By Leila Rahimtulla
Copyright 2016 Leila Rahimtulla
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It was the morning of Christmas Eve and there was no coffee left; the taxi to the airport was late; our starved dog made an ambitious wager and hastily scoffed one of my sheer socks, and just before locking up the house, my parents had silently entered into an arbitrary exchange of gawps and icy glares. It should have been a day like any other, and in other company, it would have been. I remember thinking that people who enjoy an itinerant existence must suffer from capricious madness, or have never travelled as a family.
‘A diaspora of stupidity,’ my father said with barbed scrutiny, as he walked into the bedlam of the departures hall. The way he saw himself in the world was in stark contrast to how others viewed him in it; he failed to see in what way the descriptor ‘benevolent dictator’ was an oxymoronic statement.
‘Look at them,’ he said, ‘bloody lemmings, no doubt dragging their bratty kids off to Bali.’
I propped myself up against a pillar and waited while my parents lugged their cases; their eyes cast downward as they skulked in shame past the priority check-in line and people who clearly excelled at being a family.
My father is adamant his exhaustive knowledge of airports and travel is unsurpassed. I watched as he strode ahead to the check-in desk, only to stand bemused and gesture wildly back at us in frustration at not having his passport in the pocket of his sunburnt slacks. As redundant as a childless, thirty-something daughter is to her parents at this age, there are chance moments of usefulness–limited in their frequency but priceless in value.
‘Here,’ I said as I thrust the crumpled paperwork under his nose, ‘you just need this booking number.’
It’s not too late to change your mind, I recall thinking. I could tell the security official that ‘no, I didn’t pack my own backpack,’ or at the very least, feign an injury that would prohibit me from plane travel.
Kicking the bag and part of the front counter, my father hurled the bloated case into the air, crunching it down on the conveyer-belt. Patience and courtesy were two virtues my parents instilled in me as a child; I guess they read about them somewhere.
‘Sir…Sir?’ the woman behind the counter asked, ‘You’ll need to tip it upright.’
‘What am I?’ he toned sharply. Similarities are few between us, but his indignation and my embarrassment flushed our faces the same rich hue—like a pair of cherries.
If it wasn’t abundantly clear from my mother’s unsoiled panama hat or the casual Euro chic my father had thrown together, my parents were not au fait with low-budget airline travel. It was always BYO in our family, never DIY.
‘Enjoy your flight ma’am,’ the check-in attendant offered sheepishly, catching my eye over my father’s balding head. ‘Yep, thank you,’ I replied, as genuinely as I could. I love these people, but two weeks in a tropical paradise with them?
I had stuffed some travel magazine pictures of Nusa Dua into my passport wallet; I planned to use them as bookmarks. I needed a reminder of why I had agreed to another family Christmas holiday. How easily we forget. One photo showed cocktail glasses shaded under their own parasols. The other, a beach panorama of glossy palms that you could imagine sway with rhythmic swagger. A congenial, bronze-skinned waitress is pictured in the corner, grinning with unnerving zeal. She’s probably going to be the one who will tell us of the hotel’s clogged toilets and the construction site where the pool used to be.
Passing through the departures hall, I spotted my mother in the distance. She was feeding change into a vending machine. Her round-rimmed glasses looked as though she had outlined her eyes with thick black marker. There was a man with his young son–both as brown as leather¬–standing in her shadow. The boy rolled his case into her heels, back and forth. I kept walking.
I’m not a religious person, but if I were, Buddhism would get my vote–mainly for telling the truth. There’s no better place to see the reality of the suffering of existence than in an airport. Last month I took my father along to a meditation course, not in the hope of elevating his self-awareness, but I did want to see whether a few meditative sessions would untangle his knot. From halfway back in the security queue I heard him suggest to the x-ray operator that she ‘adopt another tone.’ I fear that instead of moving towards the brink of enlightenment, he used those four lessons to doze in a chair.
Once inside the departures lounge, I lost sight of my parents–which was inevitable given their size. The two of them would be dwarfed in a spiral of dominoes. The amorphous crowd swarmed its way around the gates and I was struck in the head by swinging backpacks and flailing limbs as I tried to weave through the blanket thick with people.
‘Where are they?’ I strained, as I cut the crowd into slices. I spotted a cubicle where a woman was being questioned over a jumble of personal items that lay in a twist on the table.
