Paul Ford Talks With a Chemist
I am sitting in the Binghamton, N.Y., bus station. My connecting bus had already left by the time I arrived here and I have hours to wait until the next one. A pale man sitting across from me starts a conversation. I am 19 and words don’t flow. I can talk about music, computers, and two of the novels of Thomas Hardy. The pale man introduces himself and asks where I am going.
“Home for Thanksgiving,” I say. I don’t want to go, and now I am late. I am not speaking with my mother. I am fighting with my girlfriend. My life is divided; my friends don’t get along, my studies feel useless. Nothing gels. The turkey will be stuffed with annoyance.
The pale man is traveling in the other direction. “I’m sick,” he says. “I’m on my way to the hospital for a treatment.” He drinks from a thermos. “I’m a chemist,” he explains.
“Is that good?” I ask.
“You see the world differently,” he said. “I see a tree, and I see what goes into the tree. The molecules that make up the bark. The transformation brought about by sunlight on the leaves. Long-chain polymer polysaccharide carbohydrates.”
I grunt and eat my snack. “With people, too?” I ask.
“Carbon,” I say. “Hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen.”
“And pesticides,” he says.
“Read your book if you want,” he says. “I’m just saying hello.” He can see I’m not comfortable, that I don’t have the skills to hold up my end of a discussion with a stranger. I feel that he is disappointed in me. But I take the reprieve because I don’t want to talk to him. I lean forward and return to my book. Looking at the thin, pale man in a sports jacket, I wonder what it’s like to look at the world and see a recipe. Maybe I’ll sit at the big table with my family, around the cranberry sauce, oyster pudding, and the huge glistening turkey transformed by heat, and see—not the event of Thanksgiving—but the individual strands of fiber that make up our collective sweaters, the flesh under the skin of my family, the miles of traveling that brought us into contact, the breakdown of the pumpkin pie as it enters the stomach, the duty that pulls me into this holiday trip despite my instincts. What are the components of instinct? Maybe the chemist has an answer?
Pitchaya Sudbanthad Is Left Alone
For me, Thanksgiving has largely been about going nowhere. My family lives at the opposite side of the world in Thailand, and in college, even with the longer holiday stretch, it wasn’t worth the grueling travel time to go home. Back then, it was the biomedical engineering students from Iran and Hong Kong huddled with me around a table of improvised spaghetti and meatballs and Chinese food.
When I moved to New York, my Thanksgivings remained a coalition of stragglers and castaways: foreign students and friends too cash-strapped to buy a plane ticket home. In my apartment, we cooked Chinatown duck and pasta, and in one ambitious year, recreated a full-blown fancy turkey dinner with the help of a live hot line to somebody’s mother in Georgia. We ate and then watched college football like fattened American kings.
Other years, everybody would be gone, and I’d find myself in a seemingly deserted city. I’d step down into the ancient basement maze of the Strand bookstore with other timidly shuffling shapes, scanning the endless spines of books to pass the time between then and the return of life to the city, like dried-claw sea creatures waiting for the tide to come back in.
Anthony Doerr Needs a Nanny
In March my wife and I went on “holiday” to Sardinia from Rome. We flew EasyJet, which is similar to Southwest only with more cigarettes, cologne, and a touch of Venezuelan public buses. Because of our year-old babies, we were allowed to “pre-board.” This means we walked out of the gate onto a giant bus and then everyone else crammed on after us. The bus wheeled across (seriously) 12 yards of tarmac, the doors opened and everyone sprinted onto the plane. By the time we folded up the strollers, we were the last to find seats.
On the plane, my “lap child” was supposed to fit into the maybe 11 inches between my nose and the seatback in front of me. The second we got into our seats, my son began playing with the knob holding back the tray table. Every time the tray fell, it would strike his forehead and he would burst out screaming. Fun.
My wife was in the middle seat in front of mine. She opened a carton of milk and tried to pour it into a bottle in her lap while Henry was in her arms. In the process, she poured milk all over her jeans, the seat, and the woman next to her.
During takeoff the boys stomped our groins with their little sneakers. Each toy I managed to extricate from the bag between my legs, Owen threw onto the floor. By the time we reached cruising altitude, we were out of toys and the woman in front of me had lost three significant clumps of hair. Then the turbulence began…
Sarah Hepola Travels the World
Where I grew up in Dallas, rich kids spent Christmas in Vail, in Maui, in Taos, names as exclusive and unfamiliar to me as the tony liberal arts schools they would eventually attend. My family didn’t ski. We didn’t snorkel or climb or sail. We stayed home for Christmas, shopping sales and making each other cry. Well, OK, they made me cry. Well, OK, I cried, and who knows what caused it? I was a sad kid, full of wish and envy.
So when Christmas vacation ended, and the rich kids showed up with winter tans and raccoon sunburns, wearing their vacations like concert T-shirts, I did what any future writer might do: I lied. Breckinridge? It was OK. Padre? Well, Destin was better. I could pull this off because I had spent two weeks doing little but reading, watching films, and inventing fantasies for myself.
Interestingly, in the past five years I have traveled compulsively—across the U.S., to Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and South America—and I sometimes wonder if I’m not simply making good on all those lies. It’s nice to know a middle-class scrapper like me can travel, same as the rich kids. And the truth? Vail was OK, but Maui was better.
Andrew Womack Sits Next to the Wrong Guy
I’ve made last-minute travel plans to Altoona, Penn., to visit my brother over Thanksgiving. There are few flights available, and I get the worst of what’s left—the two legs of my journey there are by commuter jet, and a particularly nasty winter is already setting in.
No flight has ever punished me like this. The first plane dips and climbs, the bottom of my stomach falls one step behind, every time. We land and, knowing that within the hour I will be back in the air, I head to a newsstand for nausea tablets.
