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For Todd Gitlin Across the aisle sits Bimal, the elderly Bhutanese man, who sold me tea from his shack in a soggy camp where work is rare, people too poor for TV or iphones, everyone sticky with desire for face to face interaction. Each day he clambered through thickets of greetings, jungles of curious tendrils, viscous eager stares insisting upon a response. Especially during the monsoon, when drama was high, feelings hung about for months, ripening, fermenting, refusing to dry. Now on this sterile, silent flight, bulleting toward New York, he fidgets with the remote. It’s agony to watch, like a lamb at a cold plastic teat, clumsy, awkwardly fumbling. I watch him rise, drag his smile through the aisles of passengers docked at their stations, silently feeding, searching for ones between movies more apt to engage because all he needs is one kind exchange to take back to his seat and feast on. He hasn’t learned how to point the remote like a wand until colors explode, surfing the channels of HBO, Netflix, Amazon, deciding how he wants to feel from menus of shows with limited liability feelings that won’t drench the psyche for too long, interrupt the work day or dampen a vacation. Disposable feelings that can be taken off, stuffed like a kerchief into a sleeve once the credits roll and the plane begins its bumpy descent. When the beverage cart reaches him, he milks the stewardess’ sweet but weak emotional tug for all its worth, her smile no stronger than a twice used teabag, her cheery banter, chirping high above him, noncommittal, casual, as she cracks the sodas open, shovels in ice, pours, repeats, her kindness glistening on her motions without slowing them down. I watch him fumble, nervous, already he knows not to take too long, or let his coil of loneliness unfurl. I worry the soda will spill, spread like shame across his lap, but how quickly Coke accommodates her frantic pace, seeping into the hollows of the ice cube skulls, and when there’s no more room, or time, and the plane begins its measured descent, how efficiently the foam rises, bubbles, breaks as it lands on his tray, the mist barely gracing his chin.
Copyright 2019 Adrie Kusserow
Adrie Kusserow is a cultural anthropologist who works with Sudanese refugees in trying to build schools in war-worn South Sudan. Currently an associate professor of Cultural Anthropology at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, Kusserow earned her PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard University. She is the author of two collections of poetry, both published by BOA Editions, Hunting Down the Monk (2002), and Refuge (2013).