Fiction · 10/10/2018

The TSA Inspected My Checked Bag

In it they found four tiny bottles of shower gel, six tiny lotions, a plastic laundry bag swollen with balled up clothes — I was on my way home, clearly, trip over. They found one neatly folded pair of shorts and two neatly folded tank tops underneath a one-piece cobalt swimsuit that had not been worn. They found a black dress, an ivory blazer, and one pair of practical black-heeled sandals. They did not find a box of condoms, or a sheer red nightie, or thigh-high stockings topped in black lace. They found the extra pair of gym socks; the underpants, size large; and the satin Japanese-flowered cosmetics bag frayed at the seam; and inside that they found a pricey jar of face cream, a travel-sized mousse to add body to hair, and the multi-compartment pill container, Monday through Thursday empty, Friday holding an extra day’s supply of oblong tablets, capsules, shiny supplements, and a gummy vitamin. Obviously, I was a middle-aged white lady, but why had I been there? A rained-out vacation with girlfriends? A conference? A funeral?

Then they found the journal, a padded purple notebook the size of a man’s hand. They extracted it excitedly from beneath the crackling laundry bag, thinking they would glimpse a deeper interiority, something more than objects and products to suggest personhood. They paused, for a telling moment, before turning back the front cover. But in the journal all they found were flight numbers and restaurant addresses, the name of a hotel. Imagine their disappointment, thinking they might have discovered something meaningful, instead finding only numbers and nouns followed by blank pages. Imagine them standing side by side, a man and a woman, the woman taller than the man — statuesque, square-shouldered, her skin a glossy deep brown and creaseless, her arms and hands liquid as they returned the journal to the suitcase, her fingers long and lovely with polished violet nails in flawless ovals as they burrowed into the cracks between my clothes. Imagine the man, frail, of Mexican descent. Maybe he’d been ill and was slowly recovering; maybe he didn’t like this job but he felt he had no choice, his illness having left him with no stamina to job hunt again, a man out in a world that disliked surnames ending in a “Z,” even though he was born in Cincinnati. But maybe now he was beginning to reconsider the job, because this woman — this woman with an equally rejectable first name, full of W’s and excess A’s — was stunning, her hair abundant, straightened and shimmering in a flip on her shoulder, her nose regal. This woman was so certain of everything, he believed, the way black women are. Maybe he’d noticed her once before, at the last department meeting; maybe she was sitting two seats over, summing up the new boss in one perfect muttered phrase, commenting on a new rule with one sly roll of the eyes. Maybe as she rifled through my clothes he was getting up his nerve, turning towards her, shy and sweet and agonizingly hopeful.

But then, before he could say her name, her gaze alighted on something suspicious poking from the side pouch of my bag — a slender soft pink fingertip — prompting her to unzip the pouch and retrieve the pink-eared, still-tagged stuffed lamb, which would fit inside her palm, so soft it felt like it was melting. Perhaps she thought, nn-hnn, the woman who owns this bag has a child. Perhaps she imagined me as a single mother like herself, with two or three children already grown and then, the surprise baby, now eight or ten years old and the light of her life. Perhaps she imagined me at that moment boarding the plane with my carry-on slung over my shoulder and bulging with gifts — beachy refrigerator magnets, palm tree shot glasses, extra-large orange T-shirts for the boys — my cell phone in hand, one thumb eagerly texting, on my way home!

But then perhaps it occurred to her the lamb could be a gift for a niece, not my own child, or for the toddler of a friend, or that I had bought the lamb for myself — women do that sometimes — to have something to hug or stroke or touch when we’re weighed down by loneliness. She would understand, then, there was no way for her to know anything about the owner of this bag, and the realization would press hard on her heart.

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A.D. Nauman’s short fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in Triquarterly (twice), The Literary Review, Roanoke Review, The Chicago Reader, Other Voices (twice), O. Henry Festival Stories, Knee-Jerk, Farmer’s Market, North Dakota Quarterly, Webster Review, and Bluff City (twice). Her novel, Scorch, was published in 2001 by Soft Skull Press. She is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award for Short Fiction and has had a story produced by Stories on Stage, later chosen for broadcast on WBEZ in Chicago. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.