23 September 2011

The Extra Flight

Translated from the Portuguese by Nathaniel Wolfson.

If one noteworthy thing has ever occurred in my hard and insipid life, it was to have been one of the passengers on that extra flight, the one from Boa Vista to São Paulo.

Before I go on, I should explain the circumstances, perhaps fortuitous—however much they later appeared to me as part of a series of necessarily interrelated events—that led me to be part of a select group of passengers bound to fly at 9 AM the following morning.

I was in my hotel room and even after taking the two sleeping pills I had brought with me, I couldn’t manage to fall asleep because of the infernal sounds coming from the bar outside and seeping through the closed window and curtain, combining with the relentless rattle from the ancient and dusty air-conditioner. The music was that kind of looping track made specifically for dancing at sleazy bars and played on the most horrible radio stations everywhere, each song the exact same. Not that I have the most refined musical tastes—I never received an education on the topic—but I am capable of knowing a good melody when I hear one. On top of the pseudo-music, I could make out voices that seemed to be arguing, fits of desperate laughter, muffled screams, the noise of cars and motorcycles, and in the distance, an ambulance or police car’s siren.

I regularly dream scenes of such intense suffering that I prefer not to materialize them in writing—even though in this respect I possess a mysterious gift I rarely use—as enduring them is already too much. What’s more is my ability to envision the worst things, like someone about to be knifed on the opposite side of the street, and due to those compulsions of the mind, I end up placing myself within the fight, sometimes as the aggressor, and other times the victim.

As the imagination can be far more terrorizing than reality for the insomniac, I woke up exasperated and hurriedly drew the curtain open. I was only on the second floor and the most garish colors from the bar’s neon signs—with the ridiculous name of Dancing Nights—flooded into my room at the Traveler’s Hotel, adorning the furniture with mournful silhouettes and illuminating my absolute loneliness. 

What I saw in front of Dancing’s door wasn’t much different from what you’d expect at a bar located at world’s edge: provincial drunks, ragged yet somehow with money, coming and going, speeding off in twos, in taxis or in their cars or motorcycles, passing a police car stationed at a convenient distance, feigning the possibility of intervention but ultimately following the corrupt codes particular to the traffic zone: drugs and prostitution. And women, entering and leaving the building or lurking close by, swaying to the music from inside, or leaning on signposts and cars. Women who appeared much younger than one is used to seeing at such suspect places, with their extra-mini skirts, skimpy blouses, high heels, haircuts ranging from wild to simple braids, all attempts to make their looks identical to those on TV and in magazines. Layers of makeup and expert poses under the red, pink, green, and yellow lights of the sign, luminous balls that streamed out from within the little hell-on-earth, giving their skin, faces and bodies a theatrical mystery, an indefinableness, and perhaps even a poetic quality.

I know from much experience that when you get near to a prostitute and especially when you undress her, she quickly loses her charm and appeal and ends up revealing her life marks. But the transaction itself and the possibility of being with a complete stranger produce in some men a fascination to which I sometimes fall victim. And even though soon enough I end up disappointed, at the very moment when she begins to undress—with the grace common to all women—there builds in me a renewed hope, an eagerness and expectation that cannot be explained by physical desire alone, but rather by a much greater excitement!

I hurriedly dressed and walked down to the lobby. As I am not so careless as to allow myself to be taken to some nearby room by a complete stranger, I made sure to ask the night porter if it was permitted to have guests, to which he responded by making an almost imperceptible rubbing motion with his right thumb and index, indicating “yes,” so long as I did my part. I gave him ten reais, which he proceeded to place in his pocket without a word, and then I exited.

Before I could cross the street towards Dancing Nights, I heard the call, almost a whisper, of a child’s voice: “Over here, tio.” I turned left and saw in the shadows at the opening of an alley—outside the window’s field of vision—a girl, who repeated, “Here, tio.”

As I got closer to her I confirmed, suddenly numbed, that the one underneath the red dress—low neckline, straps, and a side-long opening at the thigh—lipstick and perfected streetwalker pose, was a child. Yes, a child given permission to dress up as a woman for a birthday party.

I stopped in front of her, embarrassed and mute, just as she began to speak.

“Come along tio. It’ll only cost you eighty reais.”

