I’m working hard to finish the first draft of Anika takes the long way home up soul mountain this month, and with a week to go, I have just over 10,000 words that I need to write. It sounds like a lot, but in reality, those words will go by quickly and I should be able to hit my end-of-March deadline if I push a little. That means (crossing my fingers) that I should be able to publish the book by late April or early May. Once it’s out, I’m going to put this book and my previous book, To Have Loved & Lost, together as “The Rosemont Duology.”
To whet your appetite, I have a special treat for you today: The first four chapters! (If you want the fifth chapter, you can get that by signing up for my mailing list and I’ll send it to you.)
Fair warning: The narrator, Anika, has a tendency to cuss. A lot.
Be sure to let me know what you think in the comments section below.
Chapter 1: I fucking hate airports.
Mom has cancer.
The thought irritates me, nags at my brain the same way a mosquito that gets trapped in your room at night and circles and buzzes and dives and bites and basically won’t leave you the fuck alone.
Mom has cancer mom has cancer mom has cancer mom has cancer mom has —
It’s bone cancer, by the way. Osteosarcoma. In her left hip bone. I looked it up a couple of weeks ago, right after my dad called me, voice trembling, to deliver the news. I’m not saying I believe every single word on the Internet, because, hey, it’s the fucking Internet, the same miracle that gave us fake news and videos of people getting their dogs high and September 11th conspiracy theories, but the medical sites seem reliable enough. Which sucks, actually, because they all agree that osteosarcoma, at Stage IIB, which is what Mom has, isn’t good. It’s not a death sentence, not yet, but it’s definitely not fucking good, either.
I know it’s a strange thing to wonder, but you know what I keep thinking? Why her hips? Why those things? Mom’s always been thick and strong, and she squeezed four babies out of those hips. They’re the things she propped us on when we were little, holding us in place with one hand while she flipped bacon with the other, the things that double as door-openers and drawer-closers and the frame for her undeniably powerful booty.
The only thing bigger than my mother’s hips is her mouth, and as I slouch down grouchily in the blue plastic airport seat with my bad, British attempt at coffee, I have this image of her mouth getting even bigger to compensate for the chunk of hip they’re going to slice off in her surgery next week. I imagine her mouth expanding, stretching on her face, full lips all warping out of fucking control, getting so big her chin and neck practically disappear, and then she says something, and her voice has gotten louder, stronger than ever, and what she says to me is,
“Anika! Get over here! Right fucking now!”
Well, okay, so she wouldn’t say “fucking.” She always complains that I say it too much. Which is probably true. But Anika-get-over-here-right-now, that’s her favorite thing to say. I thought “Get Over Here Right Now” was my middle name when I was a kid. And getting cancer, it’s like the ultimate way to say it, right? It’s like her way of sending me a NastyGram all the way from Ohio to tell me, Girl, get over here. Come home. Right this instant.
I sigh, take a sip of my coffee.
The place is a fucking rubber band. No matter how far I manage to pull away, it always snaps me back into place eventually.
I take another sip of coffee.
Fucking Costa. The British don’t understand anything about coffee. I could get better coffee for half a Euro out of a vending machine in Switzerland than I can in all of fucking England. But I drink it anyway. It’s caffeine, and I need the caffeine, because I don’t even have to guess about what kind of day it’s going to be. It’s going to be a long, shitty fucking day. The rain drizzling down on the Manchester Airport tarmac says it, the monitor above me flashing DELAYED says it, the coffee says it.
And the cancer says it. Well, not the bone cancer so much as the words “possibly metastasized” and “surgery” and “chemotherapy” that come with it.
I’m sitting here, thinking all this, in what is basically the airport waiting room — a bunch of uncomfortable blue vinyl seats facing a bank of departure monitors like we’re all at the fucking DMV waiting for our numbers to be called — when a girl walks by, meets my eye, gives me a small smile.
