Travel and Leisure or The Pest (1996)
EXCERPTED FROM 1996 SPRING CONTEST ISSUE
“Anoche te vi,” sang Deniz, dancing a self-absorbed salsa in the aisle.
“I have my radio,” said her six-year-old daughter, Rana. “We can listen to tapes.”
“We can’t play music in an airplane, love.”
Deniz’s husband, Murat, looked up from his fourth Scotch and water, from under hooded pharaoh-like eyelids.
Rana sighed. “Can I have your peanuts?” she asked him. He nodded.
“Estabas tan Hermosa.” Deniz spun absently on one heel, trance-like, and turned her head to the left and back. “Sin saber que decir, o hacia donde mirar—“
“You know? I think your whole past is a confabulation,” said Irem, Deniz’s thirteen-year-old stepdaughter.
“Look at me,” said Rana, who had fitted two salty foil peanut bags over her ears. “I’m Peanut Ears.”
“You were born in the fourteen hundreds, in Transylvania,” said Irem, sitting on the armrest of Deniz’s empty seat, “and a sorcerer put a spell on you so you had to dance the salsa-merengue for centuries, alone, in a castle in the heart of the Black Forest.”
“Talk louder,” said Rana, adjusting her peanut ears. “I can’t hear you.”
“Neither can she,” said Irem. “It’s the trance. It’s chronic, like bronchitis. No, like acid: you get flashbacks. Four hundred years of Latin dancing doesn’t melt away just like that.
“At night the wolves would go mad with hunger, they’d howl and bay and surround the castle. The castle was run-down, there was snow absolutely everywhere, fourteen-foot drifts in the corners, but the wolves would thirst for blood and sit all around her, where she danced in the big deserted ballroom. Her heels clicked against the stone floors, like this…” She shook ice in one of her father’s empty plastic glasses. “Naturally the wolves couldn’t touch her while she was dancing, no matter how they slavered and lathered.”
Murat, who had twisted in his seat to watch Deniz, turned to look at Irem. “She couldn’t stop dancing, not for centuries. Naturally, she was asleep the whole time.” Murat leaned back and picked up his plastic glass. “She drove the wolves stark staring mad, they learned to eat stones. When dawn broke every morning, light would seep in from chinks way up near the ceiling, five stories overhead, and dust would filter through, and there she would be: baila suave… mi cha cha…”
A young Dutch man emerged from the bathroom, flushed and rumpled-looking.
“JF!” sang Rana. Deniz had earlier christened the Dutch man JF, short for Jerk Face. Because he had insisted in taking a window seat, Gil could not sit with Melek and the rest of the family, and was instead by himself four rows up.
JF looked nervously from Rana to Deniz, who was dancing in place with her eyes closed, really just shifting her weight from one foot to the other. He lunged suddenly into the aisle, as though to walk through Rana.
“Pardon me. Pardon me. Pardon me.”
Murat stacked the three empty glasses in one hand and held the fourth in the other, shutting his tray table, and stood in the aisle. JF had to step over Melek, who was struggling through The Fountainhead in English.
“It’s the big moment,” said Deniz, pulling Irem to her feet with both hands and ushering her to the lavatory.
“You can go first,” said Irem.
Deniz shook her head, moving her hips to an inner Cuban rhythm. She placed Irem’s hands like two fishes on her shoulders, clasped her waist, and rhumbaed her into the cubicle. At the threshold, she turned to face Rana and Murat, easing the door shut behind her. On the other side of the aisle, Rana rummaged in her plastic backpack, producing a piece of wooly pink construction paper. Bearing down with all her weight on a maroon crayon, she wrote: “HI IREM!!! what happens to mom in the castle at the end of the story?!!” She swung her legs back and forth a few times, using the momentum to launch herself out of her seat, and slipped the folded paper under the door of the lavatory.
There was a pause, followed by a distant wail: “Why do you guys always torment me?” The toilet flushed. “You know the end already,” Irem said, sliding the door open with some difficulty and smoothing her mustard-colored corduroy skirt. “Dad marries her and takes her away, and it’s only at the most unexpected moments—while waiting to use the airplane lavatory, for instance—that she once again lapses into the Sleeping Merengue.”
“Beefer fisher veal ragout,” spat the stewardess, looming behind Gil like an allegory for industry, pushing a chrome cart almost as tall as she was.