It was then that a man appeared from out of the alley’s shadows and quickly made his way towards us. Grabbing her straps, he lowered the girl’s dress and exclaimed with a smile both servile and contemptuous, “Look, she barely has tits.”

In fact, where her skin was most white she barely revealed two swollen buttons. Instinctively, I turned towards the police vehicle. Neither of the two guards inside showed any interest in our activity.

I should say a little more about this man. In contrast to the short brown men common in the region, he was whiter, tall, skinny, and had a clean-shaven face. He had on white pants and a blue silk shirt, probably expensive, but not distasteful. Two of his top bottoms were open, showing off a chain, possibly gold. When he smiled, you could see that his teeth were well cared for. I felt like I had always despised him, that he possessed the most hateful qualities of the human species, but particularly the male sex, and that to see him dead, or better yet, to kill him with my two hands would have been a great pleasure. Perhaps I should add the following: if a demon was to have materialized in human form in a city so condemned to backwardness, he would surely have chosen a man so suave as he whom the girl stared at as though enraptured. However, I heard myself respond to him, “How can I tell it’s a woman if she doesn’t have tits?”

“Show him,” the man ordered the girl, moving his arm in the direction of her shoulders.

Laughing, as if responding to a rehearsed joke, she lowered her dress all the way down to the slit in her skirt. Before turning away, I couldn’t help but examine her, hypnotized by my own horror at the realization that this girl, almost completely hairless, hadn’t yet begun puberty.

Should a man not be judged—even by himself—by his actions and not by his thoughts? Objectively, yes. Without a doubt, his thoughts, so long as they don’t escape vigilance, should bare no consequence. I quickly turned my back to them and began taking the steps that separated me from the hotel, though not quick enough to avoid hearing the man  exclaim, “If you change your mind, she’ll still be here.”

The doorman stared at me curiously as I returned alone, visibly incensed, but he didn’t ask me a thing, conscious of the risk of loosing a few reais. I intuited that he was in cahoots with the pimp, perhaps like the police.

I went up to my room and sat on the bed. I attempted to grasp the extent of the horror and fascination I felt, compelling me to immediately run away from that cursed place. Had I remained, I would have fought the entire time against my desire to run back to the alley and grab the girl, if only to examine her sleeping, inert and gentle like a doll, covered and protected. But also perhaps naked and wrapped in my arms?  

I found the hotel’s phone book and dialed the airport to inquire if they had opened yet so I could spend the rest of the night there. Without expectation or hope, I also inquired if the airline happened to have an earlier flight to São Paulo. I was surprised to hear the airline worker respond positively: the same airline had a flight departing in one hour and forty minutes.

“Could I take that flight with the ticket I was planning to use tomorrow morning?” I asked.

“One moment,” the agent replied, and for an instant, without understanding their words, I heard on the other end of the line an exchange with another attendant. He then returned and told me, “This is a special flight, but if you are in a hurry you may take it.”


As I entered the taxi at the hotel’s entrance my gaze swiftly turned towards the alley. There was no one, and I was suddenly filled with such an intense rage that now as I write these lines, I can intimately recall the mixed feelings of indignation and resentment. The first, because I imagined some brute there, or maybe that demonical protector, profaning the girl’s body. The second, because it felt like he had robbed me of something. This is unsurprising; human feeling is always split in at least two, and if such a thing as good men have ever existed, they are only human in as much as they have succeeded in sealing their secret chamber. 

It was with great relief that I left the Traveler’s Hotel and Dancing Nights behind, with their infamous music and alley, as if I were abandoning a nefarious part of myself along the bumpy road to the airport, if it deserves such a title. The airport wasn’t more than a big shed and a runway. Through a fence leading to the terminal one could make out an enormous plane seated on the track, appearing as if it had been delivered from another world. 

When I entering the lobby I noted a few people—travelers no doubt—seated in the waiting area. They were dressed in black, their eyes bloodshot not from a lack of sleep, and one of them was crying openly. I found this very strange but was not so moved as to stop before approaching the counter with my ticket in hand.

“Are you a family member, sir?” an attendant asked me.

“A family member?” I asked.

“Yes. Of the dead.”

“The dead?” I continued in confusion.

