by Norm Nason
© 2004 Norm Nason. All rights reserved. No portion of this story may be reproduced in any form without prior approval from the author.
In the washroom Leigh did something he almost never did: drew out the comb he bought just for this occasion, and ran it through his hair. Leaning toward the mirror, he even combed his brows, beard, mustache, and brushed a few flakes from his shoulders. It wasn’t that he typically appeared disheveled. Each morning he simply showered, shaved, combed his hair and was done with it. But now a creeping vanity pervaded his manner. He felt self-conscious about it, to be sure, but after weeks of separation he wished to make a good impression. Behind him, other men shuffled to and from the stalls, most with bowed, blank faces. Toilets flushed. Doors banged. Automatic faucets splashed water into stainless steel basins. Shrill dryers blew hot air onto wet hands of every age, from every corner of the world. Finally one blew air on Leigh’s hands, too.
Linda’s plane was delayed due to bad weather. Away for two weeks; delayed by two hours. What difference did it make? He approached a large window and tried to look out into the tar-black night, cuffing hands around his eyes and pressing them to the cold glass. Outside the giant tail of a jumbo crept by. 747? 767? He didn’t know any more. Signal men moved about heavy machinery with flashlights. When he was a boy, such displays would have excited him. Now he felt nothing, except perhaps a vague longing. He slid one hand into his front pocket and with the other, grasped the handrail. He thought about what it would be like, seeing her again. He’d balance on the balls of his feet, trying to make her out among the weary, traveler’s faces. She’d spot him and pass a Revlon smile, letting go of Sarah’s hand. He’d kneel as his daughter sprang giggling to hug him, smothering him with kisses. Linda would ease up, fingers breezing through his hair, and the first he’d see of her up close would be suede boots and blue jeans. Christ, he thought. Just like a movie.
He selected a seat at random in the main terminal near gate twelve; one among many of the black, linked vinyl chairs that served the waiting. His arms and legs felt awkward and out of place. There didn’t seem to be any particular spot where they should be at any particular time. Perhaps it was that he drank too much coffee, or perhaps needed a cup. He stretched his legs and crossed them at the ankles, clicking his Rockports together, settling in for the long haul. Slouching, he threw a boomerang glance that followed the path of air ducts on the ceiling. This lead his eyes to a gray steel column on the far wall, which he followed down to the sleepy airport crowd. Using various heads as markers, his eyes meant to travel a jagged path through the cornucopia of faces to the floor. But his gaze stopped short when he spotted a lean, middle-aged woman wearing a wool sweater and khaki pants, seated in a sparse row of chairs fifteen steps away.
She looked older than he remembered, her hair shorter now; dark brown streaked with gray. Her face was still clear and inviting, however; brows prominent and defined, but with new lines at the corners of her mouth. Smile lines. Her doe eyes were just as large and lashes as long, even as they scanned her book. She turned pages with those hands she never liked, though of course she was wrong; they were lovely.
Leigh realized at that moment that he could glance away and life would go on as it always had, where appointments and fixed interest rate mortgages, yard work and pool care, ski trips, birthday parties and soccer games were the norm, and where memories were just memories, sails over the horizon. But a profound, pointless curiosity swept over him. If nothing more, there was that.
The woman squinted up at the man standing beside her, arms dangling limply at his sides, hair thinning, shoulders slumping, beard graying, glasses sliding down his nose. Lines formed between her brows as she studied his face, annoyed by the intrusion. But then a quick, bird-like tilt of her head signaled that she had found him at last among the cobwebs on some high attic shelf in her mind, and dusted him off.
“Oh, my God,” she said.
Leigh grinned. “Not even close.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Believe it,” he said, raising and dropping his arms. “It’s me.”
“Incredible,” she said. “What are you doing?”
“I live here, remember?”
“No…I mean, what are you doing here, in this airport?”
“Picking up my wife. How about you?”