“Pardon?” said Gil.
“Beefer fisher veal ragout.”
“Beefer, fisher, veal ragout. Which one.”
“Beefer fisher, veal ragout,” chanted Irem. “I used to have a dog, but they turned it into stew.”
“I understand when you say ‘veal ragout,’” said Gil. “But the rest—?”
“You want the veal ragout?”
“I—well, I guess so.”
“Beefer, fisher, veal ragout,” the stewardess snapped, tossing Gil a casual ragout and moving on.
“Beefer, fisher, veal ragout, sailed to sea in a waterproof shoe,” said Irem.
“Got so wet they didn’t know what to do,” said Rana.
Rana was writing a novel in crayon, based on a dream she had had the previous night about a floating diner with a mermaid inside. JF, wearing his earphones, had been playing air piano on his knee for the past two hours.
“Beef please,” said Deniz. A little armored steak clattered to her tray table.
“JF will be wanting the fish,” Irem whispered to her in Turkish. “Look how his eyes bulge. He probably wants—more...” She lapsed into English. “Extra phosphorus so he glows in the dark.”
“No,” said Deniz. “I know many JFs and they all like rare steak. It affirms their masculinity.”
“Cannot I have beef and fish,” JF said just then.
“Typically enough, JF wants it all,” said Irem. Deniz smiled and began to disarmor the steak.
“Guess what I’m reading?” said Irem. “The Plague. I think it’s really good dinner table reading… ‘In the small face, rigid as a mask of grayish clay, slowly the lips parted and from them rose a long, incessant scream, hardly varying with his respiration, and filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest, so little childish that it seemed like a collective voice issuing from all the sufferers there.’”
“Irem, not while we’re eating,” said Melek, trying to open a cellophane packet containing plastic knife and fork.
“The plague is extinct, don’t worry,” said Irem. “Or it’s treatable with antibiotics or something. ‘Rieux found his patient leaning over the edge of the bed, one hand pressed to his belly and the other to his neck, vomiting pinkish bile into a slop-pail. After retching for some moments—‘”
“Irem, please,” said Melek, finally tearing the packet open with her teeth. Irem sighed and began quarantining the almonds in her rice almondine.
She woke from a thin, watery sleep peppered with dreams of pustules and ganglia to the sound of JF being violently sick in a waxed paper bag as they began their descent to the greater Tokyo area.
Rana’s head was rapping sharply against her tray table, or rather on page nine of her novel: Hello, said the emerald mermaid, I will give you all some coal so that your car will work again.
“Goldfinger,” Gil was saying, “was a really great film.” Murat took a sip from the wine leftover from Deniz’s dinner.
“Even when I was a little girl, I was fascinated by buildings,” Melek said. Deniz nodded, stirring a fresh Bloody Mary. “Of course it never occurred to my parents to push me into the study of architecture.”
“I never studied architecture in detail,” Deniz began, “but what I found—excuse me miss, do you have any pepper?” They spoke in quiet, strained, early-morning voices.
“And now where?” said Melek, fumbling for a cigarette.
“JF, JF!” Rana sang. “Look!” Indeed, a twist of fate had reunited them with JF.
“Splendid,” said Murat. “We follow JF. He will lead us from this den of…” He picked up two suitcases and squared his shoulders. The others turned to follow.
“JFK:” said Irem. “JF Knows.”
Indeed JF led them to the correct shuttle bus, in which they subsequently stood like toothpicks in a bottle for three hours, inching through the Tokyo afternoon traffic.
“It’s too hot,” said Rana.
“Far too hot,” agreed Irem. “You’d think they were trying to grow orchids.”
Passing under a massive pink-tiled Shinto-style gate, they rattled like six dried peas in a box into an empty pink-tiled swimming pool with fifteen-foot walls. This was the courtyard to the Nakase Prince Resort Hotel, and it contained a rock garden, a pool of carp, and several trees which appeared to have spent their formative years developing deformities, in little glass jars, in order to beg on the streets of nineteenth-century London.
Irem wondered whether it mightn’t be sacrilegious to use Shinto gates for commercial purposes. “I don’t know,” said Deniz, “but I’m sure it must be in very poor taste. Gil, love, why don’t you go get our keys.”