“The plane that crashed four days ago in the jungle. Didn’t they tell you that this was a special flight? We’re shipping the dead bodies back to São Paulo. The family members who came to accompany them don’t have to pay. The airline is taking care of all their costs.”

I remembered having read in the newspaper about some accident in the area, but I took little notice and didn’t think of it again except for a quick moment when I realized that I would be traveling to that part of the country two days later.  

“No, I’m not a family member,” I said, showing my ticket. “They told me on the telephone that I could take this flight.”

“Yes, there is plenty of room,” he said, watching me closely as if waiting for me to react. “And you’re lucky that it’s a direct flight. You won’t be inconvenienced because the coffins will be in the cargo area and the bodies were embalmed at the morgue.”

I wasn’t bothered in the slightest. All I wanted was to get out of that hot and oppressive town. I took my boarding pass, suddenly feeling very sleepy and hungry, and looked around to find an available seat. There weren’t any. However, close by I spotted a woman, black and very old, with a thermos of coffee hanging from her shoulder. She was holding herself up with a crutch, and her left leg was amputated well above her knee. I ordered a coffee from her and she stared at me while I sipped it and remarked on its freshness and good taste. She must have overheard my conversation with the airline worker.

“You aren’t afraid to travel with them?” she asked, with a voice weak with old age. I noticed that she was missing all her teeth. 

“The dead?” I replied, “What could they do to me? They can’t die again. The plane can’t possibly crash.”

“No one knows what travels with them, my dear,” she whispered, “And my leg, do I still feel it?” The old woman pointed to her amputation. And then to my surprise, she made the signs of a blessing between our two bodies. For some reason this moved me, so I paid her more than the price of the coffee and placed my hand on her shoulder as an affectionate gesture of goodbye.


I like to fly because in the air I feel like I’m not in a specific place. If I could, I would avoid ever arriving at my destination; either end of the journey is inevitably painful, almost unbearable.  I told you before that my life is hard and dull and now I’ll explain why.  As an auditor for a pharmaceutical company, part of my job involves visiting the company’s many offices in various cities, documenting the volume of sales and accounts, as well as going for lunches with the various tedious managers, the flatterers, eventually having to reprimand some and praise others, unenthusiastically in both cases. And, at night, those hotels that my modest daily stipend can afford. There you have the tribulations of a wandering bureaucratic life. However, returning to São Paulo isn’t a great consolation and really just means returning to a tedious life, and what’s worse, a city in which I was betrayed and abandoned by a woman whom I would rather not discuss further. In any case, this explains to you why I accepted the job of an auditor.

On this particular flight, I felt better than on any other. As the family of the dead—who were few in number—had been placed in the plane’s executive and first-class compartments, the rest of the aircraft belonged to me and four or five other passengers.  I sat myself far from the others at a window seat by the rear so I could devote myself to my own thoughts without being interrupted. It was night, so rather than having to shield myself from the sunlight, I could contemplate the stars in the blackness with no land in sight to remind me of its cruelty. 

I delighted in the plane’s miniscule dots of blinking lights and imagined myself divided in two: as a boy daydreaming as he stares at the ground and imagines himself deep within its depths, and as a middle-aged man enjoying the experience of being suspended over the planet, a mobile point in a system that I sensed was on the brink of radical change, the whole system, about to be engulfed by chaos, the atemporal abyss, at some distant time. The idea of losing myself in it—something that terrorizes many—was for me intoxicating, and that night, these very thoughts were stimulated by the deads’ furtive presence in the cargo area and their impregnable peace.

What I have set out to write—perhaps one of the biggest curses of all because we never truly arrive through words at the destination we so long for—permits me to go so far as to admit that I have frequently thought of seeking out death. However, a part of me—one that I think extends beyond mere instincts for survival—would prefer that events unfold randomly and naturally, until our bodies expire themselves. And I must admit, if only because of my experience on that flight, that restraint is worth it, to wait. Writing, too, once completed as a work, leaves me feeling more poetic and less contaminated by the terror and violence that regularly makes me avoid it.

To return to the flight, I allowed myself to divert from those thoughts that had me so intensely absorbed when I eagerly accepted a tray with dinner, as I was very hungry. The meal was delicious:  a good cut of beef, roasted potatoes, and vegetables. Perhaps it was meant as a reward to the passengers, the victims’ families, a thought that made me smile and contemplate, without the slightest philosophical pretension, that life was just that: flesh devouring flesh, or, with assistance from the worms, flesh consuming itself. And that despite the chemical products that had been used in the morgue at Boa Vista, a process of decomposition of my fellow passengers had already began below—probably interrupted by the freezing temperatures of the high altitude—and would soon take its course. 