I try to smile back, but I’m sure it comes across more like a grimace. I recognize the girl from my flight over here from Basel; she sat a few rows ahead of me on the plane. She’d smiled when I walked past her boarding the plane, too, like she knew me. But I didn’t smile back that time; I was busy maneuvering my gym bag ahead of me, stooping to to avoid whacking my head, trying not to let my big, awkward fucking body embarrass me more than it already naturally does. When she’d smiled at me on the plane, honestly my first thought was, “Is she laughing at me?” But then I’d realized no, just because a pretty woman smiles at you doesn’t mean she’s laughing at you.
Now I watch her go as she weaves through the crowd towards the escalator. She looks like she’s about my age, maybe — late thirties? Early forties? — but it’s hard to tell because she’s got this fancy business suit on, the kind that’s designed to make older women look younger and younger women look older, and plus she’s short and her hair’s cut to where it’s short in the back, a little longer in the front. My first thought when I see the haircut is “Jane Lane,” who, if you have no idea who that is, was a character on this late-90s MTV cartoon called Daria. (My sister Dutch discovered Daria reruns on late-night cable and we used to watch it in high school sometimes.)
Anyway, that’s what I think when I see the woman from the Basel-Manchester flight again — Jane Lane. Jane Lane but Tinkerbell-sized and smiley and probably a hell of a lot less surly.
I lose Jane Lane in the crowd when she disappears up the escalator and into the food court above. There’s some kind of bar on the upper level, and the faint scent of a meat-and-potatoes English breakfast wafts down to me. On the tables closest to the escalator, I see half-empty pints of beer.
Brits. It’s not even ten in the fucking morning, and they’re already on their second pint.
This guy wanders over to me — young, doofy, wearing an ’80s-style, orangish vest over a button-down shirt, hands shoved into the pockets of his tight-rolled jeans.
His name is Marty McFly, and he’s a figment of my imagination.
Remember him? Back to the Future? Actor Michael J. Fox as Guitar Hero Marty, the high school loser who gets dragged along by his elderly mad scientist bestie through space and time in a silver DeLorean with batwing car doors? Marty saving his parents through time traveling back to 1955? Biff the bully? Dorky George McFly? Pretty girl Lorraine? Please tell me you know who I’m talking about. And if you don’t, you need to stop what you’re doing and go watch all the Back to the Future movies with a quickness. Right now.
Anyway, back in the Manchester airport, (imaginary) Marty McFly sits down next to me, slumps into his seat, hands still in his pockets. I glance over at him, look him up and down, remember how short the shrimp actually is. Sitting next to me like this, we could almost pass him off as my ten year-old son.
If he was real, that is. And if I were as white as he is, or he was as blasian as I am.
He nods in the direction of the escalator. “Smell remind you of anything?”
“I don’t want to talk about my childhood, McFly,” I say (but I don’t say it out-loud, because he’s only in my imagination and I’m weird but not fucking delusional).
He inhales deeply. Keeps talking like I never said anything. “Smells almost like home, doesn’t it? Like Mom’s kitchen?”
“I told you. I don’t want to talk about it.”
I don’t tell him why I don’t want to talk about it, but he already knows why. I don’t want to start crying like a big fat baby right here in the airport waiting room.
He points up at the monitor in front of us. “Flight’s still delayed.”
“I can see that.”
He jerks a thumb towards the escalator. “May as well get some ‘brekkie.’ And you know… the English usually do ale better than coffee.”
I eye him. “You’re going to take me back in time again, aren’t you? Whether I like it or not?”
Marty McFly stands up, gives me a shit-eating grin. “Maybe. What’s wrong with a few childhood memories? What’s wrong with going back to your mother’s kitchen for a few minutes?” He extends a hand.
I sigh, but then I grasp the hand he offers anyway, almost tugging the kid into me as I haul myself to my feet. I shake my half empty coffee cup, drop it in the trashcan — excuse me, rubbish bin — next to the escalator.
“Lead on, McFly.”
Chapter 2: Back to the Future.
Back to the fucking future (or past — I never understood that stupid title. I mean, why would say “back to the future” when most of the time they were going into the past?):
Set flux capacitor back-in-time clock on the DeLorean for seventh grade, and the location to the kitchen table inside the brick ranch at the corner of Maple and Greene Streets in Marcine, Ohio.
