Lingua Franca

John M. Keller

Igot on the plane (this after two hours or so in the airport: going through the security checkpoint, drinking a coffee because I was tired and needed to do some work while in transit, and buying some aspirin at a shop, for which I have a receipt with the name of the shop and the time I was there). The plane took off. It was a small one, the kind that makes you immediately think of plane crashes. At one point, I got up to use the bathroom, as I’d had a lot of water. Every time I’m on a plane I make a point of getting up at least once to use the bathroom to stretch my legs. I prefer window seats because I can watch as the world seems suddenly small, and then the cities are replaced by clouds. There by the window, you are generally sat next to two people, and some might say you are at their mercy should you need to use the bathroom, but I like asking them to move because, in a way, this is a small redistribution of power—I request that they get up; they must comply. (If you sit in the aisle, the circumstances under which you can ask two strangers to move are limited.)

Mostly, I slept. I couldn’t work, and didn’t even pull the papers out of my briefcase. I’d been working for the past 26 days without a day off, or much of a rest. I slept at night, but not soundly, and woke sometimes thinking about the important questions of my life.

We landed without incident. I remember the smoothness of the touch-down, how the transition to the ground from the air was like the perfect fade from music to its absence. I fell asleep as we found our way to the gate, and awoke maybe five minutes later as if from a deep sleep.

As it was one of those small planes, we walked down some stairs to the ground, and then through the building via a system of corridors before reaching security and then, briefly, into the arrivals area of the airport and then the street. I quickly got a taxi and told the driver the address of my hotel. I immediately fell asleep looking into the face of the bearded driver, driving another customer whose face he would soon forget, whose face—even though we were to spend the next fifteen minutes together—eventually becomes as anonymous as the faces one crosses when walking across city streets. The time we would share together would be time for him to listen to the radio and look out at the road and continue with his thoughts or lack of thought, and for me to sleep. I always sleep when I’m in any kind of vehicle.



When I awoke, I found that we had pulled up on a residential street. The driver reported to me, in the local language, that we were exactly where I had told him to go. He told me the cost of the fare. I looked up at the streetsigns and saw that he was right. But there was no hotel. Is it possible, I asked, with such a common street name, the kind one finds in many cities, that there may be more than one? He radioed to his boss to ask the question. The boss confirmed it: there was only one in this place.

What about the hotel? I gave him the name.

Never heard of it.

Perhaps, I said, you can radio again to the boss.

I will, he said. (And then, after a minute or so...) Yes, no such place.

How strange, I said.

What do you want to do?

I need to make a call, I said.



When I called the hotel, they confirmed their existence, on the same street whose name I had repeated to the driver. They explained that any taxi driver would be able to drive me there, that they were a prestigious hotel with a prestigious address. They were insulted by the idea that a taxi driver wouldn’t be able to bring someone directly there. This reflected poorly on the driver. We’re in the center of everything, they said. Perhaps the driver was just starting out. I repeated this to the driver, who had waited for me. He said that he had never heard of the hotel and in fact the neighborhood that she had mentioned didn’t exist in this place. He’d heard of this street, but in another city, naming the city in which I had just arrived.

But that’s where we are! I said.

He looked at me through the rear-view mirror. You’re quite mistaken.

Then where are we? I asked, now feeling as if I were being conned.

But the name he gave was the city I lived in, from which I had flown that morning.

What kind of a cruel joke is this? I thought. I had been on a plane, for several hours. I had traveled. I had used the bathroom on the plane. I had seen the city grow smaller and become replaced by clouds. We had landed. I don’t know what to tell you, the driver said, looking at me without compassion or incredulity, as if this sort of thing happened all of the time. What do you want me to do?

If we’re really where you say we are, then...

I gave him my address.

At this point, I was wide awake. I watched as we approached my own neighborhood: first moving out of the residential area and then onto the highway and, very quickly, past the familiar monuments and neighborhoods and streets that surrounded my home. No sooner than twenty minutes later were we parked right in front of my place. I paid the driver and got out of the taxi without comment.



