I grew up flying, shuttling back and forth between Mom in the Midwest, Dad in New Jersey. Once a month, I left Champaign-Urbana–that classically low-lying university town–to fly to LaGuardia, its runways surrounded by Eastern Seaboard swamp–fields of Long Island reeds and cattails. Right before it lands, the plane seems to be about to skim the surface of the water, and just in time a strip of concrete appears. Next, my father picked me up in the gold Toyota, and we’d make our way onto the Long Island Expressway traffic, and small talk.
At eight, I decided to like my divided life. There was always someplace else to go. A pioneer in the world of the unaccompanied minors, I flew once a month during the 1960’s and 70’s, moving back and forth between parental worlds. Audrey and Dick’s homes, politics, eating habits, sense of their daughter, were pretty different, so I was a pretty different kid with each of them. O’Hare was the midpoint; there I changed planes, sometimes lost my ticket, once had one hundred dollars sucked out of my wallet by a minor tornado swirling outside the sliding glass doors. I sometimes imagined walking away from the airport, catching a cab and living a daring, independent life.
That is still a fantasy, especially when walking through O’Hare, as I do a couple times every year. Decades later, it’s hardly the same place—so many makeovers under its belt, but I see through the Starbuck’s, Godiva, and ambient lighting to the sterile terminals of my youth. O’Hare was where I was really alone. Adults didn’t notice me, and I walked aimlessly, daydreaming for an hour or two, watching the Hare Krishnas proselytize. Even they ignored me. It was a kind of invisibility, a trick of the eye, my not being seen. No one knew exactly where I was. And so vague was I even to myself that I a ticket was lost, or a flight missed. As an adult, something still takes hold of me in airports, a dreamy feeling of detachment. Because it is so easy to lose track of time, I try to watch the clock carefully, and force myself to sit in the departure lounge at least twenty minutes before boarding, but it’s not easy.
Walking through the airport while waiting for a flight, one cannot resist the allure of brazenly staring at people. Men watch women far more pointedly than they would on a street. Standing in line or sitting in the departure lounge for hours, passengers survey one another and their baggage without normal visual boundaries. Watch, and conjecture. What kind of life are they leading? Maybe the life I wish I were leading. Who are you, would I know you in real life?
On the plane, there’s an almost community. If I’m late entering the cabin, scanning passengers already seated—invariably scraping someone’s head with my carry-on bag’s hardware—I note that they’ve formed a seminar without me. Their expressions ask what it is that she brings to the group. All those collective heads stiffly cocked, thinking she’d be the first we’d give up. In a few hours I will be somewhere else; perhaps be someone else in one way or another. In the meantime, if we crash, would that carnival-esque raft inflate, and would I be alive enough to slide down it? Occasionally there are wild bumps in the air, and the non-praying passengers like myself pray and hold hands with the person in the next chair. An ephemeral togetherness.
Thirty thousand feet above the planet, suspended between goodbye and hello is a fine place to wait for the next thing. Sitting in a speeding bullet full of strangers, I wait and consider. Then a door opens, I step onto new ground, and feel the tenor of the arrival. There’s the mall familiarity of Pittsburgh, the kitschy Southern welcome in Louisville, and last summer, at the Munich airport–the sex toys on display in a store window. Once, in my hometown airport, the door opened, and the next thing that happened changed so many other things, it seemed to confirm for me that flying holds a central curvature in my life—its surface riddled with places visited and left behind, a constant navigation of coming and going. I got the idea that I’m not meant to land in one life for very long.
When I left her once a month, my mother observed my departures as if they were signs of seasonal change. From the parking lot, she would point out the fields surrounding the airport: corn knee-high, or head-high and de-tasseled, or the harvest over—the earth brown and barren—and then finally snow with hawks circling overhead. Seedlings forcing green from black. Our goodbyes unchanged.
“Well. Have fun, honey.”
“I will Mom. I’ll see you soon.”
“You’re a trooper, kiddo.”
“I’m a trooper, kiddo.”
