Farthest from Death

Elina Hirvonen

Illustration by Leif Engström

I want to get out of this space.

The engineer with the slicked-back hair sitting next to me has passed out on my shoulder, and his breath smells of vodka and orange juice. Across the aisle a fat man undoes not only his seatbelt but his belt as well, and I can see a strip of white stomach dotted with black hairs. The BBC News selection in the plane's entertainment program doesn't work, and the actress playing the lead in the movie based on Ian McEwan's novel is so thin that staring at her collarbone makes me too aware of the pallid bones moving around under my skin.

I can't escape. Mark is lodged in my head like a cork stuck too tight in a wine bottle, the kind you practically pop a blood vessel yanking at in front of guests, and the damn cork just won't come out even if you're ready to follow the example of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and kneel down before the Speaker of the House and take your public humiliation. I can't escape the wave that every moment sweeps me ever more completely into its curl, blending with the blood bubbling through my veins, insinuating itself into the fibers of my muscles, my flesh. That's the phrase, right? He's my flesh and blood.

I've sat in hundreds of airplanes in my life. I've flown in the gigantic jets operated by European airlines, where you watch movies and they give you a blanket and a pair of socks and a mask. I've flown in the big planes of African airlines, which despite their size always feel a bit run down. I've flown in twenty-seat planes. I've even flown in a Rwandan military helicopter whose back wall had been removed and whose floor had a hole in it. I've never been afraid. Or, well, just a little. I've closed my eyes and breathed deep, thought about Nelson Mandela reading the paper in a small plane with engine trouble, terrified but pretending to be calm on the outside, so that the others with him could look at him and believe that there was nothing to be afraid of.

This is different. This is the panic of a sardine in a tin. I can't stand the human flesh stuffed in here with me, the breathing, the smell of dandruff and foot sweat, the snoring, the belching, the lip-smacking, the saliva that dries up at the corners of my mouth. I can't stand all this inhaling and exhaling, this stinking, stifling carnality in a can five miles above the earth.

I want to bang on a window and stop the plane. I want to open a door marked with a red EXIT sign and jump, arms relaxed, eyes open. But I don't want to die. Not like that. I don't want to end up a crumpled pile in the dirt. I want to fly.

I unbuckle my seatbelt. I push Mr. Slicked-Back Hair back to his own seat, maybe a little too violently. But he doesn't wake up—just keeps on snoring, jaw slack, a line of drool running down his cheek, his knife of an Adam's apple bobbing up and down. For a moment I have an impulse to hit him hard, slap him so hard on that gaping mouth that his lip bleeds and I have tooth marks left on my palm.

Once, years ago, I flew from Egypt to Turkey on a plane smaller than this one, but with more space and the scent of hibiscus in the flight attendant's cart. I was returning from vacation. The first time since Johanna had packed her things and I had stood at the kitchen window in a shirt and underpants, watching as Johanna steered Mark by the back and helped him onto the front seat of the moving van while he clutched the radio-controlled police car that we had gone out together and bought the day before.

It was all halves back then. The built-in closets out of which Johanna had taken her own things, thrown the piles of bras, blouses, pantyhose, and scarves into trash sacks and cinched them tight. I had stood there with a roll of masking tape in my hand, suggested that she write on the tape what was in each sack. "It'll be easier when you get to the new place," I'd said to the back of her neck, which turned to follow me wherever I was, the wingbones that poked out of the back of her shirt, the loose hair sticking out of her bun as it came undone. She had gone on packing as if I weren't there, and I'd gone on talking, one foot over the threshold: "Unpacking's no fun when you don't know where to start. It's easier if you can take each sack to the room it belongs in, the dishes to the kitchen, and ..." until she had turned, a bra in one hand and a running shoe in the other, looked me in the eyes, and said: "Could you please leave?"

Cupboard, drying cabinet, bookcase. All half-full—or half-empty?

The days with Mark were halved as well. An afternoon after daycare twice a week. Every other weekend. And even then I had no idea how to fill them.

Then I went on vacation. Well, no. I took off for Egypt and Turkey planning to vanish. To go and not come back. To sit on a beach and read a book. Did I want to die even then? I don't know. But I liked the idea of buying some sweet drug in a bar and getting killed easily, mercifully, without great violence, out behind some falling-down building. And I liked thinking about the look on Johanna's face when they came to ask her to identify the body.

