Villoro has the wonderful ability to distil in just a few words human dilemmas that are far deeper and more complex than the anecdotes he describes, in this case that of the narrator boarding a plane for Mexico City. Trying to distract himself from his fear of flying, he observes his fellow passengers and tries to guess who they are from their appearance and behaviour. A man with a shaved head, gold chains and a Jesus tattoo attracts his attention. The man’s wife sits next to him and asks him a question. Why is she asking him? Suddenly he realizes that the woman has also judged him from his outward appearance. These interpretations, or judgements, lead to a mutual misunderstanding. However, the inability of people to understand each other isn’t just limited to the restricted space of an airplane cabin, but all of Mexico: “The earth... where people understood each other as little as the passengers in seats 12C and 12D.” The solution the story offers for this misunderstanding is, in fact, an anti-solution: it isn’t about correcting the sketchy impressions one has of their travelling companion, or about overcoming the misunderstanding, it's about faith, a belief that a person could adjust himself to the point of view of another, distorted as it may be, and help her when she's in trouble.
When we board a plane, we tend to smile without really knowing why. The prospect of tempting fate makes us superstitious: we don’t smile out of joy but to ward off adversity.
These were my thoughts as I got on board a propeller plane that would take me from Zacatecas to Mexico City.
In the check-in queue I’d noticed a man with a shaven head, a basketball shirt and boots made from a skin that was unfamiliar to me; a kind of reptile with little crests on its back. He had a tattoo of Christ crying blue tears down his arm, three gold chains hanging from his neck and two cellphones on a wicker belt. I heard him talking in good English into one of his telephones. Then the other rang and he spoke in whispers. His luggage was a green canvas bag, the kind that American soldiers use. He looked like a farmer who did business on the other side of the border and had had to pack in a hurry. He was accompanied by his wife and young son, who had imitation tattoo stickers on his arms.
Before checking in, I had met someone I’d once known and we indulged in one of those excessively polite conversations that Mexicans tend to have with people we’ll never see again. The wife looked at me curiously. Although there weren’t many passengers, the stewardess said that we had to take the seats we had been assigned so as to avoid unbalancing the plane. I was given 12D, in the last row, where the seat backs don’t recline. The wife of the man with the gold chains sat next to me.
I’ve heard those in the know praise propeller planes because they can glide if necessary. To the ordinary traveller, however, the narrow cabin, tendency to be buffeted by air currents and the fact that the props are examples of an outmoded technology, make the environment feel precarious.
I crossed myself and opened a novel as a distraction.
After a bout of turbulence, the woman next to me asked: “May I talk to you?”
I took off my glasses to listen, as though I heard through my eyes. The next question took me by surprise:
“Do you believe that one can forgive an enemy?” she asked with worried eyes.
In contrast to her husband, she was dressed simply: jeans, sandals and a checked shirt.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She nervously twisted her boarding pass around her index finger and told me that her husband had to respect an agreement made by his bosses.
“Some people don’t like what you do, some people like to cause trouble,” she said enigmatically.
I looked at the man, who was sleeping peacefully.
“He’s loyal,” she went on, pausing to find the right words. “He’s always worked for the same people. Now they’ve told him that things have to change. He had to settle things with the other group, the people who don’t like him. He did things that those gentlemen didn’t like.” The woman’s eyes filled with tears: “His bosses sent him to see them.”
“And what happened?” I asked.
“They gave him a chance.”
I’d just read a chilling report by Ricardo Ravelo in Proceso about the narco-pact between the Golfo and Sinaloa cartels. According to him, between May and June 2007 the bands had held seven meetings to negotiate a truce. The constant executions were bad for business. The pact had a clause to deal with traitors: ‘The wronged group would decide what to do with them: they would choose whether they were to be punished or executed.’
“Can one forgive an enemy?” the woman repeated.
Her husband’s outfit and my morbid fascination with Ravelo’s article led me to think that this had to do with drug trafficking. What can one do in a situation where you’re afraid, a woman is upset, you’ve just been given some unexpectedly sordid information and you have no hope of ever truly being able to understand?
The man was sleeping so deeply that he seemed completely lost to the world. Was danger a way of life for him? Was he so stressed out that his body had finally given up?
How much did I want to read into this? Perhaps the news of recent months had made me paranoid, perhaps I was trying to see coincidences that weren’t really there. Maybe the man’s predicament only involved different groups of farmers and all that was at stake was his job. Don’t farmers get fed up and depressed and look for a change of scene too?
I saw the boarding pass that the woman had been playing with: her seat was 10D. She hadn’t been assigned row 12 and she wasn’t there for the extra space because the seat didn’t recline. Even though we’d been forbidden from changing seats, she’d moved, looking for an answer.
“One can forgive an enemy,” I told her. Then came the strangest part of the journey:
“Thank you, father,” she answered.
I was as exotic to her as her husband was to me. I looked at my outfit and thought back to how I had behaved: I was dressed all in black except for a clerically white collar. I was holding a copy of All Soul’s Day by Cees Nooteboom (there was no reason for her to think it was a novel), I had crossed myself at take-off and in the check-in queue I’d spoken to an acquaintance in what I now realized was a somewhat priestly tone. Two illusory realities had combined during the flight. I had assumed that her husband was involved in a bloody drama and she had assumed that I was imbued with a non-existent spirituality. But her anguish was real. We’d come so far along by now that it would have been terrible to reveal to her that although my office involves a lot of listening, it isn’t bound by the sacrament of confession.
The woman needed to believe in the word of an adversary and the answer of a stranger in the suspended reality of a plane. Through the window, we could see the earth on which we’d soon be landing, where people knew each other as little as the passengers in seats 12C and 12D. I thought about that when the woman smiled at me and showed me her boarding pass, confessing that she’d changed places:
“It’s been so long since I spoke to a priest,” she said, placing undeserved trust in me.
She had given me an article of faith.