The waiting room, dull with dense noon heat,

a sapping light that flattens edges, a smoky haze.

Low murmurs pricked by babies’ cries,

the insinuating drone of flight announcements.

They’re here to see me off, an unaccompanied

minor flying back to San Jose.

Grandma wears polyester pants, pink

with a crease sewn in, a sleeveless blouse,

her creamy pleather purse slung over a forearm.

Incense rises from her cigarette.

At her side, Grandpa rocks on his heels, straightens his tie.

He whistles, checks my ticket, knits his brows.

My nerves yearn toward the gate.

Almost free for another year, dues paid

by a week of stillness, broken by Grandma’s voice,

rusty with smoke, her inventory of familial flaws,

her outrage shining through thick glasses.

“Jan tries, poor thing, but Chrissie’s out of control,”

she huffs, her pitch rising to fever

as she makes my cousin’s damage plain.

Grandpa snores on the couch,

his pumpkin belly rising up and down in time,

the dog panting beside him.

This morning the radio blared reports

of wildfire on their mountain,

close enough to smell. In the back room

I froze in place, strained to hear

their conversation through the static.

“We should go early,” Grandpa rumbled.

“We don’t want to get stuck up here.”

Grandma’s response: the click of the lighter, a sharp exhale.

“I’m fine with earlier,” I called, trying to breathe,

not caring if the fire stranded them on return.

Now at the airport, they already seem smaller, receding

into that flat yellow light as my flight is finally called.

Here on the cusp of escape my heart falls

at Grandma’s wistful smile, her shaking hands,

Grandpa’s loud voice as he begins the goodbyes.

I hug him first, take in his tobacco smell,

flash a bright grin, and then move to her,

press my lips to her powdery cheek.

I don’t notice at first the sting until it blooms into pain,

a small red circle on my forearm

rising to the ember of her cigarette.

“No, no, I’m fine, Grandma,” I tell her, and with mustered

cheer wave one last time and turn,

eyes prickling, to board the plane.

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About Kate

Things are weird in the wide world -- and like everyone else, most days I'm used to it. But to shake things up for myself, I like to notice and write about stuff that strikes me as both beautiful and strange, fascinating and repulsive, sweet and sour -- like how the steamy, stinky air that comes up from the BART vents at 16th Street Mission reminds me of being twenty-two, apparently immortal, and in love.

3 responses »

  1. Beth says:

    This reminded me of a visit to my grandparents when I was in 8th grade. No cigarette burn, just the feeling of being glad to leave.

  2. Ratka says:

    Wow, powerful. The description takes the reader (me) into the tension of love and disdain.
    Great one Kate!

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