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A delayed plane pushes an estranged mother and son together

My shoes clack satisfyingly, importantly on the airport floor. The wheels of my suitcase spin not-quite silently on the ground as I head toward the gate. I reach the big sign that says GATE 4, and under it in scrolling digital letters: SNA Orange County, California.

I sit tentatively down on a chair that looks relatively clean. But it’s not like I have a wide selection of seats to choose from; the terminal is packed with travelers.

A pregnant woman rests one hand on her stomach and with the other holds onto the arm of a man who I assume is her husband. They wander through the rows of chairs, searching for a seat. I stand up and offer mine. The woman gladly accepts.

As I rest against a big white pole, I hear a voice.

“Always painstakingly slow. I don’t understand why they can’t just let us on the plane.”

“They’re cleaning it, Mum,” I say without looking at her.

“Hmph,” she grumbles. She rustles her shawls in annoyance and agitation.

There is gum on the ground beside my shoe. It was lucky I didn’t step in it. Some people are disgusting. They act like the world is a bin.

In front of me, a father tries to calm his two rowdy children. They are hopping up and down on their seats, talking about how fun it will be in California. I wish I felt that excited. It’s usually great going back home, but not for such a sad occasion.

Gramps was the best. He was never the center of attention, but he was always the one who got everyone to laugh. Dad flew out a few days ago to help with the preparations for the funeral. He insisted I travel with Mum because she is “getting old.” Although she is really not; she is sixty-five and extremely capable. But his father just died, so I’m going to do as I’m told.

“Attention all passengers traveling to Orange County, California: your flight has been delayed until eight a.m. tomorrow morning due to a severe thunderstorm on the flight path.” The message repeats twice more from the speakers on the wall. And then the voice finishes: “Thank you for your patience.”

For most parents, I think this would be a nostalgic moment, sleeping in the same bed as their 35-year-old son who has been away from home for a long time now.

Everyone groans and gets up. They collect their things and shake small children who have fallen asleep in their chairs.

My mother is remarkably still. As am I. We’re both realizing what we’ve gotten into.

Finally, I speak.

“I guess we should get hotel rooms. Get some sleep before the flight.”

She nods.

We go to the airport hotel, and I book myself a room for the night.

I wait for Mum to get herself a room, but she just turns and looks at me.

“Well? What are you waiting for?” she walks away from me, leading me toward the hotel room I booked.

“Wait!” I call halfheartedly after her. “Aren’t you going to get a room?”

“Do you really expect me to pay for a room when you’ve just booked one that’s perfectly fine for the both of us?” she huffs and continues to walk away.

I unlock the door to our room and Mum walks in ahead of me. She sniffs at the drab furniture and not-so-clean-looking carpet. The room isn’t much to my taste either, but it’s only one night, and I’m not going to show her that I’m anything less than pleased.

I look at the one large bed in the middle of the room. It occurs to me that I haven’t slept in the same room, let alone the same bed, as my mother since I was about three. For most parents, I think this would be a nostalgic moment, sleeping in the same bed as their 35-year-old son who has been away from home for a long time now. My mother just looks annoyed.

After I take a shower, I step out of the steamy bathroom with a towel wrapped around my waist. I get my pajamas out of my suitcase and start humming along to a song that’s playing in my head.


“Knock it off,” my mother snaps. “What are you so happy about, anyway?”

“I’m just humming,” I say.

“Well, stop.”

I do, though I can’t help but dance around a bit to the tune in my head.

Mum goes to take a shower. I sit on the edge of the bed, thinking. Her phone is on the side table. It pings as she gets a notification. I look at it. Her lock screen is a picture of her and my younger brother on a beach somewhere.

My brother is the manager of a car dealership. He lives in a large house with his wife, three children, and a cat. Needless to say, my mother is very proud of him.

She steps out of the bathroom, having already changed into her nightclothes, and pulls a book out from her suitcase.

“Is that a book from the list?” I ask. Mum has a list of famous books she wants to read and famous art she wants to see before she dies.

“As a matter of fact, it is.”

She shows me the cover. I’ve never heard of it; I nod and smile like I have. A few minutes pass. The rhythm of her heavy breathing nearly knocks me out.

“Your grandfather,” Mum says. “It makes you realize that you never know how much time you have left.”

