Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Seven

With his auxiliary bag lunch in the pocket of the seat pocket in front of him, Mr. Barbicane happily contemplated his first class entrée, a gift given only to the handful of people in the forward cabin. He had selected the Chicken Breast Italiano served on a bed of fettuccini noodles with a small side salad, roll and a can of Diet Coke. He had decided against the Fiesta Shrimp Kabob and the Lite Snack Cheese Plate.

The chicken breast, grilled with a topping of “Italian” seasonings rested on a confusion of noodles in a rectangular dish of white plastic. A chocolate chip cookie wrapped in clear plastic and a salad, with a small foil packet of creamy Caesar dressing in a slightly deeper dish, were at opposite corners of the plastic tray the cabin attendant put on Mr. Barbicane’s tray table, reaching across the young lady who he had heard to order the Lite Snack Cheese Plate.

There was a time in this great nation of ours when people in the first class cabins of aircraft ate with metal utensils and drank from actual glasses while those who had spent less for their tickets ate with plastic utensils and drank from plastic cups at the rear of the aircraft. Political and religious extremism and nightmarish tragedy have democratized the dining hierarchy on airplanes. Now everyone eats with and drinks from plastic. Plastic is believed to be less lethal than metal although Mr. Barbicane took little comfort in this distinction. The white picnic fork and knife on the tray in front of him added no additional sense of safety or well-being. They served only as another reminder of how, when faced with tragedy, we often come up with the most amazingly wrongheaded reactions.

Mr. Barbicane unwrapped the golden foil around his small Scrabble tile of butter, broke open the surprisingly cold roll, cut off a rectangle of butter with his plastic knife and started to apply it to the roll. Since both roll and butter were very cold spreading was not an easy process. He pressed harder, trying to force the butter to flatten against the soft insides of the roll. But this only managed to compress the airy roll against the inside of the crust. He pressed harder.

Then Mr. Barbican’s hands slipped and the serrated edge of the plastic knife cut across the side of his left index finger just at the first knuckle. There was a startlingly precise lick of pain. His eyes clicked to the left to see if the woman next to him had noticed the slip. But her hands were busy inspecting the contents of her snack plate (several plastic wrapped packets of multigrain crackers, a small plastic tub of pale cheese, a yellow brick of something he assumed was cheddar, a number of grapes and an apple) and nothing in her focused industry indicated she was aware anything had happened to him.

He looked at the site of the injury. Perhaps he hadn’t cut all that deep. Then, after what seemed a remarkably long time, a thin diagonal of red, less than a quarter of an inch in length, appeared at the edge of Mr. Barbicane’s index finger. The line became more distinct then thickened, then glistened as blood made its way to the surface of his skin. He put down the piece of roll he was holding and put the finger to his lips. There wasn’t enough blood to taste. Then Mr. Barbicane took tore off part of his paper napkin and wrapped it around his finger to form an impromptu bandage, holding it in place with his middle finger and putting pressure on the site of the injury with his thumb.

This made the manipulating of his knife and fork slightly more difficult, but not so difficult as to prevent Mr. Barbicane from completing his meal. He set the roll and butter aside and started to cut his chicken into manageable bites. He thought this would permit him to put the knife down and eat the bulk of his meal with his fork only. It did.

He opened the foil package of dressing and squeezed the contents over the small salad of green lettuce, one cherry tomato and four small brown croutons. He then proceeded to alternate, with no real pattern or rhythm to the alternations, between the salad, the chicken and the noodles underneath the chicken. To this rotation he would occasional add a sip of his Diet Coke, a bite of his roll (he had decided against any additional attempts at buttering) and pauses to look out the window at the intense white landscape of clouds. In this fashion, Mr. Barbicane consumed his meal and felt satisfied by it.

When he was finished eating, he put down his plastic knife and fork and carefully took the napkin off his cut finger. The cut was no longer bleeding. Now there was a thread of congealed blood matching the red stain on the napkin he saw when he took it away. It looked and felt like a paper cut. He decided to buy a package of Band-Aids when the plane landed at Dallas-Ft. Worth. This would protect his finger from subsequent injury, help prevent the possibility of infection, and give him something else to do at the airport.

The cut on Mr. Barbicane’s finger was typical of the sort of pain and damage he had experienced so far in life. While his childhood had contained the appropriate illnesses and their associated discomfort, he had broken no bones, experienced no great traumas. His youth was similarly without medical note. Now, as he moved deeper into middle age, he had started to wonder if this eventless life might not be the blessing it first appeared to be. He had experienced little physical pain, no hospital stays or lengthy home confinement. He had needed no procedures or drugs with potential side-effects. Now, all those things lay ahead of him as his life drew closer to its ending. He could fully expect pain and hospitals and drugs and realized he had no preparation for these eventualities. Now, every stubbed toe, every minor cut was not so much an inconvenience as it was a threat, a promise that there was more ahead and that he was completely unprepared for it.

