It’s midnight when the flight lands. A tired Mumbai airport bus jostles us, from the international terminal to domestic. I’m the lone woman in the straggly group of on-going passengers.
Cloying, humid air envelops us as one of the travelers, a large, irate man argues, “I’m a first class passenger. And you tell me there’s no flight to Hyderabad until 5:00 A.M in the morning?”
The driver’s murmured response is lost in the shift of noisy gears. The bus spirits us across the eerie emptiness of airport roads.
Through the window, I see people asleep outdoors, sheets covering them like shrouds. I imagine they’ll rise at dawn to work inside the airport as porters, baggage handlers, sweepers.
“Real estate is dear in Mumbai,” Pa said, before he moved to Hyderabad. He made what he called a “solid” decision.
We’re ushered into the silent domestic terminal and directed to the gloomy transit area. I move to the darkest corner, away from the other passengers.
My phone’s ding is loud. It’s cousin, Ram. “We’re waiting for you,” he messages. No mention of the papers I need.
Ram’s a bleak, failed businessman. He blames the stars in his horoscope for his misfortunes. Now as a permanent guest at Pa’s home he wallows in inaction, marking time while his cosmic powers realign.
Not one of Pa’s solid decisions.
I don’t respond to Ram’s message. He’ll fault my international phone. I’ve asked him, over and over, to find the papers. He hasn’t delivered.
Pa encouraged my passion for physics. Ma disagreed with him, afraid of sending her daughter so far away. I enjoyed their bickering: she liked musicals, he liked business shows. She liked bright colors, he liked pastels. She liked spicy food, he didn’t. They disagreed on almost everything―until Ma died.
Pa and I video-chatted last week. His tousled salt and pepper hair could have used a comb, his jaw a shave. The unraveling of Pa’s certainty, the wobble in his hands, the quaver in his voice, speak of things I cannot acknowledge.
I invited him to my graduation in Houston. He smiled when I said, “I cannot wait to show you around.”
Now, the doctors await my arrival.
A young man whistles his way toward me. I read his name tag, Moti, and assume he’s an airport worker.
“Madam, some breakfast? The cafes are closed but I am bringing you something,” he says.
His cheeriness grates on my exhausted nerves.
“Breakfast at 1:00 A.M?” I ask.
“No problem. I take dollars,” he says. “Coffee, tea, toast, idlis? What you would like?”
I hand him ten dollars. “You decide.”
My phone rings as he returns with coffee and a plate of idlis.
I let it ring and ring.
“Why you are not answering?” he asks.
My stare says, “None of your business.” He watches as I turn the phone to vibrate mode, put it back into my purse.
I drain the sweet, milky coffee, leave the food untouched.
I close my eyes and curl my aching body into the corner seat. My phone pulses with texts I don’t read.
Next thing, Moti is shaking my shoulder. The airport’s humming.
“Madam, why you are here still?” He looks at his wrist watch. “That man is going, see?”
The argumentative first class passenger gesticulates in front of an airport official.
I hear flight numbers called.
My phone buzzes, again. I retrieve my phone and read Ram’s words. “No directives, no papers anywhere.”
“DID YOU EVEN LOOK?” I type, then erase it.
I’m cold, shivery. I pull on a cardigan, fold my limbs into the uncomfortable plastic chair. There will be another flight.
In the hospital room, machines hum, Pa’s frail chest lifts and falls, lifts and falls.
Until I get there. Until I decide.
Sudha Balagopal’s short fiction has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Wigleaf, New World Writing, and New Flash Fiction Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com, @authorsudha