After the drinks and the dinner service, after the lights were dimmed and the curtains pulled, Robert extracted the television screen from the armrest of his business-class seat. He was not interested in the movies. He switched the channel to the flight tracker—a cartoonish map of the Gulf of Mexico with a little white plane suspended above, pointed south, creeping toward the tip of Colombia. Every few seconds, the screen refreshed itself, updating Robert on the air speed, altitude, distance traveled, time remaining. The dispassionate data comforted him, reminding him that he was making progress, that he was not lost.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, hoping to join the symphony of snoring bodies in the darkness around him. But he rarely slept in public. On those rare trips when his body did relent, he would often jerk awake wildly disoriented, spilling drinks and alarming neighbors—a side effect of a life spent constantly on guard. And then there were those rarer occasions when a flight attendant would awaken him to stop his shouting—a side effect of something worse.
Robert opened his eyes, sat up, and took a deep breath. He would not sleep tonight. Instead, he’d spend the next seven hours and forty-three minutes watching a little white plane inch its way to Buenos Aires. He didn’t mind; at least it would be a quiet night, bathed in the blue glow of the flight tracker, his guardian compass, his night light.
The light did not bother the woman passed out in the window seat next to him. If only she could have stayed awake a few hours longer. Dina. A cute but unnaturally tan woman in pink sweats. She was a model from Dallas on her way to Argentina for breast implants.
They’re cheaper there, Dina had told him after the drinks were served. And the surgeons are world class.
She’d flirted with him, drunk on pisco sours. He’d told her he was in sales, a safe cover. Up here, in business class, almost everyone was in sales. Up here, he could have been anyone, which was why he lived for these brief moments of recess, acting out the role of someone else high above the earth, moments when he could imagine life as a civilian, unburdened by the nasty ways of the world, drinking pisco sours with Dina from Dallas.
She’d told him he should be a model, another cover he once used. She ran a hand through his dark hair. He ordered more drinks. He said her before breasts looked perfect as is. She gave him her business card and invited him to Dallas to test drive the after.
For effect, Robert had opened his laptop, pretending to read sales reports. Now he saw that, as if to taunt him, even the computer had fallen asleep. He checked to make sure Dina was still out, then poked the laptop awake. He studied up on the agent he was to meet in Buenos Aires, Lynda Madigan. She would be his partner for the duration of the assignment. Robert didn’t want a partner, let alone an agent he didn’t know, but he needed an interpreter, and she spoke fluent Spanish.
He imagined Lynda looking through a similar file, one on him, and he wondered what else Gordon, his boss, might have told her. Though they were all in the business of keeping other people’s secrets, Robert didn’t want to share any of his. But even Gordon didn’t know everything that had happened five years ago. Robert kept those other memories to himself, hoping that he could somehow suffocate them. Instead, he ended up preserving them, perhaps all too well.
Now, as he leaned his head back in his seat, he felt the memories returning. He could see the slowly undulating horizon of ice as he hovered low behind the controls of a helicopter, looking for a Zodiac, a break in the ice, a bright red parka.
As the clouds had descended, so had he, landing on a low, tabular iceberg. He left the engine running and stepped onto the ice. The fog surrounded him, leaving his eyes with little to do but dilate. He started off into the white emptiness, arms out in front, chasing every change in hue, hopeful that he was headed in the right direction, though in reality he was lost in any direction. When the engine noise faded, he called her name, hearing only wind in response.
The ice had begun to shift, growing pliable. He looked down to see the tops of his boots bathed in blue water. The iceberg was descending. He hopped onto a neighboring berg and called her name again, louder. This ice, too, became unsteady, so he hurried to the next iceberg, then the next. The icebergs, once joined together like a completed puzzle, had begun to separate, revealing expanding rivers of indigo, until Robert found himself stranded on a lone sheet of ice, his feet now immersed in the sub-zero water. He could no longer hear the helicopter. He shouted her name, his ankles now underwater, its icy grip working its way up his calves, then his thighs, and he whispered her name, prepared for the end, to be with her again, then his chest, then his arms—
Robert opened his eyes to see Dina leaning over him, her hands gripping his shoulders.
“What?” he asked.
“You were yelling,” she said.
Robert looked at the flight tracker—two hours and thirteen minutes remained until landing, the little white plane hovering over the southern half of Brazil. Dina took her seat again, and Robert reached for a water bottle. He wiped the perspiration from his face. He sat up and noticed the blinking eyes in the darkness around him. He picked up his laptop from the floor and turned to Dina. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Who’s Noa?”
Robert didn’t answer. He had already opened his laptop, pretending to read sales reports.
(From The Tourist Trail, Chapter 2: Robert)