Atlanta International Airport
They talked for almost the entire flight down to Atlanta. She was skinny and pretty, and it had taken him until somewhere over Virginia to recognize her. She hadn't been part of the popular crowd like he had, but he recognized her just the same. Though he didn't have any specific context in which to place her, as time passed at cruising speeds he grew certain that she’d gone to high school with him.
When he finally spoke to her, he asked her what book she was reading. It was a Vonnegut, he knew that, he could see the cover, but he asked anyway just to start a conversation.
At first, he wondered if he should say anything at all. She was pretty, probably used to being approached by unknown men, and he didn't want to be a creep, but then he thought he caught her looking at him and decided, what the hell?
“What’re you reading?’
“Bluebeard.” She sounded a little embarrassed by the silly title.
“Like the pirate?”
“Uh,” she laughed, “no. Not really.”
“Just kidding, I’ve actually read that one. By Vonnegut?”
“Yeah. Did you like it?”
“I did. I’m not the biggest art guy, but I thought the whole abstract impressionism thing was interesting.”
She stuck out her tongue, the way a child does when they taste something nasty, “Not my favorite.”
Now that he could look at her straight on instead of only from the corner of his eye, he noticed she was young. Younger than him by at least a couple years, though perhaps not quite so young as she looked, she must not have hardly aged at all since high school. Going off her face alone he though she could pass for a high school student, but the way she dressed suggested a higher maturity. She wore jeans and a flowery blouse that was quiet despite being colorful. She was pencil thin, and her breasts were noticeable but only barely. It was attractive in a unique way, the youthfulness of this girl. She wore very little makeup and he knew she would still look pretty with out any on at all.
When she smiled she revealed a set of white teeth which were perhaps just a bit too long. Her eyes were the prettiest part of her face. They were big and brown and innocent in a way he thought was pretty damn sexy.
He decided confirm his suspicions that they had indeed gone to the same high school.
“Did you go to East High? In Salt Lake?”
“Yes.” She smiled and he knew that she had recognized him already.
“Remind me of your name?”
She told him and he thought it sounded familiar. He gave her his and she nodded immediately.
“I remember you. You were one of the cool kids.”
He laughed, “No, I wasn’t. I just hung around with them because I thought… I don’t know what I thought.”
“That they were cool kids?”
“Ha. Yeah I guess.”
He had been part of the popular crowd, and at the time he’d been fiercely aware of it. Aware and proud. Now with six years of experience since graduation he’d matured enough to realize how insignificant those friendships had been. He found himself wishing suddenly that he’d been friends with this girl instead.
“So, do you study art?”
“Yes, for one more semester.”
“Cool. What do you do? Like what kind of art?”
“Yeah, like how they used to print old newspapers and stuff.”
“Like rolling ink over metal stencils?”
“That’s interesting. Are you good?”
“I hope so. I just interviewed at NYU for their masters program.”
“Think you’ll get in?”
She smiled timidly, “We’ll see.”
He smiled back, glad to know suddenly that New York City, where he’d just accepted an accounting job, was a place she might end up.
“So you’re connecting to Salt Lake right?”
“Yes,” she said, “Home sweet home.”
“That’s right.” He was glad. And he was also glad that they were flying Southwest, which let you choose your own seats on each flight. He’d have to make sure they were seat-mates again on the next one.
They talked for the rest of the flight. He was intrigued by how easily the conversation flowed. Meeting girls, he’d always thought was tricky. Every time you met a pretty one, you immediately created a near perfect image in your mind of who she really was and of course it never turned out that way. They always turned out to be stuck up or dumb or just plain boring. But this one, granted she didn’t love all the same movies or bands, but they definitely had similar interests and most important of all she shared his sense of humor. She laughed at his jokes and made ones that he appreciated.
After some time talking he suddenly felt that there was a memory of her tucked away somewhere in his brain, that he had once interacted with her in a significant way. Whatever it was it was hidden deep behind the haze of the years that had passed. It was under there, lurking but every time he reached for it, it dissipated. It was like seeing a star out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn your gaze directly on it, it vanishes.
“When was the last time you cried?” She asked, leaning in closer, and smiling a little.
“Cried? I don’t remember.” He thought it was a strange question, almost too personal, but he found himself eager to answer. “I guess when I was about ten.”
“No, that long?” she looked disappointed.
