J L Higgs
The airplane descended through the field of dark gray clouds into dazzling sunlight. Asha leaned forward in her window seat, raised her camera, and pointed it at the dense jungle o
f ancient Banyan and Silk Cottonwood trees.
As the plane’s wheels bumped against the tarmac, she thought, Air Force. The takeoffs and landings by each branch of the armed forces were as different as signatures.
Removing her chewing gum, Asha wrapped it in paper and placed it in her shoulder bag next to a small, thick plastic bag. “We’ll be there soon, Jabir,” she said.
Traveling North on Sivutha Boulevard, the tuk-tuk moved through the encroaching untamed forest land with a determined steadiness, leaving Siem Reap behind. After about 20 minutes, it had reached the sandstone causeway. From there, the towers built to represent Mount Meru could be seen.
Asha and Jabir were world travellers. In the last three years, they’d been to Stonehenge, Chichen Itza, Petra, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and Easter Island. All of those places had been impressive, but this trip was special.
After moving into a condominium complex without having done her normal due diligence, Asha had had a sleepless night. Were there other single older women? What about other black residents? She’d often been “the only one,” and found interacting only with people lacking experience and an understanding of people of color uncomfortable.
As she returned from her early morning walk, she saw a dark-skinned man outside the door of the unit diagonal to hers. He had salt and pepper colored hair, a graying moustache, and was wearing a well-tailored suit. With one arm, he was pinning a set of file folders against his side. In his other hand, he held a commuter cup as he attempted to lock his door.
“Good morning,” called out Asha.
Spinning in her direction, the folders slipped, and the cup’s contents spilled onto his hand and clothing. “Shit,” he said, shoving the door open with his shoulder. Then he kicked it shut behind him, his keys left dangling in the lock.
That evening, as Asha continued unpacking her moving boxes, she heard a knock at her door. Through its peephole, she saw the man from across the hall. Sighing, she opened the door the length of its safety chain.
“Can I help you?”
“An apology. For this morning,” he said, holding out a bottle of wine.
“That’s not necessary.” She started to close the door.
“Then a welcoming gift from one neighbor to another,” he added.
She hesitated. His warm brown eyes appeared sincerely apologetic. “Would you like to come in?” she asked, unhooking the chain and accepting the wine bottle.
“Maybe for a minute or two,” he answered.
After they exchanged names and basic pleasantries, he explained that he’d been running late for a morning appointment with a client. She then asked if he’d like to join her in a glass of wine? He said he didn’t want to interrupt whatever she’d been doing.
“No worries,” she said. “I know where the wine glasses are.” Walking over to a stack of moving boxes, she slid the top box aside and opened the lids of the one beneath it. “Voilà.”
After pouring the wine, Asha went over to her couch and plopped down cross-legged. Jabir looked around for a place to sit. Boxes and unpacked items occupied all the other furniture in the room, so he joined her on the couch.
As she took a sip from her glass, he noted her high cheekbones, cropped hair, and large gold hoop earrings. She possessed a unique sculptured beauty. Smiling, her dimples surfaced, making her look playfully mischievous.
“Where are you from?” he asked. “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” “Air Force brat.” She stretched an arm along the top of the couch. “I was born in South Korea. My father was stationed at Osan Air Force Base at the time. You?”
“Born and raised right here,” he said, shaking his head. “What was it like?”
“South Korea or being an Air Force brat?”
“Ever been to South Korea?”
“No. Always wanted to travel, but never had the opportunity.”
“We moved around. Ramstein in Germany. Lakenheath in the UK. You go where you’re sent.”
“Must’ve been hard.”
“You adapt., though constantly being the new kid isn’t great,” she said, pausing momentarily. “The hard part is making sure not to form attachments, since your living situation is temporary. Now that I’ve retired, I’m looking forward to some stability.”
“What’d you do before retirement?”
