Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chapter One

     "This reminds me of storms at home," Phia told Robert, pointing at the huge, splattering raindrops pelting the Plexiglass airplane window.  The clouds over the JFK runway hung low, crowding the sky like steep, black hills. obscuring any view of the city.
     "This is not Seattle rain," Robert snapped.
     "I wasn't talking about Seattle," Phia answred.  Robert had been irritable since an early morning argument in Barcalong, when he'd wanted to go to Bar Ra, one of the trendy cafes from the guidebook that they hadn't tried, a last tick on his all-important list.  But Phia had insisted on eating in the hotel resaurant, wanted a simple, relaxing meal before having to catch the airport shuttle.  Robert had let her win, but Phia'd been paying for that victory all day.  It will be good to get back to our separate houses, Phia thought as she closed her eyes and tried inhale kind thoughts about Robert.  But traveling over the past two weeks had left little to recommend him, except for the sight of his long legs when he ran.
     "So are you from Seattle?" the man sitting in the aisle seat asked Phia.
     She shook her head. "The Palouse--in eastern Washington."
     "She's is from Seattle," Robert said, looking up from his magazine.  "She hasn't lived in eastern Washington for twenty-five years." He wet his finger, then flicked the page.
     "I've never heard of the Palouse," the man said after an awkward silence.  "What's it like?"
     Phia pictured her family's wheat farm.  "Deep rolling hills that turn from rich brown to bright green to gold as the wheat grows.  Real seasons--you know, winters with snow, and hot, dry summers."
     The man smiled.  "Sounds great.  I moved to Seattle from Pittsburgh six months ago, but I haven't been out of the city yet--haven't seen much of anything except rain."
     The plane's engines roared and Phia reached into her purse for gum.
     "So you have family there, in the Palouse?" the man asked, unwrapping the gum she offered.
     "A whole clan," Robert cut in.  He snapped his gum, a habit that had annoyed Phia for the past two years.  Two years too long, Phia thought bitterly.  "She never goes home, though," Robert continued.  He smiled, his teeth white against the dark tan he carefully cultivated.  "But why would she? We have mountains, the ocean, the original Starbucks." Robert lifted the long, dark braid off Phia's shoulder and stroked it down her back.  "Sure, it rains now, but wait until summer--you'll see.  You run?"
     "The man shook his head.  "Not much."
     "You should," Robert said.  "We just ran the Barcelona Marathon.  Did pretty well--PR for me.  Phia here could have done better--needs to pace more evenly, I keep telling her.  You know, I could get you hooked up with our club."  He pulled a card from his wallet. "Running would do you good, if you don't mind me saying."
     "Robert!" PHia slapped the card to the floor. "Sorry," she mumbled to the man.
     He raised his eyebrows and opened the book on his lap, some self-help guide, Phia noticed with a measure of disgust.
     Robert returned to his magazine.  His hand on her back made Phia's skin crawl, and she let her weight fall back on his hand until he had to wrench it from behind her back.  I am from the Palouse, Phia thought as the place raced down the runway and surged into the storm.  Watching the rain pummel the window, she thought of how much she'd loved watching thunderstorms roll over the hills in the Palouse, surrounded by her family huddled together on the front porch.  But here, the plane was moving through a dark cave of menacing clouds and there was nothing familiar to anchor her.  Phia pressed two fingers into her temples, beating back the panic as the plane hit an air pocket and lurched.  In the turbulence there was a blinding flash off the wing, then a sudden crack.  Several passengers screamed as the plane dropped. "Mama," Phia cried as the lights in the cabin dimmer and eery shadows fell over the faces.
     "For god's sake!" Robert hissed.  "Stop calling for your mother."  He held out his hand but Phia didn't want his perfectly clipped fingernails to touch her.  The hands she wanted were rough with dirt beneath the nails, Mama's hands.
     The plane dipped again and Phia clutched the arms of her seat, knocking Robert's elbow off.  He shook his head in disgust.  "You'd think you'd never flown before," he said.
     Suddenly the plane punched through the storm into blue sky and bright sunlight, then leveled off and settled on top of rolling banks of clouds that looked like the Palouse hills in winter--all covered with deep, fresh, ice-blue snow.  Looking over those snowy clouds, it was hard to imagine the dark fury just beneath them.

