Element

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TWELVE

Oh Yeah, Yello

Swaying in an ocean of air, the plane straightened up and landed with a thump on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport. As it did, John was jostled in his seat. A moment later, the vibration coming through the body of the plane changed. It felt as if they were sliding on ice. Out the window, painted lines and numbers flew by. A few moments later, the cabin pitched slightly forward. To his surprise, he didn’t feel anything as the nose wheel touched down.

THRUMMMMMMMMB! Though he knew what it was, John leaned forward and looked out the window anyway. On the starboard wing, the flaps had been raised at an oblique angle. They were air braking. The sound of the air being disrupted by the flap was enormous. John bet it was all turbulent too. The flaps lowered and they continued taxiing. Nothing changed for several minutes, and then, ever so slightly, he began to sense that the plane was yawing. He couldn’t tell what direction it was in, it was so gradual, until he saw one of the giant, white lines painted on the asphalt. It was tilted at an acute angle. They were indeed turning.

Another line passed. Definitely turning. The plane’s turn got faster. There was perhaps the faintest sensation of centripetal acceleration. And then they stopped. He looked around the cabin. No one was moving. He undid his seatbelt and looked behind him. An old man looked back at him. John settled back into his seat. His peripheral vision caught something going on to his left. He tilted his head. Out the window, an empty baggage truck taxied by and disappeared from view. A little more time passed. There was a ka-chunk. Around the same time, there was a change in the mechanical tone of the cabin accompanied by a flickering of the lights. Auxiliary Power Unit taking over? The seatbelt sign turned off.

People started to get out of their seats. John decided it was just as well to do the same. Rising out of his seat, he canted his head to fit under the overhead compartment as he waited for the people in the seats next to him to get their acts together. John scratched his neck beneath the collar of his orange-red shirt. The people beside him finally moved out of the way. Not wasting any time, John segued into the aisle and raised his hands to the overhead rack. His new hiking pack was there. He didn’t recognize the brand but its construction looked solid.

He pulled it down. It was insanely heavy. He’d pretty much packed a microcosm of his life into it. Fighting its massive weight, he hauled it onto his back and resisted the impulse to sit on the arm rest of the nearest chair. Standing in the center of the aisle, he waited patiently for people to move. Lots of people. All packed like sardines. They started moving towards the exit. At the door, two flight attendants smiled at him and wished him a pleasant afternoon. John nodded at them. The jet bridge wasn’t acoustically insulated at all. He could hear the squeal of jet engines or auxiliary power units. Backpack weighing down on his shoulders, he walked up inclined carpeting. Behind him, the plastic wheels of a suitcase clicked on metal. There was a caution sign. And then he was inside the airport.

It was vast. Not able to pause, he nevertheless cast a glance over his shoulder at the departing gate. He looked back at the airport. My God. It was real. He was here. He tried to digest this as he followed signs to the baggage claim area. Once he had gotten his duffel bag, he followed a sign up to the terminal, then walked past the ticket counters and through a set of perfectly polished double doors, emerging onto a curb where taxis were parked. All of this he did in a bit of a daze. Adrenaline high. His emotions were an intoxicating mix of an overwhelming sense of achievement coupled with an overwhelming sense of vulnerability.

He looked around him, made himself become aware of where he was. As he looked, a taxi came up and idled. Ever so slowly, like a newborn insect, a traveler exhumed himself onto the sidewalk, laboring against the sheer awkwardness that carrying his many bags engendered. John jogged over to assist him and the man was appreciative. The traveler leaned forward to mumble something to the driver. The trunk opened. The man had even more bags. John couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t possibly expect to carry all that… John leaned against the weight of his own bag and puzzled over it until another cab pulled up behind the first one. Out of it climbed a woman and two children. The man told the kids to grab their bags and then told John he had it from here and thanked him again. As John stepped away, a voice came through the intercom, loud and clear and British. John’s spine tingled. The man went off with his family through a set of double doors. John looked at the cab driver.

