Levi Stahl imagines my flight home, as Anthony Powell might have rendered it

Soon, for my own amusement more than anyone else’s, I’ll get around to posting about the rest of my England trip.

Meanwhile, I thought you might enjoy reading Levi Stahl’s delightful Anthony Powell pastiche inspired by my post about the torrid affair that erupted in the row ahead of me on the flight home. “As I read,” he told me, “I found myself thinking about the ridiculous situation in Powellian cadences… I decided to give in and try to write the scene.”

He gets the woman and her husband just right. But because I held back lots of details — having already been branded a busybody, I wanted to make sure the lovers weren’t identifiable — the scene is significantly different from the one I witnessed.*

Levi’s detailed imaginings put me in mind of Carrie Frye’s recent post on William Logan, Hart Crane, and the role of fact and fantasy in writing.

Anticipating a sleepless flight back to Chicago from the Barbara Pym conference in London, I had packed the second volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time; re-reading this old favorite seemed the surest way of filling the deathly airplane hours, otherwise so prone to relatively fruitless introspection. The second volume of Dance takes Powell’s characters from their mid-twenties to their mid-thirties, those years in which one finds oneself wrapped up, either as a participant or spectator, in questions of marriage — a state so often followed, distressingly soon in some cases, by its shadowy cousins, adultery and divorce.

I was just beginning to settle into the flow of Powell’s narration when my eye was caught by the arrival of a woman who apparently held the ticket for the middle seat of the row in front of me. Tall and slim, even skinny, probably in her late forties, and dressed in draped layers of varying browns whose apparent artlessness was but an indicator of the care she’d taken in her appearance, she had the fiercely attractive facial structure of an actress, an impression not belied by the narrow line of her plucked eyebrows or the glistening bow of her lips. The smile with which she graced the man in the aisle seat as he rose to allow her passage gave the impression — a bit chilling, I thought — of someone who is perpetually calibrating, to an ever-finer degree, the effect she is having on the multitudes. When I found myself unconsciously smiling back at her, I dropped my head once more to my book.

Reading was not, I soon discovered, an option. For the actress woman, on sitting down, began to talk, with a verve and facility that suggested she might continue throughout the eight-hour flight. She began by introducing herself to the man in the aisle seat, of whom I’d not taken much notice when he entered, having only a vague impression of a fairly standard businessman, probably mid-thirties, wearing an unmemorable dark suit, the tie and collar perhaps loosened for evening. The woman had a throaty, even masculine voice, the emergence of which was so incongruous when set against her slight frame as to make one suspect it had been carefully cultivated — not without, one had to admit, a certain attractive effect. This flight represented, she revealed, the end of a week’s holiday to visit a friend from college — “such a dear” — who, having married an Englishman, now lived distressingly far out in the English countryside, “in one of those villages that seems to think that quaintness is not just a virtue but the virtue.” After a bit more detail about her friend, who had apparently found the English cooking more congenial than its reputation, judging by the weight she’d gained, and whose husband was, she hated to admit, somewhat of a bore, the woman paused long enough to allow the man to adduce a few facts about himself.

At this point, I’ll admit that I fully expected him to avail himself of some functionally rebarbative answer, the conversational equivalent of laying the airline’s embroidered night mask over one’s eyes; but no, he instead explained that he worked in finance and had been sent over on a rush trip to, as he put it, “smooth some oil on the waters” regarding some complicated partnership, “a very hush-hush, on the QT kind of thing.” Clandestine as his activities may have been, he nonetheless seemed fully prepared to offer the woman a brief course in the intricacies of high finance, with a leaven of slightly smarmy charm, but she quickly cut him off. “You’re probably voting for John McCain, aren’t you? You stockbroker types, you’re all McCain voters. You probably think Sarah Palin’s hot, right?” His failure to deny the charge with sufficient alacrity seemed to function much like the report of a starter’s pistol, as the woman instantly launched into what could only be called a screed, ill-articulated though mostly, it must be said, accurate, about Palin’s lack of qualifications, experience, integrity, or fashion sense. Her fervor only mounted as her critique devolved into the personal, and by the time she reached her contention that the small of Palin’s back almost certainly bore a tramp stamp, she was — I couldn’t help but realize due to the vibration of the seat in front of me — jabbing the man in the chest with her forefinger.