Sometimes I would have a window seat and, on the right side of the plane, I could make out my mother’s brown bouffant. The first couple of years she would stay to watch; by the time I was ten, she’d head back to our red Gremlin. Sometimes she had a date. Perhaps she’d catch a glimpse of my plane’s departure as she drove back Highway 57 to a weekend without me.
My mother was beautiful and independent. That she was the only divorced woman my friends and I knew made her seem a little invincible, as if the rules for mom-ness weren’t meant for her; she could be wear very short skirts, and swear, and ask my friends too direct questions.
“Do you think that boy is worth your sleeping with him? ” she’d say to a high school friend talking about a new love interest.
It was my mom who took my friends and me camping in the Indiana Dunes, or to visit Chicago’s Art Institute, who blasted the Rolling Stones on the radio, embarrassingly belting out the lyrics. She was the one who, after a night of crying over a man who broke her heart, announced that she and I were going to Mexico.
“This has got to stop. Enough of this Weeping-At-Midnight Angst. Let’s go to Mexico.”
My first time out of the country I saw strange beauty and poverty and got sick and got better and learned a bit of Spanish, and realized my mother had no fear. A year later we flew to Europe because I was turning thirteen, and “you should see Paris sooner than later.” There were many firsts: eating Mussels in Bruge, raw fish in Amsterdam, visiting the Reichsmuseum, watching the Bastille Day parade from our flea bag hotel window. Everywhere, I watched my long-legged mother move through streets with elegance and curiosity. These were vacations on a shoestring; we couldn’t afford them, I knew.
“This is what credit cards are for, “ she explained. When we started off on trips, she used to hum “Do you know the way to San Jose?” I don’t think she ever went to San Jose; it was an anthem to places in need of visiting. Traveling, being alone, these were second nature to her.
Once upon a time, my mother, Audrey, and my father, Richard, found in each other an appetite for art, ideas, and travel that bordered on religious fervency. They came together in the 1950’s, handsome and rebellious in their black turtlenecks, talk of Norman O. Brown, Northrup Frye, Lenny Bruce, and defiance of their working class parents. They visited Europe and Mexico, lived on the West Coast, embracing the ethos of the sixties together—for a while.
When I was seven, they divorced, my father moved to New Jersey, and then they hardly spoke to one another. Sometimes it seemed that I was the hyphen between them. Was I a message? If so, I didn’t know the words. All those hellos and, goodbyes were my only way of connecting them. I was the trooper.
My trooping was not without its tripping. I lost my ticket in O’Hare at least five times over the years. I would stand very still, as if this would conjure in my mind the ticket’s position in the airport, as if, inside my invisibility, I had special vision. Then I would re-visit each bathroom, chair, and newspaper shop of my vague trajectory. Fifteen minutes before boarding, I made the phone calls: Dad first– shocked and annoyed, then Mom, from whom I would receive some boozy empathy. Then to the ticket counter, where a frazzled airline person provided a replacement ticket.
“You what?” Stiff-haired and pretty, the counter lady was not happy with me.
“I lost my ticket. The plane leaves in fifteen minutes.”
“Oh, God. Are you sure? It’s not in your purse, or your bag?”
“No, I lost it. This has happened before. . . I hope you have time to give me a new one. I think you can do that?”
Counter Lady would issue me a new ticket. Was her irritation at me about my traveling alone? Maybe she thought I felt myself to be too good to travel, like regular children, with parents? It was the early seventies; divorce rates have quadrupled since then, and children flying back and forth between parents is a commonality now. In clogs and a floor-length cape, I blazed the way for today’s generation of “un-accompanieds”.
“So. . .your first flight alone?” On the plane, men were chattier than women. They were businessmen, mostly. They wore suits and cologne and thick gold rings, and seemed to assume I could use their supervision, so they asked a lot of questions.
“Going to see Grandma?”
“What’s your favorite subject in school?”
I honed skills of detachment. That didn’t always work. One man under whose wing I found myself spent an hour and a half writing numbers on the airsick bag. He had soft, manicured fingers and he deftly covered the bag with figures and signs in neat columns. I had made the mistake of saying that math was not my favorite subject, so he passed our time together by demonstrating The Joy of Fractions. “Grown ups love figures,” it says in The Little Prince.
