George wiped the sweat from his upper lip. Though he was inland several miles he thought he could also taste both sand and salty ocean among the peach fuzz. In the same thought he wondered how this sensation drifted so far and when the light hair along his face would turn dark.
Only a partial answer came as the flight door opened and a wave of humidity warped the air on the plane. It carried with it the additional scents of a recent rain mixed with wet cement from the runway. Streams of mist began to pour from the overhead air registers the cold and warm climates quietly clashed. The two had long shed their extra layers during the flight but even a t-shirt and pants seemed too much as the heat continued to build.
Though they were still in the shaded canopy of the aircraft many of the passengers had already donned sunglasses. George looked at their doughy, pasty skin in tank tops and flip-flops. So many of them, like him, had been hiding away behind woolen coats or near space heaters during the Chicago winter. Hidden from sunlight their skin had become thin and pale as mushy paper. George’s smile turned to grimace as he imagined the sun waiting just outside the plane licking it’s fiery lips, hungry for new flesh to burn.
Kathryn had spent most of the flight scheming about their first days. George had not considered the eventualities as his choice of destination was somewhat of a test. Would she acquiesce and bring them both to a foreign country with no place to stay and no job? Not to mention neither of them spoke much Spanish outside what could be ordered the menu of what Chicago considered Mexican food.
This was made abundantly clear when, as practice, George skimmed through the pocket-sized translation guide they picked up at the airport. Together they began to recite random words to each other trying to make up sentences — conjugation be damned. The flight attendant rolled his eyes at them when George attempted to order a “Sir-vay-sah”.
“We can go find a palapa on the playa, maybe get some ceviche.” Kathryn said, tripping over her own midwestern accent.
“Estupen-doh!” George responded.
“Si! This is going to be estupendo, señor Geo!” She always called him Geo when the world was warm with possibility.
As she sipped the last of her cerveza Kathryn was nearly manic with excitement. George loved this side of her when she was positive and carefree. It was the side he saw less and less over the years when the needs of two became greater.
She could go with less food when he was younger in order to give him some or they could curl up under the same blanket if the heat had been turned off. Now that George was older her ecstatic moments were far between as he saw her give in when the demanding nature of having a child crossed whatever needs her newest man required. George could feel it when she was being squeezed for attention. It made him squirm when she was the fulcrum between opposing weights. But through it all she was his mother and the instinct to guard always won out.
“Mexico,” Kathryn said, “is a gateway of possibilities for us!”
“Just the two of us.” George said quietly not turning to make eye contact.
The flow through customs was slow, a shuffle of navigation wrapped in humid nervousness.
They had landed in Cancun, a tourist destination but Kathryn had promised George they wouldn’t stay for long. Instead the two would find their way further. Standing in line next to a wall sized map of Mexico line their eyes traced a route along the coastline.
There were people who carried nothing more than a knapsack while others looked to be moving whole houses squeezed tightly into luggage. George preferred to travel light and carried only the essentials: a small suitcase, an instant camera (with extra film), and the spanish phrase book. Kathryn had smashed everything into a single duffle bag that she kicked along as the line moved.
As the afternoon heat continued some around them used their passports as fans, others flipped them open over and over again comparing pictures and stamps inside. Kathryn noticed this, too.
“You can choose your passport picture. It’s the only government ID that gives you that advantage” Kathryn had said when they had theirs taken.
George thought his picture was a perfect combination — not overly toothy and just the right amount of dashing. He had worked on his facial expression the night before so it would seem natural. A slight, knowing smirk, a little squint and one eyebrow slightly higher. A well-travelled man, he thought. Yes, a man.
Feet shuffled, people yawned, necks twisted to see the front of the line. Under the chatter in the room George could hear another conversation taking place. George looked at the passports around him — covers of blue or dark red or green from everywhere in the world. Under the din were sounds coming from each of the passports. Whispers just faint enough to carry but soft enough to remain unnoticed by anyone taller than George. And music, too. A bit of strings here and there, the sound of drums off in the distance.
The big German who that stood next to George in the serpentine line absently tapped his passport on his thigh. An oompah rhythm rose and fell every time the pages came open like an according band tuning. An American passport behind was bombastic, talking loudly to another with rock music playing.
The passport dangling right in front of George sounded of a mandolin and smelled of glorious butter. The man’s face in the passport, upside down, welcomed George to come to Italy anytime. The man in the picture held up a plate of food for George to lean in and get a better smell. Garlic and herbs and…the man snapped the passport closed looking down at George who had his face inches away.
Kathryn’s passport picture didn’t play any music or entice him with food. The image stared out the rectangle window of its picture frame and straight into the eyes of any viewer. Though she was presentable she seemed distant, looking beyond the camera and somewhere into space. To George she looked sad far down below her tired and recently dried eyes.
The past weeks had been a rush of packing and selling and giving away anything that couldn’t be carried. They had everything expedited, begrudgingly, under the direction of the fella who knew more about the process than they did. Everything to George felt lighter. He didn’t even mind the extra snow that often impeded travel as they rushed from one agency to the next. As he felt euphoric about the next adventure Kathryn seemed the opposite. In those days she feigned interest in George’s thoughts about sunny, coastal towns and trips deep into the jungle and lost Mayan cities.
The more he thought of it, the more he could hear a ba-dum rhythm coming from his mother’s passport. It was the sound of her heart slowing down as if captured along with the picture in the seconds she waited for the flash to go off.
Ba — — dum.
Ba — — — dum.
Ba — — — — dum.
Music to write by | Skateboard Delivery | Theodore Shapiro & Mark Graham