Ready? Here we go.
Momma slides still-crackling bacon and fried potatoes onto my plate out of the cast iron skillet she holds with a scorched oven mitt dotted with little pink flowers. I push my bacon and potatoes to the side, reach for the bowl of scrambled eggs.
“More eggs?” she says skeptically when I pile them onto my plate. Her tongue clucks against the roof of her mouth. “Lord, child. How you stay so skinny, eating like that?”
I shrug my shoulders, because how the hell would I know? All I know is that I’m hungry, all the time hungry, and even though I already had one big pile of eggs and one helping of bacon, I know I’ll be trying to sneak snacks by the time Social Studies hits if I don’t put a little more food in my stomach.
“She eats like a pig,” quips my sister Dutch. Her name’s not actually “Dutch,” it’s “Dechen,” but I had trouble saying that when I was little, so she’s been Dutch since I was two.
I make a face at my sister that my mother can’t see, opening my mouth wide so she has a good view of my mouthful of half-chewed scrambled eggs and bacon.
“Disgusting pig,” Dutch amends.
“Dutch,” snaps Mom, and she doesn’t need to say anything else, just gives Dutch that look that’s warning enough, the look that says You say something else like that, you goan get popped.
Dutch waits til our mother looks away, mouths “pig” at me one last time, as if I needed a final reminder of her opinion of me. I answer with a mighty eye roll like a good younger sister and turn back to my plate.
Truthfully, I can’t stand to look at Dutch. At fourteen, two years older than me, she’s everything I’d like to be but am not. She’s pretty, for starters, and she does it without even trying. Her hair isn’t as kinky and frizzy as mine, and it cascades over her shoulders in thick, artful waves, perfectly framing her round, tawny face and high cheekbones.
She tells me my hair could be like hers, if I’d only try a little harder, or let her mess with it, but I know the truth: In the DNA Power Ball Lottery, Dutch won long and lanky and elegant; I won Godzilla.
Even if she wasn’t the oldest, Dutch would be in charge anyway. She’s got that unique power to command that only the pretty girls have, an over-confidence that’s both snide and irresistible simultaneously, that repels at the same time you just can’t fucking help but admire it.
“PJ! Gerry!” Momma calls, booming my younger brothers’ names through the kitchen loudly enough to make my ears ring. “Y’all get in here and eat!”
Y’all get in here and eat. They are the words that bind my rainbow family together. In dal bhat and cornbread, we were the same; in all other ways, different.
Dutch shoots me another look, and this time it’s the conspiratorial kind that siblings share over the antics of their parents, and I answer with a carefully muffled chuckle. Mom’s ten minutes-to-eight yell for our brothers to Y’all get in here and eat is as predictable and consistent as the eggs and bacon and fried potatoes themselves.
My two younger brothers meander into the kitchen like child zombies, bleary-eyed and bickering with each other in indecipherable whines and groans. PJ — Pathik Junior — is a round, brown butterball, and even though he’s only ten, you can tell he’s already destined to be short like my father but thick like my mother. Of all of us, his features are the blackest, and yet he is the one who most desperately wants to be Nepalese. He’s got the double triangles of the Nepalese flag on his bedroom wall, a cheap little Buddha statue surrounded by sticks of incense stuck into bowls of rice sitting on his dresser. It’s like he thinks he’s going to accessorize his way out of his blackness and into his Nepalese heritage.
PJ hates that he shares his room with Gerry, our youngest brother, who cares nothing for Buddha or incense or curry. But with only three bedrooms and an unfinished basement, PJ and Gerry are stuck together, just like Dutch and me.
Gerry’s as different from PJ as I am from Dutch. That’s going to get more obvious as we all grow up, but at this particular moment in time, Gerry — whose full name, unfortunately for him, is “Geronimo,” for my mother’s grandfather — is a skinny, adorable kindergartener. The apple of my mother’s eye.
Dutch is fourteen.
Noticing a pattern? Two years stair-stepping between each kid?
