by Ahsan Butt
Stuck. Laid over between the place I was born and the place I live. Four a.m. spent spacing out, stretching against a stiff seat, legs laid out on my Hilfiger bag. Denim man in the row behind me has never seen anything like me. Black greasy hair of mine, flashy in a black greasy jacket, red tee flashing underneath. My paki tone, dirty-sand features. I’m stretched out, but stuck between two pinching armrests. Denim’s eyes poke into the back of my head like a pistol.
The airport diner is between shifts, so there are no eggs to eat and Denim and I have nothing to do but watch the NEWS hanging high above my seat. Soldiers are stressed the fuck out, apparently. Red book in my hand says The Perfect Gentleman, shows a four-year-old Pakistani kid craning his neck forward out of a dapper suit and tie. I’m trying to find my spot from before. Brown guy on the NEWS now. No dub, no subtitles, just the gibberish. Sounds angry though, and apparently it’s stressing soldiers the fuck out. Looks like my dad. He sounds angry like that when he’s joking. The NEWS switches to sports.
My red book’s British. Well, the writer. Well, born in Pakistan, grew up in London. Brown kid on the cover makes me feel like I’m flaunting something. Maybe that’s why Denim’s poking his eyes into the back of my head with demands. But I only brought one book, one bag. Fly so much I learned to limit my baggage. I’m adaptable.
Fuck. Quarterback scrambles between two snowmen trying to murder him, throws terrible fourth-quarter pick. They lose. It’s Denim’s team, his hat tells me.
I take a chance. “Imagine what they’d do with a clutch QB,” I say out loud into space. Denim grunts. A good grunt. He puts his eyes away. I don’t know why I take chances.
We could talk football. Not my favorite team, but I know their storylines. Quarterback with a celebrity wife. Seems too happy, win or lose. Not a soldier. No, he’s caught in the stars. Sly in the pocket but no salt, you know? Forget the ten games a year he wins, where’s he in the playoffs? Forget that he takes more punishment behind that leaky line than we’ll ever feel in our lives. And that’s the pivot. If the grunt were meaner, I would have pivoted. Two sides to every story. Commentators, guys in silver suits, most of them never played the game, but they can do a whole lotta talking, can’t they? You win some, lose some, and he wins, mostly. Leave him alone. But I heard the grunt. Denim liked the “clutch” comment.
I flip back some pages that I don’t remember. Re-reading, catching snippets of clips from above, all the while wondering about Denim. I look back; he’s snoring. Maybe he was never looking.
Fuck. I’m spacing.
The PA mashes up the attendant’s twang, but the people rise, all ten of us, and it’s time to board. I tuck the four-year-old paki kid under my arm, grab my bag, and circle around to the tail of the short line. It’s an empty gate, waiting for us, bearing us with a tired politeness. A dry socket waiting to close.
I shuffle, she shuffles, a sweatered lady, bag upon bag, irrelevant documents in hand, just in case. I’m behind her, last in the line except for Denim still dreaming in his seat. He’ll wake when he wants, Slick. Goddamn right.
I’ll never miss this place. It’s an airport. Fuck.
My bag swings and hits Sweater behind her knees; she dips. Fuck.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Oh no, it’s all right.”
“Glad I wasn’t carrying my golf clubs.”
It doesn’t really make sense. Definitely not good enough to win her daughter’s hand, but good enough to show her I’m safe. She laughs. That’ll do.
Attendant flips through Sweater’s printed itinerary and hotel reservation trying not to sleep. I’m shuffling up next. Last chance.
I double back, bag swinging and slipping, back to Dreaming in Denim’s row, search for a good place to touch him, the right amount, too, the not-too-rough and the not-too-caress-y. I opt for the from-the-side shoulder tap. He awakes like a burping beauty.
“Hey man, we’re leaving.”
Sleep, sleepy, steady.
“Shit.” He shakes it out. I laugh the right amount, the not-too-hard, the not-too-faint.
He grunts. The good kind. That’ll do.
I buckle in, row to myself, armrests up, red book flipping back until I find some words familiar:
I become the perfect gentleman, superior to them in every way. They may be white, but I become whiter than white, quintessentially English. My appearance becomes always immaculate: tie perfectly knotted, shirt pristinely ironed, hair neatly combed. My accent and enunciation become perfect BBC and I become a guardian of the English language. … My English-language skills are outstanding and I look down on people with inferior accents. (This is my way of creating some self-esteem, as a reaction to being abused as a sub-human paki.)
Fuck. The wheels peel off the runway with a surge of lift and I’m spacing. I negotiate with a dream and fall asleep over somewhere. My red tee, under my greasy jacket, clings to a traveler’s sweat, and my mouth fills with sand.
Ahsan Butt is a writer and essayist. He was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles (via Seattle). His short fiction and profile pieces have been published in The Monarch Review, and his most recent screenplay is in production with Riverlife Productions. His first novel, which examines some of the many anxieties of Muslim teens in America, is in progress. Selected by Erin Sroka.
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Image © Franco Felini via Creative Commons