CW: allusions to death
The airport was bright and busy with holiday traffic. I tapped my foot anxiously on the 80s blue carpet of the plane. The seatbelt light remained glowing in a dingy yellow. Sighs of exasperation were punctured by cries of the baby at the back. I contemplated popping my earbuds back in, at the risk of missing the all important announcement that we could finally deboard. For the fiftieth time on this flight, I opened social media, scrolled through the headlines I’d read a million times, and closed it with frustration.
“Thank you all for your patience, we have now received clearance to begin the deboarding process,” announced the young flight attendant who gave me my vodka and cola a few hours earlier. Upon hearing this news, the entire plane’s hearts began to race. The businessman next to me began to pack up his laptop, but I noticed the familiar email app being opened on his phone.
I mentally ran through my travel checklist: phone, wallet, keys, earbuds. All of these were tucked in my purse. Then, I reached for my pendant. I twisted it and pulled it around my neck so it faced outwardly. The seatbelt lights dinged off and I, along with every other anxious human, stood immediately. Even though I knew damn well that no actual movement would be happening.
A few of us reached for our carry ons, stored in the massive plastic overhead bins. I had purposefully overpacked mine so as to avoid checking a bag. But my fingers on my right hand felt the burns of a serious hand work out as I stood in the aisle for what felt like forever behind the businessman who took the aisle seat which was fine by me because I loved a window seat. What was not fine, however, was the firm principle he held that his gray, tailored suit meant that his farts wouldn’t stink. They did. They reeked of smelly cheese, rotten milk, or something else mysteriously revolting. This man needed to get off dairy ASAP.
I cast my gaze upwards at the ceiling of the plane and around at my fellow passengers as I realized the baby had stopped crying. Or maybe, the attendants just let them go first. Either way, we were at peace. Just as I felt my hand caving under the sustained pressure of having to clutch my bag, the businessman passed gas and began walking. I held my breath while trying to focus on the faint taste of peppermint left in my gum.
The air in the tunnel connecting the plane to the airport was cold. I made it. With expert ease I briskly passed the passengers desperately reading the ever changing electronic signs which show maps of the airport between huge adverts of models enjoying products with a red and green twist. I resisted the urge to step into any of the shops and instead concentrated on the rhythm of my pendant, beating against my chest with every step I took. I utilized the train which is housed within Denver International Airport. I noted with satisfaction how it is filled with families, airline staff, and individuals all with one thing in common: this specific journey.
Again, I ran through my travel checklist and played with my necklace. In the safety of the train I sent Mom a text stating I’d arrived safely and that I’d see her soon. She responded with a heart emoji, a turkey emoji, and a heart emoji. I found our old family van instantly and was greeted with a long, bear hug. I took the opportunity to inhale the scent of her coconut shampoo. She held on until I let go. We loaded my carryon into the back seat; she was impressed that I packed so little.
The first thing she said once all the doors were closed and my seatbelt was buckled was, “You look…different. Better, but different.”
I stared out my window as my mother bobbed and weaved her way along the highway because how exactly was I supposed to respond? Outside, snow was falling lightly and bright red and green lights flowed along the edges of the buildings. It was as if the entire city of Denver had transformed into a beautiful gingerbread paradise. My breath fogged the windows so Mom turned on the heater which led to me regretting the addition of my winter coat over my Christmas sweater. She shot me a knowing look out of the corner of her eye as I struggled to remove layers. She changed the radio station as the final trumpets of a Christmas carol melted into a commercial. I began to hum under my breath and play with the rose gold, diamond encrusted, feather pendant. “Are you planning to see Margaret and Kurt?” she asked me with great effort to sound casual.
“Yeah, for pie, I think,” I told her. She didn’t hide the satisfied smile at my words and she pressed her palm into my thigh. An army of bright red lights greeted us as we began to leave the city itself. “Sorry about this,” I gestured to the traffic.
“Not at all,” she said, “Gives us time to talk.”
“Mmm,” I said.
“Mmm,” she echoed. Then, we asked at the same time, “And how’s work?” We both laughed and she insisted I share first.
“It’s good,” I told her, thinking back on my clothing store. I manage one of many storefronts for a popular clothing company. It was steady work and I hadn’t enjoyed a proper vacation in the five years I had been there. Mom and I both knew, that was purposeful. I added a few more details about Laurie, my assistant manager, and some of the Black Friday specials we were running. She thanked me for the cozy socks I had shipped to her and I gave her soft hand a squeeze. For a moment, I felt a twinge of the shame and guilt I had avoided by staying busy at work for all this time. We slowly inched along in the traffic, humming to the tunes of whatever Christmas carol came on next.
