San Francisco International airport is a marvel to watch at any time during the day, but it especially comes alive during the night. I am not as awed by the airports anymore and having traveled multiple times across continents courtesy of my generous employer who had big dreams for me, I know my way around well enough to navigate the ticketing and security nightmares that plague ordinary mortals.
As I head to my seat as one of the early boarders in business class that I see her in the seat next to me holding the book looking out of the window — The Tibetan book of living and dying was one of the first books that I had read at Barnes and Noble after coming in from India, having accidentally picked it up on a lazy Saturday afternoon and since then read multiple times. I was not sure exactly what resonated from it but something from it did align with my limited understanding of life and death.
She is a pretty girl in her early twenties with brown curls of hair and an air of all-knowing, but it is the eyes that catch my attention — Brown and deep with a touch of sadness and an aura of mystery like she could be someone’s girlfriend or a secretary in a boring office job or maybe an international spy all rolled into one. She isn’t a stunner in that true sense of the word, but she has something that makes you look again and the thing that lingers within you even when you have moved your gaze away.
“I have read this one. It’s one of the best books you will ever read. Probably the only book if you had to read just one”. I blurt out not entirely sure what had prompted that thought.
She looks up at me with a blank stare that depicts semi annoyance as if she is used to men hitting on her with oft practiced one-liners. A flat bland smile emerges on her face as she goes back to her book. I shrink back to my seat, part chastised, part humiliated — even more, annoyed at myself for no apparent reason.
It is almost 11.40 PM. The engines are revved up and our flight is the next one in line to take off from the runway. I close my eyes thinking of the time when I would be back in India tomorrow, meeting my parents and my sister who would all be there. I am all the more excited to meet Ana — my fiance of the last two years. It has been a year since we were apart and in the quest to ensure that we save every last dollar, we had not talked much. She would be there, smiling and silent waiting patiently for me to wrap up the duties of meeting the elders.
“Would you mind if I hold hands with you just for a bit?”.
It is semi-dark, but I can see her eyes and I instinctively understand — that fear of flying. With a silent nod, I extended a hand which she clutches immediately, her nails already digging in as the flight kicks off. Sometime later when it stabilizes at 35,000 feet and the roar of the engines has settled into a steady rhythm, she still has her eyes closed. The grip on my hand has released a bit.
I fall asleep before the dinner rounds start as the day finally catches up to me. Working 14-hour days wasn’t exactly an ideal situation but I am glad that there was work available and even happier about the paycheck that followed it. Having lived without money for so long gets one into a situation where you want to grab in as much as you can with both hands, almost fearful that it would be taken away from you at any moment or that the dream that you are in will end with a cold splash of water and you would wake up again in that one-bedroom house, sleeping on the same wooden bed — The corner of your paradise for twenty-five years of your life.
“Hey! You are awake.. I don’t like to eat alone. I saved a meal for you”.
She nudges me awake as I look at her with sleepy eyes. I smile, still embarrassed at the shade that she had thrown me earlier.
“I am Natalie.”
“I am Zack” …
“No, you are not. But let’s call you that. It suits you well”.
She laughs as she starts to eat, and I follow wondering if I should be offended. She thinks I am an all-out, brown-skinned Indian, not even a mixed breed. I can’t blame her.
“What do you know about this book that made you speak so highly of it?”, I ask within mouthfuls.
“I don’t know. I find it fascinating that we never inquire into the one thing that is the most definitive –The reason for our existence or where do we go after we go?”, she says softly immersed deep in thought.
“You are deeper than I thought you would be”.
She laughs easily, entirely not offended.
We talk through dinner and way beyond as if we are old friends who have known each other for eternity. Later when trays are cleared and people have snuggled into their thin blue blankets, we walk behind and talk to the flight attendants who have become my friends — the result of my over-frequent travels. They smuggle us some much-needed lubrication and we come back to our seats and empty out small liquor bottles, our conversation getting deeper, the topics still irrelevant, much to the annoyance of the surrounding passengers. They glare at us from time to time as we laugh a bit too louder, giggle conspiratorially, or swap stories in bursts, interspersed by gaps of very comfortable silence.
Singapore Airlines flight 207 touches down in Singapore at 7 AM local time.
The airport is almost deserted, and we are the only flight on the tarmac. My next flight to Bombay is at 10.30 PM and her flight to Melbourne is at 10.00 PM. We have an entire day to while away and as I wonder how this goes; she seems to have it all figured out.
“You are doing the Singapore tour, aren’t you?”
“No. I have never been here before.”
“You should. Come with me. You can hang with me and my friends all day. Such a waste if you don’t.