Yeah, so Gerry’s six. We’re pretty sure he’s the accident kid. But I would’ve been more than happy to be an accident if I got treated the way Gerry does. He’s as small as I am tall, as bony as PJ is round. And as insanely cute as Dutch is domineering.
He’s the only one who earns a loud, smacking kiss from our mother every time he enters the kitchen, the only one who gets a second helping of bacon without having to ask for it. It means the rest of us are fascinated by him and ridiculously jealous of him at the same time.
And now we’ve come back to the present day — the Manchester airport, two pints and a full English breakfast later.
My phone dings with an incoming text.
I’m picking you up
I type back.
Gerry. What time you get in
Gerry? I raise an eyebrow at this pronouncement. I’m surprised to be hearing from him. Hell, surprised he owns a cell phone, period. If he’s picking me up from Cleveland, I guess that means he’s back home again. I hope that’s a good thing. But forgive me if I’m just a little suspicious of his motives.
I write him back anyway, telling him my flight details without commenting on my surprise that he’s the one who’ll be greeting him at the airport. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years. I haven’t even talked to him in at least a year.
I get a fist-pound emoji for a response. Then nothing.
I linger near the gate, gym bag carry-on hanging behind me at an almost vertical angle, like I’ve got a fucking sword strapped to my back.
A line starts to form; I wander into it. Something knocks against my gym bag, and I turn my head automatically.
Well, look who it is.
Tinkerbell-sized Jane Lane. The girl who smiled at me on the Basel to Manchester flight. She’s getting into line behind me, which means she must be headed to Toronto, too.
“Sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going,” she says with an apologetic smile.
American accent? Or Canadian? It’s certainly not Swiss, at any rate.
“No worries,” I say with a shrug. They call zone three for boarding, and I turn my attention back to the front of the line.
Chapter 3: Snakes on a plane.
I hear that the actor Samuel L. Jackson (you know, the black dude with the Jheri curl from Pulp Fiction?) agreed to star in the movie Snakes on a Plane only if:
(1) The movie continued to be titled Snakes on a Plane, and
(2) He got to have a line of dialog saying, “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”
No shit, true story. Google it or whatever.
I can’t say I’ve ever seen the movie; it was a little before my time and my dad was overprotective with anything rated R, but I think the whole concept is perfect, right? I mean, what could be worse? You’re thirty-thousand feet above the Earth’s surface, trapped in a confined area, surrounded by aggressive, lethally poisonous creatures. What a fucking nightmare.
And it sounds just like my whole trip to Ohio.
By the time I finally make it to Toronto, go through customs, go through TSA pre-check for the good ol’ US of A, and make it to my gate for the final flight to Cleveland, I’m whipped. I eat a sandwich, watch muted CBC, wait for my plane to board.
When it does board, it ends up being one of those itsy-bitsy puddle-jumper planes, the kind where you don’t even get the dignity of walking down an enclosed ramp, but have to walk out onto the tarmac and up a flight of stairs. It’s starting to drizzle by the time I’m climbing up the stairs, and I have to admit that I kind of glare at the propellers like they’ve offended me when I see them, because, God, the only thing I hate worse than fucking airports is leaving an airport in a fucking propeller plane.
They’ve given us a “the plane’s super full so if you have a large carry on you’d better check it at the door” speech, so I give up my gym bag without even grumbling that much, leaving it on a damp cart with a guy wearing a bright-orange safety vest and a gap-toothed grin.
I follow the crowd and start looking for 8B, an aisle seat, and do you want to guess who’s sitting in 8A, the window? I’ll give you some options:
(A) Samuel L. Jackson
(B) Jane Lane (not the cartoon version, but the one who ran into my gym bag in the Manchester airport)
(C) Peanut the poisonous cobra
(D) All of the above
If you said D, all of the above, you’re wrong. The correct answer is B, Jane Lane, and when I stop in front of my seat, she looks away from the window she’s gazing through and glances up at me.
She kind of does a double-take. “Oh,” she says, and for the fourth time in this long-ass day, she smiles at me.
