By Nathania Seales Oh
Two days after my father’s funeral, I boarded a plane back to Atlanta. The ache on the right side of my abdomen had deepened. It felt like a sucking void. I marveled at how hot and thin my skin felt as I settled into my seat. Inside this fragile, transparent casing, I felt raw and exposed. The everyday defenses (turning one’s body away, crossing one’s arms, closing one’s eyes or blinking) that we erect as adults had been pulverized. My mind was in the midst of a battle between missing my father, hating him, wishing I understood him, and loving him too. I loved him in that primal child to parent way. It felt like I had spent so many years disappointed by him. But in those days, moments, breaths, I just wanted my dad—the one I had known as a child, the one who showered me with love and attention. I thought of him as infallible. I wanted the dad before the oceans of doubt, secrecy and manipulation washed away my adoration for him. It used to be the kind of relationship I dreamt of having with a child of my own.
My head felt as if someone held it underwater. Sounds were muffled; I was having trouble getting my eyes to focus. For the two-hour flight, I tried my best not to cry. I was imprisoned in a fragile shell worn from years of emotional battery. Parts of my psyche were smoothed, nearly transparent while other parts remained rough and jagged.
I pressed my face against the oval window and watched as we taxied and lifted from the rocky ground – my homeland. It was a view I had seen hundreds of times. White sand and gravel gave way to patches of green. Small boxy cars hugged the left-hand side of roundabouts. Pastel houses dotted labyrinthine roads. Red skinned men huddled together and leaned against short cinder block walls. The cluster of open-air buildings that made up the airport terminal was emptier than what I’d remembered. It was there on that deck, often with cocktail in hand, that my father greeted me whenever I landed in Grand Cayman. As we pulled into the sky, I could make out the front side where he would sometimes leave the car running at the Customs exit. On the far side, along the fence surrounding the airport, I could see Crewe Road, then Our Haven, the street on which we lived when I was growing up. Then all the buildings, houses, fields, rocky white coral, and exposed reef made way for the turquoise blanket of the Caribbean Sea.
In that moment, I wished the plane to plummet, to release its grip and plunge deep down into the ocean’s depths. I imagined the fuselage flooding with saltwater, rising as my body jerked forward and up, harnessed by the nylon strap across my lap. I could feel my fingers curling underneath the cool metal of the safety belt latch that would release me to a brine bath. Eyes closed, floating and weightless—it would be a baptism of sorts. Something, anything to cleanse me of this pain. A part of me had been permanently erased. My new state of being began to take hold. My throat began to close. I doubled over, pinching the amorphous wound in my side.
There were bouts of numbness intermingled with the pain. It was a metronome, a sway, a Newton’s Cradle of balled up emotion smacking back and forth against one another. I forced myself to focus on something else.
I reached for my laptop. It was new— a pretty silver 13” MacBook Pro I bought with my own money, because I finally had the means. The textures, soft and smooth and cool, were soothing to me. I ran my hands over the lid of the computer before lifting it open. I stared at the screen, icons and folders, organized and tidy. This too was satisfying. I was a chaotic mess, but my laptop was steady and serene. I rested my hands on the black lettered keyboard and stared forward. I had no intention of doing any work. However, sitting still and anchoring myself to this machine calmed me slightly. I went on this way for upwards of an hour—staring, hands resting, fighting back the tears. Eventually, I closed the lid and returned the pristine machine to its sleeve. I nestled it below my window armrest, between my seat and the wall.
After we landed, I made my way off the plane like an ant and followed the meandering line of people ahead towards Immigration and Customs. Then it hit me. I checked and re-checked my rolling suitcase, my gargantuan purse dubbed a “satchel,” the conveyer belt and x-ray where my items had just been scanned. I had left my laptop on the plane. I flailed my arms and felt myself folding down towards the ground. I was physically in the same position as my father during his psychotic break two decades earlier. Just as he had been, I lay in a crumpled heap in the middle of a bustling airport. Passengers stepped over and around me.
“Help. Help. I need help.”
The words came rushing out of my mouth. An Asian woman with hair pulled back in a tidy ponytail approached me. She was wearing a Customs uniform – white shirt, black pants. She didn’t smile. I wanted her to smile.
“What seems to be the problem, Ma’am?”
She stood over me; hands fixed on her belt. I didn’t so much stand as pushed myself away from the ground.
