I’ve got my hands on the steering wheel of a shitty rental car. Frankie is buckled into her booster in the back seat. I’m smug. I’m on time. There’s the feeling of coasting and being on top of my game.
“Here we go Baby, we’re going home!” I announce.
It’s twenty-seven celsius in Phoenix today and the shitty air conditioner in the shitty car isn’t battling the heat that’s starting to beat down onto the roof. I love the desert, I do, but it’s hot.
My mind maps it out: return the rental, get on the bus to the terminal, go through security, get home. I’m thinking – See? It was only getting here that sucked. The universe is on my side again.
We’re on the I-17 South heading to the I-10 East towards the airport and Tucson. I see three motorcycles up ahead with red flashing lights. That’s a lot of motorcycle for someone speeding, I think. Then traffic stops. Dead. A minute passes, then two, then five, then ten. What the fuck…
“I don’t know what’s happening!” there’s a slight panic in my voice as I search for traffic reports on my phone.
“Mama, are we gonna miss our flight?” A wobble in her voice.
“No Baby, we won’t.”
“How do you know?”
“Because we have lots of time.”
I’m lying to her and she probably knows it.
We’re both anxious, and I don’t blame us. It took two days for us to get here from Toronto: one cancelled flight after a six-hour wait in the airport, then five hours of poor sleep after eating a melatonin gummy a guy we met in the airport gave me (after I ate it I was sure he poisoned or drugged me), a morning flight to Chicago, a two-hour stopover, then four hours sitting on the plane, on the runway, waiting to fly to Phoenix. My girl has been a gold-star chaos-endurer.
It’s her birthday gift, to come with me on this trip, and when we were in Chicago and I wanted to throw in the towel and go home, I knew I just couldn’t.
So now we’re stopped on this hot, getting hotter, highway and it’s 12:15pm and our flight leaves in one hour and ten minutes and I see traffic backed up for miles behind me.
I know I’m supposed to stay calm in front of my kid, but I’m just not. She gets to see all of her mother today.
“Mama, are we gonna get home?”
“Yes Baby, I just have to figure this out.”
Not far from where we are is an off-ramp, about 200 feet away. Cars are jammed between me and it.
“Frankie, I’m getting out of the car for a second, okay? I’ll be right back.”
I get out and walk to the truck behind me, have the driver roll down his window.
“I’m gonna back up okay, can you make room for me?”
He nods nonchalantly, in that Arizona way.
I see a path out, and we’re gonna take it. I motion to all the cars like I’m a traffic controller. People start moving. I’m in flip-flops and jeans, a loose tanktop, sunglasses. I’m fuckin badass right now and I know it. It’s my Thelma and Louise moment and I’m taking it.
I back up the shitty rental, weave and wedge my way through, drive the wrong way on the highway until we make it to the off-ramp, and then things get really exciting.
Find alternate route. Boot it the airport. Swear at the traffic. Attempt to calm daughter through panic. Sweat through my tanktop. Get to rental place, flip the car door open, walk up to car in front of me to ask if I can PLEASE go first as I have a plane to catch. The rather nice-looking man in the driver’s seat looks at me like I’m a tall drink of water, and somehow there’s time to share in a gaze. “Of course,” he says. “That’s no problem at all.”
Rental guy signs us off and says “The buses are only coming every twenty minutes ma’am. Lots of delays, and don’t be surprised if your flight is cancelled. Lots of snow coming out east today…”
Me and Frankie stand in the rental return lot with our suitcases. I’ve got Blundstones on without socks and my feet are sweating, and she looks up at me, “I wanna go home Mama.”
“Frankie. Baby. We’re going home, but we’re gonna have to run, okay?”
We start our amazing race. Up the escalator to the platform where, by some miracle, the bus to Terminal 4 awaits. Ten minutes later, arrive at airport, race to security and ask the attendants if we can be rushed through. They send us in the first class line. Get to the customs officer and I see Frankie’s boarding pass hasn’t downloaded to my phone. I’m crying at this point, passports and coins fall out of my pocket.
We’re sent down to the Air Canada kiosk. No one there. I’m yelling things at random people. Frankie racing with her suitcase behind her, watching her mother freak out and demand and make shit happen. Attendant comes, “Sorry Ma’am but this flight is closed.”
“Listen. Can you please just call the gate and let them know we’re here and we’re coming? There was an accident on the highway, and I spent over an hour waiting for Air Canada to call me back. We need your help getting on this flight. I’m with my five year-old daughter and we need to get home.”
He pauses. “Okay Ma’am, okay. I’ll help you.”
He prints the passes. We race back to security. Frankie’s running all the way, crying through her running “I can’t do it Mama!”
“You’re doing it, Baby. You’re amazing.”
Running running running, like those people you sometimes see running through airports.
There’s one of those carts for handicapped people just off the straight escalator, “Will you please take us to Gate B27? Our flight is leaving in like three minutes.”
Another helper. We zoom to the gate where a few people are still waiting to board. Thank God. We made it.
The Air Canada attendant looks at my bag and says, “I’m sorry Ma’am, but you’re gonna have to check that bag, it’s too big.”
“But I didn’t check it on the way here.”
“Then someone wasn’t doing their job right.” She says coldly.
“Listen, I’m not checking this bag. This is ridiculous.”
Attendant is not having it. “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you need to check your bag.” She has robot eyes.
I don’t know what it is about last straws, like I should have been happy to have made the flight, but instead I yell at her, “I am so sick of this SHITTY airline.”
“Ma’am, if you can’t control your language we won’t let you on this flight.”
I don’t apologize. I just hand over my bag, and me and Frankie walk into the line on the Jet Bridge, where people are waiting to board.
I turn back to the line behind me, “I’m so sorry for my language everyone…it’s just been a day.”
I get a lot of smiles and a few nods and some kind stranger says, “don’t worry, I think we’ve all been there.”
Frankie’s next to me, still clutching her suitcase like a champ. She’s the world’s best traveler, I’m convinced. I want to take her around the world.
I finally catch my breath. Frankie’s hand is in mine as we celebrate our victory. “We made it Baby. You were so awesome…” Her dimple. Her smile. Her obvious relief.
And then I know, I get it – this was all for her. Somewhere between the I-10 South and this line-up, she saw me come undone. She watched me spin around on a highway, take charge, panic, demand help from strangers, cry, meltdown. Be human. Be messy. Be a woman. Take up a lot of space. Save the day.
She got to see all of her mother today.
Happy Birthday, my girl. This is how you do it.