From Phoenix, Los Angeles is a straight shot west on I-10, through nothingness and towns like Blythe, the capital of nothing, then past Joshua Tree and through Palm Springs. The mountains crack out of the shimmering desert floor, and I hold my breath and watch the menace streak by—my small body coiled in the back seat of the station wagon. We are on the run from some apprehension of Mom’s, and therefore our own, and the desert floor is a place to bank time, to blast Carole King or Carly Simon and sing loudly about the special vanity of men. It’s my brother, 2; me, 6; and Mom, 30, en route to Dad’s sister’s in Yorba Linda. With Dad gone back east now, our house in Phoenix is deadly, and this is our closest family.
We leave around noon and drive through the mirages until dusk, with Mom singing softly and pulling on her Benson and Hedges 100’s. The relief and adrenaline collect here, high in the San Gorgonio pass where the lights of Greater Los Angeles wink through the twisting canyons. With each back-switch, the winks become a steadier pulse, The Pointer Sisters come on the radio, and Mom cranks the dial. She draws deeply on her slim cigarette, and flashes me a wide grin, “I’m so excited! I just can’t hide it!” she sings and shimmies into the seat’s velour. The tapping of her wooden sandals on the brake pedal makes a knocking sound in time with the baseline as we slide around the next curve. Even I forget myself, forget to fret or be watchful, and for a moment I am all liquid sequins, hip action, and perfectly-placed snaps. Josh kicks and giggles from his car seat in the back, and we swallow the whole happy canyon in our mouths.
I never loved anyone like I loved Mom when she was in bloom.
Arriving in Texas is no thing of ceremony, unless the plane punches through summer storms and lands under bruise-black anvils, but even then the thrill is fleeting. Mostly I feel numb as Houston makes its slow, dumb approach. The city grows closer without drama, its ugliness a fact. Mom lives here now with a boyfriend, a Big Job, and her own life, while Josh and I live back in New Hampshire with Dad.
I am maybe 9 or 10 and will be put on a diet as soon as she sees me. My body likes itself a little rounder than my small frame, but I am chubbier than usual. I eat my tears, homework, insults, and fear. Striking and slim, Mom hates this. Driving to her house from the airport, I pray she won’t wield the bathroom scale. Hold the numbers against me. But ours is a delicate ecosystem.
I stand on the scale, with Mom’s perfume suffocating me and her French nail tips on my shoulders.
“You have to lose some weight, kiddo.”
And all summer that’s what I do. She pinches me here or there and I swim more laps at day camp. For bag lunches, she packs liverwurst on rice cakes and Crystal Lite for me, and Oatmeal Cream Pies and PB & Js on soft bread for Josh. She says, “Don’t make a pig of yourself.”
I drop weight like crazy, become tan and almost-lithe from the swimming. We go shopping, and Mom picks out mother-daughter outfits—hunter green shorts and white Henley t-shirts. She curls my hair and fusses and we wear the outfits “out on the town” together. In the photograph from that outing, we are jutting out our hips and extending the same leg. Mom’s smile devours half the frame, and there is a glint of something in her eyes—a moment of light caught in the slipstream—that might as well be happiness. In composition I am doing everything right—my leg extension, my head tilt and calculated side smile, but there is nothing in my eyes. My light is all wrong.
Returning to the Northeast, the atmosphere changes, molecules reorder into a recognizable form, and I start to breathe deeply somewhere over Pennsylvania at 30,000 feet. Except on rare clear days—either in winter with high pressure aloft and cerulean skies zinging head-long out every window of the plane, or on lucky days in fall or spring—New England sulks under low clouds.
It’s always bumpy on descent into Logan. I can’t see shit, but the plane bobbing along cartoonish puffs of white, until we’re low enough to feel the gravity of this god-damned place—the history, family, the forested nubs and sardined houses, the warm claustrophobia. On final approach, the jet’s shadow grazes the tenements of East Boston and then tickles the green-black ink of the harbor. Josh and I grab hands and squeal. We seem to skim the water for a minute, hovering and about to plunge, but then SLAM, we are down.
We are still young enough that Dad will be waiting, not at baggage claim, but at the gatehouse. His gangly frame and crooked smile rise from a sea of red faces, and we hustle down the jetway, toward home.
San Francisco and Boston are similar arrivals. I am returning from a bachelorette in Vegas or a wedding back east or a visit here or there. On approach the plane seems about to crash into the bay out near the old Candlestick Park, but just as I brace the armrests and hold my breath, a landing strip appears under the aircraft’s belly and BOOM we are down and slowing hard on the short runway.
It’s the West, not Texas or Boston, and I am without history here. I am 23 or 25, and San Francisco is mine to fuck up.
And now it’s simple banality that I am on the run from. Vermont is beautiful. I remind myself of this often, and it’s easy because on the way home from work, a long ridgeline hums toward the car even as my mind puzzles out some work detail or chore. Occasionally, weather will come in and change the light in the dining room, and this excites me. Snow dances around the room’s turret, and I am a snow globe figurine—happy and faceless. I am 37 now, and without the same giddy voodoo of my child mind.
But flight still flutters through me, fantasy still thrills me, and the arrivals have plenty of magic still to give.
Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in 14 Hills SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus, and on Brevity Magazine’s blog. One of the Brevity posts was “Freshly Pressed” by WordPress in 2012, and she was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest. Paige received an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University, and is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program. Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Stonecoast Review, Paige lives and teaches in Vermont.