The first time that she had gone on her own, she was fifteen. She would leave on the Thursday night. For two days she made herself meals and woke herself up in the morning and Jade and Elena came over and they pretended to be grown ups and went to bed later than they should have.
On the last night she stayed up really late. She didn’t invite anyone over. All alone in the house that was big and dark warm and high ceilings quiet, she packed her suitcase.
She stood in her room. She stood in her underwear. She played music that moved down the stairs into all of the rooms of the house.
She looked at the black tree garden and the night lit street below.
The next day she left for the airport in the almost dark. She had everything that needed to be printed printed out and folded (boarding pass, boarding pass) plus all the other things (passports, phone, charger, adapter, wallet) in her handbag front inside pocket and was wearing dark grey jeans and a jumper, her little roller suitcase handle in her hand.
She locked the back door and before she left she went and re-checked and unlocked and relocked the back door. She turned the water and the heating off. She stood in the corridor. She looked at the too small adultperson in the mirror. She put on her shoes.
As she walked down the street to the high street and the tube station, she thought, this is the last cold air for the rest of the year. She jug jugged up the Northern Line in the opposite direction to the commuter traffic to Stockwell, then Green Park which has that long interchange and then down the Piccadilly Line, the carriage slowly filling with suitcases until the tube ran above ground. They were in the suburbs. This was where they filmed Bend It Like Beckham. She could hear the sounds of the planes taking off. She got to the airport tube station with three hours to go. She had timed it all perfectly and everything had come on time. Alone in the airport fifteen years old she did the sensible thing and immediately checked in her bag. Standing alone in the wide airport lobby, she smoothed down her shirt and she found H in the big yellow A—K letters. She held her passport and her boarding pass in the queue of people wearing winter clothes and coats and pushing trolleys with big cases. At the counter she did minimal speaking. Yes. Thank you. São Paulo. Via Madrid. Thanks. Her small light suitcase came in at 7 kilograms. Twenty kilograms was far too much. That was a lot of shampoo and conditioner and presents to be packing. A woman called Miranda with the necktie and little hat taptap typed and spoke to her in English. Yes. Thank you. São Paulo. Via Madrid. Thanks.
At security she put the toiletries that she had with her in the plastic bag. Lip balm and mini toothpaste only. They didn’t search her because they never searched her. She waited in the queue. She took her shoes off and on. She passed through quickly.
On the other side, she stood under the big screen.
The airport alone for the first time was exciting.
There was a promise on the other side of security. Everyone there was waiting to go somewhere. All the rows and rows of shops. She could move light and unencumbered. It was so brightly lit you couldn’t see the solstice winter outside. Her handbag was light and everything inside it was in the right pockets. There was always a bookshop and shelves and shelves of perfume and lipstick and lipliner and smelly creams and sunglasses and Christmas music was playing (last Christmas I gave you my heart)
She stood under the big screen. It asked her to Please Wait. She thought about the debit card in her wallet and all the stretching spare pre-flight time she had. She could sit in a restaurant and at a table and eat a meal. She could go into any of the shops and buy one small thing.
She held her bag tight to her body. She looked around herself. If she sat in a restaurant she could sit on her own at a table and order a starter, and then a main. She could even do it on the stopover in Spain although it would probably be too late at night.
The airport alone was exciting. The screen would still say Please Wait for another fifty minutes at least.
She walked to the make up section in duty free. She touched the fancy lipsticks. She took the lid off a tester and looked at it. Were you allowed to put them directly on your mouth? Was that gross?
She twisted the lipstick up and down.
Can I help you?
The shop assistant looked over at her.
She shook her head. No. No. Thanks. She waited.
The shop assistant went back to the till.
She looked back at the shop assistant. She smeared a line of the lipstick on the back of her hand like she’d seen her vovó do in the mall. She took the lid off a slightly darker one and smeared another line on her hand. She had owned her own lipsticks before but never one of these expensive ones that came in another box outside of their plastic box. She thought about Jade and which lipstick Jade would buy.
She took the twenty pound note her dad had given her in case of a terrible emergency and spent it on a greasy cuboid of lipstick paint the colour of bright red.
She went back to the big screen and looked up at it.
There would be two flights and this was the first flight. To Madrid. Sometimes they went via Lisboa. It was much cheaper to go via somewhere like this, although it was still not cheap.
She went into the bookshop. She spent eight pounds of her own on a book that she had already read.
At the beach this year maybe she would talk to one of the boys on the beach, one of the ones who surfed or went there in the evenings. How old were they? Her age? Older? Maybe a mixture. Or she could go to the beach in the afternoon without her mum or her aunty and buy a little latinha of beer from the stall that cut open coconuts for coconut water and drink it alone with her feet in the sand and then go back to the house.
I can do that, she thought.
I can do that.
(never have I never have I ever ever ever)
When they called her gate she moved through the cold spaces that became more and more metal holding her bag, and inside it her new book and her lipstick. She sat at the end of the big terminal box. The plane wasn’t boarding yet.
On the walk to the gate she had passed a British Airways flight direct, not to São Paulo but to Rio de Janeiro, nearly finished boarding. Última Chamada. She imagined a British Airways direct flight would be very nice. All the seats and curtains and safety information chequered red and blue. This was the flight that gringo bank robbers, their blonde girlfriends wearing sunglasses, got at the end of films.