I took delight in a glass of wine of reasonable quality and, perhaps aroused by its effluvia, the process of the dead bodies decomposing entered my thoughts in terms of a refined form of creation, a manner of eliminating through its process the body’s own filthiness: its odors, excrements, sexual compulsions, physical ailments and the other kinds that originate from an undisclosed location we sometimes call the mind, and other times the spirit, unattributed to matter and imprisoned by nothing, however much, in principle, we know otherwise. But if we know this to be true it is only because of reason, and if such a thing were to err . . .

Here, I should remind the reader—if indeed one exists at some later time—that from the very start I alerted you to a certain feverishness and agitation in my thoughts, which is why I generally prefer to keep them secret, a fact that, because of what follows, I will deny.


It was one of those moments on a flight of a certain duration in which nothing happens, the trays have been removed by the flight attendants who are finally able to rest a while. Nearing the height of dawn, I could somehow prophesy daybreak’s arrival despite the complete absence of any indication of light, as if time had stopped. 

It was during this break that I first noticed her, as if appearing from nowhere, probably—I suspected—from the area reserved for passengers in first class, which was separated by a curtain.

She walked through the aisle in my direction. I assumed she was heading towards the toilet or the little pantry at the back, but to my great surprise, despite the dozens of empty seats, she sat down beside me without asking permission or providing an explanation.

She was visibly young, despite her black dress, both sober and elegant, which made it difficult to accurately guess her age. But when she placed her head on my chest, with all naturalness, her gesture demanded that I stroke her hair with the tenderness one reserves for a child. Despite her apparent audacity, her sensible outfit, lack of makeup on her face and lips, and modest appearance in no way resembled the girl from the alley whom I had left behind long ago, whose image now appeared to me as nothing more than a mirage. 

“Are you one of the family members?” I asked her carefully, wondering if perhaps she could have been made an orphan of the disaster and was seeking consolation and support from a circumspect and paternal man, as I may have appeared to her. 

“No, I am already among them,” she said, turning her body towards me with a half-smile, which I unsuccessfully attempted to decipher as a sign of mockery.

 “Who are they?” I asked her, reminded of the old black woman in the airport and admitting the unimaginable, that which reason denied, making my heart beat rapidly, but not out of fear.  Rather, I felt impelled to further penetrate that obscure territory which felt strangely familiar to me. In that moment, I felt well. 

Her only response was to embrace my body tightly, kissing my lips fugitively with a lust that was both anguished and controlled. Then she placed her face onto my shoulder, as if what she wanted by doing all these things was to grasp, through me, onto something other than life itself. If not that, then how to explain why such a beautiful young woman—yes, for the moment she was a young woman with her unyielding sensuality—could find herself attracted to a man like me: old, wrinkle-faced, with an inward and lackluster gaze, clearly melancholic. I began to wonder for a second if she wasn’t a professional who latches onto men who appear rich because they fly. A foolish idea, as my appearance and clothes certainly don’t suggest anything beyond financial mediocrity.

My suspicion completely dissolved the moment I realized that I loved her, that I could never love anyone as much. It didn’t matter that I had never seen her before, for the feeling came to me like something that could only form between two complete strangers. Between two strangers who in silence discovered each other’s innermost being, meanwhile making them sparkle like a buried diamond. Indeed, I understood that she too could love me because she would look beyond my appearance and discover what I could be, what I desired to be, or maybe even what I truly was.  On this point I should emphasize that I have never possessed, or at least exhibited, anything striking at all.  

At that moment she transformed into a grown-up woman, with her beauty and body now having bloomed, her personality, one could say, was complete. Perhaps because of this, in contrast, it was as if I was suddenly much younger, in turn placing my head on her chest so she could stroke my hair. I opened two of her dress buttons and lightly stroked her breasts, covered by her long black straight hair that she let fall in front of her—as if to hide us—as she placed one of her hands inside my shirt to caress me, placating countless faults that had forever oppressed me, those that made me who I was until that very moment. 

