ORLANDO, FLORIDA 2017
ORLANDO, FLORIDA 2017
One of my last memories of life before things began to slide downhill happened with Pa-Pa, my grandfather, at Orlando International Airport. In those days, the shop shelves overflowed with stuff to buy. Soon, we along with our neighbors would be unable to afford any of it, much less to travel by air. Just two years earlier we’d taken a family vacation to London for Christmas. Recollections of the trip seem disconnected from life today, worn away with the passage of time, like the glyphs in an ancient ruin. Sometimes I wonder if any of those events even happened, but were false memories born out of the confusion of infancy.
Pa-Pa seemed so tall back then. Standing beside him, holding his tan, gnarled hand, my eyes were level with his belly, bulging over the old, brown woven leather belt.
“Pa-Pa, when will Mr. Elvis get here?”
“Soon, real soon.”
Mr. Elvis, our next door neighbor, needed a ride home. I begged to come along because I worked another agenda. Cynthia Meadows, celebrity fashion model and budding movie star, reigned supreme in every female heart from six to sixteen. This didn’t count the vast following she enjoyed among young men and adults. The revelation of her lycan nature, occurring a few years earlier, dulled the enthusiasm of some grownups but fans my age didn’t care. The majority of us weren’t even sure what being lycan meant. To me, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Like all my friends, I wanted to be just like her.
On that memorable day, the place swarmed with travelers. Mobs swirled all around in pursuit of more flights than I could count, gathering in lines at security checkpoints.
“Come along, Jess,” Pa-Pa uttered in his raspy voice.
My full first name is Jeslali. My father chose the unique handle, before deserting us. According to Mom, it means something in Polynesian. Except for official situations, everyone cuts the minor tongue twister to “Jess”.
Pa-Pa worked for the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, as a supervisory screener. His identification allowed us to bypass the lines.
“Mr. Elvis won’t expect us to show up at the gate.” Since the events of September 11, 2001, being able to meet arriving visitors right after they left the plane became almost impossible without the kind of ID Pa-Pa had. “Who knows?” He winked down at me. “We might even meet your friend.”
A wonderful thought, but even as a child I understood the dangerous times we lived in. When in public, celebrities hid behind phalanxes of security guards and personal assistants. Still, catching even a distant glimpse of Cynthia Meadows, whose professional name The Fashion Model Known as Cynthia, sent my heartbeat fluttering.
In the firm, gentle way he had, Pa-Pa led me to our destination, past the long lines simmering with frustration. They queued toward a row of bored screeners who showed no inclination to move things along. Pa-Pa glanced beyond to the supervisor’s station.
“Asswipes,” he grumbled when we cruised by the sea of aggravation. To my snigger at hearing the crudity, his face became serious. “Don’t you dare tell Nana or your mom.” I accepted the decree with my dimpled smile, by consensus when the resemblance between us seemed strongest.
Once inside the checkpoint, I saw the object of his comment. A half dozen supervisory people chatted away, ignoring the languishing passenger lines. Even at seven years old, I recognized a messed up situation.
Pa-Pa took a moment to unhitch the leash linking us together. “Pa-Pa, why do I have to always wear this?” In those days, no youngster could be left alone in public areas. A moment’s distraction by a parent and the child might be lost forever. Once a practice indigenous to Third World countries, human traffickers brought the crime to America to stay.
With his penchant for organization, we always arrived early to any appointment. In this instance, we found ourselves with twenty minutes to kill. Pa-Pa bought us ice cream.
He often did stuff or gave me treats I thought Mom and Nana wouldn’t approve of. Things like a cone from the airport ice cream shop which even then cost a small bundle. I remember him, a blockish face seeming huge, under thinning white hair never able to cover his baldness, glasses with rectangular lenses. He leaned forward, so close I saw the pores in his chin. An aura of Old Spice aftershave lotion hung around him. I can’t think about such moments too long because even today I choke up.
“Remember, this too stays our little secret.” He handed me the treat. Me: seven years old, square-faced, with Nana’s pouty lower lip, Mom’s eye shape, Pa-Pa’s wide jaw with pointed chin down to the dimpled cleft, and bright chocolate-colored eyes. All of it framed by a page boy haircut that made me look like a china doll.
Anyway, we were in the confectionary store, a niche off the concourse to the gates. The details, chiseled in my mind to this day, remind me how much has changed. We sat at a little white table with dainty chairs constructed to resemble cast iron, but were made of molded PVC. The afternoon sun slanted in, making metallic blue pinpoints sparkle off the dust particles suspended in the air. The chrome fixtures behind the serving counter glittered. I remember how the row of faucets in the shape of animal’s heads captured my imagination, especially the one with soda water squirting from an elephant’s trunk. A cloying sugary smell hung over the whole place. A sign on the wall behind the cash register advertised, in letters of gay colors, the variety of offerings along with the prices.