By this point, we were airborne, the animated conversation having been so distracting that I’d barely noticed the routine, almost ritualistic, operations of takeoff, and as the man began feebly to protest that he had decided against McCain, I attempted to turn my attention back to Powell. However, the category of person who converses with strangers on airplanes having always perplexed me, never more so than when I’ve been stuck on the receiving end of such a person’s overtures, I couldn’t help but find my attention at least somewhat divided over the next hour, during which the woman spoke almost non-stop. As the lights dimmed to signify night on the plane, and the inflight movie began, she embarked on a disquisition about her college-age daughter’s complicated relationship with the pledge mother at her sorority. That led into an account of the woman’s decision to take up cabaret singing on the occasion of her fortieth birthday — “Tell me you wouldn’t have guessed forty, right? “– which led to some catty remarks about photos she’d seen of Meryl Streep in shorts, following which, in order to demonstrate Streep’s facility with accents, she sang a few bars of “Jolly Holiday,” from Mary Poppins, in a Cockney accent that could quite possibly have made Dick van Dyke surrender the bottle. Fortunately, my worst fear — the eruption of an impromptu duet –went unrealized, as the businessman revealed himself to be impressively ignorant on the subject of Mary Poppins, a situation that his seatmate wasted no time in rectifying.

It was some time after that when I realized that without quite noticing it, I’d actually been reading Dance for several minutes, uninterrupted by commentary. A rustling from the row ahead, followed by what sounded like a light slap, made me worry for a moment that the man had snapped and was executing a rough vigilante justice with his bare hands. It was but the work of a glance to determine that I couldn’t have been more wrong: rather than throttling her, the man appeared to be kissing her, with a vigor more properly associated with attempts to dig one’s way out of the Bastille. They were, as my nephew might have put it, all over one another.

Like the woman’s banal monologue, this, too, went on at surprising length. The near-silence from the pair, following the skein of chatter, was disconcerting, while certain rocking movements in the seat, the more fervent of which sloshed my glass of wine on its insecure seatback tray, suggested that more than lips were being brought into play. I contemplated pressing the call button for a flight attendant, but anticipation of the fumbling conversation that would ensue stopped me. Of what could I rightly complain? That their ardor had disrupted my reading? Such a position, though not entirely putting me in the wrong, seemed nevertheless to open me up to not inaccurate charges of churlishness. Did I have any other recourse?

A resolution to my indecision was obviated by the unexpected entrance of a new component to the romantic tableau. Swishing purposefully through the curtain that separated our section from the rarified confines of first class was a tall man in a clearly expensive suit, his bleary eyes and unruly shock of dark, but graying, hair suggesting a recent emergence from sleep. He stopped at the edge of the row in front of me and, almost before I could register his presence, said, in a voice that was not without a trace of petulance, “Hey. Remember me? Your husband?”

Though we pass through life without, as it were, a script of any sort, one still has to admit that the times when one is utterly astonished are relatively few. This moment qualified. Had I been holding a glass, I’d have dropped it; had I been smoking a cigarette, I’d have most likely allowed it to burn down to my fingers as I sat gape-mouthed. The man’s lower lip trembled unmistakably; whatever one’s reservations about first class, it was hard not to feel a bit sorry for him. His flight to this point, it seemed reasonable to assume, had not offered quite the satisfactions that his wife had found.

What was hard to determine was what he had actually seen. Had he spied the couple intertwined, deep in a passionate embrace? A kiss? Their general disregard for the presence of other passengers would make it seem likely that he’d burst on them unawares, and that is what I initially assumed. But perhaps not — for somehow, in a way that is even now unclear to me, the woman managed to more or less laugh off his implied accusation. Though she said nothing particularly memorable — let alone cut loose with any of the sort of withering insults that a skilled marital scrapper might have been used to slice the ground out from under a husband of uncertain self-confidence — she somehow deflected the conversation almost instantly into channels of the purest, most unremarkable banality. Before I even quite realized what was happening, she’d introduced her paramour and the three of them were discussing, of all things, The Da Vinci Code and its relative reliability as a source on the history of the Catholic Church.

This went on for about fifteen minutes, veering into a brief account of a Chicago avant-garde theatre production that the woman had been dragged to by a friend and which had featured a forty-five-minute simulation of natural childbirth, set to an extended mix of Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good.” Whatever tension inhered in the scene was utterly dissipated by what was essentially a brilliant primer on the art of making small talk; an outsider would have been forgiven for assuming the three were old, if not close, friends. Eventually — whether mollified or flummoxed I couldn’t quite tell — the husband turned and made his way back into the well-appointed shadows of first class, at which point I began to wonder whether this was a regular occurrence with the couple. Given the tone of the husband’s initial declaration, it was hard to imagine that this was the first such clinch in which he’d found his wife; at the same time, the lightning swiftness of his shift from angry cuckold to at least grudgingly jovial conversant suggested at minimum tacit approval of her behavior. Perhaps this was something they orchestrated in tandem, even to the extent of selecting a victim — if that’s the right word — in advance.