“Really cried? Yeah, I was about ten and I’d gotten this pet parakeet. It was purple, not the regular green or blue like most of the other ones at the store. They were all loud and bright and feisty you know, but this one was different. It was a softer color, and it mostly just held still. I bought her and took her home, and she died after like a week, and I remember thinking about how unfair it was. I guess I thought that she’d liven up, and be happier away from all the other ones, but she never did.”
The girl smiled. “That’s beautiful.”
He laughed. “No it’s not. It’s sad.”
They kept talking and he began planning out the way he’d go about getting her number. He’d suggest that they go see a movie and gauge her reaction. She seemed to be interested enough. She was definitely friendly, but one great uncertainty loomed over their heads as they spoke, glowing persistently like the illuminated fasten seat-belt icon.
Did she have a boyfriend?
Surely she would have said something by now, he thought, she wasn't stupid and he wasn't being subtle. She had to know where he was going with all this friendly conversation.
Then she said something that eased his mind.
“My ex was so squeamish,” she said, “maybe that’s why I broke up with him.”
He smiled. She wanted him to know she was single. Why else would she have said it?
“He just couldn’t deal with things, you know? Things that happen in relationships. I mean, no relationship is perfect right?” She looked at him for confirmation, and how could he disagree with that hopeful gaze.
“Couldn’t handle the heat?”
“Something like that.”
An awkward silence followed her comment, and he thought that during that moment they shared a separate, unspoken conversation.
Can you handle the heat?
I bet I can.
I hope so.
The conversation recovered quickly and continued on past the Carolinas until they landed at Atlanta’s Delta hub.
They deplaned and the three hour layover began.
He went to the airport bar, hoping that she’d follow but she never did.
A man sat next to him and ordered a beer. “Can you believe Smith?” He asked pointing to one of the mounted televisions that served as both entertainment and illumination for the thirsty travelers who stopped at this particular watering hole.
“Smith. We draft the son of a bitch right out of college fourth overall even though nobody else would touch him cause of all the knee injuries he’s had. He barely plays a minute the entire first season, and has a mediocre second. Still we sign him to a generous extension and now that he’s started playing well, he’s going out to LA to team up with Robinson and chase a ring. It’s bullshit.”
“Oh yeah.” He’d followed the story somewhat himself but didn’t care to be discussing it right now with this man. His mind was occupied with plans and backup plans, contingencies for any roadblocks that might keep him from getting the girl’s phone number before they got to Salt Lake.
“Believe me son,” his accent was thick southern and he smelled like he’d been at another bar not long before coming to this one, “It’s these ungrateful wannabe stars, they think they’re more special than they really are. They think they’ve outgrown you and that they’re too good to be with you anymore and then they’ll run off to some other more fashionable team. They’ll talk for years about how much they valued their time with you, how much they grew, and all the fond memories they had, but they’ll never come back. And if they do it’ll be as a washed up has-been who finally realizes that their career will never be what it was or could have been. It’ll all end in tears believe me.”
“Hey, I’m not boring you am I?”
“No, sorry, I’ve just got something on my mind?”
“A lady?” the man’s smile was perverted.
“Good,” the man nodded, “That’s good. Nothing but trouble women, stick with a few good whores boy, they’ll never leave you cause they’ll never promise to stay in the first place. I sell light bulbs, and I’ll tell you a trick. Rotate them. Just take ‘em out and switch ‘em up. They’ll never stop burning for you if you do.”
“I’ll remember that.” He got up and headed back to the terminal.
She wasn't there, so he took a seat near the gate and started leafing through a magazine. He looked up occasionally hoping to catch a glance of her. He looked forward to the next flight, excited. Already he knew what they’d talk about, and just how to segue into asking for her phone number.
When he caught sight of her she was on the phone a little ways down the terminal. She looked upset and though she was beyond earshot, he could tell that she was arguing with someone. He felt again that pulsing memory in his mind still just barely out of reach. Something on her concerned face brought it closer than ever. He knew there was something that had happened, passed between them, but just what he couldn't grasp.
Afraid of getting caught staring he resolved to look only at his magazine until the flight began boarding. Finally they called his section and he got up to get in line. There she was, holding her backpack by one strap. It dangled at the edges of her fingertips, millimeters away from falling from her loose grip. She was looking forward, seeing something other than the gate before her. She looked tired, drained, like she’d spent the three hour layover running a marathon.
