All the way from Sao Paulo to New York City, I am awake, drifting dissociative on the high winds in a metal coffin filled with mumbling Brazilians. Next to me, a little old grandmother is hunched over her prayer beads telling the Rosary, elbowing me occasionally to get me to pay attention. She does not speak English, and I am claiming, devoutly, to speak no Portuguese whatsoever.
Another thirty minutes pass. Sharp elbow in my side as I attempt to doze, Conelrad echoing in bassy relief in my eardrums. The grandmother beams at me, clearly expecting some kind of response as she pauses in the middle of her Ave Maria.
I smile, painfully. My cheek muscles hurt. My eyes are dilated. I am sure, back in some animal corner of my drugged brain, that I am dying slowly, suffocating next to this window onto the nighttime sky.
"Pardon. No fala Portuguese."
The grandmother's face seems to melt as the dissociative drive further into my brain, disappointment rendering her liquid. It is the seventh time she's elbowed me in the ribs. My Portuguese excuses are actually pretty intelligible after a month in Brazil, so it's not that she doesn't understand me. I begin to suspect her of dementia, or perhaps malice as the flight progresses through all twelve hours to New York City. As it turns out, this won't be the last time she does this. It will be five or six more before I reach touchdown on the far side of morning. My ribs get bruised, fast.
There's nothing for it but to throw her out of the airplane, and that's not an option. Mary isn't saving Grandma from her innocent terror, and she sure isn't saving me from Grandma's religious devotion.
By New York City, my head is fuzzy with lack of sleep and my ribs are sore from repeated, bony impacts. Long haul coach is hell.
"sweet in winter sweet in rain..."
As it turns out, the sleep deprivation is worse. My eyes ache more than my ribs hurt. Everything is a blur until I catch the train to Long Island. The car sways from side to side, running deep beneath the streets of New York City. It's past the morning rush, and I've the seat to myself. The t-shirt I'm wearing itches: I think longingly of the clean shirt in my laptop bag, packed in snug beneath the Kindle and my power cabling. I wonder if the jaded commuters will mind me stripping naked in my seat, pulling the cool cotton over my skin. Air travel always leaves me feeling filthy.
I'm too tired and not quite brave enough to dare missing breakfast, much less my next flight. The t-shirt will have to wait.
Sway. Sway. Screech. I shift uncomfortably, thinking of the elbow in my side. My thumb runs over the edge of my iPhone. Breakfast is coming.
Sometime later, closer to awake, I get to Penn Station. I bumble up the escalator and out into the teeming wildlife of New York City, the businessmen and the businesswomen sharp in power suits, the bums, the hurrying office workers intent on their goals. A city's worth of New York pigeons dart out of my path up the steps, bobbing bald heads and behatted, creased visages as I leap past Starbucks and the terminals into the cold, crisp air of the City. The air tastes fresh, like a rebirth from the smogs of Brazil.
Crossing the street, I find my perch on the stairs opposite Penn Station. From the wide steps of the Central Post Office in the morning air, dozens of dove grey wings and feathers take flight, cooing in welcome as I seat myself. I fumble for my Kindle so I can block out the roaring of the city with another, more cyberpunk kinda world. What comes out is altogether too striking - it's the last sentences of Cryptonomicon that bring me to vivid, tired memories as I await The Custodian.
"...but after Golgotha's been burning for an hour or two, it becomes possible to see that underneath the shallow water, spreading down the valley floor, indeed right around the isolated boulder where Randy's perched, is a bright, thick river of gold."
The Custodian is a broad-shouldered, shrewd-faced older gentleman, with tufts of curling, greying hair about a contemplative expression. He gives me a cheerful, generous hug, and ushers me a few blocks through Midtown to an older hotel, to an oak-paneled breakfast room. I excuse myself quickly to the restroom, and find myself wandering through cool marble corridors, down a broad flight of stairs, and into a tangle of oak-paneled offices and janitor's closets.
The bathroom is like a wet dream after the narrow, stinking cubicle on the flight. I perform quick ablutions in the bathroom, combing my long, somewhat tangled hair back into something resembling civilization, slipping into my clean t-shirt and washing my face with cold, clean water. It's something close to heaven. It doesn't erase the aches, but it restores something like humanity to me.
Coffee is dark, a good, many-flavored roast complimented by fresh cream. Perched in a wooden booth, weary but content, I breakfast on Greek yogurt, on curried lentils and eggs, discussing servers, discussing cloud-onna-stick, discussing all manner of things. Breakfast is over too quickly.
We hug, we part, we go our separate ways. I am back to the Long Island line, back down into the underground to a long train to JFK.
Back onto a plane, back over the Midwest. The East Coast falls away: we pass Indianapolis.
I have been here too, before, on the road, passing the windmills, passing the flatlands, passing Iowa City. There are no truck stops overhead, no clouds, no gas stations passing through on the way homewards. There is only an aching weariness, and an eagerness for home.
Hours later, under the plane's wings, we are soaring over sunset landscape. Beneath, salt lakes turn still, mirror-like faces up to reflect the fiery sky. It is dry here, drier than where I will circle down to home, and beautiful in a completely separate way. In the distance, a purple-clouded thunderstorm drifts over the dark outlines of the mountains, and the sun is a hot pillar of ruby light.
Circling, circling, circling. Down into Salt Lake City. Another hour until I'm home. I call my friend Sal.
The phone rings and rings and rings, signal trailing off to San Francisco, over signal towers, over Davis, perhaps past the gardens where wertperch and grundoon dwell. My thumb strokes the controls of my iPod, and, tiredly, my mind drifts back to early April and a garden filled with fruit and laughter.
I don't know it yet, but that conception of something like home won't be left for much longer.
"There is a house... by the sea... the scent of roses and raspberry leaves..."
Below, the Columbia River is a ribbon of moonlight through the purple banks. Below, the dark landscape is speckled with the stars of thousands of homes. Below, the Hanford Reservation stretches out, all but formless in the night. The airport opens waiting arms, receiving me down from the heavens and home.