What can I say about airports and air travel? For me they have always been pure hell, mainly because I am a creature of habit. Even turning the clocks back one hour in the Fall messes up my sleep cycle for days. Perhaps air travel exists to teach us that it takes fortitude and determination to get where you want to be. And that the rewards can be unexpected.
The Voynich Affair: Chapter 4
Lynn arrived at the airport for her flight to Paris slightly later than she had hoped. She faced the security line with resignation, clutching her passport and ticket as the queue inched slowly forward, and wondering whether she had remembered to transfer all her liquids into four-ounce bottles. When she arrived at the walk-through scanning area, the guard said, “Please remove your jacket, ma’am.”
“But this is my main garment. I only have underwear on beneath it,” she said.
“I’m sorry ma’am. If you prefer, we can go to a private room and do a pat-down.” Reluctant to prolong the procedure, and conscious of all the people waiting behind her, she pulled off her suit jacket and laid it on the belt with her shoes, then walked into the scanner as the guard motioned her forward. The machine beeped, and when she emerged, the guard passed a wand over her chest. “Please turn around and raise your arms, ma’am,” he said.
She turned, cheeks flaming at the thought of her camisole and bra straps exposed for the world to see, and telling herself that she was still more modestly dressed than many of the other women in the airport. Her eyes fell on a dark, tall man in the security line. He was staring at her, a frown forming on his face. He could at least enjoy the view instead of looking as though he smelled a foul odor.
At last she was released. She gathered her things, hoping that the navy hat in her carryon had not been squashed, hastily donned her shoes at one of the crowded benches, and sped on her way to the gate. She sat down and caught her breath, then pulled out a book to read for the few minutes left before it was time to board. At such times she always used her boarding pass as a bookmark to keep it handy, and she drew it from her bag now to check her seat number. She had an aisle seat. Good.
A footstep sounded and then paused behind her row of seats. After a moment, the steps continued and moved around the end of the row. She raised her head and saw the tall, dark man who had stared at her in the security line. He passed her by without a glance, heading for the gate desk. Instead of a roller bag, he carried an old-fashioned, rectangular leather valise that looked aged and weatherbeaten, but sturdy. The bag was oddly tooled, rather like the cover of a medieval book, and secured with an elaborate series of polished brass locks. As she watched, he spoke to the gate attendant, who turned her head to scan the area around Lynn. Her eyes met Lynn’s for a brief moment. Then she looked back and nodded at the man. Instead of sitting, he retreated from the desk and stood against the wall across from the gate, fiddling with his phone. Sighing, Lynn opened her book.
When it was time to board, she made her way to row 15b, only to find that the same man was in 15a, having stowed his valise in the overhead bin. With some difficulty, she lifted her carryon bag up to the bin, thinking that a gentleman would have offered to help, then sat and put her handbag under the seat, pulling out her book. She turned to look at him and nodded pleasantly. He returned the nod rather forbiddingly and transferred his attention back to his phone. As she reached for her seat belt, she noticed that the seat arm between them wasn’t down. She wanted to lower it, to establish a boundary, but he was a large man and his elbow and shoulder extended slightly past the dividing line between the seats. Rather than face that look from him again, she forced herself to relax and turned to her reading. It was going to be a long flight.
A couple of hours later, as the flight attendants were getting ready to serve dinner, he touched her arm. “Excuse me,” he said, motioning with his head toward the back of the plane. She rose to let him pass by, then decided that she’d better visit the facilities herself. Following him at a short distance, she couldn’t help noticing the way his large, heavy shoulders filled out his dress shirt. He wasn’t quite trim, but his massive upper body tapered down to a nicely rounded tush and long legs. Now he was leaning against the bulkhead, his hips slightly tilted and his arms crossed in front of him. His trousers were well-tailored and showed his physique to advantage. She could see the outline of a wallet in his back pocket. She stayed well back, trying to keep her balance without grabbing on to the seat backs of the passengers nearest the restrooms, and shook her head to dispel the images forming in her mind: of what his posterior might look like out of those expensive gray trousers.