I listened to the man, hoping the stewardess would rattle by with cans of Fresca and Coke. Was this guy someone’s dad? I thought of the businessman the little prince meets who thinks that because he counts the stars, he owns them. “‘I administer them,’ he says. . .’I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequences.'” Finally my seatmate folded the sick bag neatly and handed it to me.
On one childhood commute, I stayed overnight in a hotel by myself. There were thunderstorms in New York and flights headed there were cancelled. The airline paid for a hotel, and after calls to Mom and Dad, I arrived at the O’Hare Hilton in a shuttle around eleven p. m., scheduled to fly out again early in the morning. Entering the lobby, I felt like a teenager; I was ten: this was something happening; this was adventure.
The disgruntled but amused grown-ups headed to the bar. I went to my room, opened my suitcase, turned on the T.V, looked through the peephole, checked out the bathroom: the miniature body lotion and shampoo were worth taking. I heard voices rising and falling in the next room. I lay down in my clothes and fell asleep with the air-conditioner blasting. The adventure seemed to pass me by.
At seven the next morning, I waited for a cab, exhausted; I had slept straight through but felt as though I’d been up all night. The driver was irritated. He shouted questions as I began to nod off. My leave-me-alone persona was useless. He refused to let me sleep, and I arrived at O’Hare forty-five minutes later, red-eyed and sick to my stomach. What a relief, then, to be in the air. The view from above the clouds brings to mind what the fox in The Little Prince tells the prince at goodbye: “What is most important is invisible.” The solid world disappears. Anything can happen.
Goodbye is easy. I was always a little relieved to say it to my parents who were people with big personalities and demands. Hello was harder; I entered the world of the other parent not yet sure of my script. This was certainly more the case with my father than mother, with whom I lived most of the time. I saw my father for a month or two in summers and one weekend every month. His world was harder to know; he could be oblivious to the people around him, living in ideas—about politics, art, the irony of history’s repetitions, things I didn’t understand. He talked to me about them anyway, gesticulating with long thin fingers, a cigarette between his lips, his blue eyes wide and intense. He took me everywhere with him when I was there—to the classrooms at Rutgers where he taught Modernism, to late night parties where I was the only kid, once to a peace march where he almost got arrested for raising his fist at a cop.
With his fits of anger– tirades against University administration, the U.S. government, sometimes the door in front of him, my father may not have been the most stable person; he was, however, predictable, mostly reliable. Only once in all those years was he late to pick me up from the airport. I was twelve, and knew the descent into LaGuardia like an amusement ride I insisted on riding again and again. Just barely in time, the runway appears as passengers look out at the dark water, so close–a flourish that pilots must enjoy, knowing some of us are holding our breath, heads pressed to the window.
It is dusk, and the air around the airport has settled into a grayish pink. People are striding into the gate, opening arms for loved ones in the space ahead. My dad isn’t there.
There are five minutes of walking around, thinking I’d never been there alone before. A few airline employees vacantly glance my way, opening and closing drawers, moving unseen objects beneath the counter surface, as if practicing that trick with plastic cups and the one bead under one cup that never turns up where you think, or, exactly where you think–I can’t remember which. Outside, it is officially dark.
I pick up a magazine with Evil Knievel on the cover. Fearless, that guy, and I guess he liked flying—over things. I spent the next ten minutes wondering what I’d do if Dad didn’t show up. Was this the time to run away? Live in the Metropolitan Museum like the kids in The Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frakenthaler? Dad walks toward me, long-legged and forceful. Furious.
“Jesus, Kir, it’s been bumper to bumper for an hour.” He tosses his arms around me. I hug his chest and smell his masculine smell through a orange and green striped shirt with big cuffs.
“Sorry, Hon.” He lights a cigarette, inhales. After we collect my suitcase, he walks outside into the heat and glow of coming and going.
“Jesus. Jesus Christ that go–ed traffic.”
I wonder if it felt like a long or short time since he’d seen me last, six weeks ago. He’d just driven for two hours, and without the traffic it would still be well over an hour to get back to his house.
I am hungry. “How is work, Dad?”
