We own the row. Sona, me, Kavya – aisle, middle, window. Our bags spill into each other on the floor. We are a family of elbows, feet, and arms. We lean across each other, pressing our bodies in, just so we can all look out the window at fog, blackness, clouds, blue skies, starry nights, bright sunlight, cityscapes, sunsets and sunrises. It doesn’t really matter what’s outside. As long as it’s something we can all see together.
This summer, the house is divided. It’s just the two of us. Me and Kavya, our first ever Papa-Daughter flight from Newark to San Jose via Atlanta. All in all slightly under 8 hours. Kavya is going to hang with her daadi-daadu and cousins, while I attend a week long kickass fiction workshop at U.C. Berkeley with Junot Diaz: VONA, the only multi-genre writing workshop for people of color. Sona and Shaiyar are coming in a week.
It’s strange to think that just a few months ago, we were still three. No Shaiyar Singh staring at my face, studying it, then radiating a smile from one side of his tiny face to the other. Or letting out happy roars, followed immediately by Gremlin-like gurgling cries of anguish and oppression, glaring at me with accusatory eyes for various offenses he perceives, which range from not offering him my boiling hot cup of herbal tea to not pre-empting his bodily functions in the midst of hunger.
Last summer my Mum bought Kavya her first parandi and she immediately fell in love with it, wearing it everywhere, spinning her hair around like a dervish just to feel the silk strands brush up against her elbow. Parandis: long braided black threads with a shiny tassle at the end. Of course Kavya is mad about them. They’re old school Punjabi Princess fashion.
Earlier this year, Sona’s cousin from India brought her several multicolored parandis, which Kavya insisted on wearing on the plane. And because Kavya is Kavya, she wanted a green tassel for one side of her head and a rainbow colored one for the other. She’s also wearing a long dress and gold sandals that light up. I went with baggy shorts, a superhero t-shirt, flip flops, and let my hair fall naturally aka the unkempt Papa look.
Sona’s mum – Doctor Nani-ma made us a stack of paranthas with mango achar (best plane food in the world) wrapped in foil. Sona and Shaiyar Singh came with Daddly to drop us off at the airport. It was weird getting departure hugs from Sona. It reminded me of the end of our six month honeymoon backpacking trip in India. After being in each other’s company 24 hours a day, we had to take separate flights back because we’d used Continental Flight airline points.
Me and Kavya are professionals, so we only brought carry-ons. This essentially meant I lugged everything, including her Sofia the First bright pink backpack she gleefully packed the night before, while she leisurely twirled her parandian and her dress through the airport. I show the security guy my ID and boarding pass. We stand in line and Kavya bursts out laughing when the security people loudly tell everyone to take their shoes off and put them in the plastic bins.
“Everyone needs to take their shoes off!” she squeals in delight. Except her. Little Human Privilege.
We get to our gate an hour before boarding and am elated they have OUTLETS at the Delta waiting area. I charge my phone, while Kavya sings some capoeira songs and twirls around some more. One of the flight crew gets on the P.A. and asks for volunteers to check their carry-ons to the final destination.
Nothing enticing whatsoever about the deal unlike the days when airlines would ask folks to take later flights in exchange for free travel vouchers. That was when me and Sona would be sprawled over luggage, sipping iced coffees, our heads buried in real life books, lifting our heads to have proper conversations that didn’t revolve around logistics like they did almost the moment we had Kavya: is the formula in the red rolling bag? And the ongoing: why the fuck is this bag so overpacked?
“What are they volunteering for?” Kavya asks
“For bags to be checked in.”
“Let’s volunteer! she says with large manga eyes, not understanding just how completely crap the offer is.
“Good plan. I’ll tell them to take your bag first,” I say standing up, lifting her backpack. You can read your books and do your artwork after we get to California. Me and you can talk the whole way on the plane.”
Kavya’s face drops in horror. “No,” she says in a matter of fact tone. Beats me.
We capoeira around a bit more, and just at the moment that our flight is boarding, she has managed to get her necklace caught between her hair, a button on her dress, and the arm rest of the chair she’s supposed to be sitting on. I quickly summon my superpowers with my Thundercats ring and disentangle it, with our boarding passes in my mouth, her Sofia the First backpack strapped to me. After I’ve just accomplished the impossible, rather than giving me a high five for my excellent work under extreme pressure, she says, “Papa, did you know you have our boarding passes in your mouth?”
The Delta plane to Atlanta is super fancy. How fancy you ask? So fancy there are ample outlets that actually work and free wifi, but the epitome of fanciness is that the entire row consists of two seats, so plenty of legroom. Yep, me and Kavya own the row.
I quickly sprawl my legs out and Kavya looks out at the airplane’s wing, commenting on its tiny lights and “dirty nose.”
The plane starts moving.
“We’re moving!” she shouts.
“Can you hear me, Papa?” she says at the top of her lungs.
I say yes back a few times, finally nodding my head when it’s clear she can’t hear me.
