"No, it is home to me. I'm headed home."
The man in the seat next to me looked startled, as if I had answered that I was born two million years ago. He was wearing an outfit with several shades of blue. He pulled back as much as the airplane seat would allow, and resting both hands on the armrest between us, his face still, he stared at me as if looking for bits of this odd place I was calling home. That I sat on a plane headed to the improbable country of my childhood seemed to me as extraordinary as the fact that it could be someone's homeland to this man. I looked away and started thinking about my mother, who was the motive for this trip. She was the only remnant of my entire family. Over my years of absence, they had all died, one by one, young and old, like the last wilted curls surrounding a bald spot. No one had waited. An image of my mother started to form and with it the spatial discomfort that I always felt in her presence. I could never create space between me and my mother, certainly not on a plane. She had vacuum cleaned at dawn and banged into my bedroom door. She had ironed my clothes in the entryway in her underwear. She had never kissed me good night, however; out of modesty, I assumed. I had left my homeland and not seen her for two decades. I had woken up in the middle of one night, tried writing, and within days I had booked a ticket.
Through the slot of the window, the mountains moved toward us, like enormous chocolate breasts; their curves licked by heavy taupe vapors. Farther out, the horizon bent into sepia smudges that looked primitive. This vision was enough to rule out hope that the liveliness I remembered was still there. The bed of thinning rivers spilled like white ink on blotting paper. An entire forest was down, trees uprooted, laid to rest with their branches extended behind them, like splayed dogs looking for freshness. I forced myself to keep watching.
My neighbor was back in his original position, his knees hooked on the backrest of the seat ahead, his temple pushed against the folded wing of the headrest. He had stopped staring at me; neither the brown mountains nor the fallen forest seemed to interest him.
I leaned against the wall behind the window and used my bag as a pillow. I had no illusion that I could sleep; my right hand shook when I tried to hold it flat. My eyes were shot with fatigue, and yet I could follow the terrain like a nighttime passenger follows the roadsides lit up by the headlights. This mountain chain led to the desert and to the valley and to the city by the ocean and then out to my village. From within my eyelids if I closed my eyes, I could extend the road to the post office and on to the small boulevard after the traffic light and to the right over the trail and into the cul-de-sac up the hill where my house stood on the last fork. This mental path was as well lit as a landing strip. I asked a stewardess where we were and how long we had until landing: She said about two hours.
I must have been about to nod off when I felt a violent jolt. The air inside the plane looked inflamed, as if the particles of dust had been lit up by the setting sun. The clouds outside were gathering and covering the view below. I could almost smell their humidity. Somewhere in the back of the plane, a baby started crying. I rolled my earplugs into small thin snakes that slid agreeably into my ear canals. I closed my eyes.
A lamp lit up beside me. Perhaps my neighbor wanted to read. Yet he hadn't struck me as the reading type. I opened one eye to check, and I thought I recognized the pattern of the fabric on the seat in front of me. It wasn't a woven fabric but rather a plush velvet material in a forest-green shade. I couldn't place where I had seen that fabric, and this lapse saddled me with a tip-of-the-tongue stubbornness. One of the earplugs fell. I opened the other eye. The lights were now very bright, creating a glare that prevented me from distinguishing much yet. I could just smell the odor of the air around and feel a draft on my cheek, something fresh and vivid and humid like when someone just opened a window. My curiosity was wide awake. I rubbed my eyes and sat up to see better. Someone shouted, "Yeti!"
No one since middle school had called me by this name. I had learned to respond to many names during my existence overseas. Good or bad names that strangers had created to compensate awkward and sometimes delightful pronunciations. Names that had been given to me in booths of cafés, in meeting rooms, in stores, in lavatories, on the phone, on immigration documents, on letterheads, on delivery packages, on mailboxes. During my nights of insomnia, when I had been counting the breaths of my husband, I had hoped to hear him murmur this old name in his sleep; but it had been lost, this name that tricked me to think that it could make me "me" again, that it could make me sleep at last and start fresh the next morning, with my people, a life that was irrecoverable. As my old name rang in my ears, I pulled my thumb toward my mouth to eat the skin around my nail, even though this gesture had earned me much admonishing as a child. I was surprised to see that a full layer of skin had disappeared, leaving my thumb to look like a peeled beet, my nail so short it barely covered half of the phalange.