“Hey, fellow, are you coming?”

“Yeah, yes,” John stammered. He loaded his backpack into the trunk and climbed inside the cab, pulling the door shut behind him.

“Where to?”

John knew the address to the hostel by heart. But he decided to test the driver. “Morgan Hostel. In London.” The driver nodded and the car started off breathlessly. John blinked and then looked over at his duffel bag, immediately going to work on it. The car drove away from the terminal, onto a street. Don’t look up, find your maps. John found the sleeping bag and opened it in the back of the taxi. A quick glance up at the rear view mirror told him the taxi driver took no interest in what he was doing. Okay. Find the map. Where was the London map? …The heck? Several minutes of searching. Oh. Whoo. He pulled it out and looked it over. It was heavily warped now. In simpler times, it would have distracted him, but he had to focus now. He spread it out on the seat beside him and traced a line with his finger between the hostel which was circled with marker, and the airport, also circled. It would take the car maybe fifteen or twenty minutes to get there, he estimated. He folded the map back up and got to work repacking the sleeping bag. When that was finished, he patted his pocket to make sure his passport was still there, zipped the duffel closed, and told himself to relax. Out the window, the sprawl was becoming progressively denser. A double-decker bus halted at a traffic light and flashed out of view.

Morgan Hostel was less impressive than he’d expected. Collecting his bags, he walked inside. The whole interior was washed in a warm glow, which was accentuated by the predominantly wood interior. It also smelled a bit musty. But the floor was swept and there was a neat little booth off to one side from which an old woman peered out and regarded him. John went to her and introduced himself. Her name was Agatha and she walked with limp. It appeared that she had broken her foot. John asked about it. She replied that it was a volleyball injury. They went upstairs. The room was near-Japanese in simplicity. There was a cot on the left, a cot on the right, a green rug and beneath the rug, a wooden floor. There was a light on the ceiling and two simple bureaus on either side. Planted at the far end of the room was a wooden paned window.

For a former college student, it was wanting, but not unbearably so. He tried the light switch and was satisfied. For fifteen dollars a night, it was more than a bargain. As he looked it over, the woman waited in the doorway. John turned to give her his attention. Despite her leg, she wasn’t leaning on the door frame. She was regarding him with an unhostile frankness. He realized he liked her. She left.

When John had learned the room would be all his own, he was pumped. He needed a little space right now. But he couldn’t help but wonder if he was taking away from the experience. Then he thought about it again and knew that that was illogical. This was the experience. Whatever happened, he was living it.

That evening, he dressed up to eat out. There was an eye-catching restaurant just up the street that he had spotted on the way in. He hadn’t asked the lady from the booth if it was any good, though. It was time to cut the cord. Experience things first-hand. Plus, he found asking people questions all the time tiresome. The first thing he put on was a pair of black jeans. Tucked into these he wore a light gray collared shirt. A leather belt came next, followed by a black knit tie. Finally, there were his dark blue Sketchers and the dark grayish leather jacket he had picked up months earlier but never worn. Looking himself over in the mirror, he tapped the bridge of his glasses and smiled broadly. It’d do.

The sidewalk was occupied but had thinned out for the most part. He soon inferred that his street was simply off the beaten path because as soon as he had walked a block, it was as if someone had flipped a switch and there were European cars dodging back and forth on the left side and smartly dressed pedestrians at the crosswalks. He tilted his eyes up a little. The street lights looked funny. So did the policemen. The nearest one was wearing a stylish combination of a suit, big hat and yellow hazard vest. A black microphone was attached to his breast. He got into his sleek car, a design John didn’t recognize, and drove away, tactful blue and yellow lights glowing as they receded down the street. Immediately, John felt completely at home here. He turned right down the street and made his way to the restaurant.

