The girl watched the plane cut through the sky.
Its silent ascent felt ominous somehow, like the pocket of quiet before a twister hits. An image came to her unbidden; flaming Icarus in the corner of an old master.
A morbid premonition? No, just the senseless thrust of memory. Her college tutor’s office; renaissance print on the wall, encased in a cheap plastic frame.
Biting into her airport sandwich, she choked down a taste like bad milk at the back of her throat. Reduced to watching distant planes take flight, the girl felt sickened by the churn of her thoughts. Every beat of her heart was like the tolling of a bell. Him. Him. Him.
This layover in Middle America was a limbo of her own making. An anonymous departure lounge in which to lick her wounds and count her blessings, or lack of.
Perhaps it was some sort of twisted karma that was leading her back to the swampy heat of home. Which gods had she displeased in a former life? The needle of her internal compass was bent — no other explanation for why she was spinning on her axis towards the marshes of coastal Georgia.
‘My East Coast girl’ he had called her, back when the only thing reflected in his eyes had been her own shining face.
‘What would you know about it? The furthest East you’ve been is Tucson.’
‘Hey, I’ve seen Fried Green Tomatoes,’ he’d said teasingly.
‘We don’t spend all our time mixing jugs of sweet tea and playing bluegrass on the porch, you know. Also, it’s a common misconception that Georgia is an East Coast state. We might be part of the Eastern Seaboard, but we’re as southern as a biscuit in a bayou.’
Although she had adopted an air of offence, she actually quite enjoyed the way he fetishised her heritage. ‘Your voice makes me think of slow dancing in the dark. When the sun’s gone down but the air is still thick with heat?’ he had murmured one morning, fingers spreading across her belly like syrup on a pancake.
Which movie had he taken that from? She could picture the scene: lights strung from a pagoda, a couple swaying in each other’s arms. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that any twilight dancing in her neighbourhood would result in bites as big as nickels from the sand gnats that hovered over the marshland.
Still, if he wanted to see her as some kind of prom queen in exile, what was the harm in it? In truth, she was undone by the novelty of his desire, the strings holding her together now loose and trailing. It was her mother who had been the former high school beauty, all sugar-spun hair and lip-gloss in a faded yearbook photograph. A lustre which had never taken root in the blunted features of her daughter.
At her West Coast college, she went through a phase of despising her sing-song accent. In an effort to shed the association of powder-puff southern belles, she did everything she could to extract the molasses from her voice. Pierced her septum. Dyed her hair blue (a mistake). Marched with whatever marginalised group was protesting that week.
It was at a fundraiser for disenfranchised young playwrights that she saw him for the first time, moving across the crowded room towards her. Insistent and familiar, like a song she hadn’t realised she’d been singing.
After graduation, they’d rented an apartment in the Mission District of San Fran, and for a while all had been conjugal bliss: tangled sheets, margaritas on weeknights, his breath in the mornings as he feathered her with kisses. She didn’t even care that he left home every morning to sit behind a chrome desk in his architecture firm (already a junior, this golden boy, who strode through life like a scythe through corn) while she eked out her days running errands for a man as colourless as the company he owned.
‘You know, it’s been six months and I haven’t met your parents yet.’
They were lazing away a Sunday in bed, watching shadows lengthen on the walls.
‘Which, when you think about it, is a huge injustice. Criminal. Given you’ve met mine and all. . .’
There was a beat, barely perceptible, but long enough to hear the breath catch in her throat, before he answered.
‘Sure. I mean, why not? My mom can be a little… but she’ll love you. They’ll adore you. Of course.’
She chose to ignore the note of uncertainty in his voice.
The call was made; the date was set. A ‘casual lunch’ at his parents’ modest bungalow in the Bay Area. She’d been expecting the air of discreet affluence, but not the hippyish touches; fairy lights studding the azaleas, a wind chime in the doorway, prayer flags hanging damply in the midday heat. They suggested a profundity that the afternoon failed to deliver.