The seat ahead of me now seemed enveloped in the excess of light that mashed into an emulsion, and there was a little mound of chestnut hair protruding from the backrest. Soon, a few strands of that hair set about flying off in my direction carried by the wind coming from the front of the cabin; I felt loose, unstiffened by the warmth of the stripes of yellow sun whizzing by my window.
The ruffled chestnut hair swirled around, and the face of my sister materialized on top of the headrest. With her pointed chin perched there, sixteen-year-old Jacqui looked at me sharply through the disc of her brown-rimmed glasses. The punch of her gaze hit me right above the stomach. I tried to control my breathing as in an effort to suppress a colossal hiccup. Once over the shock, a relief spread and hardened in me like egg white in a frying pan. Jacqui's face was fresh, and her skin looked blonde and fuzzy as an apricot in the noon sun; her cheeks bore no sign of aging. I suddenly remembered that she inherited the glasses from our cousin Max, who had been a repeat runaway. Jacqui had adored Max, and while she had no vision problems to speak of, she had seized the glasses he had left behind and kept them on her nose. Memory, thrown to my face like a paintball, left me mute and puzzled yet with a wild mental energy that would not spread to my body. As she watched me, she looked resolute and curious and playful, her eyes round as if invisible matches were placed there to keep them wide open. She had two small lines at the top of her forehead, like flattened question marks. I had seen those lines many times during heated discussions at dinner, or when she was burying herself in homework, or when Lucian had asked her for a dance during the bonfires of autumn, also later during the marches against the orange government. The last time I had seen her round, goggled eyes and the thin, flat lines at the top of her forehead had been the day before I had left for good, in the bar-restaurant of our village where I had met her for coffee. I was surprised to have been able to forget her face, crowned by that unruly chestnut hair, whipping the confined air of the plane.
Above the seat next to Jacqui, the head of my brother Guil surfaced like a puppet. Guil and the depth of his blue eyes, his usual wit spread across his face. His good-looking adolescent gaze made me weak in the knees again. I had no doubt Guil knew the effect he had on me. Because he could always sense his own effect on others, like a slender dog, able to discern the smallest, most invisible change; such as the pace at which the veins under the skin contract or dilate under the rush of blood. I gave in to the joy of seeing him again; I gave in to the delicious fear of him. His hair, worn in a raised quiff style, was coarse and choppy as it flew up in the breezy atmosphere of the cabin—oddly balanced—like the bulrushes at the edge of the creek, as if small invisible pollen orbs dangled at the end of each strand, making them always swing back to their original place. A friend of the family had once said that Guil was a bit alien, which also meant that he had been lonely. His only defense had been a sense of irony that he had worn like a second skin. His other defense had been Jacqui.
Looking at them both propped on the seats ahead of me, my body was raided by a pleasing limpness. I felt helpless in a happy way, like I had been when they were shooting rapid-fire questions at me at the end of a long school day. There was something delectable in being with my older siblings again, carried up in the yellow evening air, feeling infinitely tired.
They smiled, looked at each other, and raised their eyebrows at the same time. And then as in a scene rehearsed many times, Guil took his arms off his tracksuit sleeves, and Jacqui disappeared behind him; her arms then materialized into his sleeves. Jacqui's hands started floating around Guil's head, scratching his ears, flattening his hair on his head, placing a fist in front of his lips mimicking a brushing gesture. Guil opened his mouth and showed off his straight teeth. Jacqui's hand picked up a fictional piece of salad and threw it at me. As a steward walked by with a drink tray, they both disappeared back into their seat.
