Halloween in the San Francisco airport, 1986, is like this: there’re a few clowns with rainbow hair, red noses, painted smiles. There’s a baby in a plush lion suit with shaggy fringe around his face. There’s a man in a blue and white checked dress with hair in two curled pigtails. He’s heavy on the rouge and blue eye shadow.
Then there’s my mother in her forties, wearing jeans, flip-flops, a Guatemalan shirt, no bra, and her bushy blonde hair is loose. I—in jeans, dirty sneakers, a turtleneck, and a training bra—feel self-conscious and unhappy. I had just started junior high, but Mom pulled me out of school so we could travel around the world for nine months.
I’m bumping along behind Mom to our gate. We’re schlepping two bags. She carries a leather satchel filled with clothes, a tape player, cassettes of Mozart, Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, and a mysterious Aqua Net Hairspray canister. I roll the other bag on a dolly, filled with my whole sixth grade year. I pull the combined weight of six textbooks, three journals, a tray of watercolors, paintbrushes, pencils, pens, a half-dozen paperbacks, and several biblical-sized Lonely Planet guidebooks. I carry a heavy load of grief from having left middle school where a sweet boy once smiled at me. Now I’m in my mother’s wake, surrounded by a group of men wearing nuns’ habits and matching high top Converse shoes. This Halloween is a little death, and I take no pleasure in the airport ticket-takers handing me candy corn and Tootsie rolls. I scowl at the cross-dressers.
We are in a glassed-in waiting room at the airport. Mom pores over a mystery novel and puffs on a Benson and Hedges. I sit a seat away, reading the Black Stallion. I’m like a fish in a tank of smoke, and there’s a rattle-lunged man beside me who hacks into a napkin.
Everett Middle School has been great so far. I take the MUNI bus to school, carry money, and wear lip-gloss. I sit at lunch, eating a burrito, watching a demi-god named Ismael strut across the yard in a Starter jacket.
There’s a hacking sound beside me and I turn in time to see yellow snot sprayed into a handkerchief. The man in the suit wipes his mouth. I pop out of my seat when I hear our flight announced for boarding.
Onboard and rising, I stare at the lights of San Francisco as we fly into the thin air. I’m excited, like being on a carnival ride (this is easy with stewardesses wearing cat-ears or witch hats). Mom’s frowning at a mystery novel and sipping on a vodka tonic. She senses my eyes. “This fascist airline,” she says, “No smoking! We’re on this plane for hours. I’ll go smoke in the bathroom, I will.”
I imagine running to barricade the bathroom and Mom yelling, “Fuck this fascist airline!” as they haul her away in handcuffs.
“Calm down,” she says. “I can wait. But I tell you, for the amount of money…” I tune her out and return to my thoughts about my lost middle school experience.
Forty-eight hours later and we’re in a one-room shack on the Big Island of Hawaii. We sit on foam mattresses, and beside me are my textbooks and notebook. Mom picks up her Aqua Net canister and unscrews the bottom to reveal a secret hidey spot. She pulls out marijuana and a packet of Zig-Zags.
“Where are you on your Calvert School lessons?” she asks.
“Aren’t you supposed to be my teacher?”
“Why if you can do it yourself? Lemme know if you have problems. I think you read just fine.” She lights a joint and blows smoke over her shoulder. “Did you even finish one lesson?”
“I’m on lesson three. I did two days of lessons just today!” I show her my notebook with its rows of multiplication facts, then the answered questions for Builders of the Old World, and notes from two chapters of Little Women.
“Nothing too hard?”
The idea that I could handle all these books and papers myself is a revelation. Weren’t adults always the bosses? I’m captain of my own ship from here on out.
Mom settles back to read her mystery novel and smoke her joint in peace. Her face is calm, and when she glances over, I’ve picked up Little Women and hide my smile behind it.
About the author:
Jessica Erica Hahn was born on a renovated WWII ship off the coast of Florida to globetrotting parents, but spent much of her life in San Francisco, where she lives to this day. She’s a special education teacher by trade, a mother of three little kids, a spontaneous traveler, and an avid reader. Links to her recent publications in Prick of the Spindle, Prime Number, Prime Mincer, Ontologica, Wordrunner E-Chapbooks, and Holy Cow! Press are found here.