I’ve never flown before. Not by myself. I’ve been watching a lot of shows about flying lately, so I’d know what to expect. I shouldn’t have done that because they don’t really make shows about uneventful flights. So now I’m doing something new, I’m all alone, and I’m scared. I think I’d almost rather just stay home.
But I can’t and I’m here, sitting in this plane, waiting for the flight attendant to tell us how to buckle our seat belts properly, beside a skinny, frizzy-haired woman who looks just as afraid as I am. It helps me to think that we’re all afraid of something.
“Are you by yourself?” she asks.
“How old are you? Where are your parents?”
“I’m 12. I’m going to visit my dad. My mom is…my mom is um…at home. At her house.” The woman’s eyes scrunch up like she was thinking too much. I should really practice answering that question.
“I’m not going to visit my dad. I’m going to live with him. My mom doesn’t want me anymore. She says she never wanted me, but my dad just left and she had no choice but to keep me. But then I was going through her drawers one day looking for something to borrow and I found a letter.” I pause for a second, out of breath.
“Slow down, slow down. You know, uh, you don’t have to tell me this, sweetie, if you don’t want to.”
“I’m sorry. I just…I don’t have anyone else to talk to and you look nice.” I look down at my hands and pick at what’s left of my blue nail polish. She put her hand on mine and pats them gently.
“It’s ok. You can talk, but you should always know who your talking to. My name is Jen. What’s yours?”
“Um, my friends call me Jen, too. That’s not my name, but it’s what people call me.”
“Jen it is, then. Now, sweetie, you can talk to me if you want. We’ll be next to each other for about two hours. You can talk to me about whatever you were going to talk to me about, but you don’t have to.”
I look at my hands again and don’t look up this time.
“I found a letter. It was from my dad. It said that he didn’t know that I had even been born. It sounded angry. Like he was mad at my mom for something. I think she didn’t tell him that she was going to have me and then he left before she could. My mom always told me that my dad left her after I was born because he didn’t want to be a dad. That it was my fault he left and that if I hadn’t been born, they would still be together. But in the letter, he said that he wanted to know me. That he wanted to meet me. And then there was some stuff that hurt my feelings. A lot. In the letter he said ‘if you don’t want her as much as you say you don’t want her, then give her to me.’ I knew my mom didn’t like me very much because she always yelled at me and never smiled, but I didn’t know she didn’t love me, that she didn’t want me. I didn’t know that.”
My voice was crackling, so I stop for a drink. I look at the other Jen and she’s still looking at me, her eyes are still scrunched up.
“So, when I finished reading the letter, I looked up my dad’s phone number on the internet. I had his name from the bottom of the letter and his address from the return label on the back of the envelope. He answered the phone right away, but he didn’t sound happy. I think he thought I was my mom. But when I said who I was, he started to cry. I never heard a man cry before. We talked on the phone for hours and the whole time he was crying. I didn’t cry though. I don’t ever cry.”
Except I am now. Other Jen hands me a napkin and I wipe my eyes and blow my nose.
“Sorry. I don’t ever cry.”
“It’s ok. I don’t ever cry, either.” She is totally crying. Grownups are the worst liars.
“A few days later, my mom saw that I had called him because the phone bill was really high. She started yelling at me really bad about sneaking behind her back. She said if I wanted to know my dad so much, I should just go and live with him. It was just so easy for her to say it, too. Like she had been thinking it for a long time, but she was still so angry when she said it to me. Like she had been hoping something like this would happen.
“She must have called my dad when I was at school the next day because when I came home, there was a suitcase at the door with some of my stuff in it. She said I was going to go and visit my dad and if I liked it there and if my dad liked me, too, that I could stay. She said that if my dad didn’t like me, he could send me back, but he better put some money in my suitcase because he owes her a lot. But it’s not his fault, you know. He didn’t know about me. He probably would have paid her money before if he had known about me. But she didn’t care. If I come back, I better have money in my suitcase, is what she said.”
I take another drink. I blow my nose again. So does Other Jen. It’s cool that she does talk much. My mom talks too much and it’s never anything nice. I’ve heard other people say ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’, but I don’t think Other Jen isn’t saying anything because she doesn’t have anything nice to say. I think she’s just letting me talk. I like her.
“I hope my dad likes me. I don’t want to go back.”
I put my hand in my pocket and feel the picture of my dad my mom gave me. She said it’s older than I am, but he probably looks almost the same. She gave it to me so I’d know who he was when he picks me up at the airport.
“I’m sure he’ll love you, Jen. Any parent worth his or her salt loves their children, whether they’ve met them or not.”
“My mom doesn’t love me.”
“Well…I don’t know your mom, but I’m sure she loves you. And if she doesn’t, she doesn’t deserve you anyway. Your dad, though. He sounds really cool. He’s going to be great. I just know it.”
“Thanks. I hope so. I really don’t know much about him other than he wants me to live with him and my mom doesn’t, so I have to at least give him a chance, right? I’m 12. What choice do I have?”
“You know, you’re a pretty fantastic girl. This is brave. All of this. So brave. Even flying by yourself. Did I tell you that I’ve never flown before? This is my very first time.”
I knew she was afraid, too. We’re all afraid of something.
You sit next to a stranger on an airplane. It’s a short flight, but you hear the most interesting story from him/her during that trip. What did he/she tell you?
I changed the narrative and made the stranger the first person and me the second. I hope it still counts.