I felt sad and upset. I was under the impression, like I used to be when I was at home with them, that I was excluded from their games and the warmth of their bond. They had died together, in a nighttime accident, with the music still playing in the car after the fact. I had wanted to ask them what they were talking about as it happened, if they were talking at all, or if they were just quietly together like they always had been.
I needed to go to the bathroom. I consciously registered that the plane had a 2+4+2 seating layout and that I sat in seat number 33A. It reassured me to reflect in this numbered way; it told me that, despite the momentary appearance of my dead sister and brother, the space around me could still be laid out on a map with an abscissa and an ordinate. My old mania of mapping out came back to me like a vague shot of adrenaline. My neighbor was taking a nap now; his head tilted back and in my direction, his eyes covered with a gray mask, his lower jaw lax and his mouth slightly open. I wanted his calm; I would have given anything to sleep. The lights had been dimmed again to a minimum; a discreet fog was coming out of the air vents above us. I stood on my seat, grabbed the headrests on either side, and swung my legs and body above my neighbor like on a pommel horse. I was more than a little proud of my prowess. I stood in the pathway waiting for something to happen, for someone to clap. How little the world registered me and my actions surprised me. Of course, it had also delighted me, freed me to do whatever I had fancied without fearing for consequences. As an immigrant, I had winked at random in the metro, forgotten to pay in department stores, attended fencing classes I wasn't registered for, driven across a roundabout in reverse in the dead of night, gone to lie on the wrong side of the bed, washed my hair with dish soap. Those small misdemeanors had helped me to feel alive in a world that I felt so detached from. No one had paid attention. I had.
As I got closer to the bathroom, I overheard a discussion about the number of bathrooms on planes and the shrinking distance between seats. It was sounding far, as if I was listening through a keyhole.
"After you!" someone standing in line by the bathroom said.
I knew the voice before I recognized Anton, my godfather.
He was now next in line on the lavatory doorstep. He was wearing his Sunday checkered shirt and held a steaming cup of coffee. Anton's imposing silhouette always had an anchoring effect on me: I felt grounded, as if the cabin pressure had increased a notch. I stood there and waited beside him; I took the opportunity to correct my posture, performed a few ankle rotations, a neck roll. There was a lapse in my memory. I felt guilty as I had the sacred task of engraving all of the minute details forever. Anton's hair had not always been white, as I thought I remembered. His hair had once been a solid buttered toast shade, except for a few white strands on the temples. There were so few whites, in fact, that they could be counted, but those upset me as if, on this plane, waiting in line for the bathroom, I was meeting for the first time the marks of old age. The lock to the bathroom turned green, and someone got out. Anton put his free hand on my shoulder to help me squeeze by, and I relished the weightlessness of his fingers like a skillfully placed rest in a small melody.
I slammed the door behind me. For the moment, I needed away from my dead relatives on the plane. I knew they wouldn't come into the bathroom as I sat there. They were too respectful for that. My dead were a little shy, like me. They wouldn't dare insert themselves in the bathroom cube. The idea might have crossed their minds, but they wouldn't act on it. My family was big on the respect for privacy, which also meant they ran away from raw emotions, from strong gestures of affection, from closed bathrooms. They were essentially chickens.
Chickens! The word made me happy, and I felt young all of a sudden, as if there was a porthole behind my back, and the difference in air pressure sucked out the years off of me and into the atmosphere. I wondered what I looked like. I stretched up a bit until I could see the crown of my head in the mirror. My hair was frizzy on top. Jacqui had always said that my hair looked best the second day after washing, and this was not it. This felt more like a wig, a fur, something superimposed on my skull. My hair was foreign to me. It scared me. I summoned myself with my old name: Yeti. It also sounded weird: Yeti — Yeti — Yeti. Of course, it was unending; every part of my body, every sound I made was strange, since there was no one I knew under the layers of alienness.
Finally I stood and staggered, avoiding looking in the mirror, which was hard given the limited amount of space. I felt light-headed. I held on the edge of the mini metal sink and slid the door lock at the same time.
