Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Swept Away in a River

We were buckled in and waiting when the captain came on and sighed. He said the water doesn’t work. We’d have to use a different plane. (Are they so interchangeable? Is it like when you get in a dud bumper car and the acne-scarred attendant directs you to the purple one that’s parked against the rail? Wasn’t this plane blessed and prepared for us, expertly calibrated to the rigors of our journey? Loaded with our luggage and victuals from Gate Gourmet? How is there another one which we may fly instead?) He instructed us to return to the waiting area to await further instructions. Faint grumbling broke out amid the rustle of clothes and carry-ons. Back in the terminal, I went to get a coffee. On my way back I was swept in the exodus of my fellow travelers trudging to the new gate: 48B.

A woman in her late fifties wept inconsolably as a stewardess peered at her and frowned, holding her hand up in a gesture both soothing and defensive. Do you speak Spanish? she asked. It happened that she spoke French. I found myself approaching and volunteering to interpret.

"What does she want?"

"Qu'est ce que vous voulez?"

She wanted to know when the flight was leaving.

"When's the flight leaving?"

The stewardess turned around to face the counter. "Bob, when's the flight leaving?"

"In an hour," said Bob.

"In an hour."

"Dans une heure."

"When's it boarding?" I asked.

"Bob, when's it boarding?"

"Half an hour."

"Half an hour."

"On part dans une heure et on embarque dans une demi-heure."

I was pleased with the simple, emphatic quality of these answers but the woman continued to stammer and weep. I suggested lamely to the stewardess that she might be scared.

"Does she need anything?"

"Avez-vous besoin de quelque chose?"

The woman must have sensed we were frustrated and so tried to gratify us with an answer of some kind.

"De l'eau," she said, almost like a question. Whisperingly. Water? It's what you say when someone asks you what you need but you can't tell them what you really need.

"Water," I said.

"Can you ask her what's wrong? Why is she crying?"

"Qu'est ce qui va pas? Pourquoi pleurez-vous?"

"I fly from Papeete," the woman said, in halting English.

"Long flight," I said to the stewardess.

"That is a long flight," the stewardess said.

"Maybe she's tired."

"Must be tired."

The woman broke in. "I go to New York. I must go to the funeral of... of --" The syllables expanded in her throat and she succumbed again to sobs.

"Tell her to have a seat and I will bring her water."

"Installez-vous quelque part et elle va vous ammener de l'eau."

We finally seemed to reach a sort of resolution. She turned and walked unsteadily toward the chairs. A few were empty but she did not seem to distinguish them from those that weren't. As she hovered nearby, the stewardess thanked me and we broke off. I went to look at planes awhile. When I came back I saw the woman from afar. She was sitting as the stewardess and some other airline people tended to her. Talked to her and touched her. Helped her manipulate a cell phone.

Later, on the flight, the stewardess served me drinks.

"I hope she's all right," I said.

"I think she's OK."


"Her husband died. In that country where she --"


"Yes, Papeete. He was swept away in a river. So she's going to the funeral. And his body's on the plane."

"Wow. That's... disturbing." Right away, I regretted saying disturbing. I wished I'd said a warmer word. Sad, maybe. Even awful.

"I know. It is," she said.