I sat at the gate at JFK, having red-eyed my way from Los Angeles, exhausted, minding my own business, reflecting on what I’d seen the night before, shortly after takeoff, shortly before sleep, something I’d never seen before from an airplane.
I’d been on the left side of the plane, and we’d gone south over the ocean, accident of fate, affording me a panoramic view of the city at night: amber streetlights dotting neighborhoods; red-stripe, white-stripe garlands of freeway traffic; mysterious black gaps of waterways and parkland. Then a small burst of light, not at ground level but above it. Another burst of light, streaks opening like a flower in time lapse. A fireworks show. I watched the little explosions until we penetrated the cloud layer.
It wasn’t a holiday.
I was thinking about how a sight that might consume our attention completely on the ground could, from another perspective, barely register as a blip on an enormous field, when I heard a name over the PA.
“Jeff Cook,” the agent said. “Please check in at the counter for Gate Eleven.”
A common enough name, but it piqued my attention. I had known a Jeff Cook once, at UCLA, almost twenty years earlier. Looking up, I saw a handsome man in his forties striding toward the counter. He was dressed in a sharp blue suit, no tie, glasses with transparent Lucite frames. Expensive leather loafers. He said his name to the gate agent and slid his boarding pass and identification across the counter. While she clicked away at the noisy keyboard, he leaned slightly on the handle of his fancy hard-shelled roll-aboard suitcase.
From where I sat near the gate, I could examine this Jeff Cook closely, in profile. I had all but determined that he wasn’t the Jeff Cook I’d known and was going to turn my attention elsewhere, when he looked in my direction. I knew those high, broad cheekbones and that penetrating gaze.
It was he. But Jeff had had famously long, dark flowing hair, not this cropped salt-and-pepper business. Plus he’d put on weight, become more solid in the way so many of us did after college, continuing to grow into manhood long after we thought we’d arrived.
We hadn’t been friends, exactly, barely acquaintances, but Jeff was one of those minor players from the past who claimed for himself an outsize role in my memories.
During my freshman year I experienced a series of encounters, if they could even be called that, in various locations on and off campus, with a fellow student who had, for some reason or another, caught my attention. With his cascading hair and distinctive features, he was hard to miss, a sort of thrift-store Adonis, and he carried himself with the quiet confidence of an upperclassman. We didn’t cross paths so much as he would just pop up from time to time, at a table in the corner of a coffee shop, wandering around a protest for the first Gulf War, or— most randomly—lit up by my car’s reverse lights as I backed out of a friend’s driveway one night. Every sighting of this mystery man yielded a frisson, as if he were my guardian angel keeping tabs on me, followed by a pang of anxiety at the thought that I might never see him again.
Near the end of that year, I went with a friend to buy weed from an acquaintance of his, a fellow stoner who had picked up a little extra to hook up his buddies and make a few bucks in the process. We swung by an apartment building on Gayley, an ugly multiunit box. The shabby security vestibule opened on an elevator that stank of rancid hydraulic fluid. Upstairs, the hallway was anonymous and bland, but the apartment had a distinctive grotto-like atmosphere, the windows covered over with bedsheets and the walls festooned with posters, all of them for the same band, a band I had never heard of: Marillion. We stood awkwardly in the middle of the living room while a line of stoned residents deliquesced into the couch in front of us, eyes more wary than friendly. At the end of the couch, as stoned as the rest of them, sat my long-haired guardian angel. My friend got the pot, and, perhaps to make the visit seem less transactional, his friend made introductions around the room. I learned the name of the mystery man, a name not nearly as mysterious as he was: Jeff.
First quarter of sophomore year, there he was again, in Cinema and Social Change. Every Tuesday and Thursday, in Melnitz Hall, his myth disintegrated further, the slow grind of familiarity rendering him into just another undergrad, a fellow non-film major as clueless as I was about the movies we were discussing. This process struck me as curious. Over the years, it would spring to mind whenever I found myself having to deal with people whose fame summoned in me an irrational but persistent agitation.