I do my best to return her smile (and the one she just graced on me was actually like a real smile, which, I don’t know how she manages it, given that I know how far she’s traveled), but like I said, I’m whipped, and so I’m sure my return smile makes me look like a gorilla baring its teeth.
I settle into my seat, which is difficult when you’re scraping six-foot-four. My knees press against a tray table for the third time in this endless day, and I start to stretch one foot out into the aisle to give give myself some relief, but a heavyset guy holding a briefcase in front of him picks that moment to charge toward his seat. I pull my foot back just in time to avoid disaster.
“I bet you’re ready to be finished with flying,” Jane Lane comments after watching me nearly trip the fat guy and tuck my knee back against the tray table. She looks downright cozy in her seat, being Tinkerbell-sized and all. Like a kid curled up in daddy’s armchair.
I shrug like it’s no big deal, like my knees and back and neck aren’t all screaming at this point. “Yeah,” I say. “I bet you are, too. Weren’t you on my Basel-Manchester flight?”
She nods. “And Manchester to Toronto. I thought we were never going to board that plane!”
I chuckle — and it’s not quite so gorilla-like this time. It’s actually nice to have someone to chat with, given that I haven’t really spoken to anyone all day, unless you count exchanging texts with Dutch, Dad, and Gerry.
Speaking of which.
I pull out my phone, send Gerry a quick text:
About to leave for Cleveland.
See u in an hour or so
and put my phone back in my pocket.
“Is this your last flight?” asks Jane.
I nod. “Thank God, yes. You?”
“Yes.” There’s a pause, the kind that always comes when two strangers strike up a conversation on a plane but don’t really have much to talk about. “Are you from Ohio?”
“Yeah, south of Cleveland. But I haven’t lived there in a long time. Since high school.” (I leave out the fact that I moved back to Ohio for a few short-lived months nine years ago, because it’s not relevant and because I don’t want to have to explain.)
She cuts her eyes away, nods, seems to think about this. It looks like she hesitates for a second, but finally she says, “Must be something big going on at home, for you to leave Switzerland in the middle of the basketball season.”
Now I’m the one doing a double-take. She already knew I was a basketball player?
“No shit — oh, sorry, I mean… you follow women’s basketball? Nobody follows basketball in Switzerland. Hell, I don’t follow basketball in Switzerland.”
Her smile turns shy. “Well, not quite nobody. I follow women’s basketball. When I first moved out there, I was channel surfing one night and came across a game. It reminded me of home — and I was so homesick — so I started watching and… I guess you could say I’ve become a die-hard fan over the last few years. Which, actually — ”
A staticky voice crackles to life overhead, cutting her off. They start talking about the safety demonstration, please pay attention to the stewardess, blah blah blah, put your devices into airplane mode.
I pull my phone out to switch it off and see that Gerry’s texted me back.
Stuck at the restaurant, can’t
reads his reply.
Probably going to be an hour
late. At least.
I want to chuck my phone down the aisle in frustration.
“Should I get a rental car?” I’d asked Dutch when we were putting all this together.
“No, no, no, of course not,” she’d assured me. “We’ll all be home, and Mom’s not driving her car right now anyway, so I’m sure you’ll — Nathan! Put that down! — I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting around.”
“Because I don’t want to be stuck in Marcine for an indefinite length of time without — ”
“Will you stop it? It’ll be fine.”
Oh, it’ll be fine. Sure. Mom just has cancer, the bad kind, but no big fucking deal. And the fact that Dad’s flipping out? He’ll be fine. And that that PJ’s probably coping by reverting into workaholic mode? Also just fine, Dutch. Fine like the fact that you’re managing Mom and Dad, and let’s not forget that our junkie baby brother Gerry is home for some reason, don’t know what that’s about but I’m sure it’s fine.
And you know what else is fine? The fact that Gerry’s going to leave me stranded at the Cleveland airport for at least an extra hour.
Why didn’t I trust my gut and just book a rental car? Maybe I can still get one when we arrive.
I’ve had it with these motherfucking siblings in this motherfucking family!
The announcement overhead finishes up; the plane lurches backward.