His mother had appeared, resplendent in a linen shift the colour of clay and an abundance of rough-hewn jewellery (real silver, rare quartz), flicking her eyes over this fledgling couple like a malevolent benediction. Her smile had been as lethal as her rum punch.
They were so pleased to finally meet her (repeated breathlessly). He was such a bad boy for keeping her all to himself for so long (reproachful kiss on the cheek). Wasn’t she just the spit of Bridget Bardot in that sundress (an outfit agonised over, immediately regretted).
She’d known at the pit of herself that she would not be endowed with the maternal blessing. She’d known it the minute his mother had drunk her in and found her wanting. She was too raw. Too provincial. Too small-town.
Pulling the (now hated) sundress over her sweating knees, she imagined the type of girl he should have brought home. Shabby, yet sleek, a slash of lipstick in lieu of a cleavage, fringe falling gently into her eyes. Degree in something obscure yet promising. A hunger behind her arts-grad deprecation. Someone with an edge. Someone who hid her steel behind an ironic detachment.
A match, in other words, for her bright and brilliant son. Someone who didn’t have to try so damn hard.
The table heaved with produce, an abundance of colour. Quinoa and heritage tomato salad. Kale and pine nut frittata. Cherries picked fresh from the tree at the bottom of the garden.
She’d felt a stab of nostalgia for the potlucks of her childhood. Glazed ribs, steaming vats of Brunswick stew, pans of cornbread, her mother’s famous peach cobbler. Everything a reassuring shade of brown.
Instead she was sitting beneath the wisteria plant framing the terrace, passing a bowl of figs, honey and goats cheese, and feeling as exposed as if she’d sat down to eat with this brittle, beautiful family in nothing but her underwear.
The boy she loved, as unthinkingly as she loved the way the sun lit up the windows of their apartment in the evening, barely looked at her that day. He was talking to his whirlwind siblings, immersed in a world of stories she’d missed the beginning of and jokes she didn’t understand. In that moment, she’d felt superfluous to the glamours of his past life, and inconsequential to his future.
It was unclear, after that fateful lunch, whether their unravelling was a result of his mother’s courteous disapproval, or her own shrinking sense of self. Either way, the end was nigh. From fiery embrace to glacial drift.
She had moved out before he could make it official, saved him that difficult conversation over eggs benedict in the diner across the street.
Her flight had been called.
She sat in the holding bay next to the departure gate and tried to adopt an expression of disinterest, even though she’d been crying steadily for the past twenty minutes. Tears had been threatening for hours, like bad weather glimpsed on the horizon. The other passengers obeyed the unspoken rule of air travel and kept their eyes glued to their phones. No acknowledgment of messy pain in the sterile glare of the terminal.
'He ain't worth it, hon. They never are.'
It was a shock, to hear a Southern twang in a place where the accents were as flat as the farmland. She'd dismissed the woman who uttered these words as a Midwestern hick when she'd seen her take a seat in the departure lounge. One of those moms who'd had a tribe of kids far too young and became more faded with every year that passed. Tennis shoes that pinched at the toe, sweater just a shade too small, and a Ziploc bag of cookies pulled straight from her battered pocketbook.
The kind of woman she had crossed state lines and time-zones to avoid becoming.
'We're all just raindrops in the ocean, you know? Life goes on.'
She thrust the Ziploc bag in the girl's direction, cheeks puckered into two ripe plums. In that moment, under the pulse of the artificial lights, she was beautiful. An angel in sweatpants.
'Smile, sugar. Take the cookie. Turn your face towards the dawn.'
The sky looked like a drop of blood in a glass of milk. Miles above the gilded fields, planes criss-crossed in the gathering light. Carrying all those souls, all those stories untold, spooling out across the world like streamers in the wind.
Despite herself, she smiled. Took the cookie. Turned her face towards the dawn.