The gate agent bent behind the counter to retrieve something from the printer. She handed Jeff his identification and boarding pass. He thanked her and turned to go. When he came past me, I said his name.
He looked at me quizzically. “Yes?” he said.
“UCLA,” I said.
His eyebrows went up behind those Lucite frames.
“Jesus,” he said. “You look exactly the same. Plus twenty years or so, but you know what I mean.”
I wondered if he was trying to place me. I started to say my name, but he beat me to it.
“That’s me,” I said.
“Names and faces,” he said, tapping his temple. “It’s a thing.” Oh God, I thought, he’s become a salesman.
He put out his hand to shake.
“That film class,” he said. “I remember. Only one I ever took.” “Same.”
“Almost failed it. Couldn’t stay awake in the dark. The whole thing felt like a dream.”
“You didn’t miss much,” I said. I didn’t mean it, but I was making conversation.
He smiled and took me in for a moment. “Hey, why don’t you join me in the first-class lounge? I’ve got an extra pass.”
“What about the flight?”
He pointed at the display above the gate. We’d been delayed. I had already spent hours in the airport, my tickets having been purchased last minute and at the cheapest possible fare—a red-eye from LA, a layover at JFK, a flight to Frankfurt, a four-hour train ride to Berlin—and the idea of a first-class lounge was
so appealing I could have hugged old Jeff right there and then.
I trailed him through the terminal, his soft-leather briefcase and fresh-looking roll-aboard making me wish I’d replaced my scruffy backpack with something more adult. The terminal wasn’t packed, but it was crowded enough that we made better progress single file than two abreast. His hair was cropped cleanly in a line above his collar. Everything about him conveyed neatness and taste. In college I’d never seen him in nice clothes, only ripped-up jeans and weathered T-shirts worn inside-out to obscure whatever was written on them. Whether this was fashion or indigence was never clear to me.
The whole way from gate to lounge elevator, as I followed him and the rhythmic ticktock of his bag’s wheels across the terminal’s tiles, he didn’t once look back to make sure I was following. I wondered if he was having second thoughts about inviting me into the land of the fancy people. I hoped I hadn’t seemed too desperate when accepting his offer.
At the elevator, he was back to normal, or how he had been at the gate, delighted at the coincidence and looking forward to catching up, though as far as I knew we didn’t have much to catch up on.
I presumed that he was one of those people who hated being alone. Perhaps if I’d been paying closer attention, or if I’d known what was to come, I’d have detected a glimmer of desperation in his eyes. I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t there, not yet.
We checked into the lounge at a marble counter, where an officious young man took my pass and waved us in, letting us know that they would be announcing when it was time for us to head down to the gate. Jeff found seats by the window, a low table between them, and gestured for me to sit, as if he were my host. The chair was real leather and the table real wood. He offered to grab a few beers. I hadn’t had a drink in eight years but said that I’d be happy to watch him drink. He made for the food area, leaving his bags. Even in the airport’s privileged inner sanctum, I couldn’t look at the unattended bags without imagining they contained contraband, or a bomb. I put it out of my mind. My mantra for air travel has always been: Stop thinking. From the moment one enters the airport, one is subject to a host of procedures and mechanisms designed to get one from point A to point B. Stop thinking and be the cargo.
Jeff strolled up, two beers in hand. He put one in front of
me, announcing that he’d found a nonalcoholic brew, and that he wasn’t sure if I drank them, but he thought it might make things feel more ceremonial—that was the word he used—for us to catch up over a couple of beers, alcoholic or not, for old times’ sake. We had never drunk together that I could remember, but I let it go. We clinked bottles and sipped, our eyes turning to the plane traffic outside.
“The miracle of travel,” he said. “Fall asleep someplace, wake up halfway around the world.”
“I can’t sleep on planes,” I said.
