Everyone is finally ready to pile into the old Plymouth except for Diane’s mother Pat, who can’t find the keys. Diane is already in the car, has been there for twenty minutes.
Diane is fifteen and recently had knee surgery so Pat is worried about this trip halfway around the world. The father says worry never moves the ball. He’s been saying this for twenty years despite the family’s inability to unlock its relevance. Anyway, he’s not available for the launch because he’s working, as always. Gretchen, the little sister, is pleased at the idea of being the number one child in the house.
Six weeks ago, Diane’s knee dislocated during her after-school shift at the service window of Dairy Queen. First came the pain, a bolt of lightning in the brain, and when she looked down, the knee was not in its place. And then came the sirens. And the surgery.
But she’s better now, and her entire Roosevelt High School drama class is going to Europe with married teachers in charge: the Shugarts. Gary and Liz.
Gary and Liz will be responsible enough guardians until they reach France, where he dresses up in a tuxedo and goes gambling half the night while she waits at the hostel, drinking vodka. When he comes back, they will fight the rest of the night. Only Diane’s little sister will know this detail about the trip, however. As for the Shugarts, the entire drama class will hold them hostage to their gambling adventure.
But that’s later. For now, Diane waits in the car. She is calm, though nervous about flying, which she’s never done. In her pack are fact sheets about all the places they’re going, given to her last minute by her father. They duplicate stuff the Shugarts provided, but she had to take them because he’s her dad and he went to all that trouble.
Now at last comes Diane’s mother, puffing and red-faced, clutching a plastic bag. Her little sister Gretchen (Gretch the Wretch) is trailing behind, not paying attention.
Pat revs the engine and the car lurches forward, just short of the garage door. The car is always left outside to struggle through the seasons because the garage is filled with boxes from the ‘78 Houston move, nearly ten years ago now.
Diane closes her eyes until her mother clears the driveway. Her mother is a horrible driver, and now the Wretch is tapping her shoes against the seat.
“Gretchen. That’s enough,” says Pat.
“What’s in the bag?” Diane asks. The plastic bag sits on the floor on the passenger side.
“What’s in what? Oh. A hambone. For grandma’s soup.”
This is what is so embarrassing about her family. Who carries around hambones? It’s like some awful joke. Her dad and his weather and his statistics. Her mother – where to begin – and her trancing little sister, who once managed to get her thumb caught in the window sash so the aid car had to come. That’s just plain dumb, no matter how many grades she skips.
Meanwhile, Pat is driving with all the attention she can muster. She’s distracted by finding the airport and after that, the Shugarts. She’s not quite sure about this couple, the wife untidy and faintly bohemian, the husband with a strange little moustache like a bottle washer. She needs to remind them of Diane’s unreliable knee. She’s so distracted that there’s barely room in her brain to drive Froggy, the ancient green station wagon.
Still, she can’t resist checking on Diane in the rearview mirror. All that pain with the knee, and then the surgery, and now she’s going to faraway places that Pat can’t imagine. You should at least be able to imagine a place before you go. She hasn’t even been to New York City. Or the Grand Canyon.
Diane meets her mother’s eyes in the mirror. “Mom. Please. Watch the road.”
Now they’re at Grandma’s five-story brick apartment building. Grandma Hazel has lived there all of Diane’s life. When she was little, it was fun to ride the elevator up and down during endless family holiday dinners.
But whose grandma lives like Grandma Hazel? Whose grandma drinks beer every night at the Cecil tavern, and plays shuffleboard with friends named Sarge and Doodle?
Pat taps her horn. Grandma Hazel comes out. She’s carrying something. Another plastic bag. Diane sinks lower in the car.
Grandma is wearing her second-hand fur, which she says makes her feel like one of the Kennedys, but with her height, looks more like an elderly bear. Besides, it’s almost April, and warm. She climbs into the passenger seat, sets her plastic bag on the floor beside the other one, and then turns to Diane in the back seat. “How’s the world traveler?”
Diane’s mother answers, “Better than she was, that’s for sure.”
“Wasn’t that awful?” says Grandma Hazel. “That knee. It was awful, wasn’t it? Poor lambie pie.”
“I’m fine,” says Diane.
“What’s in the plastic bag?” says Grandma Hazel to Pat. “Mine’s a secret. For now.” She peers around the seat, winking at Diane.
“The hambone for soup, remember?” says Diane’s mother.
Diane is thinking that nobody makes soup anymore. People buy it in cans, which is perfectly fine. And it’ll be bean soup, which is another joke.
They take the wrong exit and end up on some kind of circle road, the airport visible, taunting Pat each time they whiz by. “So close and yet so far,” Grandma Hazel keeps saying.
Diane says, “There it is. You just missed it again.”
But then suddenly, a road. The road. Diane is now sweating and she’s sure everybody will know it.
They corkscrew all the way to the garage roof, where Pat says it’s best to park because you can find the car easily. Nobody moves. It’s as if they have to gather their strength to enter the terminal.
Since the knee surgery, Diane has become more accepting of what her dad calls challenges. She’s the first to move out of the car and is halfway down the parking lot when she realizes she’s alone. She stops.
Now here they come, and she sees that they’ve brought the bags with them. “You don’t need those,” she says. So embarrassing. It’s as if they came here from some civilization where they worship plastic bags.