Mom pulled through a drive thru fast food place. She handed me the huge, brown paper bag with the grease spot at the bottom. The food warmed my lap, enticed my nose, and caused my stomach to roar. Mom smiled and I stabbed two plastic straws into our bubbling sodas. Out of routine, I plunged my fingers into the box of fries and pulled a few out at a time, taking turns feeding her, then feeding me. “I used to do this all the time for Nick,” I quipped. Mom refused to make eye contact with me, just kept her gaze glued to the road. I had hoped if I brought him up, it’d ease the tension.
We finally pulled into the safety of her condominium’s attached garage. While Mom grabbed my bag, I tossed the trash from our on the go supper. The place smelled the same- pine scented mopping cleanser mixed with cinnamon from the pumpkin pie she made, and a tinge of litter box. Mr. Whiskers greeted me as I walked into the kitchen and turned on the light. In the bright, white light of her kitchen, I studied her face-the worried lines etched into her forehead, the fading laugh lines, the way her eyes always seemed to be overflowing with tears. “Good night, Sweetheart,” she said as she scooted past me and headed upstairs.
I knew the drill and approached the basement door off the laundry room hallway. I flicked on the stairwell light, comforted by the deep orange of the terracotta tiles. My bag thumped down each step and I paused on the third to final step to look over her practice’s lobby. Mom was a psychotherapist and saw her clients in the basement of her home.
Smack dab in the middle of my line of vision was a large portrait of a Spanish woman, watering her garden with a clay vase. This painting always made me pause. Its real purpose was to hide the electric panel which always made Nick laugh.
The first time he saw the painting, he told me that the woman was named Maria, mother of four children, and loving wife to a Spanish soldier. She tended her garden day in and day out, listening to the insect chirping and the birds calling because it was easier to do that than acknowledge the dread in her heart that her husband may not come back from the battle we would later call The Alamo. I could hear him now as he rested his chin on my shoulder, “See the flour on her apron? It’s yellow because it’s corn flour. Why don’t you make me homemade tortillas?”
“Don’t know how,” I laughed at him. When I closed my eyes, I could still feel Nick’s arms around my waist, his warm breath in my ear. I blinked the tears away and lugged my bag across the lobby to the spare room. I fell asleep wishing I had learned to make homemade tortillas.
Sunlight streamed in the thin, white curtains. I groaned and stretched. The couch wasn’t really a bed, but it wasn’t like it really mattered. I still dreamt of Nick and woke throughout the night long enough to wipe the tears away from my exhausted eyes. I rolled my neck and pawed at my eyes before meandering to the bathroom. The shower was hot and invigorating. I changed into my Thanksgiving red plaid button down and blue jeans. I tossed my long, black hair into a thick braid.
When I climbed the stairs, I could smell the sweet scent of cinnamon rolls. I entered the kitchen where Mom was bent over, removing perfect, doughy rolls. She smiled at me. I smiled a sad smile back and grabbed the OJ from the fridge as she slid hot, fluffy eggs from the frying pan. I took my seat and poured us two glasses of juice. “We’re having Cornish hens tonight. I hope that’s ok,” she told her cinnamon roll. I patted her left hand as a sign of reassurance.
“Charlie says, ‘hi,’” Mom mused and I paused my bite to ask how my little sister was enjoying the new zoo she was working at. “It’s good, I think,” Mom told me, but she didn’t seem totally certain so I patted her hand again. Mom picked up our plates and glasses. She loaded them into the dishwasher and we turned to the real project- Thanksgiving. I started the pot to boil the potatoes for mashing while she skinned all four of them and began to chop. Then, I pulled out the fresh green beans to wash along with the carrots. Mom skinned the carrots and arranged them in their respective casserole dishes.
Suddenly, as if a literal lightbulb went off, she told her smart home device to begin playing Christmas music.
Mom added a pad of butter and brown sugar to the carrots, butter and cream of chicken into the green beans. “We could start using cream of mushroom again,” I told her in the awkward silence of the pause between songs. Mom waved me off. “It’s Nick who disliked mushrooms,” I continued. Mom loudly opened the kitchen drawer and began testing if the potatoes were fork tender. I took a deep breath and pulled out the hens which promptly went in a bath of warm water in the sink.
“Excuse me,” Mom whispered, carrying the huge pot of potatoes. “Can you,” she turned to look at me and then at the huge casserole dish for the potatoes. I obediently brought it closer. “No, the mixer first, please,” she corrected me. I quickly course corrected and added half a stick of butter and half a cup of heavy whipping cream to the mixer. Mom brought the steaming potatoes over. They fell in with a thud.