Not the Sagrada Familia

I do not live inside the Sagrada Familia. The place I live in was completed a long time ago, and then began to fall into disrepair. Why do they not age other things as they do dogs? My couch is old, tattered, and there are holes in it. Couch years and dog years work out to about the same. Multiply by four or five. When I moved away from my parents, I came here. My parents are dead, and they lived in debt, so nothing was passed on to me as it sometimes is from parents to children. My sister lives in another city, and I do not have any brothers.

What a strange thing it was to see this place by day. The clock on the wall rang once, a single chime, at 12:30, again at one and once again at one-thirty before striking two (with two chimes). I had never observed this before, that three times on the clock that rang in succession were indistinguishable from one another. At eleven, it had chimed ten impressive, bombastic times; at twelve, it played a special medley, reserved for noon and seven. I had bought the clock in my country before I came here (impossible as it would have been to do so afterwards, as I never returned). One of the windows in the kitchen had a hole in it that I had never attempted to cover or repair. If I were to take people on tours of the place I live in, I would point this out. And then I would lead them to my bedroom and, rather than tell them it was a typical bedroom for a person of my socioeconomic status during my end of the century, I would ask them what they thought, as people who also lived in this time and place. Was it typical? How could it be modified to express typicality?



I called the boss. This meeting I had been traveling to attend was not especially important. Or, rather, all of the meetings we conducted were of the same importance. I explained that I was terribly ill, had not made it out of the city at all. (I did not explain that my flight had taken off and arrived in the same city inexplicably.) I did not go into details of the illness. He didn’t waste time in telling me how much I had worked over the past 26 days (these 26 days preceded, as they were by another number of days in which I had repaired to the office early in the day and left quite late, for as many as or perhaps more than 26 days). He did not waste time explaining the extent to which I was a great service to his organization, which he had himself built from the ground up. He didn’t waste much time or emotion on me at all. Two words sufficed, and then he hung up.



As I stood with the phone still in my hand, I was struck again by the illogic of what had just happened. My flight had taken off, and it had arrived back in the same place. But flights didn’t do this. It wouldn’t make sense for them to. And what of the other people who had been on the plane? How many of them had been fired as well? It occurred to me to return to the airport. Certainly someone could confirm what had happened. Or: perhaps they wouldn’t want to.

Just as I began putting on my shoes and walking toward the door that led outside, I heard the key turn inside, and a woman walked into the room. My first instinct was to hide. I wasn’t ready to explain to anyone what had happened. I ducked immediately behind the closet door in the bedroom and watched through the small space between the door and the wall as she walked into the room. Her dark hair was up in a ponytail, and her face was void of expression. This is what she looked like when she sat on the toilet, or when she took something out of a cupboard, or when she felt she was completely alone. She took off her clothing—her shirt, then bra, then pants, socks, and underwear—and placed it all on a chair next to the bed. Then she went to the bathroom and grabbed a small mirror. Next, she walked into the middle of the room just under the lightbulb and spread her legs, holding the mirror underneath her and trying to catch a glimpse at herself from different angles. She did this for roughly thirty seconds. And then she put her underwear back on and got into the bed. Within a minute or two, I could hear her snoring. I took off my clothing and got into bed with her.