One hostess saw me come out and worried; she made me sit on a folding seat in the galley and gave me a drink of water before she left. My aunt Pauli sat across the passage on the other folding seat.
Aunt Pauli's mouth was open, and her breath made a vapor that looked much like dew evaporating from a tree under the morning sun. The more I looked at Aunt Pauli, the more I became convinced that her breath did not belong to her, which calmed me. Moments of silence like this healed like white-ointed gauze on a wound. A parade of silences marched through my head on an erratic time treadmill: waking up next to my foreign husband—still asleep and a bit stinky from the night, a train ride to work with three quiet, dark-skinned commuters, a lunch in my red kitchen with one friendly fly, a Sunday at dawn on the school playground's swing with Guil, my grandfather in his open casket—the tranquil line of his jaw, his hair showing tracks of a comb, the velvety cushion beneath his head. That was it. The velvety cover of the seats on the plane was made of a fabric identical to the lining of my grandfather's coffin. I hadn't been able to identify it at first, but now I knew this with certainty.
"Did you know?" I asked Aunt Pauli.
"That they used Grandpa's coffin lining as upholstery on this plane."
"You just figured this out?"
"That's the type of thing that is preferable not to talk about, darling. Not outside the family anyway. I am so happy to see you again, Yeti! Tell me about your life out there."
Aunt Pauli had been an intellectual. She had lived in the rectory next to the old church. Her house looked so much like her that I had often been tempted to rest my cheeks on its walls. Pauli talked to me as an adult always. She showed me how to grow lettuce in the garden of the priori. Her salad was light green and crisp and juicy under the bite. Inside her bedroom, bookshelves half collapsed from the weight of monstrous volumes of encyclopedia. More than once, I enclosed myself in her bathroom with one volume—from the time that I had learned to read until I had left for good, I only ever got to the letter "D." I had been religiously linear; picking one "letter" volume at a time. People called me a well-behaved child; another me could have led a life of green salad and encyclopedia, perhaps inherited Pauli's rectory.
Now on this plane, looking at Pauli and her apologetic smile as she waited for me to tell her my life's story, I was surprised at how long I had lived without thinking about her, at how much I had ached for her without knowing it. Pauli once explained that the church had been a simultaneum, meaning several cults were celebrated in it; parishioners had to wait their turn. And I wondered whether I behaved like a "simultaneum" myself, my body enfolding several concurrent "me's" that waited their turn to come out.
All I could recount to Pauli consisted of a description of the apartment I had left behind, of the bakery shop on the ground floor and Madam Val the baker, of my falsely quiet neighborhood, of the bistro where I would stop for red meat and a cocktail at three in the afternoon. It was bizarre to hear myself describing those things as if they were mine and as if they were suddenly coated in a thick layer of nostalgia. It was somebody else talking, and yet that somebody was trying to be detailed and honest. The talking me was unstoppable and beaming. The me that observed the talking me was deeply embarrassed. I was so entrenched in those contradictions that my eyes were wide open without seeing. The space ahead was webbed with lines of thought so dense and resistant that they caught anything extraneous in their way and gobbled it in seconds.
It was the hostess.
"Do you feel better now?" she asked. "Can I offer you anything?"
"I am fine, I think," I said, annoyed by her intrusion, wanting her to go away.
I looked up at Aunt Pauli for support and realized that she had been switched off like a floor lamp.
"I am completely fine. Completely fine," I said to the hostess to gain some time, realizing that this repeated statement may have the opposite effect.
But the hostess left us.
"You should take your pulse," Pauli said, "just to be sure."
"Do you think I can take my pulse through my shirt?" I said. "I am really cold. This plane is insanely cold." Something made me not want to roll up my sleeve.
"Well, why don't you just roll up your sleeve for a minute?" Pauli said.
The tattoos appeared there halfway up my forearm. Small letters floating on the surface of my flesh as if they had been freshly copied on tracing paper. I didn't react right away; it took me a while to realize what they were.
