In heaven the meal choice is always the beef or the chicken. In heaven the vegetarian meals have to be preordered when the tickets are booked. There is a strict caste system in heaven. We are not allowed to use the lavatories in the forward cabin.
We are the angels of paranoia and despair. From 35,000 feet our wings slice into every silver cloud leaving a contrail of damage both real and imaginary.
They want us to fly less so the earth will not warm itself into the next ice age. Who are these they and why do they think I can be stopped by their inconvenient truth? We are polluting our environment. Living in our own filth. Was I not the one standing upon the melting glaciers in my Porcupine Tree tour shirt, margarita in hand, saluting the masters above? I have seen the melting and it is mine.
In the same way Christian ministers believe they can serve both sex and God, I believe climate change stands between me and the British Airways One World sapphire status. We are warming and I still need to pay the mortgage. We have tried to do this project via the it-takes-a-global-village method of Skyping and cell-phoning and e-mailing and all that has happened is that some of us have wound up with Russian spouses, unlengthened penises, and the need for bifocals. Thus, we must fly.
We build no nuclear power plants, so we must fly.
There is no progress without people eating together, so we must fly. We must eat the lavash and pork in the shadow of the Ark so we must fly. We must drink the vodka so we must fly. And flying pollutes, but pollute we must.
No one will miss brussel sprouts in the next ice age.
On Dancer and Prancer and Boeing and Airbus, Virgin and Lufthansa and British. We cannot sleep but we must fly. I will not sleep. I will write. I will fly.
I am had. I am renditioned. I am sitting in coach next to a British kid twice my size sporting a Mohawk. Between the two of us we need three seats. For us there is only misfortune. We pray for explosive decompression to bring some excitement to our imprisonment.
"When do they attach telephone cables to our balls?" says the kid. He is a Londoner. I can tell from his accent. I have watched East enders so I know. I have seen Monty Python reruns. I have heard Hugh Grant. This is an accent I recognize, though it is no accent on this airline which is owned by the British government.
"Absolutely. Right after the snack service."
"Brilliant," I say, trying to sound sympathetically British, but ending up pathetically American.
His disgust now palpable, he asks for me to let him free of the middle seat so he may pee. Ah, if only they'd had it so easy at the Bastille.
I should sleep. I've taken the pills. They do nothing.
In the Tour de France expose I carry with me I read that members of the team ONCE abused the very same sleep medication I've just taken by eating some and then forcing themselves to stay awake to watch the colors. I see no colors. I know only that this ordeal will end badly for all of us. Then we'll see that the phone cables weren't the worst of it.
"This is terrible," says the woman across the aisle. "From what tree comes a Zagnut?" She holds the fun sized candy bar between thumb and forefinger like the Grinch fingering a ribbon. The snack service. Should I tell her what comes next?
"This I have never seen." She's a cardiologist from Finland who somehow through the miracle of frequent flier hell wound up in regular coach next to a retired sumo wrestler who speaks little English beyond "Thank you," and "Hello," and "Speak English, no," but who has been speaking anyway for most of the flight. The man spent hours cursing the west, threatening our children, or asking for a drink of water. Whatever he was complaining about, the Finn is certain her nation cannot be involved.
"We have never invaded those people," she says eyeing me for agreement. Knowing nothing about Finnish history, I agree to quell possible conflict.
The kid returns to pour himself into the middle seat and as I stand to let him in the Finn says, "Now they attach the wires to our balls."
"Bollocks," says the kid.
I ask, "How come everyone knows about this service except me?"
The Finn shrugs. "Everyone is waiting for it. Your government calls it harsh questioning."
A man two rows up turns around and says, "For fuck's sake, what do you people want?"
"Caste upgrades," I say to him as I squeeze into my seat, which is less comfortable than the one endured by Alan Shepherd in Freedom 7. At least he got to go into space. I'll just end up in a security line in Heathrow with singed pubic hair.
The kid says, "I want to go in the business class toilet. Is their urine anointed by virtue of their higher priced tickets?"
As I fidget my knee touches a stale baseball-sized dinner roll lodged in the magazine pouch on the seat in front of me. It must have been left by a prior convict. I examine it for clues written in code.