“Mom,” I swallowed the lump in my throat. She set the pot into the left hand sink, the one not holding the hens. “I think that Chris is going to propose,” I stared at my feet, cold on her kitchen tile. She huffed a big sigh. “And I’m scared to tell the Phillips because,” I felt like when I was twelve and spilled strawberry jam on my library book. “Because he wants me to take his last name and I think I want to, too.” Mom took a deep breath and marched over to the potatoes. She turned the mixer on high. “Mama?” my voice cracked.
She turned and took my face in my hands, “It will be OK, my love.” She kissed my forehead and turned the mixer off so she could scrape the edges of the bowl before mixing for another few minutes. They went into the casserole dish which joined its side dish friends in the oven. Mom waved me over to the couch. I made us two cups of coffee. She did her crossword puzzles while I responded to Chris’ good morning text. I leaned my head on her shoulder and she asked what I liked about Chris. “He wants me to take his name, Mama,” I told her.
Mom kissed my forehead again, “Good.” We grew ready for real food at around 11am. Mom slathered them in a mixture of decadent butter and herbs before trussing them. Our sides sat on the oven, patiently remaining warm. Thanksgiving was eaten to Christmas carols and between excited discussion of a June wedding. Mom scraped the bones into a pot and began making stock. I offered her a hug and promised to be back in an hour, grabbing her pumpkin pie off the counter.
I turned up the radio, trying to get lost in jingling bells. All the traffic lights were green which didn’t calm my thumping heart. I had memorized this path at sixteen-from my parents’ home to Nick’s. I pulled behind the huge, black, F250 and stood, staring at the front yard, decorated with bright orange pumpkins and plastic bags holding autumn leaves. The snow from last night has all but faded away. The bright sunlight glinted off my pendant. I softly said a prayer and exited my vehicle. I didn’t have to knock. Margaret knew I had arrived. She stood on her porch in her big orange dress with her arms wide open.
I accepted the embrace as she cooed, “Hi sweetheart.” She smelled like Nick used to smell, before we moved in together and I started using my own laundry detergent. Kurt offered the quintessential father in law side hug and I followed them inside. Margaret’s kitchen has the same square footage as Mom’s, but due to the disorganized nature of her soul, looked half the size.
Piles of dishes were sloshing in what used to be hot, soapy water. A pile of junk mail sat on one counter next to the empty, not yet rinsed out, tin cans which had held veggies and cranberry sauce. In the center of her stove were the remains of a carved turkey. Margaret had also placed six dinner plates, dirty with the remnants of their meal, on the stove. But their home was quiet. Per my request, she had sent all the guests away. She sliced up the pie and Kurt piled four heaps of whipped cream onto his. She shot him a look which caused him to circle back for another tablespoon. I laughed. I accepted my slice and we weaved into the dining room. I chose to sit across from Kurt, but next to Margaret.
“How are you, Honey? Is Maine treating you alright?” she inquired while I stared at the framed, 8”X11” photo from my wedding day perched on their oak hutch, front and center for anyone who entered their home. The girl behind the glass was giddy with joy as she clung to her husband who was mid laugh. It was my favorite photo of Nick, with that one rebellious curl breaking free from his gelled hair.
“Good,” I answered Margaret and shoved the pie into my throat with one hand as the other pulled my feather necklace from one side to the other.
“I just love that necklace,” gushed Maragret.
“I ever tell you how I found it?” I asked while undoing the clasp and passing the chain to her. She shook her head. It’s a lie, but one everyone at this table permitted it then and always will. “It was in the back of the safe. I found it while sorting through the documents to get Nick taken care of. It was wrapped in red paper, addressed to the ‘love of his life.’ The best gift I could have asked for. It’s like he knew,” I added with a smile.
“Your mom says that the store is doin’ well,” said Kurt through his whipped cream. He refused to look at the necklace. We listened to the sound of forks scraping on plates. “You know, Nicky, he’d,” began Kurt. I looked up to meet his eyes, tired like Maragaret’s, exhausted like Mom’s. “Well, I think he’d want you to be happy,” his gaze darted to my feather pendant. “We’re,” he took his wife’s hand, “Sad that you couldn’t join us for our Thanksgiving celebration, but we understand you have a life.”
“And a good one so we hear,” added Maragaret.
“So we get it. If you don’t want to be a Phillip, anymore,” his voice cracked and he cleared it. So many responses flooded my heart. I wanted to protest and scream that I still wanted to be a Phillip-that it was the drunk driver who took Nick from all of us that decided it wasn’t meant to be. I wanted to explain how wonderful Chris was and that it was his first marriage- that he was the only son in the family. But instead, I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you.”