Win­dow seat

In the Moment - - Take A Moment - BY ASH­LEIGH YOUNG

At 8:20 on Thurs­day morn­ing I found my seat, the mid­dle of the row over the wing of the plane, sat down, and switched on my Kin­dle. I was read­ing The Ex­am­ined Life, Stephen Grosz’s ac­count of his ex­pe­ri­ences as a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, and I had reached the last sec­tion, ‘Leav­ing’, in which Grosz has taken on a new pa­tient, a young man, who has just been di­ag­nosed with HIV. The young man is be­gin­ning to spend all of his psy­cho­anal­y­sis ses­sions in deep, still, heavy si­lence, some­times even fall­ing asleep. I was at the part where Grosz is de­scrib­ing the di er­ent kinds of si­lences that pa­tients some­times bring to him – si­lences of re­fusal, dis­com­fort, re­pres­sion – when a tiny, with­ered woman with a huge puffy black bag over her shoul­der in­di­cated that she had the win­dow seat be­side me. I got up and helped her ma­noeu­vre her bag into the over­head com­part­ment, then she sat down and set about mak­ing her­self com­fort­able; she took o her shoes, re­veal­ing pa­pery brown feet, and ar­ranged a blan­ket be­neath her seat so that her feet had a rest­ing place – her legs, in leop­ard-print leg­gings, were too short to reach the oor. She took out her own Kin­dle, which was kept in a proper zip­pered case, and I went back to Grosz and the young man in the ther­apy room.

“Un­der or­di­nary cir­cum­stances,” Grosz was say­ing, “I might ask a pa­tient who has been silent for some time what they’re think­ing or feel­ing, and once or twice I did

this with An­thony. But I soon re­alised that my speak­ing was an in­tru­sion, a dis­tur­bance.” I stopped read­ing be­cause I couldn’t fo­cus. I was sens­ing a slight but build­ing pres­sure be­tween the win­dow-seat woman and my­self. It was a sense that she was about to say some­thing, that she wasn’t re­ally go­ing to read; she was just ddling with the de­vice while she de­cided where she would start with me. Sure enough: “If you see me pop­ping pills or drag­ging on an in­haler, don’t you worry.” She had a bright Queens­land ac­cent, with an un­ex­pected burr, al­most Scot­tish-sound­ing. “Bronchiec­ta­sis. Much worse than asthma. Had it for years, so I’ve got all these scars on my lungs. Big knotty scars. Bronchiec­ta­sis. Last time I left New Zealand I took this sick­ness with me; now I’m go­ing to give the bloody thing back!” She mo­tioned at her tiny chest. “I’ve had about a hun­dred pneu­mo­nias and a fair few op­er­a­tions. It was all the mould in New Zealand. That’s why I moved away to Aus­tralia. But I’m tough. Don’t worry if you see me puff­ing away.”

She looked at me side­ways; blue eyes in a small tanned face, and one of those open-mouthed smiles that made it look as though she was silently say­ing “Aaah!”. She pulled a plas­tic lunch con­tainer out of the front seat pocket, cracked open the lid, and took out an egg sand­wich, which she ate while swing­ing her feet and look­ing out the win­dow. We were right above the wing. Out­side on the tar­mac an elec­tric cart was shut­tling about, a gure in high-vis at the wheel. “Some­times when you’re be­tween New Zealand and Aus­tralia,” she said be­tween mouth­fuls, “if you look down you can see a rain­bow cir­cle in the sea. A glassy sort of rain­bow, like a big bowl. I al­ways get the win­dow seat so

I can see it, be­cause it’s beau­ti­ful. But we won’t be able to see it with that darn wing there.” I said it was a shame about the wing, and she said, “No, not a shame, it’s just the way it’s hap­pened.”

She was quiet for a while, and in the mean­time an­other el­derly woman sat down in the aisle seat, to my left. She was dressed in shim­mery black cloth­ing and had white-blue hair, and bronzer on her cheek­bones. She had the look of a dulled but beau­ti­ful gem­stone, maybe an opal.

