A dispassionate British accent came over the intercom: “Passengers flying service to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, we regret to inform you your flight has been cancelled…” No! You’ve got to be kidding me! Margot had gotten as far as her connecting flight at Gatwick but was still a ten-hour transatlantic flight from home. Carol and Regina had already gone to Italy from Barcelona two days before. They were unfettered and for them Christmas Day in a foreign country would be an adventure, not a tragedy.
The waiting area at Margot’s gate filled up with groans and an angry line formed fast at the ticket desk. Margot could hear faint announcements overlapping throughout the terminal, and the uproar following each one. The storms and freezing rain would not let up.
Margot couldn’t stand the frenzy. She’d wait until the line calmed down a bit. She walked down the terminal to where it was quieter and made a video call to Henry.
“Hey, baby!” Henry was scruffy, with a carafe of coffee in his hand. “Are you boarding soon?”
“I’m going to miss tonight. They keep cancelling everything.”
“We can’t go without Mom!” Lina said.
“You definitely can go without me. I don’t want y’all to miss it.”
“Alright. That…stinks. Okay, well, you’ll be here tomorrow, right? Surely they won’t make you spend Christmas with strangers at the airport,” Henry said. He was outwardly calm, but Margot knew how upset he would be–how upset they’d all be–if she got delayed again.
“I hope not. Surely not. I wish I wasn’t so far away. I’d rent a car and start driving—”
“Well, the traffic on the roads probably ain’t a bit better.”
“You can’t drive on the ocean!” Trevor said.
“You’re right, Trevor. That was a silly idea, huh?” Margot said. His remark stalled the tears in her eyes.
“Mom, we’re having cookies for breakfast,” Cora said. She held up a bell-shaped cookie with pink icing and sprinkles, then took a big, slow-motion bite.
“You lost a tooth! Cora, you lost a tooth?” Margot said.
“Daddy told me to hold onto it and not put it under my pillow until you got home–or ‘til after Christmas, because the tooth fairy’s busy having Christmas with her family, and I thought I put it somewhere safe…but I can’t find it anymore!”
“Oh, Cora. I wish I was there. I’m sorry.” Henry took the phone then. He’d hoisted Gabriel onto his shoulders, and Gabe’s hands had a firm grip on Henry’s ears.
“I’m sorry, Henry…”
“For what? The tooth? The flight? It’ll be alright. Go get in line and make sure they get your flight straightened out.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow. I’m gonna try.”
“Your odds are better if you don’t talk with the desk clerk about his teeth,” Henry said. Humor was how Henry always dealt with crises.
Margot walked briskly back to the ticket desk, where she wasn’t the only one crying. Some of the passengers were yelling instead. Only a few showed no emotion at all. Margot wondered if those few were psychopaths, or orphans who never married or had children. It seemed pretty universal to have happy expectations for Christmas, none of which involved another night spent in an airport eating crackers for supper.
By 10:00 EST that evening, Margot was finally boarding a plane.
“Welcome. Let’s get you home,” the flight captain kept saying as Margot and the others filed in. He was wearing a Santa hat and a fake beard. The stewardesses wore elf ears and necklaces of tiny blinking Christmas lights. Margot took her seat in the center row between a petite elderly woman and a thirty-year-old burnout. It didn’t take long for the plane to fill up. Everyone was all business, it seemed. Quick, before the wings ice over again. Everyone looked edgy when the intercom clicked on, but the attendant only had good things to say. She sounded like she was from the Bronx. Already one step closer to home, Margot told herself.
By takeoff Margot and the elderly woman were already making introductions.
“Bet you’re glad to be on this flight! My name’s Lois.”
“Hi. I’m Margot.”
“It’s nice to meet you. Do you have a family in the States?”
“I do. My husband and four kids have been waiting for me for days. I just missed my daughter’s Christmas Eve production.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s disappointing.”
“And I missed the live nativity the night before that. We go every year. It’s in our hometown, so it’s small, but there’s always a camel, and one year there was a buffalo, and the kids love that there’s hot chocolate at the end.” Margot paused and saw Lois wanted to listen. She went on, “I hate that I didn’t get to watch them enjoying it. Ya know, gushing over the animals, pointing out whether the baby Jesus is a real one or not. It depends on the weather. Sometimes it’s warm enough for a real baby. One year it was so warm, they used a real baby, and all he was wearing was a cloth diaper.” Lois chuckled. “What about you?”
“Oh, my two sons and their kids are all I have left,” Lois said. “I’m headed there–if I can get there in time! I have a closet full of gifts for the children. They live in South Carolina.”
