I flew to Washington DC from Fort Lauderdale one week after 9/11. The country was still gripped by fear or perceived fear or government-manufactured fear or...simple madness.
People in the thousands were assaulting their neighborhood Home Depots for masking tape, in case biological warfare was to be brought down on Suburbia by enemy men with a different God. Anthrax was being sent through the mail to the likes of Daschle, Brokaw, and 17 others—among them an unknown, insignificant poor sap working for a tabloid in Boca Raton, Florida, of all the obtuse, nonsensical places. This man, a cog in the rumour machine called the Sun died a few days later, coincidentally no more than 5 minutes from the small town in which I was living at the time.
American Airlines Flight Something Something to Washington DC from Fort Lauderdale on September 19, 2001, was packed and buzzing with the dreadful energy of fear and hatred. No doubt there were air marshals on the flight. We were told repeatedly not to get up from our seats thirty minutes out from Reagan National Airport. We were told repeatedly to make sure our bodily functions were taken care of before the 30-minute rule went into effect. We were told repeatedly that any infraction of the rule would result in prosecution, prison time, or something else...I stopped paying attention and watched tarmac generals direct parking traffic and baggage lorries and catering operations to other craft.
Five minutes before scheduled departure, the entire cabin was seated, docile, and belted like obedient cattle on the abattoir conveyer belt. Various paranoid scenarios began to play out in people's brains while they were thumbing furiously through the latest insufferable issue of Sky Mall, so shortly removed from the atrocity that had scarred them all but a week before. It was a comedic scene, really, this manufactured tension punctuated by savage facial contortions and minuscule muscle twitches, all of which were stifled in pitiful, failed attempts.
Suddenly, the last of the passengers rushed in, momentarily setting off a visible, but quickly restrained panic on the cabin staff's expressions. He was a Pakistani man, well dressed and cleanly shaven, wearing a bespoke suit, adorned on the lapel with a small pin—an insignia of the American Flag. Passengers began to shift nervously in their restrained seats, looking at one another. The Pakistani man wore a kind smile on his face and moved swiftly down the narrow aisle, searching for a particular number and a particular letter.
Heads turned to note where he had settled. Just in case. To be safe. There was no subtlety in the prejudice. There really never is. The quinquagenarian sitting across the aisle from me quickly scanned my large body frame and calculated the percentages. He nodded and winked at me. And then he said in a resolute voice: “Anything funny goes down, it's you and me on him first.” He smiled when he said that. And he motioned with his head back to the seat where the Pakistani man was seated. “Are ya with me kid, heh? Heh?”
I said: “No. I'm not with anyone. On anything.” And I went back to watching the busy, orange-suited foot traffic down below. A couple of men were loading a small animal carrier with a beige Chihuahua on the conveyer belt that led into the belly of the craft. One of them laughed and spat on the tarmac. I watched the tiny puddle of saliva disintegrate on the boiling, south Florida surface. It was absurd. All of it.
Alex M. Pruteanu’s fiction has appeared in The Legendary, Specter Literary Magazine, Thunderclap Press, and Pank. He is the author of a novella, Short Lean Cuts. He is currently an editor, on staff at North Carolina State University.