Fishing in the seatback I find there's butter, too. Someone planned to survive on these rations. What happened to him or her? Are they now rotting in a Bulgarian prison, well out of the influence of habeas corpus and under harsh questioning by those who consider us all latent terrorists?
My teeth ricochet off the surface of what was once planned to be an edible dinner accoutrement. How many frequent flier miles does this roll have? Is it platinum class?
Logically, I lick the butter pat.
"You should keep an eye on that," says the Finnish doctor about my cholesterol.
"I have a 95-year old grandfather with total cholesterol of 459," I say, neglecting to mention he'd died and I didn't really know what his cholesterol was. You can say anything on a plane and it becomes true.
"You shouldn't eat butter."
"But butter plays an important role," I say, trying to configure my sentences in a tasteful allusion to Last Tango in Paris. That, of course, is impossible. I say nothing further lest a subtle reference to sodomy reminds us how closely packed we really are.
The pilot rings the cabin bell and the flight attendants saunter to their seats. We are going down and as a bubble of yogurt gas works its way up my esophagus I know for certain - nothing good can come of this maneuver. The carnage will be on CNN.
"A plane headed to somewhere far away on the earth was blown up in mid air by someone with a rocket. There were seven Americans on board and one group or another claimed responsibility but it has nothing to do with Iraq or domestic spying or liberal plots to discredit the president. In other news there was a lot of more interesting stuff going on at the Des Moines tiddly-wink festival..."
Yet we survive against all odds. We are stopped somewhere in an apparently dark field, near what looks like a lighted warehouse. Welcome to Armenia.
"We should play the lottery," I say to the Finn about our luck, but she has collected her hand luggage. Obviously she now associates me with the rest of her foul journey. I must plan never to see her again.
Haik and Arman were in front of me at Zvartnotz, which is what the airport is called in Yerevan, which is what the capital is called in Armenia. They took me to the hotel. I checked in, and then they wondered if I wouldn't like to enjoy this fine Armenian evening/early morning further by heading over to the bistro in the park. After all, I was jetlagged and they were genetically disposed to drink whenever possible.
"I think -- let's have a beer," said Arman.
"Let's drink to my arriving unkilled by terrorists."
We drank a bottle of Russian Standard and the clock in the square struck two. Someone waved a wand. We were surrounded by Amazonian bleach-blondes in tight clothes.
I said, "Haik, these women. Please tell me something good about them."
"Joe, they are probably oars."
"They want money for our sex?"
"What are you saying?"
"More drinks," I said. As far as my liver knew, it was mid afternoon. This could be lunch.
"They are not even good looking," said Haik as Arman got up and staggered over to a table at which now sat three women dressed completely in black spandex and faux gold chainery.
I shouted toward Arman, "This is not covered under the corporate health plan." And then for good measure, "This must be logged as a taxable expense!"
The mood was becoming corrosively evil. Only hours ago I hopped into the airport limo in front of my home full of joy and goodwill and now I was ready to crack open a vodka bottle to defend myself against a phalanx of Armenian hookers hell bent on collecting my greenbacks for god knows what kind of sex they have in this part of the world.
"Please tell me there are no reptiles involved," I said to Haik in the inky blackness of deep night, not realizing he hadn't heard the non-verbal part of the thought. He looked at me with complete understanding, the consummate professional.
"I think it is morning already," said Haik.
"Do you remember sleep?" I asked. "That thing babies do. It's good, you should try it."
"Arman, nothing good will happen now," said Haik, ignoring me and motioning to his friend. Then he said something in Armenian. Then he tried Russian. And then a language that sounded like French.
"Man, how many languages do you speak?"
"Three, I think," he said. And then scanning the heavens for the answer, "No, five. Perhaps five."
"Can he be made to stop? I know some Japanese."
"He is arranging these oars," said Haik, now alarmed and approaching his friend without a broken bottle in hand.
"Do not arrange. Ne derange pas," I said.
Turtles. Bees. Unidentifiable Russian meats. Unleavened bread and raw Georgian yogurt. These things would all be involved. Then there would be disease.
"Impossible with a vasectomy," I said.
"What are you saying?" said Haik.
"I am not fathering any Armenian-American children because I am sterilized."
"Why are you saying that?"
It was night. It was dark. The guys who turn off the street lights from somewhere you can't see turned off all the streetlights.
"It is nearly morning," said Haik.
