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It’s always the same, no matter where in the world we happen to be. Just when I get used to noodle soup for breakfast in Laos, or endless glasses of supersweet mint tea in Morocco, or crazy little tuk tuk taxis in Thailand, Layla gets that look in her eyes, that faraway, wistful look, as though she’s squinting at a movie in the distance, and on the screen is a place more exotic, more dazzling, more spiritual than wherever we are.
On rainy hills, she dreams of parched desert drum rituals. On windswept islands, she yearns for ancient jungle secrets. On palm-treed beaches, she imagines sacred mountain water?falls. When her mind starts drifting off, our bodies and suitcases soon follow.
And here we are, Layla and me, on the last leg of a journey from Southeast Asia, our plane swimming in clouds above the Andes, hovering, once again, between homes.
The plane lurches like a spooked elephant. My hands clench my notebook, and my eyes flick back to the flight attendants to see if they’re in emergency mode. No, they’re stuffing sugar packets into a metal container, their faces calm under thick masks of makeup. In the window seat beside me, Layla sits cross-legged, flirting with the middle-aged guy in the aisle seat, both of them leaning across me.
Turbulence doesn’t faze Layla. She loves it, like a roller-coaster ride thrown in for free, that flutter in the stomach, that rush of adrenaline pulling her into the moment.
I click my seat belt shut and elbow her. “Hey, Layla, the seat belt light’s on.”
She shrugs. “Don’t worry so much, Zeeta, love.”
I reach across and fasten her seat belt. She kisses my temple and leans toward the flight attendant, her blond hair hanging like a curtain over my lap. “Red wine, please.”
Of course, the man insists on paying for her wine, pulling a few bills from a silver money clip with manicured fingers. He’s wearing khaki pants, a neatly tucked-in white cotton shirt, the sleeves carefully rolled up to reveal muscular forearms, and a silver watch. He looks like he stepped out of a magazine ad for something domestic. He’s the quintessential Handsome Magazine Dad, metallic blue eyes and a touch of distinguished gray at his temples. He’d be posed in a shiny stainless-steel kitchen, casually flipping a pancake while his younger wife and daughter smile at the table, as if they’ve been caught midjoke.
I wonder what he thinks of Layla: a cute, disheveled hippie chick in a slightly see-through cotton wraparound skirt tucked over her knees, with her bare toes peeking out. She’s almost thirty-five but looks twenty-five. She always smells of sweet sweat and essential oils, whatever scent addresses her chakra deficiency that day. Today she’s chosen a citrusy smell, something bright and tart.
I used to wish for a Handsome Magazine Dad, but I’ve pretty much given up by this point. Every year in a different country. Fifteen years, fifteen countries, well over fifteen boyfriends for Layla. Fifteen dozen maybe, one for each month. It’s way too late now for a normal home, normal family, normal childhood.
I open my latest notebook, indigo-colored, and ask the man, “What’s your full name?”
I jot that down and then write, Efficiency Consultant for Financial Institutions, which is apparently his job, whatever that is. “Jeff, if you had one wish, what would it be?”
Usually people ask why I’m asking, and usually I say, “So I can remember you,” which is true, and flatters them. But the real reason I’ve filled all these notebooks—a different color in every country—is deeper, buried inside me. It has something to do with wanting to figure out this thing called life, hoping that by sifting through other people’s wishes and memories and dreams, I can find the pieces I need to understand it.
“One wish?” he says, looking amused. His voice is warm and gravelly. “Honestly? To settle down.” He sips his wine, maybe deciding how much more to tell. “My girls are grown. My wife left me three years ago.” He lets out a breath. “I’m tired of the online dating scene in Virginia. I just want my life back to normal.”
I jot down his answer, feeling wistful. To settle down. Normal.
Before I can move on to more questions, he shrugs off the sadness that’s crept into his voice. “So”—he grins at Layla—“you lovely ladies on vacation?”
“Our life is a vacation!” Layla’s extra-giddy since we’re between places. “Phuket last year. Off the coast of Thailand. Now I’ll be teaching English in Otavalo.” She clicks her plastic cup against his and sips. “Cheers!”
Just hearing her mention Phuket makes me ache. In Thailand, I’d woven myself into life in our beach town. I savored my routines—walking through the noisy market, riding my bike down a jungly dirt road, taking morning swims with friends, eating coconut sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.
I glance across the aisle, out the window, where there’s nothing but pure white mist. And a boy staring into it. He looks about my age, maybe a year or two older. Sixteen? Seven?teen? His skin is just a shade darker than mine, tea without any milk swirled in, and his hair the same as mine, long and black and pulled into a braid. He could be an Otavaleño Indian, a descendent of the Inca. I’ve seen them on street corners all over the world in ponchos, playing pan flutes.
The flight attendant leans toward him, a mauve, lip-lined smile pasted on her face. “¿Señor, algo para tomar?”
He knits his eyebrows. Finally, he speaks, stumbling over his words. “Quiero—quiero—” he says with a heavy accent and an edge of desperation.
Strange. Maybe he only speaks Quichua.
“Orange juice, please,” he finishes in American English. Reaching for the juice, he catches my eye and blushes.
Layla, meanwhile, is on a roll with her captive audience. “This whole region is overflowing with sacred waters. There’s a waterfall that grants your wishes. . . .” She has that look in her eyes now, the mouthwatery look that some people get over chocolate cake.
Jeff nods, looking enraptured. When Layla pauses, he jumps in. “You know, you’re refreshing. Different.” He pulls out a business card from another silver clip. “Let me take you out to dinner. I’m based at banks in Quito for a month, but I’ll be making some visits to a branch in Otavalo.”
Without glancing at the card, Layla tucks it into the waist of her skirt, showing a peek of hips tanned caramel on Phi Phi Island, a short boat ride from our home in Phuket. “Thanks.”
She’ll never call him, and not just because she’s against phones. He’s just someone to charm for a few hours. For a sustained effort of a few weeks or even days, the guy has to be young, unshaven, shaggy-haired, and extremely irresponsible—like her most recent ex-boyfriend, a wandering, dreadlocked artist clown who sold shell jewelry on the beach.
Jeff flashes me his model smile, his teeth unearthly white, probably from a fresh tooth-bleaching strip. “You could come along too. Are you two traveling buddies?”
I smile, trying to swallow the jaded been-there-done-that feeling. “I’m Layla’s daughter.”
From the Hardcover edition.