Shaving’s my contribution to society. Like, who needs a brown guy with a beard sitting next to them on the plane these days, you know? Look, no beard, I come in peace brother. Wrong word! Beep. Don’t say brother. Like ever. You don’t want them looking at your backpack.
Whatever. So I shaved this morning, like, with a six a.m. flight. You know how people donate hair to cancer? I donate beard to airplane goodwill, ha! Making my fellow humans comfortable, you know. You might think I’m playing it safe, chickening out. I dunno, okay maybe I am a bit. Cluck cluck, so kill me.
Don’t say brother. Like ever. You don’t want them looking at your backpack.
I’m not the placard-holding type. That’s my crazy-ass sister. She’s the one who designs shirts with passive-aggressive shit printed on them like:
I’M A BOMBShell.
ALL BROWN SKIN AND NO BOMB.
THAT’S NOT A BOMB. IT’S MY BRAIN TICKING.
Like wait, what?! She even had this poem. Something on heaven, harems, and explosives. I was like, Dude, you don’t wanna wear that. She was like, why not, you gotta shake things up, make people think. Yeah, but you gotta be cool about it, Dude, subtle, not like freak people out on the subway. I mean! They’re just chilling, reading their book, listening to their music, and you’re like, boom, planting explosives in their head. You know?
So here’s me: clean-shaven, JFK to Heathrow. Went through security check, no random scans, no one feeling me up. Like smooth, peaceful.
Okay, so where am I? 14C, 14C…14… C. There. Next to hijab-lady-with-toddler, seriously? Awesome. The kid looks like he’s going to throw up already. Like shit.
The air hostess, though! Cute. I’ve got eight hours to get her number.
* * *
Goodness. I wish he’d stop chatting up the air hostess and just sit down. Quite annoying, to be honest. Blocking the aisle like that. What if I’d needed the toilet?
The way these young Americans talk these days. Makes me despair, really. Like this like that, like like like. The vocabulary of a lampshade. He looks Indian. Could be Pakistani, they don’t all have beards now, do they? Where are the exits? They always say note the exits. Increases your chances of survival. Well, not if it blows up, no. But maybe if it landed on water, in one piece. On the Atlantic. Endless water. Freezing. Freezing water in lungs. Oh.
I better do my breathing exercise.
They say the water feels as solid as a cement floor when a plane hits its surface. I remember reading that somewhere. Impact, and instant death. I can handle instant death. It’s the slow seeping of water into a plane that, that…
Breathe, breathe, breathe.
Oh. It’ll be lovely to get back to grey old England. My allotment. The spuds’ll be ready by now. I hope Mr. Davies remembered to water them. New York’s too… too erect, too anxious really, there’s no sky. No, it’s not for me, New York.
I should’ve taken a different airline. Emirates, or the other one… what was it… Qatar. They wouldn’t go blowing up their own planes now, would they. Gran! What a horrid, disgusting, racist thing to say! Emma would’ve launched at me. Her best friend’s from Bangladesh you see, “bestie” they say these days don’t they, BFF. Death of the language, I tell you. Abbreviate everything, save time! And if you agree with someone, all you need is one word. Word. Yes, I learned that recently, you see. Just nod your head and say “word.” It seems that says everything without you having to tax your vocabulary. Or your opinion. In my time, young people had opinions.
I can’t follow anything anymore. On top of that, all you hear on the street is Polish, and… and… Spanish and Arabic. Too many of them, really. Everything’s changing.
Anyway, Emma’s fiercely loyal, she is. Blind too. If you ask me, that bestie of hers is a flight away from Syria. With people like you, who can blame anyone for leaving?! Emma would shout. We don’t get along much these days.
I text her now: Hello darling, been sitting in plane for 40 mins, hasn’t budged!
She sends me an Aww! and some… what are they called?… emoticons. One’s a sleepy face with zzz. No, I don’t want to try and get some sleep, but I don’t tell her that. I send her two yellow smiling faces and a heart. I notice there’s a bomb emoticon near one of an aeroplane. Are they called emoticons even when they don’t emote? I wonder if it’s a sign, that I’ve seen the bomb and aeroplane just before the plane takes off. And that woman in her hijab.
The Atlantic. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
* * *
Right. Here we go with the stares now. They look at me, at my head, the hijab. Every one of them, flicks of the eye, like flames licking. They think they’re being real discreet, oh yeah, but I can feel those glances sharp and hot on my skin. I’m smothered in eyes. I hate travel. I feel loud. Like an announcement, a warning, a reminder. Even when I’m silent, to them I’m a scream. On this airplane, in the subway. I hate that I have the power to make people shift in their seats or think of death. I feel sorry for them, I feel fucking sorry for myself. And I feel sorry for my two-year-old who has no idea that the world is waiting to judge him by the sound of his name.
