Rena Lesué-Smithey teaches high school English and youth writing camps at BYU. In 2011, she was a Central Utah Writing Project fellow and editor for the Utah English Journal. She has five years of experience as a journalist, including three as a correspondent for The Daily Herald, and this summer she'll finish her MFA in Creative Nonfiction through Cedar Crest College’s pan-European program. Her prose has appeared in Touchstones, Warp & Weave, Segullah, and Ruminate. Rena grew up in Texas, Nevada, Missouri, and Mississippi and now resides in Utah with her husband, two kids, and their dog, Spike.
When I arrived at my gate, the three rows of seats were occupied and many travelers were on their feet. I wiped the sweat from my upper lip and tugged at my leggings. The Vienna airport must’ve been equipped with fans, not A/C, circulating body heat and passengers’ heady perfumes. I filled my canteen at a drinking fountain and tucked it into my purse, a gray sack with black lettering that read the German names of the tourist sites my friend Melanie and I visited after my craft seminars. I had picked it up at the Prater where we paid for a ride called, Praterstern, swings that flung us around a centrifuge thirty-five stories high. It had been her idea and, even though the chains on the swings were as thin as Red Vines, it was a pleasant experience—the wind partitioning my bangs, the smell of schnitzel frying at a nearby vendor hut, and the view of the city stretched flat to the horizon save a smattering of skyscrapers. Pleasant until the descent when the operator increased the speed, and Melanie asked, “If the chains break, where do you think our bodies would land?”
I leaned on the side of a column. Outside the wall of windows, a concrete slab extended into the taxiway. It was sun-bleached except an awning of shadow. A dozen patrons had formed a line near the entrance to the gangway; men in suits and leather shoulder bags thumbed the screens of their phones, and a bushy-haired teenage boy glanced at the seated folks. He stepped out of line and rushed to a chair that an old woman vacated. She hobbled, in her pale sweater, out of sight to my right. Behind me, a motorized cart beeped to part the patron sea. A Muslim family, father, mother, and son, passed nearby. The wife, in a violet chador, said something and the husband responded in the everyday timbre of marital discourse. Had she asked if he closed the garage? And had he replied ‘yes, and turned off the stove’? I looked to the counter for signs of boarding. Two blonde women in red uniforms stared at computer screens. A man in his late-twenties(?) broke away from the pack. The phone in the back pocket of his sweatpants dragged down his waistband, and his hair was disheveled and yellow-white, like lemonade. I extracted a novel from my purse and read.
I was in the last group to board. Even though we were queued together in a narrow passage, it was cooler in the gangway than indoors. However, the plane was stuffy and smelled, as I’ve often said, like recycled farts. My morning caffeine high waned. I oriented myself with the row numbers and letters, and figured my seat, 28F, would be on the left at the back of the plane. I always selected a window seat when I left a strange city so I could see it from an aerial view. Maybe I’d recognize parts of it. Schönbrunn Palace and its acres of gardens would be hard to miss from the sky, but would we fly over it? I didn’t even know where I was in relation to the city.
There went row fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. We paused to let a couple cram backpacks in the overhead. This was my last day, minutes, in Vienna, a city where some structures were older than my nation. Churches were either fairy tale castles or gothic things, spired and that dirty-quarter gray. At one cathedral, a guide pointed out a cannonball wedged into the stone where enemy forces attempted to destroy it. What was once used as a weapon to fell the edifice was now a point of civic pride. But despite whether the city had a rich history or not, travelers were the same everywhere, courteously impatient.
Nearly there, I cracked my neck. A few more rows. Oh, boy. There was a man in 28F. I scrutinized my ticket and wasn’t mistaken. A flight attendant smiled at me, and I held up my paper to show her. She checked it and her purview swept the ceiling as if to say, “Oh, brother.” I huffed and bit back something acerbic. My arbiter addressed the man in German. He mumbled into his phone and hung up, and he and the flight attendant had a terse conversation. He squatted up and over the seats to let me in and, with a tetchy glance, said, “Sorry.” His skin was milky underneath red starbursts on his cheeks and the rings around his eyes. His face glistened, and he wiped it with his knuckles. It was the lemonade-haired man, and he was crying.
We settled in our row—me by the window, broken man with a box of tissues in the middle, and a loquacious retired woman in the aisle seat who chatted with her companions about their cruise on the Danube. She sounded Southern-American. The earth dropped out from underneath us and the airport shrunk to a series of rectangles fanned out between toy planes. Vienna dissolved into rooftop squares, little orange tiles, and the roads became lines on a map. We chugged through the clouds.
The man I’d displaced pressed a palm against the headrest in front of him. My nurturing side kicked in. If I learned anything from my Mormon upbringing it was: sad folks need food.
“Do you want a granola bar?” I asked.
He had trouble understanding me. So I asked again.
“What is this?”
“Granola? It’s like a candy bar.”
“No. Thank you.”
I dug my canteen and my book out of my bag and stuffed them in the pocket at my knees. The sky was stark white, and I slid down the screen to pinch out the light. My head lolled, limbs deflated, and eyes closed.
Minutes later, the man’s gasps lifted me from torpor. His head dropped and body trembled. I massaged my brow and fretted over how to comfort him. Did he want my help? The drink cart squeaked past, and he bolted out of his seat, disappearing into the water closet. I ordered a Coke.
“You know what’s the matta with him?” the Southern-American asked.
