Leaving Fresno

Dad texts me before my flight and asks if the airport brings back memories of Vegas. I lie, and say yes. It’s been ten years since I left the state by plane, two since I last spoke to my mother, and eight months until I quit on my father. Some part of me believes he ran through TSA just to watch me leave; I keep twisting my neck.

My roommate’s ex catches me with a mouthful of egg and an eyeful of Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni. We talk. It’s February. I hope to myself that she’s also flying to Sea-Tac, but she’s going to San Diego to see family. Our terminals just happen to be next to each other. We talk some more. I don’t tell her I’ll be hopping Greyhounds for Olympia once I land, how this is my first trip alone and that I'm touring the University of Washington with an online friend.

Rather, I say, “Life’s been good.” She’s not impressed. Her plane floats first, and I imagine the Washington sun as a cold quilt protector.

Actually, I do remember a bit of Vegas when Nikki says, “Some people forget that love is tucking you in and kissing you 'good night' no matter how young or old you are.” I was 13 when we went to Tropicana and saw the wedding hall my parents married in. I didn’t feel anything while standing there except for the hum of the lights. Mom didn’t seem thrilled either, so I started asking Dad when we were going to New York-New York. He walked me there while Mom took my sister to the M&M’s store. I thought about telling him what I’ll see in the real New York one day—a Yankees game, Grand Central, the Nintendo store—until Dad said, “When you’re 21, we should get drinks at the Excelsior.” We met Mom and Sis back at the Luxor, where she had watermelon Coke from the Coca-Cola store with my name on it. I was always happy when she thought of me. It was midnight, but I drank because it’s vacation. Dad tucked his kiddos in, then inched into bed with his wife—he didn't kiss her head. He responds to my text, “I had a great time with you kids.” I put my phone on airplane mode.

I’m 22 now. I haven’t thought about the Excelsior until today, and Fresno is still a flyover city. Everyone’s in this airport because of layovers, family, or the Mountain West conference. Someone in FAT keeps dropping the needle on the same tired broadcast of the mayor saying, “If you’re returning, then welcome home. If you’re visiting, then thank you for making Fresno your choice destination.” I notice he doesn’t have anything to say for those leaving Fresno: no “Come back safely” or “You always have a home here.” Even he knows nobody stays in Fresno longer than they have to. It’s Irish goodbyes all the way ‘round The Valley. Fresnans, including myself, at one point, study just to get out. Association weighs heavily on the street signs here. People shed this place like a country, carnal. Me? I just need some fresh air. I tell Sis I’m only migrating when I look at colleges, but I’m not sure anymore. I’m hoping I acclimate.

I stow the love poems away when the terminal opens. Everyone goes single file, and I get a sense of who I’m sharing the plane with. A good chunk of people are wearing Patagonia, so they’re definitely from the PNW. One foo’s wearing Hanes with his hair slick back. The woman in front of me is in a wheelchair, skin pale-blue, holding hands with her husband. She’s wearing three different colored sweaters and a crocheted beanie. I understand this is their last trip together, and look away. The man who’s supposed to be behind me, and sounds old enough to be Dad, starts a chess match from his phone loud enough for everyone to hear.

I wouldn’t mind staying in a jetway for a while, I thought, when I realized the Chess Guy was getting the window seat. I turn slightly and lean forward to get the view. All I see are the wings, which are shaking with excitement. He thinks I’m watching his match.

“It’s the London system,” he says. “Do you know it?”

“No.” I lied. “No, I don’t.”

The flight attendants begin pantomiming the safety protocols. I’m watching them so they can feel seen when Chess Guy starts talking more about the system than he is remembering the set-up.

“I’m gonna lock this in before takeoff,” he says.

I notice he’s ranked #554 on the corner of his screen. I keep some faith in him.

The plane wheels north when I remember the conversation I had with Mom before our big argument. We were driving on McKinley past Echo, the California sun a cautery, and “NYC” plowing through the radio static like an exit wound, which, for starters, who’s tuning in to Interpol in Fresno, California? She pinched the dial left.

“I hope there’s an understanding that I was an imperfect mother,” Mom said.

“Depends which child you’re telling that to.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you told this to Sis?” I asked, then looked at the soupy M&M’s packet in her cup holder. Mom thought about it for a moment.

“I just ask for grace. I tried, son. I really tried.”

“When you try to have it both ways, eventually your kids are going to make a decision for you.”

“Y’know,” she said. “My therapist says when life comes in waves, when you aren’t sure what to do, the best option is to float. I’ve been floating.”

“Aha!” says Chess Guy. “I won.”

The wings stiffen. The force of my shoulders pulls me to my seat. And just like that, I float away.



Gavin Garza is a poet, tutor, and student at Fresno City College. Raised in IBLP, a non-denominational Christian cult, he is currently reclaiming his Chicanismo in Fresno, California. His work has been featured in MudRoomEucalyptus LitFliesCockroaches, and Poets, and elsewhere. Garza can be found on Instagram @anoldsoulsong.

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