“Good. Endless. Good. Writing a new article.” He puts a hand through his
ruffled blond hair.
“How’s school? What are you reading?” Once on the road, we were something like Dad and daughter again, driving toward home in his smoky with the windows rolled down and Derek and The Dominoes on the radio. In New Jersey, where the oil refineries surround the turnpike, cranes for unloading drums of oil look like extra-angular giraffes. I try to decide if theirs is a friendly giraffe-ness. They were gleaming with sparkling white lights—pretty, but I could picture them as the aliens of the War of The Worlds.
“White Castle?” Dad asks.
He means the burger place in Edison, near his house. We often stopped there as a reward—for our managing the un-comfortableness of knowing each other this way, perhaps?
“I’ve got a guy coming over tomorrow to look at my motorcycle. . .I need to sell that thing.” He was letting me know that he had things he needed to get done this weekend.
“And I have some work up at my office. This summer school crap is never over.”
Ahead stretches the Verazzono Bridge. The visit was taking shape like a sheet of paper folding into origami. A few kids at the pool would remember me, I hoped. We’d go to my dad’s office at Rutgers, and I’d maybe finish A Wrinkle in Time in the chair meant for students. Sometimes there would be a walk with a woman who could be his girlfriend; sometimes we’d bowl.
On my last visit, we’d picketed a grocery store selling non-union grapes with Dad’s Teamster friends. We walked back and forth in the rain with handmade signs chanting “No Grapes From Scabs! Buy Union, Buy Union!” I felt mildly exhilarated, mildly embarrassed. Some of my dad’s friends paid attention to me, commenting on my growth since the last time they’d seen me, acting as if I were interesting, or cute. My dad rarely seemed to think I was either, so I ate it up. If the protest had been in Urbana, I’d have been worried about someone’s mom walking past our line.
In three days, we would drive past the giraffe cranes again. Arching over us, arms of the Verazonno bridge swooped down and up and down. Stars marked the sky, constellations of there and back. Fender to fender, cars, trucks, and taxis braked in unison, as if there could be only one destination.
Saying Hello to my mother came easily; I was, after all, coming home. I had my room, my cat, my life. Still, it took a bit of readjusting. Flying over the repeating fields of farmland reminded me that I was returning home. I’d been away; I had another home, another almost life. And not much was ever said about it. My friends didn’t ask. My mom did, but in a distracted way, and I left some things out—new friends and parties, my dad’s anxiety and fury. I wasn’t sure if she wanted a report on Dad or if she wanted to know if I’d had a good time. I shouldn’t have too good a time, I figured. They both wanted to be the better parent. My mom and I were closer and I lived with her, but going to the Jersey shore, ballet, and museums in New York City was a lot of fun, so I did some filtering. No one would ever know.
They didn’t see each other for years. Visiting me in college once, my mother pointed to a photo my father and me standing by his house.
“Who’s that guy?”
“That guy is dad. Remember him?”
“Jesus,” she said with the same intonation as his (I wondered who started it),
I found myself unaccountably upset. I realized she almost never thought about him, at least not in the present.
“He’d recognize you, Mom.”
“You think? Who knows—I’ve aged too. Shit.” She laughed, and patted her hair. Her cavalier amusement had me in a state. Their marriage, the union of my making was, it seemed, something sort of funny—a little sad, but funny.
Once I became an adult, I flew a lot, and I flew happily, taking back suspended time from a confused childhood, lost time perhaps. I was a woman restless to see the world. I scoffed at people who are afraid of flying—a sign, surely, of someone afraid of losing control. Not me. Certainly Since 9/11 it is hard to fly without one or two thoughts of disaster and mortality; airport security makes sure of that. But my relationship to flying changed before that. At thirty seven, I flew to visit my mother because she’d not been feeling well. I waited in the Urbana airport, the one where I’d landed month after month, year after year.
