The first time grandma took me to the airport in Rio de Janeiro, I threw a tantrum like she’d never seen. I threw myself on the ground, pulled out my hair, tried to bite chunks of flesh out of my arms, screamed so loud people on the other side of the airport could probably hear me.
I was six years old, and if there was anything I knew, it was that I didn’t want to live with my mother and her new family in California. I’d met the man she ended up marrying once, and I’d gotten such an disquieting sense of his soul badness that I’d stuck my tongue out at him and run out of the room. I didn’t really want to meet my younger sister either. Well, maybe I did a little, but not enough to actually fly over there.
The world over there, in “America,” seemed as foreign as the world of Tom & Jerry on my great-aunt’s television set. I liked watching Tom & Jerry just as much as I liked hearing about my mother’s new life — it was entertaining and far away. This was just as well because my mother and I were about as distant, mother-and-daughter-wise, as Earth and Pluto.
I’d also heard of how planes crashed and caught on fire. So here’s how it would all play out, if I went along with the whole daughter-going-to-America thing: I’d board the plane, terrified but brave. The plane would lift off and float smoothly through the air. I’d relax a little, enjoy the scenery of the clouds. But just as I’d start to relax, the plane would catch on fire and plunge into the ocean, taking me and a thousand other people with it. We’d all be charred meat.
Determined not to get on that doomed plane, I screamed even louder. My body shook like I was a thing possessed. People walking by stared at me with horror. I’m sure some of them did think I was possessed.
Then grandma got that look on her face that told me was tired. I’d seen that look before, when we’d been walking for hours outside in the heat because we couldn’t afford the train or bus.
“We can go home, Marcelle,” she finally said, sighing.
I nodded, crying with relief. Home was the only thing I wanted. She took my hand, and we walked out of the airport. On the way home in the taxi, she held me and ran her fingers through my hair. I fell asleep, my hands clutching her dress.
When I woke up, we were back home and grandma was on the phone. She kept saying Rita, so I knew my mother was on the other line. They spoke for awhile, grandma looking at me like she loved me more than anyone else in the world. Then she told me my mother wanted to speak with me. I shook my head. I knew my mother wouldn’t be consoling, anything but.
Grandma softly insisted. I took the phone and sat down on the sofa, pulled my knees up to my chest.
“Do you know how much money I had to spend on an airplane ticket?” my mother asked, exasperated.
I turned red from the top of my curly head to my funny-looking toes.
“You’re going to get on that airplane, Marcelle,” she said. “There’s no way you’re going to pull this off again.”
It was then that I knew. I was going to California, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
A couple of weeks later, grandma took me to the airport for a second time. I scowled the whole way there. Inside, I was trembling. When we got to the airport, I clung to grandma like she was my life raft. My heart broke into a million puzzle pieces. I had no idea how I’d put them back together once I was in America because almost all of those pieces were connected to my grandma, to my home in Brazil.
A flight attendant with kind blue eyes and long brown hair came up to us and smiled at me. I’d be going with her, grandma told me. She’d even be by my side the entire flight.
But grandma might as well have thrown a bucket of ice cold water at me. The idea of leaving had been one thing, but actually leaving was another thing entirely. It didn’t matter that I was at the airport for the second time. My fear was a three-headed monster with its hands around my neck telling me not to get on the plane or it would keep choking me.
I began to back away from both of them. I could throw the tantrum again, I knew I could. Grandma couldn’t handle me when I behaved like a — that much I’d been able to see the first time we’d come to the airport.
Then I stopped backing away. I don’t know what got into me. Maybe it was the thought of having to talk to my mother on the phone again. Maybe it was imagining how grandma would feel if I put her through this again. I could see how tired she already was, and how she kept looking at me as though she already suspected I would throw another tantrum any moment.
So I did the most adult thing I’d ever done in my life. I gave grandma one more hung and smelled her hair. It smelled like soap and musk. Then I took the flight attendant’s hand and walked away from her.
I looked back at grandma one time. She stood there in her simple dress, her hair going silver, her hands clasped in front of her heart. I swallowed my tears and kept walking.
Let me tell you, when you’re a kid and you have to walk away from someone you love, knowing you might not see them for a long time (as long as it takes to fly to the moon and back), it hurts like nothing else. The hurt doesn’t go away either. It hangs on like a dog who thinks your leg is a bone he can chew on forever.
The airplane was okay, mostly gray and like a cinema with its big television screen in between all of the seats. I sat down, and the flight attendant buckled me in. I looked out the window, wondering if I could catch sight of my grandma. All I could see was the ground, gray like the airplane.
It seemed the whole world was gray.
I scooted as far back in the seat as I could and crossed my arms across my chest. The flight attendant sat down next to me. She spoke but I couldn’t understand a word she said. Whatever she was speaking, it wasn’t Portuguese.
I shook my head at her, my heart already broken and fluttering wildly like a baby bird that’s fallen out of its nest. I began to breathe like I was running really, really fast, except that I wasn’t. The attendant faded into the background and my mind replayed this: Plane catching fire and nosediving into the ocean.
In that moment, I was convinced I would become charred meat for the sharks.
The attendant got up and rushed away. I barely noticed. My breath began to leave me, just like grandma had. The plane hadn’t taken off yet, but I was floating away from here. I was one of those oversized blimps that trail across the sky. The worst part? My fears were displayed on the blimp for the whole world to see.
The attendant returned, a small paper bag in her hand. She was breathing a little fast too. She gestured for me to watch. She breathed into the paper bag. She sucked in her breath, then breathed into the paper bag again. She held the bag out to me and nodded her head.
I took the paper bag and breathed into it. It was useless. The attendant motioned for me to keep doing it. I breathed into the paper bag again. And again. And again.
Eventually, my attention shifted from my panic to filling up the bag with my breath. My breath returned. Just like that. I was an efficient breathing human once again. The death cartoon was still in the back of my mind somewhere, but I could kind of pretend I was floating on a cloud in a princess dress.
The attendant gave me juice and a sandwich. Then she gave me headphones, so I could hear as the movie played on the projector.
The Boy Who Could Fly was in English, so I couldn’t understand it. But I understood the boy. His sadness was like my own, especially when I’d had to leave my grandma. Nobody understood him really, except for the girl. She understood him a little. He flew with his arms, not with wings, which I found beautiful. When he flew to another place, he was happy, because it didn’t matter that he was strange or didn’t speak. The last time he flew away, he never returned.
After the movie ended, I looked out the airplane window. The clouds were magical, like cotton candy and soft pillows and sweet sleep.
Eventually I fell asleep. The attendant woke me when we arrived in California. She motioned at the people grabbing their bags and suitcases from the overhead luggage compartment. I rubbed my eyes and unbuckled my seat belt. When I stood up, I felt very small. The attendant led me out of the airplane and through the terminal. The airport was bright, and people moved quickly here, like they had to be somewhere else right this moment.
My mother was waving to me, a big smile on her face. She was made up like a doll, red lips and hair lighter than I remembered it. Tom stood next to her, still reeking of soul badness. A little girl was in his arms, her hair as black as night. This world already didn’t make sense to me.
That moment, I wanted to fly away and never return, just like the boy in the movie.
But for the second time that day, I did a very adult thing. I took a step forward.
Juliana Crespo is a mother, teacher and writer who hails from Brazil and currently calls Bloomington, Indiana home. This is the first installment of her original memoir series chronicling her transition from her native Brazil to the United States. Juliana’s prior OTV publication was Freshly Pressed by WordPress. You can find “Jesus Would Have Let Me Cry On His Shoulder” here. Connect with Juliana on her website, Lyrical Awakening, as well as her Facebook page, and look for Part II of her survival guide on OTV in August.