Air Garuda -Pandora
Stepping off the plane, Claire felt the sticky humid air come over her like a damp wave. She paused at the top of the metal stairs that led directly down to the tarmac. Looking into the swampy and starless night, Claire could see nothing of the tropical paradise suggested from her father’s postcards. She could smell the jet fuel and exhaust, but there was also an underlying rank odor, like that of rotting fruit in a jungle. The air was so thick and humid Claire’s instinct was to turn and go back to her seat and wait for the Air Garuda flight to take her back to Tokyo and then home to Seattle. Surely the return flight would be shorter than the 23 hours it took to get here. But the crush of other exiting passengers, and their multitude of carry-on bags, pushed her forward so that she was forced to descend to the waiting bus. Her blouse, which had been carefully ironed before her journey, was now crumpled and where it pressed into her back she felt the sweat begin to seep into the silk fabric. Her mother had warned her not to wear the blouse for her long flights, but Claire had scoffed at the idea of packing it, her most flattering shirt, in her bag. She now considered that her mother was once again, correct.
Her mother had also been correct about the whereabouts of Claire’s missing father. He’d disappeared 5 years ago from the family, leaving his wife and 3 daughters. “Probably ran off to Bali, after some younger woman,” Claire’s mother declared after reading the note he’d left about needing “time to find himself.” Claire was the eldest of the 3 sisters and had been 16 when her father had fled to the other side of the world. While it was terrible to have her father disappear from her life, in all honesty, Claire had been a normal teen and had such an active social life the biggest inconvenience of his leaving had been that her mother relied more on Claire to help with her two younger sisters. Claire’s mother had come into the marriage with a sizable family inheritance, so financially she didn’t suffer when her husband left them. But emotionally she struggled to find closure, because there never was any closure between them. One day he was there, then the next day he was gone. She’d been very bitter for a few years about his leaving and would scoff if she heard the girls talking about their father. “That bastard!” she’d snort when she heard them whispering his name. When the post-cards started arriving from places with palm trees and tropical blue waters, their mother would simply put the cards in the girls’ room on their desks. They knew better than to talk about him in front of their mother.
Claire boarded the sweltering bus, which was already crammed full of other passengers and was standing room only. She set down the bag of smoked salmon she was bringing for her father (the fish was a symbolic reminder of home and what she recalled him enjoying most at holiday parties). Standing the bag up between her feet she reached for the bar over head. Claire could smell her own sweat and that of all the other passengers and prayed that her father had a shower. His living arrangements were not always clear from his notes and at times it seemed he lived on the beach, closest to wherever the surf was best. “Uluwatu is just steps from my pad. Best reef break in Bali!” his most recent postcard proclaimed. He’d “found himself,” here in the middle of Indonesia, and it happened to be that he was a surfer.
The doors hissed closed and the bus lurched into motion. Claire felt the bag tipping over at her feet, but could not let go of the bar to stop it, lest she herself would pitch onto the floor. When the bus came to a stop at the main terminal, Claire waited until everyone had gotten off and began picking up the strewn packages of vacuum-sealed salmon. They were scattered over the floor and had been stepped on and wheeled over by the other passengers in their hurry to get off the bus. Claire had splurged at the airport and gotten three packages. She now saw all but one of the packages had split open and the smell of smoked fish began permeating the hot air. Claire gagged at the smell of it, but picked them up and thrust them in the bag. The doors of the bus began to close with her still onboard and she quickly jumped up and yelled, “Wait! Stop!” and pounded on the thick plastic to get the attention of the driver. Her hands left greasy marks from the fish oil leaking from the bags. He glanced back in surprise and smiled at her.
“O.K. O.K.! Sorry Miss! Did not see you Miss!” he called to her through the divider. She noticed that even in the dim light of the bus, his teeth were startlingly white. The doors hissed open again. Claire smiled back weakly, and stepped out from the bus clutching her bag of reeking smoked salmon. Thinking to herself that at least the terminal would be air-conditioned Claire trudged into the building. To her surprise the air was no less cool once inside the building. She looked to the ceiling and saw that there were plants and vines growing up the large pillars that supported the roof. A swarm of insects buzzed and swarmed around the large upturned lights at the ceiling. Claire felt a moment of panic when she thought she saw a bat swooping down, but realized it was a bird with small pointed wings. How strange, she thought to herself, that there is no “inside” here.
Passing through the passport inspection (“Nice photo, Miss! Welcome to Bali!), Claire found her suitcase among the last few pieces still circling on the luggage carousel. She still held the bag of salmon having never seen an actual garbage to throw it away and feeling too overwhelmed to just set it down and walk away from it. What if they thought she was a terrorist? What if they arrested her and she had to spend the rest of her life moldering away in an Indonesian jail? Stepping “out” of the airport terminal did not involve opening any doors or going through any exits. One simply walked until the roof was no longer over-head. Claire found herself standing at the edge of light, where the airport became a curb. She stood not knowing which way to go, suitcase in one hand, bag of fish in the other, breathing in the thick night air and wondering why she had agreed to come all this way.
From out of the darkness a man with bleached white hair and deeply tanned leathery skin appeared walking towards Claire. He was holding hands with a small dark brown young woman, who smiled with the same super white smile as the man who had driven the airport bus. They both wore long skirts of colorful fabric tied around their waists. Claire paused, recognizing his gait, but not his hair. Her father had had mousy brown hair, nothing like this shock of white she saw before her.
“Daddy?” she asked hesitantly as he drew closer.
“Baby!” he cried. Dropping the hand of the woman and reaching out to hug Claire. She stood awkwardly still holding the fish in the bag, not wanting to get any of it on his nicely pressed white shirt.
“Look at you, all grown up!” he father declared standing back after realizing his hug was not being returned. The woman who was with her dad stood slightly back from them outside the pool of weak light, but he turned and gestured for her to come closer. In a serious voice he explained, “Claire, this is why I asked you to come to Bali…” Claire could hear that he was getting choked up, and she was wishing more and more she’d stayed on the plane. But he went on with his self-important gravitas, “I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Ida Ayu. Ida, this is Claire, my first born daughter.”
Ida stuck out both hands as if to grasp Claire’s, and for a split second Claire was at a complete loss. But sensing the increasing awkwardness of the situation Claire thrust out the bag of stinking smoked fish into Ida’s outstretched hands.
“Gift for me?” Ida declared, with what Claire decided was mock surprise.
“Yes, from home,” Claire replied turning towards her dad.