Encoded by Lucian McDowell

CDG – JFK – PIT | 1988

In my memory I open the front door and there you stand in the December night, smiling in your white button-down shirt and Burberry blazer. But that can’t be right. I must have come to pick you up at the airport myself, then brought you home, giddy during introductions, my father, bluff and hearty, squashing your hand. How peculiar things must have seemed to you, the Parisian writer, that to me were as familiar as my hand. The dark hills. The sleeping town. The big red brick house. The friendly panting yellow dog. Because we were not married, you were given my childhood bedroom, with its light blue carpet and flowered wallpaper. I slept down the hall in my brother’s old room. Pan Am 103 had exploded over Lockerbie the day before. It felt like a very close call. It made your arrival sweeter. 

CDG – JFK – MSY | 1989

You were doing research on jazz for an article for a glossy French magazine. I was that grinning goggled dog in the sidecar, happily along for the ride. The trip was paid for by the magazine. It felt delicious, like we were getting away with something. This was the second stop in a five-city, ten-day tour. At the airport Hilton we stayed in the room while you read and wrote. We ordered mozzarella sticks and hamburgers and wore bathrobes thick as mink coats. We had no money, only your expense account, but we felt like rock stars. Eventually we took a cab into the French Quarter so you could interview an aged drummer at the Café Napoléon with its pocked plaster, sultry air, Caribbean-style decrepitude. Afterward, we happened into a restaurant crammed with lively people at long tables. According to their red T-shirts, they were celebrating Chester Zardis’s 90th birthday. We didn’t know Chester Zardis, but we bought a T-shirt and wedged ourselves among them and ate gumbo while a local jazz band played. Back at the hotel, someone had left chocolates on the pillows and a small folded sign that said Rêve bien.

ORD – MCI | 1989

In the desk drawer of the room, a postcard showed the motel in 1969, an ugly ochre-colored column planted in a parking lot. Twenty years later, it was unchanged. I ordered a cheese omelet. When it arrived on a tray placed outside our door, I lifted the round plastic lid and found an eggy half-moon sweating under a lurid triangle of Velveeta. But hey, it was room service. I sat on the edge of the bed and ate it while you made notes for the day. Later we somehow made our way into the right city. Wandering up and down 18th and Vine, I conjured the ghosts of the famous tap-dancing brothers. I could see them rising in unison, their bodies tilted, clicking their heels in a perfect O before their legs sprang out straight again, like a pair of wishbones, could see them run up the muralled walls and do backflips, the broken glass crunching when they landed. We had dinner in a steak house. We were Lewis and Clark. With you I was discovering America.

JFK – RKV + CDG – RKV | 1986

This was before me, during the death throes of your life with B, who by then had spent much of the royalties from your bestseller on shoes. During your blistering arguments, she would threaten to defenestrate herself. After you told me this I was often visited by the image of her silhouette in a tall window frame, a lifesize X. In my mind I heard the shrill, empty threat: Je vais sauter! During this time that was before me, you were still in New York but she had gone back to Paris. To renegotiate your relationship she demanded a summit here, like Reagan and Gorbachev’s a few months before. New York, Paris … I see your two planes landing, like arms crossing, on the moonscape runways. At least you got a pair of locally made sweaters out of it, though I never could bring myself to wear one. B was so present in our early days, calling in the night from across the Atlantic, a plaintive voice creeping along undersea cables and into your ear. One day a big box arrived in the mail. She had sent you a grease-coated toaster oven full of rubber bands. I pretended B didn’t bother me, but her existence ate me alive. When you went to work I would take her old student ID card out of your drawer and make myself look at this face that had mattered to you before mine. 

CDG – IAD | 1989

I don’t remember why we landed here, since our wedding was a four-hour drive away. Besides me, only Billy, your designer friend from your New York days, knew you were already married. Still married. That secret was our sword of Damocles. For months we had tried to make you unmarried, but B kept eluding you, stringing you along and then disappearing again, until here we were, a week away from the engraved date and no turning back—such is the power of a Crane’s wedding invitation. I was very brave. I was very, very scared. At the marriage license bureau in Pittsburgh, I sat on a folding chair and stared at the pebbly pattern in the floor, waiting for our number to be called. It was 89, which felt auspicious, but still I felt I might be handcuffed and led away at any moment. I kept picturing my father’s disappointment: A bigamist? As we walked down the aisle in the garden of my parents’ house, two hulking duffel bags sat in the sunlit front hall holding the books you’d agreed to return to B to buy your freedom.