Though she was rarely late, I wasn’t surprised. She was moving slowly these days. I was grateful she hadn’t rushed, hadn’t felt it necessary to be early. At the half hour mark, in a secluded corner under the elevator, I dialed her number. No answer. I called back; it rang and rang. I returned to the front of the airport, then in five minutes called again. Again in another five. It had been almost an hour since I’d stepped off the plane. Could she have gotten the time wrong? Was she out running an errand? How unlike my mother–always on time. I returned to the row of orange chairs by the window. A family of grandparents, an adult daughter, and several little kids fussed and fidgeted near me. Who are they waiting for, I wondered. I’d been there about forty minutes when I heard my name on the intercom.
A thin man, about sixty years old appeared from nowhere, handed me a phone at the information desk.
“Kirsten, I have bad news.” It was the voice of mother’s close friend Sherry. “I think your mother is dead.” My knees buckled—an expression I’d never been able to visualize—and then I was on the floor, breathing too fast. The man’s face above me looked midwesternly embarrassed. Sherry told me that my mother had had a heart attack, that medics had been trying to resuscitate her. . .for over an hour, and that I should just wait to be picked up.
I stumbled to my feet and asked if there was someplace to use a private phone. I felt that I was underwater, that my scuba equipment had malfunctioned if not just disappeared. The “I think” of Sherry’s sentence circled around in my head. I was sobbing loudly and everyone around me stared. A woman with an expression on her face like that of a steady nurse for the criminally insane led me to a back office with desks and telephones. I called a friend who sounded shocked and tried to say kind things, but I took more consolation from her shock than any reassurance.
At that moment I believed in my mother’s death more than I would in the coming days, perhaps years. Mom was never late before, but she also never died before. So this made sense. She’d be telling me that. “You think I’d show up late? It didn’t occur to you that I died?” My imagination had clearly failed. I had to think of something sensible for this occasion, when I was completely beside myself, my smarts. Was my mother waiting for the right answer? Without her I couldn’t say or think a single thing.
“A branch is a branch,” says a childhood book of Noah’s, “until it breaks. And then it is a stick.” Where was the stick? Nothing so simple as the image in the storybook, a boy marching happily across his lawn, waving a stick like an army general. There is, in fact, a branch: I hear my mother’s voice every day. Nevertheless, there is also the failure. I will never answer the question: why did my mom die without Goodbye. Why did she disappear while I was close but not close enough, her heart failing while I was not even on the earth, but far above, trying to get there.
Sherry and I did not speak on the way home except for her to fill in slightly the story she’d told me on the phone. She and her friend had stopped by to say Hello. No one answered. They found her in the kitchen and called an ambulance. Sherry wasn’t looking at me. She’d been my English teacher when I was a senior. She looked grim, pale, and—I suddenly noted–quite stylish. Her car was new and impeccably clean. At home, there was an ambulance parked by the side door. Sherry told me to wait outside. I opened the door of my mother’s car and a fresh wave of nausea washed over me. A few balled up Kleenexes on the floor. Her perpetually allergic nose. A Marrimekko designed bag on the backseat. The details suggested that my mother was alive, just inside the house, chatting with Sherry.
The coroner came soon after that. He was inside the house ten minutes, then he was sorry to have to tell me but my mother had passed away. What happened next is blurry. I remember that Sherry recommended that I not go inside the house. To this day, I wonder what I would have seen, what my mother’s body could have told me. I remember hugging the trunk of her Honda, then climbing in to hold the steering wheel, at which point someone leaned in gingerly to ask about funeral home to which the body should be taken. Neighbors came home, took me into their kitchen right about the time that the hearse pulled up the infamously narrow driveway. I couldn’t stay in their house long because they had two cats that made me sneeze—an allergy my mother and I shared.
My mother’s friends appeared in the next few hours, bearing arms and shoulders
on which to cry. I was offered a gin and tonic. And then another one. Everyone looked at me with misery. I don’t know if they were reflecting my pain and shock or if it were all theirs, but those faces gave solace. I needed the world to reflect the terribleness of this. Nicolle, a friend from high school, turned up. I cycled through crying, moaning, drinking, blubbering. I moved through the house touching my mother’s things: a grocery list, an earring, her toothbrush, a present that was suddenly the past. Her laundry—underwear and a towel–was still slightly warm in the dryer.
