In Broken Places - By Michele Phoenix


“THE ONLY DIFFERENCE between a German and a primate is his ability to read the label on his beer can,” Bonnie said.

I’d spent a lifetime wondering what purgatory might be like and I’d found it here, at thirty-five thousand feet, confined in this garishly upholstered space between a sleeping child and a ranting parrot of a woman. Her voice was loud—as sharp as the bones jutting out of her seventysomething body—and ill-fitting dentures did nothing to soften her staccato consonants and shrilling vowels.

“Of course, they can’t help it,” the occupant of 41-C continued, oblivious to the silence coming from 41-B. “It’s cultural. Like wearing those lederhosen getups and dipping their fries in mayonnaise. I’d bet money their waistbands are as tight as their arteries.” She punctuated her sentence with a derisive snort and reached for her drink.

I counted off the seconds as she sipped orange juice from her plastic cup, relishing the silence while pleading with the gods of conversational relief that the sleeping pills Bonnie had taken minutes ago would kick in before I died of murder by monologue. I had predicted, when she’d entertained Frankfurt-bound passengers in the departure hall with a ruckus about her overweight carry-on luggage, that this diminutive woman would spell transatlantic discomfort for her seat companions. And fate had placed her next to me. My only consolation was in imagining how ugly the scene might have gotten if this Germanophobe had been seated near a native of the country to which we were flying.

Bonnie replaced her cup in the indentation on the tray in front of her and took a deep breath. I held mine, dreading the next chapter in Bonnie’s Defamation of the German Culture, but it never came. With a weary “I think I’ll rest my eyes for a few minutes,” Bonnie let out a long, pesto-scented breath and deflated into silence.

My hand drifted over the head of soft blonde curls resting in my lap. The gesture had been foreign to me only months before, and it struck me, as I looped a curl around my finger and watched it unravel, that the concept of foreign was quickly becoming familiar. Shayla stirred and I pulled her airline blanket higher on her shoulders, amazed that she could sleep, contorted as she was around the seat belt the attendant had suggested we leave fastened. She coughed and opened one eye, squinting at the geometric pattern on the seat in front of hers, then craning her neck back to get a look at me. Apparently satisfied that I hadn’t morphed into any of the “bad people” from her Disney cartoons, she closed her one eye and coiled back into sleep.

I considered it a compliment that the sight of me hadn’t sent her into horrified hysterics. There were multiple reasons why it should have, the greatest of which was the physical ravages inflicted on me by six months of utter shock in which twelve weeks of disbelief had yielded to twelve more weeks of second-guessing, all culminating in the past seventy-two hours of rabid, nerve-numbing packing.

I was the poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder. My skin was dirty-eggshell pale, my hair had all the stylish flair of a brown Brillo pad, and my eyes, I was pretty sure, screamed a hazel shade of terror that churned with utter confusion. Post-traumatic Shelby was not a pretty picture. At all.

I looked out the window at cotton-candy clouds and the first pale hues of another day. There was a large foreign object—perhaps a boulder—lodged in my throat, and for months, nothing I attempted had succeeded in dislodging it. None of the crying or raging or peacemaking I’d done had put a dent in it. And I was pretty sure, as I gazed out at the day dawning on the horizon, that the rock was there to stay. At least for a while. I contemplated carving something pertinent like “Let me off this ride!” on it and making it a permanent feature of my emotional landscape. It would feel right at home among the bits of barbed wire, chunks of fortified wall, and steel-reinforced doors torn from their hinges that had washed up on the same shore during previous existential storms. They formed a panoply of failed self-protection I wasn’t ready to dispose of quite yet. I figured broken barriers were better than none at all. At least they showed intent.



“She’s beautiful, Shelby.”

I stared at the social worker’s face and wondered what beautiful had to do with the present