My mom was a flight attendant, but I misunderstood. I thought she attended a plane that traveled through time. Just the same, the passengers needed free soda and peanut packets and a nice face to remind them to be brave. They needed my mom.

When she’d call home while on a trip she’d say, “It’s yesterday where I am,” or “It’s night here and the moon is nearly full” but in present day I was eating cheddar goldfish and watching a Donohue rerun afterschool. I grew up hearing: “Pacific Standard Time” and “Greenwich Mean Time” and “the Continental Divide.” Departures and arrivals aside, I knew time was malleable.

“You never admitted it,” I say to her now, a woman I have not seen since I was eighteen. We’re watching my brother—two years my junior at twenty-three—and his bride on the dancefloor slowly rocking through their first dance.

“That I could time travel? I’m a bad mom because I never told you I was a time traveler.”

I’d thought it was our secret. When I asked her if Noah’s Ark was smelly or whether dinosaurs were as scary in real life as they are in the books, she would act confused and say, “What are you talking about, honey?” I thought it was an act, a wink-wink. I used to brag to my friends about all the historical people my mom was meeting, even as they got older and stopped believing me.

“So it’s my fault you’re not happy, is what you’re saying.”

The song switches from Savage Garden’s “I Knew I Loved You” to “Tubthumbing” by Chumbawamba and the newlyweds break apart. His dancing is nearly all the the jut and thrust of his pelvis, hers mostly the pumping of her tits.

“I’m not unhappy just because I haven’t found someone to mime-hump on the dance floor.”

She swallows half a flute of champagne. “How’s art school? You’re studying painting?”

“I genuinely thought you were staying away because you were on these, like, missions. You were back in time making the world better for us in this time. That’s why I felt okay about it.”

“What did you want me to say, that I’d had lunch with Gandhi? That I’d found Amelia Earhart? Or maybe the truth? That your dad and I hated each other, and I’d fallen in love with Donnie. I didn’t set out to do it, you know.”

Other couples are standing now, heading to the dance floor hand-in-hand. My mom sets her glass down and reapplies her red lipstick.

“Now, let’s go be there for your brother,” she says and stands up from the table. “Coming?” She holds out a hand.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I say because it’s really not an effort—reassuring someone with a lie.

Ricky Martin chants “Un dos tres” through the speakers, and people cheer. Someone throws a handful of confetti from a table centerpiece. I think of the explosion again, the day the space shuttle Challenger blew up, the spiraling white plumes. Watching the news with my sixth grade class, I conceded then that my mom wasn’t out there fixing anything or this would never have happened. So I wept along with the rest of the kids who must have thought I too was mourning the loss of the first teacher headed to space, an ordinary woman brave enough to do extraordinary things. They weren’t far off.

 

9 Comments

  1. Benjamin Niespodziany

    This one is really great! That last paragraph is so strong. The whole piece, really. I didn’t know I needed a “Tubthumping” reference in my life. “It’s yesterday where I am” is a great quote, and I love the idea of this mother being a faraway voice message or recording. Reminded me a bit of an intercom on an airplane or a spaceship. Kind of wanted her to be like on Skype/FaceTime or something for the wedding. I love the dialogue throughout, and the use of distance, both with miles and with hours and with family.

  2. Jack O'Connell

    The meanness of the dialogue and the observations on the dance floor are so dry and strong. I was immediately at that wedding. The flight attendant childhood memories give an elegaic feel that counterbalances the very present, cutting argument at the wedding. I wanted to just listen to the narrator continue being mean to people at the wedding. Perhaps one area to go in would be tightening, hardening, developing the transitions between that mean, present-tense feeling and the winsome childhood memories.

  3. Saxon Baird

    Kara, I think you really hit it with this piece. It also feels similar to the Fog story we read in regards to a normal setting and the conversation about canceled truths of the past and how nothing gets resolved. Great work.

    And this near the end “it’s really not an effort—reassuring someone with a lie” speaks to the entire relationship with the mother so succinctly.

    I’m even wondering if it can end there:

    “I’ll be there in a minute,” I say.

    It’s really not an effort, reassuring someone with a lie.”

