The world is full of people who are setups for jokes. I met one of the cursed on Southwest airlines. I was flying back to Los Angeles from New York, with a layover in Milwaukee. She was a mother in her late-30’s/early-40’s, attractive, and had yet to succumb to mom jeans, which I noticed when she was placing one of her three daughters’ bags in the overhead compartment above her row (which was in front of mine). Her booty was an affront to the tolls of motherhood.
Normally I pack snacks for a flight, but this morning I didn’t have time, so I was forced to buy what the terminal had to offer. I went with a turkey sandwich, bananas for $1.29 each (I bought two because it made me feel regal), and a Fruit & Nut bar from Kind.
I had the sandwich and one of the overpriced bananas inside me before we took off. When we hit the atmosphere I undressed the Kind bar to about where its navel would be. That’s when the mother turned to me.
"Excuse me," she said, which I took for flirting. (I always do that—anytime a woman talks to me. It’s one of the many delusions I allow myself.) "I don’t mean to disturb you, but…does that bar have peanuts in it?"
It was an Almond & Coconut, so I said, “No,” imagining I had disappointed her and now she wouldn’t ask me to share it with her, bite for bite.
"Because my daughter has a severe allergy to peanuts," she said, killing the mood I had invented.
"I’m not gonna feed it to her," I said. There was disdain in my voice—which surprised me. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way.
"It’s that we’re in a closed space," she said, defensive but remaining civil. "The air circulation…" She pointed over her shoulder and over her daughter with the peanut allergy (who was too small to see), as if that’s where "The Air Circulation" was.
"Oh…" I wasn’t sure what to do with the bar in my hand. "OK."
"And we wouldn’t want to have to make an emergency landing, now would we?" she said. It was all threat.
"No, we wouldn’t."
"I apologize again for disturbing you." There was some venom in her apology, but in her eyes…Her eyes seemed to be begging, "Please. Please, tell me I’m a good mother."
She turned around before I could. I bit into the bar, unable to taste any coconut, and felt like a jerk for snapping at her with that “I’m not gonna feed it to her” line. I thought about the fears mothers must have for their children—that this world becomes even more absurd and uncaring when even a peanut can take a life…
But then I noticed something: The mother didn’t ask anyone else on the flight if what they were eating had peanuts in it. There were at least 100 of us on that plane—all of us involved with “The Air Circulation” in that closed space.
How many people were in fact eating peanuts outright? She never took a poll.
How many people had come into contact with peanuts at some point before the flight? Was there a Thai cook on board?
Had anyone accepted luggage from a stranger? Perhaps from an anthropomorphized legume with a monocle, top hat, and cane?
If this mother truly believed that her daughter was susceptible to peanut infection—that everything was a possible fomes—then shouldn’t she have made it her point to…?
Oh no, I thought, the flight attendant is coming up the aisle and he’s passing out little red bags. They’re pretzels! Thank god! But on the back of the package was a warning: that these pretzels were processed in a plant that also handles peanuts.
What’s this mother to do?
Well, I watched her read the warning label, but then she just went ahead and placed the little red packages (enough for her and her daughters) in the pouch of the seatback in front of her. They were unopened, sure, but being only feet from her allergic daughter made them more like undetonated.
I believed this whole situation began as a setup for a joke, but I can’t figure out the punchline.
Why me? I ask. Why did this mother choose to reveal her daughter’s peanut allergy to only me? If she even had an allergy at all…
Either way, I wonder how things would have gone if I had instead responded to her question about the bar with a “Oh yes, it has peanuts. Enough peanuts to take us all out.”
As I prepare for my flight fly back to Los Angeles I’m reminded of Rosa, the young woman I helped when I flew into LaGuardia Airport last week.
She was in the back of a yellow cab—the curbside back door thrown open—being talked at by the taxi driver (still in the driver’s seat) and the taxi dispatcher, who loomed on the curb.
It was clear that she didn’t understand what they were saying—it didn’t matter how many times or how loudly the dispatcher with the Caribbean accent annunciated, “Address!”
Finally, she scooted out of the backseat and hopped down to the curb to have a one-on-one with the dispatcher. The line of people waiting for cabs was growing and she and the dispatcher were clogging things up, so I leaned over the short fence separating us and asked her if she spoke Spanish—even though I already knew she did.
I explained to her that they needed her dirección.
She produced a square of cardboard that looked liked it had been cut from the back cover of a spiral notebook. On it was written the words “Groeber Street / Calle Star.” These are the words she had shown to the taxi driver, but these cross streets didn’t exist—not even in the Bronx, where she was heading.
I asked her if she knew the building number. She unfurled a piece of loose-leaf that was a palimpsest of pencil and ink. The scrawls paid no attention to ruled lines. Words ended and seemingly spat phone numbers up and across the paper.
She pointed to a four-digit combination written in pencil. I read the numbers out loud to her, then plugged in “1936 Groeber Street” into my Waze app. The address existed—but somewhere else in the country.
Her name was Rosa. She was shivering. It was November in New York and all she had for a coat was this thin pleather thing, zipped to the top. She was tiny, scrunching her shoulders to protect her thin neck from the cold. Although I couldn’t tell her age—Central Americans have this ageless quality about them—I knew she was young. I gave her a pair of gloves I never wore but had stowed in my bookbag.
I asked her if there was someone we could call.
She picked out one of the phone numbers on the paper and I dialed the number. I gave her the phone and told her to tell the person to speak to me in English. The little Spanish I know, I’m better with in person, where I can see lips.
He said his name was Davie. I explained the deal: we needed the address. He gave me a different set of numbers and a different street name than what was written down.
“Lobe-air Street,” he said, in a thick Latin accent.
I tried to take it one letter at a time, but I couldn’t understand him, and every time he finished spelling the word, the street name had somehow morphed. Was it “Luber" now? "Grober”?
Thankfully, Davie had the idea to just text me the address.
While Rosa and I waited for his text, I asked her where her luggage was. She didn’t have any, except for this drawstring backpack that was completely flat. She looked like a school kid who hadn’t been assigned homework.
I asked her if she was hungry and offered her the snacks I had packed for my flight. She took a banana.
Davie’s text came through. I couldn’t understand how they had fucked up the pronunciation of the street address so badly—but the place did exist.
I took Rosa’s banana peel. We got her in a cab. She was grateful. I didn’t ask for the gloves back—and she didn’t offer them. I can only imagine what was on her mind. New country. Freezing weather. She doesn’t speak the language. No luggage. She doesn’t know where she’s going. No one—not even Davie—coming to pick her up from the airport…
It was only as the taxi was pulling away that I recognized the shadiness of the situation and thought, what the fuck world was I helping Rosa get to?
One regret I have about quitting my job as an erotic fiction writer so many years ago is that I never got to write my leper story. The one where, during the act of love-making with his missionary, the protagonist with leprosy literally falls apart.
What I used to fear most about the zombie apocalypse was being eaten alive. I imagined the sensation of being consumed as a type of drowning — except here the waves are made of rotting flesh that miraculously anchors teeth and fingernails for the sole purpose of tearing me apart in chunks. I am not delicious. I satisfy no hunger. And soon I become one of them.
But now, thanks to The Walking Dead, what I fear most about the zombie apocalypse is getting stuck with a bunch of people I don’t care about. And if the season-four premiere of TWD is any indication, my fear has been realized. And my Sunday nights are fucked.
One regret I have about quitting my job as an erotic fiction writer so many years ago is that I never got to explore the intimate relationship between dentist and patient.
"After I drain this abscess of yours, Mrs. Rodriguez, I’m going to pound you so hard we’ll need to cap all of your molars."