“Let’s drop the stuff in my hotel room and then we will go. I promise you, it will be a great day”, her eyes are twinkling with mirth.
We walk around all day roaming the city. Singapore is a contradiction in itself. Ancient culture exists right next to modern without any juxtaposition. We visit the Buddhist temple and stand next to the tree of wishes, a local magnet for all visiting tourists.
She stands there, eyes closed and her back turned to me for the longest time. A moment of prayer in her day as a throng of people move around here at varying frequencies. It’s a shockingly intimate act.
“What did you wish for?” I ask when we are back on the road walking.
At some point, she has decided that holding hands is the most natural thing in the world and I indulge albeit slightly uncomfortably.
“Ever walked by the Lion statue?”, I ask. The Merlion statue is the most prominent landmark in Singapore.
She smiles and easily ignores my question.
“Do you want to?”, she asks instead.
I tap her on her head lightly trying to ruffle her hair playfully, but she pulls away with a sharp move that startles me off.
“Hey, no messing with my hair. Remember that”, she jerks violently then recovers quickly and laughs her fists drawn up in a fight. The anger is a bit off, but I tend to ignore it. I hold up my hands in mock surrender as we head towards downtown. Being around Natalie, I get a sense that anything is possible: to marry and divorce women, make a lot of money, own a big house in Boston, live a large life. Natalie carries her power source within her, like an alkaline battery - More like a nuclear submarine.
In the evening we head to the crystal pavilion, one of the most happening clubs in Singapore. It’s packed with people. Sanjeev, my old school friend is a party animal who knows almost everyone around here. We meet up and he introduces me to his group. Marika, who is at this moment the hottest model in the country, is hanging out at the club, looking just like a regular girl in a loose shirt and torn jeans.
I sit with Natalie and some of her friends making small talk. That’s when I first notice the marks on her arm. She has turned over a hand her drink from the table and I notice a row of slashes going all the way up from the end of the palm, all across her wrist, and to the crook of her arm. It’s the same on her other arm. I wonder how I missed it before.
“What are those marks?” I ask her.
“I cut myself when I was young”. She looks at the marks. She is young.
“Here I had twelve stitches.”. She says flatly.
I point to a series of raised dots on her skin.
“Those are cigarette burns.”. There is no emotion in her voice. Sajeev comes over, sees us, and immediately turns back and walks away.
I trace the cuts and the welts with my finger.
“Who did this to you?”
“I did it to myself.”
“I wish I had a good answer. I was just hurting.”, she says looking at me with those brown eyes.
“I was alone. I was just disappointed with living. I feel things too deeply at times Z”
She tells me how her veins don’t supply enough blood to her palms now, because they’ve been cut so often. Her wrist is scarred and pitted like a dirt road. She can’t lift anything heavy. One of her attempts was so serious that her doctors didn’t think she would make it. She is barely twenty years old.
I glance at her other hand. Her vein is shot. Small pinprick marks all along like black ants along a highway. I have seen this before and know what this is. I wonder what she is telling me and what she is hiding.
She suddenly looks up at the girl passing by.
“You were in the Abercrombie ad,” Natalie tells her in a small voice. She smiles and nods almost shyly.
At Sapphire, watching the way Natalie’s face brightens up and the extra energy that infuses her dancing.
“I’m worried that she’ll fall in love with you.”, Sajeev says looking at her on the floor while he nurses a drink.
“Or vice versa.”
“That’s impossible,” he says. Why? I am about to ask.
“How could you not fall in love with her?” he says. “I’m half in love with her already.”
When Natalie is back from socializing with her friends, she tells me about the model.
“She was also cut.”
“I saw it on her arms.”
Sanjeev later confirms this.
“I’ve met Marika at least a half-dozen times, but I’ve never noticed the cuts”, he says amazed at that observation. Natalie knew within five minutes of meeting her. She noticed a tension on Marika’s face, noticed she was talking a little too much, laughing a little too much. So she looked at her wrists. Later I find out the model’s story. She is the mistress of a married man with three children. He is connected with the underworld and threatens to kill anyone who gets too close to her. So, Marika marks time on her wrists.
There must be a worldwide secret society of these women who’ve slit their wrists and survived, who recognize one another automatically. The top model in Singapore and the mystery girl from Australia have this in common, their arms are marked with their anguish. In some ways, they all share a thread — They are unmarked members in the sorority of the slashed.
