Jacqueline MasumianI had begged her to stay. But her bag and carry-on were packed and sitting in the front hall. It had been so sweet of Chloe to travel home for the holidays, but I’d hardly gotten to see her. She was up in her room with her computer most of the time, writing some report she said she had to finish; she only came down for meals. It was like high school when she’d studied so hard and then made dates with her friends and was almost never home. And college, when her breaks were so short. Now she was leaving again, in spite of my pleading.
I couldn’t understand why my daughter, our only child, had had to take a job in Chile, that godforsaken country. As far away as she could possibly be. Because she was bright and bi-lingual, I suppose, and wanting to see the world and have a good job. The first time she’d gone down there, nearly eight months ago, I cried the whole way home from the airport. I felt my heart had been ripped from me, knowing she was flying to that foreign country, an impossibly long distance away. And now Tomas, the boyfriend, the one who couldn’t travel home with her, claiming he had to stay in Chile to be with his parents for Christmas. He’d become a factor, too. And Paul, my loco husband, who had actually encouraged Chloe to take the job and now seemed perfectly content that she was going back to it.
I wiped the tears from my face and pulled a coat from the closet. Chloe and her father stood and watched me as I buttoned up and threw on a scarf.
“Let’s get going,” Paul said, grabbing his keys.
All the way to the airport I tried to keep quiet, but finally, the words burst out, “What if there’s another earthquake?”
Earthquakes were a constant threat in that country. On a website, you could see a long list of Chilean earthquakes. You could track them daily, read each one’s magnitude and length. After one disaster there were pictures on the news of a jagged-edged line slicing through the earth, leaving a gaping hole, cars and trucks tumbling from bridges like battered toys, and people running, screaming.
“Mom, everything’s good,” said Chloe. “No earthquakes today. I called the airlines this morning. All clear for takeoff and landing.” Her voice had that sarcastic tone I hated but had come to accept. From the back seat, I could see only one side of her face and her long sleek black hair held with a tortoiseshell clip. When she was little, I’d pull her gorgeous tresses back with a pink elastic band and add a ribbon. Her hair smelled like mangoes. We were so close back then.
“It’s just a question of time before another one, Chloe. You know that. It scares me to death.”
“Mom, …” She abandoned her sentence and stared out the window as billboards flew by along the interstate.
Paul said nothing. If he had asked her to stay, she would have, of course. She would have listened to him. But he drove along, checking his rear-view mirror and pressing buttons on the steering wheel to switch the news channels. He did not say one word. I slid my fingers up and down my seat belt strap to settle my nerves.
After our heated discussion the night before, I’d thought surely she would have decided to stay home with us. And I would take good care of her, and we’d never have to worry about earthquakes again.
“You’re staying, right?” I’d said, trying to sound casual as I gathered crumbs from the kitchen table.
She looked at me, her coffee cup to her lips, and shook her head. “No, Mom. I want to get home.”
“What do you mean? This is your home.”
“Mom, I have another life now. My apartment in Santiago. Tomas. My job.”
“Why do you have to work for that company?”
“Mom, it’s my job. It’s what I want to be doing.” She was their Manager of Media Services. Or maybe it was Director of Media Systems. I had no idea what she did, what her responsibilities were. She’d tried to tell me more than once, but I couldn’t make any sense of it, though I pretended I could. After all the struggles to make sure she found a college she liked, convincing her to choose one nearby, and seeing her through her first few jobs, to have her traipse off to the end of the world was a cruel joke.
“I just don’t see-”
“Mom, please! Stop!”
Paul walked in just then. He kissed the top of Chloe’s head. “Don’t worry, sweet pea, it’s just that empty nest stuff.”
“Dad-” she warned.
I exploded. “I told you, Paul, don’t you ever mention that phrase to me. I’m sick of it.” Even my friends hauled out that insipid expression, trying to calm me but making me want to scream. They didn’t know how it felt to have the air sucked out of me, knowing my daughter was so far away. To be left with my bones and flesh but no breath, no blood. An emptiness, a hunger, but not for food. To wander around that big house, looking for signs of her, fluffing the pillows on her bed. Feeling like a fool.
“But I didn’t say the word ‘Syndrome,’” he said with a jaunty smile, his index finger pointing up for emphasis.
“You...” I nearly said “bastard” but held back in front of Chloe. “Just because I care about our child’s safety.”
He stopped me cold. “Lena, honey, we’ve been all over this. Chloe, you’re all packed?”
Shut out again, all I could do was sit at the table and pray.
The noise and confusion at the airport rattled me. Trailing after Chloe, we watched her navigate her check-in like she’d done it all her life.
“OK. Security’s this way!” she said, as though leading us to a candy store at the mall.
“I’m going to the ladies room,” I said.
“Mom, I’ve got to board in forty-five minutes.”
“I know, but I’m going to the ladies room. Wait for me.” I found a restroom way down the hall. I didn’t need to go. I just wanted her to stay a little longer. I leaned over the sink and stared at myself. Black hair pulled back, one conspicuous silver streak dividing my skull nearly in half and wisps of gray billowing around my ears. The portrait of a wild woman. I licked my palms and slicked back the loose hairs. And said another prayer.
They were waiting for me, Chloe swaying from side to side, her carry-on slung across her shoulder. She was so delicate, so fragile. Her long slender fingers caressed the strap of her bag.
“Mom, come on. Security’s along here.”
Security. Ridiculous. These people couldn’t keep our child safe. Nobody could.
“Well, I guess this is it!” Chloe chirped. Guards were checking passports and directing passengers to security lines. “Mom, Dad, thanks for bringing me. I’ll Skype as soon as I can.” I thanked God for that, unsatisfactory as it was with those fuzzy images of my beautiful girl. Chloe went on tiptoe to hug her dad. When she put her arms around me, though, her embrace felt restrained, more pushing away than pulling to. I pressed my fingers into her back. It flitted through my brain to ask a guard if I could go to the gate with my daughter. She was my child, I’d raised her. Maybe they’d let me see her right to the plane. But Paul put his arm around my shoulders, blew a kiss to Chloe, and we watched as she made her way through the maze of security and was gone.
As we walked to the car, he took my upper arm and pulled me along. I was moving too slowly, he said. We had to get across lines of traffic to where we’d parked. By the time we reached the car, I was sobbing.
From the driver’s seat, he turned to me. “Lena, honey, get ahold of yourself. I’ll miss her too, you know.”
“Earthquakes, Paul, earthquakes!” What was wrong with him?
“Elena, now listen to me. We’ve been over this again and again. The last major earthquake was months ago. Chloe and Tomas were safe, nowhere near it. You know most of the quakes down there are nothing but tremors. Why can’t you get that through your head?”
He was losing patience again. I wiped my nose and nodded, staring down at the console between our seats. The line of the handbrake, a perfect divider. The gap between the seats, a crevasse. He’d let our daughter go without a word. He’d never objected, just let her go. Together we should have been able to convince her to stay close. As a unit, we’d have been stronger. He was the cause of this catastrophe.
“Buckle up, honey,” he said, oblivious to the fact I’d slumped into the car door, my head pressed against the cold window. I pulled the seat belt across my chest and listened for the familiar click. This could not go on.
All the way home, staring ahead at the dash, dash, dash of white lines on the asphalt, I was thinking and planning. I kept imagining what it was going to be like, living in that big house all by myself, after getting rid of the man who’d denied me my daughter.
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