Of course there was the possibility that I had gone totally mad. Like the man who had built the Sagrada Familia. I had imagined the entire thing: the trip to the airport (on a bus where one person was denied entry because he was eating); the arrival to the airport, in which I stood in line for 45 minutes (I remembered the faces of a couple who stood behind me, neither speaking to the other the entire time); a beautiful flight attendant walking to her gate, her eyes straight ahead of her, no bounce in her stride, either oblivious to the fact that everyone, including women and children, were looking at her, or all too aware of this fact. I have quite a good memory, and the more I thought about it, the more I could remember specific details of the hours leading up to the flight, and the flight itself. Would it be possible to imagine several hours’ worth of time, time now condensed into several images that stand for the whole? I had been exhausted, sometimes to the point that I wondered how it was possible I was still standing, still capable of putting together words. Was it possible that I instead did something altogether different, that I left the house and never went to the airport, that I wandered the streets and found myself on one with the same name as that of my hotel, in this city, and then I found a taxi driver who returned me to my own neighborhood? This is too much invention—something of which dreams are capable, but never in such logical sequence. But if I am mad, or beginning to grow mad, then the order and detail of things is only a part of this madness. It’s only when your madness starts to make sense that you are indeed mad. But, if I am not mad, then an entire plane-full of people were returned to their destination without explanation. No announcement was made, no statement or reaction was issued. True, by air these two cities must be almost identical, as so many cities are today. The large wheel, built for viewing the city from above, could easily be mistaken for the large wheel in the other city; the sleek new high-rises on both sides of the river that cuts through a city built in ancient times; the double-decker buses and skyscrapers; the bars and restaurants with retro décor and the names of those bars, many evocative of other places, cities and famous names. The airplane flies over a large body of water just before landing, just as it does there. The airports are the same: all of the shops; the announcements made in the local language, the lingua franca, and another language spoken in a place far away from here; and the destinations the same names of cities you would find in any airport. In the shop windows are the same magazines and books and clothes, all over the world in large cities, some of which themselves have the same names. Is it possible, I began to wonder, that perhaps I have flown to another city with the same name, where the streets and shops are identical, where my key opens an identical door, and a woman with dark hair awaits someone who looks like me?        



What are you doing here? she screamed, when she woke up. You’re not supposed to be here, she said. She said this to me in my native language, as she had been taking a course and had increasingly begun speaking to me in it, even though her ability was still that of a toddler. Parts of her natural conversation, even with friends, had been replaced by words from my language, including words from my language that were commonly used here incorrectly. But it is only a matter of time before the incorrect becomes the correct, through repetition, before the language they speak back to me no longer resembles mine.

Then you must have been fired, she said.

I told her that it wasn’t my fault.

She sat up in the bed and put on her shirt, as if it were indecent for me, a dislocated fired man, to be seeing her there as she was, in her natural state.

I explained to her what had happened.

We both know that what you are saying is impossible.

Impossible? I repeat—another misuse of a word. No law of physics is broken when a plane takes off, flies for several hours and then ends up back in the same airport. In fact, for a plane to accomplish what it did this morning, it requires nothing extraordinary at all, only the same things it needs to reach any airport. She might have said: We both know that what you are saying is possible. But not likely.

You know what I mean. Why would a plane do this? No one goes up in the sky just to go up in the sky. They go to travel somewhere else. Why would you pay money to fly from here to here?

She was right. No one goes up in the sky for any reason other than to go somewhere else.

Don’t get too upset. What am I doing here? I said. Cheating on you…with you?

She didn’t say anything for a little while, and neither did I.



Discount Airlines

When I got to the airport, I asked if the airline on which I had flown had an office, and was directed to a part of the airport I had never seen before, on the fourth floor. Unimaginably, I was very briskly escorted into an office, perhaps as I hadn’t yet aired my concerns. I sat in a chair not designed for comfort but some idea of a steely future, and two or three minutes later a woman sat in front of me and, with a smile, asked me in my native language if she could do anything to help. She looked familiar, this woman, without being all that memorable-looking: she had thick dark-brown hair that gave the impression it was longer than it was, though it was chopped off just past her neck (the style, at the moment, everywhere), and she looked far too young to be in a senior position at the airlines, which perhaps she was not. Her arms were covered in tattoos. Had I seen her before? Where?

Yes, I said. I spoke to her in the local language, which it had taken me a year to learn, two years to understand nearly all of the regularly spoken words, another year to understand context and cultural references and regional dialogues and a fourth and subsequent years to understand the humor, politics and an offshoot language in which words were written and spoken backwards. I explained the details of the morning’s flight, and wondered if they might be able to explain what had happened, and whether anyone else had also come to complain.

