The Blue Line rumbles along precariously as fast as it can, but it still takes two hours for Raza to get to O’Hare. Upon reaching Terminal 3, he finds a line at the security checkpoint extending all the way down to the airport entrance, making two loops. New entrants slowly merge into the line, confused, certain it can’t be for them. Sprinkled throughout the line, a coterie of TSA agents bark orders, strolling around unhelpfully.
Behind Raza, a dark-haired middle-aged white woman wearing a pantsuit and an inordinately large bag complains loudly. (She has to be a mother, Raza thinks. The pantsuit is too fancy, the bag doesn’t match, and she doesn’t seem to care). My flight’s boarding in fifteen minutes; this is ridiculous! The elderly black man behind her scoffs. Yeah, you’re definitely missing it. The lady coldly appraises her responder as if the delay were his fault. Ahead of Raza, a gaggle of girls leaves the line to accost a TSA agent.
As the line moves sluggishly, people become more and more agitated. Raza tries his best to remain calm. The idea of making a fuss would never occur to him, so he just moves on unobtrusively, trying not to let his carry-on tread on anyone’s feet. He looks ahead: the gaggle of girls has disappeared. They must have managed to jump the queue somehow.
After the shoes and the watch and the laptop and the belt have been removed and put back in order—efficiently and competently, for Raza can imagine nothing worse than being considered incompetent at an international airport—there is no time to buy water or go to the restroom. Once boarded, he sits patiently in the middle seat he has been assigned, contemplating his book. The book is thick and difficult, a used hardback from Powell’s filled with important political text in small, antiquated typeface on coarse, crackling pages. He had considered choosing pulpy fiction for the flight, but the truth is, not unlike his desire to exude competency, Raza also likes to appear urbane and intellectual to ward off concerns about his passport. Sometimes he wonders if he is the only person on the planet who worries about things like this.
His backpack stowed carefully under the seat in front of him, he gazes out the window. Flights make him uncomfortable and pensive; his mind beckons memories it would have been incapable of remembering just hours earlier.
On the train to O’Hare, Raza had been remembering a boy he had gone to school with back home, recalling memories of a time that felt so long ago that he had to strain to remove all embellishments, even wondered perhaps if some were made up. The boy, whose name was Noman, was tall, unwieldy, and awkward. Everybody in school knew that Noman had something “wrong” with him. For Raza, who thinks in words—every encounter he had, every situation he was in, he was writing words in his head, or imagining pictures of words writing themselves on a blank page—the inadequacy of “wrong” made him feel guilty.
Now the details flood into his mind in a torrent he cannot stanch. He remembers how bizarre Noman was: the way he had once masturbated at the back of the classroom as if no one were around, the way he lumbered across the courtyard to push an older boy out of the way impatiently, doing things unthinkingly that would get him beat-down, and did. He even remembers the way Noman towered over everyone and walked with a unique gait: stiff posture, giant, purposeful strides.
He remembers how all the boys, including himself, mimicked Noman’s walk every time he was around, and often when he wasn’t. They bullied him endlessly and it bothered them all when that only seemed to make Noman more brazen. Even when outflanked by several sneering schoolboys spoiling for a fight, he was always unbothered. It was his curious superpower, being so out of the ordinary in all ways.
Raza doesn’t like remembering this. He wants to stop and read his book but something tells him to keep digging. Fixating on the tiny window overlooking the hangar, he realizes why he cannot stop thinking: it has taken him thirteen years to remember how cruel he had been to Noman but what bothers him most is that he still doesn’t have the words to explain him. He can’t even properly remember the words for himself: was he “follower” or “ringleader”?
But as the plane prepares for departure, the crimes of his boyhood leave as soon as they had come. Raza is afraid of flying, or perhaps airports, enclosed spaces, or strangers; he doesn’t know which. He consoles himself; it’s only a two-hour flight. He probably won’t even remember it in a few weeks. Then when he gets back to Chicago, he won’t need to fly for at least a few more months.