“I left my laptop on my plane. I just came in from Grand Cayman. I think I know exactly where I left it. It’s brand new. I literally just got it. My father died. I’m just coming from his funeral. Can we call the plane? Can I go back? I need to get my laptop. It’s brand new.” I was sputtering tears. Snot ran down my face and I made no effort to wipe it away.
“My father died. He’s dead.”
She continued resting her hands on the top lip of her regulation black belt and let out a deep sigh. For a moment, I mistook it for sympathy. I then realized there was no depth there. Her mouth held steady and straight. Like a dying flower, my spirit began folding in on itself.
“Okay, gather your belongings. Come with me.”
I hastily grabbed my satchel, roller bag and light blue travel sweater and followed her towards a small office in the corner.
“So, can I go back and get it? I know exactly where it is. I was in seat 23E. I just tucked it in between the armrest and the wall. I know that’s where it is. I’m not thinking straight. My father died. I’m just coming from his funeral. We just buried him two days ago. It was really sudden. He’s dead now, so…”
She didn’t so much glance back at me. Instead, she led me inside a tiny office and turned to me. Her almond eyes held steady. Thin blank lips knelt in a thin straight line. I wanted to punch her in the stomach. I felt like I was a ghost. She stared right through me. Her voice was flat, maybe even slightly annoyed.
“Do you have your boarding pass? What’s the airline and flight number you came in on? Grand Cayman, you said?”
I scrambled to retrieve my crumpled boarding pass from the depths of my satchel. She stood unaffected.
“Can I go back there? I know exactly where it is.”
“No, I can’t let you go back there. It’s a security issue. But I can call down to the plane and see if any of the crew are still there. They most likely won’t be, but we can try.”
I was bawling now. I couldn’t see to find my damn boarding pass. I knew with each minute that passed the likelihood of finding my laptop was diminishing.
She picked up the phone on her desk and called the gate where my plane presumably still stood. My tears had begun to fill up my ears, or so it felt. Sound was blanketed. Waiting was excruciating. The agent’s voice came back like an AM radio station coming into tune.
“Okay. Thank you. I’ll let her know.”
She turned towards me as she hung up.
“They don’t have it.”
Rationally, I knew this two-week-old laptop was just a thing. A metal case with some wiring and chips. But it had become symbolic of something larger. It represented my financial freedom, my ability to take care of myself. It was a channel to my creativity. It was an instrument on which I intended to do my writing. It was a vehicle on which I planned to transport my voice to a wider audience. It was a bullhorn in a 13 by 19-inch silver box – smooth, unblemished, cool under pressure. Now all of those things were lost.
“You can try reporting it to Baggage Services located in the front terminal, near Ticketing and Baggage Claim. You might get lucky.”
I stopped crying and looked at her with eyebrows raised.
“Really? You think so?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
And that was that. I made my way through the slog of escalators onto the terminal tram for five stops and to the front of the airport. Baggage services had no reports of a laptop and didn’t offer much hope. I was supposed to return to work the following morning. Losing my laptop confirmed what I had already been thinking. I wasn’t ready.
At home, I stood in front of the door to my condo and with shaky hands keyed the deadbolt open and collapsed on the couch. The muted blue paint and exposed brick of my walls reflected the way I was feeling – jagged and quiet. I let it wash over me – being home again. I felt safe here. This space belonged to me. Like the laptop, it represented financial security and independence. It was my refuge.
I arranged to work from home for the next couple of days and tried to quiet my heart. The pain in my side continued to feel like a hole – whistling and empty. I pressed my hands into the doughy flesh. The pressure gave me some relief, but not always.
On the second day of my self-imposed retreat, my phone rang. It was Rhonda, my half-sister . She was angry.
“I just wanted to let you know that Sandra is planning on writing an article telling our side of the story. She is very bitter and very angry and feels like the time has come for the truth to come out.”
“Hello to you too, Rhonda.”
I barely had the resolve to address her. I was still feeling vulnerable, incapable of protecting myself from further pain.
“Listen, Rhonda. I understand why Sandra is so angry. It isn’t fair. I don’t dare, for even a minute, to think any of this is fair. It’s awful, in fact. But, please don’t do this. Don’t let Sandra do this. Dad’s youngest child, Danielle—our youngest half-sister—is only nine years old. Do you really want her to find out this way? In a caustic, slanderous article?”
“Slanderous? At first, I thought it might be cruel to go about it this way. But after being there, on that rock you call an island. After being ignored and hiding in plain view like that. I think Sandra should publish the article. Our story has got to be told. It’s our turn.”
