Fiction

Terminal

The moment she sees the blue-and-orange checked dress shirt, she knows she must follow him.

He pulls an upright roller bag and weaves around slower foot traffic while talking into a cell phone. The cell phone is the second sign. Follow that man.

She tries to appear casual, watching everyone they pass to see if they notice her following him. She does not want to be observed like this, so reckless, so impulsive.

He pauses by a kiosk stocked with travelers’ toiletries. She stops a short distance behind, still unable to see his face. She reaches for her own cell phone as she waits, opens the photo album titled Dad. She’d created it two months ago, the day after her father’s burial at the Islamic cemetery in Houston. 

She scrolls down until she finds it: the photo of her with her dad and brother in a sari shop on Hillcroft ten years ago. She is smiling broadly in the foreground, shiny black hair not yet tinged with gray. Her brother stands to the right at the shop counter, his wallet out, looking at something across the room. Her father stands behind her, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, partially obscured by her profile, caught in between realizing a photo is being taken and trying to get out of the way. His expression, not meant to be captured, has always amused her, the look of someone who was not supposed to be there. 

Her last communication with him was a text the night before he died. A single mom, she had been putting her six-year-old to bed and hadn’t picked up when he called. Putting your nanubhai to bed–can’t talk now. His reply: Ok. 

She had called him back the next day. Twice that morning, three times that afternoon, and many times that evening, all going to voicemail after four rings. Then in the middle of the night, her brother called. Their dad was gone. 

The increasing pressure she had felt in her chest throughout the day had signaled to her that this was coming. It was as though she and her dad had sent the same silent message to one another when they hadn’t answered their respective phones: can’t talk right now. Too busy trying to survive. The struggle to keep going, albeit in different ways, had bonded them across the miles between her home in Ohio and her dad’s hospital room in Texas. 

Even though his death at the age of eighty-three had not been a surprise, the moment of their parting had been so nebulous, so undefined. Missed calls lacked the finality she associated with death. True, she had attended the viewing and burial, had witnessed the white shrouded body lowered into the grave by her brother and three family friends. And yet she felt as though she had been pocket dialed by her father by accident and so she waited now, listening to all of the background noise until maybe he would realize she was on the line. 

 

As she waits by the kiosk, she scrutinizes the narrow sliver of her father’s shirt visible on her phone, then studies the man carefully. The blue-and-orange checked pattern is the same.

The man turns and resumes down the concourse and she, more determined now, pockets her phone and follows him. She notices his graying black hair and the way he holds his body tall, erect. She wonders if he always walks as though he is on his way to a job interview. 

Closer now, enough to reach out her arm and touch him if she wants, she smells a familiar scent, gone as quickly as it came. The urge to inhale this man seizes her. Airport smells–coffee and some sort of cleaner–flood her nose instead. Just a little closer. She expects Old Spice or Speed Stick musk or Benson & Hedges Ultra Light Regulars mixed with the cloves she imagines him chewing after a smoke. Yet the air around the man is devoid of scent and her heart aches. 

She’s gotten so close that she hears his voice speaking into the phone. Like a magnetic force it draws her to him. Suddenly he veers left and then center again and she follows, narrowly avoiding a plump blonde woman holding a young girl’s hand, Cape Cod branded on the woman’s navy blue sweatshirt. Normally she has extensive sympathy for anyone she perceives to be a parent traveling alone with their child, but today she regards this pair as an unwelcome island dividing her and the man. Her arm grazes the girl’s blonde ponytail as she hurries forward, straining to make sense of the dull hum coming from the man’s mouth, to break the sound down into some language she can understand.

And then she hears him laugh. Recognition floods her, the laugh unmistakable. She can’t explain, but she is certain now that she knows who he is talking to, as if she were his daughter on the other end.

What does his daughter call him? she wonders. If she called out to him right now–Baba!–would he turn around? Or maybe Daddy? She doesn’t know how old his daughter is, what her voice sounds like. And here she was, over forty. It never occurs to her that the man might be closer to her age, that he is bhai and not baba.

