During a long holiday weekend in Cairo, he had decided to go where there was real air and bought a last minute plane ticket to Sharm al-Sheikh, the commercial beach city at the very tip of the Sinai Peninsula. From Sharm he would take a bus an hour north to Dahab, Arabic for gold, a city that mixed backpackers with serious snorkelers and American wives who found themselves in Cairo and wanted to do the real Egypt things. Unmixed were the real Egyptians, the store owners and the savvy Bedouins, the natives of the wilderness who knew how to keep cool in the desert and how to squeeze an extra guinea out of a rock like Moses did in this very wilderness.
He had always imagined an actual wilderness when he read of the Israelites in Exodus, one with trees and hills, one where the people could find berries in the bush or a gazelle now and again to break the monotony of manna, quail, manna, quail. Monotony is what terrified him: as a child he thought of the life of the world to come, of his life in the world to come, and from as early as he had thoughts he was taught that this second life, this really real life, that it didn’t end. One of his Sunday School teachers placed a dot on a whiteboard. This is our life, beginning to end, he said. Then he drew a line to the end of the board, curled it under itself, and snaked it back and forth to fill the board. This is what comes next. He would think of this picture and of the next life unending, the world without end, the perceptions and mental processes unbroken by sleep or death or anything. Just there, alive. And he would break out into cold sweats, crying for his mother who would console him the best she could: Think of something you like. Think of baseball and ice cream, things to take your mind away.
Little did he understand, until he actually flew over and rode through the Sinai, what the true monotony of the Israelites was, and what it meant. The desert was devoid of tree, of water, of footpaths or shade. It was a piece of parchment stretched out and then wrinkled, a cage of ribs made of papier-mâché, then busted apart and scattered. The wilderness had no end or edge save the saltwater around the peninsula. And as he walked to a popular beach from his room on the first day of his vacation he saw up in the mountains limning Dahab that the monotony was not the point. Every morning there was manna, and every evening there was quail, but the manna and the quail were not the point, and the wilderness was not the point, the water spewing from rocks was not the point, and the pillars of fire, the columns of smoke, they were not the point. The point was the Author who had decided that the canvas was dramatically less important than what He could put there.
While he thought of this, driving to the airport to fetch Jemmy, Jemmy’s plane was just breaking through the clouds above Chicago. This was her favorite moment of flying. The world and every annoyance in it was down below her, every imperfect plan and every undesired obligation. Then there were the clouds, and then there was the sky, un-weathered always, wide like the sea but transparent, known.
Jemmy adjusted her seat and thumbed the pages of her book. She closed her eyes and planned the rest of the flight. First a book because then there is still energy. By the time she finished the complimentary soda, she would begin to get either drowsy or uncomfortable, so she would switch to her iPod and queue the playlist she had created specifically for the flight. When she told him about her playlist, excited at its formidability, he had responded simply, Music for airports. She had paused and waited for the idea behind the phrase to pop out but he had forgotten that he had not already said it. The words he thought he said were: A regular Brian Eno, you, making music for a place. He’s an ambient musician, said he wanted to make albums for places where people always listen to music so it fits the place, so he made an album devoted to airports. Called it “Music For Airports.” And yet only the album title materialized into their mutual world, so she had skipped the topic with a sigh and repeated her departure and arrival times.
An hour later, the in-flight television show ended and Jemmy removed her headphones, disappointed in herself for putting the book down once she saw the opening credits. Now she was uncomfortable, tired, and the stewardess had made her rounds to apologize for the nonexistent beverage service on the flight. What would have been simply coded travel for most took on an extra emphasis for Jemmy because it questioned her, doubted the level of control she had over even these, the small bits of life she should have control over. Jemmy often lived without knowing it for the perfect moments and ideal schedules. If asked she would say that she looked for the spontaneity in life, but that in itself would betray her true feelings. She did indeed look for spontaneity, in much the same way structured jazz musicians look for improvisation: it must fit in the overarching system, it must make some kind of sense. For Jemmy, acceptable moments of spontaneity were rare and she did not admit to herself that the ones she enjoyed were the ones she had already built a hidden plan for.
It was easier to control the parts of life you can control, such as what one will do on an airplane, and so when the easy to control parts lost out to laziness and passivity, Jemmy felt beneath her mind that she was only alive like a dandelion and that she had already bloomed, was already white with pieces of herself drifting off with the wind. This is how he once described culture shock to her when he was abroad, and while she did not understand how it fit his feelings, she had without knowing it co-opted the metaphor for herself. All she could do now was try to keep a steady hand over herself, keep the wind from coming in.
Jemmy had fallen asleep in spite of herself, and the stewardess woke her to ask her to move her seat up. The plane was landing. Like the turbines spinning downward in a high whine the coming life ahead of her rushed into her and froze her to the seat. Here she was, seven hundred miles from the midwest where she had lived for almost a decade, flying into a small airport in a small city a couple hours from a small town where she would soon have an address. Here she was, about to step out of the plane and into the car of a man she did not comprehend, a man who was alluring and confusing like a poem that one did not know was beautiful or meaningless with words scribbled inscrutably for the very sake of inscrutability, a man she had not lived near for long but had always known she loved, a man who would rightly tell her that the word was not exactly the most well-defined, that it was up to each one of us to find a value for it, that it was only a placeholder for a life. She allowed the thoughts to bounce in her head as she collected her bags and walked out of the airport, standing by the curb with all of the possessions she now owned. She felt light, like she could leave again and go anywhere, anywhere at all, and the sun would be there still, the air and the sky, people would walk around her. As the plane was landing it had crossed over a green field with a dirt baseball diamond cut out of it crudely. She saw the field with kids from the nearby farm chasing balls and laughing over dirt mounds, finding a field mouse, tagging each other and screaming into the world that for a few more years was only as big as the field. She saw the world her world could be and it thrilled her like the wind that slipped up her back. She breathed and turned around. Stepped forward.
She knew before she started that she would not reenter the airport. She knew and made herself remember that she knew. She turned around, and he was there.