Jane Lane takes in my face, which is apparently pretty all screwed up in frustration, because she gives a concerned brow-furrow and asks, “Are you okay?”
Chapter 4: In case of emergency, keep the person next to you busy.
I straighten up, adjust my face back into Polite Stranger Mode, pull the edge of my foot further away from the aisle as the stewardess bustles past. “Yeah, fine. What were you saying before the announcement? Die-hard basketball fan…?”
The furrowed brow melts a bit. “Well, yes, actually. I even…” she blushes, leans forward, fishes through a purse practically as big as she is that’s dutifully shoved underneath the seat in front of her. She pulls out a hardback book, flashes the cover in my direction. “I got this just before I left yesterday. Ordered it specifically so I could read it on this trip. Have you seen it yet?”
Had I seen it yet. What a question. She’s holding up a book titled Only One Shot, and there on the cover, looking very Head Coach-y, is the girl I’ve called my best friend since we met at the age of eighteen as freshmen basketball players at Rosemont University — Alexis Woods. Had I seen the book? Hell, I’m in that book. I lived that fucking book.
But I don’t say that. I only nod. Polite Stranger Mode and all.
“She mentions you in here a few times, you know,” Jane says. She looks down for a moment before looking back up, laughs nervously. “I hope it doesn’t weird you out that I recognized you right away when we were getting on the plane back in Basel.”
Instead of answering, I kind of lift an eyebrow.
The plane’s engines rev, and we jolt forward. False alarm, though; pilot’s just moving us down the runway, and we stop again a moment later. But next to me, poor Jane Lane is pressed back against her seat, gripping the book in her lap, mouth tighter than it really should be.
“Don’t like flying?” I ask.
She loosens up on the book a little. “It’s not that I don’t like flying. I actually don’t mind it so much on the big transatlantic jets. But these little propeller planes…” She lets out a long-suffering sigh. “And on top of that, it looks like it’s going to storm outside.”
I follow her gaze out the window. Rain beads on plastic, and the wet tarmac reflects back kaleidoscope of orange, red, and blue lights. But it’s barely drizzling — “storm” is pretty much a gigantic fucking overstatement of the situation.
So I decide to do Jane Lane a solid, distract her from her obvious flying nerves.
“I’ve read the whole thing,” I say, nodding at Only One Shot sitting in her lap. “It’s not bad. Alex made me read the early draft when she got it back from the guy who did all the actual writing. She can’t write worth a fuh… flip herself. Plus she wanted me to okay the parts that I’m in.”
My plan to distract her works. Jane Lane half-turns in her seat, dark eyes are twinkling with curiosity, rainstorm forgotten. She pushes some of her dark hair behind one ear, revealing an earful of silver studs and loops. “So is it true? All the stuff about her coming to games drunk her junior year?”
I snort. “No, it’s not true.”
She looks disappointed. Deflates.
“The truth is,” I say with a grin, “it was way worse than what she admits to in the book.”
This gets her attention. She sits up straight again, the twinkle’s back. It makes me want to laugh — which is nice, because I haven’t felt much like laughing since the moment Dad called at two in the morning to tell me Momma has cancer.
I open my mouth to say something more — basically to throw Alex under the bus (Alex wouldn’t mind, and what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her) — but the plane revs again, accelerates down the runway, and poor Jane Lane, she’s not even holding onto the book anymore, she’s clinging to both armrests, dark eyes staring straight ahead, unblinking, and it looks like she’s either going to barf or scream at any second.
And… liftoff. Out the window, Toronto falls away, a million streetlights and taillights and empty office buildings shrinking against the black, expansive maw of the Earth. We bank left, and the horizon line tilts into a disorienting angle, revealing sepia-colored cloud bottoms tinted with the last rays of the sinking sun.
It’s pretty, really. I’ve always liked taking off at night.
Not that my seat mate sees any of this. She’s still got her eyes glued to the seat in front of her, still balances Alex’s book in her lap while she hangs onto the armrests.