She strains to make out what comes after that magnificent laugh, to catch the special tone of voice he surely saves for his youngest so that he does not have to tell her that she is his favorite. Panic fills her chest when he pulls the phone away from his ear for a second, looks at it, and then brings it back. He might hang up at any moment and the connection will be gone.

Desperate, she forms a plan. She will pass slightly in front of him and to his left just when he starts speaking, close enough to hear his exact words. She misses her first opportunity when an oblivious passenger walks straight into her path. Her face flushes with anger at the slight man with close-cropped hair in a black peacoat walking with his head down, hands in pockets. Idiot! Watch where you’re going!

She eyes the man she is following and quickens her pace. Soon she walks alongside him, holding her backpack out to her left side like a shield against anyone else who gets in her way. She casually tucks her long hair behind her right ear and listens. 

It’s not English…but what is it? Is it her own Bangla? She glances sidelong at his face. The bushy eyebrows over dark eyes, sunken deep into the pock-marked face, surprise her. Still she lingers like a mosquito, hovering, patient. She yearns to hear him speak again, to find the parts of him she knows despite his stranger’s face.

Suddenly her backpack is pushed from behind and she pitches forward. She recovers her balance quickly and turns to glare at the teenager who has run into her. 

“Sorry,” he says and points to the cart passing them, the driver shouting “Make way please, cart behind! Cart behind!” 

“Whatever,” she mutters. Disgusted, she turns away from the teenager. She takes one step forward and stops short.

The man has vanished. 

Her heart drops. Holding her breath, she scans the terminal for the stranger who is so much more. 

To her horror, she spots the man some distance ahead in the wide corridor. He has stopped by gate B9 and is flagging down the cart that just drove past her. The driver stops and the man begins to climb into the empty seat behind the elderly couple who have taken the middle row. Her gaze locks with his for a moment and then she watches, helpless, as he is taken away. 

A splinter of rage pierces through her from within and she feels the heat coming off of her, searing her skin and rising from it like steam. Once again, she’s missed him. Once again, because she had been busy tending to somebody else. 

Propelled by the combustion of anger and loss churning inside of her, she runs to catch up with the teenager and shoves his arm. “You!” she yells. “Look!” She points to the cart quickly disappearing from view. “You made me lose my dad!”

The teenager removes one of his earbuds. “I’m sorry, what?” he asks, a mixture of surprise and mild amusement on his face.

His almost-smirk, the idea that he could be laughing at her, is too much. “My dad!” she shouts. “He got in that cart and now I can’t get to him because you got in my way!”

Others slow down and stare as she tries to catch her breath, as she pushes down the panicked sob that threatens to pour out. The teenager raises his hands and backs away. She realizes that he looks scared now, that she is screaming and baring her teeth, that she has been standing too close to him.

“Hey now.” A heavyset man wearing a pair of brown cowboy boots, his long-sleeved button-down shirt tucked into his jeans, approaches her and although he does not lay a hand on her, she flinches at the sensation of his touch. 

“We’ll find your dad,” he says. His eyes, clear blue behind wire-rimmed glasses, distract her with their absolute confidence. “I’m Jeffrey. What’s your name?” 

“We’ll find him?” she asks, ignoring his question.

“Of course.” He shifts his weight, adjusts the strap of the black bag slung over his shoulder, and strokes his goatee, chestnut brown streaked with gray. “Where y’all flying to today? I got a long layover. You and I can just head on over to y’all’s gate. I guarantee he’ll beat us there on that four-wheeler.” Jeffrey cracks a smile. 

She realizes the teenager is gone, that the people who had stopped to stare have moved along. 

“We weren’t going to the same place,” she says, her voice cracking. A tear makes its way out of the corner of one eye and trails down her cheek.