"In some countries this is morning," I said. For a moment I envisioned I was in Paris. Then Milan. No. It was Des Moines. Rochester. Philadelphia. Taipei. My mother's house. My old bedroom. My high school chemistry lab. The back seat of my 1977 Mercury Marquis Brougham.
Did I just brush my teeth with the tap water?
After I put down my suitcases the blonde girl wanted to show me what she had done to the house. She tried to introduce it the way Jay Leno prepares the audience for a new comic or singer. But she could not get her work offstage. I saw it right away.
She said, "Wait, don't look."
I said, "Where are the walls?"
"I asked you not to look."
"What happened to all the walls? Where is the ceiling? What have you done?"
"Jon took them."
"The contractor. I had him take the old ones out. We're putting in new ones-by-the-way you owe the city $1100 for a permit."
There was a lot that needed to be said, but all of my emotions were instantly drowned in the wave of nausea and pain that came with intestinal cramping. I had indeed brushed my teeth with the tap water in Armenia. I was filled with bugs my system was trying to purge along with my internal organs.
"Behind those boxes."
"Some people just chew ice," I said to her, heading for the boxes.
"It's bad for your teeth."
I finished my latest bout with dehydration and settled in for another joyful 20 minutes of waiting till the next gastrointestinal rampage.
The blonde girl said, "Tell me about Armenia."
"We drank. I worked my ass off. Arman picked up a car load of hookers. I got so drunk I accidentally brushed my teeth with the tap water so I have dysentery. Maybe it's dengue fever or black lung. It hit me on the plane, woke me out of a sound sleep. Oh, they upgraded me to business class for some reason. It would have been fantastic if my guts hadn't started pouring out my..."
She attempted to burn holes in my face with eyeball-mounted laser beams.
I said, "What?"
"Tell you what?"
"Don't you dare."
"It's not contagious. Dysentery."
She slammed her hand into one of the bare studs. Bits of the insulation fell that had been blown into the attic when the house was built in 1960. She turned and walked to a different corner of our wall-free home as I imagine yurt-dwelling women must do when their husbands come back from a hard day on the steppes with stories about the yogurt saleswomen from nearby villages.
"Don't you talk to me," she said, when I realized there was nowhere to go in my yurt but where I was standing and so did not move.
"You know why."
"Because Arman picked up a car load of hookers?"
"So you admit it."
"I not only admit it, I told you about it two minutes ago."
"Don't you dare try to get into the same bed with me."
"Because Arman picked up hookers? I don't see the connection. Men who we don't know pay for sex all the time. And right now there are over ripened bananas at Safeway being thrown away. There are homeless unspayed dogs and cats living under the highway overpass. Are you going to get mad at me because NASA lost the Mars Explorer?"
"Shut up. Arman is not someone you don't know."
"I will not shut up. I want to know where this ends," I said, feeling self-righteous and manly.
"And what did you do?"
"I'm not even sure Arman actually picked up the hookers, to be honest."
"And what did you do?"
"I went back to my room and brushed my teeth with the tap water."
"You expect me to believe that."
My stomach growled. Nausea must be lighter than helium. It rose weightlessly through my esophagus.
I held up a finger, miming to hold her thought while I found the boxes.
And then I went to work and found out that Melissa had committed suicide.
She had been one of our support people. Before we could completely compute what had happened HR had sent in the crisis counselors. I saw strangers wandering the halls and asked one of my colleagues who they were and the story came out.
"She took a bottle of prescription sleeping pills and tied a dry cleaning bag over her head. Husband found her when he came home from work on Tuesday."
"That's awful. Any kids?"
"So, like -- which one was she?"
"You know she sat right there. She had long brown hair."
We poured ourselves some freshly brewed Starbucks. I cracked open a couple mini containers of half and half and poured them into my company logo cup. There's never enough cream in one of those little things. I always need five or six.
Then it occurred to me this stuff was probably driving my cholesterol through the roof.
My colleague stared at me.
"I like a lot of cream," I said.
"Always wore jeans. Talked about her dog all the time."
I shook my head. "I feel terrible. I absolutely cannot remember her. I don't think I've even ever said 'Hi' to her."
"Maybe you should talk to the grief counselors."
"Because I feel guilty I'm not emotionally affected?"
"Maybe you don't realize you're in shock."
