Natalie Harris-Spencer is an English writer, digital editor, and blogger living in America. Her work has appeared in Allegory Ridge, the Stonecoast Review, Hobart, The Dark City, The Satirist and others. She is the winner of the Chestnut Review Stubborn Writers Contest, the Hummingbird Flash Fiction Prize, and she was selected by Oyster River Pages as one of their Emerging Fiction Voices. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Stonecoast, and she is the Editor-in-Chief of Aspiring Author. She is currently working on her debut novel. Natalie enjoys surprise in fiction. And tea.
The sun has begun its descent over the airport bar. There are no stars yet. The planes make their transient mark on the icy sky, their fuel trains creating temporary tattoos. On my phone is the scribble of a QR code representing an economy ticket to JFK: one of the scarcer evening flights. I’m on my way from London to meet my American friend, Ari, for a long, swampy weekend in the city before heading back to the Dubai office and to Chris. I’m always on the move. Call it a perk of the job.
My Dubai job taught me airports. I think I must know airports better than I know the walls of the house I grew up in. I know the lure of their coffee shops, the glossy consistency of their magazine covers, their designer handbag seasons. I know the rituals for going through security, every country’s approach slightly different, the fear of terrorism appropriately scaled.
I’ve become accustomed to killing and measuring time, to tracking—and beating—my ten thousand Fitbit steps a day, to using the coin-operated showers that spit out aqua chlorine while I scrub the scent of travel from my body: sweat, wet wipes, plane toilets.
I’m six days late, but it’s not enough to stop me from ordering a Bloody Mary: global airport drink of choice. I’ll stop drinking when the time comes, but only after I’ve taken a pregnancy test. The budget home kit burns a hole in my handbag. Later. I’ll do it later. I pinch my thumb and forefinger around the straw, trying to eke out the knobs of horseradish that have collected there. Bloody Marys have their merits, but thick, grainy horseradish isn’t one of them. I’m a classic Tabasco and Lea & Perrins combo kind of girl. Shit, I’m even OK with a fat stick of decorative celery. Just please, God, no horseradish. The taste of horseradish brings up bad Seder dinner memories.
It was at the Communal Seder two years ago that I decided to tell my parents I’d accepted the job in Dubai. I was to be a travel writer for a small publishing company that put out quarterly magazines and annual editions of local guidebooks. Their niche was affordable travel for freewheeling millennials. Being one, I got offered the job.
The position came with a tax-free salary, heavily subsidised accommodation, and monthly, all-expenses paid business travel. It was more money than I’d seen in my life. It also came with the promise of penthouse parties with tennis legends, no sex on the beach for fear of prison, and telling absolutely nobody that I was a British Jew. Mum wasn’t happy.
“Who do you know in that Arab Disneyland, Susannah?”
“I’ll make friends.”
“Who with? The emir?”
“With other expats.”
I never met anybody as important as an emir. I made friends, never truly connecting, with a bunch of British, Australian, and Indian expats—Dee, Martin, Loz, Anu, Krish—as well as a married couple in my building—Jen and Simon. There were a few junior editors and copywriters at the magazine who were okay, sort of stuck up, and a couple of girls I’d fallen into conversation with at my gym lobby. My phone contacts grew and grew. Sometimes, I made friends at parties, too—the kinds that laid out tote swag bags and ahi tuna canapés—swapped numbers, sometimes even went home with them. It’s against the law in Dubai for an unmarried couple to stay together under the same roof, but there was a network of special expat apartments that I became familiar with. The Dubai Police rode their tall horses right by those buildings, blinkers on, their focus forward. Still, I was always careful, skulking out in the early hours into the blistering desert heat, never staying the night. Extra-marital sex didn’t seem like something worth getting arrested for.
Chris was the only man I ever risked letting stay over at my flat. He had hooded eyes, a blotchy, strawberry complexion, and he made my throat ache with want. Like me, he was a British expat, but unlike me, he was terribly fit and sporty: the kind of athletic kid who would have ignored me in school. We kept our relationship a secret from Jen, Simon, and the rest of the crew. You didn’t advertise who you were fucking in Dubai, even in expat circles. There was no way of knowing who was going to grass you up to the authorities.
I hurled all my energy into Chris. I couldn’t focus at work. My articles were a mess of typos and hackneyed observations. Everything seemed light, suddenly. Dreamier. I moved through the streets of Dubai in a dumb, giggly haze. I became woozy with the smell of the souks, the sugary brightness of the malls, the waviness of the sand dunes like my ever-untamable, very-Jewish hair. I had an incessant need to hear from him, checking my phone like a Tik Tok teenager, every flashing text message shooting blood straight to my groin. I scrolled through his Instagram for hours. Chris had thousands of followers and likes. Chris played cricket for a team of British and Indian expats. Chris was the bassist in a band called The Inconsequentials. Girls littered his comments. But it was my collarbone he hooked his thumbs into, my thighs he rubbed, my lips he nuzzled. It was my name he uttered when I gripped the fuzz of his hair, encouraging him into me, his skull round and soft.