PIT – SFO | 1989

We were so poor—you a writer, me unsure what I was, both of us scraping by on book reviews and Reader’s Digest translations—it welded us together. Us against the world. Us alone in the world. Anxious but happy. Young and old at the same time. Our honeymoon was three nights only, more than we could afford. Breakfast each morning was an English muffin from the coffee shop across the street from our inn, and dinner was two take-out samosas from Burma House, which we placed on paper napkins on the bedspread between bites. We rode the bus—to Golden Gate Park, where we roamed under eucalyptus, to SFMOMA, where we watched Nicholas Nixon’s wife and her sisters age under glass, to the Exploratorium, where we stood on a small platform and felt the earthquake of 1906, delighted as children. 

CDG – PHL – PIT – PHL – CDG – PHL – PIT – PHL – CDG – PHL – PIT – CDG – PHL – PIT – CDG | 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998

Four crossings a year, summer and Christmas. Always to see my parents. They paid for the tickets. Where else could we go? I never had the audacity to wonder. départs: entubed escalators crossing in midair, lifting us up to the gates. Carton of Gitanes, bottle of Zubrowka in Duty Free. arrivées: it always felt too soon, somehow, to return to rent, uncertainty, and dog shit on sidewalks, our suitcases heavy with peanut butter and books. Woe to us if we landed alongside planes from PAP, DKR, ASK. The shapeless, swollen, shifting crowd creeping forward, the agents taking their time, stamping their colonialist disdain on the pages of the passports. The customs line was where the vacation feeling started to fade. Baggage claim was where it died.

CDG – PHL – PIT – LAX – PIT – CDG | 1991

A’s wedding. This time we did leave my parents’ house. We even left our son. Two nights. We landed and immediately felt out of place, a pair of woolly Woody Allens blinking and gauche in the dumb-blonde smile of the California sun. A fight in the rental car when you didn’t read the map fast enough for me as I drove. Tears, indignant and powerless, when I learned our beloved A was to be bathed before the ceremony, as though she were unclean. Barbaric, you said. At the Beverly Wilshire Hotel she descended the stairs, her dark beautiful head floating above the white dress, seeming somehow separate from the rest of her. Deceased relatives were evoked. A wine glass was crushed under a heel. Chairs with people on them were hoisted in the air. We left in the night to return to our baby boy on the far coast, the coast we knew. As the plane rose, I looked out the window and the city was an overturned jewelry box, so much more beautiful than it was in daylight. 

CDG – LHR | 1992

Sweet bright warm spring day. We went to the Food Halls at Harrods and blew our budget on two cups of coffee. Being poor here felt even poorer than being poor in Paris. That evening we attended the book party of one of our authors, T. (We had an imprint now, and though my name still did not appear, I found the books and you pushed them through to publication. My being your éminence grise seemed to suit us both.) The party was in an elegant row house in Kensington. A young woman in white chiffon was draped on a sofa and attended by other young women in white, looking like a mantelpiece by Saint-Gaudens. There were Renoirs on the walls and our clothes were all wrong. Besides T, we knew no one and wandered like unwanted stepchildren from walled garden to darkened parlor and back again. That evening was the first time I felt the weight of class pressing down from above—a distinct, atmospheric force. We didn’t say this out loud. I think we didn’t want to see each other diminished. You asked a spongy drunken aristocrat, Do you know T’s agent? and he turned his head a notch, eyed you on the diagonal like a goshawk, and said, My dear sir, I EMPLOY her. As soon as we could, we took a black cab back to our borrowed flat and sang along to Monty Python’s Final Rip-off, laughing until we cried.

ORY – CEQ | 1997

That lazy breezy blue atmosphere all hot-weather airports have—think STX, think SJM. We were going to C’s wedding. The “first one,” as it would later be known. It seemed impossible that we found ourselves in such a place. I swam in the Mediterranean. You floated on your back in the vast aquamarine pool, arms outstretched, “like Christ,” you insisted on saying. That evening we sat at tables under palm trees in the warm twilight. I made a toast, quoted Shakespeare. The next morning, on the small television in our cool and beautiful room overlooking the sea, I wept as I watched Diana’s boys follow her coffin through the wide streets of London. But mostly we were happy. We felt like people in a movie about people who vacation in such places. On the wedding day there were drinks on the rooftop, a ceremony by the pool, dancing into the night. On the way home, in the airport gift shop I bought a tablecloth with olives on it for your mother, to thank her for keeping our boy.

