She couldn’t get the sign out of her head.
claim your own baggage.
It hung over the luggage carousels at the Las Vegas airport, huge letters. It seemed disingenuous, she thought, for a city like Las Vegas where people came to leave the baggage of their lives behind.
claim your own baggage.
No. She wouldn’t. Defiant, she had left her bag there. Marched out of the airport and left it to circle around and around on the carousel, her underwear, three sample tubes of lipstick, two favorite T-shirts, a pair of jeans, a photo in a silver frame, and a young girl’s jewelry box, all neatly packed. Her luggage, her past, abandoned.
As if it were that easy.
The next day she was back at the airport, offering the clerk at Lost and Found a lame excuse, a smile. He handed her the bag and it seemed to have gotten heavier overnight. By then she had already begun to realize what was now, three months later, painfully clear. That no matter what you do, how many possessions you sell off, how often you move, how much therapy you pay for, your baggage will always be waiting for you to claim it.
By then she had begun to realize why she had come to Las Vegas. Why she had to come.
Be good, she heard her father’s voice say.
And saw the sign, claim your own baggage.
It’s not always as easy to be good as you want, Daddy, she thought as she sat in her car across the street from the house.
Every thirty seconds the clock on the dashboard made a tiny clicking sound. Be good. Click. Claim your own baggage. Click. Saabs had to be the only car in America that didn’t have a digital clock in the dashboard, she thought. She had only been sitting in front of the house for ten minutes this time but the clicking was starting to drive her crazy. Click, click, click, like a metronome, flipping her back and forth between present and past.
Claim your own baggage.
Lights were on in every window of the house, almost. Shadows moved in front of the one in the bottom right-hand corner, the den off the living room, a tall silhouette, the oldest boy, and a shorter, rounder one.
Behind the shadows the air flickered, like someone had turned on a TV. Probably they were watching it together as they waited for the boy’s brother and sister to get home. The older boy was about fourteen, his younger brother eleven. He was at his clarinet les- son. The sister was fifteen. She went to the gym Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and didn’t get home until 5:30 p.m. As soon as she did, they sat down and had dinner. Together. Sometimes Dad joined them too, but not tonight. He was working late. Big business dinner. He’d worn his fanciest suit to the office that day.
For a moment the woman in the car wondered what would happen if she rang the bell and asked if she could join them for dinner. They did not know her, they were complete strangers to one another. At least, they knew nothing of her. She knew all about the Johnson family. Quick sketches of their faces covered the pages of the pad on the seat next to her. Despite herself, she could not stop watching them.
Claim your own baggage.
A man strolled by on the street walking a fluffy white dog, and his eyes met those of the woman in the car. He looked familiar, she thought, then realized it was not him, it was here. Everything was familiar here, this was the curse of her baggage, what she needed to free herself from. The man with the dog was the icon for everything she came to purge, everything she couldn’t escape.
Hands tightening on the steering wheel, she watched the dashboard clock click one more time. The little brother got dropped off, music under one arm, clarinet case sticking out the top of his red and blue Spider-man backpack. He used his key on the small gate next to the driveway, closed it carefully, stepped over the hose the exterminator left there to finish the job the next day, and entered the house by the side door. The door went into the back hallway, the woman knew, next to the laundry room; farther down was the kitchen. She could see them all in her head.
Ten clicks of the clock later, a beige Jeep Wrangler pulled to the curb opposite and the sister got out. The woman in the Saab watched the girl go through the gate, and into the house the same way her brother had. She had perfect thighs.
She was not as careful as her younger brother, though, and the gate didn’t close all the way. It hovered slightly ajar, an invitation. Come on in. Pay us a visit. See our perfect home from the inside. Carve out a place for yourself in our family.
Don’t do it! the woman’s head screamed. Leave now. Be good. Now isn’t the right time. She glanced at the clock and saw that was true. Not the right time. She had to get to work. It was almost the dinner hour. She started her engine and pulled out, heading toward the Strip.
CLAIM YOUR OWN BAGGAGE.
But she’d be back. She wasn’t done with the Johnson house yet.
From the Trade Paperback edition.