is the rest, and at a bar, there is the need to catch a plane. You could, it was implied by the full ashtray and the Vespas chugging past and the sun beginning to crest, just stop moving. Or you could come back.
So, toying with the idea of canceling the flight, staying in Rome, it was with some or at least a little surprise when a few minutes later, crossing the bar yet again, I found myself giving that unfamiliar woman another cigarette. But instead of taking it she shook her head with what I now imagine is something closer to indifference than anything else, but remember in the moment as thinking—probably another error of mine, further confirmed when I stood there next to her table, trying to get her to stand up, to show her the one star visible above her city, above Rome—that she probably had long ago determined I wasn't really there. Or at least wouldn’t be soon enough. That I was on the move.
Whether in Beirut, or Iraq, or New York, or Dubai, or Sydney, or Alaska: So many times I’d stayed up all night and then kept looking for more. Wanting everything but especially not for this time to be anything less than or less like the last time or maybe the next time or the time after that—and then it was time to stumble with new friends through old streets, yet again, and it was true that we’d done this before and probably would again.
This time, the friends were ones we’d met at a wedding in Tuscany and it wasn’t so bad to have met new friends in Tuscany, and to be thinking about moving to Rome with them, or to Santa Barbara, but then we were thinking about how many times one could start over and then I was walking with them into a nightclub and instead of dancing I suggested we climb other stairs, and with a borrowed church key, we drank wine from grapes that pre-dated Jesus, and we made oaths and of course we opened another bottle.
Yet, for now, I live in Los Angeles. We’ll see how long it lasts.
But then, on a flight from Rome via Moscow I can't say whether the boy on the flight (who was whimpering and standing and maybe intended to ground our flight) I can’t say whether he had in Rome as good or as bad a time as either myself or the woman at the cafe who I’d shown the star or any of the seven generations of men who had worked the vineyard in Montepulciano—with grapes Pliny had admired and which now summoned Russians with $10 million to spare, the sum they thought might buy them what no one could really own, the way we inherit things always stronger than the power that allows us to purchase, the core curse of travel being that you have to pay for it—so on this flight from Rome I wondered over this boy and I thought about travel and money and power and privilege and I thought about what made us do things.
It turned out to be quite simple: The boy was afraid.
A crowd of women surrounded him in row 13, hoping to hold him, others perhaps thinking he might make us land in Ukraine, a few dabbing a lovely brow with cuts of lemon and pinches of salt.
Death is when the hours run out. I am afraid of dying. A big man among us wasn’t as tender; he wanted the boy to know that this life of ours was all we had, and how cowardly it was to act as if we hadn’t been given enough. Sit down, boy, the man said, roughly and the boy thought about it.
This is the thing I’ve always wondered, no matter where, which new friends we had, what airline had taken us there, which reasons we’d ginned up to travel: When the time finally came, what would we do?
Would I look deeply into my seatmate's eyes—whether we’d been married 15 years or I hadn’t yet learned her name—and would I whimper, attempt to hold hands, and shut my eyes to the deep to which we were all headed? What would you do?
Back in Los Angeles, sitting at my desk, holding my passport, I planned the next trip, and I was thinking this: Maybe I had wanted to stand with the boy but I didn’t and then he sat down and maybe no one could really say where you were between the here and there, between where you’d been, where you were, and where you may yet go. The only thing was to close your eyes, arch your back, lick lips that were yours for now, and feel the blood that pooled in your feet. We’d all end up in the same ground.
Super Scooter, Japan 1960 by:lord enfield / Foter / CC BY