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The ticket they’ve booked for her is with Air France, a flight that will get her to New York in the afternoon, but she has always been fast, always rushed ahead with things. It’s a little touch of panic, she thinks and takes a deep breath. She could change the ticket, get into JFK earlier. There is a Lufthansa flight. She could gain some hours. It would be more effective.
So she moves the ticket, even though it means a two-hour wait. It’s also one less airport through which she will have to pass. There’s a two-hundred-euro penalty, but since she’s swapping two first-class tickets, it gets waived. Macht nichts. Nobody has to know. There’s no one who’s meeting her on the other side, so everything’s cool, as they say in America.
She endures the lines, the security procedures, the metal detectors, pat-downs, body scans, and repeated requests to discard all her liquids. She has displayed her passport; she has checked her baggage, and having complied with all requests and requirements, gets to the gate with plenty of time to kill.
Her choices—her hair, clothes, and makeup—have not been entirely her own and have been made quickly, but she is satisfied with the overall presentation.
“Dress like everyone else, Daria,” she has been instructed. “Wear something comfortable, and”—this last she thinks is almost funny—“remember to take good care of your health.”
The whole morning has been like one extended shock treatment, everything moving fast, and having exchanged the ticket, she feels like she’s a little more in control.
Giving in to her nervousness, she ambles around, from gift shop to newsstand. Stares at rows of candy bars, memorabilia, T-shirts with German colors. Not really seeing anything, but turning her face away, still looking for a place to hide. She is still doing that, she thinks.
She is still a child, deep down. Too easily lulled by novelties. Still realizing the meaning of things long after they’ve occurred. Distracted sometimes like any young person, and missing clues that should have been obvious. She had been telephoned for a medical interview, given instructions to taxi halfway across Rome to have a little place scratched on her shoulder and a droplet of vaccine placed on it. An inoculazione, the nurse called it. It was the woman’s first in twenty years of nursing. An older nurse was helping her by looking in on the procedure. “You’re traveling soon?” she asked Daria.
“To Brazil. To visit my fiancé,” she says without hesitation, and the two women laugh. She leaves with instructions not to scratch or pick at the scab that forms. Afterwards there will be a scar, like actors had in the old movies. And the older nurse laughs.
At the time it all went right over her head. It was a strange afternoon, and this is what it meant, and she hadn’t even noticed because of course she was going out and was already planning her night.
But everything is different now. Everything happening suddenly, and now she’s . . . scared. Of course she is. And ashamed of her fear. Trying to turn her back on everything. She wills herself to calm down. Takes long, slow deep breaths as she scans the newspapers and magazine racks looking for a clue—Why now?
Why is she preparing to board this plane, on this particular day? It’s late in September, there’s no special anniversary to celebrate. No great atrocity, assassination, or coup d’état that must be avenged today. There are governments on the verge of chaos all over the world, too many places where the armies have come into the streets.
So . . . why is today the day she must go?
She cannot figure it out. Finds her way back to a mostly empty section of seats, an island of solitude where she can close her eyes. She gets the iPod Nano out of her bag, plugs in some long trance that reduces the world to a windy silence, and transforms her into a tired passenger at the start of a long day. Like everyone else.
She may have slept. She can’t tell. Everything seems so artificial around her. None of it is helped by the architecture, which can best be described as space-colony. On the television above her head, a racing car is pinwheeling off the track until it splinters against a wall of tires. Announcements are made in a quartet of languages. When it’s time, she is allowed to board early because of her class, and finds 4A, on the right side of the aircraft.
Lufthansa Flight 7416 is everything their marketing department promises. Daria is not quite petite, but she knows that swaddled in a Lufthansa blanket, fully reclined, wearing a set of noise-cancelling headphones, and resting on a puffy antibacterial pillow, she’ll look as comfortable as a sleeping kitten.
She buckles in, presses her skull back against the headrest, and lets her eyes roam the indecipherable controls arrayed around her seat. She can’t focus on anything. When will the police suddenly appear in the aisle? She’s suddenly nervous. She can’t take her eyes off the floor and stares at her fingernails, the carpet, afraid to make eye contact with the passengers taking their seats around her.
The safety information is explained. She gazes at the card as if it matters. There are awkward-sounding bumps and collisions in the cargo bay of the plane. The air is chilled, then suddenly turns stuffy. She tries to catch her breath, but she can’t. Her hands are clammy when she presses them to her cheeks.
The doors are closed.
The airplane begins to slowly taxi away from the gate. The pilots make their announcements. She is sweating. For a moment she feels sick and checks to make sure there’s a paper bag in the seat in front of her. The attendants make one last voyage down the aisle, then buckle in.
She presses her hot cheek to the window. Slashes of gray pavement and artificial turf. Engines screaming, the gigantic airplane rolls down the runway. Now it’s too late for her to get off; strapped in, she’s a prisoner as they bump along. Then, as if the pilots have gathered their courage, they rush forward and, somehow defying the laws of nature, lift into German airspace.