Upon my arrival on the other continent, I had been struck by the number of people harboring them; skins turned into indelible parchments out of imperious emotions. I had been vaguely annoyed by them, as if the people with tattoos had pertained to a group that was out of my league, as if they had a shared secret, an unspoken tenet that could only wind up stamped on their hide. On a weekday in the metro, one of them had asked me if I had wanted his picture, and I had been very tempted to say yes. He had tattoos on both his forearms; two large-scaled fishes that had looked like they were undulating beneath fresh water toward a hole formed by his rolled-up sleeves. He had spoken with a lot of hand gestures, which had been most encouraging. It had taken a week before the fishes had started undulating in my bed.
I had remained foreign to my lover always, including after I had married him. He had spoken to me slowly and clearly as if I was a bit hard of hearing. He hadn't hesitated to repeat things to make sure I understood. He had wanted babies with names that pertained exclusively to his continent. Names with initials that ended on my forearm. I had tried. It had been exhilarating to love unconceived, unborn babies with hard-to-pronounce names. It had made me stay up at night and look at the small initials and caress them with my other hand. Them: the babies that I never had. I missed them. I missed my husband.
"I can't seem to find my pulse," I said.
"What do you mean?" Aunt Pauli said.
"It looks like you don't have a pulse," someone commented.
I was most unnerved to have lost my pulse.
"It could be anywhere, you know."
I lifted my head and both Jacqui and Guil were standing there, with an air of quiet triumph. The whole passageway was now crammed with my dead relatives. Even my cousin Max had joined the party. I saw him measuring the bewilderment on my face.
"Your pulse: When did you last feel it?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I don't regularly check my pulse."
"Well you should, cuz. Pulses need to be checked often. They need the attention. They can feel neglected, and there's the chance that they'll take off."
"Don't worry too much. They usually reappear. They get bored on the outside." Max clicked his tongue. "It's good to see you, Yeti, even without a pulse," he added.
A lump formed in my throat, and the loudspeaker interjected before I could respond.
Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent, please return to your seat and make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Make sure your seat belt is securely fastened and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins. Thank you.
Throughout this last leg of the flight, my dead had persuaded me that this was my last migration, and a normal landing had become an unthinkable development. But I still wandered back to my seat with no conviction, watching the faces of exhausted strangers that seemed oddly friendly. Even my sleepy neighbor stood up to let me sit.
The plane approached a layer of clouds, and I had a terrible urge to cry. I wondered where all my people had gone now. Where were they? Would they ever come back and visit? Did I stir them out of their peaceful limbo? Did I hurt them? Or worse. And now it was just me and the man beside me—both of us wearing our seat belts like we had been instructed. Both of us seated upright, our legs uncrossed and fully awake under the restorative air blown onto us like a morning shower from the vents above.
"Do you have the time?" the man asked.
"I think it is one thirty in the afternoon," I said, looking at my watch and computing the time difference in my head as I pulled the skin on my cheeks with a hand swipe.
"Thank you," he said, and I felt him hesitating.
Three seconds passed during which the man gathered his thoughts and looked for the thing he felt he had forgotten.
"It's funny, I thought we would land early in the morning," he said. "Those long flights have a way of disrupting our inner clock."
He had the embarrassed smile of someone who just said a banality as big as himself.
"True," I said.
My neighbor thrusted his upper body forward and down; and he busied himself with his shoelaces for a while. The plane had penetrated the crust of clouds, and an ivory cotton mist was padding the outside. What I had called home a million years ago was below the crust, and my mother was waiting there, holding onto her life until I showed up.
Born in France, Cécile Barlier has lived in the United States for two decades, raising a family and working as an entrepreneur. Barlier traveled extensively and lived in Mexico, Spain, and England.
Her short stories, "A Gypsy's Book of Revelations", "Forgetting," and "MRI" have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her work is featured in numerous magazines.