Thursday, February 2, 2017


Digging through old stories while packing...This one (below) was one of two submitted with my MFA applications 'lo those many years ago. While still a little bumpy here and there, it seems an appropriate time to post it what with Valentine's Day just around the corner.

Somewhere outside the women’s restroom at Miami International Airport, probably near the security gates through which I must pass before boarding my flight, Gary is looking for me.  Minutes before, I’d spied him stumbling down the terminal hallway with the foot-dragging sloppy walk he gets when he’s tired, and so I had dodged into the Ladies while hiding behind a gaggle of flight attendants. 
I stare at my face in the mirror, shutting first one eye, and then the other, noting how bright the whites of my eyes look in contrast to my sunburned face.  The remains of mascara have settled into tiny wrinkles blooming under my eyes, tracing maps to new territories of age.  I stretch out my tongue as far as it will go and waggle it around. My face glows a stunning, skin-shrinking, two-days-tourist red, closely matching the shade of my outstretched tongue.  Against the stainless steel of sinks and stalls and mirrors around me, I feel like a canned tomato – pulsing with red juices, trapped among metal.  Will I still stick out my tongue when I’m 40? Turning 30 ten months ago obviously didn’t stop it.  My immortality evaporated in a poof of smoke, but there’s my tongue, still zipping through the air, stained redder by a cherry-flavored Tootsie Pop. 
When I hear the door opening behind me, I retract my tongue and put on a grown-up face.  A middle-aged woman with sensible shoes and a heavy gait stomps by me heading toward the stalls.  Several other women follow her; another flight must have landed.  I dig in my bottomless beach bag, pushing aside sunglasses, a still damp bathing suit and my boarding pass until I find the bar of hotel soap.  I need get the rest of this mascara off my face.  It’s so just not me.  I rip the paper off the soap and lather up, thrilling to the feel of cool water as I rinse the suds and mascara and Florida sweat. 
Although I suppose I should worry about wrinkles and skin cancer, I’m smugly pleased with my sunburn.  Just at the turning point of pain, it makes every movement through the air feel a delicious, breezy relief from the furnace of heat pouring off my body.  The whispering of nerve endings enflamed by the sun feeds a tactile need, as the light seeping under my skin nourishes the soul (if, OK, also damages the body).  People need vitamin D, I kept saying to Gary on the beach yesterday.  Gary, currently wandering out there in the sterile airport hallways, can go back to DC pale as a ghost, free from the cancerous lesions on which he persisted in lecturing.  He can haul that umbrella and lawn chair and baseball hat and sunglasses and long sleeve shirt and sunscreen and sit cowering under the boardwalk like a vampire fearing the wrath of daylight.  Red is quite becoming on me just at the moment, at 8 a.m. at Miami International.  Maybe that’s something else that’s changing. 
Gary is milling around out there, standing between me and the airplane that will take me back home.  Knowing Gary, he’s got my engagement ring tucked in his jacket pocket, not so much because he wants to shovel it back on my finger, but because he is convinced that the moment he leaves the hotel room, the criminal element comes rushing up to riffle through his things, as if the big spenders bring their crown jewels to stay at the Sea Esta because the free donuts in the morning are just that good.  He paid good money for that ring.  How often have I seen that look in his eyes? 
The first thing I thought last night when I realized Gary was proposing was, well thank God, I’m wearing mascara.  I’m not one usually prone to wearing make-up – part of that awkward group of women who never learned how to apply it properly, and so end up looking like we’re a) not wearing any makeup or b) streetwalkers – but since Gary and I had gotten dressed up to go out to dinner, after pouring myself into the flowered skirt and the tiny black tank top, mascara and a little Fire & Ice red lipstick were de rigueur.  I did, after all, know he was walking around with a ring in his pocket.  (Is that a ring in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)  I’d spent an unusual amount of effort trying to look sufficiently girlie on our Florida vacation. 
The setting was romantic; I should give Gary credit for that.  We stood on a deserted moonlit beach in South Beach, strolling along by the Atlantic after a fancy meal and wine at a trendy Cuban restaurant.  The waves crashed to the shore sending mists of spray into the air.  A brisk breeze stirred the sand and lifted little whitecaps on the ocean.  The landscape was straight off the cover of a Harlequin novel, although Gary is no flexing Fabio and I’m not known for my heaving breasts. 