The mindless pleasures associated with addressing a child’s insatiable need for sweets took hold. I’d settled to the task of devouring the cone when a small commotion originated in the direction of the gates. Sitting across from me, Pa-Pa enjoyed the best view. I turned toward what captured his interest. Far down the tiled concourse, a knot of people advanced toward us. Several carried cameras. Others suspended microphones from thin silver poles above the moving throng that surrounded a woman. Taller than anyone else, she bore the most beautiful glossy black head of hair I’d ever seen. Under the magnificent mane, she glided through the concourse with a confidence to suggest she controlled the flow of time itself. The crowd neared. I picked up individual voices of people asking her questions.
Lurching to his feet, Pa-Pa stated the obvious. “Jess, it’s your friend, Cynthia Meadows.”
How he found out she’d be here at this time and place, I’ll never figure out. She drew near, surrounded by an entourage in a tight band. Like the second ring of a bull’s eye, a flock of media people formed around them. The whole heaving mass of humanity rolled our way like a tidal wave. “What do I do?” I teetered on the verge of panic.
Pa-Pa’s eyes twinkled. Pulling me behind him, we headed to the coalescing crowd. “Leave it to me.”
Cynthia’s face and person filled Mom’s magazines. She guest-starred on many of the TV shows I watched. Most of the age appropriate products she endorsed, from books to toys or clothes, sat in my room. Despite Nana’s complaints after learning she was a werewolf, a poster of her covered a good part of the wall over my bed. Not the picture wearing the black thong Pa-Pa always batted eyebrows at. Mine showed six feet of milk white skin topped by sable hair all done up in a ruffled red dress. She held a guitar about to launch into a song from her Kiddz Beat album. From four feet off the floor, on the edge of the crowd, I barely caught sight of the ebony crown. A gulf of jostling shoulders and backs stood between us.
“Please, let the little one through,” Pa-Pa pleaded, pressing ahead.
Frustrated at not being able to get closer, he lifted me skyward.
Heads dropped below my field of vision. A second later, I hung in midair, at eye level with my idol. The sudden elevation caught her attention. She turned our way. Down below, Pa-Pa must have heard me shudder in apoplectic shock when the crowd separated, leaving me suspended above the mosaic floor with skinny tan legs dangling, face to face with her.
“Hello, I’m Cynthia Meadows.” Her voice, deeper than I imagined, swept over me with a sonorous Mediterranean accent. A rangy pale arm, ending in a slim hand with nails matching the lip gloss, reached out in introduction. For a second, I took the elegant offering. Then, understanding whose hand rested in mine, I pulled back as if from touching a live wire. My heart raced. By then Pa-Pa put me down. From her height, Cynthia’s smile beamed down with sympathy for my anxiety. Meanwhile, after taking a minute to gather his wits, Pa-Pa returned to the picture. He took her hand, pumping it like he intended to shake the arm free of the shoulder.
“What is your name, little one?” she asked when Pa-Pa finally let go.
“Jeslali, but we call her Jess.” Pa-Pa stole the response I prepared. For a second I hated him.
Again, she understood the proper thing to do. Ignoring Pa-Pa she took my hand, putting me at ease. “Such a polite young lady.” She sounded like she meant it. “My older bubbies are about your age.” She referred to the triplets of lycan Samantha White and her vampire husband Jim. She turned to the media entourage. “I wish to spend a few moments with my new friend Jess. I hope you’ll understand.”
For them, along with anyone else in those days, a single correct answer existed: “Of course.”
In the years to follow, as an adult working in the Orlando airport, I met many celebrities passing through, but none with the innate warmth The Fashion Model Known as Cynthia showed that day. I would have spent hours with her. She showed the same feeling, but not to be. Thirty minutes later, Mr. Elvis paged us from Baggage Claim. Pa-Pa made apologies and she departed, with reluctance I think, to resume the interview.
“Quite a haul you have,” Pa-Pa said when we were alone.
“Oh thank you for bringing me.” I leaped up, throwing arms around him.
The pink ball cap, with Cynthia’s autograph emblazoned across the bill in black marker, fell to the floor. Pa-Pa snapped it up. “We don’t want to get it dirty.”
After examining the sacred object, I picked off a flake of wafer cookie before returning it to the table. With the hat covering part of an autographed eight-by-ten photograph, a single seductive eye of depthless black stared up at me.
“Come on.” Pa-Pa ripped me out of the lingering trance. “Mr. Elvis must be fuming.”
Mr. Elvis wasn’t mad, but not exactly happy with us either. The ride home passed in silence, with him unimpressed by my attempts to enter into conversation regarding the recent adventure with The Fashion Model Known as Cynthia. On the other hand, Nana would have much to say.
For the convenience of Pa-Pa’s job, they bought a house less than ten miles from the airport. Three months after I came along Mom moved us in. The home sat in a gated community of sixty on a single street named Marlborough Drive that looped back like a needle’s eye. Every amenity, from schools to stores, lay within walking distance or a bike’s ride. Pa-Pa bragged how the family didn’t have much need for the cars, a good thing considering where the price of gas went soon after they moved in.
A wrought iron arch reached across the entrance to the Viera Lakes development of which our neighborhood, Marlborough Place, was a part. Rust streamed down the black metal, staining the faded yellow stucco that coated the cinderblock supports.
