Carry On Baggage

Creative Nonfiction by Erin Conway

Carry On Baggage

The flight wasn’t long from Guatemala City to Dallas, two hours. It wasn’t long from Texas to Wisconsin either, two and a half hours more. Finding something to do for that timespan was nothing compared to the twenty-four plus hours it took to visit my brother and his family in Tel Aviv. It was even a great deal better than Buenos Aires, Argentina, the first trip I had taken on which I had absolutely no idea where I was going. After ten years, flights to and from Guatemala, like my interactions, had become compartmentalized, easy, comfortable, geographically at least. Professional lines, those on a map or otherwise, had become a ball of knotted string as uneasy to pick apart as it was to get my backpack’s worn zipper’s teeth to bind together. Since I hated throwing anything away, I had taken advantage of all the shops Guatemalans had to fix anything for a few dollars from blow-dryers to shoe straps. The zipper had been fixed three times. I surveyed my backpack’s surface with a Boot’s brown scuffed toe. I heard something click in the cheap plastic heel that had been resealed multiple times. I tried to push the carry-on bag a bit further under the seat in front of me in an attempt to follow the announcement to secure and stow all items.

Teachers are expert packers. They don’t pack objects into outside packages like suitcases. Teachers can pack away themselves and still pull out little pieces for someone else without disrupting the rest of the contents. What’s more, teachers can always find more space for someone else’s baggage, and if they can’t, they’ll throw out some of their own. I knew these things, because I was a teacher, or said I was once upon a time. “Once upon a time,” those were the operative words, the common phrasing for fairy tales. I was an expert at packing now, ten years since graduating as a teacher, five years since “teacher” had appeared in my job title. The position I had recently resigned from being an example: Director of Literacy Staff Training and Curriculum Development.

I wiped sweat puffing up from my maneuvers, because I needed to wear my heaviest clothes to make room in the suitcase waiting its turn to climb up the conveyor belt into the belly of the plane. I hoped for an air pocket or another such space from shifting objects so that each item might jigsaw more perfectly together. I shoved delicately with the edge of the heel again. Neither the bag’s height nor width changed. The black material molded to cap the plastic square heel of my boot rolled unevenly. I wanted everything to be fine. I wanted to follow the flight attendant’s instructions. I eyed the middle pocket’s bulge that didn’t quite fit. It was close enough so no one noticed but me.

The airplane pulled away from the gate, rolling backwards until it had enough space to move towards its assigned runway. On every trip, my backpack always held fragile items deemed irreplaceable that I couldn’t let go of no matter how restricted the space for the size nor how painful my shoulder from the weight. Using the canvas straps splayed and looped in my foot space, I lugged the bag towards me to see if I could redistribute anything between pockets with my hands. I removed the book. It was a sewn, not stapled and thus improved, version of my mom’s long ago template. I had assigned and then attacked the writing project as part of staff professional development, because I wanted to lead by example.

Crafting my storybook had filled up a lot of the final, emptiest afternoon hours in my three-room apartment in Guatemala. The cover was cardboard from a cereal box. I decorated it with wrapping paper, a particular translucent white probably meant for wedding gifts. It was still shedding glitter when I had sewed the pages together by hand. I had sat on the beige tiles always slightly gritty from dirt and dog hair. Pages spread around me, I had sought out the sunniest gaps on the floor to leave the painted pages so the pooling water too much for construction paper would dry faster. I pressed curling pages between piles of picture books and teaching manuals. I painted and glued important scenes and characters that had brought me to this point on the journey, a “you are here” tracked previously only in frequent flyer miles and passport stamps.

My eyes clawed the seat in front of me in order to steady myself. My body snapped and bounced with the plane over pavement. I steeled myself for the lack of equilibrium that no doubt awaited us once we were in the air. I had run out of time to reorganize the items in my backpack before takeoff. I slid the journal and the book into the body of the backpack and pressed the front pocket down as I rezipped. I pulled my seatbelt tighter. I stored my pen. I stared at the fraying, striped pocket along with the folded open inflight magazine with my half-filled crossword. I couldn’t find a point of focus to settle my nerves or my stomach. Over the roar of engine jets, I heard my breath. In an attempt to distract myself, I glanced over the scratchy plastic rubbing my elbows into blue sky. I had barely corrected my habit of using azul for everything, even when the color was obviously sky blue, celeste. I considered a more accurate name for “blue” like the weavers I had watched so often. I didn’t have one. That made sense, I chided myself. Only when one had a lifetime of stored experience and a community to discuss those observations with can vocabulary be precise. This, I feared, was the root of my current difficulty defining “teacher.”