The downside: the surf roared so loudly, I couldn’t hear what Gary was saying.  And, truth be told, I wasn’t paying that much attention.  Gary tends to repeat himself, so I often tune in and out to see where he is in the midst of his particular harangue.  I’ve become good at inserting appropriate comments that re-state his last emotion sympathetically.  “Wow, that must have been tough.”  “I can see how that would make you angry.” “I know how stressful your job can be.”  However, I’ve found I can free up a lot more mental space if I don’t attend to his every breath.  I can float along on the flow of tone of voice without getting too hung up by the minutiae.  Gary is a sales guy; he can talk.  He’s got that charming patter down. The first run of one of his stories can send me rolling in the aisles with laughter.  But the day-to-day complaints about Larry and Jane and Jeanne and the rest of his superiors and how much better things would be if he were in charge – it gets old fast.  Sadly, vacation doesn’t interrupt his thoughts on the general lack of appreciation for his special soul. 
So on the beach, the scenery had captured my attention.  In a humming, wined and dined way, I was standing with the waves weaving around my calves, splashing the water around with my toes, a windy tune playing through my mind.  Gary came up and would have taken my arm, but I was holding my shoes, one on each hand like a flipper.  I shrugged him off to frolic in the sea foam, to wave my arms (and shoes) and spin under the moonlight.  He chased me down with that particular brand of forced hilarity, caught my arm just a bit too hard and installed me under his shoulder so he could steer me up the beach, away from the water.  
We flopped down on the sand and he said “I feel like I’ve eaten a whale and then been splashed by its mate” while picking at the soggy laces of his shoes.  I nodded without comment.  Party-pooping, whining about wet shoes and being too full to walk, came as standard fare with Gary
We watched the moonlight reflect off the water.  Some clouds were rolling in from the south, blocking out most of the stars in a haze.  Once I finally put down my shoes, he took my hands and started to speak, looking deeply and slightly to the left of my eyes. 
At this point, the wind blew a blast of sand straight into my cornea.  I pulled my hands away from Gary and spent a few minutes struggling to remove the small boulder from underneath my contact lens.  Gary pinched his mouth up in that way he has, as if I deliberately meant to blind myself.    He cracked his knuckles, staring out over the water.  After the waves of saline tearing out of my eyes slowed, I rubbed off most of the raccoon effect of my running mascara.
Once I had settled my eyes, I said I was sorry.  For what, I’m not sure.  Gary smiled graciously and then latched back onto my hands.  He started talking again, speaking quickly, as if he had an appointment to keep.  Finally, I realized: good god, this is it, he’s actually proposing.  And I started to cry. 
I couldn’t have seen that crying coming.  What rolled toward me was this: here’s this man that I’ve shared a bed with for the last year, here he is, sitting on a moonlit beach, talking about how much he loves me (and god knows, it’s nice to hear you’re lovable) and how he wants to marry me (he chose me! someone chose me!).  I just caught the mood and burst into tears, the happy contestant.  Maybe I’ve spent too much time as a bridesmaid – three weddings in the last year.  Marriage spreads like a disease, an easy fever to catch.  Or maybe it was turning 30. 
In any case, I had the mascara on anyway, stretching my eyelashes out to abnormal clumpy lengths, so I felt a certain obligation to follow through with the pageant.  Through some sort of miracle, I even lucked into the pretty kind of crying, where the tears just slid down my face like (of course) diamonds, not my usual yapping, gasping, snotty sobs where I end up a swollen mess. 
Gary said all sorts of generic things about why I’m a fine person (kind, thoughtful, fun, sexy), and added a little speech about how he wanted to move the relationship to the next step, because he knew how that could be important to a woman.  After some rustling in his coat, he pulled out the ring.  The fuzzy gray box popped open with a chipper little snap, revealing the sapphire and diamonds in white gold.  Platinum was simply too expensive for our budget – his sales are down this year, and I don’t make squat as a word processor.  The diamonds flashed a little in the moonlight, but the dark swallowed up the delicate blue the sapphire, leaving it just an inky lump, flat and dead against the pseudo velvet.