Above the trees, the Kelly green letters of the Publix supermarket stood out against the cream-colored façade. Magnolias complimented by palms planted in grassy islands shaded the parking lot from the overpowering sunlight, even though June hadn’t quite arrived. At the entrance to Marlborough, Pa-Pa punched in an access code. With a ponderous creak of metal, the heavy black gates swing inward. They always reminded me of a castle’s drawbridge counterweight. Beyond, stretched a clean, off-white paved road. The live oaks planted every fifty feet between sidewalk and curb on both sides hadn’t met overhead yet, but they threw down a lot of shadow. Behind them, shrubbery carved into various geometric shapes pressed against the front or lined the flanks of the houses.
“There are the Shellys walking Candy.” I waved from the backseat to a middle-aged couple accompanying a Labrador retriever. They returned the greeting when we passed.
The closed car interior, with the air-conditioner blower going full blast, couldn’t quite keep out the buzz of lawnmowers, edging equipment, and trimmers. They gnawed away at excess parts of the lush greenery and tropical color. We cruised by the manicured lawns, toward our house at the top of the loop’s curve. With the only red-tiled roof in the neighborhood, you couldn’t miss it.
Nana, Mom, and Thumper, our Yorkshire terrier, waited in the doorway. They stood abreast in half of the double mahogany-stained wooden door. Mr. Elvis thanked Pa-Pa and left while the Yorkie rocketed toward me, a tan and gray blur. He just turned eight, but still had the energy of a puppy. I lifted the stout, short-legged body. A barrage of wet pink tongue soon lashed my face while four stubby legs flailed the air.
“Stop it.” I giggled, putting down the little guy.
After spotting the collection of Cynthia memorabilia, accompanied by the wide grin I wore when we walked into the foyer, Nana figured out the situation in about two seconds. To her, lycans along with vampires, together called The Others, represented unadulterated evil. Everyone knew, before coming out, they’d preyed on humanity. However, without direct evidence tying individuals to specific crimes, most remained safe from prosecution, in America at least. The distinction failed to convince Nana. Mom took a more neutral view, while Pa-Pa believed that with individuals of their community like Cynthia leading the way, peaceful blending could happen.
By category as well as proportion, my family reflected a cross section of the country’s contending attitudes toward the creatures with which we’d unknowingly shared the planet for two thousand years. They needed every bit of Cynthia’s beauty, good deeds, and winning ways to counteract organizations like the Tenth Legion, who would destroy them.
“It’s bad enough we allow her to keep the posters and books, not to mention all the other stuff about that woman.” Nothing stirred Nana up better than an argument over The Others. “Did the rest of you forget she used to eat people?”
Pa-Pa stood a shade under six feet, but on the rare occasions Nana got on a tear he seemed to shrink down to leprechaun dimensions. “I saw no harm in it,” he said.
Mom—five-eight, with curly, thin brown hair cut off at the nape—weighed in. “Nothing ever proved that she killed anyone.”
A pair of plump arms flew skyward. “She didn’t live off canned tuna, Stephanie.”
Regaining a measure of confidence, Pa-Pa returned to the fray. “You’re probably right, Deborah, but when they found a way around feeding on people they did the proper thing and stopped.” The fact that given names flew around the room suggested the growing passion of the discussion. To this day, I’m not used to hearing anyone call Mom Stephanie, or Nana Deborah. As for Pa-Pa, his name, Albert, almost never crossed my ken.
Not one to back down when she built up a head of steam, Nana stood on the tile floor with arms folded, beside the carved oak dining set. “Not all of them.” She referred to the feral lycans and vampires living in remote parts of the world, clinging to the ways of the hunt.
“You’re not being fair,” Pa-Pa responded. “The large majority want no more than to live in peace. Also, they’re willing to spend a big chunk of their corporation’s resources to round up the rogues of their kind. Anyway, there’s no denying since they came out to the world Cynthia’s done a lot of good.”
“She saved thousands during the European drought,” Mom added. Her characteristic temperance, regained after the earlier, more passionate exchanges, exerted a calming effect on the scene.
“Some have even found religion.” My frail voice offered.
Nana rolled a pair of skeptical eyes. “We’ll see how long that lasts. The first time one runs out of his treated meat, they’ll be back to stealing babies.”
“Until then, they deserve a chance,” Pa-Pa said.
Outnumbered, Nana abandoned the argument and stalked off to her bedroom. “Just keep all the vampire junk in your room. If I find any out here, it goes in the trash.”
I opened my mouth to point out Cynthia was lycan, not vampire, but simultaneous cautionary expressions from Mom and Pa-Pa warned me off.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. We were a close, loving family. Nana had been married to Pa-Pa over thirty years. In most situations, she deferred to him. On certain topics, she could have her moments, the issue of The Others being one.
We learned in Sunday school how on the way to Damascus, divine love converted a coldhearted tax collector named Saul into a leader of the early church. Couldn’t a similar change occur among willing members of the new community?
Nana couldn’t take the bloom off meeting Cynthia Meadows. While household emotions cooled down, I retreated to the solitude of my room to relive as many details of the day as I could remember. Little did I know, like a rock thrown into a pond, the episode would reverberate through time. In a distant future, its ripples would affect me and mine when most needed.
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