The Xiphoid Yearnings of Zazen
A deep navy blue rectangular wax-lined bag, sized a little wider than a paperback and a little shorter than a wine bottle, weirdly plastic to the touch and smelling of basements and attic spaces. Two minimalistic white lines running an inch from the bottom below an encircled maple leaf logo. At the top, printed in a bold neo-grotesque large point font: “AFTER USE FOLD AWAY FROM YOU,” then “FOR MOTION SICKNESS / POUR LE MAL DE L’AIR”; and on the bottom, in less impressive smaller point font, simply “DRG Packaging.” When balled up it sounds like crumpled paper. After all, it is a standard issue paper nausea bag from AirCanada, only it happens to contain God.
Bitter already on the second day of a round trip four-stop leg from Toronto to Addis Ababa, because this is a 14-hour layover and my radio will tune to nothing but talk shows and newscasts. For a pre-flight ritual, Charlotte takes a sip of bourbon, or “a swish of the devil’s mouthwash” as she calls it. Annie just smokes cigarettes, nasty Gauloises reeking of moss and garlic, but in a manner that’s practiced, half art. She can send these long spirals of smoke dripping imperceptibly from her lips before exhaling dusky, spooling rings that float and float. I share in both their vices, but only occasionally and not nearly as gracefully. So I just listen to the radio. Turns out classical music programs and muzak stations are both dying breeds. If I have to, I settle for rock or rap, whatever has the least static. But here in Beirut, I’m getting nothing but monotonous speeches and church-chant drones. Occasionally they broadcast commercials with tantalizing snippets of English, but the only ones I remember are the Coca-Cola ads, with the fizzing and pop music and sex noises.
Coke costs the equivalent of $1.45 at the bar in Beirut International, just a small glass bottle. My per diem doesn’t even cover a coke. This used to make me sad until I learned to look around the lounge and find someone to buy me a rum to go with my coke. But this is a red-eye flight and no one’s around at this hour except for the pilot. With his shock of grey at the temples and rotating collection of large-faced gold watches, I guess he thinks he’s desirable. He winks my way but I work at unpinning my wings, shaking loose my hair. Truth is, he wouldn’t leave Charlotte alone after a weekend in Martinique, blowing up her phone with 4am texts for months and waylaying her when she couldn’t avoid being with him on the flight deck. I forget the rum and go back to my radio for another scan. This time there’s yelling, maybe a protest. I listen, sipping at my warm coke, until my ears are ringing.
During the last leg, a nonstop from Lebanon back to Toronto, 42G keeps his head bowed, talking low to himself. He has what looks like small twigs stuck in his curling black hair, unevenly cut. When I bring around the service cart, asking him if he wants a water, maybe soda, he says something about rivers, and when I say, We have tea, too, he says, The leaves there are sweeter than the warbler’s song, so, I don’t know, I hold out a pack of peanuts. He stops his rant and accepts the snack, but continues to stare at me. Across the aisle I hear 36B drunkenly accusing Annie of withholding his FAA-given right to comfort in the form of denying him a larger serving of wine, so I excuse myself and push my cart to the aft to help her out. Annie ducks into the lav to chain smoke. I soothe the man by giving him a glass of tonic water in a tumbler from the back, telling him it’s premium vodka. He passes out within minutes. When I glance at 42G, he’s already bowed his head and gone back to his private whispers, his strange words. On the flight deck, Charlotte asks me if I’m still going out with the aggro. That’s her petname for Eli. Trouble. I think she actually likes him but her naturally sarcastic upbringing in Manchester prevents her from showing her true affections. She tosses together a salad of rocket, aubergine, and pine nuts in front of me while I tell her how his wife finally said she’d sign the divorce papers but they’re still trying to sort out custody because she doesn’t want the son around on weekends. And the promotion means he’s working even more sporadically than I am. She gives me a look, says You said something about how it’s messy so you weren’t going to bang on about him anymore, what happened to that. I say, Yeah, no, I’m not going to see him anymore. All I want to do is sleep a few years after this trip, I tell her, and she laughs as I sip on my water and wonder what a warbler looks like.
