“This isn’t me.”
I stared into the bathroom mirror and tried not to throw up. My white dress de-aged me by a decade, the ruffles above my shoulders were uproariously old-fashioned, and the hot rouge on my cheeks and lips had turned my face into what looked like a plastic doll.
I peered down to see the one aspect of my apparel that still screamed Zippy. Beneath the dress, beneath all the lies and pretensions, I wore my red Converse. My dad had a pair of low heels in his carry-on bag, and he’d make me change into them as soon as we touched ground in Memphis—but until then my comfy shoes were staying put.
Tears streamed down my cheeks. I didn’t want to step back into the crowded hub of the Kansas City airport. I didn’t want to face my dad and take that long walk toward purgatory. I needed a distraction.
“Excuse me,” an unfamiliar voice said from the corner of the bathroom. “Could you by any chance watch my bag?”
I sniffled as I turned to see a middle-aged hippie, dressed all in pink and wearing a silver sports cap on her oval-shaped head. She kicked her massive hard-sided suitcase up against the trashcan and strolled up to me, her hands planted against her hips.
I pointed at my chest. “Are you talking to me?”
“Yes. My suitcase won’t fit in the stall so I need someone to—” The lady’s mouth closed mid-sentence, as she took her first good look at me. She towered all the way up to the ceiling, her head blocking the sunlight shining through the small window behind her. “Are you all right, girlie?”
I nodded, tried not to look the woman in the eye. “I’m fine.”
She wiped a tear from the bottom of my chin. I thought I might quiver from her touch, but I didn’t. The woman smiled, a raisin shade of lipstick covering her two front teeth. “Let me guess. You’re scared of the flight.”
“Yeah,” I said. I tried to smile back at her. “Something like that.”
“I remember how scared I was my first time. But I swear to you, honey, it’s as easy as my mama’s caramel cake. All you have to do is close your eyes, and think happy thoughts, and it’ll be over in a jiffy.”
“Okay,” I said, comforted by her words. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” She pointed toward her suitcase. “So can you watch my bag for a second?”
I shrugged. I was in no rush. “Sure.”
The woman trudged around the corner and disappeared into the last stall on the right. I wanted to follow her. I wanted to wrap my arms around this kind stranger and weep against her melon-sized breasts.
But I didn’t. I ran my wet hands underneath the hand dryer and stared at the corner of the bathroom. I welcomed this momentary job as suitcase bodyguard; it meant a few more seconds of freedom before my whole world changed. My father was going to ask for me any minute, but even though he had no problem stampeding over every person he came across in life, including his teenage daughter, I was confident he wouldn’t dare enter the ladies’ restroom.
The woman coughed in the stall, cleared her throat. When she started humming the theme song to The Flintstones, I realized time was not an issue for her. I glanced at the exit door, then sat on the dirty hardwood next to the suitcase. I glanced down at my boarding pass.
I ran my pinky against the sharp black font. The letters appeared innocuous enough. MEM. Like I would be arriving in a city to meet the schizophrenic version of my already insane stepmother.
I folded the pass in half before I had to stare at it any longer. I didn’t want to go to Memphis. I didn’t want to go to that scary camp in the middle of the woods.
“But I don’t have a choice,” I whispered.
I sighed and glanced at the lady’s suitcase, silver like her hat. Her crinkled destination tag read, “MCI to SEA.” I smiled for the first time in days. I wanted to go to the sea. I’d welcome sprawling out on the top of a marble rock, a virgin pina colada in my hands, my feet nestled against a foamy tide of saltwater spritz—with Mira by my side.
The door opened, and I lunged backward, away from view, as my dad bellowed, “Zipporah? What are you doing in there?”
I cringed at his voice. “One minute, Dad.”
“The flight boards in thirty minutes. What’s taking so long?”
I thought of something fast. “I’m having some female issues! Can’t you give me some privacy?”
“Well, hurry up! I’ll be outside the door when you’re ready.” I jumped a little when he slammed the door.
I rose to my feet and faced the tiny window that looked out on the airport runway. I wanted to jump through it, land on the tarmac, and just sprint, no destination in sight, my imagination running wild with dreams of a better place. But the window was so tiny not even my arm could fit through.
I shoved my back against the wall. I tried not to start crying again. The bathroom was to act as a predecessor to the prison cell I’d be locked inside for my entire summer. I hoped they’d give me a window to look out of, between all the bigoted lectures, all the condescending small talk. I hated that I was still seventeen. I wanted to be eighteen. Eighteen and free.
“You still out there, darling?” the woman asked from the stall.