“I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know Gramps’ death was coming. He’s been sick for a while, and he’s not exactly young.”

“You know what I mean, Simon!” Mum snaps. “Stop trying to be contrary.”

I raise my eyebrows in an I’m-sorry-but-I-wasn’t-really-doing-anything kind of way.

She untucks the covers. They have been jammed so tightly down the side of the bed that it takes a couple of seconds to accomplish. She flicks back the top corner on her side of the bed and sits down.

“Your grandfather achieved a lot in life,” she says without looking at me. “He was a very hardworking man.” She glances toward me to show that she is making a comparison.

“I work hard!” I say.

“I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about your very kind and successful grandfather,” Mum says, still obviously comparing us.

I decide not to say anything.

“He had a large family. He even made art every once in a while and sold it for quite a lot of money. He was happy.”

I’m happy,” I say, annoyed at her assumption.

“Really?” she asks. “Why?”

“I just am. I have an okay apartment that’s near the park; I walk past the neighborhood school on my way to work; I have a good job.”

“You call working in a deli a ‘good job’? What does it do for you? Tell me. You don’t have health insurance. You work next to a smoke shop. The money isn’t great. What’s so good about it?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” I say and grab the television remote from a table.

It turns on and spits us somewhere near the end of the second hour of Gone with the Wind. I fix my eyes to the screen, but don’t really pay attention. I am too annoyed to focus, but I pretend that I am deeply absorbed.

What did she want me to do with my life anyway? Become a lawyer? A doctor? Why does she hate me because I’m not as good as my brother? Why is she angry that I’m happy?

“Why are you angry that I’m happy?”

“I’m not angry!” she shouts.

I raise my eyebrows.

“I just don’t get it.”

“I’m happy. I like my life. I make beautiful sandwiches. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Just because there’s nothing wrong with it, doesn’t mean there’s anything right with it.”

“What did you want me to do with my life? What great expectations am I not living up to?”

“I didn’t want you to do anything specific with your life. But it would have been nice if you’d done something.”

“I do things every day.”

“But what about the rest of your life?” she asks.

“I intend to continue living exactly as I am.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s just . . . Don’t you want anything? Don’t you want anything to come out of your life?”

“What’s the point of always wanting to do something more? It’s all going to disappear when we die, anyway. Why can’t I just be happy as I am?”

“Because . . .” Mum can’t find any words.

“Is that what you did, Mum? Were you always chasing some big achievement?”

“Well, no. But that’s because I started a family, which matters.”

“How? You put two more people into the world, one of which proceeded to make three more. So far, you are responsible for the creation of five more humans. There are 7.9 billion of us on Earth. Why do five more matter so much? We don’t need any more people in the world.”

“Well . . . ” Evidently, she can’t find anything to say to this either, so she goes for a different tactic. “Well. When was the last time you were in a relationship, Simon?”

I’m getting cross now. “I broke up with my last boyfriend five years ago. He thought too much like you.”

She looks upset. I feel bad for insulting her.

“Look, Mum. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”

“I just can’t right now, Simon. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”

She turns over and flips off the light.

“But Mum . . .” I say a few minutes later.

“What’s the point of always wanting to do something more? It’s all going to disappear when we die, anyway. Why can’t I just be happy as I am?”

She snores, and I can’t tell if it’s real or not. I roll my eyes and flop down on the bed.

I can’t sleep; I just keep thinking about all the accusations my mum keeps making. What I do matters to some people, right?

Old Mrs. Sanchez comes into the deli every day for a foot-long ham and cheese. She says I season it just right. I’ve never seen her eat one, but I can see in her eyes how much she likes them.

I’ve never seen Levi without a suit on. He comes in every weekday to get a sandwich for his lunch. He has always been the serious, unfriendly type, except for once. He came in late Friday night, his suit wrinkled and untidy, his eyes red and puffy. There was a tan line where his wedding ring used to be. He ordered a sandwich and thanked me with the most sincere words. I didn’t think he was capable of appreciation, but he was really, truly grateful. He hasn’t thanked me since, but I know it’s in him somewhere. I haven’t forgotten that night.

There are two little kids who live in the apartment above the deli. They come down through the shop every morning and afternoon on their way to and from school. I always make them an after-school snack to have on their way back through. Their giddy, grateful little smiles always make the extra work worth it.

