Travel Fiction from Thomas Beller: The Baggage Carousel
Later in life it came back to him at odd moments. As a rule he avoided talking about it but then it arrived in the foreground of his thoughts, unannounced, and he had to stare at it, the memory. Girlfriends were curious, of course. This was due, in part, to his curiosity about how it happened with them. With who. If they wanted to. If they liked it. When they asked him the same question he would roll out the story grandly, getting up on an elbow in the dark, the sheets all curled around them; it was a moment of solidarity and confession. But he came to realize that he never made it to the end of the story, in part because whomever was listening seemed so amused.
Then, at a friend’s wedding, he found himself telling the story to a group of people, all of them giddy as he unfurled the narrative. He did the whole thing, the bathroom, everything, omitting only the end. The crowd of people, which included several good friends, but also this couple from Philadelphia who he hardly knew, laughed and slapped their thighs and said, “Really? You’re kidding. Really?”
The flight was from Washington, D.C. to Houston. Sam was going to spend a weekend with his cousin, Jason, who was ten years older and known in the family as a bit of a degenerate. His mother had wrung her hands about the visit when Sam first announced that Jason had invited him and that he would like to go, venting out loud about the pros and cons. The main pro was that it might be good for Sam to spend some time in the company of an older man. The main con was that Jason was a musician and someone who gave every impression of having bad habits of the sort that are highly transferable to an impressionable fourteen year old.
Sam kept his mouth shut about it and let his mom work out the issues with her sister, Jason’s mom. Sam had never told his mother that over the years Jason had taken every opportunity to extol the virtues of sex, group sex when possible, drugs, alcohol, the Allman Brothers, and various jazz fusion artists. Jason had once advised Sam to spit as often as possible when walking with a girl, because although they would complain and find it gross, girls ultimately were more likely to have sex with you if at some strategic moment you grossed them out.
In the end his mother let him go. The ticket was bought and for a brief moment it seemed like his mother would want him to wear one of those plastic pouches around his neck containing his identification, like he was a pet, or a minor, which she pointed out he still was, technically.
After the plane had been aloft for twenty minutes the refreshments cart rattled down the aisle and the chirpy sing-song voice of the stewardess drifted over the ambient hum. The phrase, “juice-or-coffee?” was inter-cut with the sound of ice being poured into plastic cups. Sam deferred to the woman sitting next to him when the cart arrived at their row. Mid-twenties, a lot of tousled brown hair, wedding ring. Sam, was a precocious noticer of wedding rings, having noticed at an early age that his mother did not wear one. When he asked her why she said, “Because, sweetie, I’m not married.”
“Bloody Mary, please,” said the woman sitting next to him.
The stewardess was pulling together the Bloody Mary. He glanced sideways at the woman who had ordered it. She was attractive but kind of overweight–the sort of girl, he thought, that you look at and think “God, it would be fun to pork her,” and then, “But it would suck if anyone saw me with her!” Then, with a shudder, Sam thought, “Please tell me that sentiment is universal and I’m not going to hell.”
He did not believe in heaven, hell, or God. But every now and then he felt something, or someone, looking over his shoulder, wanting to give advice. He had once shared this thought with his shrink and, in the silence that followed, added, “Do you think it’s my father?” But the shrink hadn’t answered.
The stewardess was doing a semi-limbo–shoulders back, bending at the knees, rummaging the shelf of cans. She could have bent forward but instead she did this awkward limbo-like gesture and Sam wondered if maybe it was because if she bent forward it meant her ass would stick out and she didn’t want her ass sticking out right into someone’s face.
“No bloody Mary mix. Would tomato juice be OK?” she said. “Or I could check in the back when I finish.”
Tomato juice was fine for the woman sitting beside him. Sam took the can, the cup of ice, and finally the little vodka bottle and handed them across to his neighbor.
“Thank you,” she said. She was wearing jeans and a heavy knit sweater within which lurked an intriguing fullness and heaviness whose contours he couldn’t quite make out. As he handed her each item, he noticed her hands. The nails were manicured and a deep red. The hands themselves were a bit strangled looking and tired.
“And you, sir?” said the stewardess.
“Same for me.”
“I’m going to need to see some ID,” said the stewardess.
“I don’t have it on me, Ma’am,” he said.
“Then I’m afraid I can’t serve you, sir,” she said, totally perky. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“I can’t believe I’m being carded on an airplane,” he said.
