When I was a kid I used to think they’d drug us somehow as the plane took off. I could never stay awake to pluck my home out of the city lights and say that’s the one, that’s what I’m leaving behind. Sleep always found me. By the time I woke up, nothing outside remained.
I don’t want to arrive. Last trip to India was visiting my grandmother, my Pati. That was ten years ago. Fell asleep with my cheek iced to the window, eyes opened like cracked marbles. Hours ago I searched for the spittle I left behind as a child. I ran toward half-sleep, stomach climbing, wanting to find merit in the planes rather than the places.
The man in front of me reclined his seat back without warning and I hated him a little. I reached down my throat and took out the animal—nausea, body of distortions—and I let it go, watched it paw up the man’s slick scalp, his bald egg-head, probably grinning like a mad dream.
If only Pati was there to see.
There’s a secret message hidden in plane food. I get chicken. Eat none of it—it may kill you. They only serve it to remind you of your hunger. I listen to the Frenchman beside me. He’s pointing at the window, at something palpable. The night sky has cooked something. Grain by grain I pick the stars and eat them. I cut open the moon with a bobby pin. Viscera pink and gleaming. I swallow, lung by lung and organ by organ, until I cannot breathe.
The sky is a woman, a woman lover, says my Pati.
Which one, I ask.
She nods. The kind where your head bobs left, not upward. She dips her fingers through dark smears of cloud stretching out of the ground, paints herself back into existence. I see that her wrinkles are the Hindu Kush and the earth has been keeping them for her. Now she is how I remember her before her death: thin lips, linoleum skin taped to her thin bones, some gauzy white top that could not possibly keep her warm.
I’ll tell you how I know, she says, not waiting for me to ask her. What follows is a knowing silence. Her gaze fixes to the horizon. I follow it. There, below the granulated blue: a thick spread of blood orange, deeper than night itself.
The sky blushes, she tells me, where the Afghan woman kissed her.
I try to hold her hand but she pulls away. It hurts me. I try to tell her that I do not know myself, that somehow that makes me more like her. I want to climb into the sky, become it, become who I love.
Out my window a sea jelly drifts by, the color of old people’s teeth. She snatches its darker half out of the sky, the one I cannot see, and slips it into my pocket. Then she sweeps her hands over the houses below in the way kings tell their sons all this will be yours one day but instead they don’t belong to me, they never will, for they are the tears the sky wept and can belong to nobody.
I ask my Pati: why is she crying?
But she is gone again and I am alone on a flight to India, my neighbors’ soft French packing my ears. Ça va? I look out the window and find the traces of her: the clouds, the mountains, the blood orange, the jelly without its darker half. And then I remember why it is missing, that perhaps she left me with something more than the memory of her words.
I reach into my pocket and come out with a palmful of ash.
They tell us to close the windows. They tell us to close our eyes, hold each other. They tell us to play music in our heads, trick ourselves, our bodies, into dancing. We hit the storm and whoever is outside those windows shakes us. We dance on our knuckles. Thunder rolls the plane like a basket of rice, or a casket.
High on the shelf she kept her television brick and a book of Indian artists. When we met for the last time she took this book down and used it to slap the mosquitoes on my wrist. Fractals of blood. Their bodies crushed like paper, the photos of her husband. I had a feeling about love and the absence of it. I said nothing.
Together we climbed into her bed. The curtain around us hugged the sweat off our bodies as we split open pastries: fat, jaundiced, gleaming. I swallowed. She told me to find the merit in planes, to never stay awake, never eat what they give you. She asked: have you opened a window during turbulence? Have you seen what’s really outside?
There were no such things as goodbyes. There was only next summer, and the next, and the next. Before my parents scooped me up she leaned in and made me promise. Love you to the moon, I said. Then I boarded a plane with the heat pulsing feebly, nausea at my belly, the thin smoke-curl of her lips just out of reach, and as we all floated apart I did not think much of anything.