My father arrived the day of the funeral. I didn’t know if he would come. He looked confused, grief hovering around his heavy face and body. It must have been strange for him to return to Urbana after two decades, to see old friends and colleagues gathered together on the occasion of his ex-wife’s death. At the house, he tiptoed in and out of rooms, as if fearful of waking a sleeping baby. He looked with surprise at the bookcases and the study that had, thirty years earlier belonged to him: furniture and books that belonged to my mother and my dead stepfather.
My dad asked me to use the study phone, and later I found on the desk a ten-dollar bill with a note: For Dick’s phone call. “Dick” rather than “Dad”. . . as if he were writing the note to her, not me. He was tender with me, cocking his head, wrinkling his brow, and trying to pat me. He needed some attention I couldn’t provide. When he offered to take me out to breakfast, I declined.
After the funeral he asked, “How are you?” I replied, “Sick. ” And when my father inquired if I had a cold, I answered, “You must be kidding.” I didn’t let him touch me or sit with me, and I can’t remember saying a proper goodbye. I had no energy for manners, but more significantly I was angry with him. I made an ugly equation: he was the one with the poor health, the one who neglected his Type 2 diabetes, who still snuck cigarettes after bypass surgery; shouldn’t he have been the one to die?
Shortly after he returned to New Jersey, I felt guilty and sad about him. We talked on the phone, and I tried to repair my ugliness in his direction. But, as it says in The Little Prince, “On our earth we are obviously much too small to clean out our volcanoes. That is why they bring no end of trouble to us.” I needed time to clean, to sweep up extensive emotional fall-out, and time to think of my dad as my only living parent. As it turned out, I had no time for that.
I left Urbana five days after I had arrived. I observed, as I had on recent trips home, the remodeling of the Urbana airport. A Mediterranean blue carpet, abstract etchings on white walls. An obligatory gift shop of “Fighting Illini” trinkets. Not the barracks-style cinder block building of my youth. One might think that one had arrived at a place of some significance.
As the plane rose into the sky, the view of the landscape was as familiar as the walk from my bedroom to the bathroom where every bump on the wall, every curve in the floorboards was understood. Corn and soybean fields, endless strips of road pointed exactly to more and more of the same. I remembered flying to Urbana in June with Noah and something he’d said then. Before landing, Noah pressed his head into the window’s oval of Midwest sky, and asked: “Gramma, are you down there?” When he told her about what he’d said, my mother promised that when we flew away she would be saying, “Noah, I’m right here! See me?” Now, Noah’s question came into my head. If she were down there or out there, she wasn’t letting on. In fact, her ashes were in a small heavy box in a shopping bag by my feet. Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly how I wanted to picture her. She was—for now—in perpetual en route, traveling with no end in sight.
My relationship to arrivals and departures has been marked forever by that unspoken goodbye. I flew home—if I can still call it that—twice afterward. Once I went to empty my mother’s house of its belongings, and once to visit friends. I got inside 208 West Pennsylvania, now inhabited by an architect and his wife, who showed me around. Noah was with there, and his memories were vivid: breakfasts of bacon and eggs before I was awake, painting at an easel my mother had bought him, my mother showing him her herb garden and insisting he taste everything. He recalled her being a constant reader, lying in the window seat of the kitchen with a book until he demanded a walk down the driveway and around the block.
A decade after her death, my mother appears in my dreams regularly. Unaware that she is dead, she is angry that I’ve put her things in storage, her house inhabited by strangers. She admires their architect-y taste—clean lines, black and white furniture. In some dreams I don’t tell her she’s dead, just humor her, biding my time by taking her shopping, then out to lunch. In others, I am about to tell her when the dream ends. And then there are the ones where I realize that she is right; the coroner, all of us, In fact, made a terrible mistake. She is ill, but she has several years to live. And now we must figure out how to get her back into her house, her rightful place.
Six weeks after my mother died, my father did as well, as if there were a rhythm to the deaths in my life, perhaps connected to the schedule that controlled my childhood visits between mother and father. Sometimes I think the timing implies that my father couldn’t live without my mother, though he had for over thirty years. As in the case of my mom’s death, there was no time to say goodbye; he just dropped dead, alone, in his kitchen. His body was found several days after a fatal heart attack. In retrospect, it seems there is an internal landscape of shock and things unsaid built into my life’s geography—for which, needless to say, I have no map.