“Meeting my…husband, Gary. I’m sorry…I’m just so surprised to see you.”
“You mean you live here, too?”
“No, no. Still in Wyoming. We…there’s a stopover. We take separate planes.”
“Good idea these days,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “Just great seeing you.”
“No. A little older, maybe. It’s been…”
“Many moons. Twenty six years.”
“Afraid so,” he said, clasping hands. “Listen, let’s start over. I don’t mean that. I mean, let’s reacquaint ourselves. You realize I last saw you in this very same airport? Probably the same God damn terminal. Hungry? Like to get something to eat? Some food? A drink?
“What about your wife?”
“Delayed flight,” he said. “I’ve got two hours. How about you?”
“A little more,” she said, rising, checking her watch. Then she remembered her bags. “What about these?”
“Hand them over.”
They found a café near the departure gate, ordered food and a round of drinks. A TV over the bar showed 5th Avenue in the snow, ice skaters around the tree in Rockefeller Center, the gathering crowd in Times Square.
“I’m not much for that,” Ann said.
“Same here,” Leigh said, unfolding his napkin and placing it on his lap. “So you’re a teacher now?”
“How’d you know?”
“Your last letter. Said you completed work for your credential.”
“Really? I don’t remember.”
“You never wrote again after that.”
“Neither did you.”
“Couldn’t find you, except through your mother. I think she tossed my letters.”
“What? She never told me.”
“Ah, then it’s true. After a while my self respect got the best of me and I just stopped. I think your mom was trying to spare me further grief.”
“You impressed her,” Ann said. “That letter you wrote to her…the one after I got home…it devastated her. Moved her to tears.”
“I liked her, and was desperate to reach someone, anyone who might speak in my behalf.” He paused, annoyed by where this was going. “Look,” he said, “I’m sorry. There’s no need to go through this. It’s water under the bridge, and we were just kids. In a way, I’m ashamed.”
Leigh drew a breath. “I’m ashamed that I am now more than twice the age I was when I knew you, and yet the relationship still shapes my life. I feel childish.”
Ann thought for a minute. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “I envy you, in a way; your ability to forge commitments. I’ve always felt kind of adrift, a vagabond in the world. You remember my father and mother divorced when I was little, and then my mother with her long list of lovers. She never did remarry. I don’t think I ever really learned what commitment was.” She sank back and turned the glass in her hands. “You know those Disney films—the old ones—Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and all that? The girl is always rescued by the prince. He sweeps her away and they live happily ever after. I guess I never really believed in that, even as a little girl. I just didn’t see it in real life. My parents fought and argued. Dad was always leaving, then coming back again. My sister left home when she was sixteen, and my brothers were all into drinking, drugs and partying. It wasn’t a very stable environment.”
“I think you turned out all right,” Leigh said.
“You knew me for what…a month? Plus a year of letters? How do you know how I turned out?”
“That hasn’t escaped me. I thought about it a lot. But I'll be damned if I still don't remember things…shall I tell you? Countless little things that enamored me to you. I ate breakfast with you at Denny’s one morning, while driving across the country. We ordered coffee and the waitress forgot to bring it, so after a while you sprang to your feet and fetched it yourself. On the way back you noticed that another couple had been forsaken as well, so you served them, too. And with a smile!”
Ann chuckled. “I do remember that.”
“Want another? Green River; we played Frizbee in a park. A little black boy no more than four wobbled up, arms outstretched, wanting to play. You swept the kid up, swinging him around and around—to his utter delight. That was the moment I just melted inside. For the first time I said to myself: I love this girl.”
“That wouldn’t go over too well these days.”
“Ah, come on. My point is that you really got to me, you know? You were the kindest, most centered, most intelligent, most beautiful girl I had ever met. I hadn’t planned on asking you to marry me. It just happened. I got so I couldn’t imagine a future without you with me.”
