I hadn’t asked for a bulkhead seat, but really, the leg room in the Boeing 757 was just too inadequate for my long legs, and I was thinking, with despair, of the eight-hour flight ahead when, suddenly, I spied a vacant seat in the exit row in front of me, right behind the bulkhead toilets. The plane had left the gate but hadn’t begun its takeoff roll, so I quickly unbuckled my seatbelt and moved forward.
Whew! I felt as if I had been upgraded to first class. Perhaps I’d even get some sleep. After a three-week trip backpacking through Europe, I was exhausted. I stretched out my legs, put my headset on, set it to the “Country Roads” channel, and settled back to enjoy the flight. Well, perhaps not to “enjoy” the flight. Who enjoys an eight-hour flight? But at least to relax and doze a little.
As soon as we had reached our cruising altitude, the seatbelt sign went off, and the parade of passengers to the toilets began, slowly at first, then with more regularity. I amused myself by trying to guess their age and nationality. I was flying USAir, so there were bound to be some Americans. And since the flight had originated in Amsterdam, there were no doubt quite a few Dutchmen aboard the plane as well.
The guy with the plaid shirt that gaped open between the buttons, stretching to cover a belly that had seen too much fast food and beer? Definitely an American. 50-something, I guessed. The double chin still had some elasticity to it.
The curvaceous young woman with the gauzy scarf and mini-skirt who left a trail of sweet-smelling perfume in her wake as she walked by? Her dark eyes and black hair suggested a southern European country, an impression semi-confirmed when she turned to the guy in the seat behind me and said something about “los niños.” Spain, I guessed. Late thirties, with just the beginning of crow’s feet around her eyes, those first lines that you actually welcome because they give your face character.
The college-aged student with the sweatshirt announcing not only that she had been to Amsterdam but that “Coffee Shops Rock”? Probably American. She was a well-weathered 22 who’d soaked up too much sun and smoked too many joints, probably at the same time.
The plump woman with her hair in a bun who smiled at the flight attendant as she passed, revealing long, overlapping, and discolored teeth? British, 60-something. Why can’t the Brits get decent dental care? Guy de Maupassant, one of my favorite authors, once compared the teeth of an English woman to garden tools. One hundred and thirty years later, her compatriots are still smiling smiles that remind you it’s time to plant the pansies. Yup. Definitely British.
I was beginning to tire of the game when an old man shuffled slowly toward the toilets, so feeble and unsteady on his feet that I feared he might fall. I noticed his feet first, and then my gaze rose to meet his, and my heart skipped a beat. It was my father! I nearly called out, “Daddy!!!” I’m glad I didn’t. My father has been dead for 15 years. I was at his funeral, and even though I didn’t see his casket lowered into the ground—it was only April, and in Minnesota, the ground is still frozen at that time of the year—I did see his waxen form at the viewing, and I had no doubt whatsoever that he had died. And yet, here he was, not just the spitting image of my dad, but my dad back from the grave. I tried to persuade myself that this was just a lookalike and that it was bound to happen sooner or later, that Mother Nature or God or some other Higher Power probably screwed up occasionally and forgot to change the pattern. It was inconceivable that in the billions of people who walked this earth, there were not quite a number of people who were true doubles, twins born of different parents. I mean, how many variations can there be on the human face? Two eyes, a nose, a mouth: how do you create billions of faces with these basic givens and not duplicate some of them?
But the fact is that he looked just as startled to see me as I was to see him. That has to count for something, doesn’t it? I mean, if this old man wasn’t my dad, why did he, too, have a look of recognition when he saw me?
I don’t know if he looked away first or if I did, but I reached for the in-flight magazine and changed the channel to “Chill”: “Close your eyes and take in the ambient sounds and chilled beats from a variety of artists, all designed to calm and relax,” said the magazine in its description of this channel.
I closed my eyes. I tried to let myself be calmed by the music. It didn’t work. When I looked up again, the man was fumbling with the lock on the toilet door. The word “Occupied” was illuminated, and this man couldn’t have been my father because he obviously didn’t know English. He kept pushing the lever up and down, up and down. He seemed almost frantic. Finally, a flustered-looking woman emerged, nearly knocking him over when she opened the door. He struggled to remain standing, managed somehow to get into the toilet, then had a hard time closing the door, but it finally snapped shut. I couldn’t tell if he locked the door properly. If he didn’t understand “Occupied,” how could he understand “Please lock door”? Would the arrow be sufficient to clue him in? I resisted the temptation to get up and look, but when a teenager with a nose ring approached, I leaped out of my seat to check. Whew. The word “Occupied” was illuminated.
I waited for him to emerge. Five minutes passed, then ten. What was he doing in there, I asked myself. Was I the only one who noticed how long he’d been there? There was another toilet in the block, and passengers came and went too quickly to notice that one of the toilets had been occupied for a long time.