Gil went, and the others fell into a stupor. The outlines of their fellow tourists loafing at the other end of the courtyard dimly penetrated a haze of heat and pink: multimedia heat, hyper-pink that clotted all five senses. The muted sound of two multilingual conversations, the artificial waterfall, and a distant Muzak rendition of Albinoni’s Adagio reverberated eerily off the tiles in the background.
Irem sat down on a suitcase. Suddenly an enormous man swam into her peripheral vision, swept past her, brushing so close that she was afraid he would walk somehow through her head. He held a salami sandwich and was followed by an enormous woman pulling a suitcase on wheels behind her. They receded, melting into pink waves at the back of the courtyard. Irem could dimly distinguish the form of the man extending one hand to the woman, who hauled herself atop of a little tiled table, where she sat and quivered in throbbing sultry pinkness, like some alarming Queen of the Sweets.
Gil had returned from the lobby with the news that their suite was being “cleaned indefinitely.” Swearing Murat stalked into the pink tiled lobby, where Albinoni, squid-like, encompassed all.
“How can a suite require indefinite cleaning?” Murat shouted dimly at the receptionist, through a new, air-conditioned haze: pink Muzak. “Is there an indefinite amount of dirt?”
The receptionist, ensconced like an Aztec goddess in a pink-tiled throne, smiled inscrutable. “[Something, something] efficient,” she brayed, under a wash of synthesized organ
Outside, Gil repeatedly apologized. “I just let her make the reservations. I didn’t call. I just let her make the reservations.”
Time continued to pass at the Nakase Prince Resort Hotel. People came and went, as was their wont; a van arrived, for instance, bearing some thirty Swedish passengers with badges that read “International Congress of Pediatric Neurosurgery.” But Albinoni was there, the haze was still there, the scene had a plodding deliberate quality as though the tourists were about to rise of a single accord and march into the sea like lemmings. Like rats, Irem thought, looking up from The Plague to wipe sweat out of her eyes; the Pied Piper would emerge from amidst the Swedish neurosurgeons, playing Albinoni’s Adagio, and everybody would follow him to the third and lowest layer of the ocean where human-sized blind worms and tender inky blobs squirmed in the nitrogen-rich gloom.
Deniz sat up straighter. “There’s a breeze,” she said,
“I wish there was a breeze,” said Melek.
“We’re in purgatory,” said Murat. “Mathematics is suspended…indefinite cleaning, indefinite dirt. Thanks to entropy, we’ll be here forever. An indefinite amount of Lysol can’t clean an indefinite amount of dirt, because dirt increases faster than cleanliness.”
“My pants!” somebody suddenly exclaimed.
“My pants, my green pants!”
“Well, for land’s sakes!”
“What’s the matter with her?” said Melek in Turkish.
“Look.” Deniz he'd up her sleeve, which was speckled with a fine white powder.
“It’s some kind of ash!” the salami man observed.
People began discussing the ash. “It’s enough that they keep us waiting, without—“
Irem froze. Slowly, she opened the book on her lap:
The first step taken was to bury the dead by night, which obviously permitted a more summary procedure…. by a special urgency measure the denizens of grants in perpetuity were evicted from their graves and the exhumed remains dispatched to the crematorium. And soon the plague victims likewise had to go to a fiery end. This meant that the old crematorium east of the town, outside the gates, had to be utilized… [the Prefect] advised them to employ the streetcar line running along the coastal road, which was now unused… And in the warm darkness of the summer nights the cars could be heard clanking on their way, laden with flowers and corpses.
Irem understood as one understand things in advance in dreams: the white, faintly sticky flakes on her skirt, on the ground, in her hair, were the ashes of Our Incinerated Dead. Tokyo had the plague. No wonder the carp looked so sickly; transportation naturally had its hands full dispatching exhumed remains to the Nakase Prince Resort Hotel for incineration. No wonder the hotel appeared deserted, and yet their room was not ready yet.
“Rambert, who had been temporarily put in charge of a quarantine station—his hotel had been taken over for the purpose…”
“Gil!” Irem said urgently, pointing at the passage in the book.
“When I was thirteen they made me read Johnny Tremain,” observed Gil. “But I don’t know why you do this to yourself.”
“The ashes, though. The ashes—“