Those thoughts were soon overcome by questions about whether the woman’s seatmate might at least find his ardor cooled by the sudden revelation of the proximity of her spouse. Or, I mused, might he find that proximity — and the danger it implied — in itself erotic? Given what we’d already seen, I realized I couldn’t rule out the possibility that his spouse, too, might be pop by for a surprise cameo. Either way, what would be the woman’s response? Even if my theory about the husband’s complicity were misguided, she had unquestionably instigated the contact knowing of his presence — might his appearance only serve strengthen her adulterous resolve?

The couple’s next movement — accompanied by whispers which, one must admit, were relatively furtive when set against the pair’s actions in general — answered my questions, if not specifically, then at least generally. They switched seats, in order that the woman, now in the aisle seat, might better be able to keep an eye on the dread curtain. Settled again –though not, one assumes, safely buckled — they set to their work once more. Disconnected phrases came to my ear — “commitment,” “jealousy,” “poetry,” “deserve” — between telling silences. After a time, I began, against my will, to discern those sharp (though muffled) cries and intakes of breath whose place on the continuum between pleasure and pain can only be determined by context — the context, in this case, to the extent that it was necessary, being provided by a certain rhythmic bounce of the seat against my entrapped knees and the occasional appearance of the man’s head, bobbing like a jack-in-the-box, in the aisle. Sex, at least as broadly defined, was unquestionably being had.

All pleasures are fleeting in this fallen world, however, and that being shared by the couple was no exception. The rocking subsided, silence replaced the melange of groans and sighs. As the silence drew out, I began to suspect that the sleepiness with which evolution has seen fit to grace the male of the species post coitus had perhaps ended — for now — this menage. But just as I was, once again, reopening my book, I heard one last — and undeniably passionate –male whisper: “That was great. I don’t just mean the sex.” Snoring, whether masculine or feminine I couldn’t determine, soon followed.

As I drank off the last of my wine and gratefully settled back with my book, I couldn’t help thinking of a pair of observations from favorite writers. The first was from Iris Murdoch, who pointed out that “sex comes to most of us with a twist”; the other resided somewhere in the volume that rested in my lap. The rackety painter, Mr. Deacon, whose favorite subject is finely muscled, deceptively young heroes of Greek and Roman history and myth, says, “It’s no good pontificating about other people’s sexual tastes.” And with that thought in mind, I soon found myself joining the sated duo in sleep.

* [Ed Note:] The woman and man in the row ahead of me were both theater people, both in their mid-to-late forties. At first she sat in the aisle seat; he was next to the window.

When the husband emerged from behind the curtain, the wife introduced her paramour, explaining, “He’s in the business.” Throats were cleared. There was some jokey back-and-forth about Husband and the woman traveling in different classes. She (falsely) claimed she’d tried to visit him at his seat, and that the flight attendants turned her away. “They don’t even let me into the first-class lounges with him in airports,” she said to Theater Guy. All three chuckled, not entirely convincingly.

It was revealed that Theater Guy would be directing a show in New York and was flying into town to make arrangements. The three discussed the show’s likelihood of success, the impending collapse of the economy, and the likely end, according to Husband, of civilization as we know it. As they spoke, Husband seemed impatient, but increasingly only mildly so. It was impossible to tell what, if anything, he’d seen. When he excused himself to return to his Auster novel, the wife saw him to the curtain and they talked in the galley for a couple of minutes before she retreated to the bathroom.

On returning, as I mentioned, the woman switched seats with Theater Guy. At times showering the man with quick passionate kisses, at times rebuffing his advances, she murmured softly in his ear and then dabbed at her eyes as she listened to some (of his?) recordings on his MP3 player. Although apparently overcome with emotion, she gave him notes. Things really got going again once the plane began its descent into JFK.

But I like Levi’s version better.

Incidentally, I took this photo of the Arctic tundra (above right), or whatever it is, on the flight. The view went on like that — bright blue and red against the cracked brown of the earth — for nearly an hour.


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