When Chelsea stepped off the school bus on her last day of kindergarten, she handed me a construction-paper card shaped like a necktie. “This is for you, Mommy,” she said. With pink and yellow tempera paint she had filled the tie with flowers, and with black she’d placed the letters M and O over the preprinted F and A in FATHER. I understood, in that moment, that the next two and a half months were to be treasured, that my days of unfettered freedom with Chelsea would be finite.
Eventually, I moved the card from my refrigerator to a box on a shelf above my desk. In the years that followed, I added more treasures to the box: a seashell that Chelsea had found at the shore, a rubber Minnie Mouse and Canadian coins from our trips to Disney World and Niagara Falls, a fossilized stone and a shark’s tooth, keychains and magnets and tchotchkes, reading awards from the library, polaroid photos that changed dramatically from one summer to the next. Each time I opened the box, I was treated to the sublime fragrance of tempera paint, to the memory of the first afternoon of the first summer of Chelsea’s school years.
And now, I have reached the last evening of the last summer of my daughter’s childhood. I take photos to distract myself from what is about to happen: the number of our parking space, an exit sign, a pair of copper pipes jutting down from a high cement ceiling. Chelsea, staring at the rear bumper of my car.
“Guess we’d better get this show on the road, huh?” I say, forcing a smile. I lift the hatch and hoist out a ridiculously large, ridiculously heavy suitcase.
“I’ve got that, Mom.” Chelsea jerks the handle up and slings a fat backpack onto one shoulder and her guitar case over the other. I loved driving her to guitar lessons three summers ago; I wish I were doing that now.
She juts out her chin exactly the way she used to as a toddler and rolls her bag toward a set of glass doors. The rumble of wheels on concrete sounds like the Big Wheel that she would pedal back and forth in front of our house. A car passing along the speed strips in the garage sounds like the fetal heart monitor placed on my belly eighteen years ago: whoosh, thump, whoosh, thump, whoosh, thump.
A jetliner roars over the parking garage, momentarily obliterating all other sounds and memories. When its boom has dwindled to a faint echo, I call out across the empty parking spaces. “Chels, slow down!” She’s already reached the glass doors and I haven’t even set my car alarm yet. I resist an urge to plead with her. Let’s not do this! Let’s go home and watch a movie and pop popcorn. I set the alarm and race up the ramp and stand beside her in a glass enclosure.
I pull out my phone and take another photograph: mother and daughter reflected off the silver doors of an elevator. The same height. The same blond hair. The same frowny smiles. The entirety of one another’s family. The doors slide open and we disappear.
Inside the elevator, there are decisions to be made. Buttons to be pushed. G will take us to ground transportation. One to baggage claim. Two to ticketing. I shoot a close-up of P4 (to help me find my way back later) and push the button to take us down to the second level. My finger leaves an imprint, swirls betraying my heightened anxiety. Chelsea watches the elevator shaft rise beside the glass wall.
When I get off the elevator, I take a photo of the parking payment machine. I don’t remember the machine being here on my last visit to this airport, seven years ago, when I picked up my parents from an overseas trip. The concourses had been crowded, the lines long, the signs over the restaurants illuminated. At this hour, the restaurant signs are dark. No music plays nor announcements resound. The crowds no longer exist. My parents no longer exist.
We walk toward the ticket counter at the far end of Concourse C and pass three passengers checking in at the United Airlines counter, two more at British Airways. Signs overhead display exotic destinations: Bangkok and London. At the next terminal, departure to Ramstein AFB will take place in three hours. No one stands here yet. Past this, about a dozen passengers wait in line for a Delta flight destined for Barcelona.
Chelsea stares straight ahead and I study her profile. The curve of her nose. The pout of her lip. Her long, lowered lashes. I follow her to the last counter. The time has come to let her make all the decisions.
Flight 520 to Berlin is scheduled to leave in two hours and fifteen minutes. On Time. Two words that simultaneously slow and accelerate my heartrate. This is really going to happen.
When we reach the front of the line, Chelsea sets her suitcase onto a scale. The woman behind the counter studies my daughter’s boarding pass and looks at the screen above her suitcase. “It’s too heavy,” she says.
“I weighed it at home,” Chelsea says. “It was exactly fifty pounds on my scale at home.”
I bite my lip.
“You’ll need to take something out,” the woman says.
Chelsea and I look at one another. She has spent much of the past week filling and emptying the suitcase. Weighing it and reweighing it. She needs clothing for all four seasons. Even today’s choice of travel attire—a sleeveless red blouse and jeans—have been meticulously planned. This woman doesn’t know my child, has no idea how much thought goes into every single decision she makes.
I expect to find tears in her eyes but instead see wheels turning. My toddler figuring out how to stack colorful rubber rings onto an inverted cone. My little girl solving her first arithmetic problems. My teenager deciding which colleges to apply to. My dearest friend asking me if I will be all right while she studies abroad.
She works the combination lock on her suitcase. “You’ve had your eye on these boots for a while now, haven’t you, Mom?” They are black lace-ups that we bought together two years ago.
I smile. “Make sure you buy yourself an awesome new pair in Berlin.” A useless directive.
The woman behind the counter says the suitcase is still half a pound heavy. Chelsea extracts a necklace of heavy turquoise stones that she bought on our last trip to the beach, four summers ago. She secures it around my neck, probably aware that it will end up in my box of treasures.
