Unaccompanied Minor, page 3
“Kid!” she said, sounding happy and surprised. “What the hell are you doing here?”
She was standing in the doorway with the light coming from behind her, and it illuminated her giant white bun, which made it look like her head was on fire. If you knew Flo, you’d realize why that image is appropriate. As tiny as she is, Flo is never hard to miss. She’s a sixty-seven-year-old flight attendant with a white bun on her head as big as a bicycle seat. That bun is the whole reason she ever got hired, she told me, because back in the sixties you had to be at least five-foot-two to be a stewardess, and Flo is technically only five feet and a half-inch tall. The bun, though, put her up over the line, and they didn’t start getting really strict about these requirements until the 1980s. I know all the airline history. Just ask me.
“Where’s your Rollaboard, kid?” she asked in response to my shocked silence. “Because it looks like you could use a change of clothes.”
“It got gate-checked in Los Angeles,” I told her.
“You should know better.”
I did know better. In fact, I have a whole list of reasons why it’s a bad idea to carry luggage at all. Here are the top four:
Luggage can obstruct the exit in the event of a plane crash
Luggage slows you down between gates during stopovers
Luggage can contain a bunch of severed heads (like the abandoned bag of cadaver heads found at O’Hare recently)
Even carry-on luggage can be forcibly checked at the door of the plane, never to be seen again
That fourth thing actually happened to me two and a half weeks ago. But to be fair, I should not have booked myself on a Boeing 757, which is a single-aisle jet and therefore has only half the overhead stowage space. A Boeing 757 is now the second worst jet on my list of worst jets to fly nonrevenue. The first on the list is a DC-9, of course, because it’s over fifty years old and smells like feet.
But I had hopped the 757 for two reasons: One, I couldn’t take the flight to Atlanta because the agent working the gate that day was, in an understatement, suspicious. And two, the 757 was the last flight leaving for Detroit that night, and the Detroit crew lounge is where I know I can still use my mother’s badge for access. In Atlanta, for some reason, when I swiped her badge through the security reader and entered her passcode, the door just beeped menacingly and remained locked. It’s a good thing everyone’s all complacent again and no one ever pays attention to door alarms at airports anymore. They all just assumed it tripped by mistake. So all I had to do was smile and take two steps backward into the crowd and out of suspicion.
That doesn’t mean I was unable to get into the Atlanta employee lounge, it just means it was not as easy. Like I had to sit in the elevator on the A Concourse until somebody from the employee lounge summoned it from underneath. That way I could ride it down there without having to swipe my mother’s badge, and just disembark as though I belonged there. Funny, though, I really did feel like I belonged there.
Again, in Detroit, my mother’s badge still worked. And why wouldn’t it? She may have been in the nut house, but she was still employed by WorldAir.
The lost-and-found room in the Detroit crew lounge is like a walk-in closet, packed with old suitcases and discarded uniform pieces, but they’re still clothes, and flight attendants come in all sizes. I’m a size 4 and some of those pants were too small even for me, while others were big enough to be used as hammocks. That’s when Flo busted me, when I was swapping out my old clothes for some new ones.
“C’mon, start talking,” she prompted me.
“I ran away,” I whispered.
“I gathered that,” she said, giving me a hug as, finally, the tears came. Even though her head hardly made it to my elbows, her hugs were still pretty powerful. She locked the door behind her and lit a cigarette that she was not at all supposed to be smoking. Then it occurred to me that the Detroit lost-and-found room was her secret cigarette place. Flo had secret cigarette places in practically every airport that existed, not to mention the airplanes. When it comes to smoking on airplanes she was like a MacGyver all on her own. She kept shower caps in her carry-on bag to slip on the overhead smoke detectors in the 767 lavatories, for one, and she’d blow the smoke right into the sink drain, which has double the suction of a vacuum hose.
I told her what I felt I could without endangering her. Flo is as suspicious of authority and bureaucracy as I am, so thankfully she didn’t ask me to turn myself in as a runaway. She knew I’d be better off living in the air than I was at Ash’s place. Instead, she made me promise to book myself solely on her flights and stick by her side as much as possible, and when it was not possible, to stay in the employee lounges while keeping in constant contact with her.
“I promise,” I told her.
“And this is just for now, kid,” she said, extinguishing her cigarette under the toe of her high-heeled black pump, “until we figure something out.”
Flo has been working on airplanes since ’67, and she used to say she’d retire when her age matched the year she was hired, but that happened this year and now she’s all, “I’m never leaving, kid, not until they pry the peanuts from my cold, dead fingers.”
I can still feel my heart snap in half after watching her surrender herself to the hijackers. They made her come up from the lower galley of the plane by threatening to kill another passenger unless she gave herself up. I begged her not to do it—especially considering the person they were threatening to kill.
“No matter what we think of him,” Flo said, “he doesn’t deserve to die at the hands of those animals.”
“Oh, Flo,” I cried. “We see that differently.”
