by ALVARO ZINOS-AMARO
They had an hour together on the flight, and so he asked her to teach him fifty words in French. He’d always wanted to learn a dead language.
"I’m sorry, but I don’t know any French," she said. He studied her. She was telling the truth. He had confused her with the strawberry blonde from the gate, the one with the black-rimmed reading glasses and silver toenails peeking from open sandals, the one who kept glancing over her shoulder.
"Maybe not French, then. Some other language." He leaned closer, explaining: "You’re not from here. Your accent."
They had settled into their seats, as much as one ever could in this environment. He adjusted the air vent so that it blew right into his hair, and then he played with the overhead reading light, turning it on, off, on, leaving it off in the end. She was staring ahead, but her lips flirted with a smile.
"You’re right, I’m not from these parts," she said.
"Ah." He was hoping the single syllabic confirmation would buy him enough time to produce an intelligent guess as to her place of origin, but it didn’t, so he didn’t.
"I have to warn you," she said. "This isn’t going to pan out the way you want it to."
"I’m married too," he protested, but it sounded feeble.
"Of course," she said.
A steward appeared from behind a beige curtain at the front of the plane. She reviewed safety procedures, mimicking horrendous circumstances with levity, wittily imparting her script, snapping clips into place, illustrating how to buckle a seat belt. Neither of them were paying attention. They didn’t know where the emergency exits were. They didn’t care. They hadn’t figured out how they would disentangle themselves from what they had started here. One way or another, getting off the plane would prove tricky—especially for him. The steward’s eyes twinkled and she was gone.
"Is Provençal a dialect of French?" he asked her. The engine was roaring to life. They were speeding up the runway. The Captain was mumbling something on the speakers. "I’ve always been confused on that point," he added.
"Provençal is a form of Occitan. We’re lucky," she said. She seemed to be reminiscing. "We have so many dead languages to choose from."
"One of my great-grandmothers was born in Catalonia. What they speak over there is descended from Occitan."
"It’s all ultimately Indo-European, isn’t it?"
"Not all of it," she said, and chuckled. "My native tongue certainly isn’t."
"So was there anyone you had your eyes on, back at the gate?"
"The pilot looked cute."
"Does he speak French?"
"He speaks vector," she said.
"We’re being propelled along by his grammar right now. No denying it."
"I wouldn’t want to deny anything you say."
"That charm again," she said, scrunching her face.
"I have to admit, I didn’t even see you before we boarded."
"With good reason. Let’s be honest for a moment. We both know I wasn’t at the gate."
He reclined in his chair.
"You weren’t," he agreed. He sighed. "But I was."
"Are you sure you don’t have any words to teach me?"
"Hmmm," she said. "I might."
"I can still learn a good deal. We have about forty-five minutes left."
"Way to spoil the mood."
"Our time together is the mood."
"Give me a minute of silence and I’ll pull a few words out for you," she said.
He tried not to smile but it was too much effort.
"Here’s one," she said, and began.
"That was fantastic. You gave me living languages. I didn’t realize that was possible."
"Least I could do."
"What’s your husband like?"
"Like you, in a way, but better looking. Do you have any sisters?"
"Three," he said.
"They always seem to pick ones with siblings for these flights," she observed. "Must be part of the reason you were selected. I don’t mind that. We don’t have siblings where I come from."
"I’m glad you don’t object," he said.
"The connection leads to more connection."
"Yes. Clever of you, to sneak that in like that. They don’t seem to notice."
"They’re busy. They’re like the Captain. Start one place, end up somewhere else. The in-between doesn’t exist for them."
The seat belt light indicator turned off. He unbuckled it and rose.
"Need to stretch my legs," he said.
He strode through the empty airplane, whistling a tune. He inspected the vacant seats, looking for traces of expression, small artefacts that would reveal the semantics under investigation.
"Not much to see," he reported, sitting back down beside her. "Maybe they didn’t remember I’d be here."
"They used to be more imaginative. Attentive to detail. Now it’s just outlines."
"Can I confess something? This is my first flight."
"You’re doing very well," she said, and reached out her hand.
He took it, his fingers knowing no shame or hesitation.
"Thank you," he said. He grew heated. His vision sharpened and blurred at the same time. The heat drowned him. He wanted so much, he was willing to give up everything. He was on the verge of tears. "You’ve been extremely kind."
"I can’t ask of others what I’m not willing to give of myself," she said. She returned to living languages. He was dazzled. It took a moment for his mind to stop spinning. His thoughts orbited the newness, the possibilities, without ever collapsing in. He was safe at a distance, but it was a relative safety, for he couldn’t escape.
"What if we imagined that all that emotion hadn’t gone out of fashion? Take French, for instance."
"The passion has vanished."
"Indeed," she said.
"You’re easy to talk to."
"We still have twenty minutes. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?"
"I’d like to know how to change," he said.
"Change is a dead language, I’m afraid. Like passion."