One afternoon, unable to contain my boast, I slipped his name to a girl at work. I didn’t mean to. She wasn’t a friend or anything. It just came out, like a sneeze.
“Chris McMillan? Of course! Everyone knows Chris. Wait, you’re not sleeping with Chris? You know he’s married, right?”
I cried in the bath like a newborn. Four days later, I got on a flight to the Gold Coast. Work wanted me to write an article on the endangered brush-tailed rock-wallaby, and how every millennial should do their part to save it. Hours later, jetlagged and distraught, I went down to the sand and had sex with a guy from Sunderland I’d got chatting to at baggage claim. The roaring darkness of the ocean and the sensation of another man’s breath made me feel wild. Invincible. I walked back to my hotel in the warm rain.
“Please may I have another? But with a bit less horseradish if possible?” I swivel on the bar stool; gaze out at the row of plane wings.
The questions are polite, British, not the “I’m gonna do,” like I’m about to have sex with my drink, the phrase that Ari taught me when I first stayed with her in New York.
The bar lady seems pissed at my horseradish request, but she brings me a better Bloody anyway.
“Lovely,” I say, but she’s already serving another punter, no tips to be gained, no love lost.
Right about now, my parents and my brother, Zack, will be sitting down for Friday night dinner on the opposite side of the M25 from Heathrow. You’re supposed to wait until a few minutes before sunset to do the brachas, but exactitude has never been my mother’s strong suit, especially when her stomach’s rumbling. I picture the three of them in the narrow dining room, my chair pulled tight and empty, Mum beckoning in the candlelight, covering her eyes with her hands like she’s crying.
There’s more vodka in this new drink. It softens the thickness of the tomato juice, swirls around the ice. I neck it, order another, remembering the sweetness of Kedem, the low alcohol kiddush wine I should be drinking instead of this non-kosher Bloody Mary.
Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Yeah, seriously. Bless you, God, for that. Wine has been a happy constant during my travels. Perhaps I should have ordered a Pinot tonight instead. My belly is swelling in that uncomfortable way where you can hear the liquid plopping if you move around too much. Ari thinks I’m weird for liking Bloody Marys. She’s a rye whiskey neat kind of girl.
“Is it, like, an English thing to drink them?”
“Not really. I only get them when I fly.”
It’s become a ritual: multiple Bloody Marys, a spritz of Miracle Blossom perfume on my pulse points from World Duty Free, four bottles of overpriced Smartwater from Boots (the free copy of the Daily Telegraph flagrantly binned). With these points actioned, I’m ready to hit the skies. It’s my way of sloughing off my country.
Just after Chris and I got back together, after I’d forgiven him for the whole having-a-wife thing, a miscarriage started in the toilets of Bangkok International Airport. Initially, I thought it was my period, until I saw the quality of the blood and finger-counted that I was eight days late. Then I started passing tissue like some weird science experiment.
I called Chris, bursting into tears immediately, despite my best efforts not to.
“Is it mine?”
I hung up on him.
I’d never been pregnant before; the length of its demise shocked me. The sight of my own insides was both awful and beautiful: the beginning and end of something natural. Still, the surprise. It just hadn’t seemed like something that would happen to me. The whole ordeal lasted eight days, seeping into my trip to Singapore. I was glad it had started at an airport, away from Chris, where my face was a fuzzy shape amid many, where I could easily pick up pads and surreptitiously stick them to my knickers, where I didn’t have my mum to wallow with me, to wail to God about how unfair life was. I could just keep travelling—terminal after terminal after terminal.
Up until then, I’d never considered how ill-prepared I was for pregnancy: the thought of a change so drastic made the ground wobble. I don’t know what I’d have done then if the pregnancy had been an official, clinical one and not chromosomally doomed. “Chemical” – was what Google termed it. It never really got started. I couldn’t help fantasize about what would have happened between Chris and me if the lost embryo had survived.
Credit card points gain me access to the terminal lounge, where every wide chair has a power socket and USB port, and alcohol is a slutty free-for-all. Kids wail and stuff sweet chilli crisp crumbs down the backs of the chairs. Adults rifle through their hand luggage in mild panic, checking for ear plugs and slumber shades. Lovers kiss loudly. Solo travelers get drunk and drunker still. The lounge is British, and therefore all a bit crap. It’s not a patch on the white tea-scented showers at Haneda Airport, the soft wood, the milky light. In this lounge, the lights are harsh and sizzling. Acute. Outside, the broad, multi-paneled windows expose planes pivoting on the tarmac turntables, their wings glowing orange, the glass refracting dying daylight in childish rainbows. I drop a couple of ibuprofen into my palm and swallow them dry. I rest my palm on the pregnancy test box at the bottom of my bag. My guts lurch. I can’t sit still.
Across London, Mum will have cooked another bland stew. Dad will powder it with white pepper and make yummy noises. Zack, already stuffed with salty challah, will push the purplish chunks of beef around his plate and ask to be excused.
“It’s Friday night. We see you so rarely as it is, especially with Susannah galivanting God knows where. Can’t we just enjoy this meal together, as a family?”
“Leave him be, Ruth,” Dad will say. And I won’t be there to change the subject. Because I left them all two years ago for this job. This once in a lifetime opportunity. To “follow my calling,” or some shit that my mum makes excuses for when her synagogue friends ask about me, where I am, what I’m doing.
“Susannah is a travel writer,” Mum tells them, her voice loud and haughty. “A journalist.”
“A journalist? Dangerous job, no?”
“An important job,” Mum replies, turning her back on the yentas’ idle babbling.
After dinner, my brother will skulk off to his old bedroom and lock the door. Both our rooms are untouched from childhood, frozen with bad wallpaper and teen angst. I keep telling Mum to redecorate them, or better yet, make some money on the house and downsize.
“But where would we go? Our ancestors did enough wandering for a lifetime. Shouldn’t we be allowed to just settle?”
“Don’t you want something more modern, Mum? A bit more peaceful? You know, you could retire to the Dordogne, or get a little place in Sofia by the sea…or there’s Florida, obviously.”
“America? Us? Don’t be so daft, Susannah.”
What I really mean is: what’s keeping you in England? How can I tell my mum, whose whole world is this North London Jewish bubble of shul committee meetings, Pilates classes, and Saturday afternoon shopping on Oxford Street, that there is more for her and Dad?
How can I accurately explain the quality of light on the Bali Sea, or the city fug that stretches up to the clouds in Beijing, or the way the evening falls through the cracks between the skyscrapers in Manhattan? I’m a travel writer; I should be doing a better job of this. My parents go on holiday to the same time share in the Costa del Sol every July, their lives on a loop. They have already selected their twin plots in Edgewarebury Cemetery. When I told Ari that all my family will be buried in the same cemetery as Amy Winehouse, she thought it was the coolest thing ever. Of course she bloody well did. Ari’s never been to England.
The last time Ari and I were out in Queens, our summer legs long and prominent in Daisy Dukes, our gelled nails luminous, an old frumma yelled an insult to us from across the street: “Shiksas.” A simple accusation: he did not believe us to be Jews. Ari told me not to take it personally, that they think anyone who isn’t Orthodox like them doesn’t count. Did I really not count? Since relocating to Dubai, I’d long given up on wearing my Magen David in public. Why flash my star? Why start that conversation? Still, I took it personally. Shiksa, indeed. I wanted to prove to this stranger that I was a Jew, like him. An English Jew, at that. Didn’t I deserve some recognition? Ari wears her star proudly. Maybe I could, too. New York was doing funny things to me.
I never told Chris I was Jewish. I didn’t see the point. Firstly, “Jewish,” like “gay,” isn’t a thing you say in Dubai. It’s just not an identity you admit to if you want an easy life. Secondly, Chris is so quintessentially English, I was uncertain that he’d met a Jewish girl before, let alone slept with one. There aren’t many Jews left in England. He’d die if he ever met someone as outrageously comfortable with her identity as Ari.
The announcement comes: go to gate. I clip my memory foam neck pillow to my hand luggage, pull up the lever, and power walk from the lounge, pushing past anyone in my way. I pretend I’m an air hostess, poised, my suitcase bumping behind me like a friendly puppy on a lead. Move. Did you hear me? Get the fuck out of my way. I can’t stand slow walkers. I’m passive aggressive about it, all English: “Sorry! Sorry!” But I’m not sorry. I bash them on purpose, careening into them like I’m already on the streets of New York. Audacious, like I’m Israeli rather than English.
I take the long escalator down to the shuttle, gliding down, imagining I’m on a hoverboard. Through the dome above, the evening is pulling closer, the sky spattered with flecks of lilac. Still no stars. There’s a hologram at the station: a woman with corporate straight hair that puts my curly Jewfro to shame, instructing which shuttle stop I need for my gate. Her voice is implausibly Scandinavian—Swedish, if I were to guess—and I wonder if British Airways did some quality assurance testing on the most calming accents: selecting only those that would remind passengers that flying is still the safest way to travel, that your chances of survival (if your plane were to plummet into the mountains in a roaring fireball, for example) are better if someone guides you in a Swedish accent.
