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Journal date recorded: October 3, 1999
The Atlantic elongates below us like an infinite violet carpet.
However, the American teenager dividing me from the window does not observe it. He is plugged into earphones and recreates with a video game simulation of an airplane flight. It is strange that someone would focus on a minimal flat monitor of artificial flying when you are truly flying and have a big-picture view of the world. Possibly it is because he has traveled in an airplane multiple times and this is my initial experience.
His name is Brian, and acne covers his face like islands on a map or discrete red points on a graph. After we relaunch from London, he asks if I have any games on my computer.
“No,” I say. “I use it merely for programming.”
He unplugs one earphone. “What do you program?”
I am still in the brainstorming phase for the programming window currently open, so I have coded only a few lines. “I work for Schrub Equities at their office in Doha, Qatar.”
“Really, for Schrub?” He unplugs his other earphone. “You make financial programs for them?”
“I sometimes create programs.”
He looks at my screen. I reach for the airplane’s consumer magazine in the chair’s netting and intentionally contact my laptop so that it rotates away from the angle of Brian’s eyes. “What do they use them for?”
“I typically do not show them to my superiors,” I say.
“Why, they don’t work?”
“It is complex to describe.” I minimize the programming window. “Sometimes programs require — ”
He shifts through different channels on his personal television. “Then what are you coming to New York for, if you’re not a real programmer?” he asks.
“I am here until December 31st to help them prepare for the Y2K bug so their systems do not malfunction.” It sounds less impressive than when I practiced stating it at home.
“So that’s why you’re in business class,” he says, and I think he is complimenting me until he replugs both earphones and adds, “Only the serious businessmen fly in first.” I restrict myself from telling him that it is in fact critical work and they are transporting me because I am the cream of the cream Y2K specialist in Doha, and instead I look outside, where the ocean mirrors the plummeting sun like toggling quartz in concrete or an array of diamonds, and reminds me of why our mother gave Zahira her name, because she parallels a diamond in various ways.
When I retrieve my new voice recorder/electronic dictionary from my pocket later to certify it is functioning, Brian inspects it and asks how it works. I explain that if it detects human voices nearby it records for up to 12 hours, and if it detects silence it powers off. He asks if I am also a reporter. “I am recording a journal while I am in the U.S., and this will help me to study the American voices I hear and to transmit their conversations without error.”
Brian laughs loudly enough for the people behind us to hear. “You keep a diary?” he says. I wish his parents were on the airplane, but he seems like the class of teenager who does not adjust his behavior even in front of his parents. “The only person I know who does that is my sister.”
Several of the American financial magazines I read advise recording a journal for self-actualization, and I am additionally doing it to enhance my English, but he will not appreciate that or my two other motivations: (1) I hypothesize that writing your thoughts is a way of deciphering precisely what you truly feel, and it is especially valuable if you have a problem, similar to how writing a computer program helps you decipher the solution to a real-world problem, and (2) recording my experiences is also integral to remembering precise ideas and moments from my time in the U.S. I have a robust memory for some details, but it is complex to continue acquiring data and archive them all, and even I now am forgetting some older memories, as if my brain is a hard drive and time is a magnet.
The captain says we should complete our customs forms “ASAP,” and I research the term in the book I contain a copy of in my other pocket, which I also gave to Zahira: The International Businessperson’s Guide to English, which self-defines on the reverse cover as “An indispensable compendium of English financial jargon and idioms for the global businessperson, from actionable to zombie bonds.” There is also a void in the rear for the owner to record more jargon terms, as I do frequently, even though my knowledge base of English financial jargon is already broad for a foreigner because of my nighttime classes in programming and mathematics and economics.
The chief flight attendant commands us to power off electronics. We angle down to New York City, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan aggregate like tall flowers in a garden and the grids of orange lights look like LEDs on a circuit board.
The previous landing from Doha to London slightly panicked me, so to reroute my brain I reinitiate conversation with Brian, although my ideal partner for logic problems is Zahira.
“I have an interesting math problem,” I say. “Is an airplane a greater gas-guzzler per passenger than a car? Here are some data that I received from the captain when I transferred, converted to American measurements: (1) We will consume approximately 17,000 gallons of gas on this flight; (2) it is 3,471 miles from London to New York; and (3) there are 415 total passengers and employees.”
Brian yawns, but I continue, as sometimes people become stimulated by a subject once they learn more.
I write the equation on a napkin for him:
(415 passengers)(3,471 miles)
— — — — — — — — — — — — — = 84.7 passenger-miles/gallon
“Therefore, if a car has four passengers, what must its gas mileage be to equal an airplane’s per-person efficiency of approximately 84.7 passenger-miles per gallon?”
“I don’t know,” Brian says. “I suck at math.”
It is frustrating when people do not have faith in their skills, because this is a simple problem he could solve if he tried. I explain that a car must consume 21.2 miles per gallon to be as efficient with four passengers, and that a new hybrid car from Honda is more efficient with just two passengers.
“But there is no car that is as efficient if you are solitary,” I say.
Excerpted from Kapitoil(Harper Perennial, 2010).
– Teddy Wayne is the recipient of a 2010 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship. His fiction, satire, and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, and Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.
Kapitoil’s Book launch party will be held at McNally Jackson on Apr. 19th, 7pm.