“Rhonda, you’re not listening to me. The person you’re angry with is no longer here. Innocent people will be the ones to get hurt. It’s not fair.”
“Fair? Let me tell you about fair. Life isn’t fair. Our father made sure of that. The life he handed my sisters and I, the life he orchestrated and controlled, was never fair.”
I lumbered through the night with little sleep. My father consumed my dreams. He lurked and stood and crouched and waited at every turn of mind. In the gauzy grey light of morning, I was already crying. He was still there, with me in my room. Drakkar Noir, his cologne, hung in the air. I curled into a tight ball and tucked my head beneath the covers to mask the smell.
I knew I couldn’t put off going into the office any longer, so I forced myself to shower. I felt unstable on my feet. I held the wall at the front side of my tub to steady myself. I had hoped for a baptism, but it felt more like a drowning. The water mixed with my tears as I crouched underneath the flow. I huddled there for a while, until the tears subsided. My body ached. The pain, which had lodged itself under my rib cage, crept to the center of my abdomen. It was right there in the middle, still whistling and black.
I draped my body with a tent of a dress, a sleeveless blue and white finger painting—patterned and streaked as if I’d been standing in the rain. Perhaps I was the one raining. I sleep-grieved my way to the office though I have no memory of driving. I made it through the labyrinth of concrete and glass to the elevator that would carry me to the third floor. I was weighed down by my sadness. I stood there with this gaping black hole clean through from my belly button to the middle of my spine and I felt sure everyone would see and be repelled by it. I was a ghost in broad daylight. I kept my body upright by leaning against the back of the empty wood paneled elevator, willing the doors to shut before anyone joined me. Just before they kissed close, a hand reached in, forcing them to bounce open again.
It was Vincent, Senior Writer/Boy Wonder/Cocksure Genius. He stood like a ball point pen—long skinny legs in dark denim, shaved head and black square glasses. As he saw me, his shoulders curled forward and down. My wound whistled from the wind pushing back to front. I swore he could see it, smell it, hear it. I wrapped my arms around my mid-section in a haphazard attempt to self-hug.
“Oh hey, Nathania. I’m so sorry about your dad.”
I stepped backwards and propped myself up against the rear wall of the elevator. The words “your dad” pinned me there. I managed a tempered smile and a quiet “Thanks” before fixing my eyes downward. They felt puffy and hot.
The rest of that day was an onslaught of words, soft and rushed from my co-workers. More powerful than their words were the empathetic looks. Scratch that. The looks weren’t empathy exactly. They were pity. By the time Cymonda, one of my closest work buddies, peered into the doorway of my office, I began to feel sorry for myself. She wrapped me in one of her comforting hugs and I let it all loose. There was no pretense. I was broken. I was humbled, and she held me up. Frankly, it was a relief. I hobbled through the remainder of the day and left early.
My brother Matthew called shortly after I got home.
“Sandra’s article is up.”
I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. I was standing in my living room and felt my body fold down onto my couch. I had trouble breathing. I tilted to the right and pinched my waist where the grief throbbed.
“How bad is it?”
“Oh, it’s bad. The whole island already in an uproar. Susan has gotten several phone calls. She just trying to shield Danielle. There are pictures too. I begged her not to do this, man. Dad’s not here to be affected by all dis. Is us.”
The article, couched as an op-ed or viewpoint, was entitled “The Missing Years” and had our half-sister’s birth name, Sandra K. She wrote of my father’s birth as well as his courtship and marriage to their mother. There was a baby album page copied in the article. It had black and white photos of my father, his first wife and Sandra herself as a baby. She outlined a timeline of his first three children’s births, the date he left Trinidad, notification of his fake death, post “death” sightings in Trinidad, and his subsequent marriages.
I slumped further into the couch. Puddles of despair were forming at my feet, creeping up my legs and kissing the hem of the tent dress I was still wearing. The water began filling the apartment. It lapped at my neck threatening to cover my head. I curled into a ball and between jags of crying and sticky half-sleep that stretched through the night and into the creaky morning. Nothing I can do. Nothing I can do. What will I do? Will I always feel this way?
All questions, no answers.
Originally from the Cayman Islands, Nathania Seales Oh lives, writes and teaches in Orange County, California after earning her MFA in nonfiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program just last year. She has been published in Coast Magazine of The Orange County Register, The Coachella Review and the Redlands Review. In between working on her first full-length memoir and volunteering with the Newport/Mesa ProLiteracy program, Nathania explores the world through food and travel with her husband and eight-year-old daughter by her side.
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