It’s been exactly a year to the day—today is my fifteenth birthday, by the way, and I like my cake chocolate with white icing, in case anyone cares—since I started running away, and about two and a half weeks since I’ve been on the run full time. That’s if you want to call me a “runaway,” because in order to be a genuine runaway wouldn’t your parents need to know you are missing? In my case they had no idea. Since my parents only communicated through me in accordance to various court and/or protection orders, it was easy to let one believe I was with the other.
I would do this for days at a time, hopping planes, wandering airports, and subsisting on pretzel packets and the perishable in-flight food items that you pay for from the cabin snack carts now. Unaccompanied minors are given all that stuff free—sandwiches, salads, fruit and cheese plates—it was better than the boxes of Rice-A-Roni my stepfather kept in his cupboards. He lived like a frat boy minus the pizza crusts, because even leftover pizza would have been better than the ancient staples in his kitchen pantry. I seriously think they were left there by the previous owners.
Ash only fought for shared custody of me for two reasons: One, so he wouldn’t have to pay child support, seeing as he had officially adopted me back when I was too young to object, therefore he was beholden to the same responsibilities as a biological father in the same circumstance; and two—and most important—so he could hurt my mother.
When he won, it was probably as big a surprise to him as it was to any of us. Then recently he took it a step further, and the judge—who seemed to think Ash was a saint—recommended he have the title of “primary physical custodian,” which the judge of course granted, and now Ash was in charge of all important decisions affecting my life.
It was a stupefying turn of events, and it didn’t help at all when my mother attacked Ash’s girlfriend Kathy in the hallway outside the Fulton County courtroom during the last contempt hearing, but that’s not to say Kathy didn’t deserve it. She did. It’s just that I’ve learned that when it comes to divorce and custody cases there are two worlds: the real world, and the bizarro world of family court. Kathy Landry, twenty-nine years old, processed blond hair, pretty in a hardened, face-like-a-frying-pan kinda way, personality of a sea urchin, so skinny you wondered how vital organs could actually fit inside her body, was no
On the day my mother attacked her, Kathy had provided Ash’s attorney with what she referred to as evidence proving my mother was a dangerous alcoholic. This “evidence” was heavily referenced in the guardian ad litem’s recommendation, and it consisted of Facebook photos my mom had been tagged in a few weeks prior. It showed her having a good time at Flo’s fiftieth birthday party during a layover in Mainz, Germany. I remember hearing about that party. In fact, it lives on in WorldAir legend. The entire crew was so hung over the next day they had to commandeer the emergency personal-oxygen tanks (known as “PO2 bottles” by those in the industry) and take turns huffing pure oxygen in the first-class lavatory. Luckily not a soul was booked in first class on that trip, so that cabin was designated a hangover triage of sorts. The pictures are also legendary, as Flo, to this day, is known for flashing her bra on her birthday.
So all the crew during the layover, including my mother, were flashing their bra-clad chests to the rest of the revelers in the bar. I suppose it looked like they were having fun, especially in the pictures where the ladies took turns kissing the handsome bartender’s mouth, but to be truthful they were so drunk that to me they just looked like a group of attractive, bumbling recovering stroke victims. I’m betting more fun was had in remembering the event than in the actual experiencing of it, because today Flo is sixty-seven years old.
Yes, you heard me right. Those pictures were taken over seventeen years ago, soon after my mother had been hired on as a flight attendant. Not only were they depicting an event that occurred years before I was born, but before she ever met Ash Manning, or even my father. In the real world those pictures would have had no bearing whatsoever on judging a person’s parenting abilities. But remember, family court doesn’t live in the real world.
In family court those pictures were validated by the date reflected on them—the date they had been uploaded to the Facebook account—and that date was just a few weeks prior to the contempt hearing, and most of the time, as in this case, the judge doesn’t even see the pictures. His decisions are based on the guardian ad litem’s report, and the report in this case stated, verbatim (I know this because I read it), “Facebook photos dated during Mother’s custodial time show her highly inebriated and engaging in acts of public indecency.” See? See how it’s a technically accurate statement but at the same time a big, crappy, soul-sucking lie? That’s what family court is like.
Again, I don’t blame my mother for attacking Kathy. Kathy Landry is a she-beast and a succubus. Whenever I’m around her she talks about me as though I’m not there, referring to me as “The Child,” as in, “It would serve the court for you to e-mail your ex-wife a list of suggested summer camps, Ash. That way it would appear as though you take an interest in The Child’s extracurricular activity.”
I would not have known about the attack if not for the fact that it became the most popular link on the local news website and got splattered all over everybody’s Twitter feeds. “WorldAir Flight Attendant Arrested for Assault and Terroristic Threats,” the headline read. It was impossible not to click on that.
I’m attaching for you my copy of the news thread:
WorldAir Flight Attendant Arrested for Assault and Terroristic Threats
January 15, 2013—Elizabeth Manning, 39, a flight attendant for WorldAir, was arrested this afternoon and charged with assault for allegedly attacking Kathy Landry, 29, a corporate attorney for WorldAir. The alleged assault occurred at 3:15 P.M. outside the chambers of Judge Jonathan Cheevers of the Fulton County family court. A security alarm was sounded, prompting police to flood the fifth floor of the Fulton County courthouse, subsequently drawing weapons on Manning, who held Landry in a headlock and “looked about to break her in half,” recounted bystander Leroy Dunst.
