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If You See Something

In Transit

Tracey Hill

You are never happier than when you’re in transit. And if you’re poor enough, or just really cheap, the journey from New York to New Zealand can be stretched into a forty-eight-hour concatenation of letters—JFK-ORD-LAX-PPT-RAR-AKL—in which each link in the chain represents much the same thing: a lengthy period of sky-high tedium, followed by an overpriced sandwich, a nap, and another round of the shoes-off shoes-on dance.

You make this trip once a year, from a small room in Brooklyn to a small farm in the central North Island. It should be a hellish voyage—it is hellish—and yet you look forward to it. On land, you are the fool with two homes, but in the air, hovering in place at five hundred miles an hour, all thoughts of allegiance can be deferred. Every surface has been recently sanitized, every seat wrapped tight in fabric, and the world outside can be erased by the lowering of a window shade.

On the first few legs of the journey, while you are still fresh, you write postcards to friends: This note comes to you from inside a cloud! You eat imitation food and watch a movie about a wantonly prophetic loom. You flick through the SkyMall catalog and pause to consider the Kitty Cabinet, a small wooden marvel that disguises your cat’s litter box inside a horrendous side table. You nudge the stranger beside you and say, “Look! Furniture you can shit in!” and then, when she puts down her knitting magazine and turns toward you, you notice—oh, too late, too late—that she has the face of a woman who would very much like to tell you about her allergies.

You descend from time to time, of course, but an airport is hardly land, and every city in the chain is reduced to its departure lounge. Los Angeles is humid and dirty, and when you reach the waiting area of Gate B17, you swear you’ve stumbled upon a fluorescent crime scene in which every pillar, every carpeted square meter, is home to a slumped, lifeless body. By the time you reach the transit lounge of Tahiti Faa’a Airport, you yourself have become a drooping torso in a vinyl seat. And at Rarotonga International Airport, where you wander out of the departure lounge and somehow find yourself trapped in a courtyard of burnt grass and trash cans, you happily make room for yourself at a picnic table littered with crumpled vacationers. You look out across the melting road and catch a first glimpse of the Pacific, a sliver of blue winking back at you from between two slummy prefabs. You are closing in on the bottom of the world, and everything is slowing down.

In the air again, and you have a new seatmate, a feathery-haired woman who smells faintly of flea powder and has firm opinions on a wide range of minutiae. She tells you that the bread rolls really should come precut, that the headphones are practically useless. When you tell her you live in New York but come from New Zealand, she insists that New Zealand is beautiful (though this will be her first visit) and that the streets of New York are lined with burning cars (though she has never been there).

You agree that, yes, New Zealand is lovely: to say otherwise would be like admitting you dislike one of your own children (the one who tugs anxiously on your sleeve whenever you turn away). She asks if perhaps you can introduce her to a nice Kiwi guy, a handsome farmer, and you say, sure, no problem. And then, because she seems to expect more, and because you’ve been drinking for the best part of twenty-four hours, you describe this imagined man, the future Mr. Flea Powder. He’s a keen fisherman, a whiz with an axe, kind to the sheep. You give him a body like a block of wood, make him gruff but sweet. Sounds wonderful, she says, and you nod. It’s best to leave out the rest: the rural isolation, the endless making do; the mud; the fighting about the mud (“You’ve tracked mud all through the house! I just vacuumed!”); the creepy, bruised-apple light on the hills at dusk; the weird, silent kid who will grow up to be the weird, silent neighborhood rapist; the farmer’s ongoing battle with depression; the ominous gun collection in the spare room. It occurs to you that there must have been a reason you left.

By the final leg of the journey, the strangers around you have become unremarkable: their mouths hang open in sleep, and their pores and eyebrows are irritatingly familiar. You stare dully at the Inflight Information channel and follow the tiny white plane as it blip-blips toward the land. Your seatmate tells you she’s nervous about the native situation in New Zealand, and you tell her she has good reason to be nervous. “They don’t like foreigners,” you say, “and they’re very wily.” Well, what of it—you’re tired, your blood has turned brackish and foul, and you’re almost out of airtime.

Soon, after so many hours of being a person with a lap, you’ll be upright again, Antipodean, and your feet will form an earth sandwich with the feet of some poor bugger in Seville. Your father will be waiting for you at the airport, looking hairier and less sane than you remember him. He’ll drive you home, past the stinking tidal flats, past the long, squat rows of wooden houses and the smoking peat fields. At first it will seem all wrong: the trees are out of season and the hills around you are still settling into place. There is the odd sense that things are in flux, that the whole edifice might give at any moment. But after a while it will come back to you—the daily rainbows, the weekly earthquake, those restless nights during which the bellowing of some distant animal infiltrates your dreams. As you reach the outskirts of town, the sun will sink behind the ranges. To the west, Australia is burning, its tinder-forests on fire again, and your own dear horizon will glow with a sunset of sweetest confectionery.

But for now you are suspended in the air, looking down on an idle landscape. From the sky, the hills seem twisted into knotty bands of cortex, and, in an optical illusion you have never heard explained, the jagged lines of the whitecaps remain frozen in place, static, never surging forward to break against the shore.


About the author

​Tracey Hill completed an MA in creative writing at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and was the 2004 recipient of the Glenn Schaeffer Award, a yearlong fellowship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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