Gary slipped the ring on my finger.  Somewhere in there I must have said yes. 
Which is interesting when I think about it, since I spent a great percentage of the last six months thinking about how to break up with him, how, even when we were sniffing around jewelry stores, I was thinking, eventually, I’m going to have to stop this, I can’t do this forever.  But sometimes it’s like the tide carries you farther and farther down the shore, and you start to forget just where you wanted to swim to at first.  I bet drowning is like that, where you forget that you have to swim.

Now I’m cowering in the Ladies Room.  After I finish rinsing my face, I give my hair a cursory comb and peer at myself in the mirror.  Do I look any different having been engaged?  What is the opposite of engaged?  Disengaged?  Unengaged?  What do I call Gary now? The person formerly known as my fiancĂ©?  Hiding in the bathroom, with Gary out there with the ring, probably isn’t a good time to think about this. 
There’s a good chance that Gary wants an explanation, which I had been rather hoping to avoid until I could formulate something better than “I just can’t do this any more.”  All I know is that I woke up with a start at 6 am, went to the lobby to get our free donuts, came back, ate half my donut and then sat there watching the weather channel.  Gary stumbled toward the shower.  The weather, as predicted, is flawless outside; it always is the day you leave.  I watched the woman in front of the weather map while she waved a hefty 2-plus carat diamond in front of a cold front.  I looked at her hand and then I looked down at my left hand.  The sapphire, properly lighted, showed its translucence, that ripe color of deep twilight that moves in right after the sun sets.  This woman, with her fashionable suit and perfectly coiffed-hair, and I, were part of the same club, women of substance, women with men attached to them like anchors.  
I licked the sugary donut goo off my fingers and walked over to the dresser, looking for a napkin among the flotsam of spare change and ticket stubs.  I found one from the bar last night.  They had given us a free glass of champagne when we came in bubbling with our engagement news.  Later in the evening, Gary had been explaining something about sales ratios – the napkin was covered with graphs and numbers.  I wiped my fingers, and then noticed on the other side of the napkin Gary had doodled a big goofy rounded heart and written my name – with his last name – in the center.  I stared at the heart for a long time.  On top of assuming I’d take his name, he had spelled my middle name wrong. 
I listened as Gary fussed around in the bathroom, blowing his nose, flushing the toilet.  I heard the clank as he pulled out the mirror he brings with him so he can shave in the shower.  I heard the rattle of the curtain rod rings as he pulled the shower curtain aside to turn on the water and set the temperature.  He likes the shower set so hot that it is virtually impossible for us to shower together, although early on, we tried.  We couldn’t find a temperature that didn’t scald me and freeze him.  When he finally stopped trying to muscle his way into the shower with me, my showers stretched from 10 to 15 to 25 minutes until he started complaining about the lack of hot water.  I liked to stand and let the water wash off my thoughts in privacy, no applause necessary. 
The weather lady with her flashy diamond walked off camera.  I tired to imagine her at home, swearing at her husband like a harpy sent straight up from hell.  But all I could see her doing was folding laundry, sorting socks and putting them in neat piles, having used the correct brand of detergent and stain removers. 
I took off my ring and rolled the band between my fingers.  Then I buried it into the remaining donut half until only the sapphire poked up out of the glaze.  I put the donut back on its Styrofoam plate and left it on top of the TV.  Abandoning the rest of my luggage, I grabbed my beach bag, took the key to the rental car and slid the door closed behind me as quietly as possible.  I ran down the stairs, started the car and squealed out of the lot.  Although I knew Gary was still in the shower, sudsy and unaware, I skidded to a stop at the first red light and checked my rearview mirror to see what pursued me. 

I hadn’t figured on him making it to the airport so quickly.  His flight, our original flight, doesn’t leave until 2 pm.  After returning the rental car, I had to keep myself from sprinting toward the ticket counter.  I switched onto the 9:25 am flight, which, mercifully, had seats left.  If you get to the airport early enough, they let do things like swap flights.  The airline representative had been happy to help, and even made a joke about how I surely didn’t need any more sun. 