I helped the opal woman ad­just the di­rec­tion of the tiny fan above us so that it was blow­ing di­rectly into her hair; then we sat down. I was prob­a­bly a frus­trat­ing bar­rier be­tween the two women, mak­ing it less likely that they would talk to each other, when they might have more to say to each other – but then a mid­dle-aged woman came down the aisle and handed the opal woman a packet of jelly beans. “You’ll need these for en­ergy, Mum.” Her mother thanked her and tucked the jelly beans away, then re­clined her seat and put her sleep­ing mask on.

“Last time I ew, I got ter­ri­ble alti­tude sick­ness,” the win­dow-seat woman whis­pered to me. “It was years ago. I re­mem­ber ly­ing on the oor un­der the seats think­ing I might be dy­ing. Sud­denly the word ‘God’ came to me. ‘God, God, God, God.’ I felt like the word was beam­ing into me right down the cen­tre, like a torch beam, lling me with the word ‘God,’ and I thought, ‘Well, if this is dy­ing, it’s all right’.”

“That must have been in­cred­i­bly stress­ful,” I said, and she jut­ted her chin up­ward, squint­ing.

“It’s how it hap­pened, and it got me to where I needed to be.”

She looked out at the wing. “This is the rst time I’ve

own in many, many years. I haven’t been able to, with my sick­ness. But if I make it this time, it’s a sign I’ll be able to make it to Switzer­land, where my son lives. This is my test ight, you see.” She gave the open-mouthed smile again. “I’m meet­ing my sis­ter in Welling­ton. First time I’ve seen her in ve years. We were born in In­ver­cargill. I had to leave be­cause of the mould.” Then she told me about the rst time she’d been up in a plane, when she was six­teen. Her friend’s fa­ther was a pi­lot, and he had a small plane. They all went up to­gether in the small plane and did ac­ro­bat­ics for half an hour. “Straight af­ter the ight, my friend and I went o to a dance. All dressed up in our miniskirts. I was feel­ing so sick. My very rst dance, I vom­ited all over my part­ner! He was very an­noyed with me.”

We were still on the tar­mac, and I was al­ready feel­ing tired, be­cause even though I’d en­joyed lis­ten­ing to the woman’s sto­ries, I’d had to re­act with sur­prise and de­light at them. My en­ergy for talk­ing to strangers gets de­pleted quickly. Maybe sit­ting next to win­dow-seat woman would be too much. But she was quiet now, and soon we were in the air, and Bris­bane, with its pale sky and all its evenly tanned peo­ple in sun­glasses and sleeve­less tops, was drop­ping away.

I had been up since quar­ter to ve be­cause I’d had to walk to the train sta­tion with my friend James, who was ying back to Dar­win. I closed my eyes and fell into a blank doze. When I opened them again I felt heavy and sad. I al­ways feel a bit sad on ights be­tween coun­tries. I can’t help think­ing about the past and the fu­ture and where I will end up. The ge­o­graph­i­cal limbo seems to em­pha­size a limbo I feel in

my­self. I was star­ing into space, think­ing about all this, when the woman sud­denly said, “My brother’s a cross­dresser,” and I was jolted back into our lit­tle row. “Been do­ing it for ten years, and has never been hap­pier,” she said. “He’d al­ways felt pulled in all di­rec­tions as a young man – he just wasn’t ever him­self. What grief. Imag­ine it. And when he was fifty, he met this won­der­ful woman who told him to just let go. Just let it out. And he started dress­ing like a woman, these lovely skirts, colour­ful shoes, and he and this woman who’d told him to do it, they ended up mar­ried. It was a real eye-opener for our whole fam­ily. We all loved him, but now we had to learn how to love him as a lady, too.”

I got the sense she’d told the story nu­mer­ous times but that she liked to tell it be­cause it con rmed some­thing she’d long be­lieved about peo­ple and about their true selves.

“It’s an amaz­ing way to have your whole world opened up, you know.” She prised an­other sand­wich from her plas­tic con­tainer and started to eat. We were ying over the clouds now, and were quiet again for a time.

When the opal woman took o her mask and shak­ily stood to make her way to­ward the toi­lets, I stood up too.

The win­dow-seat woman fol­lowed. Or­di­nar­ily I would’ve felt ir­ri­tated, but with this woman I didn’t. She didn’t seem needy or search­ing with her sto­ries. She didn’t seem to ex­pect any­thing from me. She would have told the same sto­ries to who­ever was seated be­side her. We queued to­gether at the end of the aisle, while the peo­ple in the toi­lets took what seemed like a very long time. Win­dow-seat woman looked at me in­cred­u­lously. “Funny how some peo­ple take so long. Just like life, isn’t it?” Then she looked fixedly at me

and said: “About forty years ago my brother – not the cross­dresser one, the other one – was ying over Saudi Ara­bia, and the plane got hi­jacked. It was in the days when it was easy to hi­jack a plane. The hi­jack­ers made the pi­lots land in a desert.” The thought crossed my mind then that the woman could be ly­ing, at least ex­ag­ger­at­ing. “They had to stay there for two days un­til they were res­cued. My brother was ne in the end, and no one was killed. But he came back to us very much older.” She gave a strange, sad laugh. “And later on, he ended up dy­ing of AIDS. What a mys­tery.” A toi­let door nally opened and she went in while I stayed wait­ing in the aisle. I thought about the woman’s brother, and about the young man ly­ing silently on the couch in the psy­cho­an­a­lyst’s o ce. It had taken Grosz a long time to un­der­stand that all An­thony needed was not to feel alone. He didn’t need to talk, but he wanted to fall asleep with­out fear, know­ing that when he was gone he stayed present and alive in the mind of an­other.

Back in our seats, the woman told me that she’d once been a bikie in the Hells An­gels – had prob­a­bly been one of New Zealand’s rst fe­male bikies – but got in trou­ble with the po­lice so had to give it up; that she’d been thrown out of nu­mer­ous night­clubs as a young­ster be­cause her skirt was too short; that once she went to an auc­tion at Lyall Bay and her young daugh­ter had tripped over in front of her, and when she reached out to pick her up she made a par­tic­u­lar mo­tion that made the auc­tion­eer think she was bid­ding, and she ended up buy­ing a big oak ta­ble. She told me that it was in Lower Hutt when her real life be­gan, be­cause it was here that she re­alised she was a healer.

What hap­pened was this: A friend had ar­rived in Lower Hutt af­ter a long ight, and he had hurt his el­bow lift­ing a heavy suit­case. She had put her hands on his el­bow to rub it and com­fort him, and when she did, some­thing hap­pened.

“I felt this strange, pow­er­ful tin­gling in my hands and arms, and I thought I must be get­ting pins and nee­dles.

Af­ter a few mo­ments, I had this strong feel­ing that my friend’s el­bow was bet­ter now. I took my hands away, and he said, “Gosh, my el­bow feels much bet­ter.” I said to my­self, ‘I’m a healer, I’m a healer!’” She said that many years later, she ended up with her own heal­ing prac­tice in Zurich.

Her hus­band earned all the money, so she didn’t charge for her heal­ing ser­vices.

It was pos­si­ble that she was reck­lessly in­vent­ing. Who eas­ier to tell an imag­ined life to than a stranger on a plane whom you’ll likely never see again? The ge­og­ra­phy and timescale of her life was er­ratic – she had men­tioned In­ver­cargill, sub­urbs around Welling­ton, Paekakariki, all over Europe, all over Aus­tralia – and it was hard to gure out who she was with­out be­ing able to con­nect her rmly to one par­tic­u­lar place. The past seemed so vivid to her that it was also hard for me to grasp that some of the sto­ries she was telling took place more than forty years ago. I made up my mind not to de­cide there and then whether she was telling the truth. I wanted to stay open for as long as I could.

I was wide-awake when she said, with re­solve: “Now, I’m go­ing to tell you about you.” She had not ex­pressed any par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in me un­til this point, be­yond ask­ing me how old I was and what I did for a liv­ing. Opal woman was hav­ing a whis­pered con­ver­sa­tion with her daugh­ter, who had

come down the aisle hold­ing a minia­ture hair­brush.

“You love your cat,” the win­dow-seat woman said; “you love your cat very much, and you love all an­i­mals.” I re­alised that she must think she had psy­chic abil­i­ties, along with heal­ing abil­i­ties. There was noth­ing to do but play along; I was trapped here. I told her she was right about the cat and the an­i­mals. “You’re very gen­tle,” she went on.

“At your core you are very gen­tle, though you can be spiky on the out­side.” How does one dis­agree? Isn’t that the ba­sic hu­man con­di­tion?

“Where do you live..? I’m see­ing you liv­ing on the top of a hill. Steep hill. And you’re zip­ping about on the roads, very quick, very zippy. An ex­plorer.” She mo­tioned with her hands.

“You’re very like your mother but you think she talks too much. Your fa­ther is a bit hazy to me.” She frowned for a while. “You have more of a con­nec­tion with one of your broth­ers than the other one, per­haps.” Then she shook her head. “I could go on and on, but it wouldn’t do ei­ther of us any good.” She laughed and said, “I will just say, I don’t see any black marks ahead. Isn’t that great!” She peered at me. “I also will just say, you need to clean your glasses.”

We spent some time in quiet. I tried to read my book again. An­thony had not died – in fact, af­ter be­ing told he might have two years left and that es­sen­tially he had no fu­ture, he had lived for a very long time. “I now think that An­thony’s si­lences ex­pressed di er­ent things at di er­ent times,” Grosz was say­ing. “Sor­row, a de­sire to be close to me but stay sep­a­rate, and a wish to stop time.” An­thony was still alive at the chap­ter’s close, and then I be­gan a new chap­ter, about a woman named Alice P., who was try­ing to grieve

for a baby she had lost, but wasn’t able to.

We were ten min­utes from land­ing when the woman turned to me and said, “I wanted to save this till the very end. I see some big changes ahead for you. Your life is go­ing to go like that.” She made a zig-zaggy mo­tion with her hand. “Yes, you’ve spent so much time putting others rst, and it’s your turn now.” She looked at me with such kind­ness that I put aside, for a mo­ment, the knowl­edge that this is what psy­chics rou­tinely tell their charges, be­cause this is what peo­ple want to hear. Every­one wants to feel cho­sen. Be­ing told “it’s your turn now,” feels like be­ing praised, or needed, or pur­sued. But then she said, drily, “I don’t sup­pose you’ve met the love of your life.” I was us­tered and felt a surge of an­noy­ance. It was her know­ing­ness, and her ip­pancy. I told her, “I’m not sure I be­lieve in that ex­pres­sion ‘love of your life.’ But I feel that maybe I have, ac­tu­ally, back home.” She said, “Well, let’s see. You’re at the per­fect age. Women come right at your age. Men never re­ally come right.” I got re­ally an­noyed then – maybe she would go on to ask some­one else if they had found the love of their life, and that per­son would grow doubt­ful about all of their de­ci­sions and throw ev­ery­thing away – and turned on my Kin­dle and read that Grosz’s sis­ter had been to speak to a clair­voy­ant when she had lost her home and all her pos­ses­sions in a brush re in Cal­i­for­nia. Grosz’s sis­ter said that through the clair­voy­ant she’d spo­ken to her and Grosz’s mother, who had been dead for more than twenty years, and Grosz was sur­prised to nd him­self tear­ful. “What did Mom say?”

We were de­scend­ing quickly into Welling­ton now and I could see the hills and houses tak­ing on their fa­mil­iar

edges. The pi­lot had an­nounced that the lo­cal tem­per­a­ture was 12 de­grees Cel­sius – about 54 Fahren­heit – with a strong southerly wind, and a shriek had gone up from all the Queens­lan­ders on board. I nished my book, and found my­self cry­ing. Win­dow-seat woman mur­mured, “Jerry must be miss­ing you.” Jerry is the name of my cat. She said, “Is that his name? Jerry? He’ll be glad to see you.” I man­aged to say, “Yes, yes it is,” even as I was shak­ing my head. At some point I must have said Jerry’s name, I must have, but as I combed care­fully back through our con­ver­sa­tion, I was sure I hadn’t.

Af­ter we landed and were wait­ing for the seat belt sign to turn o , she said to me, “Do they still call Welling­ton the City of An­gels? They al­ways said that the an­gels help planes to get down safely to the ground.” I said no, I was sure they had never called it that. Then I helped her to pull her bag from the over­head com­part­ment and a few min­utes later she was swal­lowed by the steadily mov­ing line of pas­sen­gers ahead of me.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.