“Everything is turned upside down these days,” the man in the middle seat says. We are settling into our overnight flight around the world, JFK to Istanbul, and I had just commented on how the plane had only been half full when I flew in December, the “busy season.” Now it was completely packed, in the “off season.”
“Nothing goes the way it’s supposed to go these days,” he says, giving me that familiar glance. We both know the conversation can go a dozen different ways — all of them eventually merging into the same dead end. Climate and immigration and poverty and injustice and politics. Politics.
I decide to steer clear — partly because it’s almost midnight and I’m exhausted. But mostly because if the conversation goes south, we still have twelve hours next to each other. I finally reply, “Well, hopefully this plane goes where it’s supposed to go.”
He glances back at me, this time quite seriously, and then looks out my window as he signs the cross over his chest with his right hand and whispers a silent prayer. He does this again when the plane backs out of the loading dock. And when the security announcement comes on. And when he takes his meds. And then continually as we start speeding past the red runway lights, then above Queens, then above Long Island, then above Brooklyn, then into the moon-lit Atlantic Ocean clouds.
Eventually he starts watching a movie with Turkish-looking subtitles and I fall asleep reading James Baldwin. The difficulty is to remain in touch with the private life, Baldwin writes. This is the writer’s subject, and nothing is more difficult than deciphering what the citizens of this time and place actually feel and think.
I nod off but the man nudges me awake when our 1:30am dinner arrives. The bread is warm but the fish tastes like it was grown in a box, in a freezer. Baldwin continues: The writer trapped among a speechless people is in danger of becoming speechless himself.
I fall back asleep and the man never speaks to me again. The plane goes “the way it’s supposed to go,” as the man had prayed, and we descend through explosions of a setting sun, ripples of red mountains, waves of a blue Black Sea, and layers of grey clouds. As I stand up to disembark, I look back and see the second half of the plane is completely empty. The airline had stuffed all of us into the first half.
At the Terminal F Starbucks, I sip on an Americano and begin to feel like the narrator in Baldwin’s second novel: an American abroad who struggles with his identity as an American abroad. I resented being called an American (and resented resenting it), he confesses, because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing.
The woman parked in the seat next to me asks about the wifi, which I haven’t tried connecting to. I remember how impossible it was when I was here back in December and try to help, unsuccessfully. Ten minutes later, she asks me another wifi question, and I ask the man on the other side of me, who is charging two phones, a battery pack and a wireless headset. “I’m not using wifi, just data,” he says.
The woman decides she doesn’t really need internet. The name on her cup says Maria B. Mine says Beje.
Maria B tells me that she is coming from Germany, back to Mombasa, on the coast of Kenya, where she has been living for over thirty years. I tell her that I am heading to Lahore, but used to live in Kenya.
She continues with her story and begins to talk in big breaths, as if her feelings are so big that they consume all the air in her body before her mind can form the words. Kenya is home. And yet, her home is fragile. She has a farm that she now lives off of — it produces the bananas and avocados and jack fruit that keep their stomachs full, and also the neem and moringa trees that keep their bodies healthy. For ten years, she was malaria free, but when she stopped eating nutritious food and stopped taking natural medicine, she got malaria three times in one year. Once while she was in a German airport, when her hand swelled to the size and color of a boxing glove. “You have to work to stay healthy,” she laughs, revealing three silver fillings in the back of her mouth.
But drought in Kenya is real. And so are tsunamis. And locust. And crop failure. “So far, we’ve been okay. But it’s only a matter of time.”
And yet, her time has already come. Many times. First, for her parents, who died in a nationally-publicized car crash. She first heard about it on the radio — an unidentified man who had a heart attack driving on the autobahn — then the police came knocking on her door that night. The unidentified man was her dad, who had been decapitated in the crash. Her mom was in the passenger seat, and had bled to death.
Then Maria’s first marriage collapsed. Then her therapy business in Germany. Then her business, farm and house in Kenya, which burnt to the ground in a fire. “I couldn’t even save my two dogs,” she says, as water fills the bottom of her eyes. “They were too terrified and too big. They ran under the bed and I couldn’t pull them out.”
She went back to Germany for one and a half years. “I was depressed,” she says, but doesn’t say anything more. She bites her lower lip as if to say it’s still too heavy to talk about without the tears falling down. Then she looks at the grey clouds in the windows above us, and I can see that it will always be too heavy.
Eventually she went back to Kenya, to find that her second husband had been re-growing their trees. And re-building their house. Together, they grow new plants. They adopt a new dog. And she evolves her nature therapy business into something else. Her kids and friends back in Germany might not understand why she’s still in Kenya, she says, smiling again, “but in Kenya I can sleep with my dog in my bed and my kids can’t stop me.”
And her husband, Ben, is a kind man, who listens and works with his hands and makes her laugh. “One time, I was yelling to him about life in Kenya and people in Kenya and all that, and I was so mad that I actually spilled a full cup of coffee all over myself.” The coffee went straight up into the air and then straight down all over her shirt, she says, holding her laughter back. “Will you allow me to laugh?” her husband asked. And then they both spilled into laughter. And into each other.
Finally her flight boarding time is approaching and she stands up to leave. “It takes me a while to walk to the gate these days,” she jokes as she shakes my hand. I tell her my name is Benjamin, the same as her husband’s, and she doesn’t seem surprised. I call him Ben, she says, and I tell her that people call me Benje. “I will tell him about you,” she says as she walks away.
When she’s gone, I sit back down and try connecting to the wifi, unsuccessfully. Then I go back to Baldwin, to a talk he gave to the Liberation Committee for Africa. I do not believe in the twentieth-century myth that we are all helpless, that it’s out of our hands. It’s only out of our hands if we don’t want to pick it up.
There’s a whole lot to pick up. But Maria B is doing it. Maybe we can pick it up too.