Surely these people care that I come to work every day and do what I do, right?

My father had a “good job.” He worked in an office at the bank. He made lots of money for us. He worked long days, and often went into work on the weekends too. He would come home so exhausted he would barely speak to us. Mum would attempt a conversation with a “what was the best part of your day, honey?” Almost every time, he would give a shrug, except for about once a year when he would flash a quick smile and tell us that he was promoted. We would all then celebrate with a big dinner Mum had made, and halfway through, Dad would slink away to go watch something on television. I can’t imagine having a job in which the only thing that was good about it was making money, and the only time I ever had a good time doing it was when I got more money. Sure, he was “happy,” but I’m not sure that’s the type of happiness I want to have.

I’m sure he has strong memories of seeing his father go to work too. I wonder what lessons he learned.

I stare over Mum out into the navy, light-polluted sky outside. The airport pillow is surprisingly nice under my head.

*          *          *

By the time I get up in the morning, Mum is up and changed, and has finished repacking the few possessions she took out of her suitcase the night before. She sits by the door, jiggling her leg impatiently until I am ready.

It is almost six o’clock, so we decide to get some breakfast before heading back to the gate. We go to a little diner and get a table for two.

“What can I get for you two?” asks a young waiter with a very thin mustache.

“May I please have a coffee and two scrambled eggs?” my mother says.

“May I please have an orange juice and a stack of chocolate chip pancakes?”

My mother glares at me.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything, um, healthier?” she asks, with a pointed glance toward my stomach.

“No. That’ll do.”

“There could be consequences from eating like that later on . . .”

“Well, I’m not thinking about ‘later on.’ I’m thinking about now. I don’t know how much time I have left to live, so it’s best to live in the moment. Why should I always spend my time thinking about a future that might never come?”

“Is this why you’ve never pulled yourself together enough to get a real job? Because you can’t think enough into the future to arrange a job interview?”

“No. I’ve never arranged a job interview for something else because I like my job.”

Mum rolls her eyes.

The waiter carries our food to the table on one hand, everything balanced on a circular black tray.

He sets down my pancakes in front of me. They smile at me from their yellow dish. My mother’s eggs are plated on red; they look almost fluffy, as if recently emerging from a wind tunnel.

“You’re really going to eat those?” Mum asks.

To prove to her that I am, and that I don’t care about the consequences, I take my fork and load it with as much pancake as I can fit. Then I shove it into my mouth.

Mum rolls her eyes.

I load another forkful and push it into my mouth before I have finished chewing the last mouthful.

I struggle to chew; the pancake has become sticky and dry in my mouth. I try to swallow. It sticks in my throat. I can’t swallow. I can’t breathe. I struggle for air.

I slap my hand on the table, trying to alert my mother that something is wrong. I knock a glass over. She looks at me, confused. She doesn’t get it. I slap the table harder. Bangbangbang.

A passing waitress rushes over. She pulls me out of the booth. She grabs me from behind and sticks her clasped fists under my rib cage. She pulls hard. And again. And again. Until finally I fall to the ground, coughing up the mushy, disgusting pancakes into a puddle on the floor.

I wheeze and gag. My hands and knees wobble on the ground. My mother slams me on the back, trying to get the rest of the pancake out. There is nothing but spit left, and I can barely manage to tell her to stop. My throat is sore. I hang my head, trying to catch my breath. Someone hands me a glass of water, and I take a tiny sip.

“Are you okay?” the waitress asks. I nod my head.

“Are you, okay, Simon?” my mother shouts at me with shock and concern.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I wheeze. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you so much,” I say to the waitress.

I reach up for the table and get to my feet. Once I am recovered enough, I grab my wallet and take out all the cash that’s inside. I hand it to the waitress. She tries to refuse it, but after some back-and-forth, she accepts.

My mother peers at me.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

She looks relieved, but still worried. I put my hand on her arm. The soft texture of her cashmere jumper is pleasant and safe. My father probably gave it to her. I spent so many Christmases snuggled against Mum’s soft sweaters. I wonder if I’ll ever get another chance.

“See, I told you! I could have died; I better live life in whatever way makes me happiest!” I say, trying to lighten the mood.

She rolls her eyes in a half-annoyed, half-relieved sort of way.

I check my watch.

“We have a plane to catch. Let’s go bury Gramps.”