On the flight from Cairo to Istanbul I flipped through the shiny in-flight magazine. The new-smelling paper in it carried me off to some time long ago, a time that felt not like real time at all, a mythical time that never was, like a fairy tale full of eternal languid Sundays and the images from shared dreams. Johanna looked at me in a way that feels like a dream to me now, and asked: "What thing in the world would you say is farthest from death?"

That was before Mark. A time when we were continually consumed with lust for each other, when the way her turning head made the bun twitch set me imagining the fuzz on the back of her neck running down to her smooth back, the curve of her buttocks. That was the time when we made love in every nook and cranny of our small apartment, and the memories of bare skin made the floors, walls, doorjambs, and windows fetish objects that fueled our lust over and over, in ways that felt new even when they were old.

One spring night our bodies stopped at the sound of a shout from outside. We got up out of bed and went to the window hand in hand. From somewhere there came to me the thought that we were two children who were about to have a sliver of the adult world revealed to them. I tried to scrub that image out of my head by thinking of beer steins and streetlamps, old-fashioned bicycles and Tom Waits albums.

On the asphalt by the clothes-drying rack lay a young woman. She lay on her back in a position that hurt to look at. Her eyes were open. I don't know whether I saw that. But I always think of her with her eyes open, looking up at the bottoms of the balconies, the sky, and us. I imagine that she lay there on the asphalt with her eyes open and saw us standing there naked, looking down at her.

First the young people came up. They crowded around her, some with only one shoe on, others with wine glasses in their hands, one with an overcoat and socks on. They surrounded her, cried and shouted, gave each other advice on what to do and what no one should ever under any circumstances do. "I love you!" a friend with braids shouted, crouched down on the asphalt, and pressed her face into the face of the young woman lying there. Then the ambulance men came and took her away and when all the others had left the yard, that friend remained sitting there on the clothes-drying rack, alone, shoeless, hugging herself.

The next day we read in the paper that the girl had died. No one could say whether she had fallen from the railing by accident or on purpose, or whether someone had given her a push. Alcohol had played a part in her death.

We read the story in silence, trying to find words for the emotions awakened by the close-by death of a stranger. Since we didn't know her well enough to grieve for her, our feelings were more a dread of mortality and life's fragility, painful awareness of how, despite our young, healthy, lustful bodies, death was waiting for us too. The fact that there will come a time when we do not exist was there in the midst of our existence, and the girl lying on the asphalt, maybe even more the girl sitting on the clothes-drying rack hugging herself, slammed that obvious fact into the midst of the vanilla blandness of our life together. It felt as if the reek of rotting leaves hovered over us.

"If you had to say what thing is the farthest from death," Johanna said a few days after the accident, "what would it be?"

It was a weekend morning. Johanna had on my striped pajamas, which she had started wearing, she told me, so that it would seem as if I were hugging her every moment. As always, her gaze aroused in me the desire to touch, to plunge my hands under that loose-fitting outfit and feel her body, that body whose presence in my life was still so utterly amazing. But now there was something different about my desire. It was more cautious, more hesitant. Sometimes now, touching Johanna, I saw the two of us old, with paper-thin skin and liver-spotted brows, one helping the other into the bathroom.

"The farthest from death?"


Johanna loved questions like this—loved defining the world by excluding possibilities, or presenting limited choices. Who would you go to bed with, Reagan or Gorbachev? Would you rather kill three of your dearest friends or ten African strangers? Would you rather swim in a bathtub full of vomit, snot, or diarrhea? Her questions aggravated me, but I tried to answer them, because I was moved by the gleam in her eyes as she asked them, and by her girlish giggle whenever she came up with what she took to be truly twisted alternatives.

"The farthest from death? I don't know. Nothing will take death away." She sucked at her lower lip. "Well, somebody. A morning jog in the archipelago. Grain waving in the wind, and the sound of a dog barking somewhere close by. Or The Financial Times. Because it's so, so what, so much a part of this world."

Her eyes lit up. "That's good. You know what it would be for me?"


"An in-flight magazine."

"A what?"

"You know, those glossy magazines airlines publish and put in the seat pocket in front of you to tell you about the best bistros in Paris and travel-size lipstick. They can't be like that by accident. If you're going to haul hundreds of strangers through the air inside a tin can you have to have something like that. The passengers stay calm purely because the in-flight magazines are so full of a world with no death. Just think. Wrinkle cream packed in a golden can. Or a story called 'Intriguing India' or 'Oman Land of Opposites.' Stories like that make you feel like the poverty of tourist destinations are exoticism specially gotten up just for us, along with the traditional dance performances or the excursions to see locals going about their daily business. It's just us there, people who can afford to fly on an airplane and spend a thousand marks on a pair of sunglasses, and the rest of the world is a show gotten up just for us. No way is there death in a world like that."