“Hi.” He stood next to her, “Can I get that for you? You look like you’re about to drop it.”
She blinked and turned his way, “Hello. No I’ve got it thank you, though.”
“How was your layover?”
“Oh,” She exhaled as if the out-rush of air explained it all, “It was just great.”
“Mine too,” he tried to joke, “I learned that you can maximize the efficiency of your light bulbs by rotating them between sockets.”
“Yeah some guy gave me this long sales pitch about it.”
She smiled, but didn’t laugh.
He did most of the talking as they shuffled stop and go down the jetway and into their seats. Something was bothering her. That much was clear. He wanted to ask her if everything was all right but thought he didn’t know her well enough to pry.
The plane took off and she looked out the window. It had gotten dark while they waited, and Atlanta had lit up beneath them. He watched her watch, wishing he knew what was wrong so that he could comfort her. She was even prettier sad, he decided, achingly pretty. He wanted to share it with her, whatever it was that plagued her.
The plane leveled out, and as soon as the Captain turned off the fasten seat belts sign she was up, excusing herself as she slid past him into the aisle. He watched her move up towards the front of the plane in a hurry.
He imagined her ridiculously, taking control of the plane. Taking the pilots hostage and demanding that they head south, and then she’d invite him along as she forced the plane to land on some paradise in the Lesser Antilles where the two of them would spend the next ten years making love on a white beach.
She stayed in the bathroom for a long time, and a line had started to back its way up the aisle when she finally returned. She looked the same, not like she’d been crying or anything, still just sad and worried.
“Yes.” She smiled at him, and her look was one of genuine gratitude for his concern. It made him feel good. It also provoked yet again his surety that the two of them had once spoken, or done something together that was important. Before he could ask her about it though, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
He waited, hoping she’d wake up, but she did not. He passed the time persistently digging at the memory. It was like a rock in soil. He could see it, catch vague hints as to its shape and color, and the more he tilled at the edges the more he revealed. He dug and scraped and then all at once it was there. He remembered.
It had been at a party right after graduation. He’d been pretty drunk and was making his way out to his car hoping that his parents would already be asleep when he got home. The lawn was dark and the street had loomed before him like a black canal of swiftly moving water.
Then there was some commotion behind him, coming from the lighted house and he turned to look. She was coming out the front door, tears running fast down her face.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” She was saying, but he thought he was the only one who heard it.
A drunk, miserable voice from inside the house, “Fine, just go I get it. I’d have done anything for you, you know that right? But I guess it wasn’t enough for you, I hope you’re happy. Bitch.” Whoever it was, they were clearly heartbroken, and even that last word had sounded like a plea for her to return.
She ran down the steps and must have caught her foot on something because suddenly she was falling towards him. He caught her and asked if she was ok.
She nodded, beautiful and sad.
“Do you need a ride?”
“No.” Then she’d kissed his cheek and looked into his eyes so gratefully that it melted him completely on the inside. He wanted to be her knight, her champion, to ruthlessly murder anything that had ever made her hurt. Then she’d left him there, vanishing into the dark street.
He looked at her. The plane hit a patch of turbulence, and the whole cabin began to shake violently. The girl flopped in her seat, and he could tell from the way she shook all limp and loose that she was no longer sleeping, but dead.
Her head banged against the plastic double paned window and her eyes were open. Her mouth was closed into a perfectly straight line, and her lips were blue. A strand of hair fell down her face splitting it in half. She just stared and shook. The lights flickered and through the staccato strobe she moved as if in slow motion. He shrank away, terrified. He knew he should do something. Call for a doctor, do CPR, but at first he could only stare.
He mourned the aborted times they could have shared together, all lost now. She was so pretty, so pretty, and he could have helped her. Why couldn't she have given him a chance. He would have looked out for her, made her happy.
The plane have a sickening lurch downward and her arm flew up, striking the side of his head. Her hand landed on his lap and he saw that her finger tips had turned blue. He pushed it away.
His panic grew and his fingers, slick with sweat slipped as he felt for his seat’s call button. Horror mixed with sorrow buffeted him like the turbulence outside the plane and for the first time since he lost his parakeet at the age of ten, he started to cry. But despite the rising horror, he was surprised to find that tiny part of him felt relieved, like he had somehow dodged a bullet.