She could tell from the colour of their skin and eyes and hair and height that the people getting that flight were all going for one-off two- or three-week holidays, they would be trying to see as many new different bits as possible because they’d always wanted to see Brazil—but it is such a big country, Foz Iguaçu, Jesus on the mount, maybe even a boat trip down the Amazon, Christmas at a hotel can you imagine
What they did was the opposite. The three of them went re-went to the same place with the same people and did the same things every year. And the things that changed they changed in the gaps between the Christmases—more white hair, less hair, a new boyfriend, a lost job, more chairs on the beach, a new hotel traffic traffic traffic
They were boarding. She opened her book and closed it. She texted Jade and Elena. She texted her mum.
She sat in the little plane and it moved across the concrete.
But this was only the first flight, she didn’t bother getting comfortable on the first flight. Just put her bag under her chair, avoided all eye contact and got her book out. What would even happen if she didn’t turn her phone off? She kept her shoes on. She didn’t try to sleep. This was only the first flight. It didn’t matter if she was stuck by the window and there were never any little screens.
But already on the first plane there was a shifting. People she had seen wearing big fleeces and speaking English at the check-in desk were speaking Spanish and Portuguese. Some people had way too much stuff. The plane began to move away from the airport building. On this two, three-hour journey what could really go wrong; there were many smaller European airports around whose runways could be vacated for emergency landings. The noise began. They took off. Whoosh.
The layover in Madrid was quick—only an hour and a half. She had been right—they were an hour ahead so it was already nighttime and the shops and restaurants were closed. She walked through Madrid airport past the closed shops and security. She knew it very well by now. She moved through it and through it more quickly on her own. She did not, even for one tiny second, consider walking out of the building and not getting on the next plane.
She went to the gate at the end of the big glass terminal but they weren’t boarding.
People gathered by her gate and the opposite gate. Between them there was a little glass smoking booth like she’d only ever seen in Europe. She could go into the smoky smoking booth. All the shops were shut. But someone in there would give her a cigarette. She felt nervous. She had thirty minutes. Outside the airport building glass was totally dark.
She opened the booth door. Two young men inside looked at her. They both had slicked back blonde hair. They smiled at her. Oh. She made a face like she was lost and had made a mistake and closed the door. She walked back to the seats by the gate and sat back down. They wouldn’t get on her flight. Her fingertips were moving. They didn’t look like they would be getting on her flight. All her clothes would have smelt like smoke for the rest of the journey what had she been thinking.
She sat at the end of the big glass terminal at the end of the night and waited until the end of the queue. All the families moved around her.
Where is my bag?
Where is my boarding pass?
Where is my child?
Where is the toilet?
To avoid standing in the long queue she boarded last and for a moment she was the last person sitting on the seats at the end of the long and tall glass building which was tall as a house.
In the square metal tunnel, which was cold, there was another queue. She let the air steward point out her seat in Spanish as if she didn’t already know what the number letter meant.
When she boarded the second plane, she felt a real shifting. These were the people making her journey. Some of them she had seen wearing fleeces speaking English at the check-in desk in London but now they were speaking Portuguese, beginning to take off their cold cold weather clothes. Looking around as she found her seat the people in the plane had less height, had darker hair and browner eyes. There were more babies and more people with way too much stuff. A whole family sitting in the wrong row.
She didn’t understand how so much hand luggage was allowed. So much stuff that was weird shapes. People were jiggling babies on their lap and passing bags across the rows and the kids called out for mamãe, papai. Little children making the cramped seats look big. We’re going to see Vovó!
She found her seat and sat in it, her compact bag under her compact chair. She was sitting next to a woman in the middle section by the aisle. She put her book in the little ap. The man behind her held a baby out to the woman next to her. She looked at them. She motioned to the man that they should swap seats.
She looked across the aisle out of the porthole window. The tiny wheels pulled them from the terminal. The plane was still. She listened for the sound.
This was the flight. This was the flight. On this flight, the long long long haul iflght, as the plane pushed off from the airport terminal in Madrid in the night, she took her shoes off and tucked them under the seat in front of her. She put the big soft socks on. She took her book and her toothbrush and her phone out of her bag and put them into the little pocket. She turned her phone off. She unwrapped the blanket and wrapped it around her body and while the lights were still on and the plane paused at the top of the runway she did her seat belt and tucked the blanket in under her thighs and under her feet.
The noise began.
After wide airport lobbies, rows of shops along concourses, gated spaces around gates, the huge letters A—F, long glass walls the height of houses, slow tired late early hour queues and the seating areas around the gates, the coldness in the tunnel, the stupid little buses, the sucking puckered mouth of the plane, the rickety movable staircases, the durrrr durrrr durrrr of the engine, the last of the cold English air
The noise began.
And then, in the dark after the meal when all the people in the plane were quiet, only then she felt the great loneliness open up, some distance beneath her the distance beneath her, the great grey at of the sea below her, which moved wide and with no visible waves.
Here was the wide mouth, the big open bellied loneliness of the Atlantic.
Excerpted from Stubborn Archivist. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2019 by Yara Rodrigues Fowler.