“This tall lady here grabbed that skinny lady there,” he said, indicating Manning and Landry, respectively, “and went about trying to snap her like a chicken bone. Good the police got here, she mighta coulda done it.”
Manning eventually released Landry amid a barrage of verbal threats, which prompted police into a further investigation of her behavior, said Officer Barkley Jefferson, the Atlanta Police Department’s public information officer. “We discovered some disturbing comments recently posted to Ms. Manning’s Facebook account,” he added. “I’m not authorized to divulge anything beyond that, except to say Ms. Manning is also under investigation by the FBI for terroristic threats.” Currently Manning is being held without bail at an undisclosed Fulton County correctional facility.
My mother’s mug shot, included in later editions of the story, was wondrous. Somehow her makeup remained impeccable while her long hair, dyed a sunkissed gold that almost perfectly matched the hair of her youth (and my own natural color), must have been knocked out of its updo. The result was an unexpected glamorous cascade that fell far below the frame of her inmate placard. Her large green eyes sparkled with a mirth I knew meant trouble, and her lips were twisted into a curious half smile. Thinking back, I bet she was going for a smirk, but smirking was new to her. In any event, my mother’s mug shot was so beautiful she could have used it as a profile picture on an Internet dating site. Ironic, really, since she’d sworn off dating for life.
After that incident, my mother’s attorney arranged for her to be admitted to a psychiatric facility to be treated for an emotional breakdown. “It doesn’t mean she’s crazy, kid,” Flo tried to comfort me. “It’s a tactic just like any other. She can’t get fired while she’s on family medical leave, and she can’t get prosecuted for the assault as long as she’s receiving treatment for a mental breakdown.”
Because her attorney was able to place my mother in a facility that accepted WorldAir insurance under the Family Medical Leave act, it meant Ash couldn’t track her down. She had long since put in the request to have her employee information restricted so that nobody—especially Ash—could gain access to it unless, like me, they had her username and password.
And, thank God, my mother’s attorney was able to get the “terroristic threats” charge dropped from the docket. My mother herself had not posted any disturbing comments on her Facebook page. It turned out that, against my express instructions, she had no privacy settings whatsoever on her Facebook account, and the second the security clip of her attacking Kathy went viral it unleashed a spike of psycho postings on my mother’s page that she had nothing to do with. Still, though, it’s out there. Now when you do a Google search of my mother’s name, her mug shot and “terroristic threats” dominate the first page of search results, not to mention “psychiatric evaluation.”
“At least she can’t get fired,” Flo reassured me. “The nut house was a genius move, really. It puts everything in a holding pattern until we can figure out a new battle plan.”
Holding pattern. That phrase has perfectly described my life ever since. I have no cell phone (that’s considered an “important decision affecting my life,” so Ash naturally said no), so I communicated with my mother via Skype using my iPad, but only when I had access to a strong WiFi Internet signal, which did not include Ash’s condo. My mother tried to laughingly refer to her time in the nut house as her “spa getaway,” and told me she loves me. I love her, too, but it was hard not to be mad at her. Don’t get me wrong; I understand the odds were stacked against her, and that Ash was underhanded and used his girlfriend as a stick to stir the big cauldron of crazy that is family court. I understood that none of this was fair.
But while I was growing up my mother always told me, “Don’t freak out. Figure it out.” Like when I was eleven and my troll of a second cousin used to intercept me at family picnics to stomp on my toes because my feet were “as big as surfboards” and always got in her way. I used to freak out and cry, to no avail. Then
So I feel like my mother broke her own rule. She should have figured out how to navigate the landscape of family court, how to combat the enemy. I know she was facing an unfair fight, but since when was life fair? Don’t freak out. Figure it out.
It was right after the divorce when Ash decided to transfer himself to LAX, thus commencing the necessity for me to fly there unaccompanied every other week in order to fulfill the custodial order. More than half the time Ash would forget to pick me up at the airport, and I’d have to catch a ride with one of the sympathetic gate agents. Eventually Ash took it for granted that I’d appear on my own. I got to know many of the gate agents who worked the ATL and LAX routes, because airline employees have their patterns, and I’m good at discerning patterns.
For example, Tyreese Washington is my favorite gate agent out of ATL, because he’s a short man with a big personality. When he makes announcements over the PA he sounds like a carnival barker. When it was time to issue my seat assignment, he’d wink at me and announce, “Step right up, beautiful little lady.” I started bringing him coffee from the employee cafeteria (“Three creams, no sugar—you’re all the sweetness I need”), and sometimes he let me sit by the dot matrix printer behind the gate so I could pull the departure report when it emerged, and twice he even let me deliver the departure report to the coordinator at the end of the jetway.
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