A new guard knocks sharply twice on the door and enters,
already yelling. He yells for several minutes, getting so close to
my face that I can feel his breath on my eyeballs, but something
in me refuses to cry.
“I don’t understand you,” I say the next time he pauses, and
the next time, and finally, right over top of his voice when it
seems like he won’t ever shut up.
Startled, he raises his hand, I think,
maybe, to hit me. And in that second, I
remember the knife. A “woman knife,”
the vendor at the market had called it,
with its yak-antler handle and its four-inch blade. I had thought it would be a
perfect gift for my ultrabutch housesit-ter, Pat.
“The knife!” I say. “I’m sorry! I didn’t
think . . . to me it was just a souvenir!”
But of course the guard can’t understand
any of that either.
They leave me sitting another long
time. I hear planes come in, I hear
planes take o=. At one point I realize the
windows are made of one-way glass. Finally a man wearing a suit comes in. He
grunts at me to rise, to follow, so I do.
Back in security, he thrusts my backpack at me and hands me a
boarding pass. I go through security again without incident. My
woman knife, of course, is gone.
Everything is broken on Air China flight 4402, and the toilet
reeks and the four Chinese I am slammed into the middle seats
with will not stop spitting onto the carpet, but compared to five
years of hard labor at a Tibetan prison, it pretty much rocks. As
the plane bumps along the mountainous air currents, I think
about my father, about the time I was seventeen and my mother
went away for a week and left me in charge of his meals. One
day I was racing home from my friend’s house on my bike hoping to get there before he did, and he drove his Cadillac right
up behind me on the sidewalk and laid on the horn, and even
after that it all might have been okay because dinner was only
supposed to be assembled cold cuts on rye bread and tomato
salad. I dropped my bike on the lawn and ran into the kitchen
before he could get out of the car, but he came in just as I was
opening a new jar of mayo and grabbed my shirt in the front
and pinned me up against the wall and raised his hand in the
same exact way the Chinese guard had, and I said, for the first
time ever, “If you do this, I’ll tell everyone you know,” and my
father let go of the front of my shirt and went in and turned on
the Phillies game.
When we begin to descend, the flight attendant comes over
the ancient speaker in a demonic whisper and the cabin gets so
animated I think we must be about to crash, but then I remem-
ber reading that the descent o= the Tibetan Plateau to Chengdu
is the steepest of any commercial flight path, even Cochabamba,
Bolivia, where you plummet right past the face of one of the
fifteen Christs in South America that
claim to be the world’s largest, and be-
fore I know it we are on the ground.
Miraculously, I have not missed the
last flight of the day from Chengdu to
Hong Kong, and when I go to the gate a
new boarding pass appears.
Stepping onto the Hong Kong Airlines jet is stepping squarely back into
the First World, and when the flight attendant in her stylish purple suit and
jaunty tam asks me what I would like to
drink, I look at her twice to make sure
she isn’t kidding. “One country, two systems,” the customs o;cial said to me
when I left Hong Kong two weeks ago,
and he can say that again.
Just after we land beside the carnival
neon of the Hong Kong skyline, the copilot heads down the aisle toward me with a look that tells me he
has me in his sights. I suck in my breath as he stops in front of
me. “Your knife, madam,” he says, bowing deeply.
“Thank you very much,” I say, as I lift it from his hands.
so far, and
the plane rocks
heavIly sIde to sIde.
tWo roWs ahead
a nun says
the plane is gradually but perceptibly descending. It is barely
light outside, and we aren’t due at Orly until nearly noon. There is
an odd ticking noise coming from the wing outside my window. I
come fully awake and realize we are listing strenuously to the right.
I glance at my seatmate on the aisle. Her name is Rebecca.
She is a twenty-six-year-old bank teller from Cincinnati who
has never flown before, who has saved for five years to take her
dream trip to Paris. I spent most of dinner telling her how much
safer airplanes are than car travel, how the 777 has a minimum
of three fail-safes on each of its major systems, how even if one
of the engines fell clean o= the fuselage it is designed to tumble
backward, up and over the wing, so it doesn’t tear the wing from
the plane. Now, in spite of all my reassurances, we seem to be
heading shoulder first into the North Atlantic.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot says, “as many of you
are probably aware, we are descending, preparing to make an