PVD | 1998 – 2015

This one became ours when we moved here in the last days of 1997. You stayed stubbornly nostalgic for the original: glass doors that did not open until you pushed them, a curving staircase that led to an observation deck, a tank filled with bubbling seawater where travelers could buy a lobster to take on the plane. You rejected the renovations that transformed it from a stucco Art Deco box to just one more late-20th century transit point, with its swooping roofline and glass curtain walls facing the runways. In the new terminal, there is a store called Explore!Rhode Island, where you can buy saltwater taffy and local maple syrup and wine from Sakonnet, and tubs of Del’s Lemonade mix and Aristocrat coffee syrup. The one thing you do like about the new airport is the real sailboat on display on the ground floor. I wonder, will you ever come here again?

BOS – EWR – SAP | 2008

Fields of sugar cane as the plane came in for a landing. Ice cream and coffee stands in the cinder block terminal. Outside, the yellow light, the wall of heat. This one I landed in alone, when I found a place to do the work I craved. Wordless work. Work I could feel in my back, hands, legs, anywhere but in my head. Work that did not feel like “work,” the stuff we office people try to do between meetings. Standing in the back of a pick-up truck, I rode south for two hours, out of the city and up and over and down the hills, to a town called Comayagua, where I spent days mixing cement and laying concrete blocks in heat that made my shins sweat. My fellow workers, these new colleagues, assumed that like them I was working for the glory of Christ. I kept quiet and leaned all my weight into the drill as I screwed sheets of corrugated metal to the roof beams. Life was sleep, eat, work, eat, sleep. I was scared by how happy I was. On the trip home, during an unplanned and complicated layover, I sat on the curb in a parking lot in Humble, Texas, and cried.

PVD – ORD | 2008

On the five-city jazz trip years earlier, stopping here between MSY and MCI, we met Charlie Parker’s white trumpet player, Red Rodney, at the Blackstone Hotel; when we came this time, Millennium Park was being born in a construction site. After the book fair, we walked for miles, the enormity and heft of the city on our right, the ocean-like horizon on our left. In the marina (A marina on a lake! I kept saying, needing you to grasp the enormity of it) the sound of lines clanging against masts reminded me of waking up in an auberge in Trouville. That was before you. We wandered through an outdoor blues festival and then made our way to the Art Institute, where we peered through small rectangles of glass into ornate rooms the size of shoeboxes. 

BOS – NAS – ASD | 2010

We wasted a night in NAS, unnerved by the booze cruises and the bland hotel food, but flights to the island were only every other day. Things had been hard for a long time. Novel after novel written, breath held. The reviews always positive, the sales never enough. We were tired, and winter was long. I wanted to surprise you: three days under the sun away from home. We played the slots in the casino. You bought Cuban cigars. The next day we walked onto the tarmac and boarded a small plane with no cockpit door. Over the pilot’s shoulder we watched through the windshield as the loud little plane arced over absurdly turquoise water and came to rest at ASD. An old Bahamian in an ’80s-model Ford station wagon drove us to a place of palm trees and conviviality. There were families, couples, chatty people on week-long vacations, and the scuba guides that are always in places like that—tan Germans and New Zealanders who act more easygoing than they are. By the time we got there we had only two nights and one day, which I spent reading your latest manuscript.

BOS – GVA – CDG | 2011

Layover: terminals like shining cities, the polyglot trains slipping sleekly under them. No e-cigs, hair extensions, or acne products. Instead, something in the air—an assumption that all who pass through here are people of vast means. Leather bags like architectural maquettes. Glass cases holding watches and chocolates. Illuminated jewelry ads as beautiful as the jewels themselves. The scalloped collars and white gloves of the saleswomen told me that this is where civility went when it disappeared from the rest of the world. The guilt of wanting to stay here in this gleaming neutral biosphere where I was nobody, when in fact I was on my way to help you bury your mother. Her coffin looked like it was built for a bird.

BOS – CDG | 2015

Terminal E, lower level, where all the French kids appeared when they came to visit over the years, walking shyly through the automatic doors, scanning the crowd, letting themselves be gathered up by us and escorted out into the night, the Prudential Tower standing tall against the sky—Bienvenue aux Etats Unis!—and taken home to the big old house in Providence. On the upper level, so many long, joking send-offs—the snaking line, the machines swallowing bags and shoes, the final waves and the disappearing. This is where you will come, but there will be no goodbye. The goodbye will already have happened, on a sidewalk. You will be alone. You will have a one-way ticket. And maybe our hearts will have broken. And maybe our hearts will mend. And maybe you will know, as you are lifted up over the harbor and the unbearable sadness of flying moves through you, that everything is going to be all right. That the pain in your chest is not greater than the promise of whatever new thing you’re moving toward, that the morning that is still six hours away might for once break not gray but bright and bracing, a challenge and an invitation you will be ready to accept.

Lucian McDowell’s work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Lindenwood Review, Thread/Stitch, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere, as well as in numerous university magazines.