What to do? Get a grip, I told myself: he looks like your father. He’s not your father. And whoever he is, he’s probably fine. Maybe he’s experiencing air sickness. Or brushing his teeth and washing his face. Perhaps he’s reading a novel on the toilet and got caught up in the plot. I tried to remember if he had had a book in his hand when he went into the toilet.
I waited another ten minutes. Dinner was served. That distracted me for a while. Then, after a half hour or so, the trays were removed, there was another run on the toilets that must have lasted for another forty-five minutes or so, and passengers started to lower their shades and go to sleep. Still, my dad, or rather the old man, had not emerged from the toilet. By now, he’d been there for two hours. How was it possible that nobody but me had noticed? I decided to signal one of the flight attendants. I pressed the call button, the one that had a little red person icon.
“Yes?” she asked, a hint of irritation in her voice.
“Um, there’s a man in one of the toilets,” I said. “He’s been there for quite a while.”
“So?” said the flight attendant.
“I mean, quite a while,” I said again, with emphasis.
“How long is quite a while?” she asked.
“Oh, a couple of hours or so.”
“A couple of hours?!” she asked incredulously. “And you’re just reporting it now?”
I felt a bead of sweat form on the nape of my neck and run down my back.
“Well, I didn’t think it was any of my business,” I said. “Except that…”
“Except what?” she asked, interested now.
“Except that I think it’s my father.”
“Come again?” she replied, sure that she had misunderstood.
“Oh, never mind,” I said, worried now that I wouldn’t be believed.
“No, tell me what you said,” she insisted. “You think the man locked in the toilet is your father? Are you traveling with your father?”
“Hardly. He’s been dead for 15 years.”
I could almost hear her brain synapses firing as she tried to take in this new bit of information and decide whether she should force the door, potentially embarrassing a passenger who was in some kind of discomfort and had been occupying the toilet for a longer-than-usual length of time or to dismiss my observation out of hand as the raving of a delusional woman.
I tried to explain, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words.
“We’ll keep an eye on it,” she said, and I knew she was also thinking, “We’ll keep an eye on you.”
The rest of the flight passed uneventfully. I dozed for an hour or so, and when I awoke, the word “Vacant” showed on the door of the toilet my dad had occupied. Had the flight crew “liberated” the man? Had he left of his own accord?
My stomach rumbled. I needed to use the toilet. I opened the door slowly, lest he still be there. It was indeed vacant. The image of the Empty Tomb flitted across my mind.
But he had to be on the airplane.
I decided to stretch my legs. I walked as far as I could to the front of the plane, i.e., just up to the “off-limits” Business Class section, where a curtain had been drawn across the aisle, and then retraced my steps very slowly, looking into every face as I made my way back down the aisle to the tail. He was nowhere to be seen, but I did notice that in the galley, at the back of the plane, two flight attendants were eyeing me with suspicion, watching my every move.
I did a second pass through the cabin. No sign of my dad. It’s like when you drop your contact lens in the sink. The trap is closed, so you know it has to be there, but it’s not, and no matter how hard you look, you can’t find it. Completely confused, I reckoned that there was only one other possibility: the man in the toilet had died, and the flight attendants had removed his body while I slept. But where would they have stashed it? Planes don’t have morgues, do they?
I went back to the galley to have a look around, pretexting the need for a drink of water. I scanned the small room, noticing that the metal cabinets in which the dinner trays are usually stored were not big enough to hold a human body.
The flight attendants exchanged a look.
It was time to return to the bulkhead.
Sinking into my seat, I put my headset back on and changed the channel to classical music. The strains of Mozart’s Requiem filled my ears and brought tears to my eyes.
“Bye, Daddy,” I whispered. And then, unbidden, another thought came to me: Lack of sleep can make you crazy.
The words had been spoken many years ago by a psychologist in the course of a family session that followed my younger sister’s psychotic break. It was a scary time for all of us, and, in fact, my sister had not slept in days.
I thought back to my trip. When was the last time I had had more than two or three hours of sleep at a time? I couldn’t recall. First, it was the time change that put me off-kilter, then the overnight train travel, the food poisoning, the snorer in the next room of the two-bit hotel…
So that was it. I was sleep-deprived, and the man I saw wasn’t my dad after all. Still, I shall always remember the thrill of recognition I felt when I first saw him and the rush of longing when we exchanged a glance that was more eloquent than the most eloquent of words.
I closed my eyes and summoned the sandman.
About the Author
Once a professor of French literature, Mary Donaldson-Evans came down from the ivory tower in 2011 and hasn’t looked back. Her creative work has been published by the Lowestoft Chronicle, The Literary Hatchet, BoomerLitMag, The Persimmon Tree, and Spank the Carp, among others. She has also written a book based upon her parents’ World War II correspondence: Behind the Lines: A Soldier, His Family and the 10th Mountain Division (Austin-Macauley, 2021).