Mother on the Orient Express: Part Three

Yesterday would have been my parents’ 37th wedding anniversary. It made me remember how there was supposed to be a third person on this trip with my mom.


Specifically, his ashes. Soon after his death I suggested to Mom that perhaps Dad would like some of his remains scattered around “Mozart’s house.” As if there’s just the one. But that’s how I pictured it at the time. “I think he would have wanted to see that,” I said to Mom.

“He would,” she said. “But we should also make sure to sprinkle some of your dad in Vegas, just to be sure. He’d probably want to be there.”

“This probably breaks a number of international laws, Mom.”

“Oh, I’m sure it does. I don’t know how we’ll do it.”

“Do we put him in a make-up bag?”

“(long sigh).”

“We could put him in a tampon box. That would be funny. He’d be so mad!”

“Why do you want him to haunt you?”

So when I started planning the Orient Express trip, I found a way that we could head into Vienna as well as Venice and Paris. Except it was going to be more trains and longer rides and more money and…

And then Mom said, “I don’t know that I can handle going in that box and getting some of your dad.”

In the end, we left Dad at home.

Mom and I arrived in Frankfurt at something like ten in the morning, which was something like the middle of the night for Mom and somewhere around midnight back in Los Angeles. So I was feeling funky, but THE SYSTEM made it so that I wasn’t tired at all and rather itching to start seeing stuff and having fun.

The only problem was: we still had a six-hour layover in Frankfurt. I’d already looked into taking a train into the city and spending the day there, but that was before the three-hour delay back in Newark, when we would have had over nine hours in Frankfurt. Six just wasn’t enough for me to feel confident in taking Mom “out in the world” with our luggage in tow. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure we’d come back in time for our connecting flight to Venice.

This all worked out very well for Mom, though, because the first thing we learned about the Frankfurt airport was that you could smoke in it. Smoking made the time fly by for her, because she has an amazing ability to make friends with strangers. I’m usually left standing somewhere with suitcases and a book, and right when I’m about to call security and say, “Please, I have lost my mother again,” she will wander up, all smiles.

“They were from Amsterdam!” she’d say. “No, wait. Holland. Iceland? I don’t remember. She smoked menthols.”

Mom makes so many friends with strangers I would say that she must be the one starting the talking, except that I have inherited this trait, so I know that these things just happen to her.

A couple of years ago, I was on a flight back to Los Angeles that connected in Phoenix or something, during a time when a number of flights had been canceled and many people were stranded in airports for a day or two. I ended up sitting next to a woman who had been one of those stranded, and she had explained to me that she’d run out of money for food and drinks, that she had been sleeping on her luggage and was exhausted.

She was also frantically applying makeup, looking into a mirror, fluffing her hair. She told me that she was on her way to see her fiance for the first time in a long time, that he’d already moved out to California to get them a house and get everything ready, and now she was flying out there — her first time in California — to start a brand new life with this man who was going to marry her.

“I’m so nervous,” she said, halfway through her eyeliner application. “I’ve lost some weight since he saw me, and I hope he likes it.”

I tell her she looks great. She tells me about her lapband surgery, pointing to places she doesn’t like on her body because she can’t afford the skin removal surgery yet. I buy her a Diet Coke. She tells me her mom didn’t survive her own lapband surgery, but she decided to do it anyway.

This was my first moment of pause, but I ignored it, forgetting all I’d learned from The Gift of Fear.

The flight goes on, and so does she: about how excited she is that her whole life is about to change. She tells me that before we started talking I looked like I was working on something. I don’t remember what I was writing at the time, but it got us talking about books. She asks my name so that she can buy one. This has happened before, and it’s hard to sell books, you guys, so I tell her my name. We talk about books and California and how excited she’s going to be when her life starts anew. She asked me a lot about Los Angeles, about what it’s like to live there.

It’s not that long of a flight, and soon we were touching down in Burbank. “It’s so nice to land in California and already say I know someone.”

I know. And yes, I ignored that weird little pang, too.

She asks for a card. I give her one.

I KNOW! I’m sorry. I’m nice! It’s because of my mom! Blame her!

Anyway, we end up talking about how I’d been writing on television shows. She then says, “I was on Maury Povich once.”

And with that the plane landed, she tucked my card into her purse and she said, “I’m so glad I’ve made a friend. I already met someone who lives in Los Angeles! I’m not alone.”

We were headed towards baggage claim at the same time, so I ducked into the restroom to put a little travel distance between us. When I reached baggage claim I heard, “There she is! That’s my new friend! Come meet my fiance!”

Let me tell you something: the fiance was not happy to meet me. He gave me one of the biggest, “Stay away from this situation” glares I’ve ever received in my life. Not that I collect those, or anything. But still.

So, I go home, I tell the story, a couple of people are like, “I feel like this story isn’t over.” But I was sure it was.

It wasn’t.

So one night I’m hosting a party in my house that’s half my derby team, and half visiting people from around the country to see my derby team compete the next night. One of these people, specifically, is opinion-haver AB Chao.

There are a lot of people in my apartment, and some of them have decided to make crafts involving glitter on my coffee table which is NOT REALLY OKAY and some people are on the porch being quiet, good Canadians and some people are watching derby footage and some people are drinking by the food and some people are leaving and some people are late and in the middle of all of this my phone is ringing.

I answer it and I can’t really hear, but I can make out what I think is, “I MET YOU ON THE PLANE!?”

And then I’m saying, “Okay! Uh, yeah! It’s really hard to hear you right now, can you call some other time?”

And I hear her say, “…VERY IMPORTANT… CALL BACK! NEED YOU” and then I hang up and decide to pretend I didn’t hear those words at all.

She left three voicemails.

In the morning I decide to take a listen.


The voicemail is, in fact, the lady from the plane. And in it she is saying that she is at a hospital in a place called Sylmar, which is MANY MANY MILES from my apartment (excuse number one), and that she really needs me to call me at that hospital because I am the only person she knows. She leaves the room number and the phone number and says she really needs me to call because it’s important.

“Uh, you aren’t calling her. The end.” That’s AB Chao, scolding me as I sit on my couch. “This is what you get for talking to strangers on planes and giving them your number like that’s okay. That is not okay. What good could come out of you calling that hospital? You do not belong in someone else’s drama. You trying to get on the Jerry Springer show, too?”

“It was ‘Maury.’”

“I will kill you right now. You don’t even know this woman’s name. You can’t do anything about her.”

“But what if–”

“She said she had family back home, you know she came from somewhere, because you were on that plane with her. She can call them. You aren’t kin, you can’t just go to a hospital and help someone. You don’t have access to her. Also, YOU DON’T KNOW HER NAME. You don’t know if her fiance’s there fixing to kill anybody who tries to go near her. You don’t know WHERE SYLMAR IS. You are staying right here and you are going to clean all that glitter out of your coffee table and then you are going to think about how dumb it is to talk to strangers on planes.”

She never called again, and to this day — and forever — I’m still kind of unsettled about what I did…and didn’t…do. This is exactly the kind of thing that would happen to my mom, but she would call the hospital back, and the next time I came home to visit, she’d be like, “Oh, the woman living in the basement? That’s Vicki. She just needs a place to stay for a little while. I’m not sure how long, or what her last name is, but she smokes menthols.”

Perhaps Mom would’ve made fewer stranger-friends in Germany (and I’m sure there’s a word in German for specifically that), if she’d performed just once for any of them her German people impression, which she did for me at an alarming volume.

“They sound like they’re going, ‘SHIT! SHIT! CACA SHITZER SHIT! SHIT!” And then she laughed and laughed and laughed.

I have written here in my notes that I took during this trip this part that still cracks me up:

When she comes back from over thirty minutes in the bathroom I ask her why it takes her so damn long to do anything.

She looks at me and deadpans, “I’m old.”

We finally get on a plane to Venice. During this time we end up talking about Murder on the Orient Express. I finish reading it on my Kindle as we’re about to touch down. Have you read it? Do you know the story? I didn’t, so I won’t spoil it for you. I will say that seeing Liz Lemon reading the large-type face version in a recent 30 ROCK didn’t do anything to help the comments that my life and her fictional one are oddly parallel.

So I finish the book and I am underwhelmed. But I don’t know how to approach this with my mom. I mean, we’re on this huge trip because of this book, because my mom read it at a certain impressionable age and got it in her head that she wanted to ride this train. This is the life goal, right here.

“Did you like it?” she asked.

“Well, I… don’t really read mysteries all that often.”

“Your father hated it. He hated it SO MUCH. He threw it in the trash, if I remember correctly. And when I took him to see the movie, he didn’t realize it was the movie of the book he hated until we were halfway through. He was so mad! He was yelling, ‘I read this! This is awful! This book was so stupid!’”

The only person who could be more inappropriately louder in public than my mom (with her recently developed shoutwhisper) was my father. His audience voice was legendary. I can still hear the following moments in my head:


During the final moments of Schindler’s List: “AFTER THIS IS OVER, DO YOU WANT TO GO GET SOME PIE?”

During the final moments of a play I’d directed, for which I was getting a grade and my teacher was in the audience: “WELL, THIS ONE ISN’T VERY GOOD.”

I could only imagine if we had brought Dad along on this trip, his ghost would be yelling, “WAIT! THIS IS THE TRAIN OF THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE I HATED! GET ME OFF THIS THING! THE ENDING IS BULLSHIT! AND THERE’S NO CASINO ON THIS TRAIN!”

We arrived in Venice at night. I was nervous, because everything my mom had seen about Venice made her say, “Ich. It looks very wet.”

But let me tell you a surefire way to impress your mom. Have the Orient Express meet you at the airport in Venice. Because you are immediately treated like a big, damn deal.

And then they escort you onto your own private boat. Mom did that thing when she gets impressed, when she feels like she’s getting treated extra-special. She kind of rocks back and forth, her shoulders alternate rising as her head ducks and she smiles. “Fancy,” she said, almost blushing.

The boat raced through the water, in the black of night, right toward the lights of the city. It was beautiful. I didn’t take any pictures or shoot any video because it’s the kind of experience you can’t replicate. There’s no way to capture it. You’re zipping through vast open water and then you hit the town and you slow down to a quiet crawl. Then you’re navigating the canals, and you look up to see on either side of you are people’s homes. You can see into their windows — the couples making dinner, the people grabbing books off the top shelf of their bookcase, the dog that watches you pass.

All you can think, and all you can say out loud, is just the dumbest thing: “It looks like we’re in a movie.”

Next time I’ll tell you about getting stuck in St Marks during high tide, how I got compared to Alan Alda, and one of my absolute favorite moments from the trip that came from my mother’s ability to befriend strangers.

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