“COHEN-JACKSON, huh? That’s quite the odd combo.”
When Liyah looks up, her airplane seatmate is glancing at her full name in script on the cover of her planner before making eye contact. There’s a small smile playing at his lips, as if he finds her surname amusing. This reaction is not new to her, but she is simply Not In The Mood.
Liyah nearly missed her flight this morning. She managed to leave for the airport within a reasonable amount of time, an impressive feat for someone raised at the intersection of the Jewish Standard and Colored People time zones, but the fog had other plans. Karl (Neen informed her that the fog in San Francisco has a name) usually burns off around mid-morning but was thicker and slower to dissipate today. So she, Neen, and Ringo Starr (her best friend’s beloved VW Beetle convertible also has a name) found themselves trapped behind a seven-car pileup, Neen anxiously sticking their head out the window every forty-five seconds to assess the nonexistent movement of traffic.
At the departures’ lane, Neen spared Liyah their usual teary goodbye speech. Instead, they wordlessly offered Liyah their right ear, which she met halfway, bumping together the matching star studs in their earlobes. Such had been the pair’s secret handshake since a drunken evening in Alien Piercing & Tattoo nearly seven years prior. Liyah wound up sprinting to her gate and, suffice it to say, she skipped out on the bagel she’d planned to purchase before boarding.
She’d heaved a sigh of relief (she was not out of breath; her body just hated running) when she arrived at her assigned seat and found that her neighbor was someone her age. With her luck, she’d pictured a shrieking toddler or, God forbid, a chatty old man. She thought his presence meant a few hours of peace as she attempted to subsist off a free bag of pretzel mix and ginger ale.
Apparently, she thought wrong.
She gives him a long look, eyes skating over his high cheekbones, the slight bend in the bridge of his nose, burnt honey-colored almond eyes. He’s white and East Asian. Korean, she guesses, before mentally kicking herself for playing ethnicity detective. She realizes he’s just done the same to her, and mentally kicks herself yet again for feeling guilty. Her metaphorical shins are starting to bruise.
Where is he from? Someplace that would give him enough cultural literacy to spot a truth in her last name (Cohen being decidedly Jewish, Jackson being decidedly not) but not enough to remain unfazed or to know he should stifle his shock. Or, at the very least, not to say something to the effect of, “You’re quite obviously Black and apparently Jewish? How strange!” Never mind that a man his age has probably committed the bulk of Drake’s discography to memory.
She checks her watch. They’re not due to land at O’Hare for another hour and fifteen minutes. Maybe he grew up in the Bay Area. Maybe he went to a high school that was majority East Asian where nobody said a damn thing about his name or his parents or so much as looked at him sideways. A pang of jealousy accompanies the thought. Regardless, he of all people should know better.
“What an original comment,” Liyah starts, voice saccharine. She pointedly looks down at the redwood tree sticker on his laptop before meeting his eyes. “Stanford must be proud to have such an observant alumnus.”
The man’s smile abruptly falls, and he makes a waving motion with his hands as if to erase his words as he opens his mouth. Liyah, still Not In The Mood, declines his attempt to backtrack.
She purses her lips. “Tell me, then, what is the right way to be biracial? You’re normal, but everybody else is a total freak?” He looks down at his hands, stunned. Liyah’s lips stretch into a smug smile, pleased that she’s hit her mark.
“That’s not—” He sighs strongly enough to sag both shoulders, apparently thinking better of what he was about to say. “I’m sorry,” he mutters, cheeks deeply flushed.
Liyah nods curtly and slips her planner back into her tote bag. She can no longer remember why she withdrew it in the first place. She turns away from him, the warmth of her anger creeping up her neck. As the minutes pass, her heartbeat slows, and her outburst settles around them. The anger shifts toward shame. She pulls up the shade at the window and looks out. The plane is suspended in a soup of fog, thick and white, all depth and dimension indiscernible. She closes her eyes and imagines herself floating out there, disembodied from her grumbling stomach.
This is so like her. Bored out of her goddamn mind (yet somehow still incomprehensibly busy) at work, she spent the last three weeks counting down the seconds until she could leave for Fourth of July weekend. She isn’t even off the flight home, and she’s already miserable again. Must be a new record.
Maybe she should say something. Not because she’s in the wrong (she isn’t, although her general grumpiness hasn’t helped) but because the discomfort in the air is bordering on suffocating. She ventures her gaze over to him. His focus is buried in a GQ magazine, a gentle crease formed at his brow. His jaw (sharp, freshly shaven) clenches and releases as he turns the page. The movement causes Liyah’s eyes to trail down his arms toward his hands. She spies a bit of ink peeking out from under his rolled sleeves. His fingers are long and sturdy, the littlest one on his left hand adorned with a silver ring.