It’s sort of hard to watch, and I want to pat her on the shoulder, give her arm a squeeze, remind her to breathe, or something, but it seems like a weird thing to do given that she’s a stranger, so I just lean my head back and wait, stretching out my jaw a few times as I try to pop my ears.
When the plane starts to level off five or six minutes later, Jane turns to me and says, “Takeoffs are usually the worst part.”
I shrug. “I dunno. I’ve always kind of liked them.”
The plane shudders and dips — hard enough that I feel my body moving down while all my innards seem to move up. We’re climbing again a moment later.
“It’s a good thing you’re here to keep me occupied,” Jane Lane says through clenched teeth. “Otherwise I’d be a total wreck. Or — more of a total wreck.” She lets go of an armrest long enough to tap the book that she somehow managed to keep on her lap this whole time. “Not to sound creepy, but it doesn’t surprise me that you’d like takeoffs. Based on what I know about you — from the book, I mean — it seems to fit.”
A laugh finally escapes my throat. “I’m not as bad as Alex makes me out to be, you know.”
The plane shivers, bounces again. Something in the overhead compartment above us rolls, pops hard against a plastic surface. Another bump and drop comes a moment later, followed by the high-pitched ding-ding telling us all to keep our seat belts on. As if we needed the reminder.
I don’t mind turbulence, but this flight’s starting to feel like the stewardess should’ve been holding one of those You must be at least this high to enjoy this ride signs when we boarded.
“Jesus,” murmurs my seat mate under her breath. The way the word comes out, I can’t say for sure if it’s intended as a curse or a prayer.
I turn my head in her direction, determined to get back to distracting her. “So you know my name, obviously. What’s yours?”
She looks at me like she’s completely forgotten I was there, a blank expression on her face dulling the twinkle in her eyes again. “Amy,” she says at last, like she couldn’t remember it at first. “Amy Ellis.”
I stick out my hand to shake. She takes it, and her hand is so small by comparison, it feels like a child’s in my ginormous paw.
“Nice to meet you, Amy Ellis. And what were you doing in Switzerland that makes you so homesick?”
“I work for a software company,” she says, seeming to unwind a tiny bit as she warms to the idea of conversation. “And they sent me to Basel for what was supposed to be a six-month assignment to sort out our European office, but that was a couple years ago, so…” She shrugs. “At this point, I don’t know how long I’m going to be there. Fortunately, I get the European-style six weeks of vacation every year, instead of the American-style two, so I get to go home for a few weeks every year. But anyway — what about you? I’m surprised to see you headed state-side, given that it’s the middle of the season.”
“Yeah. My team’s not exactly happy with me, but… Family stuff,” I conclude gruffly. There’s a silence that threatens to get awkward, so I fill it with, “So are you from Ohio?”
“No. Went to college there, but I was an army brat, so I don’t really claim any roots anywhere. But I’ve got an old friend from college who’s getting married this weekend. So I’m stopping off in Ohio to see her and be there for the wedding this week, then I’ll do a bit of traveling after that — see some friends and family in different parts of the country — and then it’s back to Basel.”
I open my mouth to ask Where are you traveling to, but the intercom crackles to life and our captain comes on.
“Folks, this is Captain Paul Snider from up here in the cockpit, and I’m joined tonight by First Mate Georgia Halston. We’re, uh, just about at our cruising altitude of twenty-two thousand feet… Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve had to fly through a few storm cells this evening and we’re dealing with a pretty strong headwind. Wish I could say that’s the last bit of turbulence we’ll have this evening, but, uh, it’s looking like it might be a bit of a rocky ride to Cleveland tonight… That’s the bad news. Good news is, it’s a short flight; we’ll have you there on time or even a little ahead of schedule. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”
Amy blanches at the captain’s news.
“Guess you were right about the storm,” I say lamely. I wrack my brain for something else to say but come up empty, and so, a little reluctantly, I say, “Well… I guess I should let you get back to Alex’s book.”
She manages an almost-smile as the plane rolls like a ship out at sea. “Not a chance. Sitting next to Anika Singh in person? That’s so much better than anything I could read about. Besides, if I tried to read right now, I’d probably lose my dinner.”