That is quite a story, the woman said, when I finished, continuing in my native language. She seemed sympathetic to my concern.

What about your luggage? she asked. Did you check it in?

No, I said. I was only going to be there for an evening, so everything fit into a small duffel bag, and I was carrying this briefcase, I said. The briefcase, I realized at just this moment, I could have left at home, but I was so used to leaving the house with it that it felt like a natural extension of myself.

She smiled. Do you remember anything about your flight, for example the names of the flight attendants or the pilot, or something that occurred while you were on board?

I thought for a moment—Yes, the flight attendants and pilot had been introduced, but I didn’t remember their names, I told her, as it never seems to be all that useful. There were safety instructions at the beginning. I remember one of the flight attendants saying we should pay attention to the safety message, in case we were to run into some kind of trouble. But they were the usual safety instructions. I went to the bathroom once, and then fell asleep quickly afterwards. I woke up only when we were landing.  

Anything else?

No, I said.

She smiled again. What you are describing could be any flight, not the one you took in particular, she said.

What about the security tapes? I said. Certainly you have film from the airport that would show whether I boarded or not?

We do, but it would be very costly to review them. We’d have to pull it and assign one of our security personnel to review it. It could take some time, and I think it would be a rather fruitless endeavor. Especially considering...

Considering what?

That you never got on the plane. Asking my employees to review footage would be ignoring a rather simple and too-obvious aspect of your story. That you’re here, and not where the airplane was supposed to go. Flights don’t take off and land in the same city. Have you been to a psychiatrist? You mentioned how tired you’ve been recently. Is it possible you’re working too much? I’m sorry that you were fired. But this is certainly not something for which the airline can take responsibility.

Excuse me, do you not speak the local language? I said, beginning to grow enraged that she continued to respond to me in the lingua franca, despite the fact that I was answering all of her questions clearly.

I thought that was your native language, she said.

It is. I said. But we’re in this other place, where the official language is the local one. We’re halfway across the world. And I speak the local language fluently. It’s insulting when people who don’t speak my language as well as I speak yours address me in my native language just because of how I look, or because of my accent. As frequently as it now occurs, I might as well have never learned how to speak to you in your language. Doesn’t it mean anything to you that I have mastered your language and customs? Now, anytime someone doesn’t speak loudly enough and I don’t hear them, they immediately switch into my native language. At my job, I used to be the only person who spoke both the local language and mine. I was indispensable. Now I’ve been fired for missing one meeting in fifteen years. And it’s your company’s fault. I don’t understand what happened, but I know for certain I boarded that plane! Let me see the video footage. I’ll go through it myself, I said.



I was escorted by security to the street. I’d grown hostile, and no one was going to help a hostile person without a job who hadn’t had any sleep. Besides, it wasn’t this woman’s fault that I had grown, over time, more and more redundant. It occurred to me that there was a flight that could be booked that took off and arrived to the same city, and it was chartered by companies looking to fire their employees. The employee returned to the same city, called his boss, and the boss fired him over the phone for the farfetched tale he wouldn’t dare to tell. For what kind of a crazy person was he? Was such a thing possible? No less possible than what had happened, than a flight departing and arriving in the same city. If that were possible, then a number of other things were also possible. I’d never heard of the airlines before, but these days, such was not out of the ordinary. Most of the tickets my employers booked for me were on low-cost airlines where you couldn’t choose your seat, where the seats were too small and your baggage was limited to only enough to hold a few changes of clothes, toiletries and a book. On these airlines, you were charged large fees for not bringing your ticket with you, even though your name and seat (usually in the middle) were on record. But they were betting on people forgetting or losing their tickets, overpacking or needing to change the date of their flight, for which a fee equal to the cost of the flight would be exacted on them. Food and drinks were sold online for hostage rates. And, when boarding, you were driven from the airport far away to a runway at the extremities of the facility, where other unhappy passengers were corralled together and then allowed to board in the same way they exited the plane, in a state of pandemonium: only a certain number of bags would fit on the plane, and the only way to secure a place would be to board quickly. An airline whose very mission statement involved profiting from turning basic human wants into luxuries might readily embrace such a proposal. Some, a few people in the direst of straits, or those for whom being judged as insane failed to deter them from their pursuit of the truth, might come to them in complaint. Their concerns would be patiently noted, so patiently and so procedurally and so reminiscent of being cheerfully ignored that they would have no choice but to make protest; this very protest would be all the evidence they would need to have you silenced (these were the security tapes that mattered). You would find yourself on the street feeling very unreasonable. Did you imagine the flight? What sin was it really that they had learned your language as you had theirs? Did it matter that the way the world works now is a complete contradiction to the values you were taught as a child? This is a rite of passage. You are here for them to practice your language with you just as you came here to learn their language with them. Does it matter that the local places in the world are no longer local? What is lost when a lingua franca comes and makes everyone local, everyone a foreigner? There is still enough reality in the world to hold it together, and your pain, as you are human, has always been universal, it has always come from the fact that you feel alone.