“That’s alright,” he says. He fiddles in the front pocket of his bag and finds a brown paper napkin that he hands her gently. “We just need to know where he’s going and we can figure out the gate.” He points down the terminal. “There are screens that tell us the gate for every flight. There can’t be too many choices. We’ll narrow it down. Let’s go find ourselves one of those screen banks.”

She nods and begins walking with him towards the central domed area ahead where multiple corridors intersect. As they make their way through the concourse, she thinks about what she will say when they arrive at the screens, how to explain that she does not know her father’s actual destination. That the last time she saw his face, his real face, he had dried blood on his lower lip from being intubated and only half of his upper teeth, the partials he wore having been removed. That his shocked expression had changed at the viewing over the hours he lay there as his body, shrouded in white, warmed and his face relaxed so that he looked like he was laughing. That after she kissed his forehead, her lips smelled sickly sweet like formaldehyde for the rest of the afternoon and she had not washed them off. That still she carries dirt from his grave, wrapped in a tissue and in a ziploc bag, in her backpack, for no reason other than she hasn’t been able to bring herself to remove the only thing that’s close to them both now. That she knows she will never see him again.

Suddenly she stops. “I’ve got to go,” she says. “I–I’ll miss my own flight.”

He looks at her, surprised. “You sure?”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I just…I didn’t realize what time it was. I’ve got to go.” She spins around and hurries back the way she came, hoping he won’t follow. She doesn’t look back, having no way to answer the question she knows she will see in his eyes. 

She ducks into the first women’s restroom she finds and sits on the commode in a corner stall. She stares at the dark gray floor tiles, listening to the sounds of people coming and going. She hears faucets turning on and off, the whoosh of flushing toilets, small talk. A mother instructing her child to “please sit down, sweetie. Mommy needs you to sit.” 

Finally, she emerges and studies her face in the mirror as she washes her hands. The brown skin, large eyes, silver strands glinting within thick black waves that frame her face and tumble down her shoulders. Her father’s eyes. Her father’s nose. 

She does not look like she has lost her mind. Only my dad, she thinks. She gives herself one last look before she dries her hands and walks out. 

It is not until she is at her gate, staring at its blue sign with white lettering, that it dawns on her. B9. She looks around for the cart, even though she had seen it pull away from B9 with her own eyes. She remembers the moment the man climbed in, how they’d locked eyes before he’d taken his seat. He had given no special sign of recognition, but they had both known that they had been there together in the terminal before he had disappeared.

She sinks down at the end of a row of stiff connected chairs, her backpack taking up most of the seat behind her. She lets out a deep sigh and looks around at her fellow passengers, each passing the time in their own way. A man she guesses is in his sixties sits nearby, legs crossed, happily working a crossword, occasionally popping a Cheez-it into his mouth. She watches him out of the corner of her eye as he periodically turns to the table next to him and murmurs something in a tender voice. Not wanting to be intrusive, several minutes pass before she finally looks at the table and notices the soft black netted carrier, a tiny calico cat nestled inside. The cat seems unbothered by the noise or confinement, content to rest near its companion. 

The man catches her gaze and smiles. “She’s good with trips,” he says, pushing his glasses up onto the upper bridge of his nose.

She smiles back. “It must help how you keep letting her know you’re there,” she says. 

He returns to his crossword and she pulls out her phone. Her child’s father has texted a photo of their kid laughing, eyes closed, snuggled into a pile with his dad and stepmom’s puppy and toddler. It was the kind of photo she would have forwarded to her dad. She thinks fondly of the man she had followed through the terminal, the matter of who had left the other by now irrelevant.




Filed under: Fiction

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Sharleen Mondal (she/her) is Associate Professor of English at Ashland University, where she teaches literature and writing. Her scholarly and creative work explores issues of race, gender, sexuality, and religion in the context of empire and immigration. She is a proud three-time VONA alum and has numerous publications past and forthcoming, including an excerpt of her novel-in-progress in NELLE.