‘And this,’ the uniformed security worker held up a grenade of perfume to my mother’s face, ‘is what exactly?’
‘That,’ she bristled, ‘would be Chanel.’
That tone of mulish indignity is irrefutably my mother’s. I promptly wedged myself in the foolishly large Maltesers display in an attempt to camouflage my embarrassment. When dissatisfied, a dark ring would encase her otherwise hazel eyes. Combine that severity with those garish glasses and she had the look of a bedlamite who’s held soot-covered binoculars too close to their face.
My father was adrift somewhere. Thirty-five years of marriage meant that they could let go of each other’s hands, block their ears, and in airports, turn their back and walk away.
After freewheeling solo through the miasma of foreign faces, we were reunited, like homing pigeons. We sat for an hour, all of us fussing in the bank of uncomfortable welded seats. My father on my left protested stridently about the airport amenities, perhaps hoping his prayers for a more comfortable seat would be answered if he just asked a little louder.
‘What new releases will they be showing?’ my mother inquired. ‘How many Helen Mirren movies can I watch?’ is what she truly meant.
‘Ahh, you won’t have a screen, there’s no entertainment system full stop,’ I stated categorically. ‘You’d better grab a book before we go, and you might need to grab some change as it’s ten cents to use the loo on the plane,’ I called out as she headed for the newsagency.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she rattled back at me–although I’m pretty sure she broke a note just to be safe.
‘Fifty Shades of Grey!’ she exclaimed with unexpectedly gratuitous pride, slipping her purchase from the paper bag. ‘I got chatting to a woman in there who said it’s a bit of a ‘guilty pleasure’ read.’ I looked at the people in the newsagency and the only woman I saw was swathed head-to-toe in peacockish cheesecloth and shuffling her way around the shelves in giant purple crocs. Our flight had started to board. This was my last chance to make a break for it.
Bullish and determined, and just over five feet tall, my mother squished through the narrow aisle with her elbows crooked in at the waist. Her spraying limbs shot into the faces around her as she flung her handbag onto the window seat. I could only describe her as a geyser of inconvenience. Across the aisle, two women shared a packet of toffees and speculated on the possible food options available at the destination. ‘I think it’s curry,’ the older woman said to her travelling companion, a woman of similar age, ‘and aren’t they all vegetarians?’
All I could see were rested fathers and fussing mothers. Buckles opened and closed and zips were tugged at. Children started to crackle and eventually erupted into a cacophony of cries and stifled giggles. The tall man who sat beside me tentatively flexed his limbs as he felt for the boundary of his physical space, while his wife strained to rest her head on the cliff of his shoulder. There was enough room for me to sit cross-legged on the seat; I pulled my legs up to my chest and shot him a tight smile full of pity–which I’m sure came off as smug and twittish. A young boy pointed at my baggy striped pants and said to his mother, ‘That lady’s wearing pjs, how come I can’t wear mine?’
‘Because that lady’s an adult and probably didn’t wet the bed last night.’
She was right; I didn’t wet the bed last night, although I felt it was a brazen move to call me an adult.
Families are strange things. I studied the younger ones who kindly attended to each other; they seemed free from tension or torment and careful to save face by concealing the emotional wallpaper that had started to peel. Older mothers have learned about self-preservation, and as I looked around the cabin that seemed to take the form of lollies and trash mags.
It was in that moment of quiet contemplation that I noticed my mother ducking and weaving up and down in her seat, investigating every possible electronic entry point around her. Violently she stabbed the air with her headphone jack, unable to make a connection with anything–that is, other than insanity.
Just as I leant over her seat to tell her there were no bees in the cabin, she squinted up at me, and from the side I caught my father eyeball us both. We all made eye contact, and, weakened from the chortle contagion, collapsed in our seats, laughing. We too are one of those strange things we call families. We laugh because we know who we are, and in spite of this, we continue to travel together. Every year.
The ocean of that which unites us swallows the stuff that sets us apart.
Leila is a writing student, short story enthusiast, avid traveller and full-time eavesdropper. She enjoys habitual eating, leisure reading and writing acute observational pieces about trusted members of her inner circle. Her parents still regard her as a valued member of the family despite being called ‘overly critical’ and often ‘inappropriate.’