If he’d broken an arm as a boy or perhaps survived a serious automobile accident in his resilient youth, he would have some memory, some physiological context to help him get through what was waiting for him. As unreasonable as it might seem, Mr. Barbicane had started to believe that he had not avoided pain and discomfort so much as he had delayed it, deferred it to a later time and that time would be here sooner than he would wish. Then all the misery he could have averaged out over the years would be delivered to him in one crushing blow at a time when his ability to recover and bounce back was rapidly diminishing.

This contemplation not so much of mortality but of pain and suffering would have been bad enough, but recently it had started to crowd in on the thing that gave Mr. Barbicane so much pleasure. Travel. He had started to consider what might happen if that sudden visitation of cumulative pain were to arrive while he was away from home. What if, while at his happiest, he was struck down?

He tried to keep a cool head about this prospect, but the abstract concept of being “caught” in mid-step by pain was quickly replaced with disturbing fantasies of possible scenarios for the dreaded event. Mr. Barbicane thought about what it would be like to be on board an aircraft, such as the one he was now on, when he was found out and attacked through some agency (perhaps contaminated food or some toxic substance on the plastic cutlery). He had no sense of what real pain felt like and he was terrified he might discover the reality while five miles above the world he so enjoyed leaving. Or what if the attack occurred during a flight over a large body of water? Mr. Barbicane had never flown over an ocean and had no plans to do so in the immediate future, but that didn’t prevent him from considering what might happen if he was caught in some medical vice half-way between two places with no hope of an intermediate stop.

As frightening as the prospect of pain locating him on an airplane in flight was to Mr. Barbicane, he dreaded getting sick alone in a hotel room even more. Even though medical help would surely be more readily accessible to him, the idea of growing ill in a hotel room in a strange city elevated him to a high state of agitation. And this was such a cruel fantasy because he so loved hotel rooms.

Nothing, not even flying, gave him as much pleasure as being in an anonymous hotel room. And to think about being sick and in pain while in one of his beloved rooms…well, the thought itself could arguably bring on the condition imagined. Mr. Barbicane realized he could make himself sick by simply thinking about what it would be like. And he did think about it, more and more it seemed. He did not think of himself as an imaginative man, but the lurid detail in which this particular nightmare presented itself to him were, he thought, beyond the inventive capabilities of his own mind. And by nightmare one shouldn’t assume that these terrors were restricted to Mr. Barbicane’s sleep. Often lately they had started to assemble themselves in his waking mind in those moments when consciousness is unfocused by thought or task. Then, unnoticed at first, the elements of the drama would collect in the mind of its unwilling star.

Mr. Barbicane saw himself in a hotel room, in bed, feeling first uneasy, then uncomfortable. Then he sensed pain, beginning in his stomach (it always began in his stomach when he imagined it) and radiating out. That is to say he sensed what he imagined pain might feel like, but realized he was creating an empty approximation of the thing he feared. Pain, he knew, was indescribable. And if you couldn’t describe it, how could you ever end it?

The imagined pain grows in the imagined Mr. Barbicane. He looks at the clock radio and it is always four a.m. He throws back the covers and sits on the edge of the bed thinking he’ll go to the bathroom in the hope of some magical relief brought about by simply being in the bathroom. He stands, tries to straighten up and can’t. Pain keeps him from standing up straight. He walks, stooped over, around the foot of the bed, past the amoire with the cable television and the mini-bar, past his open suitcase on the rack between the mirrored closet doors and the chest of drawers, to reach the bathroom.

Bathrooms in hotel rooms are not like the bathrooms in homes. The poor ones are grim stalls for hygiene and elimination, the fine ones are places of luxury and conveniences. But neither kind will ever be mistaken for something found in a home.

The imagined Mr. Barbicane steps up to the imagined vanity and mirror and turns on a light. He looks at himself in the mirror and sees his face is colorless and fearful. He takes a glass and fills it from the tap. Then he takes some aspirin from a bottle in his traveling bag and swallows them. The pain grows like something inflating inside him, displacing his organs, pressurizing his blood till it pounds in his head. First he sits on the edge of the tub, then he slides down the side to sit on the floor, then he slowly, very slowly falls to one side and ends up hugging himself on the floor of a bathroom in a hotel room in a strange city.

Perhaps he dies in the hotel room. Mr. Barbicane always manages to stop the fantasy before it goes that far. But every time it conjures itself in his mind, it takes more of his will to stop it. And so many things can start his mind on these unhealthy and unsolicited trajectories. A bottle of aspirin on a counter, the sound of a siren during a quiet night, or the contemplation of an insignificant cut on the side of his finger.


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