The Word: CRAMP
Natalia slowly walked up and down the long aisles of the great 767, the redeye to Frankfurt. From Los Angeles it was fourteen hours. Everyone was asleep except the American kids mid-cabin on the right, two excited girls hyped and glassy-eyed from seven hours of cartoons, and the mother pulling out more and more snacks and books and Barbies, while in the center section a Pakistani mother had put a blanket out across the seats and firmly bedded her younger boy above, while the blanket spread on the floor before the seats cushioned the older one. Natalia could see it already–the girls would be shrieking by Portugal, while the boys would awaken on the approach to Frankfurt, quiet and well-mannered and ready to receive their breakfasts. That was the thing about parenthood. You had to think ahead, you had to plan your moves like Kasparov.
She remembered this flight. She’d taken it with Julia, twenty years ago. Three hours from Petersburg, then the endless leg from Frankfurt to LA.
Los Angeles. Then it was just a rumor, something she had seen on Swedish television, an illegal antenna. Beaches, bathing suits. Julia was six. They’d left from Pulkova in the middle of the night. She had said goodbye to no one.
Now her daughter was in her last year of medical school. And her mother had had a stroke in Petersburg.
Natalia could not sit through this night, flying east, flying in reverse, a middle aged woman, she got cramps in her legs from sitting so long. And that serious little girl, who had slept across her knees, was now engaged to an Indian man from Santa Barbara who had never even been to India.
While Natalia had met her future in an underground gallery on Pushinskaya Street. Bearded, leather-jacketed, the kind of American who was always where things were happening, two years before it was in the guidebooks. The whole world had turned inside out, he wanted to be part of it all. Wanted to see the communal apartment where she lived with her mother and her daughter. He kept saying Poltory komnaty. A room and a half. Read her the Joseph Brodsky essay about it, translating in his poor Russian. Her English about as good. How he marveled at the vines of wires to the bells, one to each room, cut into the great door. Her mother still lived in that room, but she’d rented out the room that had been Natalia’s to generations of students at the Herzen Institute.
She paced the aisle. The rows of sleeping passengers looked vaguely frightening in the glow of the few reading lights, eyes masked, blanketed. How strange that people needed to do such a thing, abandon the body like this every day, slip the anchor of the day and the place and sun and earth. It reminded her of the photographs they had seen of Jonestown, the bodies on the green earth, the bright squares of their clothing, like a patchwork quilt.
Now she understood the mother who did not want to surrender her children to that silence, who would rather not see. As she had not wanted to see, going to California, she, who had not even been to Prague, or Budapest. Not wanting to see that it might not be the miracle she had imagined, only envisioning herself and Julia in the golden land. On this flight, Julia’s head on her lap, her sweet smell. A phone number in her hand. That was all.
© Janet Fitch 2010 all rights reserved
Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”
The next week’s word is OPEN.