She averts her eyes before he catches her staring. He’s undeniably good-looking. If only he’d waited until they were deplaning to make an asinine comment, she might’ve been able to spend this final hour of her prison sentence appreciating the way his tongue swipes over his bottom lip as he reads instead of contemplating making use of one of the four emergency exits.
Maybe she should nap. The coffee and ginger ale sloshing in her stomach disagree. At this point, she’s not sure whether her need for food or fresh air will win out upon landing. It’s quite possible she’ll take a later shuttle to economy parking just to pay two dollars more than she should for a caprese sandwich.
She nearly shudders at the thought. Something feels so intrinsically wrong with buying food on the way out of the airport. No, she’ll stick it out, and hope her stomach doesn’t autocannibalize before she makes it to her apartment.
* * *
CONTEXT, DANIEL. CONTEXT.
He wants to stick his head in one of the overhead bins and shut it. Repeatedly. The second she narrowed her eyes, the whites around her black irises all but disappearing, he realized his mistake. Had they been several other places—a synagogue for the High Holidays, say, or a conference where his neck would be adorned with a name tag reading DANIEL ROSENBERG in bold lettering—she would have at least had a chance to take his attempt at flirting for what it was. As is, he came off as a hypocritical jackass. Which is leagues below a regular jackass.
Staring down at the GQ issue he swiped from his college roommate this morning, he tries desperately to ignore the way her eyes periodically bore holes in the side of his head. Momentarily, he wishes he were religious enough to be wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit on this flight. Maybe even some awkwardly straight payes instead of his neatly trimmed sideburns. The desire is fleeting. He’d scarfed down a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich immediately after takeoff and fully intends a repeat performance at a neighborhood café this evening—for Daniel, unkosher breakfast sandwiches are not reserved for any particular time of day.
He had been looking for a conversation starter since the moment he shuffled into the aisle to let her take her seat. Her mass of long, tightly wound curls was pinned back on the side closest to him, revealing her delicate nose and double piercings in her earlobe that seemed to match the set of moles situated high on her cheek. Once seated, she’d looked up at him through dark eyelashes and offered a small smile before turning to look out the window. He was no longer annoyed by the small plane; the lower ceilings also meant two-person rows, and he got his precious aisle seat with no third party between them.
He’s not enough of a lech to know how to go about flirting with a random woman on an airplane, so when she pulled out the notebook, his heart hammered in his chest. He couldn’t believe his luck: Jews of color aren’t exactly commonplace where he grew up—him, his mother, and his sister being the only ones at his shul in Madison—and there is no non-Jew on the planet with the last name Cohen. Here was a way to establish camaraderie presented on a silver platter, or rather embossed on a leather notebook. He could maybe even find an excuse to see her again.
Now, his luck has run out. He’s grateful that he at least shoved his foot in his mouth closer to landing than takeoff. He considers introducing himself—first and last name—or just explaining bluntly that he’s a Korean Jew and is excited to have a kindred spirit. That might have worked as an immediate follow-up to his gaffe, but when she looked at him the way his cat, Sweet Potato, stares at a bug she plans to devour, he chickened out. Now, he’s waited about thirty minutes too long, and he resigns himself to never entering her number into his phone.
It’s probably better this way. Daniel’s love life has been dormant for so long that it might be dead. Besides, she might live in San Francisco. He was only in town for the long weekend, successful in his single-minded mission to board his Sunday flight home thoroughly hungover and equally sick of his college suitemates. Aliyah’s number would likely never do more than burn a hole in his contacts list. He feels a little odd thinking her name, since she hadn’t offered it, but he is unlikely to forget it anytime soon.
When he no longer feels the heat of her gaze—or deathly glare, really—on the side of his face, Daniel risks a glance. Her eyes are closed, eyelashes nearly grazing the moles on her cheek.
Wait, he thinks, panic rising as a scratchy lump in his throat, I’ve seen those before.
No, it couldn’t be. Her name was Leah.
He blinks slowly, swallows, feels his blood thicken. Her name was Liyah, as in Aliyah. Which means he’s officially gone from mildly idiotic to perhaps the unluckiest moron alive. All those years of summer camp, he never saw her name written out.
His memory of her, age thirteen, crystallizes: features softer and less defined, hair in cornrows that reached her collarbone, face lit only by a camping lantern Daniel’s father packed him. That look of total trust in her dark eyes. Which morphed into naked contempt the very next day.
Copyright © 2023 by Rachel Runya Katz