Empty planes always have a way of looking like a crash site. The discarded headphones and blankets, pillows, stacked plastic cups—the debris is unavoidable and inspiring in volume. After taxiing the runway, everyone is suddenly claustrophobic, some standing up before the seatbelt light has even dinged off, acting like there is somehow so much less air now that we’ve stopped moving. I look for 42G during the deplaning, but an elderly woman needs help getting her carry-on from the overhead bin and even for me it’s heavy, I almost twist my shoulder pulling at it. 36B trips, stumbling down the jetway, and Annie has to cover a laugh. When everyone is gone, though, I still haven’t seen him. I ask Charlotte, and she says that she can’t be expected to remember the chavvy blokes on every flight. So I tell her I’ll catch up with her when we’re on reserve together next week, and I go back to his seat just to make sure he wasn’t bent over and mumbling on.
Finding the bag, I don’t immediately think anything of it. Just, oh. His area is clean, not a magazine out of place, not a napkin or wrapper in sight. In the middle of the seat, though, the nausea bag is puffed out and folded over like it’s full. The cleaning crew takes care of these things, I think, but his ranting comes back to me. I go to pick it up and it floats to my fingertips, like my hair when on static electricity, just a slight raising, a subtle movement up. And I know what I’ll find in it, and also that I shouldn’t find it, that it isn’t meant to be found. I look toward the aft to make sure no one sees as I take the bag, but suddenly it is weighted like a bookend. When I look at it, it goes light and, again, I know. With the bag stuffed in my carry-on, a small corner sticking out so I can keep an eye on it, I walk down the jetway to ask the pilot about the manifest. He eyes me up and down as he asks me for my number, “to make it a fair trade.” So I give him a number, similar to mine, and tell him just make sure not to call after midnight. He stuffs the number into his coat pocket and says that 42G didn’t board, and that I should wear my hair down more often.
Grand Quay Lofts has this brochure-worthy view of Lake Ontario, the only reason the rent is worth it, but going home always makes me feel a little tired. After I’ve slipped off my heels, stretched a bit by rotating my ankles around, I realize how much work I have left to do on the place. Sheets over everything. The counterspace is covered in paints and sandpaper. Two layers of wallpaper left to scrape away in the bedroom, and the Clawfoot tub still runs off a wheezy cast iron radiator. It’s sparse, for sure, just grey walls, white edging, a black floor lamp. In the center of the room, just a knockoff turn-of-the-century sofa found in a thrift store. A pillow and comforter stays folded beside it, and in one corner an old gramophone with a stack of LPs. I clear off a bucket of primer and set the bag on the kitchen table. Unpacking then repacking my carry-on is second nature, so the bottles are refilled and fresh clothes folded and zipped away in minutes. Then I check the refrigerator, which just has processed cheese, soy sauce packets, and a bottle of Beringer red. At the kitchen table with the bag in front of me, the blue of the packaging is so dark it blends in with the table’s black laminate. Picking out a clean paintbrush from the pile, I try to get the bag to lift again, to move. It stays still, though, even when I poke at it, just seems to sigh a little. I stare at it so long the AirCanada logo turns to nonsense. So I pull the flap to open it, but the bag turns heavy in my hands and crashes to the floor. I pick it back up, bending from the hips like we are trained, and lug it onto the table. Making sure it’s supported on two sides by paint cans, I try again, but it just tips the table over and sends everything to the floor in what has to sound like a double homicide. The downstairs neighbor bangs on the ceiling with a broom or something and yells. I think maybe I should talk to Eli, because he’s smart, listens, never doubts me. Should I tell him, should I bother, is it something that can be told: the debate lasts as long as it takes to stack the cans against the wall and right the table. When I call, lying on the bathroom floor with the cord around my ankle, noting the lint building up on the baseboards, I say that I was back in town, that I thought I’d drop by for his birthday. He says, It’s three weeks away, so I say, Oh. He says, Come over anyway.
He was nine-years married when we met, but already thinking about separating. If not for his boy, he would have been out the door and away from his wife years ago. Or so he tells me in more vulnerable moments. But he’s got to think about what’s best for his son. So he watched me at the airport with a stainless steel band on his finger, when he was doing electrical upgrades and I was laughing behind my hands with Charlotte. He got my email address, somehow, he won’t tell me from who, and messaged me that blue was a good color on me. He wanted to talk, if nothing else. After work one day he brought over a fifth of Gentleman Jack wearing a fedora, like out of old movies and costume parties. I’d jokingly said in an early message that these were my weaknesses, a man in a hat and three shots of strong liquor. Looking at him then, I said I didn’t know if I’d be able to help myself. We took the bottle and his Jeep down a forest trail to some cave systems 10 minutes outside of Toronto, where the trees almost block out the city haze, and settled down on a stone bench there. We talked into the night, and when morning came the bottle was half empty but the hat was still on his head, and he said, See, you’re stronger than you think.
