Grace Megnet holds an MFA and is associate professor of Art at Lamar State College–Port Arthur. For fun she took creative writing classes at Lamar University. A Swiss native, she feels truly American only when she writes because writing enables her to hide her accent. In 2012 she was the March winner of the year-long short story contest of The Telegraph, UK with her story, “Bad Company.” She also won the TACWT student contest in creative non-fiction in 2012, 2013, and 2015. She lives in Beaumont with her husband who keeps teaching her English.
The girl at the check-in in Houston had made a mistake: our seats were in different rows on our connecting flight from Istanbul to Milan, but, too lazy to stand in yet another line, we opted against a seat change. The flight would be short. Four hours. When I came to my seat, a scrawny man with fearful eyes sat at the window.
“That’s my seat,” I demanded.
“You sit here,” the Italian businessman in a fine wool suit seated in the aisle seat ordered the scrawny man, pointing to the middle seat. I buckled my seatbelt, taking possession of conquered territory. The weather was good, and the flight would be pleasant, the pilot announced. I smiled, thinking of the people we had met, of the welcome we had received by a city we had faced pusillanimously, as the Bosphorus receded into haze. They were happy to see Americans, happy to impress us, happy to be our friends.
My neighbor, moving closer until his head was on the level of my lap, also tried to catch a glimpse of the Bosphorus. His hair was oily, and I detected an odor of spicy-cooking-bazaar, too-many-airports, and poverty. He lowered his tray long before the flight attendant asked us what we wanted to drink. I wanted a lemonade. The scrawny man said, “Coke.” When the attendant brought the menu, he ordered baba ghanoush, my choice too, and I had to calculate if I wanted to be like him or instead endure a boring chicken breast.
“Eggplant,” I told the flight attendant.
He ate with his spoon and licked his fingers after he finished, dirt underneath his fingernails. The vanilla panna cotta was delicious. He scratched along the plastic container with his spoon and then licked the places where it would not reach. He also ate the mint garnish. I remembered the Germanwings disaster and dismissed the thought that this silent meal with this stranger could be my last human interaction. I should have insisted on a seat change. I had promised “till death do us part” to the man who, oblivious to my ordeal, sat four rows ahead drinking beer. My neighbor belched.
I took out a book and tried to read. Did my neighbor just grab the magazine out of my seat pocket? After flipping through the pages, he put the magazine back into my pocket and smiled. I turned my head to the window and looked at the clouds. He put his arm into his pants; then he fumbled a dirty flip phone. I closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes, his grin was right in front of me, eggplant hanging in his teeth.
“Quatro,” I said, holding up four fingers.
The time on his phone read eight p.m. The time difference between Houston and Istanbul was eight hours. I only knew one country with a twelve-hour time difference. I plugged in my earphones. The TV showed a documentary about brainpower. A muscular guy with a headband slashed through a stack of bricks with a groan after a few karate moves, and then he was beaten by iron poles to prove his resistance to pain. A woman from New York read 938 words per minute. (I could not understand a word she said.) My neighbor touched my arm, motioning he wanted to talk. Annoyed, I pointed to the TV screen. He pulled out his ticket, a dog-eared sheet of paper, which he straightened out over his stained pants, and I could read his flight schedule.
The TV presented a guy who could determine the day of the week for any given date using an algorithm. July 4, 1776 was a Thursday; July 14, 1789 and D-day were both on a Tuesday; Pearl Harbor, on a Sunday. He calculated ninety dates in one minute, no mistakes. The winner of the competition was a Rubik’s Cube genius. First, he beat his own record, and then he solved three Rubik’s Cubes in one minute. Blindfolded. My neighbor drilled into his nose and looked at his find, reminding me of the Egyptian mummification process. I gagged.
“Che ora?” he asked.
“Io neanche.” Neither was he.
I did not think so.
He took out his ticket again, and, as he flattened it on his knees, I could read his name: Abu Bakkadiddi. More nose picking, arm touching, penis scratching, beastly yawning. If the plane fell down, Abu would be the last person I talked to. The young, cute Rubik’s Cube guy was gone, and so was the algorithm man from Cuba with his nerdy glasses.
Abu and I watched the plane inch toward Italy on the screen. When I told him what time it was in Milan, he was happy. He had been in Italy for a year, he told me in manageable Italian. He worked in the fields, happy to eke out a better life for his family, happy to go back to onions, lettuce, bell peppers, beans, and peas. He wanted to know if I worked in the field.
“Bene,” he said and smiled.
I remembered Mary with her big smile. She worked two menial jobs in Texas and lived on left-overs from a soup-kitchen to send money back to her family in Bangladesh so her nieces and nephews could become nurses and computer technicians. Her money had financed a washing machine and a fridge and a second floor to protect her family from the floods of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra that regularly wash everything into the Bay of Bengal. I leaned toward the window and closed my eyes, trying to sleep, but instead remembered a British documentary about the ship breakers of Bangladesh. Ships of the world come to die in Bangladesh, the most densely populated country on earth. Along a ten-mile beach forty thousand workers dismantle hundreds and hundreds of cargo ships and tankers. In a minefield of dangers, where a man dies every two weeks, young men and children rip apart gigantic ships with their bare hands for three dollars a day. Groups of boys drag enormous pieces of steel through the mud, working in toxic waste without any protection, enduring hell on earth. The dream of one day buying a shack, a field, maybe a cow in their native village, and growing vegetables for their families, keeps these desperate people going. The steel of the recycled ships was a major factor in Bangladesh’s economy, the filmmakers explained.
“Dove vai?” Abu asked.
“Milano,” I said to make things easy.
“Mantova,” he smiled, revealing a courage born from hardship.
I looked at him. His hair had probably been cut by his mother or his sister. Did he have a wife, children? Two days earlier I had been sitting in an air-conditioned house in Texas. Where was he? Why could I not accept him with the graciousness I was given in Istanbul? Mary told me of the many times she had traveled from her village to Dhaka or to Chittagong for necessary documents, how costly and difficult it was to obtain a passport. The journey from her village lasted two days and entailed walking, dusty bus rides in overcrowded vehicles, crossing rivers on rickety ferries. She told of the long lines at every office, of the hundreds of people who dreamed of better lives. She told of the fears, the doubts, and then the sense of jubilation when she finally received her visa, how she touched it to make sure it was real, kissed it.
Abu was one of the lucky ones: he left the people he loved and the world he knew. What must it have felt to arrive in Italy with a language nobody understood? Did he cry? How did he navigate through airports without English, without Italian? How did he find the train? A bed, work? How did he keep his smile? Watching out the window, I saw the Po pouring into the Adriatic in the distance. Why did I admire the Rubik’s Cube guy and despise Abu? Was he not as accomplished as the lady who could read 938 words per minute? Was he not as tough as the guy with the headband and the karate moves? After the plane landed he lifted my bag from the luggage bin and said “ciao” with a smile.
“Good luck,” I said and meant it.
The zipper on his grimy bag was broken. Grateful, I grabbed Steve’s arm who waited for me in the jet way.
“Did you have a good flight?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Waiting for our suitcases, I glimpsed Abu one more time. He did not see me. He was running to catch the train to Mantova, happy to return to his back-breaking work, to put his nose to the ground and pick beans and tomatoes under a brutal summer sun, happy to be growing our food while we vacationed in the Swiss Alps and on the French Riviera because we were born on the right side of the ditch.