On the flight from Istanbul to Cairo I flipped through the in-flight magazine and for the first time understood what Johanna had meant. I was reading a story called "The Pulse of Life in Nairobi" when the cabin was filled with an announcement. "The President of Peace is on board. To accommodate his Excellency, we are flying directly to London."

Around me sat businessmen in understated suits, old people dressed in traditional costume, and a few affluent-looking mothers with their children. The suit next to me fished a Koran out of his bag, bowed his head, and started to pray. Others did the same. The rows of seats were suddenly full of bowed heads and an almost noiseless humming emerging from wet lips. I had no idea what they were saying but it sounded like a sacred symphony, like a request sent up to a jointly imagined deity to please keep us alive, carry the plane safely to London, let the man with the strange moniker who had just slipped into the cockpit stay calm. Or else it was just a stated willingness to let the deity do as he pleased, but maybe he could see his way clear to letting us into paradise, if his will was to smack the plane into the earth in a giant column of flame. I had no image of a god like that, or any other kind, either. I mentally calculated the kilometers to London and tried to guess how much fuel the plane still had. Would the plane's safety measures include a spare fuel tank in case of a hijacking? How big would something like that be?

My sweaty hands left fingerprints on the magazine's glossy cover. Nairobi with its pulse of life had hotels in whose gardens palm trees swayed and in whose lobbies one could breathe in just a whiff of colonial days. There were perfumes packed in water-green bottles, pearls set in golden pendants, and silk scarves for You and Her. I was grateful for that. At the same time I was furious with a god that all of us creatures in that plane shared and that had left me to face imminent death so utterly alone.

As the plane clocked the kilometers over Europe, I tried to imagine death. How long would it take from the moment I realized I was dying till the moment when I no longer existed? What would those minutes or seconds be like?

During those torturous hours I realized, more clearly than ever: I wanted to live.

If the plane ran out of fuel or the guy who'd stepped into the cockpit started shooting, I wanted to be among the survivors. I wanted to be where people hugged strangers as a wordless sign of mutual understanding, where people told and retold what was going on in their minds and all around them during the fateful moments, where analyses were sought and beer was drunk, because we could.

I wanted to wake up the next morning. I wanted to be able to remark on how wonderful it is that the sun rises even after the most gruesome tragedy. I wanted to see the next day's light. The fact that I wouldn't, necessarily, and that my wanting it had nothing at all to do with what would actually happen, somehow spread this amazing calm throughout my body—a calm based on the fact that I didn't really believe that the situation I was in was possible.

We have five hours and twenty minutes of flying time till our destination. Slicked-Back Hair's hand gropes at my arm, as if he were trying to hug me in his sleep. I press myself against the opposite side of my seat. I ask the flight attendant for a double whiskey. I try to read a book about the relationship between wars and control of natural resources. I remember hearing on a television documentary Anna Politkovskaya's line: "The fear of death, like all great emotions, fades with time." I think that Anna Politkovskaya was the finest person of our day. Once I repeat it, her words sound so sentimental that I'm not sure whether I should cry or snicker into my palm.

The plane from Cairo to Istanbul landed in London, and no one died. The "President of Peace" who slipped into the cockpit was a mentally deranged Iraqi boy, who had no particular plan or political message. He just wanted to get to London. Maybe anywhere, away from his life. Before we landed the captain gave the boy a handful of dollars and promised that if he left the airport without hurting anyone, there would be no consequences from the hijacking. We watched through our windows as a frail-looking teenager in a ratty T-shirt and sweatpants ran from the plane into a ring of armed police officers.

I never did get to Istanbul. I stayed in London, ate Indian food, looked at old watches at a flea market, stopped for beer and wondered whether the experience I'd just had needed to be processed in any way. I read The Financial Times and watched the news. Apart from bartenders, cashiers, and the hotel receptionist, I didn't say a word to anyone for a long time.

And now I'm wondering about arriving. Will the air at the airport feel as much like an embrace as before? Have the city streets been paved? Will the smell of jacaranda hover over them? Will I be able to do what I've decided to do? I imagine Mark in a deep sleep, in a trawler heading for open water, in a locked cell with a hood over his head.

translated from the Finnish by Douglas Robinson