There are more people walking up the aisle, stuffing their suitcases into the overhead bins, and taking note of my covered head. Their eyes are blanched of all expression. Let’s all be politically correct at least, yeah? Small mercies. I read about a man who was escorted out of a flight just before takeoff because he was writing something in Arabic. In Arabic, how dare he?! If it wasn’t painful, it’d be funny.
Some of the passengers notice there’s a child on my lap, they relax a bit, they smile. Ah, a mother! I look a little less lethal now, don’t I? In my head, I see myself standing under a spotlight waving at everyone with a big ol’ smile: “Hey everyone, look—B for Baby, not B for Bomb!” (I pause for punchline.) “The baby can be a terror though.”
I don’t have a cause. I have no wars to wage. I’m tired, I need sleep, I need to wax my legs, you know, get a manicure, get through this flight without a toddler meltdown.
LOL in my head! That was good, right?
Sometimes I have no jokes though. I worry too. Every time I fly, I panic. If this plane blows up, I will splinter into as many pieces as that poor woman there doing her deep breathing. I don’t want to go like that.
I don’t have a cause. I have no wars to wage. I’m tired, I need sleep, I need to wax my legs, you know, get a manicure, get through this flight without a toddler meltdown. That’s all.
And maybe a tub of ice cream, butter pecan. I could use that too.
* * *
Hungry, Mama! Mik mik mik! Sami hungry, Sami hungry, Mama. No can wait, now now! Bananana bananana Mama. Sami want bananana now now now.
Pane whoosh? No whoosh, Mama, pane no whoosh. Piot fly pane Mama? Where piot, Mama? Mama? Where piot, Mama?
* * *
Steve had to fall ill today. Of all days, today. My one weekend day off in months, but here I am. Stuck in the cockpit clocking hours. I could’ve spent them sleeping. Or with the kids. I’d promised to take Beth to ballet today. But no.
I issue yet another apology to passengers for the delay; I say nothing about the last-minute switch in pilots. Cabin crew please take seats for takeoff, take seats for takeoff. The PA system fizzes into silence. I set the aircraft in motion.
The runway stretches and splits. Every time you choose a path from a fork in the road, you set your life off on a certain course. I agreed to cover for Steve today, so here I am. On the runway instead of my bedroom. Someone up there was writing the screenplay.
Maybe we’re going to crash and die. Maybe I’m here today because I’m the one meant to die. Steve is meant to walk his daughter down the aisle in twenty years, but not me. An explosion midair, no survivors, lost black box. Bodies scattered over rock and sea, doomed clumps of DNA.
I can see Steve being interviewed by the tabloids later. For articles on fate and destiny. The narrow escape. The one that got away. Everyone marvels at it. At how Steve fell ill the very day the plane was carrying a suitcase full of cheap homemade bombs.
Steve is on CNN, he’s blinking back tears. He looks up to thank the hand that spared him, only to encounter the tangled wires of the studio ceiling. The lights make his teeth shine and hair glow.
I’ve never missed a day’s work, Steve tells the presenter. Stevie’s never missed a day’s work, his wife tells their friends. In fact, would you believe it, he was already in his uniform when he doubled up in pain. Thought he was having a stroke, rushed into ER. But turns out—too many southern-fried chickens.
Gas. Gas was what it took to save him.
Newspaper headline: Pilot’s stroke turns out to be stroke of luck!
But, Steve’s dinner has me in a coffin now, my family’s standing there crying. One man’s fried chicken is another man’s forever. Church music.
Look at me. Damn. I stop; I pull my thoughts back, and push the plane forward. This fear, it rises and runs so fast and wild when we let it. ‘Til we’re all exploding over and over in our heads. Trusting nothing and no one.
The takeoff is done. We’re almost at a thousand feet, in perfect weather. The passengers are starting to switch on their movies now. The babies have stopped crying, their ears don’t hurt anymore. I shake my head. It’s autopilot from here, and I need coffee.
Pia Ghosh-Roy grew up in India and now lives in Cambridge (UK). She is the winner of the 2017 Hamlin Garland Award. Her work has been placed, shortlisted and longlisted for several other awards including the Aestas Fabula Press Competition, the Brighton Prize, and the Bath Short Story Award. Pia is currently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories. Twitter @piaghoshroy