"Duty free?" The voice comes on, like a Q-tip pushed just too far into the ear. I blink. Something is amiss, I think, sitting up from the lush green fields beneath the castle wall. A cow would never say that.
"Duty free?" the voice repeats. I blink again. A stewardess--no--you can't call them that anymore. An air...the...a woman in a kind of uniform...really I am perfectly happy just to sleep. Now here a linguistically unidentifiable personage is poking me out of a hard-earned, bent-necked snooze at the tail end of a transatlantic flight asking questions.
For a groggy moment I think she means it personally. The cart she stands behind carries nothing but booze and cigarettes.
So it is a personal question.
Alcohol and tobacco put together on a tray under a label implying liberty. Duty-free. A condition of glorious irresponsibility. The American dream, the impossible come true halfway over the Atlantic and brought to me on wheels by a pretty girl with nowhere to run. How do you live, she's asking me. Who do you answer to. With a wife, kids, or boss you cannot qualify for duty-free. But I stay up late. I stay up very late. I don't even have a will or life insurance. That's good, isn't it? Yes. I should unbuckle my seatbelt. I scoff at turbulence. This will impress her.
But wait. It might be a test. A loaded question. A trap. Yes. Carting around two of the great modern vices to people strapped into tiny, cramped seats. With nowhere to run. A devious plot to assess my moral fiber by tempting me to sin in the one place I can't. Smoke detectors in the bathrooms, little lights on above the seats. Why are you offering me cigarettes now? To torture me. To force me into a state of terrible self-realization. Am I a fun man or a good man. Why did I leave Blue Crush on the personal video screen? What does that say to a woman? Hard questions to answer, especially with nosy Greenland peering through my window. I close my eyes for a brief moment, and think back to the dream-cow. What would she do?
She moos. "Damn you," I say. She was chatty enough before.
My god, the stewa...the thingy...she's still standing there. I haven’t answered yet. What would she think of me if I bought a whole bottle of scotch? It’s 3:00PM in London time, sure, but by the time we land in New York it will only be noon and she’ll see I’ve been drinking all morning. Then she’d never go out with me, even if I asked her, because she’ll think I’m an alcoholic. I should have scheduled a night flight.
Though I could tell her it’s for a friend.
But I’d just be lying to cover up my drinking problem.
"Sir, do you want any liquor or cigarettes?”
She's trying awfully hard. Do I look like I need liquor and cigarettes? It's my beard. I haven't shaved in three days. That doesn't mean I smoke. Or does it. If she thinks I should have them, maybe I should. I never thought of it until now. She seems to care. Look at her. So patient, so smiling and cheerful. Earlier she gave me a blanket and pillow and asked if everything was all right. She loves me. Why can't I simply love her back? She's changing my life. I must thank her.
"What would you like?"
"I have liquor, and cigarettes."
"Liquor and cigarettes."
She’s pointing at bottles and cartons, now. Using what she has divined of my character to make recommendations. She's taking great care of me. What a warm, lulling sense of comfort I feel by putting myself in her hands. So much trust built up so quickly.
"Yes," I say, softly, as her fingers gracefully flit across the labels. "Yes. Oh, yes."
"Very good...that comes to two hundred and seventy-five pounds."
"Yes." And see! She’s good at math. One less thing for me to worry over, bless her, I can relax again, perhaps she'll come to have a glass with me at the castle if the cow can manage the corkscrew.
"How would you like to pay?"
Pay? Must I pay? We came together, we're sharing, should all the burden be mine? No, I see--she wonders if I can afford it. A clever, subtle way of nosing into my finances. It gives me pause, I would never have thought her so shallow, so...materialistic. There are more important things than money, you know. I could hold a doctorate in something, or work with children or lepers or cats. Perhaps the castle isn't mine, and so what if I don't have what she would call ambition? It does not mean I can't provide a good life, a comfortable life. She thinks I cannot--it's the shoes. Maybe if I’d worn my nice shoes, she’d see what a good provider I am. But these are more comfortable. I don’t think I should be with a woman that makes me uncomfortable. I don't know what to say.
How formal her voice is now. How distant. And all over money. There was a time when money didn't matter to her. Why must things change? We hardly seem to know each other anymore.
I can't remember the last time we made love. This isn’t working out. Maybe it’s for the best.
"I can’t do this anymore."
"Any of this. I just don’t think it’s right."
"It’s not you, it’s me."
"I think you should take your things and go."
"Sure, yes. Yes, all right."
That was hard. She seemed to take it well--I never meant to hurt her. So much commitment--perhaps I was not really ready. It's best to be honest with yourself, isn't it? It was doomed from the start, I suppose; we met over booze and cigarettes. Those relationships never last. Everything she loved about me changed by the fact of her loving me. Duty free is just ironic that way, I guess.
Just like that, she's out of my life. Not so much as a good-bye. I see she’s already rebounding with some guy in the next aisle, younger, richer, no doubt. Up to her same old tricks. I'll miss her.
The depression is setting in, I can tell--more than anything else I want to sleep, and not wake up until it's all over and forgotten. I wish she'd never woken me at all. To think, she almost drove me to drink.
Why won't they just let us sleep?