Out of fear that I might offend her with some obscenity or scandal and compromise our contact, I did not pursue anything beyond what had already taken place between us, which appeared to me as a clearly demarcated limit I couldn’t transgress. And so we remained like this for I don’t know how long, but at some point I fell asleep, still holding her in that perfect closeness.


When the flight attendant woke me up, asking me to fasten my seat belt and raise the seat, the plane was already beginning its descent into São Paulo.

Once again alone, I was struck simultaneously with sensations of great loss and great happiness. If I chose to turn back in time to those minutes that had been the happiest and fullest of my life, the sheer memory of which filled me with joy and expectation, then upon leaving the plane or in the airport, I would simply have to turn around to find my fellow traveler, who had presumably returned to her place among the families of the dead.  What with the clear day’s heightened reality, I couldn’t imagine any other hypothesis. 

For this reason, landing in what is for me an inhospitable city was less painful than usual. But as I walked across the runway, I noticed that among the sad passengers leaving the plane and walking towards the gate, there was not a single passenger who looked even remotely like my nocturnal beloved. Notice that I did not use the word lover. I decided to ask the airline attendant at the gate if there was anyone still disembarking. She responded, “No, no one.” My unsuccessful attempt of finding her was repeated in the waiting area designated for those disembarking, now transformed into a sort of funeral home, where I witnessed a tragic scene in which family members awaiting the bodies reunited with those who had accompanied them on the flight.


If someone ends up reading this one day, he will imagine the misery I felt as I sat in the taxi on route to my dull quotidian life in São Paulo. But there remained a part of me that tried consolation by explanation.

“It is better this way because if we were to meet again, she and I—the woman, the girl, the child—I could lose everything. I really don’t see how a relationship could ever form between us, that she could share her life with a man like me. The way that things are, at least I can keep her in my memory.”

Here the potential reader is asking himself and me, “But who was she: the unconceivable? One of accident’s dead victims who arose from the plane’s makeshift morgue to be with me?” Indeed, didn’t she say that she was already “among them?”

I’m not sure that I’ve been clear enough in this story that despite my frequent daydreams, nightmares, and fantasies, I am not a man of superstition or mysticism. At most, I share the doubts of agnostics. And when contemplating the night and the most distant stars, I have been and am attracted to the greatness and abysms of astronomy, not to astrological mystifications, the supernatural, or esotericism. 

But I don’t deny that in order to consider all the possibilities—and this after another experience that I have yet to share in this account—I turned to editions of various newspapers to consult the reports of the crash, the facts, figures, obituaries, and principally the photos of the passengers from São Paulo who were transported on my flight. I also reviewed newspapers from other states, hoping that there had been some error in the processing of corpses. In both cases, there was not one that even slightly corresponded to the images of her I had entrenched in my head. And If I might be lighthearted for a moment (a joyful humor compels me to do so), if indeed she died, it was not from the accident. I confess that this makes me happy. I don’t enjoy thinking of her dismembered, which would surely have happened during the process of sanitizing her body. 

What can I say to the doubters, among whom I include myself? Was it all a dream? And those who like to interpret dreams according to the canons might suggest that the young girl was nothing more than a manifestation of my abandoned self, of my repressed desire at the Traveler’s Hotel and its sinful periphery. Perhaps the particularities of that flight, my proximity to the dead, were the old black woman’s contributions. 

Yes, it is possible. However, from my own experience of dreams, with their discontinuities or simultaneities of time and space, their figures, interchangeable individuals, and scenes, the only way in which my experience seemed like a dream was the altering appearances in which my fellow passenger—from a girl to full-grown woman—presented herself to my senses. Awake or semi-awake, I want to believe. In truth, the following morning she was more unlike a dream than the girl from the alley. 

And everything that happened had the continuity and materiality of the real, the physical sensations that we experience, like the kiss that remains forever on my lips and that through these lines will live on beyond contact with that lovely body. And even more significant were the live emotions that I felt in that embrace, its completeness and heat, which was the antithesis of the death we know from touching a corpse. 

Oh words, so incapable of describing the richest feelings! Those who read my story and can recall the feeling of sharing rapture with someone—those who have had the privilege—will come closer to understanding me.