Across from her a woman, very stylish, opens the Lufthansa magazine and looks over with a smile to acknowledge their mutual brownness. Daria nods, and fans herself. The woman’s smile broadens. “Sie bringen uns gleich Champagner. Alles wird gut.” A lilt to the voice, the curve of the vowels. Her earrings alone are worth ten thousand euros, Daria suspects.
“Grazie,” she replies. The woman smiles and returns to her magazine.
For a moment she watches the glamorous woman paging through the magazine, evaluating, rejecting, considering, judging. Exercising her taste.
She realizes that for a few moments the shock has vanished. Is it just human contact? She breathes. Just as predicted, the champagne arrives, served to her by a dark-haired German boy.
Lufthansa Flight 7416 with its 372 passengers has departed in the morning. From Berlin it is direct and expensive. First class, very much more so. There will be a meal coming, but the boy hands her a blanket in case she might want to turn in early or if the air-conditioning is too much. He’s very handsome and eager to please. Maybe he’s new to the job and, like her, a little awkward; trying to cover by acting cool, his smile coming and going as he works the aisle.
Once up in the air, everything is okay, everything is fine. You can see it in the weary, relaxed gait of the flight attendants as they go up and down the aisles taking drink orders. When the boy serves them champagne, the stylish woman looks over. Raises her glass. “Cin cin,” she says. “Salute,” Daria murmurs. They both take discreet sips. The champagne is cold, refreshing. Perfect. Just what she needs.
The climb has been straight and powerful and now they are comfortably near the stratosphere. So far it’s been just what you would want in air travel—uneventful. She takes another fizzy sip. But only moments after she has started to relax, a long series of tremors ripple beneath the wings and unsettle the plane.
On the screen in front of her, there is an animated silhouette of an airliner describing a yellow arc across a leaf-green Europe. These days the volcano is quiet, and now the jet is above Norway, almost at the coast. Soon they will break away and Lufthansa 7416 will find herself crossing an expanse of deep blue with only sprawling Greenland to look forward to. . . .
The spells of turbulence, like Daria’s panic, come and go. Sometimes the stillness is worse.
She should be riding in the back like a refugee or a soldier. Well, she has been a refugee, but now she is a soldier first of all. Yes, a soldier fighting a war. And at the moment she is fighting it quietly. Nervously. Yes, okay . . . all that’s admitted. Her excuse for the nerves is that it’s the flying, simply the flying. Those unanticipated bumps one encounters at five hundred miles an hour.
She is Signorina Daria Hirsi Vermiglio, but that too is a lie.
She’s supposed to be invisible, but now she is fanning herself, enjoying the champagne and a laugh with her anonymous friend across the way. There are movies on the screen that she quickly learns to access, and between pauses in their conversation, both of them touch their way through the menus. Most of the films she’s seen, but there is always something interesting. Her eye falls on a documentary about Le Corbusier . . . but she doesn’t want to think. Not now.
And wouldn’t it be more normal to chat with the woman, to become her companion for the trip? If her strategy is to be invisible, shouldn’t the best tactic be to act in an ordinary way? Go ahead, have a conversation with a stranger, why not? It will only look natural.
It turns out that the handsome woman is Sinhalese, born in Goa but raised in Sri Lanka and married to a German for many years. “Travel is hard,” the woman says, “and the only tolerable thing is to go first-class. We are slaves. We chase money, we chase money all over the world. Poof!” She makes a grabbing motion with one hand at the invisible money and raises her glass.
“Do you fly a lot?” Daria asks.
“No, not really. Only a few times a year. Every time the airlines say that it is all new. Everything new and supposedly better.” They have switched to English. The woman has lived in London for thirty years and is fluent. “But really it’s the same, and now I hate everything about it. They cut costs and it’s more and more dangerous every day—oh, I’m sorry.” The woman reaches across the aisle and, before Daria can react, pats her arm—the fingers gentle against the fabric of her jacket. It’s a touch that will kill her.
They both laugh at Daria’s apparent nervousness, and after a few minutes, when their conversation takes a lull, Daria curls up in her blanket with the champagne flute. She is just not ready, she thinks. Everything is happening too fast.
Shock. Looking at the little cartoon airplane lost out there in the wide blue.
She watches one of the in-flight movies; produced in Hollywood, but carefully designed to appeal to all the major markets. It’s the kind of movie she’s seen a hundred times, the same story but with minor variations. It is violent but no one bleeds. There are no curses, or rather none you couldn’t hear in any school yard. It is realistic, but everyone is beautiful. It is relevant, but there is not a word about Israel. Or Chechnya. Or Algeria. Never anything about Algeria. Or the camps. Or Sudan. Somalia. Nothing really about them. Indonesia? Jordan, Lebanon? Might as well not exist, she thinks. Gone. Vaporized. First you are erased from their culture, and then you’re erased from their maps, then finally you’re just erased. Isn’t that what they are doing? Isn’t that what they are always boasting? We’ll pave your fucking country.
She’s heard that.