JET LAG by Claude Clayton Smith
You flew into JFK exhausted, your shoulders bent as if carrying bricks. You had lost weight over the summer. Your beard, a month old, was sparse and itchy, a burnished red that didn’t match the sunny streaks atop your head. There were holes in the knees of your jeans.
Sunlight was skating on the runway through pools of shimmering heat. It was Labor Day weekend in New York, ninety-five degrees at four p.m. On Tuesday you would have to teach again. Teach what? That travel is broadening. That European girls have hairy armpits.
Your postcards were witty and clever. They said you were never coming back. Copenhagen is a cornucopia, you wrote. The mermaid in the harbor goes topless. And earlier, in June, from Orly airport: Paris is a parfait. You had written that before you even got there.
But Paris was much less than perfect. Michele met you with tears in her eyes as soon as you had cleared les douanes. She had cut her hair, you hardly knew her. You spoke in lines from a French I book: Bienvenu à Paris. Comment allez-vous? Très bien, merci. Et vous?
You flew to France in total darkness, making the drop into a foreign place unreal. You exchanged your dollars for funny money before you boarded. You fell asleep to Robert Redford riding a horse at the top of the aisle, the Wild West in mid-Atlantic, at 35,000 feet. The darkness outside was a comfort then, an assurance that all was unreal. The plane, a womb.
Inspired by a double scotch you wrote a poem. A poem you never got a chance to deliver:
Michele, Michele, chérie, chérie,
Quelle charmante et quelle jolie!
Vous avez frappée mon coeur
Comme la brise frappe les fleurs.
She hustled you from Orly to a taxi, a mad ride to the Arc de Triomphe. Toy cars whirled in hectic circles. The policemen were foreign legionnaires. Quelle affreux! you yelled, loving it.
A man selling flowers on the corner—in baggy trousers and an old beret—grinned at you: no teeth. You stuck your thumb in the air and grinned back.
A year is a long time, Michele said.
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Claude Clayton Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of a historical novel, two children’s books, and four books of creative nonfiction, and serves as co-editor/translator of the world’s first anthology of Native Siberian literature. He has published more than fifty poems and a variety of short fiction, essays, and reviews. Four of his plays have been selected for production in competition. His work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan (CT), an MAT from Yale, an MFA in fiction from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a DA from Carnegie Mellon University. His short story “Jet Lag” placed second out of more than 2,000 entries in the 1977 Writer’s Digest fiction competition and was the first chapter of “Taylor at Large,” a novella he wrote for his doctoral dissertation at Carnegie-Mellon in 1978.