X≠Y by Susan Daitch

BOMB 18 Winter 1987
018 Winter 1987

Your passport was something you needed to get on the airplane in the first place. It was blue, it meant a statistical affiliation, not something you gave a lot of thought to. The picture of George Washington, like a crucifixion or a creche in neighbors’ houses, signs you easily identified, knew all about, completely understood; but these things weren’t in your parents’ house. They were foreign, exiled objects. As a daughter of bearers of different passports you didn’t share the neighbors’ matter-of-fact, wake up you’re it heritage. Heritage is a word which, like the word leadership, makes you uneasy. The only time you tasted Bosco or Reddi-Whip was at their houses. The idea of nationality may be a received one, but with so many generations born in exactly the same place, it’s taken for granted. A garage with a basketball hoop over a barn red door. Your passport says you are all these things you never thought you were.

* * *

What a place to fall in love. Airplane detritus, tiny whiskey and gin bottles roll on the floor, trays of melted ice, there will be no seconds, dead headphones around peoples’ necks. The movie was Greystoke but you didn’t rent sound. Ape man swinging through the jungle in utter silence. The stewardesses were asked to push the screens back up but for some reason the movie continued and images of lianas, Tarzan’s long hair and legs flash across the women’s faces as they make a last trip down the aisles. You and the stranger can only look at each other. Perhaps it’s just as well and saves a lot of trouble. You look for the signs which will tell you what speech, in this situation, can’t. Is he reading Der Spiegel or People magazine in Dutch? A newspaper whose cyrillic figures you’re unable to read? When called to the front and faced with the interpreter, what story will he give? He owns things, cufflinks, briefcase, tie pin, with his initials on them. He isn’t in a Hitchcock movie. You don’t fall in love.

Hands are supposed to be raised when you want to use the bathroom. Will one of them go in there with you or will you be searched before? Will speech on a limited basis creep back because, like going to the bathroom, after a certain number of hours, people just have to? No, you can be quiet for a long time if you’re afraid to open your mouth. You think two of them are women.

* * *

There are passengers you only saw as you boarded the plane but you remember a few of them because they looked like the kind of people who would say anything to save their skin. It isn’t clear what they might say in order to do this. After passports have been collected, some passengers are asked what they do for a living. The interpreter is a passenger who seemed to have volunteered out of the blue, although you can see from the expressions of the people around you he is viewed with suspicion. He might not know the languages in question very well and might make up answers for you. He acts a little nervous and it’s a histrionic kind of nervousness as if he’s sure he has a job to do and is clearly on neutral ground. You can see categories being assessed and you think American bankers and lawyers will be taken behind the curtain first since they’re worth something. There are no diplomats or movie stars, no CIA operatives who might be worth a great deal.

“Don’t take me, take her.”

* * *

The Bristol Constant doesn’t have any treasure. It’s on its way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The crew mutinies off the coast of Newfoundland. Bullets aren’t wasted. Men and women are thrown overboard into the icy water. As a mutinied crew they can land in no England port and resort to piracy. One woman is kept and she pleads to be sent back to England on the next east-sailing ship they attack. She talks of England day and night. The mutineers think she’s mad and leave her on the barren unpopulated shore of an island in the West Indies.

* * *

It has been two days or a day and a half. You can’t really tell. You realize you’ve spent a lot of your life waiting even before you boarded this plane and maybe that’s what you’re good at. Watch time is a form of nonsense, a form of abstract speculation because the time in New York has no meaning. You try to remember newspaper stories of amnesty and happy endings but can recall no stories, only what the front pages of various newspapers look like. You hear someone having a hysterical conversation with themselves several rows behind you. The person is playing all the roles in the conversation and you find it disturbing that you can’t turn around and identify the speaker. You don’t even know if it’s a man or a woman but for some reason this person alone has been allowed to talk to him or herself. Everyone is awake. If rumors could circulate in silence would you know anything more?

a. They want four Polisarios freed from a Moroccan jail.

b. They want Italian prisoners held in “preventative detention” returned to normal life.

c. They want enough fuel to get the plane to East Berlin.

d. They want half the Vatican’s treasure.

e. They want the men to sit on one side of the plane, the women on the other.

f. No one will get their passports back.

* * *

Airplane food runs out. Trays are wheeled across the tarmac. When it is distributed, the food gives no clues as to the country you’ve landed in. Long thawed peas and carrots, microwaved French fries, Swiss steak, a cupcake for dessert.

There is agitation among those watching the passengers. One of the others who has been behind the curtain comes forward and they speak in a language you can’t identify. Tremendous amounts of film, video tape, and print might be generated outside the perimeters of your captivity. Mountains of lights, cameras, and extension cords approach the control tower, shredded newspapers eddy near the wheels of the plane.

How long can you live on airplane food? You are bored and you panic but have no way to demonstrate that panic except to raise your hand to go to the bathroom. You are ignored and in your desperation turn to the stranger with monograms who has fallen asleep. Unless he secretly took some drug in the bathroom, you don’t understand how he can sleep, awkwardly falling into the empty seat between you. In sleep he looks like he might be watching a movie, listening to a concert, or just having a nice dream and you’re a little envious. His oblivion seems such a desirable quality, something he can afford because either he doesn’t know the risks or genuinely believes in rescue. This is no place for optimists or it might be the best place for them. He has very white teeth.

They are looking at passports again, dividing them, into stacks according to color. You can’t see if they’re looking at yours, if they’ve tossed it aside or will shout your name next. Your turn to be questioned by the earnest interpreter. You’ll walk down the aisle as slowly as you can. You’ve never been called on like this before and don’t know exactly how to behave. But can you be sure his interpretations will correspond to your answers? He could make up your history for you. Each word will be entirely different from your recitation and you will never know the difference. What would they do without the translator? Guns put down, two men stop to eat cupcakes and drink instant coffee.

Perhaps half the plane is asleep although it’s only twilight in whatever city you’re in. A vehicle moves closer to the plane but it isn’t for purposes of rescue. The plane is refueled. Another city must be found. The sign lights up telling you to fasten your seatbelt and the plane taxis down the runway.

The translator hasn’t met you yet and, for the moment, your respective fictions remain separate.

Kiki Smith, Stomach, from Possession is Nine Tenths of the Law, 1985, from a portfolio of color monoprints. Courtesy Fawbush Editions.

Kiki Smith, Stomach, from Possession is Nine Tenths of the Law, 1985, from a portfolio of color monoprints. Courtesy Fawbush Editions.

Susan Daitch lives and works in New York City. Her first novel, L.C., was published in London by Virago Press in June 1986, and will be published by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich in the Fall of 1987.

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A Chilean American poet maps the troubling parallels between his native land under Pinochet and the present-day US.

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From Lagos to LA, a young painter’s images resonate with meaning, both personal and political.

Originally published in

BOMB 18, Winter 1987

Martin Amis, Gretchen Bender by Cindy Sherman, Charles Henri Ford, and Roland Joffé.

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018 Winter 1987