Friday, April 18, 2014

García Márquez / The Airplane of Sleeping Beauty

The Airplane of Sleeping Beauty
By Gabriel García Márquez

She was beautiful, elastic, with tender skin the color of bread and green almond-shaped eyes. Her hair was straight and black and reached her waist, and she had an aura of rich ancestry, the kind that could have been from Indonesia or the Andes. She dressed in fine taste: a linen jacket, a natural silk blouse with pale flowers, rough linen pants, and high heeled shoes the color of bougainvillea flowers. “This is the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen in my life,” I thought, when I saw her pass with her stealthy, long, lioness strides while I got in line to board the plane to New York at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. She was a supernatural apparition that lasted only an instant, then disappeared into the crowd in the lobby.  
It was nine in the morning. It had been snowing since the night before. The traffic was thicker than usual in the city streets and even slower on the highway. There were tractor trailers lined up at the road’s edge and overheating automobiles in the snow. In the lobby of the airport, on the other hand, life went on as if it were spring.  
I was in the line for the counter behind an elderly Dutchwoman who took nearly an hour arguing about the weight of her eleven suitcases. I was beginning to get bored when I saw the instantaneous apparition that left me breathless. So I never knew how the argument ended. The employee pulled me from the clouds, reprimanding me for daydreaming. As a way of excusing myself, I asked her if she believed in love at first sight. “Of course,” she said. “Any other kind of love is impossible.” She continued with her eyes fixed on the computer screen, and asked me what kind of seat I wanted: smoking or non-smoking.
 “It’s the same to me,” I told her deliberately, “as long as I’m not next to the woman with eleven suitcases.” 
 She gave me a commercial smile without taking her eyes from the phosphorescent screen.
 “Pick a number,” she told me. “Three, four, or seven.”
 Her smile had a triumphant sparkle.
 “In the fifteen years that I’ve been here,” she said. “You’re the first who didn’t choose seven.”
She marked the seat number on the ticket and handed it to me with the rest of my documents, looking at me for the first time with grape-colored eyes that consoled me as I turned to look for the beauty. Only then did she warn me that the airport was about to close and all the flights were suspended.
 “Until when?”
 “God only knows,” she said with a smile. “They announced this morning that it would be the biggest snowstorm of the year.”  
They were wrong: it was the biggest of the century. But in the first class waiting room, it was spring. There were live roses in vases and the canned music seemed sublime and tranquilizing, just as its creators intended. Suddenly it occurred to me that this was a suitable refuge for the beauty, and so I looked for her in the other rooms as well, shaken by my own boldness. But the majority of people were real-life men reading English newspapers while their wives thought of other things. The women gazed at the dead airplanes in the snow through the panoramic windows, staring at the ice cold factories and the vast fields of Roissy devastated by the lions. After midday there was no open space, and the heat had become so unbearable that I had to escape the room to breathe.
Outside was a shocking sight. People of all sorts had overflowed from the waiting rooms. They were camped out in the suffocating corridors and even on the stairs, laying on the floors with their animals, children, and their travel bags. Also, communication with the city was interrupted and the transparent plastic palace looked like an immense space capsule stranded in the storm. I could not help but think that the beauty must have been somewhere in the midst of that tame horde. This fantasy filled me with new hope.  
By lunchtime we had taken on the mindset of castaways. Lines were endless in front of the seven restaurants, cafes, and crammed bars. In less than three hours they had to close because there was nothing left to eat or drink. The children who, for a moment, seemed to be all of the children in the world, began to cry at the same time, and the scent of a herd began to rise from the crowd. It was a time of instincts. The only thing I was able to snatch up to eat in the midst of it all were the last two ice cream cups from a children’s store. I ate them little by little at the counter while the waiters put empty chairs on the tables and watched me in the back mirror, with the last little cardboard cup and spoon, thinking of the beauty.
 The flight to New York, scheduled for eleven o’clock in the morning, left at eight at night. When I finally was able to board, the first class passengers were already in their places, and a stewardess showed me to mine. My breath escaped me. In the seat next to me, next to the small l window, the beauty was making herself comfortable in her space with the natural ease of an expert traveler. “If I were ever to write about this, no one would believe me,” I thought. And I barely attempted, in my broken French, a hesitant greeting that she did not even notice.  
She settled down as if she were preparing to live there for many years, putting everything in order in its place until the space was as well arranged as in a perfect house where everything was within one’s reach. While she did it, the chief flight attendant brought us the welcoming  champagne. I took a glass to offer to her, but I should not have. She only wanted a glass of water. Next, in incomprehensible French and then in barely better English, she asked the flight attendant not wake her for any reason during the flight. Her voice, solemn and halfhearted, carried an eastern sorrow within it.  
