When I got off the plane in Astrakhan, the airport terminal was completely deserted. It was about 1:00 a.m. and I had expected few people but this degree of emptiness was a little unsettling. I followed the signs – they were in both Russian and English – down the corridor to the customs office. Nobody was at the counter. After I called out once or twice without success, a woman came in through the door I had entered, walked behind the counter, and approached me.
“Yes?” she asked.
“I just arrived,” I said. “I’m here to get my paperwork processed.” I laid my passport and travel documents on the counter, slid them over.
She rustled through the papers for a moment. “Where are you coming from, Mr. Bloom?” she asked.
“Yes, but what city?”
I paused, couldn’t remember. My wife had arranged the tickets from Mexico. “I don’t remember,” I said.
“We must have the name of the city,” the woman said.
“The plane just landed. It flew here directly. Can you look it up?”
“Yes. But I need you to tell me.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Then think about it, Mr. Bloom,” she said. “And when you are ready, you can let me know.” She waved her hand toward the other side on the room. A line of gray plastic chairs were bolted to the floor there.
I walked over, sat down, tried to remember. It was late. I was tired. It seemed I had left our home in Tepotzotlán ages ago. I had passed though airports in the United States, London, and later Germany. It was mostly a blur. I had eaten in the German airport as I waited for my connection. The name of the city should be on my ticket, but for some reason, I couldn’t find it. I flipped the ticket over, examined it front and back. The city wasn’t listed there.
I went back to the counter. The woman was leafing through a booklet. I laid my paperwork down again. “Yes? she asked.
“Look,” I said. “I’m tired. I’ve been traveling all day and I didn’t pay much attention to my layover in Germany.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Bloom. I’m just following the rules.”
“But I was the only passenger on the plane.” I wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything, and having said it, it suddenly seemed quite… unusual.
“Yes, Mr. Bloom,” she said. “I know. That’s why they called me in at this hour. To receive you. I could have been sleeping.”
“Oh, I’m sorry for your inconvenience, Miss.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I get paid whether you pass through customs or you don’t.”
“How can I not?”
“Yes. Not pass. How can I not pass through customs?”
“By not remembering your city of origin.”
“I was born in Los Angeles, California.”
“The city where your flight originated, Mr. Bloom. Now, I’ve already explained. Please try to remember and when you are ready, let me know.”
“But I can’t,” I said. And I truly could not. I remembered the German airport, walking through it, impressed by how it radiated efficiency and purpose. It was well lighted. The corridors were broad with shops on both sides. I ate a piece of chicken and washed it down with a Coke. I spoke to nobody except the cashier. Which seemed peculiar because I must have exchanged a few words with the gate attendant. I guess I must have been very tired then, too. I don’t remember getting on the plane but surely I passed through the usual procedure. The ticket. The boarding pass. The have a nice flight. The seat. The seat belt. The acceleration pushback. The whine of jets. The dimmed lights once airborne. The occasional soft chimes.
I gathered my papers and returned to the plastic seats. I began to think using an old trick of mine. I started with the first letter of the alphabet and tried to think of any city in Germany that started with that letter. Nothing. On to the second letter. Bremen, Berlin. No, those didn’t sound familiar. Bern. No, that was in Switzerland. Munich, Mannheim. Damn, I had jumped ahead.
I went back to the second letter to see if I had missed something, and then on to the third. My head hurt, but I’d figure it out. I’d done this many times. When I had the right name, it would enter my mind with a flash of recognition.
Yet I became distracted. Three other passengers had approached the woman at the counter. She was busy looking through three sets of papers and passports. I got up and walked over with the intention of eavesdropping. Maybe I would overhear something to help untangle my memory.
My plan failed. They spoke in Japanese, a language I could identify but couldn’t understand. It seemed odd that the young Russian woman behind the counter could speak so many languages but I supposed in her position it was necessary. Her voice was calm and musical, like a quiet concerto. She stamped their passports and papers, and then with a gesture sent them to the far end of the customs area where they pushed open the door and passed through, presumably to the main terminal where one could walk outside and hail a cab. After she filed something in a drawer beneath the counter, she looked up.
“You are still here, Mr. Bloom,” she said.
“I’ve been trying to think,” I said. “I think it was somewhere north of Mannheim.”
“The name, please.”
“Maybe Frankfurt.” But that didn’t sound right.
“The name, please.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t arrange this trip. I’m not even sure why I’m here. I wanted to get away for a while I think, but I’m tired right now and would like to sleep.”
“There is no sleeping here,” she said.
Although I was very tired and wanted to sleep, what I really wanted was my mind to snap out of its stupor.
“This is Astrakhan, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Why do you ask, Mr. Bloom?”
“I’ve come to see the Trinity Cathedral.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Bloom,” the woman said. “I am not a tour guide. Once you are outside, I’m sure you can find someone to assist you.”
“But I can’t get out,” I said.
“I just need the name.”
“I’ve told you. I don’t remember.”
“Or what?” I asked. My voice rose a notch.
“If you cannot remember the name, you will wait here until you do,” she said.
“What do you mean? How long?”
“Until you tell me the name.”
That couldn’t be right. “May I speak to your supervisor?” I asked.
“There is no one else.” Her face had lost its friendliness.
* * * *
Calm, I told myself. Take a breath. I went back to the chairs, sat, made a pillar of two fists, rested my head on it. This was a problem I could solve. Unless – and here I hesitated – that was only a creeping and wormy false confidence. I had already been through my mind step by step, piece by piece. I simply could not remember how I got here or even what had seized me to come to Russia.
Yet I must. A run for the door wouldn’t work. I would certainly not get far. If I even made it into the main terminal, they would drag me back here where I would not be permitted to leave – or even to sleep apparently – until I could remember the last few hours of my life. I hoped it was a life worth remembering, but I was too exhausted to be sure.
If I could just close my eyes for a few minutes and drift to the place where lost thoughts are hidden. Watch flowers or birds while my mind kept churning. But that could take days, months, maybe years.
No. I couldn’t wait here forever. I couldn’t spend the rest of my days dredging for a minor detail as I passed from one place to another where now I’m not even sure I arrived.
My life waited. It waited for me. I needed to eat a carrot, chat with friends, watch a movie, plant a tree, have a child, smell the rain. I couldn’t stay here.
But I was trapped by… what? A simple missing fact? What if it didn’t even exist? Please hurry, I said to my mind. Please hurry. Patience was turning to impatience which was spinning into fear.
My mind needed time. I knew this. And entombed in this… place, I had plenty of time to give, maybe an inexhaustible supply. But that couldn’t be true. No matter the size, the ocean of time each person sails upon eventually dries.
Yet as I sat on a hard plastic chair in a terminal that refused me passage, perplexed and spent, I began to think I was an exception to the mortal rule. My ocean was bottomless, my time unending. I could stay here forever, immortality purchased by paralysis.
And I wanted life without cease as much as anyone, but not under these conditions. The cost was too high. I may have been like a god with endless days in my future but if so, I was a feeble one, stuck in a gray room, waiting for a mundane detail to set me free. Waiting for the sun to move across the sky again and let me walk once more among the living world of April and apple blossoms.