As the flight attendants bustle around him, shutting the overhead bins in a satisfying sequence of clicks, Raza makes way for a tall, older gentleman to occupy the window seat. The man is balding, wearing a blue checked shirt and earth-colored trousers. He seems detached the way quietly genteel people do but not prohibitively so, for he smiles at Raza generously, noticing him but not looking at him. The threat of perfunctory conversation looms. Raza reaches for his headphones, but it is too late. The man is already talking to him.
Where are you coming from, young man? I live in Chicago, says Raza. I’m just visiting my brother for the weekend. The man introduces himself as Bob. He says he’s been visiting Chicago for work a lot nowadays. He’s a consultant for businesses, nowadays a lot of startups, so he needs to travel frequently for projects here and there. His current project is bringing him out to Chicago every other week. He doesn’t love being away from home so often but eh, that’s the job.
Bob does love Chicago for the lakeshore though. He himself lives near a lakeshore in Lazy Bend, somewhat south of Houston, northeast of Galveston. It’s great, he says, pulling out his phone to show Raza pictures. Here, I have two boats stationed at the canal next to my estate. My total estate is about twenty acres. You can see it from Google Earth if you look for the boats. I’m the only one with two boats; you should find it easily.
Raza discovers dispassionately that Bob is also very interested in landscaping. He recently finished constructing a water feature that connects to the canal, essentially a small pond. He has a video of it. Look. The video shows a pump at the corner of the landscaped pool pulling in water from the canal and into the pond. Pulleys at each corner of the roundish pond keep the water flowing up to a small waterfall over an artificial set of ridges built with limestone. You can even go fishing! One time Bob dipped a really large net into the canal and transferred it in one fell swoop to his pond. Look, here it is: you can see at least three different types of fish! In fact, Bob is so proud of his water feature that amongst the eighteen security cameras in his home, five are placed at different points around the pond. It’s convenient to keep an eye on it from anywhere in the house. For when he’s away, he’s synced an app on his phone to control the water flow and the sprinkler system. Two birds with one stone: he can control both the water flow for his precious pond, and keep a look out for trespassers while he’s away. One can never be too careful.
Twenty minutes pass with Bob plying Raza with details about his water feature. The first five minutes are particularly dreary, but once the multimedia comes in to play, Raza is strangely drawn in, feeling like he’s conducting some anthropological study just by extending the privilege of his attention.
A natural break occurs when a flight attendant stops by to ask for drink orders. Bob deliberates for a few minutes before ordering two Crown Royal Canadian whiskies served to him in two small bottles the attendant fishes out of the pockets of her apron. He pays with his credit card, pausing to ask Raza if he’d like anything. Raza declines, and wonders if that was a display of courtesy or wealth.
As Bob attends to his whisky and the seatbelt sign comes on, Raza finds his opening. He opens his book and dons his headphones. Last Friday, I took acid and mushrooms / I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit / in a stupid-looking jacket.
Soon, Raza’s eyelids begin to droop. The plane hovering over the isthmus, he feels like he’s floating, moments away from a deep sleep.
Outside the window, the sun is setting. The plane passes by an endless cumulus cloud that stretches on for minutes, distorting his sense of time, deepening his sense of displacement. Just before he gives in to sleep he thinks: at least he has his anonymity.
Naturally, Raza dreams of a time he does not wish to recall: when he visited Noman’s house. He tries to push out the dream, to conjure Amy and his apartment and his life here, but dreams do not work that way and the memories of home and school and regrets and childish grudges and Noman beg for deliverance, and Raza must yield.
It was during summer vacation. Noman’s sisters were throwing him a birthday party and had invited all of his classmates by calling their parents, who in turn compelled them to go. Noman’s house was a mid-sized decrepit-looking bungalow a street away from Shimla Pahari, a preposterous artificial hill smack in the middle of urban Lahore, a city of dry plains that undulate so little it made the idea of a man-made hill seem like a distress call.
The party was set up in a large backyard. They cut a cake, popped balloons, played games with Noman that they used to play in the fourth grade even though they were entering the eighth, hating every moment. Noman’s older sisters, and half a dozen of Noman’s similarly aged cousins, cheered loudly from the porch. At one point, Raza managed to sneak all the other boys away from the games behind the bushes for a smoke. Momentarily from behind the trunk of the peepal tree, he noticed Noman looking around him, wondering where everyone had gone. Raza had smirked, finished his cigarette. They made their way back to the house where Noman was cutting his cake so violently some of the boys burst into cruel laughter. Noman’s sisters glowered at them.
