Friday, April 22, 2016

Of Traveling and Triggers

I sit, alone.  Alone but surrounded by the movements and the breaths of  hundred other people.  All packed tightly into this aluminum cylinder that will soon take us up, into the sky.  I’m taking a trip to a far away city, one that sits in a rain forest but not a tropical one.  Far away from the desert and the sun, from the gently greening cottonwood trees, from our musty adobe house.  From my three little loves and the one who stole my heart back when I was barely a woman.  It is a trip I’ve long planned and anticipated.  I will meet my sister there, and some old and dear friends.  

But for now I sit, alone.  

It is all so familiar.  How many countless airplane rides have I taken?  Sitting cocooned in a soft nest of airline pillows and scratchy blankets, more than my allotted share, given to me by an indulgent stewardess.  Drinking an illicit soda, that tickles its sparkling way over my tongue.  Always the sense of adventure, the sense of going into an exciting unknown.  Or a dimly remembered known.  I have no memories of sadness or fear, or anxiety, relating to childhood trans-Pacific flights.  

Why, then, am I smacked out of my present, as the flight attendant smilingly holds up the demonstration seat belt?  As he slips it in and out of its coupling, a practiced and graceful dance, my mind suddenly skitters sideways.  Slapped from the present into the past.  I am 9.  Or 12.  Or 15.  Watching this same practiced dance.  And tears fall freely as I bow my present day head.  Let my hair cover my face so that my fellow passengers won’t see and wonder at the middle aged woman barely holding it together in seat 14C.  

Breathing a shaky, slow in, then pushing the air out through pursed and trembling lips, I fight to pull my mind back to the present.  Back to the safe here and now.

But then he holds up the yellow life vest and again the record skips.  I am 9 and scared (was I scared?  I didn’t remember but now I do) and my small body sits tightly still.  A rabbit frozen in the headlights.  All of the leaving piled in a messy heap behind me.  The unknown a great yawning pit in front of me.  And panic fills my present day self.  I put my hand to my eyes and tell myself, “Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Breathe. Just breathe.  This is not then.  That is not now.”  But if I close my eyes, I am stuck in the memory, and if I open my eyes, every glance falls on a razor edged trigger.  

I breathe, waiting for it to be over.  Hoping not to completely lose it on a plane full of strangers.  

Eyes closed.  My Little Ponies lined up on the seat tray.  

Eyes open.  Navy, pleather seat backs block me in.

Eyes closed.  “Don’t push that button, Danica, you’ll bother the person behind you.”

Eyes open.  The stifling cabin air smells of people and antiseptic and menace.

Eyes closed.  My feet don’t reach the floor and I can’t stop kicking them.

Eyes open.  The flight attendant is still demonstrating and now he has a mask, oh god.

Eyes closed.  Breathe in.  Then is not now.  There is not here.  Tears drop heavy and wet.  I pull in shuddering sips of closeted air over my tongue.  

And gradually the memories let me go.  Slipping like weedy wraiths back into the swampish muck of my memory, they leave me shaky and clammy.  

I come back slowly into the here and now.  But before I’m fully here, I reach back and send some desperate love to my child self.  I’m proud of her for doing so well.  For embracing the adventure.  For her bright eyed optimism and the rainbows she built in the clouds.  The sadness, the pain, the anger, the leaving - the things that she piled behind her in her march towards life … I will mourn for the both of us.  

Thursday, April 7, 2016

... sitting in a tree

Our first month in the Solomon Islands was spent getting acclimated to the culture, language, and missionary group we were part of.  We had been recruited to this specific group through a college friend my parents knew from a Christian camp in Texas.  During the first week or so that we were in Honiara, we went to their house for dinner.  

The four of us kids found ourselves standing in a hesitant half circle with the four of them.  The eldest of them spoke first.  

"You know those bottles of oil they sell by the side of the road?"  Actually, I didn't know.  I hadn't been very far away from our rented house since we got to Honiara.  Later though, I saw that, industrious Islanders did indeed set up mats under the banyan trees.  On these were displayed bottles of richly amber coconut oil, made by pressing coconut meat leached in the sun.  

"Yeah, I've seen them," my brother said, although he probably hadn't.  

"Nick and I used to think that it looked like pee.  So one time we pissed in some bottles and set up a mat and sold them."  He had all of our attention now.

"Did someone actually buy it?"  I asked, with horrified fascination.

"Yeah, one guy did."

"What did you do after that?"  We were breathless.

"We felt bad, and threw the money after the car as it drove away, and then ran away really fast."  That he would voluntarily confess to selling his own bodily fluids and then repent in a crisis of conscience elevated this boy to the level of conflicted anti-hero in my mind, which is the very best sort of hero, of course.

After dinner, the eight of us escaped into the fragrant night to play hide and seek in the dark.  The youngest were selected to be the seekers, and the rest of us scattered into the shadows.  

I didn't hear him until he was right next to me.  "Come on, I know the best place to hide," he said.  So I went, because when the anti-hero summons, of course, you go. 

He led me to a mango tree, its sturdy trunk round and smooth.  We stopped for just a minute beneath the deeper shadows, the glossy leaves glinting darkly in the starlight.  I could hear rustlings and muted conversations of the other kids dimly through the dark, and thought that here was his hiding spot.  It didn't seem so good to me.  

"Come on," he said again.  And his dusty bare feet disappeared up into the tree.  Thus summoned, I followed.  

We climbed up through the murky night, the mango limbs pinwheeling in a spiralled ladder towards the sky.  He perched on one limb and I on its twin.  We both sat, the comforting cocoon of leaves pushing out the murmuring night.  We sat in breathless silence, listening hard for the sounds of the others.  Listening hard for the sounds of our breathing.  

And the velvet darkness fell. 

And the only stars were my eyes.

We hid there until the call came from the adults that it was time for my family to go.  It could have been hours or just a few velvet minutes.  

We climbed as chastely down as we had gone up, leaving behind the secret thrill of a hidden place.  

Just a few stolen moments where two kids sat in a mango cave and became the night.