"I don't think this is shock I'm feeling."
"It sneaks up on you."
"People die all the time. I can't do anything about it. I worked for Cadence Design for ten years and I went to ten funerals for coworkers while I worked there. I tell people I went to a funeral per year and they say, 'No, it can't be. I've never worked with anyone who died.' But people die where I work all the time. This is the second this year already. Though, I didn't know her well enough to attend her funeral. Arnie, on the other hand, I knew him pretty well. Did I tell you they played a John Denver song while they buried the coffee can with his ashes? He would have had a heart attack if he'd seen that."
"Good thing he was already dead, then."
"Hey, did you get the latest performance test results? I think we've screwed up progression rate by 70% with the new algorithm the Armenians added last week. Can't confirm till I see the alternate test results, but this is looking really bad. We should tell Jack before he finds out through other channels. How the hell are we going to fix this?"
And so on.
There is a new show on Showtime called Californication. Same name as the Red Hot Chili Peppers song.
The blonde girl wanted to see it so I subscribed to Showtime to get it, which will cost me a mere $12.95 per month. All I had to do was to log onto the DirectTV website and click a button. They sent signals to their satellite, which sent signals to my receiver, and voila, there was David Duchovney playing a semi-successful but blocked writer having sex with random women on my television.
There's nothing less sexy than dysentery, except possibly gangrene. And with mine fading into the obscurity of the San Jose sewage system, I was feeling more on my game.
The blonde girl warmed to my story that I had been involved with no Armenian hookers, which was good because other than the truth I had no more persuasive argument in my arsenal.
There was a scene in the show where David Duchovney and some lesser known actress wind up stoned and in bed with the woman insisting David make love to her immediately. She gets on all fours and Duchovney kneels behind her making a couple furtive cable-TV thrusts. She grows impatient with his lack of vigor and decides to drive the point home by doing a little backward thrusting of her own, and in the process, plows Duchovney clean off the bed, across the room, and into the bureau against the far wall.
For the same reason that some men laugh like hell at Larry, Moe, and Curly, I was propelled into laughter by my genetics.
The blonde girl laughed slightly, too.
"But I think that's a little over the top," she said.
"Seems perfectly realistic to me."
"Those Armenian hookers have pretty strong quads."
"It's a joke."
"Goddamn. Can't I ever relax? Do I always have to edit every single thing I say?"
"You're mad at me for something that never happened. I have no walls around my toilet. The project is going south at work. I wind up with diarrhea for two weeks and now I have half my group in grief counseling because one of the writers killed herself and nobody knows why."
"You didn't tell me that. When did it happen?"
"I just found out today. Apparently yesterday."
"That's terrible. You told me there were a lot of deaths in your field, but I never imagined. She didn't...it wasn't at work, was it?"
"Nah. Home. Sleeping pills."
On the screen they showed the coming attractions to next week's episode. David Duchovney would be fucking more women hilariously, apparently.
I said, "You know what the most interesting thing is to me? Me and my staff talked about it for about two minutes, then popped right back into business. Like it never happened. I mean-- well we had to figure out who was going to pick up the slack now that she's gone, and the ones working closest to her are out on leave. But most everyone else is just going on like nothing happened."
"What else would you do?"
"I dunno. I remember at every other funeral I've ever gone to. You drive home thinking -- None of the people in these cars around me even know I just lost someone. They're still buying Big Macs and iPods and going to crummy movies and complaining about being paid too little. It just all goes on."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Real life is going on and we're missing it. Then one day--poof."
Beamed from satellites high above the credits rolled and the music for the next fine Showtime Original began. The sun left California so it could rise over Yerevan. Squirrels went to sleep in Los Gatos and the rats and opossums awoke to root around in the low grass on the hillsides. The automatic headlamp controls tripped relays in the modern vehicles on highway 17. Plate tectonics predictably applied more stress to the San Andreas fault. At Safeway, women agonized over their choice between salted and unsalted margarine. The index fingers of lonely men hovered over the mouse button while they contemplated the visibility of the commitment to twenty-five dollars per month charged to their Visa cards for unlimited porn access. A teenager stared at her unringing cell phone, waiting for him to call.
The blonde girl pulled her t-shirt over her head and said, "Let's go. I bet I can knock you off the bed."
"No. You can't."
And so on.