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Avoiding a Fiery Death and Other Life Choices

Published: September 15, 2017

My neighbor Becky is going through my closet. It is after midnight. She’s trying to decide what should go into the suitcase on my bed.

“How’s it possible that you’re 26 and you’ve yet to step foot on an airplane, anyway?” Becky asks me while holding two skirts out in front of her.

I almost blow her off and just tell her it’s a long story. But I’ve listened to Becky’s baggage a lot lately and something tells me she might actually get a kick out of the story. I stretch out on my bed next to the suitcase where I can watch her sift through my wardrobe while I explain my lack of travel experience.

It’s all because of my aunt Rhoda. She had one of her Visions with a capital V during my sixth birthday party. It was about 20 minutes before we cut the birthday cake and a spectacular cake it was. Rainbow sprinkles cake mix with hard candy letters that spelled out Happy Birthday Claudia! and tasted like overly sweet chalk. The letters were nestled in at least two inches of frosting. My mom may not have been much of a baker, but she knew what made 6-year-olds happy. She’d sprung for three tubs of frosting. I’m pretty sure there were multiple puddles of rainbow sprinkled vomit in the rose bushes before that party was over.

But that, of course, wasn’t the point. The point was that Aunt Rhoda had Seen with a capital S that I was doomed to a bloody and fiery death due to a plane crash. When and where was unclear, of course. Not that anyone knew what she’d Seen at all when the Vision hit her. She screeched like a pig bound for the bacon factory, clutched her head between her overly accessorized hands, and collapsed in the grass, sobbing and ruining a perfectly good game of Red Light, Green Light. She was lucky she didn’t get trampled by a herd of kindergartners.

Everyone just froze and waited, knowing that Aunt Rhoda was about to drop some kind of bomb. But she wouldn’t talk to anyone except my mother. She waved her over, gripped my mother’s hands, and held them over her heart. She made her lean in real close and solemnly swear that she’d never let me get on an airplane.

So my lifetime travels have been limited to places that could only be reached by train, car, or bus. My mother once said she’d rather I hitchhike than fly.

As I finish the story, I wait for Becky’s reaction. She’s learned some of my family history in the couple years we’ve known each other, but until this point, I’ve stayed away from the most eccentric branches of my family tree. Becky is still focused on my wardrobe, and I’m grateful that she hasn’t pointed out that I own far too many clothes for someone who is living on student loans and a minimum-wage part-time barista gig.

Despite my overabundance of clothes, I’m wearing only my bra and a pair of boy-short undies because I was in the middle of changing for bed when Becky invited herself over to help me pack. Becky is wearing gym shorts and an oversized T-shirt that says MARINES across the chest, clothes her boyfriend, Craig, has left at her place and that she sleeps in when he works nights. Craig has been the focus of our conversations lately when Becky comes over to hang out. He’s really been pushing her to get married lately, and Becky is not sure she’s ready for all that. He wants to start a family. He’s 15 years older than her. A Marine turned air-traffic controller. A solid, quiet, loyal man who thrives on organization. He takes really good care of himself, and Becky is always quick to point out that he’s way hotter than most guys our age. He also takes really good care of Becky, and I don’t think she’ll have an unhappy life if she marries him. But it’s never that simple, of course. I can’t say that I’m disappointed that we aren’t discussing him tonight.

“But, I mean, that’s not really why you’ve never flown, right?” Becky asks while contemplating a red blouse with a Peter Pan collar before putting it back among my other rarely-worn professional attire that I assume I might need someday if I ever finish my thesis and get my degree. “Like, was your aunt ever right with her other visions?” I can hear it in her voice, she doesn’t capitalize the V.

I shrug. “Well, she did predict she’d die in a car accident.” I lie flat on my back and study the patterns in the popcorn ceiling.

Becky stops rifling through my wardrobe long enough to narrow her eyes at me. “Shut. Up. She didn’t, did she?”

I prop myself back up on one elbow and pause for effect. “Wrapped her car around the statue of some semi-famous poet that stands in the middle of town square. I can’t remember his name now. He wrote about cows a lot.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Becky says automatically, but she’s become distracted by a yellow floral dress that is too retro for my taste but bought anyway because it was on sale, and it reminded me of Becky. It still has the tags on it.

I shrug again and flop back down. “Eh, any one of us could have predicted that one. It seemed like the drunker she was, the easier it was for her to find her car keys. My uncle actually flushed them down the toilet once, but that last time he only hid them in a bag of frozen chicken nuggets. We were just glad the only other casualty was the cow poet.”

Becky curls her lip in a disgusted Elvis kind of way, and I worry that my casualness over my aunt’s alcoholism and subsequent tragic death might make her think I’m cold-hearted. I’m not, but I can come off that way I’ve been told.

“Well, I could see how her vision might have scarred you as a kid.”

“I guess,” I murmur. “I wasn’t even there when it all happened though. I was sitting on the front steps waiting for my dad.”

“He was late to your party?”

“Naw, see, my mom hadn’t yet broken it to me that he’d left. I still thought he was on a business trip. He’d been gone for something like two months at that point, but I figured he had to come back for my birthday. Like it was a dad law or something.”