During a game of cricket, Raza slipped away to use the bathroom, and peeked in to each room he happened on the way. In the fourth room he peeked in, an old woman was looking out the window, an empty cup of chai beside her, a newspaper in her lap. All he could remember was wrinkles upon wrinkles, the creases substituting for a face he had forgotten. She had noticed thirteen-year-old Raza lingering shamefacedly in the hallway and beckoned him towards her. Raza could see she had been crying, but in a quiet way: the kind of crying one does habitually. What is this façade, she had asked, expecting no answer from the frozen, tongue-tied Raza. We should have sent him to a special school. He doesn’t belong with boys like you. Look at all of you out there, jeering at him. You think he doesn’t notice the things you say?
Over the music, the sound of Bob’s voice jolts Raza out of his slumber, forcing him to remove his headphones. Regardless, he is relieved to wake up from a dream where he feels nothing but guilt. It takes him a few seconds to switch worlds.
He’s missed something. Bob is now talking about some friend of his whose name is Dave. Dave seems to be an executive for Walmart. He works on analytics for a company that tells stores where to put their products based on the order in which customers will see them when they enter the store. The whole job involves a lot of consumer psychology. Great job. Dave’s wife works at Walmart too. They have no children.
Dave is Bob’s best friend. They’ve known each since the fourth grade. He and his wife live on a forty-acre estate not too far from Lazy Bend. Recently, Dave bought his second Dodge Viper, a red one this time. They’re going to stop making Dodge Vipers in 2017 so Dave thought he’d buy the 2016 model to go with the old one he bought in 2001. Bob shows Raza pictures, foisting the phone into his palm to peruse at his pleasure. The plate on the vehicle says XVIPERX. Dave stands by his cars proudly, two thumbs up and a goofy grin on his face. A red Texan flag above the garage door looks down at the two cars. It, too, seems happy. Raza smiles to himself: his observational study seems to be going exactly how he had predicted it would.
Bob also has pictures of Dave’s estate. The house is an enormous wooden structure surrounded by acres and acres of forest. It has six decks at different levels between the house and the forest below. One has a fire pit, another a bar, and a third a pond just like his own. There is clear tone of derision in Bob’s description: the pond is supposed to be Bob’s thing. Dave shouldn’t be trying to compete with him. Raza cannot help but be superciliously amused by the nature of Bob and Dave’s relationship.
Another thing about Dave: he’s even more of a gun enthusiast than Bob is. There he has Bob beat. In the sixth grade, Dave snuck in to school a 9mm his father had handed down to him. Now, Dave has all types of assault rifles and snipers, many displayed on the walls of his study. The forest around Dave’s estate is usually soundless, except when Dave is standing at the topmost deck shooting into the forest. It calms him down. He’s taking it more seriously as retirement approaches. Recently, he even joined the International Defensive Pistol Association.
Here’s one of Dave’s rifles. To Raza, who abhors guns but knows nothing about them, it looks exactly like he’d imagine any large gun-like object, all sticky-out parts and large unnecessary-looking add-ons. The next picture shows one of the bullets from Dave’s rifle in Bob’s hand, spanning the complete length of his palm. Bob is delighted. Raza looks from the picture to Bob, incredulous, partly because he’s genuinely never seen something like that before but more so that someone could be so gleeful about it.
Eventually, Raza cannot listen anymore. He decides: no nodding, no hmms. He has lost the energy to even be patronizingly polite so instead he decides to look ahead and say nothing. But still, Bob continues, and Raza must listen. Another high school friend of Bob’s, Alan, works for a tech firm which does something called visual business computing. Alan works on edge computing problems, offering solutions to companies looking to improve their analytics. Bob has an idea: he’s going to try to get Alan and Dave to work together to improve facial recognition on security cameras at Walmart stores. Maybe it could be a solution to preemptively recognize shady characters in the store and prevent revenue losses due to theft. Walmart loses billions of dollars a year because of theft; did you know that?