Hours later, Phia's head had stopped aching and she opened her eyes, stretching.  "Can you open the shade?" she asked Robert, leaning forward.
     "Nothing to see but farmland."
     She reached past him, raised the shade and stared at the patchwork quilt of flat land shadowed by puffy clouds far below them.  Where were they? she wondered.  What was growing down there--corn? wheat? grass? "See what I mean?" Robert asked, blocking her vision.  Get out of my way, Phia wanted to tell him, but bit back the words and clenched the arm rest to keep herself from pushing him.  Beside her, the man from Seattle had head-phones on, watching the in-flught movie.
     "I'm really tired," Phia told Robert.
     "You just slept," he answered, closing the shade.
     "Of you.  Tired of you."
     He stared at her, his eyebrows knit into a thick black line.  "Phia," he cajoled.  "We just had a great vacation--think of all the people we met, the things we saw."
     She sighed.  "I love running with you.  But--"
     "Don't say it." Robert put a hand on her arm.
      "This is exactly what I mean," she said, shaking off his hand and waving her hand in front of him.  "You have me pinned to a butterfly board, don't let me move."
     He opened the shade again and made a noise in his throat.  The plane was again flying on a bed of clouds, obscuring any vista.  "I'm disappointed in you," he finally said.
     Phia reached up and turned the know to let more air flow.  She felt hot, sticky. "Your life revolves around work and running."
     "And you spend your days pining for you precious Palouse hills."  He stared at her, his eyes cold. "That life obviously wasn't enough for your father."
     Feeling nauseous, Phia bolted out of her seat and down the aisle into the restroom, trying to breathe with her head between her knees, gagging as the toilet disinfectant burned her throat. What does he know about the land, she thought, her chest heaving. What does he know about Papa?  Pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes to stop the tears, Phia saw her father's face as she'd last seen him--standing in the kitchen hallway, crying, before he walked away.  And just as she had every moment of her waking and dreaming life, ever since that October afternoon thirty years ago, she wondered who she'd be if that memory had only been a nightmare.  If Papa had stayed in his study that day instead of climbing the stairs.  If he were still there now.  If she'd never seen Mama cupping his blood in her hands, never seen him lying in a crimson pool on his bedroom floor.
     Lifting the seat, Phia threw up the salad she'd picked at while Robert wolfed down a burger, fries and beer in the JFK food court, a meal bristling with all the tension and discontent that had been brewing during their two-week vacation.
     Standing in front of the tiny stainless-steel sink, running her fingers under the icy water, she kept her head down, avoiding the mirror, not wanting to see Papa's eyes in her own reflection.  Stomach clenched, she sunk onto the toilet seat, taking one deep breath after another, until a flight attendant jiggled the door handle, asking if everything was alright in there.
     "What happened to our friend?" Phia asked when she returned to their row and found Robert in the aisle seat.
     "You scared him off," he glared.  "Traveling has always made you sick, hasn't it?"
     Squeezing past Robert's knees, Phia sat next to the window.  "Look, Robert, I didn't plan for any of this to happen." She shivered and reached to close off the air valve, feeling dizzy and nauseous againa, hemmed in by Robert's long legs.
     "I've been very understanding," he said, leaning into the empty seat between them, his face so close his minty breath blew across her face.  "You come with a lot of crap."
     "You're probably better off without me," she murmured, reasting her head against the window, yearning to slide it open and free-fall into the pillowed clouds, away from Robert, this trip, her father's face streaked with tears, the past that haunted at every turn.  The clouds scattered and she could see striped brown fields following the contours of the earth, beckoning her to follow their curves, calling her home.

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