Monday, October 04, 2004

Back, Back, Back ... We're Baaaack

We are back in body, spirits still somewhat eroded by that 16-hour flight from Paris to San Francisco, counting the layover in Miami.

Of course, any amount of jet lag is worth being able to write "from Paris to San Francisco." We've never traveled much, and just as the names of the little places you pass through make a small poetry if you drive cross country -- Harpers Ferry, Keyser and Canaan Valley, and that's in the upscale end of West Virginia -- so if for the last 40 years you've spent your little bit of free time squatting in this country, there's big poetry in being able to drop "Last week in Paris..." into the sentence, even if you are just talking to the man who reads the meter.

Nobody died. The trip was a success. Only during the last week of the trip did my wife and I share our mutual fear that her 93-year-old mom might die. She was so much weaker than we had anticipated, so quickly tired, so sunk into herself for long periods, so clearly less than she was even a year ago that when she was napping we looked at her sometime the way you look at a baby, wondering if the chest will rise with breath again.

Some nights there was a good deal of snoring and wheezing. I did not mind. It was like the wind in the trees, soothing in a way. It was silence that would have frightened. Actually I did not mind the trip once I had figured out that the point was not giving mom a memorable time -- some evenings the morning might as well have happened a thousand years ago -- but that my wife got to spend nearly four weeks with her mother nuturing and cosseting. There may be some bedside business later on, but these were probably the last extended moments of life as lived day to day my wife will be spending with her mother. She is very sweet with her mother, gentle but honest when their versions of the past aren't the same and pretty damn tart when it comes to politics, since my mother-in-law's church -- First Church of Jesus, Cracker -- has the parishioners reading some Bush biography if I have it straight. Any mother and any daughter could do a lot worse than the two of them when it comes to Only Connect.

(I am happily estranged from my own mother. I think, I am anyway. I think I'm happy about it, I mean.)

It's over. We're back. I think we will enjoy this trip retrospectively, when the slides come back. As I said before, you are all inivited to the slide show. As for the trip as narrative, I'll bleed that out over the next months, beginning, as it turns out, at the end.

The trip back did not seem as long as it could have because we were provided with a floor show on the airplane. I noticed one of the players in the De Gaulle terminal in Paris -- in Paris in the same way SFO is in San Francisco. There was a guy sitting opposite as we waited for the plane to load who reminded me of myself, or of myself when I had my beard. He was beefy, with a fine bushy white beard and a smooth pink distant unhappy face, the pinkness of which he was stoking with an open bottle of wine he would occasionally pull out from under his seat.

This is something you do in bus stations, not in airports -- right?

With him was a woman who was either a pretty woman who hadn't aged well or a homely woman who had aged just fine. There are some faces like that. You aren't sure what was there at the start. I think she was drunk, too. Now and then she yelled at him. Now and then he took a drink.

On the plane, the two of them were in the row ahead of Edith and Edith's mom. They immediately bought a handful of those mini-bottles of vodka from the stewardess. In the row in front of them, the row behind the bulkhead separating First Class from the rest of us, were two members of a big French family spread out in our section -- two babies, two women in their thirties, a Mama and a guy with a shaved head who (as it turned out) spoke unaccented English and who I assumed was the father/husband of for all I know all the babies and many of the women.

I didn't see who fired the first knee when the fight began, but when I looked over the youngest of the French women was ramming her seat back as far as it would go and my pink-faced friend from the airport was ramming his knees into that seat back. I was just far enough away to allow maximum creative misunderstanding of what was being said. Pink Face seemed to be saying he was tall, dammit, tall, and the Montmarte Hillbillies seemed to be saying he was rude, and Pink Face's female companion, who I think was also French, was yelling at him, at the people ahead, at everybody. At least twice she charged up the aisle into First Class and came back with a cocktail. At one point, the backup pilot -- who had been amiably wandering up and down the plane like the greeter at a Vegas casino -- was summoned, and I heard him try to explain to all concerned that people had a right to move their seat back and that the people in the seat behind had the right to have knees.

I love the sound of voices raised in hysterical French anger. It was a pastiche of altos and baritones, nothing soprano about it. But like all good things, finally the participants grew tired as the babies and the drunks grew drowsy, and everyone nicely avoided eye contact, adjusted their seat backs a hair and their knees a fraction. All this upset my wife and my mother-in-law somewhat because they were almost in the middle of it, but I was just far enough away, just beyond the line inside of which you feel somehow responsible, but still close enough to be amused.

Isn't that the sweet spot when the dogs are fighting and not a one of them belongs to you?

No comments: