Only idiots aren't afraid of flying. Planes are inherently unnatural; your body isn't supposed to be launched into the sky, and few people comprehend the science that keeps them from tumbling into the ocean. Do you know how many planes crash every year? Neither do I, but I know the answer is more than one, WHICH IS ENOUGH.
My boyfriend finds my fear of flying hilarious at best and deeply frustrating at worst. For my twenty-fourth birthday, he booked us a trip to Southeast Asia for two weeks, the farthest I've been from home in more than a decade. Plenty of people take a gap year between high school and university to travel, or spend a summer back-packing through Europe to "find" themselves. (A bullshit statement if ever there was one. Where do you think you'll be? No one finds anything in France except bread and pretension, and frankly, both of those are in my lap right now.) I never did this. I talked about wanting to, sure, listing all the places I would go one day, hoping to have my photo taken next to a crumbling edifice in Brazil or with a charming street merchant in Laos. When I was thirteen, my mom asked me where I'd get the money to travel and I said, "From you, of course." She laughed me straight out of her kitchen nook. Travelling tells the world that you're educated, that you're willing to take risks, that you have earned your condescension. But do you know what my apartment has that no other place does? All my stuff. All the things that let me dull out the reminders of my human existence, that let me forget that the world is full of dark, impenetrable crags. I have, I think, a healthy fear of dying, and marching forward into the uncharted is almost asking for it. But it was my birthday, and my beautiful idiot boyfriend was offering to take me someplace exciting. He suggested Thailand and Vietnam, because he likes the sun and I like peanut sauces. I agreed, my haunches already breaking out in a very familiar rash.
As we made our way from Toronto to Chicago, then Chicago to Tokyo, then Tokyo to Bangkok, he was a paragon of serenity. (He's older than me by more than a decade, and acts it whenever we do something new, largely because, comparatively, almost everything is new to me and nothing is new to him.) He was a latchkey kid, permitted to wander his small town in the '80s and '90s in a way that feels nostalgic to him and like the beginning of a documentary about child abduction to me. He smoked and drank and cried and laughed and was freer at twelve than I have ever been. While our plane started to taxi, I squeezed his meaty forearm as if I was tenderizing a ham hock — rubbing his white skin red and twisting his blond arm hair into little knots — and he just gazed dreamily out the window. When we took off, my throat started to close and I wanted to be home, stay home, never leave home.
I wasn't raised with a fear of flying. My parents were afraid of plenty of things that would likely never affect us — murderers lurking in our backyard, listeria in our sandwich meat, vegans — but dying on a plane was all too mundane for them. We used to take plenty of trips together and separately, and lengthy air travel played an unavoidable role in their origin story. They emigrated from India in the late 1970s and flew back for visits every few years. For vacations or my dad's business trips, they flew to St. Thomas and Greece and Montreal and New York. Mom didn't like bugs and Papa didn't like small dogs, but I don't remember either of them being particularly fearful.
I wasn't always afraid of flying either. When I travelled with my parents as a kid, air travel was exciting. I got to buy new notebooks and travel games, and flight attendants packed cookies and chips and mini cans of ginger ale in airsickness bags and handed them out to the kids mid-flight. 9/11 hadn't happened, so our family wasn't yet deemed suspicious at Calgary's airport. I once loudly asked my brother while standing in a security queue how, exactly, people made bombs out of batteries while waving around a pack of thirty AAs intended for a video game. My parents let me eat a whole Toblerone bar and then I threw up in a translucent gift bag while we waited in line to board. I was alive!
Flying became a necessity by the time I was seventeen, the only way to stay connected with my family rather than a conduit for mile-high vomiting. When I graduated from high school, instead of doing what so many of my classmates did — a month in Italy here, three months in Austria there — I moved across the country almost immediately to start university. If I wanted to see my parents (and I did, as my homesickness burst wide open the second my parents dropped me off at my residence), I would have to fly. Three, sometimes four times a year, I'd take a four-hour flight to see people who I knew were at least legally obligated to love me.
But by my early twenties, years into this routine, something shifted and made room for fear to set in. Turbulence wasn't fun anymore; it didn't feel like a ride, it felt like the beginning of my early death. I'd start crying during take-off, sure that the plane would plummet. Flight attendants assumed I was travelling for a funeral and would offer extra orange juice or cranberry cookies to keep me from opening the emergency exit. Before I take off now, I text or email or call anyone I think would be sad about my death and tell them I love them and that the code for my debit card is 3264 and please help yourself to the $6.75 that may or may not still be in there, depending on if I purchased a preflight chewy pizza-pretzel, the World's Saddest Final Meal. My stomach churns and my palms sweat and I think about all the things I should have said and done before this plane nosedives and the army finds parts of my body scattered across the Prairies. My legs in Fort McMurray, my arms in Regina, my anus somewhere in Edmonton.
