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Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Flight

Khushi settled into her first class seat - 1A, the coveted window seat, as she rearranged the pleats of her beautiful Jill Sanders beige suede skirt and kicked off her latest walnut Jimmy Choo shoes, relieving her aching feet that had been standing for hours on shoot location followed by a long wait at the airport.

She looked out the window of the Chicago bound United Airlines flight and saw the murky Washington DC skies ready to declare a rainstorm any minute. The flurry of activities on board indicated that the crew intended to take off any minute, reaching high into the "friendly skies" before the storm hit the airport. She noticed the seat next to her was still empty and she was somewhat relieved to get the unexpected privacy. She was in no mood for pleasantries or the commotion that usually followed as a late harried road warrior got on-board and tried to settle his or her belongings into the cramped overhead bin and plunked heavily into the seat. What usually followed was gushing over her presence, million questions about her work and the usual starry eyed fan admiration, all of which tired her. She hated those guys, especially on days like these where she craved solitude owing to a grueling morning schedule, harsh camera lights on her face for hours and a very irksome, slick politico from the mayor’s office who was none too cooperative.

There were traces of thick pancake make-up that applied since 4 a.m, in preparation for the last day of weeklong reporting gig. She had been excited during the day, as she could fly home after this leg was over and take a break from all the rush of on-camera reporting. Her full lips showed a deep seated stain of a professional and subdued mauve lipstick ideal for the part she took on camera. Her makeup took on that well-settled, smooth, dewy sheen that happens when it has been on for hours.

Her eyes still had the perfectly applied mascara beautifully framing her doe-eyes, which darted around the cabin to check her fellow passengers furtively. Thankfully, none seemed familiar and to her satisfaction, none seemed to recognize her. It was another annoyance she had begun to detest these days when fellow passengers recognized her, they stopped by to say hello and asked about her work. She appreciated their attention but of late it had become a tiresome routine. Her cheeks would ache from the fake smiles but she imagined that was the prize she paid when she left her anonymous back-road reporting to a highly visible on field and news room reporting.

She settled in and loosened her white crepe chiffon blouse around her waist, and shut her eyes in anticipation of a short sweet nap en route Chicago. She rested her head on the navy-blue airline pillow squished into an odd shape to support her head on the side panel. She felt movement on the seat next to her. She cracked opened her eyes a tad and glimpsed at a handsome profile of a man in full uniformed regalia. She noticed an array of medals and pins on his uniform as he spoke to the flight attendant, requesting some drink or snack, she couldn’t quite tell.

Curious, she opened her eyes further to get a better look when he suddenly turned in her direction and caught her off-guard ogling him. This was embarrassing and unusual for her to say the least, as she was typically the object of ogling. He immediately broke in a warm smile defined by two rows of perfectly pearl white teeth in neat alignment. There was something about that smile she could not resist and she shot a smile back. He extended his right hand awkwardly to brace himself before he settled further into the seat.

"Hope the weather stays up in Chicago" he stated casually, trying to break the ice. 

Her mind knotted giddily at the forceful voice. The cabin played some strange music she could not quite decipher and for the first time in her life, she felt something strange inside her. She reprimanded herself for losing control of her confident composure even if it was for a second. Somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind she decided to dislike this stranger as a matter of self preservation. A person in complete control of her emotions, she found it was hard to let go even for a second but this was a first for her. Apparently, he was oblivious to her star stature and did not seem particularly aware of her breathtaking beauty. This was another first for her. She had gotten used to men fawning over her, showering her with praises, and following her for casual dates, hoping to end it with a quick romp in the sack. His indifference towards her obvious beauty irked her further making it easier for her to dislike this person.

The man busied himself with loading his carry-on bags and getting his drink while she resumed her nap. An announcement cracked through the cabin speakers. It was the captain. He had expected to take off before the storm but it seemed that weather in Chicago was equally bad and the control tower did not clear them for a take off. A collective ‘aww’ erupted but the captain continued to explain that it was for passenger safety and it might be a few hours before they could be on their way. As a last straw, he added that the passengers weren’t allowed to deplane at that point. Mild protests and exasperated tones were heard. On cue, infants and toddlers on board decided to go on a screaming tantrum. She could imagine the hassled moms who did not expect a delay and were caught unprepared. She had nothing waiting for her except her drive home and a warm soak in her elaborate bathtub, specially ordered from Italy. That would have to wait for some more time, she imagined.