I drive over after changing out of my uniform, and when he opens the door he’s still sweating from a workout. He asks if I need a drink while he showers, then he goes to the back bathroom. I look around the house, touching the things he’s built, like the bookcases, a set of bamboo coasters. He framed his son’s drawings and put them up alongside the artwork we bought at a local festival last year on an early date. He is easily the best man I’ve ever loved. When he comes out trailing soap scents, his long hair dripping water down his collar and the couch, I take the bag out of a tote and give it to him.
Joking, I say that it contains all meaning. But my voice comes out small. He turns it over in his hands, looking at the back, then the front, reads the type, and asks if I’m going to open it. I tell him how I tried, it wasn’t a success. So he stretches us out on the couch and asks me how it was being in the air for so long and tells me about always being on the ground, as he rubs circles on the back of my hand. I tell him how transatlantic flights are always dark, and the ripples below could be waves or clouds but I hope it’s the ocean, with dolphins, whales, whatever, freewheeling around down there. I tell him about waking up in Beirut. He tells me about waking up sad. He asks if the roar of the engine is loud and I want to say like the belly of a slouching beast, because it’s not all false, but instead I say how close we come to the sun. His hand spans my back in slow circles, and he tells me again to open it. And I say, I tried, it wasn’t a success.
Kissing him, there’s an urgency, and the feeling that if I don’t leave the house now, it’ll burn down around us.
Lonely back at home, aching in new ways, I put the bag on a clean spot near the window and curl up on the couch. The bag sort of stares at me, seeming a little deflated. The blue of the packaging is so dark, and the lines so white, I think of a pair of contrails in the night sky. Talk about Toronto, talk about Beirut.
Mother calls on the phone way early in the morning to say again, I wasn’t born in a rabbit box, Canada’s a whole ‘nother place and there’s all sorts of mean people in the world. I tell her, rubbing my eyes, how I’m fine, really, yes I’m keeping up with my dentist appointments. She talks about the church and the crazy thing the cat did last night, he’s such a character, and the possum that scared her on the porch last Wednesday, and I say, Yeah, Mother. Wow. Crazy. I don’t tell her that I know that I know.
Noon, Eli calls, and I have smoke in my hair from the blowtorch. He wants to come over, but I say, The apartment’s not finished, there’s paint everywhere. The bag still isn’t catching fire, even with the oil over it. I say that I can’t hear him well over the static. He says that he’ll put on some old jeans and help out, he’s due some vacation time. I put the bag in the tub to try drowning it, but it just floats. When he says that he wants this to work, I know it can’t so I hang up. He calls back, and I don’t want to unplug the phone entirely, sever all lines of communication, so I put it in the bathroom and muffle it with towels so I can sit and watch the bag. Within the hour he shows up with pizza, and my stomach makes loud noises when I think about not opening the door. I contribute the wine from the fridge. He wipes a smudge of ash off my face. After lunch, we dry off the bag, which radiates heat like a furnace now. He squeezes my wrist in his hand as he asks how I can be so scared.
On reserve duty, stretched unladylike over the couches in the back, skirt riding high, I try telling Charlotte about the bag, how I know that I know. Sipping out of a rose-patterned flask, all she says is, And I thought I was naff.
Pictures of it don’t come out blurry or anything, but when I try to shoot it with an old 35mm and a roll of Fujifilm I found under the bed, even against a makeshift white sheet background, the processed prints look flat. Not just two-dimensional, but like a picture of a drawing. A picture of a picture of a drawing. It certainly didn’t look more important than your average nausea bag. I borrowed Eli’s digital camcorder and recorded it from all angles, zooming in on the details, picking it up and showing how the corners pulled and were starting to fray because it was heavier than even a full vomit bag should be. I watched the playback on the tiny LCD screen, but immediately knew this also wouldn’t work. The lighting was reflecting off the wrong places, as if the bag were concave. I have Eli take it to the grocery story early the next morning, before there’s a crowd, and put it on a produce scale. Doesn’t budge.