Jackson, another friend of hers, from a while back, comes in dressed in baggy shorts and a loose-fitting shirt. He is thirty-two but looks much older. He is losing his hair, and there is curious darkness around his mouth, probably from tobacco. He went to a school in Singapore, got a law degree but never practiced. Instead, he started a software company that exports to Australia; the previous year he traveled there four times. He met Natalie, fell in love with her but found out quickly that it would remain one-sided. They remained friends.
“I am a vernacular boy. I could never measure up to her”, he says without prompting.
We talk about technical recruiting and costing software and taxes, with Natalie sitting between us. We’re both hiding something: I’m hiding my family from Natalie; Jackson is hiding Natalie from his family. Only Natalie’s hiding nothing or so it seems. She is sleepy and tired. She does not belong with us, I feel; she is young and beautiful, and she should be with people filled with the same energy and lightness, men who have different uses for her, more innocent ones, than either of us do.
On the ride going back, she is quiet. We sit next to each other, but her mind is a world apart.
It’s almost 7.00 and the flight is not due until 10.00 so we need to be heading back to the airport shortly. I still need to take a shower and shave with the intent of being more presentable when I land. We go back to the hotel and she corners the shower first. She hasn’t eaten much through the day: a club sandwich at Sapphire.
Now she has ordered a full meal.
“Have you eaten?” she asks me.
“I will eat something at the airport”, I say.
“Then come here and eat with me”, she waves her hand inviting me back.
We eat from the same plate, usually a taboo in most of the white circles, but she is happy about it. She goes in to wash her hands. That’s when I notice two vials of pills in her purse with the label in white — Natalie. F. Sherman.
Always a curious one, I pick one up with the unknown name, Lomustine while the other one is a garden variety antidepressant. I laugh inwardly at all the pills the people from here take for every small perceived illness. In India, we just let pollution take care of it.
She walks out all of a sudden and I drop the vial back in her purse. I head to the bathroom, averting her eyes at almost being caught and she suddenly stops me. My heart skips a couple of beats.
“Come here and give me a hug. We still have time.” She has a solemn look on her face as she walks out to the balcony and stands there with her back to the guardrail, hands outstretched.
I am slightly befuddled at this sudden request, but being used to sudden rushes of affection, I understand this, even if slightly. At that moment, my self feels like a glass dropped I didn’t know I was carrying — startled and broken all at once; impossible to tell how the pieces should fit together or even if they were mine in the first place or intermingled with broken pieces from her.
I extend my arms and she closes in. She holds me hard as if her life depends on it. I feel a pang of guilt. I can smell her perfume. We stand there in silence on the balcony overlooking the city. Two souls from half a world away with little intersection twenty-four hours ago now engulfed in a sea of conflicting emotions. From the twenty-first floor, Singapore is nothing but a flood of lights. Sometimes a lot is said when words are not spoken.
Later as we stand by the guard rail she suddenly speaks up, her voice barely above a whisper — “We used to build sandcastles on the beach when I was a child,” she says, her eyes gazing far away.
“The castle used to be beautiful. It had windows and doors and was decorated with conch shells and black pebbles. It was the happiest time of my life. We build and build all afternoon until the evening waves washed them away”.
She suddenly turns towards me with an intensity that I have never seen before, holds my forehead to hers, and in a very slow voice whispers…
“Do you know the line that I was reading last night when you walked over Z”?
I stare at her face, mostly her eyes, inches away from mine, the corners filled with moisture — Trying to say something but still holding it back as much.
“Life is magical, but then every magic is just that — an illusion.”
Something turns inside me. A premonition.
I have seen this look before, but I cannot remember where. I can’t take this anymore because, for reasons unfathomed, it is bringing back memories — bad memories.
“We should go. It’s getting late”. I tell her as I softly pull away.
“Maybe we should miss this flight”, she says half-jokingly, but she is not laughing.
I look at her to see if she is serious and in that moment I hesitate. My eyes still locked in with her flicker just for a quick second and she recognizes it.
As suddenly as it has started, it ends.
She leans back up straight, laughs, and goes back to normal, as we start to pack up.
I head to the shower thinking of the day. It’s been a whirlwind. The people I met, the places I saw, the conversations I had. Some people have this capacity to envelop you in their storm and you are never the same again.
It’s getting late as I hurry out of the shower.
The room is quiet, and I quickly assemble everything to leave. Natalie is not around, nor is her luggage. Maybe she is downstairs, waiting.
As I am about to pick up the passport, I notice a single page from the hotel stationary sitting on the bed.
It just has two words on it.
I rub the page between my fingers, less aware of the paper than of my own fingerprints grating against it. Funny how I have never thought to describe paper as vulnerable. It can crumple, tear, smear, dissolve, and yet somehow it was I who was vulnerable before it at that moment. I know what has happened, but am not yet ready to accept, internalize or rationalize it.
