Nothing but a Number

by Claudette E. Sutton

Redeye flights are one of those things I put squarely on my “I’m too old for this” list, but if my son Ariel suggests it, I’ll try almost anything. His job was sending him to New York for a three-day conference, and he asked me to go with him the weekend before so we could explore my old haunts together. Rather than take the crackof-dawn flight from Albuquerque Friday morning that would arrive mid-afternoon, he argued, why not take the Thursday redeye and have the whole next day—but it was his enthusiasm, not reason, that sold me. So we found ourselves, well past either of our bedtimes, in the Albuquerque airport, in silent camaraderie with other people well past theirs. Everyone was dressed for daytime except for a toddler in jammies with a thicklypadded bottom.

Our 11:45 flight was about an hour late. At midnight the toddler’s mother, who had been keeping him busy with crayons and soft toys, started singing Happy Birthday. Mom had one of those voices that projects through a crowd. “You’re three now!” she rang out to the boy, who began to whimper and cry. “I’m not three, I’m not, I’m two-and-a-half!” he insisted, body and soul racked with despair. I flashed his mother a compassionate smile, figuring we were witnessing the existential angst of a toddler clinging to his youth. The boy whimpered things I couldn’t make out, but Mom picked up that his world had been turned upside down because she had told him that he would turn three on the plane, and they were still in the airport.

“You were supposed to turn three on the plane, but the plane is delayed,” she said, repeating and rephrasing this several times, putting what I felt was undue weight on the inscrutable word “delayed.” But this was high-stakes exposition.

“It’s midnight now,” she tried, “and that’s when the new day begins. It’s tomorrow now.” I pictured the boy as a puppy who picked up just enough from the sounds of the two-legged beings around him to discern that he didn’t need to be afraid. His world righted itself. His whimpers tapered off.

“You missed the drama,” I told Ariel when he came back from the restroom.

“So, his mother was trying to explain to him, basically, the nature of time,” Ariel said slowly. “I’m 27. Time still scares the crap out of me.” I laughed.

We spent the next three days in the City—seeing the Degas exhibit at MOMA, riding bikes through

Central Park, walking the Financial District, having cocktails in outdoor restaurants—and I was grateful my son had aged to the point where he likes to do these things with his mom. Sunday we split up. He moved to the hotel in Midtown where his job was putting him up for the conference, while I headed down to my favorite hotel on the Lower East Side for three days “boots on the ground,” as Ariel said, doing research for my next book.

Monday evening we met at the Bitter End, the club in the Village where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed back in the day (“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” Ariel said, and I didn’t realize he was teasing me until I caught his jesting smile). I had gotten us tickets for the Moth StorySlam, an open-mic storytelling contest, where the theme that evening was “Age.” Ten people whose names were pulled out of a bowl told stories of jumping out of airplanes, taking in foster children, confronting ex-boyfriends, and other ways of facing, or avoiding, or just banging into the realities of age.

A dowdy 50-something woman spoke of posting nude photos of herself on Reddit, which she confessed was an enormous turn-on for her, and which went viral. She won the contest with this improbable tale of empowerment, although Ariel preferred the young black guy whose story included the word “pussy” about 50 times, but which had a raw truthfulness that Ariel appreciated.

Afterwards we went to a bar across the street called GMT. Ariel chatted with the cute Irish waitress.

We ordered Manhattans. Ariel had French onion soup. He told me about his first day at the conference, which was darkened for him by disappointment at Argentina’s unexpected defeat in the Copa America finals the night before. He explained to me, again, the implications of Brexit, which had recently passed, which I was still trying to understand. As the clock neared midnight I was bright-eyed and happy, but Ariel apologized that he needed to get up early again the next morning for the conference.

I paid the check and pointed him to his subway, proud that I still knew my way around the City well enough to play an authority. I pulled a rain poncho out of my bag and walked down to my little hotel on Grand Street in a warm drizzle. I couldn’t tell if it was the contact high of the City that Doesn’t Sleep, the lingering warmth of the bourbon, or the time bump of coming East from Mountain Time, but when I got to my hotel I was nestling into my new favorite fantasy: that time is nothing but a number.