Finally he entered one of the cubicles, and the other side became vacant soon thereafter. While she was within, she pondered his face, to take her mind off the other end of him. He was an unusual-looking man, probably in his late forties, and one part of her thought that his frowning, curt manner matched his face, which was too rough and craggy to be handsome, though it came close. His nose was slightly beaky, and he had prominent, chiseled cheekbones and a strong, masculine chin. His eyes, which seemed larger than average, were his most striking feature. Brown and green, she thought. Dark eyes should be warm, but when he looks at me, it feels like I’m being impaled on an icicle.
When the dinner cart stopped at their row, he selected the chicken Kiev, and she told the server that she had ordered a meatless meal. In a few minutes, a tray containing curried chickpeas, a green salad, and some sort of flatbread was set before her. She didn’t look up to see what he made of this, and he didn’t comment, but she noticed that he waited to eat until she received her food. As the drinks cart approached, he surprised her by saying, “Would you join me in a glass of wine?”
“That sounds good,” she said.
He ordered two Cline Zinfandels without consulting her on her preference, and handed over $14 in cash. She thanked him and requested an icewater from the attendant.
“Traveling on business?” he asked as they rather awkwardly clinked their plastic glasses together. His eyes strayed to the front of her jacket where the satin and lace of her camisole peeked out, and she guessed he was thinking of the security line.
“More pleasure than business, though I suppose it’s a bit of both. I’m an academic and I’m going to a conference near Rouen,” she replied. “You?”
“I suppose I could say the same. Business and pleasure.” He didn’t add any information about his destination, so she asked, “What do you do?”
“I’m a librarian,” he replied, looking her in the eye. She found it hard to turn her own eyes away when he did that. His answer surprised her. From his pricey suit, she would have guessed that he was a business executive–someone who worked on Wall Street, perhaps, or in one of the gleaming Midtown towers. His looks and clothing definitely diverged from the slightly rumpled, casual appearance of the average male librarian.
“You don’t look like one,” she said. “My parents were both librarians, and I’ve known quite a few of the tribe.”
He ignored this and asked, “What’s the subject of your conference?”
“It’s about the decipherment of a mysterious manuscript that nobody’s ever been able to read. It’s really only a hobby of mine, but my friends said I needed to get away, so here I am.” She shrugged, suddenly realizing that she felt quite free of her departmental duties. It was a strange, pleasant feeling— almost euphoric. She smiled at him and took a few bites of her dinner, and a generous mouthful of wine.
“Are you presenting a paper?” She supposed he was trying to make conversation, but his direct questions were becoming slightly unnerving. “Yes,” she replied, and before he could ask the topic, as he seemed about to do, she added, “I’m having trouble placing your accent. It’s not English, is it?” His voice was rich and deep. It sounded like one of those Royal Shakespeare Company voices, Patrick Stewart’s or Ian McKellan’s, but more American.
“My mother was French, my father English, and I was born in the US. Does that help?” He sounded rather curt, as though the question was too personal. Talking to this man was like walking on a hot asphalt pavement with bare feet. She gave up, and he didn’t press her with any more questions. They finished their dinners in relative silence. When the attendant came to take their trash and they folded up their tray tables, she noticed that his long legs were spread and one muscular thigh was touching her knee. Really, the man takes up more than his share of space. Neither of them watched the in-flight movie, preferring to read; she glanced over and noticed that his book was interesting, something to do with Renaissance humanism. Eventually they both reclined their seats as the cabin lights went dark. It took a long time for her to get to sleep, but he seemed to doze off immediately, with a light but persistent snore. Finally she slept. In her dream, she was in bed with Richard beside their cozy bedroom fireplace, before everything had gone so terribly wrong.
When she awoke, she realized with a start that her head had slipped off its little pillow and was resting on her seatmate’s shoulder. She moved away from him with a jerk, and looking up, she saw that he was awake. This never would have happened if he had let me put the seat arm down, she thought, realizing with horror that she had all but cuddled up to him, probably seeking his body heat in the frigid air of the cabin. “Oh, I beg your pardon.” She desperately hoped that she hadn’t drooled on his shirt.
A faint smile played about his lips. It was the first time she’d seen him smile. Why hadn’t he awakened her? “Now that you’re awake,” he said, “you can let me up.” She quickly got up to allow him to move into the aisle, and then retrieved her bag of necessities from her carryon and joined the line for the restrooms. Once in the terminal, they studiously ignored each other as they passed through customs, collected their bags, and left.
Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss
A scene in this week’s chapter was inspired by a couple of photos taken on the set of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.