Chez Bleu glowed from within. Its interior design was almost industrial. There was ample lighting, courtesy of dangling LED bulbs. The servers were all dressed fashionably, and behind the counter to the left, there was a long, tilted blackboard on which prices were scrawled in neat, multicolored chalk. It was nice.

After dinner, he went back to his hostel room and took a nap. It was only then that he realized how tired he was. The times were all wrong. When he woke up he had more energy. He looked at his watch but suddenly realized his mistake. Ambling over to the window, he took a look out. It was darker outside now. All traces of blue sky were gone. Down the street, he heard a horn. And over the roof of one of the buildings, he was able to make out a strobe light and something else, something energetically purple. It looked like a dark light. Huh. He was still wearing his nice clothes. His watch said it was seven pm. That meant it was like eleven. Kind’ve late. But he wanted to have a look around, and the thought of catching some nightlife was always enticing, so he put his jacket back on and went outside again. The light in the booth was out. The old lady had gone to sleep. Or she was out playing volleyball. You never knew.

He walked up the street towards the night club and crossed at a crosswalk. Then, he walked up a block and crossed another street, bringing him to the source of the strobe light. A night club with a small line to get in. The bouncer was bald and wearing a green shirt with a large white cross on it. As he got into line, John wondered if he was overdressed. When his turn came, he showed the man his passport and after he looked at his face a few times, the bouncer let him in. John eyed the place over quickly, giving himself a mental map. A bar was illuminated from below by a black light. There was another blackboard, except this time, the chalk was glowing.

The place wasn’t all that big but there was music coming from somewhere to the left and John quickly inferred he should walk around some more. He went ten paces forward and arrived at a passageway that darted off to the left. He walked down it and all of a sudden, the passageway opened up into a taller room. To his left, there was a dance floor, where a band of people who didn’t look much older than he was were playing music. He looked up at the balcony across the room. Up there were round, glass tables, and chairs. A couple women were sitting up there chatting. A man came into view briefly and then walked out of sight.

The room was lit from above by a weak rectangular lamp. John had been to a place like this once before. It was the kind of place that felt utterly barren when no one was in it. There was no rug. The floor was wooden, with large rectangularly headed nails neatly driven into it. Hovering there for a few minutes, he thought about what to do, and then, after momentarily contemplating returning to the hostel, went to the bar and ordered a drink. He quickly forgot what it was; he’d chosen it at random from the blackboard.

The bartender was like a machine, contorting in all manner of odd composures before letting the finished liquid drain from between the cap and filter of a shaker, into a glass, which he then baptized with a pineapple cube. Quite a performance really. John took it and walked back to the big room he’d just come from. Hunting around with his eyes, he found a staircase and walked up it, finding a table on the second level which was surprisingly packed. His spirits rose as he saw that there were a whole bunch of youngish couples up there. He took a seat, briefly drawing the eye of a woman whose back he’d bumped into.

The room looked entirely different up here. For one thing, it looked smaller. Secondly, it appeared much fuller. Down below, the floor was almost totally obscured by the drifting sea of mammals. He tried his drink. It was good. He tried to remember what it had been called. But he couldn’t. Turning his chair so he could look out, he took his drink down and left the glass on the table. He stayed there a while and then went down for another. The bartender asked if he wanted the same as before and John nodded. Rearmed, he walked back up to the balcony to find his table. But it was gone. It had only been a minute… He got flustered. Someone had taken his seat. Maybe someone was blocking it. He zigzagged through the tables of thirty somethings and then glanced down to his left and saw his glass, the pineapple cube still in it. A woman had taken his seat. John started to survey the room for any remaining chairs and turned to leave but as he did, the woman looked up.

“Is this your table?” John nodded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know!”

John called to her, “it’s ok!”

“What?” she yelled. He bent down.

“It’s ok! I’ll find another!”