* * *
When you're a kid, your parents are the bravest people in the world, but my parents' provenance still feels impossibly brave to me. My father didn't exactly "tell" my mother he wanted to emigrate from India before they got together. That's the way she remembers it, that it was only after they got engaged that she found out he had paperwork ready to apply for permanent residency on the other side of the planet. My dad first saw her at his cousin's house — my mom was her friend — and was flustered by her beauty. Ask my dad and he'll wax poetic about my mother's cheekbones, her rich eyes, her long hair, how he needed to get to know her. My mom didn't even know he was there. Years ago, when I asked her about her first impression upon actually seeing my dad, she merely pursed her lips and continued folding towels, saying, "I thought he was okay." This, the great love affair that spawned me, a woman who would one day get both of her hands stuck in two different salsa jars at the same time.
My dad asked her father for her hand (and the rest of her, presumably) when she was just eighteen, about to head off to university away from their small town in Kashmir. My grandfather said no, but to try again when she was older. He was a police sergeant, but a gentle guy who rarely raised his voice or grew upset. My mom did not inherit his calmness — he yelled at her once when she was twelve and she felt so wronged that she launched a hunger strike, one that lasted entire hours. He apologized by placing his hat at her feet, begging her to please just eat something. (I did the same at eleven, but my parents just shrugged and said there were bagels in the fridge when I was ready — brown people don't know what to do with bread.) When Mom was twenty-two, my dad was approved, and they were engaged and married within a year. Another year and some later, they had my brother. Soon after that, my dad moved to Southern Ontario; his family waited months before joining him.
But before this, there was the big death that marked Papa just after the birth of his first child in India. My brother was small enough to sleep between his paternal grandparents on the flat roof of their home during a mercilessly hot night. My grandmother, in her fifties at the time, woke up and took him inside to change his diaper. When she returned, her husband didn't wake up: he had died of a massive heart attack in his sleep. Mom says they found him with his hand on his heart. My dad was only thirty. He doesn't talk about it. We don't ask.
My father's mother, Behenji, lived with us in Calgary when I was young but she hated the cold and didn't speak any English and I didn't understand who or what she was. She opted to leave after a few years, something that infuriated Papa because wasn't it his job, as the eldest son, to take care of her? It didn't matter that she was generally in good health or always prickly or maintained her usual routines, he feared for her constantly. Near the end, she started to get confused and would forget things or people or where she was. Papa would sit in his armchair, clenching his teeth, ruminating on how he'd abandoned her years before. "I've asked her to stay put until I come, but who knows," Papa said to me, two years before she died, as if he could tell her body not to retreat. "If she has to go, I hope she goes in my arms. That will be the culmination of a life. Of a life well lived. A hard life. She had a hard life." He was on the phone with me at the time, speaking to me mostly in sighs and rueful grunts, a language I've since learned to speak myself.
Behenji lived into her eighties, thirty-odd years after her husband had passed, dying when my dad was already in his mid-sixties. Now, he does long-distance running daily and takes multivitamins the size of horse tranquilizers every morning. He has high blood pressure and high cholesterol and does everything he can to try to reverse what his blood has given him. He says he's pre-diabetic now, so every morning starts with a spoonful of fenugreek seeds, which I tried just once — they tasted so strongly of death that eating them seemed more like an omen than a cure. After his long runs, he does yoga in his bedroom, flipping over to do headstands next to his dresser. (His headstands are getting weaker the older he gets, though maybe avoid mentioning that if you see him.) Sometimes he recruits my niece to stand on his back, cracking his bones, and he lets out a delighted, "Ahhh-ha-ha-ha-haaa."
Mom talks about moving to Canada as though my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. Why not try it? she thought, instead of This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism. Before I was born, my parents returned from their vacations to their new Canadian home with photos of my mother perched precipitously close to the edge of a cruise ship or drinking a flute of bubbles in a dimly lit restaurant. Mom never half-assed things; she had a kind of blind faith that made it easy to follow her. When I was little, too young to know how to swim, Mom took me to swimming pools and would wade into the deep end and let me hang off her shoulders like a baby koala. She rented Sea-Doos in Kelowna and dragged me onto the back of them, driving too fast for my comfort. Mom put her hand flat on a pan to check if it was hot enough (though could never answer my eternal question: What if it's too hot?). Mom sucked marrow out of a lamb bone with shocking fervour, then stuck her tongue through the hollow to tease me about how truly, deeply gross I found it. Mom made rotis from scratch, kneading the atta with her hands and then dragging a knife across her skin to gather the excess, laughing at seven-year-old me recoiling in horror. Mom's arthritis got worse but she kept cooking rogan josh so spicy it ripped the roof of your mouth clean off, whipping a wooden spoon around a pressure cooker with her aching wrist. Mom yelled. Mom told you how she felt, when she felt it, as much and as often as she needed to tell you. Mom cried all the time, happy or sad, her tears running a moat around a mole just under her eye, her face like a Shiva Lingam for feelings. And Mom was not afraid of you. When Papa was angry, or afraid, or nervous, or happy, or thrilled, he just seethed quietly because it was all too much to handle. Mom, on the other hand, hugged you with her arms and shoulders and suffocating bosom, burying you in all her soft, cool flesh. That, or she would kill you. These were your options.
