The Five Answers

Telluride Daily Planet, Saturday, September 12, 2009

I’ve been mulling something over for nearly a year — which isn’t a long time if you’re a barnacle, but substantial for those of us ripping calendar pages off like petals from a flower. What’s at the center?

November, 2008: I’m returning from Paris on Air Canada, flying to Toronto and then down. It takes 25 hours to get from the land of my foremothers to the you-are-here dot called home, but, as it turns out, the purgatorial atmosphere of the earth seems right. Our planet may be spinning in certitude below, but at 30,000 feet, you hover and buzz like a dragonfly. I’ve just seen a sick uncle for the last time and I’m not sure about touching down anywhere anymore.

Strangely, the Airbus is nearly empty. And even though I could take an entire row, I plop down in my assigned seat next to an olive-skinned man, head propped against the window. He’s snoring lightly, but pops up immediately with the arrival of hot food, at which point I find out he’s Moroccan, en route to his adopted Canada. He’s desperately tired, he says, from being stuck inside the Tangiers Airport terminal for a week. I think “The Terminal” with Tom Hanks, but decide that mentioning it would be sort of like asking a busy and focused turtle if it’s ever read “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

In French, Ben tells me he’s on his way to Toronto to gather supplies for the restaurant he’s opening in his hometown. “I’m filling a container,” he continues in English, another of the four languages he speaks. “With everything I need, except the thing I want most: a donut maker. Which won’t fit. Which is driving me crazy because I know how incredible it would be.” He sighs. “Everyone would have been so envious. And where are you going, where are you from?”

And so begins a six-hour conversation, the kind only strangers traveling alone — but together — on empty planes can have. He takes me to Cairo shopping for cheap hibiscus. And through the of plot his unwritten science fiction novel, something about a composite brain, and based on the Tower of Babel. Through the five Moroccan dynasties. We move on to families, dreams, fissures, and heartbreaks. Like a burning pyre, the exchanged bits of life spiral upward into a vortex of North African and Southwest dust until there is catharsis, pure and simple. Before dozing off again, he calls me an angel, which I’ve never been called before. Not even close.

Meal two arrives, he wakes up again, lustily rips open his fork and knife packet, and starts telling me about being disinherited by his important father, and becoming a child-vagabond, then a man dissatisfied with his life, himself, and his religion. Then finally, how, in a crisis of faith, he seeks out five different imams to ask them all the same question, something at the heart of Islam. He stops. The breezes of the pressurized cabin brush my cheek. We hover, hover, hover.

“And do you know, Michelle,” he says, spinach Pop Tart at his lips. “All five of them — each one of the imams, each one! —  answered the question differently.” He is methodically devouring every crumb of food placed before him.

Me? I’m having a light-bathed vision of the book we co-author and sell in a bidding war for seven figures. A runaway bestseller called “The Five Answers.” With camels on the jacket. A book destined for every Pottery Barn nightstand in America, one so ecumenical, my Buddhist friends will pass it around to my Burning-Man ones. I can hardly stand it. Secret knowledge! To be disseminated!

Though my head is spinning, I play it cool. “Oh yeah? So … what was the question?” It’ll be called “The Five” on Broadway. We’ll get Elton John. A musical!

Ben turns to me, shrugs, and then smiles. “Oh, that I don’t remember anymore. Think about it: That wasn’t the point.”

The lights flicker in the plane and there is turbulence. The synapses misfire in my brain and there is turbulence. I think he might have set me up, framed me in the same way the wise old blind Shaolin monk from the ‘70s TV show Kung Fu tries to teach unteachable things to David Carradine, a young initiate destined to wander the earth.

But no. The plane touches down, we go through customs together, hug and part ways. Back home, I think about his story. And even though I think I’m thinking about his secret box, trying to pry out its secret center, eventually I admit I’ve thought more about that donut maker than anything else.

So I guess this is it: For holy books and donuts both, sometimes you have to think outside the container.

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