flight, 3

2002
Pacific Ocean

I finished my second cup of coffee while paging through my notebook, looking at the journal entries, notes, to-do lists I’d compiled over the last few months. I was careful not to spill. 

My grandmother sat next to me, eyes closed, head tipped back. I had a feeling that she was not actually asleep, but just resting that way. Sahngom was the word for that in Khmer. To close your eyes, be quiet, try to rest even when you didn’t feel like sleeping. When I was sick, or when I just didn’t want to go to bed, my parents would tell me to just sahngom. It often actually led to me falling asleep. The mind tricks we’re taught to play with ourselves. 

I was wired from the coffee, but tired. I started to write something like a letter to Kelly, telling her I missed her, of course. Except I wasn’t sure whether I meant the words. I had a hollow feeling in my belly. Not the hollow feeling of excitement to see her again, not the hollow feeling of remembering the warmth of her arms. A hollowness that signaled a kind of fear. Fear that I had left more than the city, the state, the country when I boarded the plane. Fear that there was something else in my leaving that I had not realized was there until I found myself already hundreds of miles away from what I had left.  

I passed the empty cup to the flight attendant walking down the rows collecting our food trays. I handed her my grandmother’s tray, my tray, folded up both our tables. If she noticed that I did that, she did not show it. I noticed that her mouth had fallen open slightly and knew that she was once again asleep.

Watching my grandmother sleeping reminded me of the many nights I had slept beside her when I was very young. We would watch those dramas together and I’m not sure how many of those nights she woke up to turn off the television set compared to how many of those nights I did. I still often fell asleep to a video of some kind playing in the background. 

I lay back to try to sahngom, hoping for sleep take me away from some of the anxious thoughts I was having. And of course, it was in that moment of relaxing that I realized my bladder needed to be emptied. 

I untucked myself from my blanket, unbuckled my safety belt, and slipped my shoes back on. I looked at my watch and saw that just over an hour had passed since we were served our breakfast and we were only through the first third of the flight. Many of the window shades had been drawn again as people tried to get more sleep. No matter how much sleep you had on a long flight, you’d still be fatigued at the end. It was just a way to pass the time. To hope for pleasant dreams, or to avoid the fear of catastrophe, or perhaps to not have to make conversation with the stranger sitting next to you. I could never get comfortable. The seats only tilted back far enough to tease your body into thinking it would be in a restful position. 

As I walked back down the aisle to the restroom, I saw that Lakhena was awake, reading, sitting with one leg bent, resting on the empty seat next to her, which now held a stack of books.  

“You’re lucky to have an empty seat next to you,” I said as I approached her row.  

She looked up and gave me a crooked half-smile. “Yeah.” She turned back to her book. I couldn’t see her expression. 

I had paused, anticipating that she might want to speak further, but her turning away was a clear sign. My face warmed a little from embarrassment and I continued on to the bathroom.  

Airplane bathrooms always made me feel claustrophobic and anxious. It was such a small space and you were in such a vulnerable position. Sitting there, I focused on taking deep breaths to try to avoid thoughts of some catastrophe happening. I finished and flushed. The toilet whooshed loudly as I washed my hands in the tiny sink. The mirror showed a bronze face with hints of turmeric. I had hoped to lose the girlish flesh rounding my cheeks when I reached adulthood, but it seemed that my features were not going to change as I’d hoped. 

Those cheeks were the source of many family comments. Meaun sacht, relatives would say, have flesh. That was the literal translation; the message I got was chubby. I had gone through a period of fad dieting in high school to try to change it. In college I tried using the school gym on a near-daily basis. As much as my body changed, my face didn’t, and I was fine with my average build anyway. As fine as any girl could be with her body, I supposed, in the grand scheme of things. I stopped avoiding carbs, quit the gym, and went on leisurely jogs a few times a month. 

I wondered what my relatives in Cambodia would say. More of the same. They’d comment on how big I was, what an adult I’d become. And they’d surely ask me if I were dating anyone and if I were planning to get married. 

When that thought occurred, I shook my head in the mirror, ran my hands through my straight, chin-length hair, rubbed my eyes and left the bathroom.  

I sighed to myself as I walked back down the aisle.  

“Hey, oun.” I turned toward Lakhena, surprised to hear that term from someone my age. Little sister? Or dear? Which did she mean? Familiar Khmer terms mixed with English. I was confused by it, not sure whether I was reading too much into it, not sure why the thought would even occur to me. “Sit for a minute?”

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