I should also remind you that it was only after our most imitate moment of proximity—without transgressing the limits of delicacy and decorum imposed by the circumstances—that I slept.  Yes, I was enveloped in sleep, enveloped by she herself, my beloved traveler. We would therefore be facing an inexplicable situation in which a dream occurs before sleep or at least before complete sleep.

A hallucination, the skeptics will say, and further point out that I had mixed the sleeping pills I took at the hotel with wine served on the plane. Yes, a hallucination is possible, maybe during that in-between stage between vigilance and sleep. But, in my case, the way in which it took place with a specific duration and that kind materiality would make this hallucination stand out from all the others I’ve had in my life; an experience both exterior to myself and, as I’ve said, a physical thing.

A ghost—of flesh and bones—they would sneer.  And in the face of what I experienced I would be able to laugh too, but for very different reasons.


Rising in the old and sluggish elevator in my building located in a lower-middle class neighborhood, I was overcome with weariness and a strong desire to sleep in my own bed. Because I had arrived much earlier than expected, I could sleep for hours before having to go to the office where I worked, where I’d have to account for my trip—in a functional sense, of course—and perhaps begin my report on the respective office.

My apartment, made up of two bedrooms and a living room attached by a hallway, is located at the back end of an apartment complex made up of connected buildings. When I travel, I leave the windows and curtains closed, making the space even more somber than it is usually. Penetrating its interior was like returning to night.

Could it have been this darkness, or nostalgia, that caused me to feel another presence in this space, someone there with me, or perhaps better yet, within me? And, in terms of what I’ve narrated in these pages, it comes as no surprise to add that if it wasn’t hope I felt, it was at least desire to find myself again with my travel companion, to dream of the flight’s apparition.

As I saw nothing in the living room other than the furniture and objects with their shapes so familiar to me, I continued through the hallway, my heart beating with anticipation, one foot following the other, as if only this way could I surprise the presence, whom I assumed was uncertain and fleeting. 

When I arrived at the bedroom door, the vision I came across immersed in shadows within its interior far surpassed that which even a troubled mind could imagine and filled me with such wonderment, and at first, a dread that situated me within the tenuous limits between madness and death.

Seated on my bed, staring at me with a placid smile, in which I sensed a bit of irony, was a man—if I may call him that—who, because of the absolute impossibility of the situation and the indiscernability of his age, it took me a few seconds—if I was even able to measure time—to identify as myself. As if it were possible to be divided in two: one who travels and the other who remains peacefully at home, or perhaps, in a space outside of time.

It took no more than a few moments of recognition for the apparition to disappear, leaving me forever in doubt if he had manifested independent of me or if it was I who created him in a moment of acute fatigue and hysteria after everything I had lived through during the previous hours. 

But this minimal time was enough for me, having also been the one seated on the bed, to be able to see two faces of myself. One of them, at the door, marked with wrinkles from a mortal fatigue, from melancholy and desperate loneliness, like I had experienced at the Traveler’s Hotel. The other face, however, appeared to me as I must have been seen and understood by my flight companion, looking through my grim mask in order to love me as I had loved her: as someone who I could be, or perhaps whom I truly was, having overcome my greatest hurdles.


In my room there is a table with a chair where I sometimes sit to write my prosaic accounts by hand, which serves as the only means of separating me from myself and from my own thoughts at those rare times, when it is absolutely essential to write things that, while not being useful and almost always mean-spirited, derive their reason of being from themselves. 

I open the window, allowing pure air and clarity to enter the room. However, in this my writing, it is and will always be night. A night in which I contemplate the girls and lights from Dancing; the girl from the alley and her demon; an old lady who appeared before me as a fortuneteller; myself in moments of exaltation of all my senses, especially the ones buried deepest. 

In this writing, in which I feel in my hand the lightness of an “other,” there is, above all things, a morning flight with its dead cargo and the passenger who came to be with me. Exultant, I gave her light once more, materialized her. Here she will always be mine. 

A night in which, I dare say, hovers an enigmatic and woeful poetry, which gives me hope of achieving, this time, in writing, a fusion so greatly desired: to satisfy the greatest yearning! And, before being a ghost story—I rise with a cackle, a sudden hilarity disposes me to it—it is a story written by one of them.

Image: An aerial view of Brazil. From votseemagazine.com.

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