When they brought her the water, in her lap she opened a toiletry box with copper corners, like a grandmother’s trunk, and took out two golden pills from a case with many other multicolored ones. She did all of this in a methodical and calm fashion, as if from the moment she had been born, everything had been planned for her. At last she pulled down the window curtain, reclined the seat as far as it could go, covered herself with a blanket up to her waist without taking off her shoes, put on her sleeping mask, lied down on her side in the seat with her back to me, and slept without pause, without breath, without shifting, during the eternal eight hours and twelve minutes that remained in the flight to New York.
 It was an intense flight. I had always thought that there was nothing more fascinating in all of nature than a beautiful woman. So it was impossible for me to escape even for an instant the spell of this fairy tale creature that slept at my side. The flight attendant had disappeared as soon as we took off, and was replaced by a Cartesian stewardess that tried to wake the beauty to give her the toiletry bag and headphones. I told the stewardess the warning that the beauty had given to the chief flight attendant, but the she insisted on hearing from the beauty herself that she did not want dinner. The woman had to check with the head attendant, and even then she scolded me because the beauty had not hung the little card around her neck that said not to disturb her. 
 I had dinner in solitude, telling myself in silence what I would have said to her if she had been awake. Her sleep was so steady that in one moment I worried that perhaps the pills she had taken were to kill her, not to put her to sleep. Before each sip, I raised my glass and toasted.
 “To your health, beauty.”
 After dinner they shut off the lights, played a movie that no one watched, and the two of us were left alone in the twilight of the world. The greatest storm of the century had passed, the night above the Atlantic was immense and pure, and the plane seemed motionless between the stars. So I studied her, inch by inch for many hours, and the only sign of life that I could see were reflections of her dreams that passed over her face like clouds over water. Around her neck hung a chain that was so fine it was almost invisible over her golden skin, her ears perfect and un-pierced, pink, healthy nails, and a plain ring on her left hand. Because she didn’t look to be more than twenty years old, I consoled myself with the thought that it wasn’t a wedding ring but a ring from a short-lived engagement. “To know that you sleep, certain, sure, faithful river of abandonment, pure line, so close to my tied hands,” I thought, repeating the brilliant sonnet of Gerardo Diego into the crest of champagne bubbles. Later I reclined my seat to the level of hers, and we lay closer than we would have in a full-size bed. The aura of her breath was the same as her sorrowful voice, and her skin released a faint aroma that could only be the very scent of her beauty. It was incredible to me: the previous spring I had read a lovely novella by Yasunarl Kawabata about the ancient bourgeois of Kyoto who would pay enormous sums to spend the night studying the most beautiful women of the city, naked and drugged, while they, the men, were dying of love in the same bed. They could neither wake them nor touch them. They would not even try because the essence of the pleasure was to watch them sleep. That night, watching  over the dreams of the beauty, I not only understood the senile refinement, but I lived it in plentitude.  
“Who would believe it?” I said to myself, my self-esteem exacerbated by the champagne: “I’m an elderly Japanese man at this altitude.”  
I believe I slept for several hours, conquered by the champagne and the muted flashes of the movie. I awoke with a splitting headache. I went to the bathroom. Two spots behind me laid the elderly woman, the one with eleven suitcases, rudely splayed across the seat. She looked like a forgotten corpse on a battlefield. On the floor in the middle of the aisle sat her reading glasses with a chain of colored beads. For a moment I enjoyed not having to pick them up for her.  
After surfacing from the excessive champagne, I surprised myself in the mirror, disgraceful and ugly, and I was astonished at how terrible the ravages of love could be. Suddenly the plane dropped, righted itself as best it could, and continued to fly at a breakneck speed. The light that tells passengers to return to their seats turned on. I bolted out, hoping that God’s turbulence would wake the beauty, and she would have to take refuge in my arms, fleeing from terror. In my rush I was about to step on the glasses of the Dutch woman. It would have made me happy. But I retraced my steps, picked them up, and put them in her lap, grateful that she had not chosen seat number four before I did.
 The beauty’s sleep was invincible. When the plane stabilized, I had to fight the urge to shake her under some pretext, because the only thing I wished for in the last hour of the flight was to see her awake, even if she were enraged, so that I could recover my independence, and perhaps my youth. But I could not do it. “Damn,” I thought, with contempt. “Why wasn’t I born a Taurus!” She awoke on her own the instant that they put on the landing announcements, and  she was as beautiful and fresh as if she had slept on a bed of roses. Only then did it dawn on me that seatmates in planes, just like in old marriages, do not say good morning upon waking. Neither did she. She took off her sleeping mask, opened her radiant eyes, put her seat in an upright position, threw the blanket to the side, and shook out her hair and so that it fell into place. She once again placed the case on her knees, quickly put on superfluous makeup, taking just long enough so that she did not have to look at me until the plane door opened. And so she put on her silk jacket and slid by almost on top of me with a conventional apology in the pure Spanish of the Americas. She went without saying goodbye, without thanking me in the least for all that I did during our happy night together. She disappeared into the jungle of New York and has been gone ever since.


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