“We have laws up here the same as on the ground,” she said. “Actually a lot more of them.”
“I just don’t think it’s reasonable… it’s not like the captain is going to come out and…” He dropped off into the silence of defeat. Then he said, “You’re a stewardess not a bartender.” This was just lashing out, he knew. He felt bad about it.
“Actually we like to be called flight attendants. Can I offer you soda or juice?”
He recovered his composure and said, “I’ll have the tomato juice, ma’m, and a lemon.”
“I’ll have a second bottle of vodka,” said the woman sitting next to him.
“Okie doke, that will be four dollars for the second bottle,” said the flight attendant, her smile tight. She handed the beverage to him and then the bottle of vodka and stood there to make sure he passed it over. He held onto it while the woman beside him attacked the interior of her purse. At last she produced a twisted, strangled looking clump of bills, which he passed along. The flight attendant and her cart moved on to the next aisle. The phrase, “Coffeeorjuice?” chirped out again and Sam sat there contemplating the red viscous liquid in the cup on his tray.
The woman mixed her drink. The second bottle sat there, unopened. The initial thrill of her request, which Sam was sure meant that she would give it to him, was starting to turn into a kind of mortification. Would she make him ask for it without offering? He peered at her hand. The diamond ring pivoted like a top as she stirred in circles, round and round.
When his mother made her remark about not being married there was a brief short circuit in his mind–the synapses fired one after the other like the blue lights lighting up one after another to illuminate a runway that lead to his dead father lying beneath a collapsed roof. In this picture his father’s hands and feet were sticking out of the rubble, like in a cartoon.
There was no actual photograph of this image. It was a figment of his imagination. But it was real, too, since this is apparently what had happened to his father when Sam was two years old. The image was a sad photographic heirloom which he kept buried in the backyard of his mind. But his mother’s remark lead his gaze to this buried treasure and exhumed it. Confronted with the image of his father under rubble his circuits shorted, sparks flew, and then it all vanished, except for an awareness, hovering like smoke that lingers after the bullet is long gone, of her absent wedding ring, and all wedding rings.
When the woman next to him finally said, in a small, conspiring voice, “Would you like this?” there was so much tension between them it was as though a whole conversation had transpired already.
He poured the vodka and they toasted.
“Cheers,” she said, smiling, her eyes squinting in a way that struck him as familiar.
She asked him questions about himself. “What grade are you in?” she said. “Who do you hang out with?” “I bet you have a lot of girlfriends.” He went back and forth between answering her honestly and trying to calibrate what would give him the biggest advantage. He wasn’t sure towards what end he wanted an advantage. She was an adult, and he reflexively spoke to adults with an eye towards some hidden agenda, that was the game, except she was an unusual kind of adult. She conspired with him on another bottle of vodka. He felt pleasantly light. She was animated. She seemed to want something from him, some acceptance into a club, his club. He couldn’t imagine what his club had to offer, other than that he was in it. Perhaps it offered her a chance to be a teenager. She acted like nothing would make her happier than to be able to be in the lunchroom when he walked in so they could sit together.
She sipped the plastic cup with her pinky in the air. Dainty little slurps with her eyebrows raised. Her mascara was caked on her lashes. A wave of lust and antipathy passed though him like a tremor. It gripped him in a manner similar to the reverie he’d had repeatedly about Ms. Deluca, the biology teacher with enormous breasts and a kind of fullness and sadness to her mouth about whom he fantasized while she lectured on vertebrates. Finally there was that one class where genus and species and so forth was discussed, at the end of which he’d raced out as soon as the bell sounded and sequestered himself in the restroom stall to madly relieve himself of his need.
When he opened his clenched eyes he was a little stunned, and couldn’t quite orient himself until he looked down and saw what he had released in the clear water of the toielt bowl. It drifted down like a frozen sculpture, or someone falling through the air in the slow motion.
When he told the story at the wedding he ended with a line of hers, “Oh you dear boy, I hope I haven’t corrupted you,” and everyone laughed and laughed.
He was in the midst of explaining the logic he used by which he could claim success in school.
“It’s like a contest,” said Sam.
“What does that mean?” she said.
“It’s like, Who can do worse? If you do worse, you win. You know? So. And I am very competitive.”
“The winner is the big loser?”
“That’s not how I would phrase it. I mean, loser is, you know.”
“Yeah, it’s not good.”
“Well the point is whomever fucked up the most was winning. So you weren’t a loser. You were a winner. And needless to say I am often winning.”