“Air traffic control. Same as my father. I joined the Air Force after high school. Completed my tech training in Biloxi, and was assigned to Aviano, Italy. Got transferred a few times after that and when I left the Air Force, I got a job across the river, at JFK.”
“You always wanted to be an air traffic controller?”
“No.” She laughed and lithely stretched out her legs. “I will say that keeping all the moving pieces on the ground and in the air in sync is exciting. That’s why controllers and pilots rely on a shorthand language for communication. You’ve got to be flexible, creative, and decisive.”
“It can be stressful,” she said, then took another sip of wine. “I wanted to be a photojournalist, but my folks weren’t too keen on the idea. They didn’t think that was a realistic career goal for a black girl.” She shook her head. “I mentioned Gordon Parks to them and they said one exception was exactly that, and he was a man. How ‘bout you?”
“Insurance?” He shook his head. Necessity had dictated his life decisions. “Pure accident.”
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” she said, raising her glass in a toast.
“John Lennon.” He returned the gesture, then took a sip from his glass.
They drank in silence, both lost in their thoughts. At times, their eyes made contact, and they shyly smiled at one another.
“Ever miss it?” he asked, breaking the silence.
“The Air Force? JFK?”
“Sometimes I miss being an air traffic controller,” she said. “It’s like you’re conducting a symphony but with real life and death implications. The Air Force or JFK? Never. In every workplace, there’s someone who causes infighting. And there’s also usually some white guy in upper management making everyone’s lives miserable. Know what I mean?”
“Definitely,” he said, nodding. “And they’re always spouting their unasked for opinions no matter how offensive they may be.”
“What’s that saying? The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see just a behind.”
They both laughed.
“I can’t count how many times I’ve had to hold my tongue,” he said. “If I ever said what I truly think of them or what they say, I couldn’t keep a job.”
Grimacing, she nodded. “Well, at least we can commiserate among ourselves.”
“Yeah. It’s one of the rare times we don’t have to be on our guard.”
With the atmosphere having once again turned somber, Asha and Jabir sat silently, contemplating their own thoughts, and sipping the wine in their glasses.
Suddenly, Asha sprang to her feet. She went over to one of the moving boxes and removed a thick photo album. Returning to the couch, she set the album down on the coffee table in front of it. As she paged through the album, Jabir slid forward to get a better look, his thigh inadvertently touching hers. He looked down. She’d stopped on a page of sunlit, whitewashed buildings with blue-domed rooftops.
After staring at the arresting image for a few moments, he turned the page. There was a photo of The Great Wall of China with morning mist rising from its rough-hewn stones toward snow-capped mountains.
“Did you take these?” he asked, turning back to the first photo. “What’s this one?” “It’s of some homes overlooking the Aegean Sea in Santorini, Greece at sunset.” “They’re amazing.”
“Well, thanks to the US Air Force, I traveled extensively while I was in the service. I’ve got a bunch of albums like this one… if you’re interested?”
“I’d love to see them.”
After that, Asha and Jabir began taking turns hosting each other at dinner once a week. Following dessert, they’d look at her photos. He’d ask questions about each country’s food, customs, and inhabitants. She found his inquisitiveness and attentiveness to her responses uniquely refreshing. He was consistently impressed by the depth of her knowledge.
As the months passed, their dinners became more elaborate, the bottles of wine more expensive, and that evening’s attire in line with that of a special occasion. It was during one such dinner that Jabir told Asha what had led to his lifelong fascination with foreign places.
Excited by the opportunity to see bare-breasted indigenous women in the Amazon Rainforest, a childhood friend had snuck a copy of The National Geographic magazine from his home. In that same issue, there’d been an article about the Angkor Vat temple complex in Cambodia. The photos of the multi-tiered sandstone buildings adorned with images from Hindu mythology had so captivated Jabir that he requested a subscription for his 12th birthday.
From then on, he’d devoured every page of the yellow-covered monthly magazine when it arrived. And while his adolescent peers decorated their bedroom walls with photos of star athletes and hot cars, he covered his with pictures of places he dreamed of visiting.
