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.