I turned to my left, gritted my teeth. “I am.”
“Good. Be out in a second. Where you headed, by the way?”
I didn’t want to spend my last minute of freedom having a conversation with a woman on the crapper, but I answered anyway. “Uhh, Memphis, Tennessee.”
“Oh, how fun. I’m headed to Washington, to visit my sister. I hope it doesn’t rain all weekend.”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to feign interest. “That wouldn’t be good.”
“The weather in Seattle is supposed to be so miserable this time of year.”
“I wouldn’t know—” My voice froze, even though it was a hundred degrees inside the bathroom. I turned to the woman’s stall. “Wait, what did you say?”
I fell to my knees and grabbed the tag on her luggage. MCI to SEA.
“Seattle,” I said.
My heart started pounding. I stared down at the giant suitcase and opened my mouth like I wanted to scream, not with frustration or sadness, but with ghoulish satisfaction. Five seconds ago I had no plan of escape; now I had masterminded the greatest plan in the history of the world.
I zipped open the suitcase to reveal a mountain of clothes that towered over more than a dozen hardback books. A large bag of toiletries tilted over the side; I picked it up and dropped it into the wide barrel trashcan.
I didn’t respond. My time was limited. I grabbed the clothes—two pink dresses, four unisex sweaters, ten pairs of long socks—and shoved them down into the bottomless trash.
“Girlie? Could you hand me some toilet paper? The one in here is empty.”
I couldn’t waste valuable time assisting the needy woman, but I also didn’t want her stepping out of the stall to see me disposing of her belongings.
“Oh, sure thing,” I said.
I threw the last of the socks away and ran across the bathroom, stopping at the first stall on my right to grab a roll of toilet paper. I didn’t want to spend more time with the woman than I needed to, but I was prepared to spend an entire year with her if doing so meant I didn’t have to go to Memphis. I lowered the toilet paper beneath her stall, and she snatched it up.
“Thank you,” she said.
I raced back to the suitcase to finish unloading her things into the trashcan. I tossed out the last of her clothes, then removed her set of hardback cookbooks.
The toilet flushed, followed by a soft grunt. I peered down to see nothing left in the suitcase but a lone blue-checkered sweater.
“Here goes nothing,” I whispered.
I lay myself down into the hard-edged suitcase. I bent my knees. Pressed my feet against one side, and slammed my head against the other. My whole life I’d wanted to be taller but not in that moment; I thanked the Lord I was only four foot ten and eighty-two pounds.
I grabbed the main zipper and started closing the suitcase. I was surprised not to feel the terror of claustrophobia or the eerie sensation of being buried alive; instead a warm, safe sensation came over me, like the tiny crate was the coziest of beds.
The stall door flew open. I kept a small slit exposed on the right side so I could breathe. “Girlie? Where’d you go?” the woman asked.
I held my breath, even though I knew my problem was going to be her sense of touch, not hearing.
“She seemed like such a nice girl,” the woman said, and she lifted me into the air. My stomach lurched upward, like I was on a slingshot thrill ride. The suitcase fell back to the ground. “Whoa! How much stuff did I pack in this thing?”
I thought it was over. When she didn’t pick me up again, I prepared for her to unzip the suitcase, discover my whereabouts, reveal me to my father and to all of Kansas City. I closed my eyes, tightened my fists.
But then she pulled out the extender and rolled the suitcase outside the bathroom. My jaw dropped. If I could have moved my hands, I would have applauded.
“Excuse me,” a male voice said—my father, of course. “Did you see a young girl in there? Short, long brown hair, white dress—”
“Yes! As a matter of fact, I did,” the woman said. “I asked her to watch my luggage, but she left before I could thank her.”
“Left? You mean, she’s not in there?”
“No. When I came out of the stall, she was gone.”
“You’re kidding me,” he said, and stepped away.
I remained deathly quiet as the woman continued rolling me over to what I hoped to be baggage check. I didn’t hear another word from my dad.
“Where’s this going?” a young female voice asked.
“Seattle,” the woman said. “Thank you very much.”
I was lifted into the air again, this time higher than before. It would have been nice and safe to stay in the air forever, but a bag this heavy had to come down sometime. When the suitcase struck the conveyor belt, I fell so hard against my right arm it took all my energy not to scream.
I rubbed my chin against my injured arm and noticed a decreased amount of light from the breathing hole I’d left open. But I wasn’t scared, not at all. I knew, as audacious as my master plan may have been, that I was meant to meet that woman today, and that I was meant to be in this suitcase.
“I hope you’re ready, Mira,” I whispered, “because here I come.”