"Place your seats in an upright position for take-off." An attendant's voice rings through the system. Two strangers sharing the last row with me shuffle uncomfortably in their seats. I take a deep breath, bracing myself for the worst.
The cheap flights from Beirut to JFK are notoriously uncomfortable. It's 4 hours to Doha, a 12-hour layover, and 15 hours overnight to New York. I'm on the second leg, and I'm used to toughing it. Tough is my middle name.
"Would you like the armrest?" the man to my left motions. I look him over, a learned precaution. He must be in his forties, thin lips, thin eyebrows, and a thin mustache; deceptively harmless.
"I'm fine," I say, turning to a small black notebook in my hands.
"What are you reading?" he asks.
"Work notes?" he's relentless.
"Something like that," I mutter, focusing on the book. I can feel eyes on me. I'm used to this. Men like him believe they're owed an answer from women like me; unveiled, unmarried, unbroken. I could be a suitable mate, maybe. I look a reasonable age, educated. You must be if you're traveling alone...I can hear him thinking behind affronted eyes.
He sighs again, loudly, to make his displeasure known. "It's my father's notebook," I say in spite of myself, lifting up the book.
"Oh," he nods, "Is that who you're going to see?"
"Kind of," I bow my head and raise my eyes to meet his, "he just died."
"Oh," he says again, this time stammering, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize."
"I'd rather be left alone."
He looks at me closely, spots a tired look in my eyes, a frizz in my hair. He sees that I'm wearing black. "Certainly," he replies, "I won't let anyone bother you."
"Thank you," I sense his spirit lift. It isn't death lifting his spirit. It's the false reassurance that my lack of engagement isn't his fault. And yes, you read it right. The reassurance is false. My father isn't dead, only long disappeared. The truth is my mother just died, but Friend-man here doesn’t need to know.
Still, the machismo. The delicious drive that kicked into overdrive when I requested no one bother me. It was…precious. Yes, Friend-man's chest heaved, yes! I won't let a single traveler trip into our sacred space, you can count on me. He's happy to be confidante, friend…anything but stranger. That's it, seriously—a clear agenda.
Friend-man glares at a couple in the next row to highlight his point, and back at the old woman to my right in her chair snoozing. He nods authoritatively and settles back in.
Maybe he does have a clear agenda, but it's hard for me to believe it. I look at my father's notebook. Here is another man—one with no clear agenda:
June 2, 1993
Call Forever Trust - Margo
Margo? I search my brain; the name is familiar. This was a woman my mother had liked. Women like Margo don't put up with men like your uncle...she’d said...they don't put up with any BS.
My mother admired independent women…some women marry rich, others think rich, she'd say. That's it! Margo was the bank lady from Forever Trust, the one who helped sell the house. She always wore a hat, my mom once snickered, to hide her bald spots. A large white lady comes to mind. She’s tall, imposing, and a little like Mrs. Doubtfire. I stand in the kitchen as she meets with my parents; she wears colorful earrings and a large sun hat.
Despite her catty remarks, women like Margo inspired my mother to leave Jersey, dragging my father and me back to Lebanon. I look at the entry, 1993, the year we'd left. Didn't they sell the house, the car, and pawn all the bracelets and necklaces gifted from my dad's family to pay for the move? And, let me tell you, she'd snapped, that shitty jewelry didn't amount to much…just 300 dollars. I told your Father to invest it, maybe someday it would grow.
Invest in what? I couldn't ask. She was gone. Succumbed to too many problems. I certainly couldn't ask my father; he'd ghosted at the turn of the millennia. A victim of the Y2K maybe.
I assumed he was tired. Tired of the back and forth, the fighting, the catching up. Tired of moving our family to Jersey, his siblings—all 14 brothers and sisters—only to leave them behind again.
I found the notebook in an old briefcase after my mother died. You don't understand how difficult it was…she'd said one hot afternoon, as she threw the case into the back of a storage loft...I didn't know the language, I didn't have friends. And then, when his family came, they just bullied me. I was never good enough.
My mother aspired to be a modern Lebanese woman; cultured, respectable, short-skirt-wearing yet certainly god-fearing. My father was also driven but from a conservative Palestinian family. How conservative? An image of my aunts come to mind—his sisters drowning in robes and headscarves—gray, brown, and beige juxtaposed with my mother's off-the-shoulder yellows, red lipstick, and coiffed hair. He loved that she was everything they weren't. It was probably also the problem.
My father made regular trips back to visit his siblings. Sometimes for long times. Because it wasn't cheap, he had to be careful with his budgets. So, what had my uncle done to make Margo angry? I flip back to an earlier entry:
February 22, 1993
That idiot flooded the home, I remember my mother complaining, he did it on purpose...to lose value on the house, so your father wouldn't leave...but Margo fixed everything. It was tiring listening to her emotional rants. Her pains magnified and projected. Yet here I was trying to remember. To redraw each moment. When she told me he was gone, we were sitting on the balcony. The time we were picking watercress, she cried and said he'd taken all our money. When she hugged me and reassured me that we could get through anything, we were on the bed, surrounded by old pictures.
Things weren't adding up. We moved in '93. I know because times were changing. I was just 10 years old, but already MTV was launching a new era, the toy store was stocking Beanie Babies, and boy was meeting world. I wouldn’t be there to see it. I was so angry.
Did they actually sell the house? And, if not, could my father still be in it? I don’t know—but I'm headed to Jersey to find out. I flip the book open again, hoping for a more immediate answer:
May 13, 1993
$300 in CAPITA
Ok, CAPITA. That must be where he invested the jewelry money…but still—nothing makes sense. I put the book down and rub my eyes. Why had he left? Without even a goodbye. No secret message or subtle innuendo. The last thing he said to me was to pass the remote.
And all he left behind was this small, black notebook. Forgotten, more likely. It wasn't a daily planner, but he used it like one, scribbling down reminders with a fancy fountain pen. He liked to collect pens and other bits and bobs. Motherboards, microchips, RAMs. He was a civil engineer, but his true passions were computers, binary, and the internet. I'm ahead of the rest, he'd boast, smart, innovative, and handsome. That's where you get it from.
I gag a little. The smell of airline food is in the air. I hadn't noticed the attendant make her way out. To my right, the older woman starts to wake up. I take the book off the tray and stow it under my thigh.
"Tonight, we're serving red-sauce penne and a Biryani chicken rice," says the flight attendant as she secures the cart, "but we're out of chicken."
"Looks like it's penne," Friend-man claps, "I hope that's fine with you, dear?" he motions to me, consolingly.
I glance at the flight attendant, "Pasta."
She hands out the trays. A collective clattering ensues as people unwrap plastic knives and sporks. She unlocks her cart to head back to the galley, but another flier interrupts her route and asks for a drink. She reaches for a cup and bottle, supporting the cart with her hip.
I'm not hungry, but I open the pasta anyway. I'm staring at microwaved penne when the plane suddenly dips. The seatbelt signals flash on. The attendant falls and loses control of the cart. The hot penne drops into my lap. I hop up, the book slips from under me, and I bang my head into the overhead compartment. I kick my leg in pain—shooting the notebook out into the aisle.
As the plane begins to level, the cart rolls upward and snags the book underneath its left tire. The cart skews immediately to the left and slowly comes to a stop between the rows.
Friend-man helps the attendant to her feet. Together, they dislodge the book and hand it back. "It's only a little torn," he says.
I put the book away and go to the bathroom to clean up. By the time I return, the attendant has cleared up the mess. The plane lights are dim, and the old woman is asleep again. Friend-man is turning in too. He looks at me first, flashes a thumbs up. I force a smile and nod everything’s ok.
As they drift off, I pull out the book again. The binding is cracked from the impact. I open it further to assess the damage. The seam rips and two polaroid pictures slip out from the binding and onto the open tray. I recognize the first right away. We’re in the house. I'm sitting on our old sofa, my mother and father next to me. They took it the year before we'd left. I'm confident because on the back he'd written 1992.
In the next picture my father sits with another woman and a baby. They’re in the same house—and on the same sofa. I've never seen her before, but she has an energy. It's reminiscent of my aunts…quiet, timid, muted. The back of this picture reads 1996.
I look at the binding and notice it's been tampered with before. Peeling it back, I find my father's initials and last name in what look like a username and password:
Feeling a gut-wrenching sense of clarity, I hold up the second picture again…this is why. I dig for my laptop, connect to the flight's WIFI and search: Forever Trust. I find it, “Serving Paterson since 1963!” I open the link and look for their online banking page.
It's a wild shot, but I take it. Typing quickly, I log in with the username and password. To my shock, a new page appears. I can't believe it…my father's account. As I pull up old statements, the blank years start coming together. Store runs, hotels, tickets. Paychecks, transfers, deposits. I spot one particular entry in 2000. A deposit of $450,000. It’s from 'CAPITA.' My ears start to burn.
The investment did grow…but his final bank total didn’t amount to much. A laughable $30,000. I pull up my account information. It’s my only chance; I want to make the most of it. I direct the funds to my account and increase the transfer limit to the maximum: $20,000. The lights on the plane start turning on. Everyone's waking up. It's near the end of my journey.
As my cursor hovers over the 'confirm' button, I pause…look at the picture…at his quiet new wife and child…
"Is that your Father?" Friend-man interrupts over my shoulder, eyes watering with pity.
“He was,” I snap, staring him down. Friend-man turns away, pouting. I smile, take a deep breath, and let my finger drop.
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