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Wednesday
Jun142017

I. Pre-boarding Announcement

The island of New Britain, in Papua New Guinea, is 8,844 miles away from Rockport, Massachusetts, another small place by a different sea, where I call home. To North Americans, Papua New Guinea hangs on the other side of the world. It’s as far from New England as you can get. To get any farther, you’d have to rocket up, towards the stars, or dive down into an ocean black that’s just as deep and unexplored. Even its geographical descriptors sound alarmingly alien: an Oceanian archipelago, Papua New Guinea is situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire.

It takes two days and four flights to travel from Boston to New Britain. My flight leaves Logan International Airport at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, and I arrive at Hoskins Airport, a former World War II Japanese airstrip that’s been upgraded in recent decades to a single-runway landing field, on Thursday at 5:00 p.m. It’s cold and raining when I leave Boston. When I deboard the puddle jumper at Hoskins, descending via metal airstairs and walking to the one-room shack that serves as terminal, the heat hits my chest like a living thing. It first knocks the air out of my lungs, then fills them back with air that’s wet. There’s so much humidity in the air it feels like lesson one in learning to breathe underwater.  

I should say, it takes at least two days. Two days is the minimum amount of time required. Two days if every flight takes off and lands when it’s supposed to; each connection’s caught without a hitch. It nearly takes me longer than two days after my flight from Boston to Los Angeles is delayed ninety minutes, first due to bad weather compounded by mechanical failure, and I have a ninety-minute layover in LA, exactly ninety minutes, before the second flight to Brisbane. After announcing our delay, the American Airlines agent asks all connecting LAX passengers to see her at the gate. I step into place following an Asian woman. A long line forms behind me, but a middle-aged man wearing a yarmulke and sweater materializes at my right, neatly bypassing the queue. When my turn comes, we both step forward. 

“Oh, were you next?” he says.

“I guess you can go if you want to.” 

“Thanks,” he says, already pushing past me. 

His name is Saul Goldstein and he’s traveling to Australia with his partner, Seth Goldberg, a middle-aged man wearing a yarmulke and sweater vest, and their daughter, a four-year-old with tight black curls. Goldstein and Goldberg take over the waiting lounge. While Goldstein talks to the gate agent, Goldberg talks on the phone, lining up emergency West Coast dinner plans. 

“But it will be Shabbat when we arrive!” Goldberg suddenly shouts to Goldstein at the ticket counter, across the crush of waiting passengers. “We can’t go out!” Then: “Oh wait, never mind, we’re talking about Thursday night, not Friday, thank Moses.”

Later, their daughter plays Candy Crush on a pink iPad, legs stretched stretched across three seats, shoes resting comfortably near my lap. In one fist she clutches a crunchy Kirby cucumber and half a bagel swollen with cream cheese. She goes bite for bite. When finished, she announces, “Finished,” and extends her arm to Goldstein, eyes still locked on the candies she’s annihilating. Her father accepts the gummed bread and gnawed vegetable, then offers dessert. 

“Pumpkin, would you like one of these incredibly delicious strawberries?”

They seem incredibly delicious; I can smell them from four chairs away, so ripe they’re almost caramel-sweet. 

“No,” Pumpkin rejects.

“Would you like a fig?” asks Goldstein, producing a basket of amethyst orbs. 

“No.”

“How about a Godiva-chocolate-and-macadamia-nut cookie?”

“No.”

“Perhaps a bit of Stilton on watercress cracker?” he tries, progressing to the cheese course.

“No.” 

He sighs, repacking their food valise. 

                                                                            *

Time is like a rubber band. It stretches for some while compressing for another. The six-hour flight to California feels interminable to the man on my left, he tells me when landing. He pops the earbuds from his ears, sighs all the breath out of his chest, looks at me and says, “That was interminable.” 

My experience is different. I spend the time sweating anxiously, attempting to meditate so as to stop sweating, berating myself for not having stopped sweating because by now I should be lotus-posed atop my seat, zen about the fate I can’t control—I may have no choice but to spend twenty-four extra hours in LA before the next trans-Pacific flight—willing my Brisbane flight to be delayed so I might still catch it, then looping back to nervous sweats. Six hours pass in a fog of fidget. 

On our descent, the captain says he caught a strong tailwind and managed to make up forty minutes in the air. Next I learn that Qantas Flight 16 to Brisbane is delayed by thirty. Now I’m sweating with the heat of renewed hope. I chew away three fingernails while we taxi to the gate. “Run like hell,” the flight attendant tells me, so I do. 

I shouldn’t make it. There are still twenty minutes of lost time to account for, but they get caught and volleyed in the reverberating rubber band, and I board the flight I was supposed to board and settle in for the next fourteen hours. 

                                                                          *

What’s in Papua New Guinea? Pete. We get engaged two weeks before he leaves for a four-month stint in the field. “The field” is where marine biologists go to spend intimate time with the animal to which they’ve devoted their adult lives. In Pete’s case, that means clownfish. He’s among the world’s leading Nemo experts. 

The night before he leaves, we go out for cocktails. We sit at a bar and drink martinis, knees and elbows touching. Back at his apartment, he says he wants to shave his head: “It’s just easier, for the field.” He fits a plastic garbage bag around the bathroom sink, pulls out clippers, and asks me to do the honors. I’m giggling at first, tipsy and buzzing zigzags, and the basin fills with blonde-brown hair. But once finished I look at Pete, and suddenly see my mother. Her big eyes in a gaunt face, the delicate contours of her downy scalp. I remember sitting by her bed, running fingers over her skull to trace and memorize her map of bones, while every day she left me and this world a little more, for somewhere even farther than New Guinea. 

When I start crying without explanation, Pete puts down the clippers and holds me close. 

New love doesn’t tolerate separation. By the time I begin my journey in Boston, Pete and I have been apart five weeks. I hurtle in space towards him. At times, I travel at the speed of sound, and still that isn’t fast enough. When I land in Brisbane, back in wifi, I text him, “It’s 7:00 a.m., and I’m about to sit down for a glass of whiskey.”

“It’s 7:00 a.m. here as well!” he writes.

We’re ecstatic. For weeks we’ve been fourteen hours apart, talking for a few fast moments at my dawn and his dusk, always sleepy, and now, finally, we’re back in the same time zone. 

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