Things American: In the Air, Election Night 2016

Ross Parmly airplane wing - In the Air by Virginia Reeves

My ears won’t pop, and the bites on my right arm itch, my arm and neck—red flares I can’t ascribe to any particular predator, just marks of Texas. I get a second tiny bottle of whiskey. My taller-than-me daughter sleeps against my shoulder, too old these days, too grown up.

We are over the Rockies, Denver to Helena, a tiny plane half full. I get the second whiskey because the flight attendant asks if I want another before she closes out her till. No flight attendant has ever asked me this. I will always have another if offered.

The flight from Austin to Denver was the most beautiful I’ve experienced, brilliant gold sun setting in the west, a nest of cloud beneath us, sky above and around—if there is a heaven, we were near it. Hannah and I took a photo of ourselves. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said, her face still red from crying.

This is the second time I’ve ripped her from her home.

When we decided to move back to Montana, Hannah was the only reluctant member of the family. My husband was ready—his company already there, anxious for him to deliver in person what he’d been doing remotely for seven years. My youngest daughter was ready, though she was the most acclimated of all of us. In Austin, she’d attended Metz Elementary, a public school that was ninety-five percent Hispanic. We put her in the Spanish class when she started, and she stayed in one until we took her away. Her teachers were second mothers to her, her friendships strong. She is fluent in Spanish, this pale, blond child of mine. For Hispanic Heritage month, she played Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a classroom play. Her best buddy Kaylynn played the reporter interviewing her. Kaylynn’s family was solely Spanish-speaking, save for her big sister, who served as translator when I dropped off and picked up. One day, Margot came home and said, “Mom, am I Latina?”

“No,” I replied, “far from it.” We talked about the dangers of co-opting a culture not your own. She understood.

It was a misguided question, possibly insensitive, but I still love that she asked it, so deeply immersed in her community that she could mistake her own identity.

Even with all of this, Margot was ready to go back to Montana. Like me, she hates heat and humidity and bugs. Since Luke had kept his job in Helena, we were fortunate to get to go back to the mountains every summer, and again, like me, Margot found herself at home in the wilderness, the dry air, the quiet. “No one should live here,” she often said of Texas, deep in the throes of August heat, mosquito bites peppering her skin.

I am still drinking my second tiny whiskey. The plane is still in the air. Hannah’s head is still on my shoulder. The mountains hide themselves in darkness. The sky dots with stars.

Hannah never wanted to leave Austin. She protested right up to the last day, moving van full, ready to pull out. “We could,” she said, “just stay?”

We left.

Margot, Luke, and I raised a glass to the bright, beautiful Montana future awaiting us. Hannah didn’t toast. She’d been crying for months. She cried more.

On one of those nights, a month or so before the actual move, in an attempt to comfort her sobs, I asked, “What are you afraid of?”

She said, “I’m afraid I’ll forget how much these people mean to me.”

It guts me still. Reality proves that physical distance prompts emotional distance—even in the face of the strongest love, we can forget; sometimes, we should forget. But the act of forgetting, the letting go—it’s anguish.

Hannah knew this early, and she mourned it.

I didn’t.

But we’re both in mourning now—all those people we love in Austin so far from us, a country away. I did not mourn early enough, often enough. My skin has not thickened. And so, tonight I feel what can only be described as irreparable loss.

The whiskey is gone.

Hannah has awoken from her nap and now writes in her journal. She won’t share what she’s writing, but she shows me the first page, where she’s written, “We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join in with them and fall into mutual weirdness and we call it love.”

A quote she read on one of the many accounts she follows.

“If someone found this journal,” she says. “That’s the first thing I’d want them to know about me.” What would I know if I were that stranger? Here is a girl who recognizes the oddness of love?

We are beginning our descent.

Hannah went to the same elementary school as Margot, but she started later—third grade. I did a writing project with her class in the spring of her first year. They wrote beautiful poetry that we made into beautiful books. They did block prints in their art class for illustrations, self-portraits to go along with their poems about embodied emotion, inspired by Pablo Neruda’s “Somos Muchos” (“We Are Many”). Enrique wrote, “When I am Mad/ I wear a red shirt/ with a mad face./ I have a giant dog,/ as big as a desk.” Jesús wrote, “When I am Shy/ I wear something that will cover my entire body. The color is blue./ I ride a boat by myself, soft and loud./ I have a gray rat, the size of a marble.” Their poetry staggers me.

Hannah’s best friend from that time is undocumented. Her parents, too. Only the little sister is a citizen, born on US soil.

Eduardo Sanhueza was their teacher. He is one of the most brilliant teachers I’ve ever known—firm, yet caring, deeply committed, wise, funny. He reawakened a love of learning in Hannah. She’d spent first and second grade at an affluent, predominantly white elementary school near the University of Texas, where she’d learned that she was bad at math—an indictment I feared she’d never shake. Her math teacher once marked a problem wrong because Hannah said two sides of an object were “the same” instead of “equal.” Sanhueza put fact families into houses—literally, little illustrated houses—he gave them narratives. Turns out, Hannah’s all right at math.

Eduardo Sanhueza is part of my family’s story.

He was born in Chile.

Our tiny plane shudders. The seat belt light dings, and the large awkward fellow in front of me rises again to use the restroom. Reaching for the back of my seat, he misses and grabs my shoulder. He doesn’t acknowledge the breach, his hand on my collarbone, the most intimate of places. He pushes off, heaving himself down the narrow aisle, brushing people accidentally, missing other seatbacks.

Portent was a vocabulary word for my 8th graders when I taught. We read The Odyssey together, Romeo and Juliet, The Heart of the Sea.

portent |ˈpôrˌtent| noun: A sign or warning that something, especially something momentous or calamitous, is likely to happen . . . 

While we were away, a small band of thirteen-year-old hoodlums broke into Hannah’s high school and set a fire in a janitor’s closet that decimated most of the math wing. The school is closed. Cleaning crews are working furiously.

“I don’t believe in signs,” Hannah says, “but if ever there was a sign I wasn’t supposed to go back, it’s my goddamned school burning down.”

When we’re alone together, we openly curse.

I don’t believe in portents, either, but still—that man’s hand on my shoulder, that offered whiskey, that loud down-peddling of the engines, the bug bites, the heartache, the fire, my devastated daughter.

We are unmoored, untethered. I’ve often used these words to describe how I feel, but they are literal right now. We are in the air. And the moment is as personal as it is far-reaching. Hannah and I are in between homes, torn between competing desires and priorities. Our country is, too, and for the last few minutes of this flight, nothing is decided. We float in our sea of unknowing.

And I am clinging to that moment still. I know we will land and taxi to one of the four gates at Helena’s tiny regional airport. The other half of our family will be waiting for us, and we will fold ourselves into their arms, grateful to be back with them. The high school will reopen, the routines resume. There will be a president-elect, and I will grieve the news like a death. I will be angry. I will cry. I will spend some time with denial. And I know I will eventually rally around a new course. I will.

But right now, I’m still on that half-full plane, mountains below me, Texas behind, the great unflinching cavern of space above, daughter beside, whiskey within. I cannot land. Not yet.


Virginia Reeves_by Thom Bridge_In the AirVirginia Reeves is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin. Her debut novel, Work Like Any Other was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and Booklist named it to their Top 10 First Novels of 2016. After seven years in Austin, she recently returned to her hometown of Helena, Montana, with her husband, two daughters, and three-legged Pit Bull.




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