AIRMAIL FROM AFTERLIFE
One rainy summer day, I packed my backpack and went to America. I was seventeen. I knew what I was doing: I was escaping from the debacle at home. And I was looking for something. For what exactly, I didn’t know, but I’d go look for it in America. There, the heat burned in my nostrils. Lawns were brown. Cars were big and air-conditioned. Girls went gaga over my accent. Guys thought I was cool. And I fell in love with it all.
Three years later, I was paying my way through college in Texas when the notion of home, distant and convoluted as it had become, blew up with gratuitous violence. A Boeing had crashed into a mountain in Turkey, killing all 155 people aboard. I heard about it on the radio. But I didn’t connect the dots.
A few days later, I found a message from the operator in my campus PO Box. Telegram, call Western Union, it said. I called from one of the pay phones. My heart was pounding in my temples, and I had trouble hearing the lady on the other end.
“I’d read it to you,” she said. “But it’s in German. I think you better come by and get it.”
“I’m fixing to go to work. Can’t you try to read it to me?”
“Is it long?”
“Can you spell it?”
“Well, I guess I could. Are you ready?”
I pulled out a notepad and pen. “Ready,” I said, though I knew that I wasn’t ready, that I’d never be ready for whatever she was about to spell.
“E-L-T-E-R-N new word,” she said, “A-M new word M-O-N-T-A-G new word M-I-T new word F-L-U-G-Z-E-U-G new word I-N new word D-E-R new word T-U-R-K-E-I—”
“Stop! Please.” I couldn’t write anymore. Parents on Monday with plane in Turkey.... German sentences, even in abbreviated telegram style, had the main verb at the end, but I didn’t want to hear the main verb, didn’t want to hear it spelled out letter by torturous letter. “Thank you. That’s enough.”
I’d escaped the debacle at home and had gone as far away as possible. But this wasn’t what I’d had in mind. I stood there in a daze, brain deadlocked, numb, clutching the receiver, drowning in abysmal emotions.
Then I went to work. It was just a part-time job, but now I needed the money more than ever. Afterward, I drove to the Western Union office and picked up the yellow slip of paper with twelve lines of all-caps alphanumeric gibberish and two lines of readable text. It was from my sister, sent from the town where she was staying with friends. But it didn’t include their phone number. And my brother was on vacation somewhere. So there was no way to reach him either.
The next morning, I woke up sopping wet, having just sat next to my parents on the plane as it went down. My mother was sleeping with her mouth open. My father was snoring. I knew we’d crash, and while I was wondering if I should wake them up, we crashed. Seats, people, and luggage were flying forward past me, and I watched the expressions on the faces of my parents.
I was rattled for hours. But in class I paid attention, took notes, participated. It was sanity, and I clung to it by my fingernails. The next morning, a similar scenario played out in my dreams. And the morning after that. But one morning, I woke up after six hours of sleep before the nightmares had set in, and for the first time in days, I didn’t feel tormented. From then on, my inner alarm clock would go off after six hours of sleep, and I’d wake up refreshed and ready to go.
Then I found a letter in my PO Box, one of those flimsy baby-blue airmail envelopes with red and navy diagonal stripes around the edges. I stared at the address, at the handwriting. It was from my dead mother.
I hated it when the obvious was irrational. I was scared. What if my universe wasn’t what I thought it was? What if the deceased could send airmail from afterlife?
I opened it, gingerly pulled out two sheets of bluish translucent paper, and unfolded them. They were covered with my mother’s impulsive handwriting, where entire words degenerated into horizontal lines. My eyes fogged over.
There had to be a rational explanation. There always was. You just had to look for it long enough. That’s what my father, an engineer, used to say. I tried to focus, cut through the fog. And I willed myself to look. At the date. Okay. A rational explanation. A huge relief. She’d written it before her departure. It had taken nine days for this letter to make its way from Nuremberg, Germany, to my campus PO Box in Wichita Falls, Texas.
I read the first two lines. They were too brutally irrelevant, and I couldn’t read on.
Weeks later, another flimsy baby-blue letter arrived, this one from the family friend with whom my sister was staying. The remains of my parents had been transferred from Turkey to Austria, he wrote. The funeral would be in Achenkirch on—
“Tomorrow?” I muttered.
I rushed to the nearest travel agency. The woman, seeing the state I was in, went through the motions with her flight schedule book. “Out of DFW, let’s see, you got TWA, Pan Am, and Lufthansa—but you won’t be able to make today’s flights. And tomorrow’s flights arrive day after tomorrow.”
It was impossible. Even if it had been possible, it would have been impossible. Tickets cost a fortune, and I was living hand to mouth and had to save for tuition. So I missed the funeral.
As for my brother, the day the plane crashed, he and some friends were driving around Turkey in a rust-perforated VW Bus. When he learned of a plane crash nearby, he didn’t connect the dots either. He was twenty-two. He found out two weeks later when he went home and his roommates told him. But he didn’t miss the funeral. As for my sister, the authorities located her the day after the crash and informed her. She was eighteen. She didn’t miss the funeral either.
By law, I was in the US on a student visa, and after finishing my coursework, I’d have to leave the country and go home. But home had become a theoretical construct associated with debacle, and the idea of going home had become an absurdity. During the turmoil of these days, even when I wanted to weep to find relief from my conflicted emotions, my eyes remained disdainfully dry. But something else was working itself to the surface, a magnetic and at once an ominous thought: I was finally free.