On the airplane I sat next to a Vietnamese woman from Ho Chi Minh City and a man without hands. She had busted teeth, the kind that slope outwards like a cracked damn and prevent the mouth from closing completely. She wasn’t pretty, no, but she was friendly, smiling just as I sat down to show me her terrible teeth. She had a bad perm, blotchy skin, uninteresting clothes. I let her know with my eyes that I wouldn’t be the kind of seatmate to just fall asleep for ten hours straight. I watch movies – three in a row sometimes, and I get up often – not necessarily to pee. Sometimes, just to walk around and pretend that I’m a flight attendant with the option to sit down and blend in.
The man without hands had hooks instead. I did a double take before common courtesy could knock me over the head. My eyes went wide and I stared for a millisecond. Then the knock came and I quickly looked away. Hooks. I wondered how he ate and more importantly, how he would fill out his customs declaration. Would he take an extremely long time in the bathroom? Probably. His pants, understandably, were elastic and linen – hooks and zippers spell disaster. He also wore sunglasses for most of the flight, which served, I guessed, to draw attention away from his hands. My initial reaction to him was, “God look at this fool with the sunglasses.” Then looking down, “Oh he’s got hooks for hands.”
We sat, the three of us, in the very last row. Toothy and I on the left, near the windows, and Captain Hook in the aisle seat of the middle row. I didn’t have to talk to them to know that their lives had been hard, and depending on their intentions going into the U.S., about to get a lot harder. Perhaps they’d just gone to visit relatives, but both were carrying crisp looking Vietnamese passports and Toothy at least seemed afraid the whole time that someone would steal her cheap nylon purse. She kept looping and relooping the strap around her thigh but it would loosen and fall in her sleep and she’d jump away as soon as the bag fell to the ground. Captain Hook on the other hand was the picture of calm, though his sunglasses might have hid anxious, shifty eyes. But I doubt it. His lips never so much as twitched during the entire flight and he sat stone still with his shaved head planted firmly against the headrest, slightly tilted upwards, lips effortlessly sealed as though he was the human black box. Indestructible, except for his hands.