I suddenly started thinking about my partner, the woman back at my place, whom I had known for the past five years, a local woman who was now beginning to learn my language. When she held the mirror underneath her body to look up at herself from below, what was she looking for? Had I completely dismissed her feelings because I was so focused on myself, my concerns?




I knew I would soon not be able to afford much of my life lived here in this once-foreign place, so I decided to walk home from the airport. It had been a long time since I had passed through the center of this city. 

It took a while to get away from the airport complex. But eventually I could see that I was approaching the outskirts of the city and, before long, the edges of the center.

The lingua franca was everywhere. It was worse than I had imagined. Around me I saw installations of art, storefronts and glittering lights, despite the daylight. The streets were full of visitors. They spoke their own languages together, but with us they spoke the lingua franca, without prompting, without fumbling with the local language, as I had so often when I first came here, to my dismay, and depression, but ultimate satisfaction. As I walked through the streets, I had the sense I was being led somewhere, that a force greater than me guided me from one place to the next. Before I knew it, I found I had turned on to the famous street. I looked up at the sign to confirm this. There is a place in every city that is its very center, a place that, if you were to eliminate it, the whole city would die. This center can be as small as a small seed. But when you find it, it is an unmistakable as an artichoke’s heart. I wandered away from the center elsewhere, through passageways between buildings in the Gothic center, where it seemed a lot of immigrants lived. Where the laundry hung window to window. Where a few pots of plants sat upon window ledges, some needing water the rain would not provide. When I thought I might turn left, something led me right or farther down the same path. How long had it been since I had last been here? Where I had spent my evenings some long time ago. There was a particular corner I was looking for, somewhere in the middle of it all, that if I circled around enough times, I would find. But I spiraled away from the center, where the winding streets gave way to oblong avenues, and people, recognizably from here, sat in restaurants on the streets eating local fare. I watched as a waiter picked a napkin off the ground next to a customer, and then crumpled it up in his hand, seemingly dissolving it. I was supposed to be in the other place, where the suit I was wearing would serve a purpose. What things would I crumple up in my hands and disappear so that everything remained clean and comfortable? These streets too were leading somewhere, like a flight whose departure point and destination are not the same. Or these streets were the flight away from the center. They drew the city away from itself, toward faint lines at the edge that would grow darker in turn, as the city expanded in size and distinguished itself from other places that remained places of faint lines, shadows of cities. I realized where I was going when I saw it in the distance: a church. It wasn’t the Sagrada Familia. It was much smaller, and finished, complete centuries before and left to rot.