I spit my gum out and folded it in a napkin in anticipation of the drink service that would begin in flight. I tightened my seatbelt and laid my head back. I would order Ginger Ale. I always ordered Ginger Ale in flight, because my mom had ordered it for me during childhood trips to Florida. I had sat for longer on less padded seats with no drinks or snacks. Sometimes I never sat at all in repurposed minivans and flatbeds of pick-up trucks. Once I even squatted for half an hour among chicken cages in heels. I found my support against more upright bodies pushed against thinner plastic glass. I was tall only by Guatemalan standards, so our bodies, one undistinguishable from the next, held each other up.

I squinted through magnified sunshine. En route through Guatemalan highlands, often glass did not separate me from my surroundings. Everything I had worked so hard to weave together was now very far away. The upward angle of the ascending plane pushed me back. Cement rectangles, tiny block houses covered by corrugated metal roofs fell away into cliffs peeking out of dusted brown foliage. I stared out the window at the white fluff that was so pristine and graceful but couldn’t hold me if I fell. That must be why flying made me anxious, but jagged blacktop, crafted around mountains and cracked under torrential rains, did not. In the backs of open pick-up trucks that carried staff to isolated schools, I could barely catch my breath from the cold, whipping wind. Origin stories about reading and learning had been the air masks suddenly flung down in front of us, purposeful narratives meant to sustain our movement. If the flight attendants were right, I should have tightened the transparent plastic around my own mouth first. Había una vez, once upon a time.

I tried to rest my head against the plastic space around the window. “Why am I here? How did I get here? Is my confusion about lack of mission, lack of mentorship or simply something lacking in me?” My head always returned to that question from ten years ago. High-elevation air incapable of holding warmth cooled the sweat on my forehead and cheek set against the thick, protective window. I had sat for ten minutes, maybe fifteen in my car parked at the curb, head against a thinner window the width of the envelope in my hand. Fear in my breath wrapped round my stomach and pricked my skin. Bitten fingernails imagined a few pieces of paper sealed in a pre-printed envelope and my brushed eyes the mailbox. After reading sentences in old papers from my teacher education philosophy course, I plagiarized myself for the Peace Corps essay and signed the application.

The quintessential teacher reflection, Courage to Teach, contained sentences like, “Teachers must know themselves if they hope to understand their student and subject.” During my first year teaching, I had decided my problem was who I was as a teacher, not why I was a teacher, nor what I was teaching, much less a definition of the profession itself. Ten years later I could find Guatemala on a map, but had I answered my larger questions?

Ice in my drink shook. My identity’s boundaries shifted, leaving a space in my clothes that made my character appear two dimensional. I hated flying. I hated flying alone. I never said that aloud. Who would believe me? But it wouldn’t hurt, crashing into an end. Thinking about crashing while falling, that would be the part that hurt. I had craved to redefine my happy ending in the homemade book zipped into the backpack that still didn’t fit underneath the seat in front of me. I angled my boot in an attempt to hide how much of the bag was still not properly stowed. I also knew it would be the last time I could effectively hide parts of me that didn’t fit.

I looked out across the plane’s wing as if a backstrap loom hooked away from me. I tightened my belt again. Blue remained above. It was the background, not the color of the loom itself. Clouds now provided the ground below. However, clouds, I knew, were a false floor. Their fluff and curves made me dream of soft support, but once asked to do just that, anyone would slip right through and smack against the ground below. I pulled the window shade down to block the sun’s glare. Windows were a kind of trick mirror of the postmodernism kind I had been exposed to in graduate school. Those icy days had broken tiny pieces of the mirror I had held as my justification for teaching into microscopic flakes. I blinked my dry eyes and reached to turn off the air above me. Vapor’s liquid form, stark clouds of breath against air assumed transparent, was the clear water in which I lived. Until then, it had only been the clouds exhaled across mountains and a volcanic lake. They had gathered and darkened, and in Guatemala when it rained, it poured.

In the moment it had taken for the United flight to find its course, it was as if most of my sense of direction dissipated with the force of those same engine jets. I felt the strain where the backpack straps cut into my shoulder. I dreaded picking it up again. The wheels on the battered blue suitcase would tip over at least five times on the way to the bus. “It’s fine. Everything’s fine,” I echoed former colleagues, family friends. When we landed, I could reshape myself against a different background, teach myself to be someone else so that I could teach again. I checked my watch. We were only twenty minutes into the flight. Why did time always pass slowest at the beginning?

About the Author

Erin Conway

Website

Erin Conway is an experienced classroom teacher, nonprofit staff trainer and curriculum designer who has worked both locally and abroad, specifically ten years in indigenous villages in Guatemala. She consults on outreach programs that utilize diverse texts and currently works for UW-Madison, Division of Extension Rock County. Her primary social platforms are Facebook and LinkedIn and she also manages a website and blog at erinconway.com. Previous publishing credits include the Midwest Review, The Sonder Review, Vine Leaves Press, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Cleaning Up Glitter, The Hopper, and Kind Writers.