My parents fight while we wait to board in the terminal, and they were fighting back at the house while we wrestled our luggage into the trunk of the taxi, and I bet they’ll be fighting when the plane finally gets here. Emmett’s eyes are wide and dripping innocence all over his shoes as he watches them. I shelter him with my arm like a mother bird and hum to myself to block out the arguing. When this happens at home, Emmett crams himself into a corner of his room and runs his trains in circles, their tinny engines drowning out all sounds. It’s always something different that starts it, runaway toothpaste caps or bills that never seem to stop coming, but once they start, they could burn the whole house down. Now confined to the airport, I’m left watching tired bodies blend into one another as most pass us without a second thought, the blazing words of my parents vacuumed by the chaos.
The air eventually starts to overflow with Emmett’s crying, and my parents pull away and look at him before they look at each other. Blame colors their faces red but never touches their lips. Mom instructs me to bring him to get a pretzel, handing me crumpled dollars from her pocket. My dad glowers and reeks of regret, wiping round droplets off Emmett’s cheeks. It’s a disaster.
A few minutes later Emmett sits on the carpeted floor, gripping his cinnamony dough firmly and staring at the boots of passersby as he chews. My parents are smudges in my peripheral, the hostility in their muted movements visible even from a distance. I reach into my carry-on and find the little yellow paper crane Emma gave me on the last day before break. It flies from my hands to Emmett’s, who holds it like it’s something sacred, rotating it slowly in front of his face.
“Look,” I say softly, pulling on the flimsy tail so the wings flap. Emmett smiles hesitantly before he tries it for himself.
“Pretty,” he says, mouth rimmed with sugar crystals. I sit criss-cross next to him and he nests into my shoulder. The speakers crackle and announce the beginning of boarding for the next flight to Japan, and my parents stand stuck in front of the Starbucks, whittling away time with their insults.
Emmett falls asleep like that, nestled into my side. Time stretches on around me. I try to call Emma who's home alone while her parents celebrate their thirty-third anniversary, but she doesn’t answer. I try to count how many people say thank you after they order cinnamon pretzels. I try to picture a world where we get to our hotel room in peace and my parents sleep next to each other instead of paying extra for separate beds, us under the cherry blossom trees that made us choose Japan for vacation in the first place, all holding hands tightly, the sky filled with cranes that flutter around our shoulders. Eventually I doze off, my mind a whirlpool of color and storybook images. A warm hand finds my shoulder and jolts me awake. Hairs that have fought their way out of a ponytail frame the face that looks down at me.
“We’re boarding,” Mom says, her voice hoarse. Her eyes glitter and avoid my own. I glance around.
I’m met with silence—the kind that holds heavy meaning in its spaces. She takes a deep breath in and out, then motions to Emmett.
“Wake him up.”
“What am I gonna tell him?”
“That Daddy went home,” she snaps. The airport feels far smaller than it did a few hours ago. I might suffocate in its manufactured calmness.
My mom makes her way to the gate, the line now thinned to the last few stragglers. I pull my arm away from Emmett, who bristles under me before his eyes open.
“Is it time to leave?” he almost whispers. I nod and take his hand.
It takes a long time for anyone to say anything. I watch my mom for the whole flight. She rubs her temples in delicate circles and doesn’t accept any snacks from the flight attendant. Clouds strangle the snapshot of pale blue in the window behind her. The plane hums like a beehive and Emmett crushes plastic cups. We stuff ourselves into a taxi cab, I make small talk while my mom memorizes the pattern covering the seats. The city ignores us as we fight our way through streets thick with heat and noise. We whisk through the lobby of the Sakura hotel, and when we’ve finally collapsed in a pool of downy comforters and air-conditioning, my mom and I both staring at the mindless talk show on the screen while Emmett swipes at animated candy on his iPad, the sharp blade of tension digs so deep into my chest that I nearly pass out. And then, with the question he’s had locked up for the past 15 hours, Emmett breaks it:
“Where’s Daddy?” My mom’s face hovers over sadness for a second and then hardens just as quickly.
“He couldn't come.”