Ann set her drink on the table, glanced absently at the ice cubes, then back at Leigh. “Don't look at me that way. I’m not that great. Really. I’m not. I’ve done a few nice things, but so have you, so has everyone. You just have this distorted view of me.”
On the TV over the bar, the giant ball of lights hung ready over Times Square. The waitress checked up on them. “Everything all right?” she asked.
“Fine,” Ann said.
“You're a great cook,” Leigh said, winking. Then he asked Ann: “Is your husband the same Gary you mentioned in your last letter, the one you said you’d never marry?”
“Did I say that? We lived together all the while I was in school. No sparks. Convenience, mainly. But when I became pregnant with Russell we decided to tie the knot. Gary’s a carpenter, just like my father. And don’t even say it; the Freudian implications have already occurred to me.”
Leigh laughed. “So now you’re one big happy family.”
“Yeah,” Ann said. “We’re a family.”
“It’s weird,” Leigh said, “for years I tried to imagine this, meeting you somewhere, talking. I’ve played it over and over in my mind. I thought about what you’d say in various situations, how you felt about things, what I’d say. But I always drew a blank because, when it came down to it, I didn’t know you. We just didn’t have a history.”
Ann leaned forward, elbows on the table. “I thought about you, too,” she said. “Does that surprise you? There are certain things I can recall with absolute clarity.” Her eyes brightened. “Do you remember when we drove through Vegas? Dinner at some casino, and on the way back we passed one of those crummy little churches where people get married for $100, or whatever. I hugged your arm and said: ‘Want to get married?’ I think you knew I was kidding, but also that I meant it, in a way; that it was our secret pact. ‘Sure I do!’ you said. And the strange thing was, we hopped in the car just then, and drove off.”
“Over the years I realized that in some crazy way I did marry you back then,” Leigh said. “Maybe not at that exact moment but somewhere along our amazing journey. It might have been on the night we wound up at Zuma beach after driving half the continent, shivering in the sea breeze beneath a full moon, your arms inside my coat, mine curled around you. ‘This is as far as I can take you,’ I remember saying, realizing the irony even as I said it.”
He fell silent for a moment, then he said: “The damned thing is I really haven’t changed. I still feel the way I did on that beach.”
“What about your wife?”
“Linda’s been with me all these years, and we’ve formed an extraordinary bond that only comes from shared experience. But it’s like, when you marry someone and then something terrible happens and they die: you grieve, and over time you struggle through it and get on with your life. Eventually you meet someone else, fall in love and marry again. It doesn’t mean you stop loving your first wife, or that she means any less to you. The memory fades but she’s still inside you, still a part of who you are.”
“So all these years I’ve been dead?” Ann said.
“It was like that. I mourned. It was such a terrible loss, by far the worst thing I’ve gone through. For a long while everything was dark, black. I was down in a hole. Once while working I was so overcome, I vomited in the bathroom sink. ‘All uphill from here,’ I told myself back then. But over the years I moved on, made my peace. I began to picture you with your own husband and children, even without knowing who they were. A happy family at Christmas time, opening presents by the fire. PTA meetings. Swim meets.”
“Would you like to hear how it was for me?” Ann asked. “I knew you loved me. I did. But I was only nineteen, only a year out of high school. There was my whole life fanning out in front of me, like a great salt flat. A big unknown. And I kind of liked the feel of that, you know? The excitement of not knowing what was around the next corner. And then, out of nowhere you sailed in and made me love you so much that I almost married you. I almost did. Your words alone nearly won me over; those sweet letters; the timbre of your voice; your intoxicating innocence. But I felt that while one door was opening, another was closing—and I wasn’t sure I wanted that to happen. It was like, when you’re driving down the highway and someone is tailgating, sometimes it’s a relief to just pull over and let them pass.”
“So you let this one drive by,” Leigh said.
“What would have happened, do you suppose? Do you think it would have worked? We were so young, without real jobs, living with our folks. The hardest part was telling you, finding a way not to hurt you, which was impossible.”