The woman at the counter is determined to move the line along. She isn’t considering the fact that two people with inextricably intertwined lives will be separated for the next nine and a half months. She could not care less that no one will help me make cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving, that I’ll have no reason to trim a Christmas tree, to dip pretzels into chocolate, to stock up on cocoa mix for winter storms. That no one will make me laugh after a bad day or serenade me with guitar chords or hug me at bedtime or frustrate me by taking too long in the shower.
The woman plops the suitcase onto a conveyor belt and tells Chelsea the flight will be leaving from Gate A15. She directs us to security.
It’s all happening too quickly.
The ridiculously large suitcase disappears beneath some clear plastic flaps.
I need more time.
I float back along Concourse C with my daughter and turn a corner at the Delta counter. The boots bump against my hip.
Beside a pedestal marked Security Checkpoint, Chelsea stops. She drops her backpack and I drop her boots.
“So, you’ll call me when you get there?” My voice sounds bubbly.
“No matter what time it is. I’ll be waiting for that call.”
“And you know which U-Bahn train will take you to the university?”
“I have it all written down.”
I have all sorts of motherly advice to impart: Knock ’em dead. Go get ’em. You can do it. All I can manage to squeeze out is, “I love you, Chels.”
We reach for each other; I memorize every detail of our embrace. Her long, lovely arms. Her raspberry fragrance. The sound of her breathing. A laugh. A muffled cry. I’m not sure if it’s hers or mine.
When she lets go and steps away, the background noise becomes amplified. Plastic bins clatter onto tables and conveyor belts. I hear goodbyes and robotic instructions to remove shoes and belts and jewelry, to power down electronics.
I’m not ready.
Chelsea shows her boarding pass to a man in a dark blue shirt stationed beside the pedestal. She advances to a metal maze and turns back once, smiles and waves. I wave and watch her inch forward, pretend she’s going through a cafeteria line, that she’ll emerge on the other side with a tray of subs and chips, that we’ll sit down together and talk and laugh and go home. She pushes her bin forward onto a conveyor belt and waves again. I take more photographs. She turns a corner and reappears in a more distant segment of the maze. I wave with one hand and shoot photos with the other. A woman in a blue shirt has asked her to raise her arms. Please treat her gently. She’s my baby. My message is directed not only to the TSA agent patting her down, but to all the people Chelsea will encounter in the coming months.
Chelsea merges into yet another line. More partitions and more distance. I see her blond hair behind a man’s shoulder but can no longer see her face; she could be smiling or frowning. I have to believe she is smiling. More clatter. People continue to fill bins and block my view.
Chelsea’s red blouse. The strap of her backpack. Her blond hair catches a flicker of fluorescent light.
Then she’s gone.
I race into the restroom and sob, stand at the mirror with a pair of boots in one hand and a cellphone in the other and watch tears flow down my cheeks. I think about the joy of the past eighteen years and my dread of the nine and a half months that loom ahead, how long I must wait for summer to return.
When I’ve calmed down, I leave the restroom. Bins continue to clatter, and TSA agents continue to dispense instructions. Chelsea is probably at her gate by now, listening to music through her earbuds. I walk away from the security checkpoint and turn the corner at the Delta counter. Now a crowd waits to check in for the flight to Barcelona.
At the next counter, about thirty young men in green and brown camouflage stand in a quiet queue. Most stare at their cellphone screens and step forward as the line advances. A few talk to one another or to a handful of family members standing nearby.
At the back of the line, a woman about my age stands shoulder to shoulder with a young soldier. He looks a lot like Jeremy, one of Chelsea’s high school friends. A polite boy. A boy who thanked me profusely for keeping hummus in my fridge and pita chips in my cabinet.
These young men are destined for Germany, just like my daughter, but I imagine that many of them will be moving on from Ramstein Air Force Base to unsafe regions of the world.
The woman is smiling, but her eyes are puffy and red. Perhaps she’s retrieving memories from the past few months, from the past two decades.
My red eyes meet her red eyes.
Maybe she knows why I’ve been crying, why I’m holding a pair of boots. Maybe she can read my fervent wish that her son will make it home safely from wherever he’s being deployed. I hope she can.
I look at the photos on my phone. There’s the back of Chelsea’s red shirt, her blond hair. There she is, waving to me from the metal maze. There she is again, and again, and again, a big smile on her beautiful face. Full of anticipation. And there are the photos I took in the parking lot. Ahead of these are pictures of Chelsea that I took earlier this month, outside a dressing room, when she was picking out pieces for her college wardrobe.
I finger the stones around my neck and look up. The mother and son have reached the front of the line. All the other young men in military uniform wait for them; they stand and talk with one another or with a handful of family members scattered among them. Two of them are laughing about something they saw on a cellphone screen held between them. The mother and son have reached the counter. I can’t see their faces, but I choose to believe the mother is still smiling.
Bari Lynn Hein‘s stories are published or forthcoming in The Saturday Evening Post, Adelaide, The Ilanot Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Verdad, Sensitive Skin Magazine, The Santa Fe Literary Review and elsewhere. Her prose has placed in many national and international writing competitions, among them The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest, OWT Fiction Prize and Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Prize. Her debut novel is on submission. Learn more on her website.
This is her first feature on The Fictional Café.