"Strawberry blonde; unappealing."
"Can I try it on?"
"You have. Now give it back."
"Very easy to talk to," he said. "Now ask me."
She was thoughtful. "Have you ever considered taking the trip again, as soon as it’s over?"
He closed his eyes. "That’s permitted?" He opened them.
"Most passengers would think it was too much work. Sitting at the terminal for an hour again, waiting to get back to where they came from. A waste of time."
"You’ve done it, haven’t you?"
She nodded, eager. "Only once before. I ended up marrying him."
"Now who’s being charming?"
"More like nostalgic."
"He’s in the past?"
"He’s in the present. Just not the future. You want to know if there’s any way of extending the flight, don’t you?"
"Yes," he said. He gripped the armrest, squeezed it. His knuckles were white. "Very much so. Please."
"We could land again," she said.
"That would seem to defeat the purpose."
"Flights landed once upon a time," she said. "They would take off in one place and arrive somewhere else. They were safe things. They were about displacement without movement."
"I think I like ours better."
"Let’s turn this around. You explain things to me."
"I don’t think there’s much to explain." He looked embarrassed. "I’m married. I was going somewhere, then changed my mind. One day I just decided to board. Isn’t that how it usually goes?"
"It’s different for everyone, yet always the same. You seem warm, kind-hearted, generous. Does that make you lonely?"
"The connection leads to more connection."
"Can you imagine a different world?"
"No dead languages?"
Petals of excitement blossomed in her hydrangea pupils, like a flower within a flower.
"What would it take to make it real?"
"We have ten minutes to figure that out," she said.
"There was a story I read when I was a young man." He held his head in his hands, then released it. "It was about a young man that wasn’t me. He went up a mountain and stayed there a long time. He may still be there. We’re flying to that same place, aren’t we?"
Sadness crept into his face.
"I’ve been there all along," she said. "Closer to you, farther from you, but always in that place."
"I know. But I wanted you to pretend. Us to pretend."
"I did too," she said, and her eyes acknowledged the loss. Her expression mirrored his, so that he wasn’t sure who owned the original. "But I didn’t want to waste more time."
He massaged his temple. "Have we been gaining altitude? I can feel the pressure."
"No," she said. "We stay at the same altitude all the way. There’s no higher place."
"I could swear my ears just popped."
"The body is a dead language, remember?"
He nodded. He was ready now.
He extended both hands. She didn’t take them.
His eyelids decided to fight him. "I’m so tired," he said. "I wish I weren’t."
"Rest. I’ll wake you."
"Rest seems disastrous right now. But maybe I will anyway. Just for a few moments."
He descended into a living dream woven out of seashells, collations of experience with smooth carapaces and shiny surfaces. He slipped into the shells, listened to the echoes of the sea he had visited with his sisters. He was attentive but learned little. Fading sounds. He slipped into a reverse image of the dream. He dreamed of speaking with the captain, of making him disappear. In his place he’d want her, the not-strawberry-blonde who didn’t know French and was willing to share a flight with him for one hour. With that he came back to her, more awake than he’d been since before take-off.
"You seem restored," she said. She reached out and ran her fingers through his hair, circled his ear lobe, caressed the nape of his neck.
"Passion is a dead language," he remembered. "Can I talk to the captain?"
"Of course not," she said.
He chortled. "Have you ever requested it?"
"Yes. I found out that to speak with the captain you must become the captain. It never seemed worth it to me."
He swallowed. Not much of anything remained now, with no part of everything and a little bit of nothing.
"Can you imagine a different world?" he asked.
"What would it take to make it real?"
"You said something right at the start," he said. He was sitting very still now.
"You said, ‘This isn’t going to pan out the way you want it to.’"
"The strawberry blonde was your wife, wasn’t she?" she asked.
Dimples formed in his cheeks and receded slightly; it was enough; he was retreating into a smile, or maybe advancing beyond it.
"Yes. She was glancing back at me. I miss her. We were both nervous."
"Did you really think I was her?"
"I wanted you to be her," he said. "I wanted her to have tricked me. I wanted to be fooled."
"You almost fooled yourself."
"Almost," he said. "I’ll see her again."
"Please don’t speak that way."
"I need to say it. I’ll see her again."
"Have you considered that from where we’re sitting now the future itself may be a dead language?"
The seat belt light came back on. It was quiet in the plane. He couldn’t hear the engine. He was alone. He listened hard. He couldn’t hear his own breathing. He thought of something to say, but the structures failed him. The wings had disintegrated; the turbine engines had spun themselves into nowhere; the fuselage was holding nothing together. He was the only trace of syntax left, and he was about to become a living language, one that others would be able to speak. There was no need to worry about making it real. They would do it for him. She had shown him how.
Begin, he thought.
And so he began.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters earned a BS in Theoretical Physics at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (UAM) in 2003 and studied creative writing through various programs. He has published fiction, essays, reviews, and interviews with a variety of presses and journals. He lives in California.