I smile, a little embarrassed. When we won back-to-back national championships in college, I got used to being in the lime light, occasionally getting recognized in public. (And I do mean “occasionally;” this is women’s basketball, people.) That recognition faded when I was in the WNBA; it ratcheted back up when Alex and I both played for team U.S.A. in the Olympics, but since moving to Switzerland, I’ve gotten used to invisibility again.
Well — as invisible as you can be in Switzerland when you’re a fucking six-foot-three Godzilla Amazonian who’s half-black, half-Nepalese, and a hundred percent loud-mouthed American. The stares I get don’t have anything to do with playing basketball, trust me. I wish they did.
So Amy recognizing me… it’s unexpected, to say the least. Unexpected, but not necessarily… bad.
The plane suddenly drops again, enough to earn a chorus of “Oh!”s from people around us. Amy looks absolutely terrified, and this time I can’t help myself — I do pat her on the shoulder.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I tell her. “At least there’s no motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane.”
She gives me an odd look.
“Sorry — Samuel L. Jackson? Snakes on a Plane?” When her face doesn’t light up in an Ohhhh recognition, I silently kick myself and forge ahead with, “And it’s like the captain said — it’s a short flight. Right?”
“Right,” she says, but there’s no conviction in it. After a few seconds, she turns her head my way. “Hey — Anika?”
“Will you tell me a story? — to distract me, I mean.”
“A story? What, like ‘Once upon a time, in a galaxy far fucking away…?’”
She lets out the nervous laugh again. I kind of like the way it sounds.
“No, not that kind of story. A story about you. Something that’s not in Coach Woods’s book.”
I think for a few seconds, trying to remember what Alex did and didn’t say about me in the book. “Does her book say how we pranked Coach Tynan junior year, superglued a basketball to his ass?”
She nods. “Yeah. That’s in there.”
“What about the prank when I told Alex she — ”
“No,” she says again, emphatic and commanding this time. “About you. Your life. Not about pranks.”
I get back to thinking, trying to come up with a story that doesn’t reveal to Amy how much I hate playing basketball in Switzerland, or how much I miss Alex, or how much I’m starting to feel like my four years at Rosemont might’ve been the high point of my life and my career. God, I never wanted to be one of those people, pining for their high school / college glory years that were already well past, but maybe that’s exactly what I’m becoming.
And especially, I’m trying to think of a story to tell Amy that won’t remind me of Jenny. Being reminded of her — particularly when I’m about to go back to our hometown, where everything reminds me of her — is the last thing I want right now.
“How about your family?” Amy suggests when I don’t come up with anything on my own after a minute.
“What about them?”
“Well, what are they like?”
“I don’t know. They’re just… a normal family.”
Her eyebrows lift and she gives me a skeptical look. “There’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ family. Do you have any brothers and sisters?”
“Yeah. One older sister, two younger brothers.”
Amy lights up, turbulence suddenly forgotten. “Are you serious? That’s the same as me! Well — I mean, my older sister is actually my step-sister, but… wow. So we’re both the second of four? Crazy. Are you close to them?”
I shake my head. I refrain from saying, Close to them? Why the hell do you think I live in Europe? and instead I say diplomatically, “Not really. This trip home will be the first time I’ve seen them in a couple years. And my baby brother, Gerry… it’ll be the first time I’ve seen him in five or six years. He’s kind of the black sheep. Or the blasian sheep, I guess.”
“Yeah — black and Asian. Blasian. That’s what we call ourselves.”
She nods. “That’s right, I remember that now — it’s in the book. Coach Woods says your dad was an immigrant from Nepal — ”
“Yep. It’s true.”
“ — and he married an African American New Yorker and then moved to Ohio? Now that sounds like a story I’d like to hear.”
I nod, smiling, thinking of all the times I’ve heard one of my parents recount the story of how they first met, and how differently they tell it. I can almost hear Mom shouting “That’s not how it happened, Pathik!” in the background just thinking about it.
“It is a good story, actually,” I say, and I launch into it.