On long flights, I’ve always figured that my time was spent better sleeping than eating, a preemptive strike against the inevitable jet lag.
I’ve become skilled at sleeping in an economy class seat. At some point I learned that my pillow does more good behind my back than my head. Noise reduction headphones changed everything, of course, and every time I put them on I send a silent thank you (and apology for my less-than-exemplary breakup behavior) to the old boyfriend who gave them to me for Christmas a few years ago. I find that the window seat sometimes allows me to lean against the wall and avoid the old bob ‘n’ jerk of the head. I always nab an extra blanket if I see one in the overhead bin on the way to my seat. A couple of Tylenol PM, eye mask in position, and out I go.
Confession: I kind of like air travel. I don’t like the discomfort of it, but I like the nowhereness of airports and the sky, of disappearing completely for several hours, of hiding out in no country. Of course, these same things can also make it wildly alienating. My recent flight back to Paris from Hong Kong was a lonely ride, indeed.
I don’t think I could have eaten the late night meal on that flight even I wasn’t already full of quail eggs and beef tongue and shishito peppers from the yakitori place where we’d had dinner, not to mention the pork buns from dim sum several hours before that. I just wanted to sleep, and I did, for several hours until I woke to the feeling of the lump of a man next to me getting up. I followed, and walked like a zombie among the other zombies in the dark cabin, drifting along the aisles and hovering around the galleys and toilets.
I stretched my legs a bit, took a lap, and then settled back into my seat and fell asleep again almost immediately.
Five days later I found myself in the urgences at the Hôpital Saint Louis.
Something was wrong, I knew all week. Stairs or a brisk walk were leaving me winded. A pain in my leg wouldn’t go away. These were classic signs of deep vein thrombosis, I knew. I went to the doctor and she sent me to the ER with a letter explaining the situation, and they immediately put me in a gurney and told me not to get up.
I was examined and blood was drawn. They left a port in the crook of my arm, which did not bode well for a quick departure. My chest was scanned (a single dose of radiation equal to that found in a year’s supply of contaminated Japanese spinach, I read), and then they knew for sure what I had suspected and dreaded, that I had developed blood clots during the flight, and that one of them had broken loose and headed north to my lungs. A pulmonary embolism. Luckily it was a small one, but there were likely many more clots in waiting. I would have to be hospitalized, maybe for as long as a week.
The first night was spent in a windowless cell in the ER, a bleak situation brightened by the presence of a good friend (and later by something administered intravenously to ease the discomfort caused by the bands wrapped tightly around my legs). In the morning I was moved upstairs to a sunny room that I had all to myself.
There was a steady stream of visitors, bringing candy, crack Tyrell’s jalapeño popcorn, freshly baked muffins, flowers, books and back issues of The New Yorker. Plus one very glamorous disco parrot.
(Dear friends: I love you.)
My phone had good reception on the high floor, so I could finally let everyone know what was going on. There was even wifi for patients, but unfortunately — and somehow not surprisingly — no one knew the password. (Thank you, doctor, for your efforts to get me online. I hope we meet again when I have clean hair).
For some reason, everyone kept offering to bring me Mexican food, and this was much appreciated, since the only thing worse than airplane food might be hospital food.
In the end I was there five days. I seem to be fine now. My blood is being thinned with pills and my veins are being supported by snug socks. The DVT, the clots, and the subsequent embolism were precipitated by empirical temporary conditions, not by any kind of predisposition or genetic tendency.
Still, it’s hard not to assign meaning to these kinds of experiences, to make poetry out of prose. That all of this occurred as a direct result of my trip to Hong Kong (and that is true) offers plenty of fodder for interpretation by anyone believing in signs or systems of cosmic discipline. But the Fates need not be invoked. The facts speak for themselves and their message is clear: I’m not going anywhere for a while.