It’s a long trip, almost twenty-four hours. The only time I’m envious of anybody is when I’m heading to coach, passing the people who are settling into first class. I’d love to spread out in a cushioned chair that opens into a bed; to have, all to myself, what amounts to a small cabin. It would be heavenly not to have to scramble over people to go to the restroom. I wonder—does the front of the plane smell like recycled farts, too? Or do they have a filtration system modified to suit the sensibilities of people who spend thousands of extra dollars on something as fleeting as an air flight?
I take my seat, hoping the flight’s not crowded. I’ve been on flights before that were almost empty, which allows for sprawling over whole rows. But it doesn’t happen often. It’s the second of July, though, which means landing in Singapore on the Fourth, and why would anybody want to celebrate the Fourth of July in Singapore? So there’s a chance that maybe . . . but even as I hope I recognize the futility. I saw how many people were milling out there, waiting to board.
From my window seat, I eye the arriving passengers with mean suspicion. The neighbor least desirable is a smelly fat man. I’ve had those before. Unapologetically, they spill over. When they shift all three seats shift with them. In this corpulent age, I estimate I have a twenty-five percent chance of a thin person settling into the seat next to me. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, when a heavy woman and her child claim the two seats. This’ll go two ways, neither of them pleasant: If the kid’s in the middle seat, he’ll wiggle and whine. If she’s in the middle seat, her flesh will invade my area. It’s her. Resigned, I huddle toward the wall of the plane, giving her the space she’ll require.
I don’t sleep on planes, but I have a system that involves a couple of glasses of sour in-flight wine and a valium, so at least I’m numb during the whole miserable experience. The movies are uninspiring, but there was a time when only two movies were on offer, so with dozens of options, I easily find something to pass the time. Also, I’m reading the latest in the Gabaldon series which, in this installment, has the time-travelers trick-stepping their way through the American Revolution. It’s a fun read. And the woman next to me is politely containing herself, so that’s nice. Every time the stewardess passes me wine, it comes within inches of my neighbor’s nose, who drinks only water, which makes me feel like she’s judging me. But throughout the main portion of the flight she sleeps deeply and, during one of her wakeful moments, when I comment on her ability to sleep on a plane, she tells me she took an Ambien. So, no judgment there. We all do what we have to do to get through.
There’s a stopover in Moscow. We all get out, hike a dismal hallway, line up for a security check, and are herded through to the transit corridor. If there’s anything in the world that attests to how economically backward the Russians are, it’s the international boarding area at Sheremetyevo. There’s a fortune to be made selling comfort to weary travelers, but the Russians want us gone quickly and wretched while we’re here. It’s a big holding cell—stingy, austere, stuffy. Touch anything and your fingertips come away smudged with gray. This is where Edward Snowden took refuge for so long. Where did he stay? In the janitor’s closet at the end of the restroom hall? There are a thousand people and fifty chairs, two restrooms with eight booths each, a few shallow shops stocked with nesting dolls and t-shirts. In the restroom I take my time at the sink, refusing to be intimidated by the fifteen women who wait, glaring, while I brush my teeth, wash my face, apply moisturizer, comb my hair. Then it’s back on the plane for another nine-plus hours.
Singapore welcomes me with humid arms. What have I missed? David and Trip, of course. Also Modesto’s, where David and I split calamari, eggplant, and a carafe of the house red. The dynamism of Orchard Road, where the leisurely pedestrians entertain without meaning to. Writers’ Group, where Donna shares her clever poetry, Kelly creates rebellious characters, and Vanessa reads the latest installment of the saga she’s working on. And Mahjong—the way Susan likes to try new hands, often with impressive results, and Judith hums merrily while she plays, whether she’s winning or losing.
It’s good to be back.