From the corner of his eye, Raza sees Bob lean back in his chair, smiling to himself like it’s his own little secret, looking away from Raza for the first time in an hour. Raza feels keenly aware that he is less a person for Bob than a stand-in for one, and tries to temper his antipathy, for soon this will all be over.
Finally, an announcement. We will shortly be reaching Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The temperature here is about 75 degrees. We hope you enjoyed your flight with us and we look forward to seeing you again soon.
When a flight attendant comes to collect trash, Bob disposes of his empty whisky bottles and looks at Raza like it’s the first time he’s really seeing him. What do you do, young man? Raza pauses, feeling like he has just been challenged to a sword fight. I’m a graduate student in biology.
Bob arches his eyebrows and looks impressed. Biology, ah yes. You’ll probably understand this; you must see it all the time. Last year, I thought I had some kind of giant mole under my ear, so I went to get it checked out. The doctors told me it was a melanoma. I went to MD Anderson, you know—it’s the best cancer center in the States. Didn’t have much time to decide, went in for surgery immediately.
When I woke up, Dave was there and he said man, you have to look at yourself in a mirror. I looked. There was this long, bloody gash across my ear and all along my neck. It was like a scene from a horror movie. They had to open the entire side of my face and neck. I think the melanoma had invaded that entire area. I don’t know; it’s hard to remember. I was too ashamed to show my face to anyone for weeks. In consulting you can’t just show up to meet clients with a gash along the side of your face.
Bob turns his head to show Raza the scar. The deep scar embroidered in his skin traces the outer curvature of his ear, meeting just under his earlobe before departing for the soft arc of his jaw, all the way down to the nape of his neck where it ends abruptly, the posterior extent of Bob’s melanoma cutting off arbitrarily. Raza thinks: why does the pain and suffering of biological cause always feel so ironic, so purposeful?
And then: as Bob chats away, Raza looks outside the window again, watching the heavy, prodigious dark clouds extending continuously in all dimensions as far back as the eye can see. For a moment, he allows himself to see a chair, or a tree, or a boat, or a whale. He lets both the sadness of human pain and ideological hostility wash over him and melt away. And then he snaps back to the real world, where a cloud is a cloud, his guilt an unbroken thread, and he foresees that he could be somebody else’s Bob at some point, at some other moment in his life: maybe in a plane, or a waiting room, for an hour or two when he feels so lonely that he would talk to anyone who would listen.
So where did you go to college? Did you major in biology?
Oh, yes. I went to college back home in Pakistan. I just moved to Chicago a few years ago for grad school.
Bob removes his arm from the armrest. The air between them has shifted. Bob is silent. It seems to Raza that an incomprehensible distance has descended between them. Suddenly, he feels hyperaware of his hands. How does he control his limbs to seem less threatening? How does he convince Bob that he shares his sense of awfulness about the world? What words could possibly help him understand? Racked with embarrassment and guilt, Raza realizes that at the back of his mind he had always expected it would come to this.
It’s pretty terrible there, Bob says softly, with indifference. The passionate, chatty, even warm Bob is gone. He is once again the vague genteel older man. Was there ever a difference between the two? Could Bob really have been surprised?
They have come to a complete stop. Passengers have begun to remove their luggage and are moving towards the exit. The people ahead of Raza remove their carry-ons frustratingly slowly. When it is Raza’s turn, he exits the airplane and politely says goodbye to the attendant standing at the exit. He reaches the terminal and stops for a moment, breathing in the rarefied air. He texts his brother that he has landed, and that as soon as he gets through baggage claim, he will take a cab to his apartment. People seem to walk slower at this airport. There is a large line at a Whataburger across from him. Everybody looks the same.
From behind him, Bob emerges with his small leather suitcase, his eyes straight ahead, brushing with purpose past Raza, whom he doesn’t notice. Raza wants to walk over, tap his shoulder, shake his hand and tell him that it was wonderful to meet him, but he stops, frozen, as he watches Bob recede, speed-walking through the throng, farther away from him.
He feels a knot in his stomach. Why does the way Bob walks remind him of Noman?
Rumpus original art by Luna Adler.