I went inside this abandoned building and found that there was not a soul inside. The walls rose up high to the ceiling, and the room felt cold to the touch, like the forehead of someone dead; the only color, faint in the darkness and distance, came from the stained-glass windows. Everything else was dark, the walls black and the pictures painted upon them faded. How could a church like this exist, in plain sight, with such a door that opened to the dark Gothic past we associate today with satanic rituals and black painted eyes and faces? Outside of this church there were ruins of the past civilizations that had occupied this place, and around these ruins had been built a mall, where people could eat and drink and gaze into the ruins as at something comprehensible. And, elsewhere, the Sagrada Familia was incomplete and swarming with visitors, the Sagrada Familia that was also like no church, that would never be a church, that represented madness and anomaly, that was like its own species or dialect: the sacred family, turned into square-headed monsters, Jesus suspended perpendicular to the cross, hanging naked below. Towers that reminded of sandcastles. A construction that looked like the masterwork of insects or arachnids. And how could this place in which I was standing be so empty? I felt I had been led here by a force stronger than myself, and that the flight was somehow connected to coming here. Before something unbelievable happens, it appears to be impossible. When it happens, it is shocking, but, because it has happened, in the moments following, it very quickly loses its unbelievability and becomes in fact the opposite. Such that all things that exist have gone from being unbelievable to believable, impossible to possible. I walked through the darkness to a place where hundreds of candles had been lit, and next to it saw a sign in the local language, and the lingua franca. It explained that I was standing next to the Black Virgin. I looked up and immediately saw her and her impossible child. Whether she was intended to be black, or whether time and the smoke of candlelight had done this to her face, no one knew, the signs repeated. But the fact was that she was dark, like everything else in the room that had been black to begin with and that had blackened with time and smoke. The fact that this was written in both languages gave the details contained therein a staged quality.



It’s not working

When I arrived home, my partner was lying in bed. Again she was wearing only her underwear. But she was not asleep. She heard me come in the room, but didn’t look in my direction. None of the lights in the place were on. I set down my briefcase and moved toward her.

Is everything okay? I said.

She didn’t respond.

I sat down next to her on the bed.

You shouldn’t be sitting there, she said. You’re sweating. You don’t smell good.

I wanted to know how you’re feeling.

Upset, she said. It’s time for me to go.

To go? Why?

She responded in my native language: It’s not working, she said, in a thick accent that reminded me of the way other people here spoke my language. Did she have so little regard for me as to choose this moment, the moment I’d been sacked, to tell me that she wanted to leave? Did she wish to add insult to injury by saying this to me in my native language? Was she actually practicing my language at the same time?  

I’ve been thinking since you left, she went on, now again in her own language. What good is it for me to live with someone who doesn’t have a job? One of the good parts about you was that you were so dependable, the kind of person who would never lose a job. Now that you have, it made me re-think things, because now the most basic thing about you has changed. It’s not working, she repeated, again in my language.

Then go, I said. Right now!

Not right now. You don’t have to worry about that. I’ll stay for a few weeks, maybe even a couple of months. It will take me some time to put my things together, she said. And to find someone else, she added, again in my native language.

What do you mean, to find someone else?

To find someone else I can live with, she said, again in her language. It’s too expensive here for someone like me to live alone. I’ll need to find someone who has a job.



As you can imagine, I was outraged by what this woman was saying to me. It was as if, by my flight returning me to my life prematurely, I had caught a glimpse at its actual construction. I thought again of the flight, of boarding, standing in the queue, getting on the plane, going to the bathroom, landing, hailing the taxi, all of the details that remained perfectly enshrined in memory, and I knew that the flight had happened. I could remember other aspects of the flight as well: the woman who gave the safety announcements and how she had stressed that we pay attention to those safety announcements, an ominous foreboding of the future crash that was never to be. But had she offered other messages in that announcement that I had missed, my eyes closing in that instant, asleep before the flight even took off? Did her emphasis on these particular safety instructions, which at the moment I had found somewhat alarming, or worthy of attention for a brief second before everything faded into routine—so much of life truly was a game: a system of learning when to pay attention and when not to, of conserving energy when energy was needed, of looking for signs and clues but only when they mattered, for to look for them when there were none was the beginning of a long, debilitating flight into insanity, where everything is misinterpreted, dreamt as imminent when unlikely—mean something? I slept, we landed, and then I found myself in the same city. Were there not possibly messages in these announcements that were different from the useless instructions that ranged from how to buckle your seatbelt to how to use your seat as a flotation device, both delivered in the same perfunctory tone my partner used with me at this moment, as if what she were saying were a speech she gave daily, and that could be delivered, partially, when appropriate, with cutesy touches from the lingua franca, my own language, the one I had left behind? Perhaps we had crashed, but not physically. Perhaps the crash that was to be avoided was landing in the same airport inexplicably. When I woke, I watched a woman with short black hair covered in tattoos walk toward the back of the plane. I looked down at my briefcase, considered opening it. I looked out of the window and saw clouds.