    The last graf is great, but I wonder if it also makes obvious some things we kind of already know the narrator realized. Then again, tying it to a historical moment is powerful. Just an idea. Great piece.

  4. Traci Mullins

    Kara, this is fantastic. You’ve captured the perspective of a child who sees her parent as a hero, in spite of her imperfections, and then you nail it at the end with confirmation that even as an adult, she sees her mom that way even though she now has a more mature and realistic perspective. This feels like a honoring tribute to a remarkable woman but without glossing over anything. Also, I love the line, “I knew time was malleable.” I wonder if you could bring us back to this somehow. Was it still relevant when the protagonist was an adult? Great job!

  5. Greg Oldfield

    Kara,
    The emotional tension was as thick as a layered wedding cake, and I’ve seen plenty of Savage Garden, Chumbawamba, and Ricky Martin-styled weddings to visualize the array of bizarre dancing. I love that the conflict from this story comes from the innocent lie, while the hundreds of real and dirty ones hang under the surface. And all this funneled through time and how we may be different and have different needs at various times of our lives but the anger, resentment, or disappointment is still there. The Challenger reference may be too on the nose, but I do love that moment of tragic realization and how it reveals how long the narrator has held onto these feelings.

  6. Bud Smith

    Goddamn, wow. This story in premise and execution is just flawless. I love how in the beginning of the story I don’t quite know what the narrator means by her mom being a time traveler but then it swiftly moves where it needs to so that I am right there with the narrator understanding and regretting everything in life that doesn’t turn out to be magic after all. I was hoping at the end that you would take us on a time travel mission yourself and you did us one even better, you traveled back in time and showed the sadness and comprehension of the little girl realizing how her mother is not saving the world after all. SO deep. I felt that. I was right there mourning all the complicated losses with her. You have a real gift for storytelling. Send this one somewhere worthy

    • Bud Smith

      oh I did have two notes actually. I wondered if the women were getting really drunk on purpose so they could talk at this wedding or if it was just how it usually works at a wedding. I liked when the mother downs the champagne flute but I was almost wondering if we could up the stakes and have these two women doing a ‘power hour’ or something so it ties in with the time and lowers the inhibitions — however that may be my usual silly advice.

      I like the title, but what about “Challenger” as the title.

  7. Bill Merklee

    So good! A fantastic illustration of learning our parents are ordinary and fallible. “So it’s my fault you’re not happy, is what you’re saying.” How universal is that? At what point do we stop blaming our parents? Love that they’re discussing a failed marriage at a wedding. I love the final paragraph, and wondered if it might be changed a bit to something like this: “…Watching the news with my sixth grade class, I knew then that my mom wasn’t out there fixing anything or this would never have happened. So I wept along with the rest of the kids, mourning the loss of an ordinary woman brave enough to do extraordinary things.”

  8. Rachel Pollon Williams

    Love the wedding setting and the mother/daughter hero/conflict. And the idea that we have to tell ourselves things to protect ourselves at different times of our lives. The “reassuring someone with a lie” striking both ways – in that moment to her mom and also what she told herself as a kid.

    There’s something about the second paragraph, and time being malleable, that maybe could be brought back at the end? An echo of it? “No time like the present” – or something? (Is that cheesy?)

    A thought – you could shuffle the last few paragraphs if you wanted to:

    Other couples are standing now, heading to the dance floor hand-in-hand. My mom (ready for action) sets her glass down and reapplies her red lipstick.

    Ricky Martin chants “Un dos tres” through the speakers, and people cheer. Someone throws a handful of confetti from a table centerpiece. I think of the explosion again, the day the space shuttle Challenger blew up, the spiraling white plumes. Watching the news with my sixth grade class, I conceded then that my mom wasn’t out there fixing anything or this would never have happened. So I wept along with the rest of the kids who must have thought I too was mourning the loss of the first teacher headed to space, an ordinary woman brave enough to do extraordinary things. They weren’t far off.

    “Now, let’s go be there for your brother,” she says and stands up from the table. “Coming?” She holds out a hand. (I imagine her in front of her passengers pointing to the emergency exits.)

    “I’ll be there in a minute,” I say because it’s really not an effort—reassuring someone with a lie. (And there’s no time like the present.)

    I want to see the next drafts!

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