She looked guilty. “Aww, don’t do that! We can share it!” John hesitated but eventually drew out the chair across from her and held his drink in his hand. He was smart enough not to set it on the table. He smiled at her and she smiled back. She asked him what his name was. He told her and then he asked her what hers was. She said it was Francisca. He nodded politely and looked out over the balcony. She yelled out, “am I boring you?” John looked up at her and shook his head. “Oh, ok, good!” He had some of his drink and suddenly realized she wasn’t drinking anything.

He leaned forward. “Are you not drinking?”

She eased forward. “Not yet, I couldn’t decide what to get!” He nodded. “What are you drinking?”

He smiled. “I don’t actually know!”

“You don’t know?”

“I just pointed at the menu and tried one!”

“Can I try it?” John’s mouth went dry but he agreed. She took a sip from his straw. “It’s a Mai Tai!”

John looked her over. She appeared to be approximately in her early forties. But she was thin. So impossibly thin. And her eyes made him suspect she was of Eastern European ancestry, which didn’t seem to jive with her name.

He decided to ask her about it. It turned out she was traveling from Spain, but she had Russian blood in her. John nodded. Cool. She asked him where he was from and he told her he was American. This made her blink.

“Really? I thought your accent sounded a little weird but it’s so loud in here!”

“I know! I was afraid someone might try to beat me up!”

“Aww! No! People in England are nice!” John nodded. She said she was going to get a drink and left. John turned to watch her go and then had some more of his. The band took a break and taped music started playing through the speakers. Just Dance by Lady GaGa. Francisca returned remarkably quickly. He asked her what she did for a living. She was a biologist. John raised an eyebrow. He was surprised. Her manner had made him think of her as a… well, not a biologist.

“You have the most beautiful eyes!” she suddenly blurted out. John smiled, flattered.

“Thank you!”

“Where’re you from, originally?”

“America?”

“No, your ancestors!”

“Oh! My mom is half Ukrainian! I think there’s some Hungarian and Polish in there somewhere too! My Dad’s English and I think part Italian! I’m not sure what else!”

“You have really nice features!”

He smiled more, not sure how else to respond. “Thank you! I’m a mutt!”

“That’s okay!”

He finished his drink and relaxed in his chair. He suddenly realized he was tilting his chair back and eased it forward again. The music was nice. He got up.

“Where’re you going?”

“To get another drink!”

“No no. You can have some of mine!” John didn’t know what was going on right now. Were all the people in Spain this nice? He sat back down and had a sip. Straight vodka. He managed not to cough but he hadn’t expected that. The vessels beneath the orbits of his eyes began to hurt. He eased the drink back across the table. He asked her where she worked. She was a professor at a University in Manila. But she was on vacation, heading to Canada with friends. Who were sitting a few tables behind them. John looked over his shoulder and sure enough, there they were, waving. He waved back. She asked if he wanted more vodka and he nodded, taking another drink. As he set the glass back down, he felt around its cold rippled perimeter with his fingers. Tiny beads of condensation scattered the light that came into it, leaving a fractal ring on the table. He looked at it for several long seconds before he slid the glass back again and smiled at her. She smiled back. She folded her legs, angling her hip in his general direction. He could see the action as it was distorted through the glass table. He had read once that that was a subconscious sign of affection. John didn’t believe everything he read. But she was very friendly. Behind them, he heard a laugh but he wasn’t sure who it was from. He looked down at his tie. Ever so gently, he felt something brush against his ankle.

He didn’t really think anything of it at first. As time passed however, he started to realize it was moving. He glanced down through the table. She was rubbing his leg. He scrunched up his forehead and she must have seen it.

“Is everything okay?” He nodded. She finished her vodka and shifted in her seat. John did the same. Before long, the rubbing resumed, this time in a circular direction. More laughing. He leaned back in his chair, tilting his head so he could see beneath the table more clearly. Finally, he looked at her. She smiled. He smiled back. And ever so slowly, reached behind himself for his jacket.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m gonna go to the bathroom!” She watched him uncertainly but nodded.

“Be safe!” She smiled.

He nodded, drawing his jacket on. He didn’t return to the table.

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