“So you made up the story about your old boyfriend wanting you back.”
“You knew I was lying?”
“Not for many years. But the funny thing was, I never hated you. To this day, I hold you in the highest esteem.”
“You’re nuts,” Ann said. “I’m just not that admirable. I can be mean. I can be selfish. The things I’ve put Gary through would turn your stomach all over again.”
The waitress left the check, smiling politely.
“Please,” Ann said, snatching the paper from Leigh’s hand. “You got it last time, remember? Right here, a long time ago. Besides…I want to.”
“See,” said Leigh, “you’re a better person than you think.” He checked his watch. There wasn’t much time. “Listen, Ann,” he began softly, taking her hand. “I want to say this, before I lose my nerve: I still love you, you know? Truly...boundlessly...beyond my ability to explain. After all these years, I think you can see how much. I look into your eyes right now and my insides just leap. I don't even understand it myself. Why, I wonder? Why so long? What is it about you, me, or crazy circumstance that’s made me carry you this far for so many years? It’s insane, or pathetic, or maybe even wonderful. But here’s the funny thing: it’s the same love that binds me to Linda. See, you showed me how important it is to make a stand. To commit to something beyond myself and my own petty desires, to never give up. I believe in marriage, in holding on, in working through the tough spots, in sharing lives. And that’s because of you. Because I’ve held onto you, I could never, ever...”
“...Leave her the way I left you?”
“That’s it, I guess. I no longer need to have you all to myself. Just being able to say this, face-to-face, is what I’ve hoped for. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for the longest time. Knowing you was the defining moment in my life.You taught me a new, poetic language, a language of the heart. Ever since then I’ve spoken with that wondrous tongue. Somehow you’ve been here, inside me, all along. The vocabulary you taught gave me courage to take that first step and move away from home. Without even knowing it you helped me find my first apartment, my first full-time job, and finally, Linda. You taught me to want a family, and to cherish all I have. I’m just so profoundly grateful. I love you for that...for everything...and want you to know.”
Ann shook her head and withdrew her hand, eyes welling with tears. “How can that be?” she said. “How can you possibly feel that way? Look at me: I’m not an angel. You’re just...you’re just so damn...I don’t know what...confused!” She drew a tissue from her purse, exhaled deeply. “Listen,” she said, “I lied to you about being here with my husband. The truth is, I’m meeting someone else.”
Leigh looked at her, blankly.
“Don’t you get it?” she said. “I’m having and affair!”
Back in the terminal they found a quiet spot away from the crowd, beside a potted palm. Ann cried quietly. “It’s not all about you, you know,” she said, shaking the tissue at Leigh. “I hurt, too. Sometimes I think it’s all I ever do.”
“I don’t believe that,” he said.
She blew her nose, sniffled. “Gary and I once went hiking in the Rockys, back before the kids. We got into a huge fight while setting up camp, arguing in our little tent in the wilderness, lantern glowing. Can you picture it? Something he forgot to pack, I think. He was really sorry but for some reason I just wouldn’t let up. I kept laying into him. We finally went to bed with our backs to one-another, exhausted, not speaking, wolves howling in the distance. I could see a crescent moon through the tent fabric and I thought: this is shit. Just shit. What the hell am I doing here? And I was lonely as the dark side of that moon. But then, in the morning a cool mist rose from the forest thicket, and kind of from my eyes as well. We still hadn’t spoken, but unknown to Gary I watched him from the door of our little tent, chopping wood for our breakfast in the soundless, blue-gray dawn. He was hard at work. Steadfast. And I thought: he’s a good man. What the hell’s the matter with me?”
“You know, I’m proud of you,” Leigh said.
“Proud? What on earth for?”
“Because you’re going to tell him. Because you’re going to make it work.”
She looked vaguely through the airport window, breath steaming the glass. “Am I?” she said.
Leigh watched her carefully, taking her in. He noted every breath, every blink of her eyes; the past catching up with the present. Finally he said: “After you boarded the plane I stood at a window just like this one, trying to see if you were looking back at me.”
“I was on the other side,” Ann said, “but knew you were watching.”
“The sun rose right then,” Leigh said, “yellow on a cloudless horizon. Outside on the tarmac, shadows were blue and flat as water. I stayed until I couldn’t see your plane in the sky any more, maybe longer. And you know, I wasn’t even sad. I had such a strong feeling that I would see you again; that you’d go home as we planned, pack your things, and come back.”
“I am sorry,” Ann said. “I know that’s not much, not what you deserve, but it’s all I have.”
Leigh nodded, smiled. “I know,” he said. “It’s enough.”
Ann turned to him, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “So you’re happy now?”
“With Linda? Oh, we wrestle with the usual issues I guess, but work through them. We love each other, you know? She’s part of me now and I’m just not the same without her. And then there’s Sarah, our daughter, who’s a slice of heaven. Like now, they’re vacationing while I care for Linda’s mom, and there’s this huge void. I miss them. That says something, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” Ann said, “it does.”
“But I’m not as good at it as you were. I’ve never been able to teach Linda that wondrous, poetic language. I can’t make her feel for me what I feel for her.”
“Oh, you’re good at it,” Ann said. “Maybe she just isn’t listening.”
A commotion in the main terminal drew their attention: dozens of people shouting: “Four…three…two…one…Happy New Year!” Then there was joyous cheering, hugs and kisses, dancing, the rattling of keys and shaking of hands, whistles, confetti; Auld Lang Syne ringing out over the scratchy airport intercom.
“Happy New Year, Leigh,” Ann said, hugging him close, kissing him.
“Happy Birthday, Ann,” he whispered, lips against her ear.
Astonished, she drew back. “I can’t believe you remember.”
Try as he might, Leigh couldn’t find Linda and Sarah among the tired faces departing from the plane, and he began to worry. Had he missed something? Did he have the wrong flight number? The wrong day? Frantic, he searched his pockets for the scrap of paper on which Linda had scribbled flight information: coat, pants, shirt. He was so engaged that he was startled by the stern voice behind him.
“Lose something, Mister?”
Leigh spun around. It was Linda, scowling, arms full of bags. Sarah stood quietly, even stiffly, beside her.
“Honey, I’m sorry,” he said. “I must have…I think I…”
For a moment Linda held her frown. But then, like a dam bursting, she broke her facade and let go a hearty laugh. On cue, Sarah sprang to action and squeezed his knees, squealing like a puppy.
As Leigh bent down to greet her, emotion overcame him.
“Why are you crying, Daddy?” she asked.
He stroked her golden hair, kissed her face. “I’m just happy to see you, sweetheart.”
“Hey, lighten up,” Linda said, dropping her bags with a thud as Leigh rose to face her. Disheveled from her flight, she blew at wisps of hair dangling in her eyes, then embraced him heartily. “We were only joking!” she said through a white, toothy grin. Her tan blouse, open at the neck, tucked neatly into trim black slacks. She looked good.
Over Linda’s shoulder Leigh could see Ann, standing alone at the far side of the terminal, watching them closely. She raised her palm to wave, but then, thinking better of it, kissed her fingers and touched them to her heart.
“Hmm,” Linda said. “Nice perfume.”
“Oh, that,” Leigh said. “It’s New Year’s Eve, honey. A woman kissed me.”
“Two in one night. Not bad.”
“Three!” Sarah said.
During the drive home Sarah slept in the back seat while Linda, beside him, held his hand. Leigh smiled to himself, feeling warm inside. Life wasn’t at all like the movies. There were no princes or princesses, no happy endings. There weren’t really endings at all, only a rolling cascade of beginnings, tumbling one after another, on and on forever. But that was all right; it really was. He liked it that way.