I usually head out to the dollar store and get a bunch of toys for Kavya that I wrap up and let her unwrap on the plane when she gets bored. This time was a bit of a mad dash, so I didn’t have time to do any of that. Supermum Sona to the rescue with Alphabeasties, from our local bookstore in Jersey City – WORD, a really cool alphabet activity book with shapes and mazes and glorious art. She’s barely opened it when she announces with urgency, “I have to pee. Really bad.”
We put our shoes back on and walk over to the bathroom. She freaks out, starts flailing at the door like I’m going to grab her by her neck and throw her in. Eventually, we go inside the tiny hobbit bathroom.
As she handles her business, she makes small talk.
“So, Papa, what do you think of this bathroom?”
“The metal interior is a bit rubbish.”
“And it’s really loud,” she says. “Our bathroom in Jersey City is much nicer. Better. You can’t even have a conversation in here.” The toilet flushes automatically while we’re playing a game of twister attempting to shift around as she gets to the sink. A mini-freak out as we tumble out of the bathroom.
We sit back down. I get hungry, so I pull out the last of the paranthas with achar.
“It’s against the rules to eat on the plane,” Kavya says.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I say, taking a huge bite.
She insists that it’s against the rules. I hand her several pieces of my parantha. She eats it with much vigor, then says in a loud whisper, “we’re being super sneaky.” Later, for snacks, they give us pretzels with juice to keep us strong for the rest of our flight.
We have an hour layover at the Atlanta Airport, which would have been excellent down time if we didn’t need to hustle to get to our gate. A friggin train was involved. And Kavya, Maharani of Patiala, wanted to twirl her dress and traipse through the airport like a lady of leisure on a lovely summer’s day, so I’m stuck carrying all the bags. Again.
We take the escalator down and she gets off, stands right in front if me like a nimbu, so in the interest of safety and to avoid a full on collision, I swing one of the lighter bags at her and knock her forward. Another opportunity to thank me for my quick wit and problem solving skills she passes up and instead inexplicably blames me for her nailpolish coming off.
We take a very short train ride – one stop to terminal B. Glass doors, trains every few seconds. We grab some burgers and haul it to our gate, where we sit down next to three very large windows. Kavya holds my hand and we have a delightful conversation as she flitters around not weighed down by bags or in any hurry to find the right terminal or gate.
I stand our two small rolling suitcases upright next to our feet as we start eating. Some doofus kid– he must be about 3, runs right into our rolling blue bag. Then he runs back to his mother. His father smiles and shrugs at me as if to say luggage aanh? I smile back at him to say, Doofus kid, aanh? A dad to dad talk.
Our flight is jam packed. We board when they call for priority seating as I awkwardly move our bags through the aisle and put them in the overhead. This time our row has three seats. Kavya keeps looking around to see who is going to sit next to us. She stops every few minutes to look out the window.
A guy sits down next to me. Mustached, middle aged, blue jeans, white tank top. Picks up a Sky Mall magazine. Kavya suddenly elbows me and says in what she thinks is a whisper, “That’s the guy. He sat down when we both weren’t looking.” The guy continues reading the magazine. He laughs loudly at the corny Delta safety video. Kavya doesn’t get the jokes, but laughs as well. The man dozes off.
We’re in the middle of me telling a story about a princess on a plane. It’s geniusly titled, the Plane Princess. Double Entendre! Kavya again gets really urgent about needing to pee. We make the guy wake up, stand up and let us through. Kavya picks right when the cart guys are coming down the aisle. To escape death by squashing, we go back to our seats, making the guy with a mustache stand up again, until the cart guy passes us. Like a proper comedy routine, we repeat it again when a second cart appears from the same direction.
The in-flight entertainment is surprisingly free. I give Kavya my headphones. She shuts the window. “I want it to be like the movie theater,” she says, as we spend the next two hours watching parts of Brave, Frozen, and Little Mermaid alternating between English and Spanish. We sing a few songs, arm wrestle, talk about the silliness of airplane bathrooms, and whenever she asks when we’ll be in California, I tell her when it’s pitch black outside. She opens the window and sees it’s light. Sighs dramatically, looking over at me to make sure I understand this is no ordinary sigh. It is a sigh of great significance.
She opens up Doodlebugz, something that has served us very well on many of our trips: it zips up and has paper, crayon, a chalkboard with colored chalk, and has her name on the striped cover. Later, she does some of the activities in Alphabeasties, which proves to be a major lifesaver.
We’re drawing the letter d and amazingly she only kicks up a tiny amount of fuss before falling asleep in my lap. She’s angry with the letter and its difficult large loop. I tell her to do it properly and in a display of anger, she violently scribbles a line on the page. Throws her head back, brings a fist down on the tray table, smashing her pretzels. Brings the armrest down, then puts it back up, falls onto my stomach. Within ten seconds she’s out. Part of those 10 seconds:
“When are we going to be there?”
“When it’s pitch black outside”
Why? You told me we’d be there in 4”
“I said hours”