In the aisle of the Boeing 737 sardine tin, a wild-eyed, whiskered man—late twenties—held up the smooth flow of Seattle-bound passengers with frantic attempts to stow his carry-on. The impedimenta in question seemed to yours truly a destination-appropriate one: secured to his bulging backpack with yards of duct tape, a skateboard jutted. As he stooped to unwrap the thing, provoking more than a few pursed lips from the jammed queue, he bickered with the flight attendant.
“Can’t I just keep it in my lap?”
“If you can’t fit it in the overhead compartment, you’ll have to check it plane-side.”
Behind him, a Buddhistic lady with a cropped silver ’do (regulation cut for the enlightenment-crazed woman of a certain age) and moisture-wicking outerwear smiled, broadcasting unflappably smug serenity. Between these two familiar characters from my crepuscular birthplace—I was making a last stop home before a nearly six-month sojourn overseas, first to New Zealand and then to Asian destinations still vague—I felt welcomed back already. A benzocaine lozenge melted in my mouth, numbing a throat grown painfully dry from weeks of explaining my trip (“The Sage Forest raw milk co-op … any educated person should experience Australian dentistry before they die … breathtaking, ancient Cambodian air-conditioners …”). No analgesic existed, alas, for the memorable sensations of the middle seat, compounded in this case by neighbors each with a build to rival my Brobdingnagian own. Big boys, in other words: their shoulders and knees threatened to fuse with mine as we all feigned solitude, Siamese triplets trying out the silent treatment.
By the time everyone and their cargo had been pinched in for takeoff, my eyelids got to drooping. And it was as though half in dream (the other half idling on Runway 4/22, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport) I watched one of Delta’s uniformed Vanna Whites glide along, hawking headphones for those who longed to hear the in-flight movie, promising that for a mere two dollars, these could be ours to keep.
Two years ago, my childhood home near Seattle caught fire. It started with an old, margarine-yellow refrigerator in the garage, and quickly spread to all things flammable: cardboard boxes filled with old clothes or teenage journals, wicker wreaths sidelined for the off-season. I lived halfway across the country then, and when my mother called, she was sitting on her neighbor’s porch, suckling cold scotch for shock while she watched the firefighters at work. She assured me, her voice freshly smoke-damaged, that she was fine—that she had been the only one home, and that not a single hair had been singed off the hide of any hound, puss, or half sibling.
When I stepped through the door of the ruins that Christmas, I hadn’t anticipated being clobbered by the stench of a sulphurous underworld. Nobody tells you that a scorched house smells like the mouth of hell. Well, baby, it does. This hellmouth watered, too, on account of the weather: rain dripped through blackened holes in the ceiling, soaked the carpeted halls with wicked saliva, and drew out the overpowering miasma of woodrot, mildew, and soot. Not a very nice gift to find under the Tannenbaum; much better was the plastic baggie of Valium Santa Claus left in my stocking that year.
The icebox conflagration catalyzed a divorce, and turned my teenage brother and sister into couch-surfing gutterpups for a spell, but at length the house was rebuilt. When I stopped by last week for a bon voyage, holiday fever had already raised the mercury good and high on the homefront. The living room now reeked not of damp and brimstone, but of Christmas conifer, lemon ginger tisane, and the New Age vibrational vortices of Abraham as channeled by popular medium Esther Hicks. Out the window, a ghostly Mount Rainier glowed in the dusk. Closer, the strawberry and raspberry farm where I used to spend summers playing with the Orejudos kids, who taught me dirty words in Tagolog.
(If only I could recall the words for “flax-wench,” for “tarnation” and “popinjay!” In just a few months I would, theoretically, be in a position to use them—though there must be a more genteel set of greetings with which to pepper the Manilan air.)
Across the room, my mother sat at the piano bench, my slack-jawed, nine-month-old nephew on her lap. As she picked out classics from a seasonal songbook (“O Let Our Russian Mouths Be Filled,” “Augmented Cherubic Hymn for Protection No. 5”), the fascinated babe slammed his hands down on the keys, contributing a dissonant cluster of notes every couple measures.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like—” sang my mother, the carol’s progress reduced to ear-splitting fragments. “It’s beginning to look a lot like—”
Rain came every day, and my departure for far-away Wellington neared. There I would teach a summer workshop in the cross-cultural erotics of creative writing, and endeavor to blow every red cent I earned doing so while astride a motorbike in Bali, astride an island in the Sibuyan Sea, or dining with Bornean orangutans. As my hours in the so-called Scandinavia of America dwindled, though, it was beginning to look a lot like I might flip my lid.
It wasn’t just that everyone in the state had a persistent cough or wore only abrasion-resistant nylon. In the phoenix-like family kingdom, the reigning philosophy wracked my nerves, its treacly tenets scattered around the house: a bumper sticker slapped across the office window read “HAPPILY EVER AFTER”; a slip of paper girdling a ceramic bird on the bathroom counter, “CREATE TOMORROW.” I spent mornings groping for a local newspaper, for any sign of the imperfect world beyond, while my Ma, who works part-time as a telephone psychic, would talk of many things—of chakras, vibes, and vision quests, of fate and angel wings. Before coffee, if you please.
One afternoon I mentioned that I would probably get sick at some point in Asia—I was looking forward to all manner of street food there, and to accidentally swallowing my bathwater from time to time. Hours later, my humble prediction was transformed by the maternal psychic’s imperviously hopeful outlook.
“And another thing: when you’re in Asia, don’t think to yourself, ‘I’m going to get sick,’” she said, “Tell yourself ‘I’m healthy and well. I can run all over the world without getting sick.’ Say, ‘I’m the other statistic.’”
Really, is it such an unbearable inheritance to take advice like, “Don’t be surprised if Nature speaks to you on your trip—if rivers, trees, and rocks begin to tell you things”? My own nature was telling me to read about a man who died in a nearby town by falling into a storm drain while trying to retrieve his keys, and to prep for the first leg of my holiday by daily scouring The New Zealand Herald for Kiwi crime updates. One takes the news from whence it comes—be it giant kauri trunk or nationalenquirer.com—but some appetites remain wide ranging, with attendant risk of stomach cramp.
Waiting to be screened for weapons on my way out of town, I produced my passport for inspection. Brand-new, the photo showed some grease-shine on my forehead, result of an aggressive camera flash. Mother had seen this and declared it not sebaceous smear at all, but an inner light, evidence of a guiding, spiritual luminescence that promised safe passage over the Pacific and beyond. She hadn’t noticed or commented upon the port-colored bruise on my neck: an enormous hickey, one given to me by a young man at a party the night before I went in for snapshots. Memorializing this make-out session with the help of the State Department was my idea of having the last laugh.
I slipped off my loafers in accordance with law. Behind me, a family struggled with their unruly child, who was questioning every gesture of compliance.
“Come here, Tyson,” snapped the mother. “We have to take our shoes off.”
“Why?” said the kid. “Why do we have to take our shoes off?”
The mother paused, unsure how to respond without alluding to specific realities. “Oh,” she said, “to make sure we’re safe.”
Evan James is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Sun, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel. He is also on Twitter.