Teller of tales
My ticket showed a departure time of 3:40, my watch showed 3:43. I hustled down the concourse, laptop clenched in one hand, raincoat and half-eaten chipotle turkey sandwich in the other.
Garlic parmesan dressing dribbled down my wrist in the shape of an inverted wishbone. A dollop of horseradish and the slice of turkey it rode in on had been liberated when I’d rounded the final turn onto the concourse.
The gate agent, in her white blouse and navy skirt, met my gaze on approach. Laugh lines came into focus around her eyes as a sympathetic smile lifted the corners of her mouth. I knew before she spoke that I would not be boarding the plane which sat a world away, just 20 feet outside the glass. Despite the traffic and the rental car fiasco, I had only myself to blame.
I should’ve passed on the conference’s final day and stayed at the airport hotel. I’d have caught the early flight and would already be home—fire lit, butt in chair, Macallan in one hand, Agatha Christie in the other.
I stacked my bags against one in an endless row of institutional black vinyl seats. I planted myself beside it, quiet as the ‘p’ in pneumonia. I was too tired to work, too tired for Angry Birds, too tired to count ceiling dots.
Beneath my thinning hair, sweat beads tickled my scalp and trifling thoughts ricocheted about my head, like my relief at bothering that morning to purchase deodorant. I swiped a thumb across my phone and selected a favorite playlist. I closed my eyes. Soon, sleep and I were flirting and touching fingers.
What felt barely a moment later, a smell sliced through my slumber—of white flowers and rose petals. I jolted awake, my reaction more appropriate to smelling salts than the lovely perfume. With memories juddering free from deep recedes of my brain, my eyes sprang wide to see milky white fingers tipped by coral-colored nails, reaching for my shoulder.
Her smile was paradoxical, a mix of joy and something else—something more elusive. Her eyes were probing and far too blue. I’d known those eyes. Her image filled in around them, copious shocks of auburn hair, an emerald silk dress and jade pendant. Like a Pavlovian dog, my insides responded urgently, my eyes refusing to blink, my mouth rising to smile.
I lifted my hand to her chin, studying the contours of her face. Regal lines I had never known now framed her brow—the interceding years seeing her girlish style blossom to a woman’s elegance. Her ensemble, though polished and tasteful, did not include a halo—I checked. I tried to speak. Nothing came out.
She pressed her index finger to my lips and a sensation tickled at the edges of my consciousness, as if at that moment, I was exactly where I was meant to be. She reached for my hand and we walked the concourse. At Hector’s, we took a table by the widow with a bird’s eye view of the tarmac. I ordered a scotch and a gin fizz for the lady. I hoped they were still to her liking. She smiled.
In another life, the woman with the auburn hair had strolled easily past my defenses. We didn’t know yet that life, in its twisted humor, sometimes poses questions for which there are no answers. It was one part disorienting, one part fantastical, and two parts surreal to be seated across the table from this woman who, like a magician’s dove, had appeared from thin air.
She was at the airport, awaiting an arrival from Minneapolis. Her mother was visiting, the flight delayed by a storm over the Twin Cities. She was living in Dallas, she said, with her son and husband of nine years.
She could have been glimpsing an ocean sunrise the way her face glowed and warmed as she handed me her phone. “This is Joshua,” she said. He was a handsome boy with hazel eyes and dishwater hair. The first photo was a swaddled Joshua in mommy’s arms. Next was Joshua tooling in his baby walker. When she swiped quickly past the third photo, I insisted she swipe back. Beaming with pride, I saw Joshua atop a porcelain throne. He had his mother’s smile.
We sipped at our drinks, and she placed a soft hand to my cheek. Her eyes grew heavy. How could so much joy and pain be held in a single gaze? Soon enough, I understood. She’d had two miscarriages, she said, before the arrival of her miracle baby. Joshua would be her one and only. Another pregnancy wasn’t possible.
She slid her chair closer and leaned her head against my chest, flooding my mind with old familiar feelings. Warmth spread through my face and fingers and solar plexus – I blamed the scotch. I stroked her hair in silence. When the moment passed, she pushed off my chest and leaned up in her chair, catching my eyes with her own.
“Hey,” she said, “do you remember the road trip?”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Oh, c’mon,” she said, tapping my arm, “it wasn’t all bad,”
We’d left Scottsdale with the mantra, Rocky Mountains or bust. It was…bust. My too-many-times glued and duct-taped Toyota traversed a whopping fifty miles before going on the fritz. We’d found ourselves driving without headlights, preserving battery just to make the next exit, all the while praying it housed a repair shop.
Somewhere, back there, we met at a New Year’s Eve blowout, the sort that attracts teens and twenties. The sort I wouldn’t venture even to drive past today. Not surprisingly, her car was parked in, blocked by a steroidal 4X4.
I was on the street to grab a six pack from the trunk. Standing beside her car, she was leaning in and out of her driver’s window, fidgeting with the radio. One gal’s predicament is another man’s fortuity. Captive, she would have to assent to my charms. I offered her a cold beer and a bad joke. An hour later we were sitting on the hood of her car searching for satellites, and an hour after that, ours were the only two cars remaining.
