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Houston, we have a solution: a Kiwi’s desperate flight home

A personal essay by Kiwi novelist Chloe Lane about her family's desperate flight home from the US.

The smell was the first indicator something was wrong––a sickly sour stench, something that was once good, gone bad. A decomposing massacre of bees contained inside a neat wooden box or hanging from a tree in the wild was one thing, but inside our building, all seven feet and 200 pounds of it magnificently constructed under our neighbour’s floorboards, right beside her bed, in the space where she slept, loved, lived?

Florida’s bees are doing better than they were. Pests, pesticides, diseases, hurricanes––that’s a lot for them to overcome. It’s the beekeepers from up north who bring their hives south for the winter that have helped the most––all those vacationing bees and their healthy vibes have been rubbing off on our ailing Florida bees. I tried to help the cause by capturing and releasing the bees that got trapped between the window and window screens or came inside our apartment through our open balcony door. Our building was the kind of nineteenth century villa that was ubiquitous in our neighbourhood. Since the removal of the dead hive and all that rotting honey, the bees have started working on a new hive inside a different wall of our building.

The morning before we were meant to be catching our connecting flight from Orlando––the flight that would take us home to New Zealand via LA and Sydney––I heard my one-year-old son shrieking with joy from our balcony. It had only been a few days since we had decided to return to New Zealand. I was still mad scrambling to pack up our apartment, the six years of life we had lived in this place. The constant stream of Covid-19 updates from our local Gainesville news, the wider Florida and US news, and from home in New Zealand had already left me exhausted and uneasy.

I turned away from the mound of clothes I was still sorting into piles designated “pack,” “give away,” and “throw away” and ventured outside to see what was going on.

“What have you got there?” I asked my son. “In your hand?”

I could see his fist was balled loosely around something, likely a leaf, maybe a stray pen cap or paper clip––runaways from the chaos inside our apartment. He shrieked again and ran on the spot as I drew near.

“Let me see,” I said.

As I pried open his sweaty fist, out flew a bee.

*

During the fifteen months my son has been alive, I have learned that parenthood is mostly a constant stream of problems that need to be solved. So what about this one: my son was an American citizen and not yet a New Zealand citizen, which a week prior had been nothing, but now that we were standing at the American Airlines check-in counter at Orlando International Airport, we were being repeatedly informed that the New Zealand border was closed, and that the computer didn’t understand immigration grey areas, so no we definitely could not board the plane.

The American Airlines woman was a Florida blonde, outwardly cheerful but aloof, too casual. She and her sister had recently travelled to New Zealand––she wanted to share her photos with us. By now my mask was fogging up my glasses––I was yet to learn how to mould the top of it around the bridge of my nose––and my hands were slipping and sliding inside my latex gloves. Even in the wildly air-conditioned airport it was still Florida springtime and hot. And I had the nervous sweats, and then the hunger sweats. For that’s how long we stood at that counter, as our son got increasingly agitated, which we eventually realised was because he had spent hours in the same wet diaper. Here: a very simple parenting problem with a simple solution, which in our distress we had failed to deal to.

On hold again, the phone cradled between her ear and shoulder, the American Airlines woman painted a colourful picture of her travels from Queenstown to Kaikōura. The punchline at the end of her tale, just before we were given the final unhappy news, was a photo from an Airbnb she had stayed in. The host was a strange man who ran a small crayfish farm. The wooden ceiling of her room had dark knots through its grain. And directly above her bed there was a trio of knots that formed the unmistakable shadow of a skull.

Back outside in the departures loading zone, the parking attendant who had hurried us along when we had first arrived, now told us to take our time. My husband and I spoke very little on the trip back to Gainesville. What was the solution to this problem? The New Zealand Embassy couldn’t help us, it was the weekend so the New Zealand passport office wasn’t open, and the airlines we had booked these flights with (American Airlines, Qantas) just wanted us to get off the line. There was nothing to do but sit back and submit to the long ride home––made even longer by a crash on the Turnpike.

Driving across five states so we could board a direct Air New Zealand flight out of Houston would have sounded preposterous a few days earlier. Now it was our best shot at getting home. With new e-tickets in hand, we had the car loaded and were on the road before the sun came up. The Interstate was empty except for the odd semi truck, mobile home, and pickup. Around this time of year, a lot of bees travel west so they can pollinate, amongst other things, the almond fields of California. From the passenger seat of our rental, it occurred to me that any of the semis we passed could have been loaded up with hives full of honey bees, off to do their part to help keep things moving for all of us.

For much of our journey west I filled the time by steadily grinding my teeth. During the twelve hours of road between Gainesville and Houston we stopped at a few rest stops. They were deserted too. In Louisiana, under a rest-stop tree, we set out a picnic lunch. The main course was a “pasta salad” of canned tuna and frozen peas––pantry leftovers––which I had much too liberally salted. My husband and I agreed it was disgusting, but between the three of us we scraped that Tupperware container clean.

"What has happened down here is the winds have changed", Randy Newman sang of Louisiana. Photo by Chloe Lane during on her way to Houston.

A few hours out of Houston, we pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot. My husband changed our son on the boot of our car. Behind them, the sun was setting between the faded yellow arches of the shuttered McDonald’s and a tall red and white sign that read “Urgent Care”.

*

Houston was already in lockdown. It was eerie driving the streets of what was usually a loud and bustling car city. The airport was even quieter. We arrived at the Air New Zealand ticketing desk five hours before our flight was due to depart. The only thing that was open and working was a single vending machine. From a safe distance we anxiously chatted with other waiting passengers––all Australians trying to get home via New Zealand. One couple had been on a cruise that had docked early––they had been trying to leave for a week. The husband, a chemical engineer, told us that on the plane we should blast the overhead fans as the air from those things was clean. It was a good thing I was wearing a cap, he said––it will keep you from feeling like you’re facing a headwind for fourteen hours. Another family group with a boy around the same age as our son had also hurriedly packed up their entire lives. We all nodded sympathetically as we listened to everyone’s tales. That deathly quiet corner of Houston Intercontinental became a support group for sad and worn out Aussies and Kiwis.

My son’s boarding pass had to be written out by hand. As I was handed our tickets, I saw his full name spelled out in ballpoint in large, girlish print, and for the first time in maybe two weeks I no longer felt like I was having a slow-burn heart attack. I thanked the Air New Zealand staff member who served us over and over again. It was then that I saw the young white guy standing behind us in the check-in line––the one wearing a red Make America Great Again cap.

I saw him again as we cleared security, which was the same as always––tense, humourless, me fumbling with my shoes with too many laces. I saw him once more when we reached our gate, as I glimpsed the familiar Air New Zealand koru. The guy was young, maybe an undergrad, and he was wearing a satisfied smirk that made absolutely no sense in the context of what was going on around us. Airports aren’t exactly happy making places at the best of times, but everyone else at our gate, sitting with at least a chair or two between them and the next person, looked utterly shattered. But this guy, smiling so strangely to himself? Was I hallucinating him? Because he didn’t seem real. Or was I simply trying to pretend, while I said goodbye to this country I love, that the worst of it didn’t exist?

*

Social distancing was enforced on the plane. Family bubbles were allowed to sit together, otherwise, everyone was spread out––never more than two people to a row. I heard another passenger ask an Air New Zealand crew member if they were losing their job. Judging by the way he moved and spoke, the man was clearly a senior member of the crew. He responded by calmly shrugging and then smiling with a heartbreaking resignation. “There’s no roster after this,” he said.

Uplifting an entire hive of bees, loading them onto a truck, transporting them across the country, and then expecting them to get to work in a strange new place is not a stress-free experience for the bees. Commercial pollination and the long-haul travel it requires messes the bees up in all kinds of ways––among other things, they struggle to regulate their body temperatures, and their food glands stop fully developing. I have never been able to sleep on planes. This flight, I also didn’t watch a single movie or episode of TV. I picked at my son’s meals, and remained in some kind of semi-wakeful trance. Like a machine that had been powered down, left on standby, and ready to be powered back up at any time.

We were escorted off the plane in small groups. First stop: temperature check. I don’t know what happened to the people who didn’t pass this test, but the Ministry of Health nurse who interviewed us patiently explained what we needed to do if we became symptomatic. She looked visibly relieved when I told her we had already been self-isolating in Florida. Next we were handed over to a policewoman. By this point I was so thankful to be on New Zealand soil, I would have happily gone anywhere with anyone for any length of time. I was prepared to submit to anything––whatever we needed to do to do our part. We had a place to self-isolate though. So instead of having to board a shuttle to the “government approved accommodation” as with many of the passengers before and after us, we were allowed to wait for my father-in-law.

There was nothing to do in the holding area, the single vending machine didn’t work, and my son was hungry and mad, but we were back. Two of the police officers overseeing us regularly walked to where I was doing short laps with the stroller beside our giant mound of luggage. Over the top of their masks, and over the top of my mask, we nodded and exchanged short reassurances. When they saw that my son had finally fallen asleep, they briefly lowered their masks so we could exchange weary smiles.

*

Our son’s New Zealand Citizenship certificate and New Zealand passport eventually arrived. I haven’t looked at it. It’s filed away at the back of the closet where we’re self-isolating. I can’t think of my son as a Kiwi yet. He has only lived an American life. And all of the people who have made up his world, they are still in Florida, in lockdown now too, and we weren’t able to say proper goodbyes to a single one. Not his little friends we had play dates with at the local playground, not his pediatrician who every three months rewarded his bravery with a new bath toy, not the librarians who knew him by name, not any of our friends, our dear friends who helped make Gainesville our home for six years, and not our dearest friend of all who signed his application for New Zealand citizenship.

Maybe this problem can only be solved with time. Before we left the US, and before New Zealand reached Level 4, my brother delivered a cot and bedding, a bag of hand-me-down clothes, and another bag of toys to our place of self-isolation. With the clothes was a pair of gumboots––they will be my son’s first pair. Maybe by the time he has grown into them, I will be able to see him as a Kiwi.

But for now, we leave our fenced-off corner of his grandparents’ house only to roam the garden. Here the bees are plentiful, plump, and loud.

“Careful,” I say. “Not too close.”

My son wears a focused, serious expression. He turns his head this way, and now that way. He is trying to make out where the buzzing is coming from, where this bee is heading to, where this bee is going.

The Swimmers, Chloe Lane's debut novel, will be published by Victoria University Press in August. An excerpt features in VUP's splendid new anthology of New Zealand writing, which is available at no cost - free, nada, help yourself - as an e-book.

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