“I know a woman,” he said, “friend of a friend, you could say, who is terrified of flying but has to travel to various places every year for family obligations. Only flies private, by the way, this is a very wealthy person. And here’s what she does. An anesthesiologist comes to her house, knocks her out in her own bed, travels with her to the airport, to wherever she’s going, unconscious, and when they arrive at the destination, she’s loaded into whatever bed she’s staying in, whether it’s one of her other homes or a hotel, and he brings her back. She literally goes to sleep in one place and wakes up in another.”
“Someone should do that for us in economy,” I said. “You could fit a lot more people on every flight. Sardine style.”
Jeff sipped his beer.
“You have business in Frankfurt?” he asked, his eyes passing over my scuffed sneakers.
“Berlin,” I said. “My publisher is there.”
I didn’t mention that I was traveling on my own dime, hoping to capitalize on a German magazine’s labeling me a “cult author.” Or that I was also taking a much-needed break from family obligations, carving out a week from carpools and grocery shopping to live the life readers picture writers live full-time.
“I can’t imagine writing a book,” he said. “Neither can I.”
I’d said it before and meant it every time, but people always took it as an expression of false modesty.
Jeff laughed slightly. His demeanor changed, and I expected him to ask if he should have heard of any of my books. Instead, he asked if I’d ever gone under.
“I had my tonsils out in high school.” “Did you worry you wouldn’t wake up?”
I shook my head. “Didn’t cross my mind. Though were I to go under now, I wouldn’t be so cavalier.”
“You have kids.” “Two.”
“Changes everything, doesn’t it?”
He had undergone surgery recently, nothing serious, or not life-threatening at least, but he had ended up terrified that he wouldn’t wake up again. It did happen to people. And though such accidents had become exceedingly rare, he couldn’t help but imagine his going to sleep and never waking up, what it would do to his children—he had two as well—and to his wife. The whole episode had disturbed him greatly.
“Sleep is the cousin of death,” I said.
Outside, a jumbo jet came in for a landing, too high and too fast and too far down the runway, at least to my eyes, and maybe to Jeff’s too, since he watched it as well, but it came down fine, slowed dramatically, and made for the taxiway like any other plane. All the activity outside—the low vehicles buzzing around, the marshalers and wing walkers guiding planes with their orange batons, the food service trucks lifting and loading, the jetways extending, the segmented luggage carts rumbling across the tarmac—all of it vibrated under the gray sky like a Boschean tableau.
While I had been watching, he had been hunting down a thought.
“Coming out of surgery,” he said, “waking up in the recovery room, foggy as hell, I didn’t feel the sense of relief I had expected to feel—that only came later when I saw my family again. I felt like I’d lost a chunk of time. Like sleep, but when you sleep you wake up where you went down. I felt that things had happened to me without my knowledge, which they had, of course, and I was left with the uncanny sense that I wasn’t the same person who had gone under. Time had passed, a part of my body was no longer in me, I had had a square shaved from my leg for some kind of circuit-completing electrode, but I was still I, obviously. Now, this may have been a side effect of the drugs, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d only just arrived in the world, as a replacement for the old me. It wore off, as I said, but it wasn’t a pleasant state.”
“Like a near-death experience?” I asked.
“Funny you should say that,” Jeff said, as if he hadn’t just nudged the conversation in that direction. “I ended up in close proximity to one once. Not long after college, in fact, a year or so later. I was, through no planning or forethought on my part, responsible for saving a man’s life.”
I wondered why he emphasized “no planning or forethought” when that would have been the default.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Let me grab a few more beers first.” “No, no,” I said. “These are on me.” “They’re free.”
“Let me get them, then.” He settled into his chair.
I rose and made my way past a variety of travelers, from business types to trust fund hipsters, many of them speaking foreign languages. They weren’t so different from their counterparts downstairs, other than not looking like they were undergoing an ordeal. I ordered beers from the dour bartender. It was not quite noon. When I returned to our table and handed Jeff a bottle, he raised it for another toast.
“Running into you was serendipitous,” he said. “You were there at the beginning.”
Excerpted from MOUTH TO MOUTH by Antoine Wilson. Copyright © 2021 by Antoine Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.