Becky folds a pair of jeans into my suitcase with the skill she’s perfected by working in no less than eight different clothing store chains since she was in high school. I like watching the efficiency of her long fingers. Tonight they are bare because like me, she should be in bed asleep right now. But like Aunt Rhoda, Becky likes her accessories. Unlike Aunt Rhoda’s explosion of costume jewelry, Becky’s rings and bracelets are chosen to complement each other. Delicate bands of silver, small stones and a flower here and there. The absence of accessories tonight somehow seems provocative, like Becky is standing before me naked. Her long, slender fingers are perfectly manicured, and her skin is soft and smells of sandalwood rose lotion. I will sometimes sniff at the bottle of it she keeps on the back of her toilet when I’m across the hall at her apartment, but I never try any for myself because my hands are large and rough, and it seems wrong to have them smelling like Becky.

“Your mom waited that long to tell you?” she asks. “She let you just sit there and wait for him on your birthday?”

“Ironically, she later told me she waited to tell me because she didn’t want to ruin my birthday. But it doesn’t add. Personally, I think she really didn’t believe he’d miss my birthday either. Maybe neither of us knew he was really gone until that day.”

Becky adds four tops to my suitcase, two plain tees — one black, one red, a halter top, and a simple silk blouse. All would look good with the pair of jeans, and I’d be covered for almost any occasion. It seemed so simple now that Becky was done, and I wondered why I’d texted her saying I didn’t know what to pack.

“That’s it?” I ask.

She nods. “Well, and shoes, of course, but you can handle the rest, right? Unless you want me to pick out your underwear and PJs too.”

“It just doesn’t seem like enough.”

She flips the suitcase closed. “Don’t enforce the stereotype. You’re only going for a long weekend.”

I sigh. “I’m not even sure I should go.”

She rolls her eyes and sits on the foot of the bed. “Why? Because of Aunt Rhoda?”

I sit up and grab one of my pillows and clutch it to my torso. “No, because I haven’t seen or spoken to my father in 20 years, and then all of a sudden I get this email saying he wants a relationship with me? That he’s sorry for the past two decades? Like, what’s up with that?”

Becky sets the suitcase on the floor next to the bed and scoots up next to me so she’s leaning against the headboard with her knees drawn up.

“But won’t you regret it if you don’t go? I mean, it’s not like you have an unlimited amount of time on this.”

I cover my face with the pillow because she’s right. I’m flying to see my father because in his email, he used the vague term of “failing health” as a reason that he couldn’t come to me. Before I’d thought it through though, I’d written him back, casually mentioning spring break was coming up, and I didn’t have any plans other than to pick up some extra hours at the coffee shop where I worked while going to grad school. The next thing I knew, I was agreeing to let him buy me a plane ticket. I mentioned neither Aunt Rhoda nor my sixth birthday party.

“But do I even want to hear what he has to say?” I counter underneath my pillow.

Becky is quiet for a few moments, and I move the pillow to see if she somehow left without me noticing. But she’s still sitting there. She’s pulled the band out of her long blonde hair, and she’s running her fingers through it, dividing it into two sections to braid. I’ve seen her do this many times over the last few months. It’s her thinking habit.

“Sometimes it’s just hard to know what it is that you want out of life. Like, you’re just going along, living life, and people come into it, and you’re like, yeah, I’m happy with this person. Let’s make a life together. But then, maybe you figure out that the happy you felt with that person wasn’t a forever happy. You know what I mean?”

Becky usually braids her hair when she’s thinking about Craig. After three years of dating, she’s found herself living in a constant state of guilt because she just isn’t sure what she wants, but she does love Craig. It seems that every time he works overnight, or doesn’t spend the night because he has a really early shift, Becky is over at my place looking to me for guidance. The last time we had such an evening, it led to me pouring us shots while we made a pro-con list. I have a firm no straight girls’ policy in place, but Becky kissed me first. Not that we’re ever going to talk about that. I sometimes wonder if Becky even remembers what happened or if she’s suffering from tequila-induced amnesia. The pro-con list is in my nightstand drawer. I’m keeping it handy, just in case she doesn’t remember which side was longer.

“So are you just saying that I should forgive him for walking out just because they got married too young?”

Becky shakes her head. “Of course not. That was pretty shitty of him. But I’m just saying — hear what he has to say. And then say your own stuff back. You don’t want to carry all that around for the rest of your life, knowing you passed up your chance to unload it.”

Her hair is now in two sloppy braids, and I resist the urge to reach out and play with a loose tendril that is curled behind her ear. Becky slides down the wall so that now she’s also lying flat on her back staring at the patterns in the popcorn ceiling. I squint up at it, blurring the popcorn so that it might look a little like clouds from an airplane window.

I sigh.

“So what are you going to say to him?” Becky asks.

I lay there and imagine my plane flying through the clouds tomorrow morning. “I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and won’t have to say anything at all.”

Becky finds my hand and squeezes it. We lie there, side by side, staring upward, waiting for wisdom to crash down upon us from the sky.

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  • Your dream does indeed sound strange, Naoma! Thanks for reading!

  • INTERESTING…BUT UNLIKELY. ALTHOUGH ONCE AS A YOUNG CHILD MY UNCLE TOOK A GROUP OF US FOR A RIDE IN HIS CAR. I HAD A DREAM THE NIGHT BEFORE THAT WE WERE NEAR THE TOP OF A HILL AND SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENED. WE WERE NEAR THE HILL THAT WAS IN MY DREAM. I TOLD MY UNCLE NOT TO GO UP THAT HILL. HE THOUGHT I WAS HYSTERICAL BUT AGREED NOT TO GO UP THERE. AS IT TURNED OUT, THERE WAS A TERRIBLE ACCIDENT UP THERE…I HAVE NEVER HAD SUCH A DREAM SINCE. STRANGE, WASN’T IT?

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