As I sit in the waiting area, waiting for the medication to take effect, I watch a man eat one Snickers bar, then two, and wash it all back with a can of Cherry Coke. Though it nauseates me, I’m fascinated by it, and can’t completely look away. I close my eyes, leaving only my face pointed in his direction.
I re-board the plane and find that here, in the cramped interior of the tiny jet, I’m seated right next to the candy-eating guy. The second flight is, thankfully, less turbulent, but as the pilot announces our descent into Altoona, the plane hits an air-pocket. Candy guy vomits down my leg. Afterwards, he hides his face behind his novel, audibly sobbing as we land, taxi along the runway, and everyone de-planes.
As I leave the cabin I look back. He’s still there, still hiding his face. I turn around and see the flight attendant, who first looks at the mess on me, then toward the man in the back of the plane. She stands back so I can get off the plane, and as I pass we both shrug and mumble, “Happy Thanksgiving…”
Jonathan Bell Hitches a Ride
Homeward-bound from a grim and dispiriting Moscow, I couldn’t wait to get to the terminal, let alone airborne. Anticipation was held at bay by intense gastric unease, triggered by the city’s infamously patchy water supply.
The airport shuttle was a tatty Lada that swerved to the curb the instant my host, an expatriate Danish photographer, raised his hand. Russia’s unemployed double as unofficial taxi drivers, providing a cheap but lottery-like solution that can turn a solo cab journey into a tense thrill ride. With no common language—or even English-language street signs—you never know quite where you’ll end up. The thinly upholstered seat lacked springs, and Soviet-era dust coated the dashboard; my stomach sent painful shudders along the length of my colon. Around us the traffic hooted and swirled, sweating thick emissions.
Ten minutes in, my mustachioed driver turned toward me and broke the silence, saying in broken but all-too-distinct English, “You like fucky-fucky?” Discomfort turned to panic. “Airport,” I said, tapping my watch theatrically. I glimpsed a tiny pictogram of a landing airplane on a passing sign, and tried to think positive thoughts for the rest of the journey.
Rosecrans Baldwin Nearly Kills an Arms Dealer
In high school I worked for an ambulance company. One Thanksgiving I was coming off duty around lunchtime and volunteered to drive Andrea, a fellow EMT, back to her house on my way home for the big family meal.
We had a few miles left to go when Andrea dared me to run a red light. The intersection was in the middle of the woods; where the streets crossed the corners were thick with trees, so I couldn’t see if any cars were waiting. “She dared me!” I thought, and gassed the car, blowing through the intersection a few seconds after the light changed and nearly smashing into a Honda Accord.
I sped away. “Oh my God, that was Jeff,” Andrea said, identifying the Accord’s driver, who was now furiously chasing after us. My stomach bottomed out. Jeff resembled a squashed pumpkin. He was probably the shortest, fattest person ever to rule our school’s criminal element. Rumors that he was an arms dealer were confirmed when a janitor discovered a small handgun in his locker. Somehow he was still enrolled at 19, but no one was sure why; I just figured he liked visiting the school to smoke. Jeff and Andrea had been dating for three years.
I thought about fleeing. Was my mother’s station wagon prepared to go 90 all the way to Toronto? Was there enough gas? Did I need my passport? Instead I parked in front of Andrea’s house and prepared to vomit. A touch dramatically, Jeff screeched his Accord to a stop by spinning the car halfway around, and came running over, huffing and puffing.
“Get out of the fucking car!” Jeff screamed. Five-foot-four and 200 pounds, he was especially intimidating from car-seat level. The cigarette in his mouth resembled a pacifier. Andrea popped out.
“Jeff!” she shouted. “It’s all my fault, I dared him!”
“Andrea?” He stepped a few feet back. “What are you doing here?” His face turned white.
“He was giving me a ride home—I dared him!”
“But I could have killed you,” Jeff said. He started to cry while I worked myself into a transcendent ecstasy of apologies. Jeff charged my door and banged on the roof.
“Don’t you ever fucking do that again,” he stammered, shaking his fist at me. “I was going to fucking kill you, you fucking—”
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry—”
“Fuck,” Jeff said, and then looked back at Andrea. The curse word reminded me of something: Just before our shift ended, Andrea had told me she was planning on getting laid that afternoon on her mother’s waterbed. And because of my bad driving, poor Jeff, on his way to his girlfriend’s house for Thanksgiving, with visions of jiggly intercourse dancing in his head, had almost killed the woman he loved.
They went into the house and closed the door. I drove home carefully. There was a lot to be thankful for.
Pasha Malla Gives Thanks for Airport Security
In 1999, I lived for 11 months in Adelaide, Australia, a quiet town of churches and gardens, with at least one case of brutal serial murder a year. (While I was there, more than 30 bodies were found in vats of acid in the Adelaide Hills.) My plan was to escape in time for Christmas.
On the flight home, I found myself seated beside a large, heavily tattooed former naval officer, who demanded that I drink with him. Once we were airborne, the navy man ordered beers for both of us, chugging his the moment it arrived and then plucking mine from my tray and chugging it, too. Two more beers produced the same result. More terrified than offended, I politely let my “drinking” buddy know that I was exhausted, put on my headphones, and feigned sleep.
That’s when the racism began. Muttered and misguided (the term “half-nigger” featured prominently), the fellow’s hostility increased in intensity and conviction as the beers kept coming. This continued until we got to Singapore, where he confronted me in the airport, and, upon threatening to kill me, was gunned down mercilessly by one of the heavily armed security officers nearby. OK, not really. But wouldn’t that be a nice way for this holiday tale to end?