“Really? So do we! About a half hour from Charleston. You’re brave to travel,” Margot said.
“You are, too,” Lois said with a wink.
They chatted quite a while, until Lois turned off her light and asked the stewardess for a pillow. Margot pulled one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and To Kill a Mockingbird from her bag, but the bumpy air made reading difficult. Suddenly the plane dropped the way a broken elevator might fall fifteen stories in a movie. Cups slid from tray tables; a baby wailed. The stewardesses wasted no time buckling into their harnesses. An attendant, not the one from the Bronx but one with a shrill, nasally voice told everyone to remain seated and buckled, with their tray tables locked. “Things will calm down in just a moment once we dodge this storm,” she said.
But it had been much longer than a moment. The plane continued to drop dramatically, and rock side to side as if they weren’t over the ocean but in it. A couple of times the aircraft turned fully on its side. Every muscle in Margot’s body was clenched. She and Lois grasped each other’s hands. The lights had dimmed in the cabin, and the stewardesses’ necklaces now blinked mockingly: “Mayday, mayday!”
“I wasn’t brave, I was selfish,” Margot said in a low voice. Lois let go of her seat for a moment and held Margot’s arm with both hands. The man on the other side of Margot clutched a string of prayer beads. The other passengers were looking increasingly panicked. It was clear they were in real trouble because the stewardesses’ expressions were no calmer. There were no more announcements from the cockpit.
As the plane rocked, Margot thought of her last getaway with Henry: tent camping, talking about politics, and laughing without interruption. It had been over a year since they were alone like that. Margot visualized flames swallowing the plane, and strategized how she might swim to her rescue if they went down in the Atlantic. She thought of each of her children’s births, the difficulty and the reward and the hormonal slumps that followed and the joy when they hit their milestones. She’d never imagined that by her fourth baby, she’d still be on her knees cheering over something that only sort of resembled crawling, but their development was always thrilling. She ached at how many times the children called her name when she was using her phone. All the suppers and bedtimes she’d missed that year while she was rehearsing. How conflicted she’d felt in Barcelona, having Rioja and adult conversation every night while Henry ran the bedtime routine four thousand miles away. How absurd it felt for Henry not to be in the audience, or for Cora and Lina not to be in the doorway while she dressed, then racing to bring the duffle bag and pack Momma’s dance shoes in it.
It was a full three hours before the plane felt stable again. Margot had seen scenes like this in the movies. When the plane lands, all the passengers clap. Not on this flight, though. Up in the air they’d lost hope for ever landing. They’d felt far too much despair to yo-yo back to applause just yet. Margot’s heart rate still hadn’t slowed, and she empathized as she watched people at the front of the plane practically run toward solid ground. A man in a business suit was still vomiting. The pilot knew better than to stand at the exit wishing each person, “Happy holidays! Goodbye now!”–someone would have slugged him.
Inside the airport, Margot walked with Lois to baggage claim. After a half hour passed, it was obvious they weren’t getting their bags. An attendant verified their addresses. Margot saw Lois visibly irritated for the first time since meeting her–she’d had presents for her sons in her luggage.
“Good luck, darling. We’ll make it home. Merry Christmas to you.” Lois embraced her, then left in a cab. Margot checked the bus schedule. She and other tired travelers waited by the curb. When Judy Garland’s voice came over the loudspeaker–Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light–Margot sank to her knees and wept.
Margot slept on the five-hour bus ride home. She took a cab to her dirt road, which was at that moment the most charming it had ever been. Their sweet blue colonial was the most inviting she’d ever seen it, too, even with those tacky inflatable snowmen in the yard, and Margot couldn’t get to the door fast enough. She hoped they’d be bursting to see her, too. It was 1:00 p.m. Margot imagined she’d wade inside through discarded wrapping paper and bows thrown all over the room. But when she opened the door, she heard the gas stove chirping that it was warm enough, and saw Cora in an apron piling baking supplies onto the kitchen island besides a little heap of cookie-cutters. The presents were still beneath the tree, wrapping paper intact.
“Oh, Cora…. Bless your heart!”
“Mom! I didn’t want you to miss it.”
“You are very, very kind.” Margot squeezed her. Cora’s hair smelled like…well, like her father had been in charge of everyone’s hygiene for two weeks, but Margot didn’t mind.
Henry stood in the archway.
“They’re sending my suitcase.”
Henry ran a few steps and slid on his socks the rest of the way to Margot. They hugged each other with all their strength. Margot kissed his mouth and then whispered to him, “I hadn’t been on stage in so long. Thank you.”