Traveling, I imagine, is a way to discover the future as well as to recall my past. I fly alone a lot, and sometimes with Noah, who finds it uncomplicated. Last year I visited a friend in California for a weekend of hiking, sun, and the Pacific; returning home, I was late for a connecting flight in San Francisco. The plane was right outside the window, a stone’s throw away, stark still, and the anonymous, moveable hallway leading to my way home beckoned, but the attendants would not let me on. Departure time had passed, they said.
I did what I never did when I was younger, losing my ticket, or missing a flight. I threw myself on the floor wailed in fury and fear. People watched not unkindly, and the US AIR employees looked alarmed. My catharsis eventually quelled itself, and after I spit, “Thank you for your big fucking hearts,” I found myself in a souvenir store, spending a hundred dollars on items I could barely identify. Of course I had to return to the scene of my break down for help in getting another flight. As embarrassing as that should have been, I hardly blinked. All those times I did not cry in the airport.
Noah likes going places, but dislikes the inconvenience of flying, changing planes, and being forced to sit still for hours. I consider him a charm of sorts. We’ve never missed a flight or had to stay overnight in a hotel, or even had unreasonable waits in airports. If only I’d had him around when I was a kid. Our last trip together was to visit the same California friend I’d gone to see the year before. We were flying into San Jose, a destination that, because of my mom’s fondness for the song, amused and touched me. Do you know the way to San Jose?/I’ve been away so long I may go wrong and lose my way/I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose./Can’t wait to get back to San Jose.
We had to leave at 6 am, and had two layovers, Detroit and Salt Lake City. The Detroit airport shone with sun and blue sky. Noah got a kick out of the airport’s surreal tunnel from one arm of the airport to another, with lights and low humming music. I remembered that this is where I spoke to my mother the last time. I had called her to tell her that I was coming; it wasn’t anything for which she’d asked. Although I was already en route, she briefly put in some effort to protest the trip.
“It’s your weekend with Noah. Shouldn’t you stay in Ithaca?”
“I can make it up; it’s fine with Jerry. I want to see you.”
“Well. I may not be much fun. I think I’m kind of sick.”
“Mom. I’ll see you in a few hours.” We agreed on the time she’d pick me up. And then we did, in fact, say goodbye.
In Salt Lake City, snow came down in huge wet discs. It was as if Noah and I were passing through not only time zones but foreign countries, each airport speaking a different language. Salt Lake’s was one in which I’d never been. The souvenir shops boasted trinkets of “The Old West”. Noah likes window-shopping; we wandered from spot to spot, and I watched as my tall sixteen-year old was admired by young women. He’s six foot two, and has a pile of springy brown hair that gets a fair bit of attention.
“WHAT.” Without expression, Noah directed his accusation at me. He does not think it’s cute when I think he’s cute. We got sandwiches and headed to our gate.
San Jose was a smaller place than I’d imagined, but clean and bright as California always seems to be. Not a place that would interest my mother very much. Mary picked us up, and as we drove out of the airport I leaned out the window and sucking in air, mouthed the first lines of Bacharach’s lyrics: Do you know the way. . .this had been one of my mother’s mythical places. Gramma wasn’t here, but she could be; this was someone’s idea of paradise.
A month later I am again flying West: The Sierra Nevadas are below, and we are dropping in the air, getting ready for a landing. A tiny shadow of the plane rides over rippled earth. Is it possible to read the earth’s texture? For decades I’ve observed intently the land from above. Mountains, lakes, farmscape, cities’ sprawling highway arms are topography that remind us that we are off the planet, we are not living our lives as we know them, comfortably situated on solid ground. When we come back, we might be a little altered, some shift having taken place during flight. I’ve never before seen this range of rumpled brown and green, and watch it unfold like yards of velvety cloth. The plane’s shadow disappears, and I wait for it to reappear, the magic of biding my time.