Picking up my belongings I hurriedly take a cab to the airport. The traffic is thick, and the night air is humid and there are people everywhere in the market trying to get somewhere.
Her Melbourne flight leaves in an hour.
I rush inside the airport and breeze through the upgraded check-in. Changi airport is a sea of people all trying to get to some destination. Her flight is on terminal 102. As I walk there, they have already started boarding. The flight is packed, and everyone is trying to get in as early as possible. I don’t see her anywhere and I know she has already boarded.
I am about to turn around and go back when I see her. She has already spotted me. She smiles and steps out of the line. We stand there in silence with the question still lingering — Why?
“Z, I am so sorry. I really wish things were different but I will see you again…someday..” That’s all I could catch in her whisper as she hugs me for the last time. I am completely confused. I don’t understand what’s happening, but I hold her back as the throngs of people around us move in unison. The world is at a standstill, if only for a moment.
She pulls back suddenly, turns around, picks up her bag, and submits her passport in a single action.
Before I can think she has already crossed over and is headed into the flight. I suddenly remember that I don’t even know her last address, her email, or her number. I take a step forward, but the gate attendant stops me.
“Sir, you cannot go beyond this without a valid ticket”, she holds her hand out saying it louder than usual as she looks back over her shoulder at Natalie.
I nod and watch her walking in hoping she will turn and look back or wave. She keeps walking, her head, slightly drooping — Tired or just plain disappointed.
Walking back towards my flight, I am conflicted and angry, but still unsure why I feel that way. Sometimes people are just selfish, at times they want a slice of their life to be compartmentalized. Either way, their choices are half-chances. So are everybody else’s.
Sitting on the flight from Singapore to Bombay, I am disappointed yet excited, and apprehensive all at the same time to be going home after a long time. The upcoming marriage is exactly a week away.
The dinner has just ended, and I am tired after a long day. My thoughts start to drift back to the day and Natalie. I am slightly dismayed at how she had left — Without any promise to meet again or even a cursory attempt at communicating it.
“Come home sometime” we always say as Indians to someone who we would like to see again. Maybe it was the Indian thing, maybe the Australians did not have this custom or maybe she didn’t think much of our encounter today. I probably was just another acquaintance, in a sea of admirers, hanging on to her every word as she amused herself for a bit and then moved away. I have always been good at selling myself slightly short.
I start to recall every word of every conversation we had that day, a childhood habit cultivated to record eventful days in memory to be used for those not so eventful ones when I could go back to that place in my mind. As I doze off to sleep, I suddenly remember the conversation we had about the sandcastles, and the next thought is of my aunt who we called Zarin Masi. She was the life of our small family, vivacious, laughing, gregarious, unlike others. I was the light of her eyes. She was always showing me small gifts when I was a child, some of my happiest memories attested to her small gifts from time to time.
Then one day she came home from work, slightly dazed, with her left eye bulging. Soon we kids were told they had diagnosed her with an aggressive strain of brain tumor. I had stood by her death bed where she had shrunk to half her size within a month bald and unrecognizable because of the radiation and the surgery that was just recently performed on her. She had died within a month, a quick but painful one. Death — the wish of some, the relief of many, and the end of every one.
The feeling of premonition that I had in the evening on that balcony with Natalie is suddenly back with a rush, like a lead weight. I sit up straight and pull out my phone. Lomustine -I type into the search engine still working with the spotty flight WiFi, but I have no idea what it is that I am looking for. The page takes a bit to load as the words “Stage 3 brain tumor” stare at me from the screen as I scroll, but then I already know. It’s a brand of potent chemo strain infusion that I recall next to my aunt’s hospital bed.
The barely noticeable needle stains on Natalie’s arms that I had judged as a past drug habit, now suddenly make sense. So does the “Don’t mess with my hair” hollow laugh protecting her shred of dignity and in that split moment, I am thrown in the deepest of regret. I tightly shut my eyes in the darkness as warm tears well up, the mild drone of the jet engines my only witness to the anguish within.
I should have known. I, of all people, should have known.
Sometimes the people who are closer to death are the ones who know the real value of time. Maybe we live like we are never going to die, and we die having never really lived. In doing what she did, she forced me to be alive — if only for today. A deep resolution wells up within me. I know I will find her, and we will meet again someday, whatever it takes.
I settle down in my seat and look out at the bright lights of Bombay coming up as the aircraft starts its stair-step descent.
It’s time to meet the family.