Security checks. The driverless train doors open, and, as always, I head to the front of the train and pretend I’m driving. The burr of the wind through the tunnel is pleasing, the lights like Morse code: dash, dot, dash, dot. My brother, Zack, would love this part of the airport ritual. He always liked trains, erupting into tears when he found out that real trains didn’t have faces on them, that Thomas the Tank Engine wasn’t real. Five years apart, we grew up together at a distance, like work colleagues who happened to share parents. Only now, as he tips towards independence, can we converse as adults, lamenting our lack of decent Jewish dates, of producing nice Jewish grandchildren for our parents to parade before their synagogue buddies.
Why don’t you come with me this time? I text him. Ari has a spare room.
I can’t take the time off work.
Zack, you need a holiday! *sunshine emoji / USA flag emoji / beer emoji*
I don’t know why he’s lying. I don’t know why he doesn’t join me. Why he never joins me on any of my trips. He would love New York: the blatantness of it, the frenetic energy of the immigrant experience. As much as I want him to, I know he won’t come. He won’t come because, like my parents, Zack doesn’t trust the world—has never trusted my weather-worn Karrimor backpack, the way it’s been chucked into so many freezing plane holds, has travelled to so many lit stars on a globe. No: best to stick to what he knows. Find a nice Jewish girl. Settle down. Give our parents Jewish grandchildren.
I reach the gate. I pick up a stale cereal bar and a bestseller. I go to the loo for the eight-hundredth time, squeezing out what I can to avoid visiting the toilet on the plane for as long as I can manage. Tomorrow. I’ll take the test tomorrow. I gurgle with mouthwash, even though vodka is famously odourless. I swallow back a burp, the taste of horseradish repeating, like bitter herbs. Maror.
Once we were slaves in the Land of Egypt, and now we are free.
I take a seat by the gate. The air reverberates with British and American accents. I spy a few Orthodox Jews waiting to board my flight, mostly American; Heathrow to JFK is a popular route. I wonder if they recognize me as Jewish. I don’t recognize me. Dubai girl. Travel writer girl. Airport girl. The girl who sleeps with married men, and who sometimes forgets where she sleeps. The girl who loses track of which time zone she’s in. Is this what freedom feels like? Like the disorientation of jetlag?
I text Chris:
About to board. I’ll text when I land. Miss you, baby.
He doesn’t reply, and I pray to God I’m not pregnant again, that I won’t have to tell Chris he’ll be a father, and that I can somehow summon the courage to terminate this doomed relationship.
The sky is darker now. In under eight hours, I’ll be at JFK. In twenty-four hours, I’ll be at Ari’s apartment in the West Village, up on her building’s rooftop, toasting my arrival, planning the bars we’ll hit up. I’ll text Zack—Wish you were here, bro—and he’ll reply with a platitude—Me too, maybe next time?—and I’ll scroll through Chris’s Instagram, and press my fingertip over his smug face, smudging him out. My parents will tell their friends I’m in America, writing. Important, worldly writing. I’ll bitch to Ari about my family and my failed relationship. Ari will tell me I need therapy, that great American pastime.
“You’ve seriously never seen a therapist? How are you, like, functioning?”
“It’s not really a thing in England. Too self-indulgent,” I’ll explain, too American, I’ll silently add, but Ari won’t get it.
My group is called to board. I’m here, at a terminal, but I’m not here. Transient. Terminal now; terminal never.
“Miss, can I see your passport and boarding pass?”
My passport is an autobiography of sorts, a collection of inconsequential dates and smudged stamps flashed too fast to reveal who I really am.
I snuggle into my aisle seat, pulling my seatbelt tight and low. I always choose the aisle so I can get up and move around without having to jab a stranger in the side for fear of wetting myself. Bloody Marys leave me bursting. I press the reading light. I cross my legs out into the aisle. I rummage through my handbag, sweeping over the unopened pregnancy test until I find it: a velvet pouch. I extract my necklace. The star feels good against my chest, and I suddenly have no idea what I was so afraid of. I’m going to New York.
Shabbat is supposed to end with the appearance of three stars. Tomorrow night, I’ll look up and see those stars, knowing they’re already gone, that Shabbat will already be over for my family in England, five hours ahead on Greenwich Mean Time. That Chris will be in Dubai, his wife in bed next to him, expecting to see a text on his second, secret mobile to confirm I’ve landed safely.
I get up and go to the toilet, taking my handbag. We’ve begun our ascent over the airport bar. Through the oval window, the terminal glows like fire. The glass is pregnant with condensation. The stars peep, then vanish. That’s the thing about stars. They disappear, depending on where you are in the world.