Later, bone-tired from hours of pacing the airport in a state of sustained panic and crashing from nearly a week of getting high, I finally turn to one of these guys, a younger one, and ask, Why don’t you just get it over with? to which he chuckles and says, It’s much more fun later, once you’re somewhere else. Just wait. I am certain he says this. I freeze at these words and decide finally to get in line. It’s not possible that I will make it through security, and I’m now so wrung out that I just need it to be over.
But I do make it through and feel, briefly, cautiously, elated. Maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe it’s just the drugs, whose good effects have all fled, leaving the body that held them shattered and its mind delusional. The flight is already boarding. I hesitate a few times as I see, again, a few of the JCPenneys near the gate. The words of the younger Penney ring in my head, but I am desperate for a vodka and somewhere in my bag are sleeping pills. If I can just crash in that big plush seat and pass out, I will be okay. If I can just get away from these goons, I know I will be safe.
The stewardess speaks softly to one of the men. About me, no doubt. About the arrest about to take place right now.
My seat is on the aisle, and never has anything looked so welcoming. I sit down and begin to feel the high panic of the last two and a half hours slowly fade. And then, when I turn around to find a stewardess, the wind knocks out of me. I see them. The Penneys. One, two, three, four, at least five of them are sitting all throughout the cabin. At just this moment, one of the stewardesses leans down toward one and speaks softly. About me, no doubt. About the arrest about to take place in Amsterdam or Berlin. Or right here. Right now. The entire cabin suddenly seems to me like a set, like some elaborate stage prop created to replicate the first-class cabin of an airplane. The napkins seem to be flimsy fakes, the stewardesses actresses, and the Penneys androids—half-human, half-robot, emotionless and menacing.
A stewardess is at my side. She asks, in a tone that sounds mocking and insincere, if I’d like a drink. I’m frightened by the Penneys, but I’m agitated by her. Angry, even. I ask her if the plane is, in fact, actually going to be landing in Amsterdam. She looks confused, but not as confused as I think she should look, so I ask, Don’t you think this is an awfully complicated piece of theater for just one person? She excuses herself and walks away. Moments later, she returns with the captain, who politely asks me to gather my belongings and follow him off the plane. I can barely move. And even though I know this is the long-awaited arrest, I am relieved when the captain puts his hand on my shoulder and says, Let’s go. Like a scolded kid, and with everyone in the cabin watching, I follow him off the plane.
But there is no arrest. Instead, the captain explains to me that after 9/11 they need to be cautious and that what I said to the stewardess alarmed her enough that they don’t feel comfortable having me on the flight. I notice his jacket, its hokey military mimicry: epaulets, stripes. Like everything on the plane, his uniform—shabby compared to the memory of my father’s—looks like a slapped-together costume. He asks if I have been drinking, to which I answer yes, that I get nervous before flying. How I form these thoughts and words, I have no idea. I apologize for alarming the stewardess and just as I am about to make my way back toward security, a man in a white shirt with a binder filled with papers arrives. He says he is the head of operations for Continental at Newark and instantly apologizes to me for the confusion. He asks the captain to reconsider, and it’s immediately clear that, for some reason, this guy really wants me on the flight. The captain respectfully declines and begins to get visibly annoyed when the operations guy presses him further. Finally, the operations guy gives up, and the captain wishes me luck and heads back to the cockpit. I watch him disappear into the jetway and have to suppress the sudden urge to call out to him. I have no idea what I’d say if I did, but I know that when he’s gone, I want him to come back.
The operations guy makes a few phone calls, just out of earshot, and comes back to say that he’s booked me, first class, on an Air France flight that goes to Berlin through Paris. It departs in 45 minutes. He escorts me to the gate. I am there for less than ten minutes when the flight begins to board. At this point, things have moved so swiftly that I’ve barely been able to keep pace. I do, though, have a strong sense that someone—not just the operations guy from Continental—wants me on a flight tonight.