Questions are sort of piling up and science doesn’t seem to offer any explanations. So we find his grandmother’s old Bible, dated from the Depression years with gilded edges and onionskin paper. The front pages have his family tree written out in a woman’s neat cursive in blue ink, tracing his line back to the Acadians. Towards the beginning some verses talk about Lebanon and forests, but the index doesn’t turn up anything useful. Eli read me a passage about how it’s permissible to burn the name of God when it’s no longer needed, which cheered me up about earlier. He said the jury was still out on water damage though.
Reluctantly, I made him put the Bible away along with the Tanakh, Talmuds, the Qur’an and various glosses from the library, because the closest connection we could find was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, with good and evil translating to everything, which carries a death sentence in every translation.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A flight attendant walks into a bar with God in a paper bag. I wish I knew the punchline.
The affair you’re having is never the affair you’re having.
Upon returning home, I drink the remaining wine straight from the bottle and seriously consider throwing the bag out. In the list of possibilities, letting someone else have it is at the very top. Maybe give it to Charlotte or Annie, because it could have been meant for any one of us. I could raffle it off, put it in a museum. Except a museum might need documentation from the Vatican. Sell it to a gallery, then? Or it could be useful. Eli could construct a frame for it to hang over the fireplace. It could be a Christmas tree topper. A paper weight, I think, lately flattened and heavy as a weightlifter’s dumbbell. Maybe wear it as a kind of hairshirt. Or just trash it. When I drain the last of the bottle, in an especially ill-considered moment of intoxication, I wad up the thing and toss it somewhere over my shoulder, where it hurtles to floor with due din and racket, probably gashing the hardwood too. The neighbors employ the broom. I just put my pillow over my head and try to sleep.
Voicing regret is useless here.
What I see in the dream is a wall of clouds, bleaching the sky a shade of disaster. Then the ground opens beneath me. A ringing somewhere, across even plots of shrubs and muddy waters. We were meant to kneel, I tell him when I wake up, On those rocks along the Tigris, wait, the river here, this river, the name—I was meant to take your hat, to bare your head, and tug you down among the stones where the river meets bank, but I didn’t do that, why didn’t I do that. He tells me I did though, and even if I don’t remember, he remembers for me.
Xeroxes of the evidence can be supplied first thing in the morning, he says, Just come back to bed.
Yet I know that I know that I know. And as I run out the door into the night, I hope Eli knows it is only for this I could leave him. I find my car on the curb under a busted streetlight raining sparks and my hands are shaking, I scratch stars into the paint before finding the keyhole. When the car starts, the noise surprises me. I drive carefully but above the speed limit to the forests outside Toronto, where I remember there are the darkest caverns. The dirt road runs at a curve along the lake’s edge, and the turns seem to stretch on past the Earth’s possible circumference. I go on, further than I feel I can, until I reach the highest cave.
Zipping up my jacket doesn’t help, the wind still cuts through. I duck further into the opening and settle on a flat rock there, cradling the bag in my crossed legs. The flap is folded accordion-style several times. My fingers are cold and numb, but it parts for me, unfurls at my touch at last. There’s a brittle piece of paper inside, not a note any hand wrote because the paper is so brittle it feels like dust. It is dust, has just turned to dust on my fingertips, and I can feel its years weighting the bag, what’s been so heavy all along it seems, and it pulls my hands to the inner folds, where I find more brittle words that in turn crumble to handfuls of dust, a bag of sand, and it spills out of the top so fast I breathe clouds of it in. I feel it as it fills me up, and I know as my fingertips are bright and burning with glorylight and my hair is what is called radiant, the ends lashing like flames, and squinting my eyes closed, I taste honey on my tongue. I hear violins and harps clashing at odd angles and the ocean must be somewhere over my shoulder, salt-scent flaying my lungs. When last my eyes open, what I see is a faceless man, searching for a door, his mouth about to shape words I want to understand but know I’ll never be close enough to hear.
Tracie Dawson is an MFA fiction candidate at the University of South Carolina and Prose Editor for Yemassee. Her work can be found in New World Writing, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, and Word Riot. Follow along on Twitter @trdwsn. Selected by Ahsan Butt.
Image © Laura D’Alessandro via Flickr Creative Commons.