He didn’t like to fly. Every time he slept on an airplane he would dream with vivid detail that the plane would go down. Usually it would be a section of the wing that would break off, causing the plane to bank hard to the left until he could see the ground or the ocean rapidly approaching. But always before the moment of impact he would wake up, and it would be so real-feeling that he was convinced that what he had experienced was a parallel sideways reality. Because of this, he never slept on airplanes.
The condition had been so severe at one point that on every flight he would write a lengthy and detailed letter on both sides of a single sheet of paper to everyone he loved — as well as to those he hadn’t yet made peace with in his life. Before the flight, he would take the page and fold it up as small as he could, and then wrap it in aluminum foil. He would then place it in his mouth during take off and landing so that when the plane went down, and his body was sprayed with burning jet fuel, they would later discover the letter while searching for his dental records. He knew that this was odd, but on a flight to Paris an undercover Air Marshall attempted to arrest him for smuggling drugs. When they discovered that it was merely a letter, and not heroin or methamphetamine, the TSA agents suggested therapy. He never went, but he stopped writing the crash letters.
So if not to sleep on a long flight what else is one to do? Because cabin pressure caused his intestines to inflate and deflate like submerged balloons, he felt it best not to eat the prefabricated foods they serve — no matter how hungry he was on that twelve hour flight. So he stuck to the water. He kept ordering water, even though the flight attendants kept trying to push wine or boxed juice. “Hydrate yourself,” he thought. “Hydrogen is your intestine’s best friend.”
He was also keenly aware that when you fly you’re being exposed to an entire yearly allowance of cosmic radiation, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency. He could feel the heat, especially when the plane approached the Northern pole, and his body seemed to be cooking from the inside.
He frequently attempted to read on airplanes, but the droning hum of the engines made it very difficult to focus on the written word. Invariably, the white noise activated alpha cycles in his brain, which made him drowsy, but due to the possibility of slipping into the parallel reality of air disasters he dared not allow himself to sleep.
Fortunately, there were the movies. Modern airplanes were equipped with a digital library of videos, all feeding from a server hidden in the belly of the airframe. Movies were the only thing that kept him sane during a trans-Atlantic flight. The problem, of course, was the quality of the films. He didn’t favor large Hollywood blockbusters, especially when played on a screen the size of a postcard. But there was a greater issue — being that he frequently cried while watching movies on airplanes; it had something to do with the recirculated oxygen drying the surface of his eyes and swelling occurring in his tear ducts. He had cried once on a flight to Toronto while watching the Sex and the City movie, during the scene where Charlotte refuses to allow Mr. Big to talk to Carrie after leaving her at the alter. That a woman would so fiercely protect her friend after rejection somehow brought streaming tears flowing down his cheeks, and a lump in the throat the size of a golf ball. He had never told his friends of this airborne weakness, and he never would. It was simply too embarrassing. Especially in his line of work.
At one point the Captain, who was Swiss German, made an announcement to the cabin, suggesting that everyone look out the starboard side of the plane at an active volcano. He had no idea which side was starboard, and he didn’t care because he had no interest in seeing a volcano under the plane. Frankly, the thought of a percolating hole in the ground potentially spewing ash thousands of feet into the atmosphere, clogging the engines, and bringing his nightmare into reality only fed his deepest anxiety. The Captain’s German-accented voice in English was droll and monotone, yet with the hint of dry humor hiding beneath the surface — and suddenly it struck him that the Captain sounded much like Werner Herzog, the director & narrator of a documentary on a man being eaten by a bear that was available to watch on the plane. He wondered if it was at all possible that Herzog himself might be in the cockpit, and that perhaps he was the unwilling participant of a new documentary. All things were possible, no matter how unlikely. This he knew, for he had seen things in his life that were too absurd or extraordinary to be reality — and yet they were.
Soon enough he was in Zurich. Swiss customs seized his toothpaste but allowed him into the country; no small consolation, and well worth the bad breath which would come from not brushing his teeth for the day or two.
The connecting flight to Lugano was commuter prop plane, and the last time he had flown on such an airplane it was within Azerbaijan, on a Russian airline. It was on this flight where his fear of flying had been born, when one engine had gone out and blue toilet liquid had simultaneously begun to flow out of the lavatory and down the aisle. The pilot, a dwarf, had turned out to be a highly skilled aviator, used to magically keeping failing machinery aloft. The plane had ultimately been landed safely, but only after his confidence in air travel had leapt from his body at somewhere around 2000 feet. Even the frightening dive into Locarno, with it’s radical arc into alignment with the runway was easy by comparison — but there was still that sense memory that had filled the void of his confidence. Once on terra firma he hid behind his dark sunglasses and walked with determination to the car waiting for him outside, his hands still moist and wet with frayed nerves.
His first impression of Switzerland on this trip was that it seemed uncommonly hot and humid. It had felt similar in Rio de Janeiro, on that job he did involving the banker from Paris. He wondered to himself not so much about climate change and global warming as much as he did about serving on this year’s Jury. There were to be five of them, and they were meeting in Locarno, Switzerland because it was considered neutral and safe territory for the business at hand. Selecting a winner would not be a simple task, but it was a necessary one. It had been done every year for the last 65 years, and it was a custom among their kind; to choose the best of their guild — the guild of thieves.