We’re sitting in an airport lounge at a high black table with a folded triangular card recommending complicated drinks that involve blue liqueurs and Hershey’s Kisses. An airport: neither of us is going anywhere, though he is trying to. There’s weather in the place he’s going. Here, it’s just beautiful June, suffocating humidity and a burning orange sun sinking behind the jets on the tarmac like hot candy. The weather is somewhere else.
We order drinks in this freezing airport lounge club soda for him, gin and bitter lemon for me and I watch his face, full-on staring. I used to lick him from his belly up, tongue his closed eyes like ripe grapes. Staring is the least I can do. It’s been over five years and this is eating memory. The last I heard from him was a creamy envelope in the mail a year ago, engraved wedding invitation and RSVP card tucked inside. I have every reason to hate him.
The server comes with our drinks and I nod at his glass. “Is there a particular reason, or is it a generalized lifestyle change?”
I lift my glass, raise my eyebrows. He mistakes this for the beginning of a toast and lifts his own. “No booze,” I say, and drink. He’s still holding his glass out as though he’s offering it to me.
“Oh, no,” he says, and laughs slightly, and in that laugh I hear the brittle edge of defensiveness I remember, something small and ugly that makes my heart glad glad glad. I’m in familiar territory now. “I still drink. I just it’s been a long day,” he says, and I smile wide enough to break his heart. I’m here for the long haul. I dig in my purse for my cigarettes and lighter and slap them on the table. It’s all I can do to keep from laughing, or reaching across the table and taking his face between my hands to do what, I don’t know. His face is the same, shockingly so; the wedding ring burns on the flesh of his finger. I raise my glass again, and this time I mean it. “A toast,” I say, “to weather.”
We touch glasses and drink but he won’t look at me for longer than a second or two, his eyes narrowed against the brilliance coming in through the glass wall of this room. I’m not sure what he’s seeing, or whom. The years have made me into something different than I was and this pleases me: you expect that when someone stays in a place you’ve gone away from, she will fold into stillness, high solid walls around where you’ve left her. You imagine her unmoving.
What’s to tell? I used to ask him when he walked up my porch steps and swung the screen door open slap and I handed him a beer from the soup pot filled with ice water and bottles by my bare feet. Did little Jimmy pull Susie’s pigtails? Did Mary Lou sit on a tack and cry? Did Cindy get caught blowing Mac on the football field? He was a high school teacher. Shapeless khaki pants and shirts with the sleeves rolled up, his tie left on the front seat of his rusted car like the forgotten skin of a snake, and me in cut-offs and a tank top, the beginning of a tan.
He would echo me What’s to tell and twist off the bottle cap, flick it toward the screen door. They were good today. We had a really good discussion about
Serious, so serious, him with those kids. It was my town; he was from somewhere else and thought they sat up nights thinking about Franny and Zooey and Daisy and Jay. It was almost June and I knew those kids sat up thinking about how to fit all the cases of beer and plastic jugs of hundred-proof vodka they loaded their cars with to take to the beach on weekends. I’d driven to that beach when I was their age, and all you needed to save room for was a bathing suit and flip-flops. But we sat on my front porch, those rusting screens, our feet on the railing, and drank our beers until the sky was a dark blanket over us and the leaves on the trees were darker than that, and when he finished talking we went inside to sleep on top of the sheets. What’s to tell? I would wake some nights to feel him pressing into me from behind, his chest to my back and his arms tight enough around me that my breath caught in my throat.
He tells me that he is trying to get to Boston for a conference and he tells me about his job: the state-of-the-art computer lab, the nationally ranked debate program, the dedicated and conscientious parents at the school in St. Louis where he teaches now. He tells me his students are a delight, that they are responsible and motivated and involved in their education. He shakes his head at his good fortune and I raise my glass to him again, to his desperate belief.
“May they rule the world and owe it all to you,” I say. He looks me in the eye for the first time since we’ve been sitting here and for a second he is no one I recognize. “So tell me about your wife.”
“My wife is fine,” he says. “My wife is leaving me.”
There’s weather somewhere. The information screen flashes a column of red Delayed, Delayed for planes going up the East Coast. The lounge is filling up fast. His napkin is sopping under his glass and he watches me steadily, waiting for me to say the things that a reasonable adult would say at this moment, an adult who has forgiven everything there is to forgive and then some. My God, I’m sorry. Are you all right? What happened? He waits for this and I wait to see what I can manage. When we were together I looked every other way until there was no place left to look.
“Let me ask you something,” I say to him, and he leans forward slightly, his smooth face inscrutable, exactly as I remember it. “Would you have called me if this hadn’t happened?”
“What?” he says. “The flight? The delay?”
My hands are numb with cold, the black lacquer of the tabletop like a sheet of ice. Weather. I shake my head Never mind and reach into my bag for the sweater I forgot to bring. The horizon is a line of fire and I’m safe, far from it; I think of that porch, the wood giving into splinters. “I’m very sorry to hear about your wife,” I tell him. I sound sincere to my own ears, and maybe I am. A drink in an airport is no long haul, and neither is a year. We were together for three.