“I don’t know. But it’s got to be something bad, right? To cry so openly like that.”
“Mm-hm. All I know is he gets a call while we was setting down, and then...” She shook her head. “Lord have mercy.”
In my mind, I said a prayer. Help him get through this, whatever it is.
“Where you from?” the woman asked.
“I’m from Orlando.” She told me about the cruise and the cities she’d visited on the river. She told me about their contest to see who could find the longest German word.
“Longest I found was thurteen letters, but some gentl’man from Brooklyn seen one that was twennie-two.”
The man between us returned. Someone had given him a beer. He seemed slightly less maudlin, sipping his beverage and staring at the tray latched to the seat. Too bad the plane lacked televisions.
“Do you want a distraction?” I asked.
His head shook.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“It won’t help.”
Perhaps reticence was his last line of defense. I took the hint and let him alone. My head merged with my pillow again. The Floridian boasted about a grandson to a friend across the aisle, and they laughed at an anecdote. The man whimpered. Out of respect, I feigned sleep, peeking periodically to check on him. His hand grasping the headrest made me think he needed something solid to hold on to.
A little girl in 27B gave her graham crackers to her mother, and she passed the baggy to the man.
“My daughter wants you to have them.” In her tone was the implicit apology, Sorry we can’t do more.
He nodded once. “Thank you.”
The way he held that sack, it was like they were the ashes of a loved one. He opened the bag and consumed them slowly.
“You’re American?” he asked me.
Maybe he changed his mind about needing a distraction.
“Yes. From Salt Lake City. In Utah.”
He didn’t respond.
“It’s by California,” I said, thinking he’d recognize the coastal state before Nevada or Idaho or the others touching Utah.
“I know. I’ve never been there, but I know about it.”
“I’m a deejay. I go to the U.S. often. I have event in Miami…next week.”
I pictured him at work, spinning records, his neck weighted with gold chains. Or maybe he was another type. What kind of music would he play today?
“Are you Austrian?”
Another wave of emotion rose in him. He inhaled and tensed, damming it in. What did I have to give him? What would I want? One palliative measure came to mind. I leaned over and inquired.
“Would you like me to hold your hand?”
He ruminated, contemplating what it meant to hold hands with a stranger, to let an unfamiliar absorb his suffering. I had already contemplated these things, and I was sorry it took me so long to offer. He indicated, yes. I reached over and clasped his right hand with my left. His skin was cold. His other hand pressed so hard into the seat that it seemed like he would shove it over. Sobs echoed through the fuselage. Passengers in the tail end fell silent, stewards of the requiem. The Floridian patted his knee. My eyes burned.
The man caught his breath, and his eyes were lost in his lap. He said, “My six-year-old son died.”
The laments resumed, stronger than before. Having said it out loud, he’d crossed over a cusp. His boy was dead and now there were witnesses. Above us there were galaxies and a continent beneath, but for now the vastest uncharted space existed in his heart.
“Was he sick?” I asked when it seemed like he could answer.
My chest contracted. I pulled a tissue from his box. I had a seven-year-old son back home. Once when he was four, I got out of the shower and found him sitting on the recliner with his hands over his head, his hair matted with blood. He’d been jumping on the bed and smacked his skull on the nightstand. Later, a doctor fixed him with five staples. The following year when my son was a kindergartener, he didn’t get off the bus at home one day. As I sped to the school, my husband called to say that our son had arrived home an unfamiliar car. He explained that an older neighborhood boy convinced him to miss the bus and on their two-mile walk home the kid had asked a stranger for a ride. Fortunately, the woman wasn’t a psycho and brought them home. Both times, amid the crises, I felt a clenching panic. Both times, I’d relied on my family—my mother and my husband—to get me through it. And my son had lived.
This man had discovered the loss of his boy while confined to an airplane. Row 28 was all he had.
Suddenly, it was imperative to know his son’s name.
“Toman,” the man replied.
I repeated the name. I imagined him as a lemonade-haired boy, not in a hospital bed, his lachrymose mother bent over him, but instead jubilant, in a park, kicking a Fußball. I envisioned him reading bedtime stories with his dad or visiting castles on a field trip and planning for a future where he was a warrior in a battle he could win.
While holding the man’s hand, I didn’t say anything about heaven or God’s love, because I had a distinct impression that platitudes about the eternal plan would be met with anger and bitterness. As religious as I was, if the roles were reversed, I wouldn’t want to hear about divine fairness and balancing the universe, and I definitely wouldn’t take kindly to audacious lines like, “Everything is going to be fine.”
“Miss?” The flight attendant lingered by our row and pointed. “Will you open the shade, please? We are preparing for descent.”
I broke our clasp and slid up the cover. The light was bright and I squinted.
When we landed, 28D disappeared to the bathroom again. He didn’t emerge until the plane was nearly empty and there was only our section left to disembark. I hoisted his duffel bag from under the seat and passed it over.
“Thank you,” he said, but he wasn’t talking about the bag.
I offered one of those frowning smiles in return.
“Best of luck to you,” he said. The way he stood there while other folks idly watched made me think he was holding back, that maybe the language barrier and all the other barriers imposed on humans made the message impossible to speak. Instead it was felt. Look in my eyes, I thought. I’ll never be the same. Toman has left an indelible mark.
He took a step down the aisle, appearing less frayed. In parting, he said, “Arrivederci,” Italian for, until we meet again.
I hope we do.