Pat says, “Oh. I forgot I had it. How funny.”
Grandma Hazel says, “I need mine.” She stops, smiles, pulls something out of her plastic bag. It’s a huge pink flower with a pin in it.
“It’s an orchid,” says Grandma Hazel. “For our little voyager. Let me pin it on.”
“Not now,” says Pat. “It’ll get crushed. Let’s just get her to her group.”
“Actually, she’s not a voyager because a voyager would mean she’s going on a boat, not a plane,” says Gretchen. “No. Ship, it would be a ship. A boat fits on a ship.”
They are swallowed alive by the terminal, and all the directions given by officials seem to contradict each other. Finally, they understand that they are to catch the underground train – already the wonders of the trip unfold – and look for the sign that says Roosevelt Group.
“Who has to use the ladies?” says Pat.
“I need to find my group first,” Diane says. She shrugs her backpack on. Her hands are clammy. It’s really happening.
“Stop I’ll pin the corsage,” says Grandma Hazel.
“Not now,” says Pat.
Down and down to the trains, where the distraught crowd shuffles the platform. The train silently pulls in, the doors slide open, and Diane slips in between bodies, her backpack balancing her. She grabs a pole and looks around for her family.
Gone. Brief stab of panic. She checks again. No. She’d know if they were here.
Meanwhile, back on the platform, Pat and Grandma Hazel have also become separated from Gretchen. Gretchen finds a long plastic bench and waits, watching all the shoes go by, thinking how different they are. Which is strange because mostly, people look alike. She’s not worried about losing the others. Actually, when you think about it, they’re the lost ones. How can she be lost when she’s sitting here?
The platform is packed and Pat is trying not to panic, having just lost half of her family. Grandma Hazel stops strangers, “Have you seen my granddaughter, her name’s Diane . . .”
Then the crowd parts briefly and Pat sees the face of her younger daughter, trancing.
They join her on the bench and cry aloud how terrible it was to lose her. And then their thoughts turn to Diane.
Who is on the train still. She takes it to the remote terminal, gets off, waits, but her family doesn’t come and she doesn’t see her group, so she gets on the train again. This repeats itself twice. The third time, just as she’s stepping off at her original stop, she sees the fur, and she is flooded with a sudden serenity. This is where she is meant to be in her life. Not at the airport, but on her way somewhere.
She presents herself and waits for them to cycle through all the phases. The wonder of finding her, the fear, the relief.
The train is pulling in again. “Follow me,” Diane says. Grandma Hazel says, “Wait. The corsage.”
Diane snatches up the bag before it can be opened again. Now she’ll have to find someone to give it to, so she won’t feel guilty about throwing it away.
Everyone gets on the train. Grandma Hazel says, “Isn’t this something. This is something, isn’t it?” Diane stares down several smirkers.
But at their stop, there is no sign saying Roosevelt Group.
Then two adults step from the crowd. It’s the Shugarts, and Pat quickly gets one of them – the woman, because in her experience, women tend to listen – aside to remind her of Diane’s recent knee surgery.
So fast, too fast, the Roosevelt group is walking away, two by two, through the gate to the jet way. Diane doesn’t look back. Pat’s throat is thick with something that feels like homesickness.
Gretchen goes to the window to watch the plane. She will have the whole house to herself. As for this big trip, now that she’s seen it, she’d rather stay home. Having to sleep and eat with a lot of people you don’t know?
The other families leave, but hers waits while the plane nudges to life, rolls slightly forward, stops, rolls again. Then it gathers all its strength, roars down the runway and, impossibly, lifts off, clear of the land.
Grandma Hazel is opening the plastic bag left behind. “Look at this.”
“Oh my god,” says Pat. “She left the orchid. What’s in her bag then?”
“The hambone. She’s got the hambone—”
“Well maybe she can wear that — does it have a pin?”
And they crumple together, laughing, wiping tears away, sighing, laughing again.
People are staring at them but it doesn’t have anything to do with Gretchen, who turns her attention to the window again. That silver glint must be her sister’s plane, about to go out of sight.
It’s strange, though. Her sister, so big when she was here, disappearing like that. All of her, and at once. Her dad has a saying, Everybody has to be somewhere. Like so many things they say, this turns out not to be entirely true, because her sister is not here and she’s not there yet, either.
At last, they’re ready to go to the car. Grandma Hazel says, “Gretchen. Would you like an orchid?”
“Maybe you can feed it to one of your critters,” says her mother, referring to Gretchen’s hamsters. “Oh wait – they’re not vegetarians, they’re cannibals.”
They collapse again into tears of laughter.
Sighing, Gretchen follows her mother and grandmother to the car. When they get there, her mother can’t find the keys.
“We have to go back,” she says. Gretchen says she’ll wait for them here. Sooner or later they’ll return, waving the keys overhead and her mother will say, Always in the last place you look.
She opens the plastic bag, lifts the orchid carefully. It’s soft, almost like skin. It looks like a flower but it doesn’t smell like one. Actually, it smells like wax, but it could be because it feels like wax, and the word for that is synesthesia.
Now here they come with the keys. She takes a deep breath. The air goes to every corner of her mind, widens the space there.
She strokes the orchid and closes her eyes and the inside of her head fills with light.
© Lois Taylor
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan]