by Michael Webb
I walk into the half filled gate area an hour early for my connecting flight to Seattle. Thanks to my income and my status as a regular flyer, I could hide in the ritzy Star Club lounge, but I have developed an allergy to all the dick measuring talk that goes on there. Either the other members have never heard of me, and wanted to make sure I had heard of them, or they have heard of me, and they wanted to grouse about a fantasy title I lost for them in 2009. Both outcomes are obnoxious, so I take my hardcover of the new Lee Child and go amongst the rabble.
Los Angeles International Airport has the same benign strangeness of the rest of the city- underdressed women shivering in air conditioning, hipster men looking bored, fat dads looking for underdressed women, poor people trying to look rich, rich people trying to look poor, 12 year olds trying to look 30, 35 year olds trying to look 15. The airport fare is the same chain restaurants and overpriced newsstands with bored immigrants who never go anywhere trying to act friendly that you see in every airport, with the underlying anxiety of flight. Everyone is going somewhere, turning into someone else.
I sit down opposite a young couple, a pleasantly plump girl in artfully rolled and cuffed sweatpants with “HOLY CROSS” written on the side, bright lime colored sneakers, and a faded t shirt from what looked to be a breast cancer fundraiser, holding hands with a tall, athletic looking boy wearing a Nike shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals. He is standing in front of her, facing the opposite way, straddling a bag that looks like he is heading for Everest Base Camp. He looks around like he is stuck at a party, trying to find someone important to talk to. I hate him almost immediately.
She has a magazine in her lap, but she is not reading it, just looking up at him, his long hand clasped between both of hers. I can almost see the mental distance between them. They are both headed somewhere, but her feelings are stronger than his. She is smiling, but it is a fake, over bright smile, her round face straining with the effort. Her body is tense, almost shaking with the exertion to not jump up and press herself to him.
I think about an early departure, pre 9/11, my multistop flight to Harrisburg and the minor league season delayed by storms somewhere, and Angela, young, lovely Angela, pulling me into an alcove filled with unused payphones before my late flight, kissing me, hard and potent, her firm body against mine, pulling herself onto the tiny shelf and hiking her loose dress up and demanding me, insisting on one more before I leave, our bodies coming together urgently, looking around for onlookers, frightened and thrilled. I wonder about where those people went, how they became the two of us, two islands of middle-aged responsibility. I wonder when she decided we were going to have another baby, and if she considered consulting me.
They call a flight to Chicago, and the girl jumps to her feet before they finish the sentence. Her arms are around his neck, and he half turns to accept her and she presses herself against him, her face turned towards me, blinking tears away, the crying already wrinkling her chin and crumpling her face. He is allowing himself to be hugged, but she is grasping him, holding him tight, her soft body melting into his hard one. She looks panic stricken.
“You’ll come home in April, right?,” she says, her voice tight.
“Yeah,” he says.
“That’s only 3 months,” she says.
“Yeah,” he repeats.
“I love you, Bradley,”
“Love you too, babe,” he says, mumbling. “Bye.”
“Goodbye, honey,” she says, her arms lingering in the air for a moment, like she is holding his ghost, and then settling on top of her tiny belly. She watches him as he walks over to his gate, her back to me now. I look at her hips, wide and welcoming, her calves a little too thick, her belly exposed, a tiny pale sliver between the t shirt and the pants. I can see the woman she will be, already written on her 20 year old body. She loves this boy urgently, and he does not deserve her, and wherever he is heading, he will find someone trimmer, someone younger, someone less demanding, and he will leave her, and she will eat ice cream and weep, and she will meet someone else, and she will marry him, and she will think she is happy, but she will carry a tiny torch for this beautiful boy who left her in an airport once. I can see all that as readily as I can see a slider that I just hung over the plate.
I watch her watching him. He doesn’t look back until his section is called, and then he turns and waves. She waves, kisses her hand and blows it to him, and still waits, bouncing in her bright shoes until he disappears from view. She stands there for a moment, and then turns to sit, looking at me with a tear stained face. I want to say something, but I don’t, and then a flight is called for Jacksonville, and she gets up, assembling her own enormous bag, pulling her shirt down and her pants up. She pulls on the neck of the shirt, bringing the fabric up to rub against her face, and then pulls it down again. She walks across the terminal.
I want to tell her wait, don’t, stop, but I can’t think of anything to say, and she walks away from me and joins the crowd waiting for the Jacksonville flight. You can’t unhang a slider, I think, looking over her head into the muggy Los Angeles night behind the windows, and you can’t unbreak what is broken.
published 22 November 2014