My younger sister and I started flying alone after our parents divorced in 1974. At nine years old, I soon became familiar with the Albuquerque airport. I would descend the rolling staircase onto the tarmac, holding my little sister’s hand as we walked toward the adobe terminal and look for my father. He would be inside wearing Ray-Bans, jeans pressed with a crease, a big turquoise belt buckle and new running shoes. He would pick up my sister, who is seven years younger than I am, and hug me too hard. Soon enough I would learn that he smelled like pot.
The summer he wasn’t waiting at the gate, arms crossed and Ray-Bans on, I didn’t panic. The gate emptied and we were the only ones left. I searched the faces as we went down the escalator and continued to scan the crowd gathered around the baggage claim. I found a pay phone, expertly dialed “0” before the number, gave the operator my name and it rang forever before she told me to try again later. I repeated this routine countless times for several hours.
I dragged our avocado green Samsonite into the ladies room, helped my sister use the potty and held her up to the sink to wash her hands.
When he finally picked up, I could hear him smiling at the sound of my voice. Then I told him where we were. His voice was curt, insinuating he’d been told the wrong date. The tenuous grasp I had on my father was always in jeopardy. I never told anyone about this until I had my own kids. Only then did I panic.
He rapped his chunky turquoise rings on the Volkswagon’s steering wheel in time with the music and sipped on the cold beer he had wedged between his legs as we drove north. Five years later I would feel a chill of embarrassment during Drivers Ed class when I learned that this was actually illegal. It had never occurred to me that it was a crime.
Summer visits with my father meant backpacking. On the outside of my father’s pack hung a large clear thermos of Jose’ Cuervo silver tequila that I gulped by mistake. I thought I had swallowed the fuel for the propane stove.
My father laughed and told me that the next time we drank tequila together, it would be because I’d turned 18 and he was free from child support payments. He was buying. He still owes me.