“If you say so.”
“That’s what I’m telling you. That’s what we called it. Winning. Which I supposed is fucked up.”
“You curse a lot.”
“It’s because I’m jaded and have seen too much of the world.”
“Whether or not you have seen too much of the world, I will not venture to say. But jaded you are not.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. You’re not jaded. You’re sweet.”
“Thank you. I know you’re much older than me but…”
“You make me feel like an old lady.”
“I just mean, you know, older.”
“Ok, I am definitely older than you, yes. You were going to say something.”
“Rats. It sounded like it was going to be a compliment.”
“Well I was going to say that you seem really sweet, too.”
“No, Actually. Not really. I mean you are sweet but sweet is not a word I usually use unless it’s like, you know, that song is sweet, or whatever. It’s like a girly word. But since you said it… Ok you know what I am thinking?”
“No. What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that you remind me of this girl I go to school with.”
“Oh yeah? What’s her name.”
“You’re kidding! That’s my name, too!”
“Your name is Vickie?”
“That is a shocker. That’s really, really weird. I may need another drink to settle my nerves.”
“And what’s the deal with the other Vickie?”
“Vickie is, I don’t know, I kind of like her and hate her.”
“Wow. I remind you of someone you hate?”
“No, no, I don’t hate Vickie it’s just that she pisses me off but I also like her.”
“And what pisses you off about her?”
“You sound like my shrink.”
“You see a shrink?”
“A bunch of people in my grade have shrinks. I’ve been seeing mine for a year.”
“Is there something… wrong with you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, what does wrong mean?”
“You’re a very interesting kid.”
“It was my idea,” he said. “I told my mother I was underachieving and I thought I should see a therapist.”
“That’s very proactive of you,” she said. “I’m impressed. You were telling me about Vickie. I was reminding you of her. What do we have in common?”
“I don’t know, you look alike a little bit I guess.”
“And are you into her? You like her? Does she know that? And you said you hated her, too? What’s the deal with that?”
“She takes a lot of shit. I wish she wouldn’t take so much shit.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, they call her Vickie the Quickie.”
“Who is they?”
“Everyone. My friends. People. She tends to smile and giggle like an idiot and not say anything. And it’s not true.”
“She’s not a quickie?”
“You use that word very easily.”
“Oh I didn’t mean it like that, to pile on. Oh… you like this girl don’t you.”
“Of course, that’s why I’m pissed at her for being such a doormat.”
“DO you ever stand up for her?”
“Stand up for her? What do you mean?”
“Defend her against the people who call her Vickie the Quickie.”
“What’s to defend? She sits there smiling like an idiot.”
“And this is the person I remind you of!”
“In a good way.”
“Oh, dear boy,” she said, and she reached out and petted his hair.
Then out of the blue she said “I’m going to the bathroom…want to come?”
Without thinking, he said “Yeah,” and he slid into the aisle behind her and walked staring at his shoes, which he followed into the bathroom. In the cramped space she whispered, “Sit down,” and he did, and looked up at her with fear. She sat down on his lap. Her weight crushed him. She started kissing him. Her tongue in his mouth in small lizard licks. The fluorescent lights and the smell made him feel as though some medical procedure was taking place. To say his dick was not growing was an understatement. It was trying to crawl into itself and vanish. She stopped kissing him. For a moment he sat there with his mouth ajar and his eyes closed. He shut his mouth but took another moment before he opened his eyes. He was afraid of what he would see. He wanted to leave.
She stroked his hair, stroked his face, purred into his ear, “You are such a beautiful boy. This is going to be so special.”
When he opened his eyes he saw that she was looking at him with this matter of fact expression while unbuttoning her blouse. There had been a fullness to her breasts that had he had keyed into right away, but it didn’t prepare him for the site of her pale flesh pressing against her bra, and then their forward thrust when she unhooked it. She pushed her breasts into his face. He was suffocating, drinking of them, he was the thirstiest man in the world now swimming in a pool of clear water, drowning and drinking, and very hard. She pulled down his jeans and then hers, and straddled him on the nasty little toilet.
“Maybe we should use a condom,” he mumbled, and decided that the effort counted, and it would protect him against AIDS, everything. She put her hand down there, squated. He was inside her. He thought for a moment it would snap off inside her. It felt huge and something separate from him. He gasped a fearful sound, a sound he might make if he heard the engine of the plane sputter. It was a gross animal sound. She replied with a whimper, tender, a little predatory, his mind raced contemplating if she would now change dramatically, if this was a trick, some nasty version of candid camera.