She squeezed my hand and I was back in the airport, listening to her reminisce our evening drives, hilltop parking, and the magic of glistening city lights. We used to sit, laced together like a wicker basket, aimlessly joking and chiding, never at a loss for things to say.
Dormant memories—old friends and times and places—came to life, as if a long-worn eye patch had been removed, compelling old familiar patterns to feel nascent again.
She bit her lower lip, framing the tiny gap in her teeth. The sight of it, like a dust devil, stirred an unwelcome memory—a vivid flashback to that bone-chilling day… I thought that scar had healed. I was wrong.
The P.A. sounded. My flight was boarding. For all the comfort and familiarity of the reunion, our parting proved awkward. She stood with me as I assembled my bags. I looked into her eyes. Sadness remained. I hoped my own was not so transparent.
She kissed my cheek and then turned to walk away… again. For the last time I watched the familiar sway of her skirt grow smaller. She stepped around a corner and once more, poof, I was alone. I boarded the plane and wedged my size-ten body into a size-seven seat.
Folding my jacket for storage, I felt a lump in the pocket and lifted my phone. Sliding my thumb to the home button, I distanced the device for a clearer view, my arms seeming to grow shorter by the day. Instead of the Lock screen, I saw only my face reflected in the glass, like the much older brother I never had.
Booting the phone a chill spiked through my extremities, and like a Ouija board planchette, my finger—beyond my control—sought an unknown target. It touched down on the Photos icon. Immediately, a picture of my daughter, Aubrey, filled the screen.
Seven years ago we’d taken a Saturday bike ride to the local grade school. She was playing on the swings when a metallic squeal echoed across the schoolyard. The merry-go-round had seized up sending kids flying in all directions, like kernels from a popcorn popper.
Several of us rushed to help. I was stanching a boy’s bloody forehead when Aubrey wandered from the fenced area onto the road and into the path of a steel gray Hummer. She died that day. So did I. Her mother died a year later from a broken heart and a handful of pills.
The image on my phone, of Aubrey in her pink Jumping Beans Bird outfit, blurred as the tears welled in my eyes. It sounds crazy, like splutter from a desperate, broken man, which I was, but as I stared at the image of my little girl, curly locks of brown hair bobbing at her shoulders, smile lines bracketing her mouth, I heard her voice. It was little more than a whisper.
“It’s time Daddy,” she said.
“Oh Jesus,” I said, pressing the phone to my cheek as if I might actually touch her. I felt only cold glass against my skin.
“Be happy again Daddy. Open your heart.”
I imagine I looked to be speaking into the phone. I wasn’t. I don’t really know who I was speaking to, or where.
“I can’t,” I said aloud, my voice cracking, “my heart is broken.” I pressed the back of my hand to my nose and received a glaze of snot and tears for my effort.
“Baby,” I said, “are you there?”
The only answer was the slamming of an overhead bin three rows aft. Out the window, two marshals, red wands in hand, directed a plane toward the next gate. Tears rolled down my cheeks while inside, my organs felt to be turning inside out. As I sat there, a bag of weeping flesh, Aubrey’s voice returned one last time—a final cosmic moment in my un-cosmic life.
“Open your heart to joy, Daddy,” she said.
Maybe it was a demential hallucination. Maybe it was Aubrey. It sounds insane, I know. Maybe God finally took pity on the fraction of a man in 6F, or maybe fairies on the last flight left magic dust scattered about the plane, but something was happening inside me—even as the sheen of bodily fluid crept down to my chin.
The engines spooled up sending the plastic panels overhead into a vibrating frenzy. I was glad the late flight was nearly empty, thankful to have the row to myself and abashed of the glistening, other-worldly appearance I imagined adorned my face.
Once airborne, a flight attendant marched down the aisle, leaning into my row. Her hand bore a welcomed gift in the shape of a Kleenex box.
“Thank you,” I said, through clicking mucus, opting not to meet her gaze.
“Bad day?” She asked.
I thought for a long moment. “I don’t know,” I finally said.
“Well,” she said, a hint of southern drawl in her voice, “This flight’s nearly empty, so if you need anything, anything at all, you just push this little button right here,” she made a little finger motion toward the console, “okay?”
The second wave bubbled up through my chest and into my nose, proffering as much chance of pushing it back as of pushing back a tsunami. I dropped my face into my hands and surrendered, unable to stop the chest grabbing, head bobbing, gut wrenching bawl that followed.
I could hardly see and had no idea what became of the flight attendant until I felt her slide into the seat beside me. She put her arm around me and, snot and all, cradled my face to her shoulder.
“It’s okay,” she said, stroking the back of my head, “everybody needs a good cry once in a while.”
I don’t know how long we sat that way, it wasn’t short, but eventually, my sobbing subsided. I looked up at her, wiping my face with a fistful of tissue.
“You’re very kind,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, “It ain’t nothin’. I think sometimes a hug is just about the best thing you can give to somebody—and they’re free, and in unlimited supply.”
She leaned to catch my eye, shooting me a smile.
“It’s not nothing to me,” I said, wiping the Kleenex hard across my face.
She offered more tissues, but I waved them away. The worst had passed.
“I’m Richard,” I said, offering her my hand.
She reached out, meeting it with her own.
“That’s a nice name,” she said, “I’m Joy. It’s very nice to meet you, Richard.”
* * *