Right Where I Left It
Two weeks was all it took.
It was supposed to be three months, but after just two weeks I am bashing on the roller door of the Internet cafe that was supposed to open three minutes ago. My phone won’t work here – I didn’t activate roaming before I left – so the only way I can book anything is at an Internet cafe, or a computer in a library or something. I haven’t been able to find a library here but I did find this dinky little place, clearly targeting tourists like myself who saw the exorbitant roaming fees before they left home and refused to pay up. That’s what I told everyone before I left. The truth is, I knew if I had unfettered access to the Internet, there was no way my escape plan would work. I had to cut myself off from everything, everyone.
I tried so, so hard.
The roller door slides up and the expat with the undefinable accent who runs the place startles as I dart past him. The plastic chair presses a lattice pattern into the backs of my thighs as I sit down at a computer, surrounded by the hum and plastic-heat smell of machines. I open my email, hoping for word from home; a quick note, photos, something that tells me home misses me as much as I miss it. Nothing. No little chime. No blue dots. That world is turning without me.
I search frantically for a flight home that isn’t going to cost me a kidney, but I realise it doesn’t matter; I can use the money I planned to survive on here for three months. I’ve spent very little since I arrived. My room was in a simple, private house right on the water. I found it the day I arrived. Each morning I lifted the blind and the light dazzled me. The blue of the ocean and the blue of the sky, the sun already high and hot despite the early hour. So much light. Just what I needed to chase away the darkness. Instead it felt like burning, inside and out. Too bright, too much. My yearning laid bare in the harshness. I fought the urge, swimming against the riptide as long as I could, but it swept me away.
I book a flight home, departing that night. Full service airline. I write a quick email to my brother, leaving out the unimportant details and asking him to pick me up from the airport. Steve is usually lightning with replies to emails but I sign out straight away. I don’t want to answer the hard questions. Not yet. Tucking my printed e-ticket into my bag, I pay for my computer minutes and step out into the street, heaving with sweaty bodies and late morning traffic. One of my favourite street vendors has set up close by and I indulge in an early lunch of pancakes, with seams of rich condensed milk running through them cooked into sweet caramel that lingers on my tongue, burnt-sugar goodness. Elbows and shoulders press into me as I stand there licking my fingers.
It’s funny. I wanted some breathing room but I came to a place where the crowds can be crushing. I needed some time to think, so I rented a quiet room overlooking the water. Calm views, calm atmosphere. Somewhere to get out of my own head. In that room, with its white walls and white space, simple furniture and silence, I was more aware of my thoughts. I could see my old life so clearly, how much there was I needed to leave behind. Yet, laid out before me, it called to me like siren song. And like a sailor, try as I might, I couldn’t turn away. Each note dragged me a little closer, until I felt I was drowning.
Back in that quiet room, I take a long nap, then arrange my meagre possessions for packing. Looking at the small, neat piles, I wonder if a part of me always planned on going home early. There isn’t enough here for three months. The fabrics of my clothes – linen, denim, cotton – rub against the tips of my fingers as I stack and roll them, packing my suitcase like a game of three dimensional Tetris. I look out the window into the afternoon sun for the last time, running my eyes along the line where the blue of the sky deepens into the sea. I can feel disappointment, but I’m not sure whose it is.
It doesn’t matter now. I need to find a taxi.
I run the narrow maze of lanes and pathways, dull and lifeless after the brightness in my room, and burst out into peak hour. Cooking oil, diesel fumes, incense, and sweat blend into a peculiar fragrance as I weave my way through the throng of bodies and vehicles. I scan the tops of the cars for the illuminated sign I need and spy one approaching. With a wave of my hand, I hail the taxi and it stops with a screech, the driver wearing a predatory smile as he opens the door and makes to grab my bag. I haven’t learnt nothing in my time here though, and I keep my fingers on the handle of my case in an iron grip.
He asks me where I’m going. The smile doesn’t reach his eyes. I tell him the airport, but I want him to use the meter. He offers me a special price, 700. I know this is triple what the price should be.
I decline, keeping my fingers tight and my face expressionless. He cajoles me a little, but my skill at switching off bests his calculating charm. Recognising defeat, he gets back in his taxi and accelerates into the traffic like he’s driving a stolen car, which he could be. I repeat this battle of wits twice more. The fourth taxi driver I flag down readily agrees to use the meter, and at last I am on my way to the airport. I am now more than half an hour behind schedule.
The taxi sits frozen on the expressway. There is nothing express about this road, and my nerves fray as I watch the second hand on my watch go round and round, whirling away the minutes until my flight home leaves, and leaves me behind. The familiar creep of anxiety; the shallowing of my breath, the butterfly rhythm of my heart, the sensation of everything in the world squeezing against my body to make me feel as though it’s all too tight. That fine silver needle, rotating on my wrist, eating my seconds and serenity. I swallow imaginary sand and close my eyes, willing the dam to break, the river of vehicles to start flowing again. After endless minutes it does, but I am now officially running late and the danger of missing my flight is no longer a ghostly possibility. It’s solidifying. I don’t have time to count coins and I don’t care; I’ll never be back here again anyway. I fling a sweaty handful of crushed notes and slippery coins at the driver and break into a jog, leaving a plume of fear as my suitcase bounces along behind me.
And that’s it. I’ve missed my flight. My stomach boils; an angry sea is trying to escape it. My throat tightens and my eyes are all hot. I don’t know what to do. It all crashes back down on me at once, and I’m drowning. I can’t breathe. My sensible, practical autopilot kicks in, the one that convinces everybody I’m the ultimate in self-possession. Breathe in, two, three. Hold, two. Breathe out, two, three, four. Go to the desk and ask them to help you. I steady my breathing and approach the friendliest looking customer service officer wearing the colourful uniform of my airline. My voice wobbles as I ask for her assistance.
I explain what’s happened, and by the end of the story I’m pleading. She gives me a steely look. I’m probably the hundredth person who’s tried this today, but I’m telling the truth. There must be something in me that’s believable, because she makes a sudden decision; she hands me back my passport and tells me it’s not her call, so she can’t promise anything, but she’ll try to help. My weak smile betrays my pessimism, but I nod.
She’s back very quickly and finally something goes right, in all the wrong. The airline has agreed to take me. She processes my bag with rapid fire efficiency and hands me a boarding pass, before shepherding me on to customs and passport control. I get through without incident and head straight to the gate, where the purser is waiting for me.
He tells me it’s my lucky day; that the captain on this flight never delays. I smile back at him, my relief waving above me like a carnival flag as we walk along the air bridge. Stepping aboard the aircraft, I ask the purser to express my gratitude to the pilot for being a lucky penny in my unluckiest year.
I settle into my seat, fastening my seat-belt and stowing my bag under the seat in front of me. My mind floods with nothing and my body sags like a half deflated balloon. I’m going home, where the mess that couldn’t follow me still sits like spilled oil nobody bothered to clean up.
Amanda McLeod is an Australian author of fiction and poetry. Her words can be found in Terse Journal, Ghost Parachute, Elephants Never, along with being a now-regular contributor here at Sick Lit Magazine. McLeod is one of Sick Lit Magazine’s featured writers for the month of May. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has been long and shortlisted in a number of international competitions, and has won several prizes. She is also the assistant editor at Animal Heart Press where she enjoys helping authors bring their books into the world. When she’s not immersed in words, she’s a keen painter and enjoys quiet places. Connect with her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites