Misplaced Baggage by Caroline Tsai

“Oh, Christ.”

From the edge of her childhood bed, Ingrid glared at the suitcase as if it personally wronged her. The unfamiliar toiletries lay innocently among neatly folded shirts and jeans.

In her post-flight stupor, this certainly seemed to be her suitcase, but she realized now that none of its contents belonged to her. All right, perhaps she should have checked… but Heathrow had been so crowded—packed with harried mothers and children, corporate men, college students like herself. It seemed that half the world was traveling for Christmas this year.

She thought about what Dad was doing without her, back in Chicago. Christmas had become a lonely holiday for both of them since the Deal with her mother.

Speak of the devil. Ingrid heard padded footsteps approaching her room. Her mother appeared in the doorway, taking sips from a green smoothie that probably had six kinds of seeds blended in and supposedly lowered blood pressure. Nobody had had to tell Ingrid about her mother’s latest health kick; it was already obvious in her displeased survey of Ingrid’s body. The freshman 15 had reared its ungainly head. In no way was she fat, but compared to her stick of a mother, well…

Her mother cleared her throat. “What do you want to do tonight, honey? We could go Christmas shopping. We could go to a musical, I heard there was a good one that opened last week at the Victoria theater… Ooh, or we could go to Chinatown…”

“No thanks,” said Ingrid apathetically. “I was thinking of having a night in.”

“All right. Oh, we could have a girls’ night in! I could rent some movies, maybe we could do face masks and talk…”

“I’m pretty tired from my flight. Probably just going to bed,” said Ingrid.

Her mother’s smile faltered, but she nodded. “Okay, honey. Well, let me know if you get hungry, okay?”

Perhaps finally taking the hint, her mother left Ingrid to resume the bitter mental monologue.

She thought of the first time she’d seen her mother since she’d left them — eighth grade, was it? She and her father had just moved from the suburbs into that nice downtown apartment, after he’d gotten that promotion at work. She remembered standing in the empty room that was to become her bedroom for the next four years, letting her hands roam over the white walls.

And later, sitting on her bed, when Dad came in. Her flight was landing soon, and maybe the girls could go out to dinner, wouldn’t that be nice?

God, that dinner. She’d tried to block most of it out of her memory, but somehow, the minutiae managed to stick: sautéed asparagus, her mother’s face when she talked about Costa Rica, the two-year-old skirt that had been the only outfit nice enough to wear to that place. She could still see the grimace her mother tried to force into a smile, at her old outfit, her clear lack of familiarity with the finery in the restaurant.

Her mother liked to call Ingrid “honey,” a desperate attempt to show she could mingle with the proletariat. It was a poor translation, another language in which they could not understand each other.

Unfortunately, these dinners were going to happen more frequently than Ingrid preferred. The truth, her father had explained, was that Ingrid was going off to college soon, and there was no way he could pay for it all on one paycheck, no matter how much he’d saved.

So he had called his ex-wife for financial help. Ingrid had never been quite sure of her profession, other than it having to do with insurance, but she was familiar with the first class flights and town cars that were associated with visiting her mother in London, which she had to do every year at Christmas. She knew the experience to be monotonous and uncomfortable, no matter how often it was repeated.

Feeling as though she were scratching a paper cut to ignore an amputated limb, she glowered at the sight of the bag again. It wasn’t exactly her fault for picking up the wrong baggage. Everything about this bag was identical to her own—the zipper, the logo, even the maroon leather luggage tag. What were the odds that a complete stranger would have not only the same bag, but also the same luggage tag?

How was she supposed to track the owner down now? And its owner had to have her suitcase… Where else could it be? Surely he couldn’t have just abandoned it there in the airport, not when it looked so much like his own?

It suddenly occurred to her to check the luggage tag. Why hadn’t she thought of that earlier? She reached for the tag and opened it. Three rows of neat, handwritten text read:

2823 Hanover Street

New York, NY 10021

(212) 662-5303

She fished her phone out of the pocket of her coat, then dialed the number listed on the luggage tag. With bated breath, she held the phone to her ear and waited.

No one picked up. Instead, there was a dial tone and a machine-automated message.

A beep. She began to talk. “Um, hi, my name’s Ingrid.”

God, she sounded stupid. What were you supposed to say for these calls? Your boxers are in my bedroom. I’d love to switch ‘em for my own clothes soon.

“Erm… this is a bit of an odd call to make, but I think we’ve switched suitcases at the airport. Hopefully you’re still in London. Call me back so we can figure this out. Thanks.”

As she hung up, she caught sight of her mother, who had returned and was lingering in the doorway. “Jesus Christ, Mum.”

“Ingrid, are we going to do this all week?”

So they were both aware of the awkward attempt at forced mother-daughter bonding, observed Ingrid. “We’ve done it every year for five years. Why stop there?”

“Look, I know you’d much rather be with your father for Christmas, all right? It’s just…”

The mention of her father twisted Ingrid’s stomach. The last time she had seen him was at the beginning of the school year, when he dropped her off at university. Since the divorce, which was — what? ten years ago? — she lived with her father. Being without him felt like scuba diving and watching the air on the tank run out, gasping the last dregs of oxygen.

The way her mother brought him up so casually was heart wrenching. Ingrid felt something inside of her burst.

“Damn right I’d rather be with my dad. I haven’t spent Christmas with him in five years, and I know you pay my tuition, and I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t just treat this like some fun vacation I take. Because it’s—it’s just not, okay? I don’t come here because I like it here. But I’m here. I packed my bags and I got on an airplane and I’m here, so what else do you want?”

Ingrid predicted her mother’s tears before they began. If she weren’t so used to it, she might have felt sorry for her; instead, it felt theatrical. Her mother nodded quietly and left the room for the second time.

It was going to be a long, long week, thought Ingrid miserably. She had come to dread every winter, the monotony, the awkwardness. Strangely, going through the same routine five years in a row never made it easier or more comfortable. She and her mother never seemed to sync the way she and her father did; they felt like two wrong jigsaw pieces that someone was desperately trying to cram together.

On her bedside table, her phone vibrated. She leaned over.

A New York City call.

It was just a phone call, she reminded herself sharply; just a phone call, just a suitcase, just a mistake.