Maybe the vitamin D went to my head.  What am I doing?  I’m too old to be a runaway.  I’m too old to be hiding in the bathroom.  It’s just cold feet.  I’ll have the rest of my life to work things out with Gary.  The rest of my life.  Until now, I’ve drifted through my life, bobbing along on the currents of other people’s desires.  I can continue to float, numbly, and wait for decisions, life rafts or sharks, to tell me what my life is. 
I stare at my red face and listen to the rush of water down pipes as another toilet flushes.  Whatever I do, I need to get out of this bathroom. 
I push open the restroom door and immediately see Gary coming out of line at the coffee stand, coffee (cream, 3 sugars) and croissant in hand.  I hesitate to approach him, even on good days, before he’s sufficiently caffeinated.  But today, the best defense is a good offense. I crunch my legs into motion and jog up behind him.  I tap him on the shoulder and start speaking before he even turns.
“Fancy meeting you here.” 
Gary jumps and turns, yelping a little as coffee sloshes on his hands. “I was so worried….what are you doing here?”
He sets the coffee and pastry down on a table and pulls me into an awkward hug.
I stand stiffly, arms at my side and answer, “getting coffee.  Oh, and returning the rental car.”
“Coffee.  Ha ha.  Very funny…what the hell, I come out of the shower, and you’re gone. All that’s left is half a donut with the ring stuck in it.  How the hell am I supposed to take that?”  His eyebrows pull together and his nostrils flare like a bull. 
I knew he’d find the ring; Gary loves donuts.  I bet he ate the other half.
I shrug.  Right now, I can smooth this over.  I can apologize.  I can make this work.  I can put the ring back on and I can be Mrs. Gary.  We get along.  We have OK sex.  Our families have met.  I’m 30 years old.  This is what people do.  Grownups don’t have scenes in airports.  Grownups don’t expect perfection.  Grownups understand that you’re not in love every single minute.  Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, follow the path that’s laid out in front of you.  As Gary always says, relationships necessitate compromise.  I finger the shredded remains of the napkin in my pocket and say, “I had a change of heart.”
Gary pauses for a millisecond and then laughs, his eyes crinkling up and relaxing.  “You nervous brides.  You’re not going to leave me standing at the altar.”
I have a flash of Aztec sacrificial altars, radiant virgins roped down before anointed priests.  “I’m sure you’ll manage to find a suitable replacement.” 
He lifts one eyebrow and studies me briefly.  “Now I know we need to talk.  Something’s really not right here, is it?”
I shrug. 
“No, really, I can tell you’re upset.  I know you.  I can always tell.  I’m good at being able to read people that way.  I can tell you’re upset.  I know I’m upset.  Imagine me, getting out of the shower and finding nothing but a ring.  I was worried, I thought maybe something had happened, I didn’t..” Gary babbles when he’s nervous.  I call it his sales guy tic.  Usually, I let him wind himself down to a comfortable rut. 
“You ate the donut, didn’t you?” I interrupt.
He stalls for a minute, startled out of his routine. “Uh, yeah.  I ate it on the cab ride over.  Which wasn’t cheap, by the way.  Definitely not in our budget.”
“I can’t marry you.”  The words hang in the air.  I think if I reach out I can almost trace them with my fingers, glowing in a neon green.  I suppress a giggle as the words, liberated into sound, break apart and scatter like Day-Glo sparrows.  There, I’ve said it.  There’s no going back now. 
Gary laughs.  “You’re going to leave me over a donut and a cab ride?  Fine, I’ll pay for the cab.  Seriously, Maddie, I know we need to talk.  And we will.  Just give me a minute to absorb the shock.  I can’t believe you just left me standing in the hotel room.  I didn’t even check out – we’ll have to go back for our luggage.  I just had to make sure I found you and that we’re OK.”
I cross my arms in front of my chest and squint my eyes.  “You know, Gary, that’s interesting.  How did you know I’d be here?  Why didn’t you think I’d just left to walk on the beach?”
“Well, you left the ring…and took the car.  I just assumed that…”
“…that I was leaving you?”
“Well, yeah.  And if you were leaving, I thought you’d go to the airport.  So I came to find you.”
“To stop me.”
“From leaving you?”