“I wanted to tell you,” he says, no trace of emotion. Careful with that club soda. Don’t let it go to your head. “I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone else.”
There is no one else I would hear it from. My friends were not his; his colleagues barely knew my name. One party in June and I left early, waited for him for hours. The porch light was burned out. A car I didn’t recognize stopped on the street and the woman driving leaned over to speak to him as he opened the passenger door, her hand on the back of his neck and then moving down to where I couldn’t see. She’d been standing by the chips and dip when I left the party, waving a carrot stick and talking to him about the boys in her math class, their frayed jeans, the line of flesh between waistband and shirt when they raised their hands.
I sat on the porch and watched them. They stayed in the car, motor idling, the interior light a green nimbus around them just bright enough for her hands to sink into darkness. I could’ve gone inside and locked the door but I stayed until he came up the steps. His good audience.
I jiggle my glass, the melting ice in it. “Well,” I say. “Thank you.” And we both wait in silence, each of us trying to figure out what, precisely, I am thanking him for.
“You know what?” I say. “The whole time, I knew exactly when you were lying to me. And I knew exactly when those kids were lying to you. You think they cared about what you had to say? They lied all the time, Joseph. Every fucking word.” His face is immobile, waxy, and either they’ve turned the air conditioning down or the crowd in here is sucking the cool air in through their pores because I’m suddenly warm, palms damp, moisture over my lip. He used to walk me backward through my house, one hand between my legs, the other at my chin, his fingers reaching inside and through me, a spitted pig. That was five years ago. Ten years ago I loaded cheap beer and chips and suntan oil into a Dodge Dart with a girl named Angel and we drove until the road ran into sand dunes, then climbed over them, stripping down to string bikinis. I remember a boy with reddish-gold hair and freckles across his shoulders, an angry pink burn, his strawberry tongue and lashes. He had a scar on his hip, whiter than white Barbed wire, he told me, it’s a story. But I didn’t need to hear it, didn’t want to waste our time talking because the sun set and rose too quickly then. The next day I thought I saw him but I couldn’t be sure.
“You’re wrong about that,” Joseph says. He picks up his empty glass and looks around the room. The servers are stepping over piles of luggage and duty-free bags in the spaces between tables. The sun is down, the indirect track lighting in the ceiling glowing. “They weren’t lying to me. I still get letters from some of them, from college, or jobs . . . ” He looks at me and pauses. “I’m just telling you,” he says. “Because you seem to think all everyone does is lie, and that’s not the case. I did my best with you.” Our server appears. “Another round?” he says, and Joseph nods but this man is looking at me.
“Please. And a scotch for my friend here.” He smiles and disappears. I light a cigarette and slide the pack across the table. Joseph shakes his head and I begin to laugh, a brittle, ripping sound.
“Clean living. Jesus Christ. Anything else I should know? Have you gotten religion? Is all this some sort of atonement for your indiscretions with various faculty members?”
“Stop. Just stop. I’m trying to tell you ”
“Please,” I say. The woman at the table next to us glances over and I spin the tip of the cigarette in the ashtray, head down, breathing, breathing. “You’re telling me they didn’t lie to you. Wonderful. Fabulous. Anything else? Any other instances of untruthfulness you’d like to address? In a slightly different context between the two of us, maybe? Or did you call me just so you could tell me about your delightful job and your personal misery?” The waiter returns with our drinks and another wide smile for me. If I were here alone I would reach for the drink as he was setting it down. His fingers, mine. Joseph picks up his glass and downs half of it. There you go.
“I called you because it’s been a long time. I was here and I wanted to see you, hear how you are, what you’re doing ”
“Okay. How am I? Where do I live, where do I work? Any ideas? Give it a shot.” This is too easy, I’m thinking, like nothing I’ve ever known with him. He sips at his drink, there’s some color in his face now, and maybe he’s ready to play.
“I’m sorry. There’s been a lot going on with me and I’m sorry about this. But I missed you and I thought we could talk.”
And I smile and Joseph smiles back and he’s thinking that everything’s okay, that he’s made everything nice, and we’re smiling at one another like a couple of high school kids on a first date, but where I live first dates wind up in the back of a car or a finished basement or a guest bathroom on the vanity, bare ass on the edge of a sink and legs wrapped around a boy with a black T-shirt and his Levi’s around his knees. And oh Joseph, they lie, all of them.
“I don’t miss you,” I tell him, smiling, crushing out my cigarette, delicate; we slept in a bed and fucked in a bed and inside me he was emptier than the sweet dark air over a high school football field. “And I doubt your wife will miss you either.” And his smile sinks like the sun, like me on my knees in a house with a splintering porch, like all of it, into nothing.
He signals for the check. Delayed, still, everything. The hotels around here will be full tonight. He’s back to not looking at me and that’s right the trick is to look the other way. Mileage out of that, years of it. Five empty glasses on the table, the odd one his.
Victoria Lancelotta and Nerve.com