Her nap seemed to disappear with the announcement and she felt the need to riffle through the pages of on-board shopping catalogs and in-flight magazines. She picked a few magazines before settling on the latest issue of Time. She skimped through an article on Iraq war. It seemed to go on and on for pages. The bloodied pictures reminded her of her own brief foray into Iraq as part of news coverage team from WPS station. The events that had followed after her assignment to Iraq had shaken her world to its core. Her crew had lost a cameraman and a reporter in a fatal series of land mine blasts. She was lucky to have survived the blast with a sprained neck and few superficial injuries.

The memory of the blast still reverberated in her ears, the deafening sound had hit them from nowhere. The ensuing mayhem, noise, commotion, billowing dust masking everything in sight left her team members and her in complete disarray. The desert dust had settled in every exposed surface of their bodies. Putrid odors of burnt flesh and gun powder filled the air. The jeep that transported them had been reduced to a tangled mess of steel and burning tires, smoke had engulfed the entire vicinity.

There were more blasts but it was hard to tell one from the other as they happened in fast succession and her ears had gone numb by the loudness. She felt someone over her body, shielding her from more falling debris of steel, glass and rocks. The body that shielded her was a man who was shouting urgently, muffled and raspy because of the dust and grime he inhaled, and his earnest impatient voice commanded “Move, move away, Go Go Gooooo!”. There were people shouting and screaming everywhere, scuttling and running in all directions. Then the blasts stopped as fast as they had begun, the man shielding her seemed to have gone limp and exerted his entire weight on her small frame. She was curled up, knees under her body, her spine exposed and the man’s body positioned awkwardly over her neck bearing down its entire weight and tearing her neck ligaments. That was the last thing she remembered.

Later, she awoke in the nearest army make-shift hospital and was calmly updated on the loss of crew members and her reporting partner. She had no tears at that time, she had no feelings other than a numbness in her ears that dimmed all sounds to a dull muffle. She was told that the jeep that transported her moved straight over a land mine triggering a series of blasts. The death toll was huge but she was too scared to find out the exact tally.

She had taken a transfer from field reporting to local news. The change proved good for her. The frivolity of local politics suited her fine. These reporting tasks were empty and shallow after what she had been through but she never dwelled too long on that. Upon further inquiries from her, the army had notified her that the solder who had shielded her was one Sgt. A. S. Raizada. The official channels notified her that the soldier had been responsible for saving her from the worst of the blast by shielding her from the devastation and injuries, He had survived with an amputated left arm. 

Every time she thought about that day, the dull ache of her sprained neck returned and the raspy voice of the soldier echoed in her ears. She intentionally avoided the coffee room conversations for days after the incident. As months passed and as fresh reports of horrendous war crimes poured in, it became an old forgotten story.

She shook herself out of her reverie trying to focus on the present and saw the flight attendant on her third round of service. She ordered a strong coffee; it always helped her clear her head. She decided it was too painful to continue on the article and was about to place the magazine back into the front pocket.

“May I?”, asked her co-passenger taking her by surprise. “Sure”, she replied handing the magazine to the man. “I was there you know”, he pondered aloud looking at the picture on the front cover of the magazine. She did not understand what he was talking about and then it occurred to her, he was referring to Iraq. “Oh yeah! Me too”, she replied with a mustered casualness. “Really, when?”, he asked with the genuine interest of a school boy who just met his favorite baseball player. She thought it was odd, since he seemed to be a decorated soldier and she was a mere civilian for whom the Iraq war was a minefield of rich reporting bonanza until that fateful day when the minefield took on a literal meaning. She tried to appear dismissive and replied, “I was reporting on Iraq war with WPS station.”

The man’s eyes grew wider and she knew he was going to ask her about THE incident she had feared and avoided for 8 months. She knew it was coming and she could do nothing to prevent it without sounding callous or thoughtless. She braced herself for the questions. He paused, looked at her face and then took on a reflective expression. He did not ask her anything. 

Suddenly, he rose from his seat she caught sight of his military name tag with its clear white letters declaring – Sgt. A. S. Raizada!

He stood up as if to straighten his travel weary uniform. Her chest was thumping as she saw gleam of steel where once used to be his left arm. He animatedly held out his coffee cup for the flight attendant with a steely mass of simulated fingers, wires and metallic clasps. Her eyes fixated on the steel. She breathed heavily with a strange stifle in her chest. Months of suppressed memories flooded back all at once. His gentle face turned to her as he sat down. There was silence; their eyes held each other’s expressions in a perfect harmony of knowledge and cognizance. He moved his left arm made of steel and she tenderly reached for it feeling the cold steel with her right hand, instinctively, as if it were the most natural thing to do. Their sas smiles conveyed volumes on life and irony. Unshed tears hung on the edges of their lower lids, threatening to stream down any minute.

She mouthed the words “Thank you” but words never came out. He nodded his head ever so slightly in response. Words weren’t needed; their eyes spoke to each other in complete understanding.