“Yes.  Look, Maddie, what’s with the 20 questions here?  I’m here now, and you’re not leaving, and we can talk this out.  We’re good at talking things out, like we have before.  You know you just get ridiculous some times.”
“So, you knew this was coming, but you figured, hey, you’ll talk and I’ll stay?”
He shifts his weight from foot to foot, and then picks up the coffee cup off the table, taking a sip.  “Well, yes, that’s the plan.” 
“Christ, Maddie, because we’re getting married.  Because I told my parents last night.  Because it’s what people do. Because I need you.”  He pauses, and then adds, “I love you.  Of course you know that.”
“You need me.”
“Yes.”  He sighs out a noisy exhale and rolls his eyes. 
Gary, what’s my middle name?”
He leans forward, shoving one hand in his pocket, while he waves the coffee cup with the other.  “Your middle name? What is this a pop quiz? What has that got to do with anything?”
I grab the coffee out of his hand and shove it in the trashcan next to us.  Our eyes meet for a moment, equally aghast.  “Just answer the goddamn question!  WHAT IS MY MIDDLE NAME?”  Over at security, a guard looks up at my raised voice. 
Gary, a flush creeping up his neck, responds, “Anne.”
“With an e?”
“Yes, with an e. OK?”
“Wrong.  There is no e at the end.  There has never been an e at the end.  For the last year, we’ve been dating and you don’t even know how to spell my name.”
“Jesus, Maddie, it’s a little thing, I forgot.  It’s been sort of a tough morning, running around in cabs after my crazy fiancĂ©e.”
“The whole last year has been a series of little things.  I bet you can’t name my job title.” 
“I can too, dammit.  You’re the Supervisor of Form Creation.”
“Forms Production Team Leader.”
“Jesus, Maddie, you’re nitpicking.  An ‘e’, leader, supervisor, it’s all the same thing. You really need to relax. Our relationship is not about an ‘e.’”
“No, it’s not.  But it should have been.  All along, I should have said something.  But I just stood there and nodded like a bobble head doll.  My god, I’m an idiot.  This is all my fault.”  I pivot on my heels and swing away from him.  My eyes skim over the bustle of busy travelers until they land on the digital clock between the board of arrivals and departures.  I am 30 years old.  I am running out of time. 
I turn back to Gary.  His hair is combed and still wet from the shower.  On his jaw line, a cluster of hairs stick out where he missed them shaving.  And at the corner of his mouth, his million-dollar smile waits to burst forth with generous forgiveness for the excess of my foibles.
“I need to catch my flight.”  I heave the straps of my beach bag farther up my shoulder.  Gary’s eyes widen and bulge as his hand comes up to grab my arm.  Then his eyes flick over my shoulder to focus on the movement at the security desk.  His arm comes back down and hangs with his fist clenched at his side. 
“Bye Gary.”  I turn and start walking.  Behind me, I hear Gary sputtering, rooted in place, “Flight!  You can’t do this to me. You can’t just walk away.  It’s not fair.” 

I walk forward toward the guard who has watched our conversation, politely, from the corner of his eye.  He’s a tall man, a little round around the middle, with a feathery blond mustache.  I can feel Gary watching me and the guard watching me walk away.  The windows show blue sky without a cloud.  A plane floats by, suspended in the air, leisurely climbing to altitude away from Miami.  On the plane, I will think about packing up, about calling my mother and calling off the engagement party she started planning last night.  I will think about growing old alone, about the prospect of being a cat lady with a propensity for stealing the neighbors’ baseballs when I’m 80.  I will think about all the things I should have said, to Gary, and Rick and John and Matt before him, and my father and his belief that “children should be seen but not heard.”  I will sit on the plane and think about how much easier it is to make a change than to anticipate that change for so long.  I will think about cutting my hair, because I’m a woman, and that’s what we do when we lose a man, through accident or design.  I’ll sit in the window seat and think about these things.  But as I pass through security, all I want to do is gain the good grace of the guard, his blessing for my flight.  As I hand my boarding pass to the security guard, I grin up at him and say, “Great weather for flying, isn’t it?”  He nods his head slowly, with the hint of a smile around his eyes and says “Go on ahead, Miss.”  And so I do.  

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