He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
January, 2010—California’s coast came into view. It looked dry and ragged. My jaw was throbbing and I tried to reassure myself that if one thinks they are going insane, then that is proof that one is not. Unless of course that’s all just part of the delusion. Fuck. Something was terribly wrong with me; I knew that. The plane had crossed the international dateline a few hours earlier and it was January 6th—again. Of all the days to experience twice, this was one of the worst. I couldn’t wait to get off this fucking plane.
For most of the flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles, the masses of heaving protoplasm around me had been quiet, which was good because the sound of their breathing and snorting was barely tolerable. I was in the center aisle, with two people to my left, one to my right. There were three more seats on either side of them, across the wide aisles that bustled with the movement of Qantas’ beverage carts, which kept the flow of esophagus-burning wine and the piss-water that Australians call beer. These rivers of booze that streamed down the two aisles were necessary to keep the passengers subdued. 14 hours in a confined space—even in one of the most commodious of jetliners—was just too long. I could smell everyone’s stink. I watched them sleep soundly, mouths open, spittle collecting on their pillows, shirts and seats, as the minutes drudged on. My eyes hurt, as if the pupils themselves were bruised. I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept.
Somewhere over the immutable Pacific in some unknown time zone, the dawn broke in double time (since we were traveling east) and two women started to do their best to shove me off the edge of reason. I was at the back of the enormous Boeing 747 and they were talking six or seven rows up. Yet they were so loud it was as if they were sitting on either side of me shouting into my ears like a soldiers during a barrage of heavy artillery fire. But it was not so much the volume of their conversation that bothered me as much as the subject matter. Fashion. Reality TV. Celebrity gossip. I couldn’t take it. Not after what I had seen. Not after what I knew was happening right at that moment, in the sea 30,000 feet beneath me, in the air around me, through which I was slicing through at 500 mph. I clenched my teeth until California broke the horizon, the two women bantering all the way.
Imagine the battle scene again. Mortars bursting all around. Death screams sound in between the bursts, each one robbing the sounder of his dignity as he screams for his mother. It’s the second straight month of artillery assault and you’re still just as scared as the first day when the enemy opened up. You’re in a foxhole and you’re shaking with palpitations, your heart is beating so hard you can feel it in your throat, your chest feels constricted, like you’re wearing a corset, and you are just sick of all the fucking uncertainty. You just want to it be over and you don’t really care if you make it through alive or not—just as long as it comes to an end. Instantly though, you think of your family, and you feel guilty for having this thought and you curse yourself for how selfish you are. Meanwhile, two other soldiers are yelling at one another over the pandemonium. You tear yourself away from your own panic long enough to hear one lamenting the decline of baseball. The other shrugs—he prefers to watch hockey. They’re both smiling and continue to yell back and forth. Eventually, they end on the topic of wine and decide that, despite it being morning, they could really go for a Shiraz. They rationalize the decision to themselves out loud—lest anyone else around them may judge them—and they drink.
I felt like that lone soldier, stuck in the middle of massacre that no one else seemed to see or hear. Hundreds of souls living obliviously, worrying about their connecting flight, if the coffee in LAX would be any good or if their trinkets from Australia would be intact when they opened their luggage at baggage claim.
The plane banked to make its final approach and I got a glimpse of Los Angeles through the window.
My used ignorance-in an instant
Was shaken by the demon’s hand,
And he combined my poor existence
With his existence to the end.
His evil eyes became my own,
I gain poor treasure of the worlds,
My heart was beating in a tone
With indistinguishable words.
I’d looked at all with look that’s clear,
And I was shocked by what I’d seen;
Whether such world could once appear
As great and beautiful to me?
I looked away. The screams in my head grew louder and the women’s conversation faded as I receded again into pure terror. I leaned over in my seat to catch the tears in my hands so that they wouldn’t drip onto my cheeks. I wondered if I’d ever sleep again. I wondered how all of this would end.