What were you doing this morning when you entered? I asked. You took off all of your clothing and then took out a mirror and looked at yourself from beneath.

It’s my body, she said. That’s my right.

Okay, I said. I was worried there was something wrong with you. Never mind.

She looked back at me, as if she had never looked at me before. I went to the doctor, she said. The generalist. I had a pain in my butt. He asked me if I had taken a look at it, and I told him no. He examined it and told me I had a small cut that if I wanted to I could see with a mirror. No big deal. He gave me some cream. He was surprised I’d never taken a look at my ass. That’s what I was doing.   



When I woke up the next morning, my partner by my side, I thought about the woman with tattoos at the airport. I’d seen her before, I’d felt, in that first instant in her office. Was she the same woman I had seen on the plane heading down the aisle toward the bathroom? I was far from certain of this. Her haircut, her tattoos, her style of clothing—they weren’t unique to her. But her face was. Had I seen her as she walked down the aisle past me? She didn’t look over at me. She resembled the flight attendant who had walked down the airport like a plane flying down the runway, unperturbed, full of purpose, majestic. What an incredible thing to take with you to something as banal as the bathroom. If this were indeed her, then it made sense that there was no outcry from the other passengers, who might also have all been employees of the airport. Perhaps this was all an elaborate stunt to see what would happen if an airplane took off and landed at the same airport: how would this affect someone on board? Certainly experiments of this kind took place, perhaps more often than we know, considering their nature, considering how much of our lives is determined by others without our knowledge, like these laws and religions that come before us. Was it possible that I might have been the only paying customer on this flight? If so, had I been selected at random, or was there a particular reason why I had been chosen the sole traveler? But I am not important enough for some large orchestrated thing. Was I selected at random? Had someone been watching me from the shadows, concerned that because of lack of sleep and increased anger at people speaking to me in the lingua franca, I might eventually snap? People were watching; this is one thing about modern life we all know—we only can’t imagine they are watching us until we catch them doing so.

If the woman who worked for the airlines had been on that flight, then others who worked for the airline would have been too, and perhaps now was the perfect time to return to see if I might recognize someone. I took the train to the airport this time—my body ached with pain and I could feel its reluctance as I started the engine, moving myself toward the door to my place. I made no great effort to be quiet, to not disturb my partner, as she had made no great effort to please me and, as I walked out of the door, I didn’t turn to close it carefully. It slammed shut with a great din.

At the airport, I made my way to the office on the fourth floor. Rather than enter the office as I had before, this time I sat on a bench nearby, slightly away from it, shuffling papers in my briefcase, as I watched the door open and close and people walk in and out of it.

I was there for no longer than twenty minutes when I saw seven airport security officers storm down the hallway looking straight ahead of themselves until they were upon me. I was lifted up by one, and cuffs were put on my hands, and I was brought to a detention room and left alone. The room was small and white, but large enough for two chairs.

A woman entered the room and looked into my eyes. I was touched by the total eye contact she gave me, and tears filled my eyes, as it had been so long since a woman had looked at me like this, but when she asked me why I was crying, I didn’t explain.

We’ve reviewed the footage from yesterday’s flight and saw that you were indeed on the flight yesterday, she said.