“Baby, baby, baby,” she said. She bounced on him, lightly at first, but quickly she became more forceful. The whole experience began to feel like a water rocket that you pumped pumped pumped and then pressed the button and it exploded. She crashed down on his lap, he was aware of the smell, the same awful bathroom smell, and along with it the lemony and slightly acrid smell of her body, her breasts, one of which she was guiding into his mouth. He thought fleetingly of Vickie, not her face or anything she said, not of her, but of the exasperation he felt, and a curious kind of feeling welled up within to accompany the animal rutting that now consumed him, something along the lines of vengeance. He tried to get a nipple in his mouth but it was too hectic there wasn’t time he was being molested he thought he might sustain an injury something enormous was rushing out of him… “Oh God,” she said as he exploded. She banged up and down extra hard.
He made a grunt and a whimper, a bit like a sound his old dog Charlie once made when its paw got run over. And suddenly a home movie began playing against the dark screen of his tightly shut eyes, the golden lab whimpering loudly as the car eased out of the garage and then quickly limping away, trotting, walking it off, walking it off in circles while his mother threw open the door and exclaimed, “Oh, Charlie!” almost irritated, like it was the dog’s fault. After a few minutes Charlie stopped whimpering. But he never really stopped limping.
To interrupt this movie more than to see where he was and what was happening to him, he opened his eyes.
Vickie was tearful again, gazing at him, her tits there between them.
“Oh baby you are such a beautiful, boy,” she was saying.
“You are, too,” he said. He didn’t know if he meant it. He was elated. His thighs hurt.
“Oh God, Oh my beautiful boy. Oh dear, oh boy. Oh boy! Oh boy Oh boy oh boy!” She laughed. She sniffled. “I hope I haven’t corrupted you, my dear beautiful boy,” she said, and she smiled at him apologetically. With that she stood, grabbed a tissue, and shoved it between her legs. He was afraid he would not be able to stand. His legs seemed useless, damaged. He hoisted himself onto his feet with his arms. His legs were fine. A few moments later they pushed out of the tiny space. The male flight attendant was standing there fiddling with a coffee pot. He looked over at them beaming. “You guys are in big trouble!” he whispered. His hair was heavily moused and had blond streaks. It occurred to Sam that he was gay. This seemed appropriate. Gays thought a lot about sex, this was necessary because they had to decide that they were gay. It was like he had now joined The Sex Club, where people did more than talk or think about it, they had it, did it, rolled around in it, ground against one another in airplane bathrooms and got winked at when they emerged.
“I have a weird favor to ask you,” he said when they were again seated.
“Anything you want,” she said.
“It’s just so I can remember this experience,” he said, which he thought was as delicate a way of putting it that was both true and that would also satisfy this sudden primal need, which was proof.
She listened to his request and tilted her head, as though to look at him from a new angle. What did she see? He held a frozen grin. The grin of a shoplifter at the moment a security guard asks, “Excuse me can you show me what is in your bag?”
“Of course honey,” she said after a moment.
She took his journal, and wrote feverishly, with her own pen, while the plane descended. Her hair blocked his view of the page.
“Don’t read it till we split ways,” she said, handing it back. “Promise?”
He promised. The plane was landing. The static hum of noise that had created a soft muffling between them, a kind of privacy, became louder, his ears were blocked, and they sat beside each other gathering themselves up to say good-bye.
He was going to be met by Jason, and was already giddy at the thought of sharing this recent development.
The first thing he did was go to the bathroom, pee, and stare briefly at his dick to make sure it didn’t look diseased. It looked like it always did, but different. Alone, disease free, and no longer a virgin, he stared at himself in the mirror for a few moments and then threw his arms up like a boxer whose just knocked out his opponent. He didn’t make a sound. It was a pantomime of joy.
He wanted to read his journal right there but he didn’t want to sit on a toilet like a fugitive. So he went out and found a bench near baggage claim to read what she wrote before he got in the car. Just as he reached into his bag, he saw her, waiting there with everyone for the baggage carousel to start moving, looking dumpy and unremarkable and, he now thought, though he hadn’t before, a bit used. He had been awakened to the potential for sex in any situation. He studied her for clues as to how he might discern those underlying tendencies in other women. But this errand, which he processed while he stared, was interrupted and overruled by another feeling, a really sad kind of feeling that came with seeing her standing there alone waiting for the baggage carousel to start, with no one there to pick her bag up. He imagined that the bag would be a little too heavy for her, and she would drag it off the carousel and then stand there for a minute recuperating.