“He’s sick.” Emmett looks back down. I don’t look away from the TV. I focus on the talk show host’s shiny head, a couch cushion crushed under his guest, her shaky hands as she throws her head back in laughter. I wonder who I’m supposed to be mad at. My parents for being human? Emmett for being a child? Myself for even caring?
That’s the one. Emma’s parents are probably basking in soft sunlight right now, fingers interlocked. Thirty-three years. If I could, I’d send them a bouquet of flowers with a note that says It can’t be all of us.
In the middle of the night, my body jerks awake to the sound of fragile crying from the bathroom. Emmett is aglow in streetlights that sneak through the window, painting a halo above his head on the pillow. I find Mom sitting on the floor in the bathroom, her back pressed against the porcelain of the bathtub. Her wrists are buried in her eye sockets. I could go back to bed and she’d never see me, her weakness unrevealed. If a woman breaks in the lucid hours of the morning but nobody is there to hear her, does she even break at all?
“Mommy,” I whisper. She jerks her head up. Her face flashes with what I recognize as relief it’s not Emmett. Wide eyes meet mine through a veil of tears that seem to soak her whole face, blurring the features I know so well into a portrait of soft obscurity.
“Hi, baby,” she says. I don’t respond, choosing despite myself to stare. I’ve never seen her cry before, not like this, cracking open. Against the pristine white of the bathroom, she sits crumpled, creased at the edges like Emma’s paper crane. The insane urge to go find Dad to help creeps up on me.
“Are you okay?” From the darkness that lingers behind the door, I hear Emmett call out in his sleep, stuck in a dream. I crawl into the space next to her tentatively, and she takes me into her arms.
“I’m sorry the trip ended up like this,” she says into my hair. I just nod. My anger had melted down and drained out of me when I wasn’t paying attention, and in its absence my chest was aching, rattling with every breath.
“What’s gonna happen?”
“I don’t know.” She sighs. “I never wanted things to be this way.”
“Don’t fall in love, Amelia. I’m gonna take that back in the morning, but I mean it.” She kisses the top of my head. “Not worth it.”
Not worth it. I file the words away to inspect later, and their weight is rock-heavy in the back of my mind. We sit on that floor for so long that the night starts to spill out of the sky. When morning starts to force its golden fingers into the room I shut my eyes tighter. The sun could rise a million times and I wouldn’t even notice, my senses numbed by white walls and the shattered pieces of my family.
The next morning we start to get ready to see the cherry blossom trees as planned. My mom brushes her hair in the mirror and I watch her muscles stiffen when Emmett asks if we’re going back home.
“No,” she says. She’s wearing a careful mask of strength, cheeks powdered and eyes artfully smudged with black. “We still have five days left.”
“But Daddy,” Emmett whines. The pathway from my throat to my heart burns. I long for instructions, for a voice to slip into no my ear and tell me how to make this all better.
“We’re going to see the cherry blossoms, Emmett. Don’t you want to see the cherry blossoms?” Desperation coats my every word, undetected by his young ears.
“Cherry blossoms,” he echoes back. My mom shoots me a thank you glance in the mirror and I force myself not to look away.
When we arrive at the garden, the trees greet us with their lush beauty, their velvety arms cutting across the pale sky in a postcard mirage of perfection. Flashes of lavender sun hats and dresses that dance in circles with the breeze dot the landscape. The air is full with the sugar of the flowers, their fuzzy yellow insides. Mom reveals a basket of pastries, complete with sparkling sodas in green glass bottles that sing as they bump into each other. Emmett grabs his with both hands excitedly and clinks it against mine.
“Cheers!” he says, his voice bubbling more than the drink.
“A toast,” I clink back. To the Sakura Hotel, to Emma’s parents, to endings. To the clusters of pink that fall with a tragic delicacy, cushioning the grass where we settle and sip summer air. To the sky that swelled with quiet as we crossed oceans and tried not to think about all that we were leaving behind. To love never being worth it, or maybe to the opposite.
To my mother.
Alessandra Olivieri lives in Manhattan. Her work has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and the University of Iowa. In her free time, she enjoys hanging out with her dogs and exploring the streets of New York City. This is her first published piece.