She said this in the lingua franca, but it didn’t matter this time. Relief poured through my veins. I was deliriously exhausted, but I had not gone mad.

What we don’t understand, she went on, was how you returned here. And please understand that we take airport security very seriously. You might say it is the most serious thing in the world. Note also that crimes committed in an airport carry larger prison sentences. We’ve looked at flights returning back to this airport from the other city, and only one would have gotten you back in time yesterday for your interview with the airline employee you spoke with yesterday. We checked the passenger list for that flight, and you were not on it. Considering that perhaps you may be flying under a false identity, we carefully reviewed the footage of the boarding, and you were definitely not on that flight. Your native country has cooperated in providing us with information about who you are, what kind of work you did prior to immigrating here, who your family is. You don’t have a twin brother. Your parents are now dead. You spend a lot of time travelling around this country. You have married a local woman. This is not altogether unbefitting the profile of a terrorist. As I say, airport security is not a police matter. It’s much more serious than that. With this in mind, we would be pleased if you would explain to us how you got here.

I don’t know, I said. I was hoping you might tell me.



Not the Sagrada Familia

In this country men and women are afforded with various freedoms, but not at airports, not when doing something as serious as flying. Was it always that way? People are afraid of travelling by plane, but not by car. The altitude gives you perspective as to the size and scope of the world. There was a time not so long ago when the only thing in the skies were birds and stars. But the impossible became possible. Time passed, and air travel has become ordinary, but people are still afraid of plunging from the sky to the earth—they do not realize that life is so full of death, that air travel is safe, and so there are fines one pays that are out of proportion with the crime.

What was possible, and what wasn’t possible? These days I live in a small cell at the airport. Through my window, I watch as the planes take off and land. In the distance, I see the airline personnel, but they are too far away for me to compare them to hazy memories I have of other passengers who shared with me the same flight.



On my second anniversary here, I am given a television. One day, flipping among the three sanctioned channels, I see an interview with a businessman from Dubai, a Muslim man who has travelled around the world, a man with a shock of silver hair, whose wives and daughters are, according to the story, his charge, who is building a church. He had visited the Sagrada Familia and offered money to help finish it. But they told him it would take at least another ten years to complete even with his contributions, which were substantial. It seemed it wasn’t always easy to work on the church since visitors were constantly inside it.

Nonsense, the man said. We build entire cities in three or four years, here in the desert, where nothing already exists and everything begins a mirage. And so he got the building’s blueprints and set about to complete the church in a new city called Masdar, a place he’d also helped to finance, a fitting place to build the Sagrada Familia since the name of the city if you read it in Spanish was “more to give” (or “give more,” if the order of the words were reversed). In the footage, you could see the building going up, as if—just like the man said—overnight.

This is how a large practical joke, or a game, or a military operation works: part of the purpose of the game is to see if something is possible, to stretch the boundaries of fantasy to see if it can become real. It doesn’t seem possible there can be a Sagrada Familia, and certainly not two, or a chain of them. Do flights take off and land in the same airport? Do people look at their assholes from below, using mirrors? Can a virgin give birth to a baby? Can I be arrested for no crime at all, and be left to rot like a dark church or a dead language or the dark past, that never was?

Once it happens, you have no choice but to believe it.♦

Interview with Javier Marías
The Printing Machine    by Kalki Koechlin

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock    Illustrated by Julian Peters
Prufrock in Love   by Esme Soriano

Trifles   by Christian Garcin
A Visitation of Skin   by Eben Wood

The Woman Next Door   by Alain Mabanckou
My Mother Is a Miss   by Alain Mabanckou

Fargo Burns   by Kos Kostmayer
Lingua Franca    by John M. Keller

Midget in a Catsuit Reciting Spinoza   by Carey Harrison
Museo Casa de la Memoria (Museum of Memory), Medellín

On Yannick Privat's "Barbara"
On Richard Dinter’s "Snö"