Just then her head swiveled casually and her eyes locked on him looking at her. A smile appeared on her face. It was knowing and confidant somehow and he felt stupid for all the pity he had just been feeling and a little embarrassed to have been caught staring.
He stood up and waved. He was sure, for some reason, that she had written her number down in his journal. He had no intention of ever calling it. But he liked that he had it. It made turning from her with a wave and walking away much easier.
Years later, when he told this story to girlfriends, or at the wedding, and everyone got so amused, it insulted his memory of the whole thing, which is why he could never get to the end of the story. Everythung got so abstract as soon as they parted. The excitement of their connection didn’t translate into real life, and it didn’t translate at all into his grown up life, and yet he felt it still. Or maybe it had to do with the feeling of being conned somehow, that there was something off about it all in a way he couldn’t quite see at the time, that fleeting feeling he had in the bathroom, of coming into life being a con, the worry that the con and real life were intermingled, a feeling that was always provoked by that amusement that greeted his attempts at telling the story, and kept him from getting to the end.
Jason was there at the airport with a huge grin, arms outstretched, wild blond hair tamed a bit but still brittle, like a brillo pad. Sam always marveled that he was related to this brillo pad hair. They clapped backs and rushed to the car – an El Camino, a car of pure criminality, Sam thought with admiration – and on the way Sam kept saying he had the most amazing news.
“No fucking way dude,” said Jason when Sam spat it out at last. “In the friggin bathroom? That is so awesome. You’re kidding me, right?”
“I’m not kidding! I knew you would say that. I have proof!”
“I believe you, kid. Crazy shit happens with babes all the time. They’re just dying for it. That’s what most people don’t understand. There was this one time…”
“I want to show you the proof,” said Sam. He wasn’t ready to yield the floor just yet.
“Dude don’t show me no disgusting tissue or something.”
“She wrote in my journal! I made her write it down in my journal! Right here!”
“You keep a journal? You gotta be careful about that.”
“I haven’t even read it yet. “Let me read out loud. ‘Beautiful boy, you have been a delicious dream,’” he began.
“Get the fuck out of here,” said Jason. “You wrote that yourself.”
“Dude, is this my handwriting?”
“I’m driving kid, I can’t be reading your journal.”
Sam looked back to the page.
There, right below his most recent entry (“I’m on a ski lift. It’s fucking cold. Snow last night, fucking powder, I’m going to kill. The Stockwells and the whole chalet scene is getting me down, but two blond girls and their mom checked in last night with about a thousand suitcases and a deviant…” after which he had dropped the pen) was her handwriting. It had round letters which in their roundness suggested that with only a little effort they could have been turned into an illustration of a bunny, or something else cuddly and nice. There was something about it that reminded him of the other Vickie. It also had a hopefulness to it that made him uncomfortable. He drowned these feeling with the sound of his own voice.
“Beautiful boy,” he began and again, reading loudly. “You have been a delicious dream, as though you were an angel sent to enter my thoughts and draw them out for me to see in the plain light of day–or this airplane –what a shambles my life has become and how much richer and funner it could be. My dad used to beat me and my husband kicked the shit out of me just before I left DC. I was in such a low place when I got on this plane. But it was a gift to talk to you and it was a gift what we had together in that little bathroom–the mile high club! I hope I didn’t corrupt you, you innocent beautiful boy! That was really and truly the most beautiful and tender and deep sexual experience I ever had. Thank you.”
Sam closed his journal. He stared out the window, and a creeping exhaustion began to overtake him. It wasn’t until later that he realized that she didn’t leave her number. And so the remaining lingering image, like when you look at a bright light and then close your eyes, was not the wild bouncing in the skanky bathroom and the big tits in his face and his huge explosion. It wasn’t the image of her leaning towards him after getting that second bloody Mary and starting to look at him as though every word that popped out of his mouth was the perfect word and it was guiding them down the path of an unseen maze towards a prize. What stayed with him was the image of her at the baggage carousel waiting for it to start, and then it lurching into motion and starting to snake around and around without anything yet on it, which was weird, because that was an event he hadn’t even been there to see.
This story has been excerpted from Flight Patterns: A Century of Stories About Flying, edited by Dorothy Spears
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