And yet even when my mom was at her bravest, I was gearing up for death. I invented diseases for myself and was sure they'd kill me. By the time I was seven, I started running my fingers up and down my forearm, inspecting my skin and the dark blue veins I could see through my flesh. None of the other girls I knew had visible veins, not like these. My parents didn't have them, neither did my brother, nor any of my glamorous, tall, busty cousins with their long, sleek hair and full lips and did I mention their massive boobs? It was vein cancer, I decided — nothing else could explain the cerulean blue of these veins, how close they were to the surface, how they ran all the way up my arm and would appear and disappear across my flat chest. I never told my parents about it and quietly accepted death as I wrote my "Last Willing Testament" on a pink heart-shaped notepad. (This phase never entirely passed. At a dinner party a few years ago, I was seated next to an emergency room doctor. I stuck my arm under her nose and asked, "What does this look like to you?" She said it was nothing, but speaking as someone who once went to a university with a pre-med program, I'm pretty sure I know a little more than she does.)
But even my worst dramatics weren't all that bad. I was still a teenager and prone to typical boundary-pushing. I lied about dates and friends and drinking. I smoked cigarettes and wore poorly applied makeup. I was doing what you're supposed to do when you're young and hateful, and it was all okay because I was home with my mom. She yelled at me with unbelievable bluster, threatened to murder me in such a subtle fashion that "no one will know" or with such flare that "everyone will see." She'd chase me around the house with a wooden spoon, threatening a whipping if I ran my mouth one more time. None of it led to much of anything. I was never in danger. Nothing bad can happen to you if you're with your mom. Your mom can stop a bullet from lodging in your heart. She can prop you up when you can't. Your mom is your blood and bone before your body even knows how to make any.
* * *
I have never had to be brave. Bravery is for parents and people who get tattoos in another language or dare to eat pinkish chicken. But my boyfriend, my Hamhock, he has always been brave. It was written somewhere in the skies that he would be made of steel and grit, he would take on every dare or bet, he would hurt himself and brush it off because the brave don't worry about their bodies or their brains. He once got into a bad bike accident that shattered his foot and wrist. He still tried to drive himself to the hospital. At my most self-pitying, I have dreams of drowning in vast bodies of water, my near-dead corpse being dragged back to the surface by the hulking meat of my boyfriend's arms.
So while Hamhock mumbled something to me about how nice the beaches on Ko Phi Phi would be, I felt the plane make an insignificant but intestine-tightening dip before soaring even higher. Hamhock is all the things I am not. He never wanted a life inside. He likes to bike and run and touch and eat and dive headfirst into trouble. (Later on this trip, he would convince me that buying some mysterious snake-fermented wine would be a good idea. We took shots on my birthday. He threw up immediately.) His laugh is high-pitched — like a Pillsbury Doughboy that has fireworks for arms — and I've learned to be wary of it since it signals some kind of fun and/or threat. But the choice with him has always been to watch him leave or to pack a bag and some disinfectant and maybe a pouch of that malaria medication and walk into the unknown, together.
The trip was intended to be restful, I think. It was just long enough to see a few beaches and temples and eat some noodles and get drunk four or five times. I knew two weeks in a foreign country with their weird bugs and aggressive sunlight would be a challenge. I just didn't think it would be a catalogue of all my greatest fears.
Spiders scuttling on the ceiling of our hotel room were the size of my fists. Mystery bugs feasted on my calves and made my left leg swell so much that I couldn't walk (at least, not without complaining). I'm afraid of water, so naturally, several of our destinations were accessible only by boat. And not real boats with life jackets and horns but dinky wooden ones with a motor too big to be supported by a vessel. They looked like toys that would capsize if you mounted them too quickly. They sped too fast and would tilt and rock and splash you with water. The paint was peeling, the metal was rusted, the seats were barely nailed down. We'd get too close to other boats and scrape their sides. During the rides, Hamhock would talk about how much he'd love a beer; I wanted to see licences and insurance papers and Thai safety regulations. And while Hamhock tilted his head back to let the sun wash over his skin, I clutched any surface of the craft I could as it crashed down against the water. I'd let out little "eep"s while trying not to look horrified. Now and then, he'd turn to me and ask, "Are you okay?" and I would yell, "YES, THANK YOU, I AM VERY FINE AND CASUAL."