On another evening, as they looked at some of Asha’s earliest photos, she went into her bedroom and emerged with a small cube-shaped camera. It was a 243 Baby Brownie Special. Her very first camera. She told Jabir her maternal grandmother had given it to her when her father received his first overseas assignment. She and her grandmother had been very close and agreed that Asha would send her photos of the places they lived. But photography soon became an obsession. Over the years, Asha had acquired more sophisticated equipment and taken courses covering everything from shooting techniques and photo composition to darkroom skills.
With their ages, lived experience as black people, and interest in travel in common, Asha and Jabir’s relationship flourished. In addition to their dinners, they began spending time together attending movies, going for sunset walks, and watching television. Being in each other’s company so often also led them to share their life stories.
Asha learned a stroke had partially paralyzed Jabir’s father the summer he graduated from high school. Because of that, he’d foregone college and gotten a job to help his family financially. When the last of his four much younger siblings completed high school, he was studying for his insurance licensing exam. After that, he’d married, subsequently gotten divorced, then spent years caring for his aging parents.
“I’ve lived alone since their deaths,” he said. “I’m not that close to my brothers and sisters.”
“That can be a good thing,” she said, “Provided that it doesn’t lead to loneliness.”
Jabir learned Asha was an only child and never married, despite twice coming close. In both instances, her prospective husband had wanted her to leave the service and be a stay-at-home mother. Jabir asked her if she ever regretted not marrying.
“I’ve grown accustomed to having my own personal space and things as I want,” she said. “Sometimes when I was doing a lot of traveling, it would have been nice to have had someone with me, but things just didn’t work out that way.”
“That sounds a bit lonely.”
Looking thoughtful, she then said, “Well, during the day, you’re normally busy sightseeing. It’s the constant dinners and nights alone in a foreign country with no one to talk with that are hard.”
That night, for the first time in a very long time, they spent the night with one another. Theirs was not the sexually charged passion of youths. Instead, each of them took simple comfort in knowing someone understood and deeply cared for them.
In the morning, when Jabir awakened, he lay there watching Asha sleep peacefully. When she finally opened her eyes, he smiled at her and said, “I’ve been thinking. We could travel together.”
She stared at him, the silence discomforting. Then he noticed the warmth in her eyes. Feeling reassured, he said, “I’ve been thinking of retiring. We’re both in good health. I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”
“I’d like that,” she said, moving closer until their bodies touched. “You only live once.” After that, Asha and Jabir often spent the night together. The focus and purpose of their dinners became deciding what places they’d like to visit. First to make the list was Angkor Wat. When the places and their potential travel schedule had been settled upon, Jabir asked Asha if she thought they should purchase travel insurance.
“Why?” she asked.
She laughed. “Once an insurance salesman, always an insurance salesman. You do realize there’s no such thing as unlimited protection or an absolute guarantee.”
He joined her in laughter.
Now, late in the day, as the sunlight was waning, most of the tourists had departed. Asha’s thoughts returned to the present as she set her shoulder bag on the ground, knelt down, and pretended to tie her shoe. Digging in the ground with her forefinger, she created a shallow trough. Then, she reached inside the shoulder bag, pulled out the plastic bag, and poured its coarse, white, sand-like contents into the trough.
Jabir’s strokes and heart attack had been sudden and unexpected. In the three years since his death, Asha had done her best to fulfill their plans. His siblings, not having kept in contact with their brother, had actually appeared relieved when she asked for some of his cremated remains.
Task done, Asha swept the loose dirt back in place with her hand and stood up. She placed the now-empty plastic bag inside the shoulder bag and draped its strap over her shoulder.
“Angkor Wat is beautiful, Jabir.,” she said. “You’d have loved it.” Then, after kissing her fingertips and touching them to her heart, she raised her camera toward the temple and pressed the shutter release button.
Photo attribution: Termer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons