The rain poured, lightning flashed and thunder clapped. There wouldn’t be any airlines taking off any time soon. I sighed to myself, then the voice crackled over the intercom: “Attention in the gate area, Flight 32 to Indy will be delayed again until 7:40 p.m.” A score of groans and mumbling fell over the waiting passengers. The delay was now up to four hours. I pulled out my phone to text my family that I would be even later than expected. Sitting across from me was a younger black man who looked to me and asked, “That the flight you’re on?”
“Yeah, we were supposed to leave an hour ago. You too?”
“Nah, I’m s’posed to be goin’ to Oklahoma City. I got a two hour delay.” I shook my head and smiled. “I think it’s gonna be a little longer than that.” The thunder roared through the terminal.
My trip had gone off without a hitch, I couldn’t really complain about this part. Typically my travels to Dallas were more complicated. Construction and accidents plague the roads there amidst drivers that all believe they’re winning a NASCAR race. My flight delay? I considered it balance. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating. I’d been in a car for most of the past 72 hours. I really wanted to get home. Amid the commotion I resolved to find a bar in the airport, set up shop and get some work done while I waited. As I packed away my phone charger I glanced up to see if my fellow detainee was interested in a beer. There, plain as day, sat a brunette I hadn’t seen in eight years. I froze, staring at a face I’d woken up to on so many bright mornings. The blood rushed and I felt my face flush as my heart pounded in my rib cage. It beat so definitely I expected the bones to crack at any second.
The absence of my younger friend, who had only sat in the exact same spot seconds before, did not concern me. These fleeting visions of mine happen from time to time. A true ghost of a not-so-distant past. It only takes a moment for my brainwaves to realign and then I realize it was just a fleeting memory, triggered by some subconscious interaction. I gave up on identifying them a long time ago. For the most part, I just accept that it happens. This was different.
The woman and I stared at one another. I assumed she was equally surprised. Her smile showed first. It wasn’t a happy smile, or even a smirk. Maybe it wasn’t a smile at all. Her lips parted as the corners of her mouth moved upward. A jingle came from my phone to let me know that my wife had sent a text message. It scared me half to death and I nearly dropped it to the floor. With a death grip on my phone I glanced back up. She was still there.
My palms were practically dripping from sweat, my heart still thumping away in my chest. Words were lost on me. The last time we’d seen each other was one of the worst moments of my life. Not because of the breakup, but because of what it represented at that time. It’s too complicated to describe; too painful to relive. Just know the fact we were suddenly occupying the same space was the last thing I ever expected. Ever.
Together we asked, “How are you?” Then we both awkwardly chuckled.
Releasing the hold on my phone for fear of shattering it in my hand, I stuttered, “I’m, I’m good.” Unconsciously I spun the wedding band on my left ring finger. Her eyes darted down then back to meet mine.
“You’re married,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah, we live in Indiana.” For some reason, I was embarrassed to tell her. You have to understand, she pushed me to a, not a higher standard, but a higher expectation. When we met, I was running from my midwestern boredom. To tell her I returned to it, I wondered what she thought. I wanted to let her know that it wasn’t the same as when we first knew each other. That I’d learned so many things. That I wasn’t angry any longer.
“That’s good,” she said.
“It’s great, actually. We’re really happy.”
She repeated, “That’s good.”
“How’s being a lawyer?” I didn’t care if she was seeing anyone.
Her shoulders bumped up and down. “I’m paying off my loans, but I’m looking to get into a practice.” She was lying. The same way she’d lied about the messages I discovered on her phone. The same downward glance and drop in pitch of her voice. The same non-chalant dismissal of her own reality.
“Good for you,” I managed.
I had no idea what to do. There was so much to say. Certainly she had just as much to tell me. She couldn’t possibly have written me off with such a casual demeanor. I knew she hadn’t. Or, maybe it was that simple. What was I doing sitting in an airport all of a sudden compelled to impress a girl that bore no relevance to my current life? That I wanted to justify myself, still, it made my stomach turn. Our eyes stayed locked.
“What about Atlas?” Her dog turned out to be more of a companion to me in the end. She looked away, remembering.
“He was hit, actually. We put him down a year ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I wanted to know who “we” included.
“He had a good life.”
“He did. He was a great dog.”
The small talk was agonizing. Why didn’t she just get up and walk away? She wasn’t getting on a flight to Indy, she had no business being here. It’s not like I was going to ask her to go get a drink while I waited.
“Do you maybe, want to get a drink? Your flight is delayed, right?” The drop of my jaw had to be noticeable. I was stunned. God, how many times had I imagined this moment? Everything I would say, everything I would explain. The lump in my stomach worked its way to the back of my throat. I swallowed hard to force my anxiety back down.
I said it before I heard it in my own head, “That would be great.”
We rose from our seats and again, stared at each other. Who would be in charge? Who would take the lead? “There’s that wine bar,” she said.
“They have that pizza with the pears on it,” remembering her favorite fruit.
She blushed, “Yes, let’s go there.” As we walked, not much was said. We dodged and weaved in between oncoming travelers, pulling duffle bags and suitcases and children. I let her walk just in front of me. Maybe it was some kind of submission, maybe it was some kind of caution. Past the smells of fried chicken fingers and imitation Chinese dinners in the food court, we arrived at “Linda’s Wine Cellar”. She walked in, casually, like it was her bar, confident and graceful all rolled into one. I’d forgotten.
Normally, this demeanor would be intimidating to men. We can’t stand being made to feel small, inferior. It’s bred into us. Society expects it of us. But I can’t think of anything more sexy than a confident woman. Not a bitchy, arrogant woman making an attempt to be confident by overcompensating for her own insecurities. Real confidence. It wasn’t overbearing, that was not her air. She never made me feel insignificant. She made me want to be better. The timing of it all, back then, it wasn’t fair to either of us.
We sat facing each other. The gentleman waiting tables approached. He was handsome, and of course spoke only to her. The sparkle in her eye told me everything I already knew to be true, very little had changed. She flirted, mildly, and talked him into a cheaper price on a bottle of Australian red. My favorite. I smiled at the conversation, at how many times I’d seen it before.
After the handsome waiter left the table I said, “You remembered.”
“So did you.”
It was clear neither of us knew where to begin. Memories that previously rested on the fringe of my conscious mind now suddenly occupied all of it. The smiles, the snowball fights, the reading of poetry to one another before bed. The gentle way her hips rocked back and forth on top of mine. And then the fights. The name calling. My complete and total defeat.
“Do you talk to anyone?” she asked. How could she have known? I’d only just started seeing a new counselor a few weeks before. I raised my eybrows. My face flushed again.
“What do you mean?”
“Tina or Brandon?” She was referring to our small band of friends we shared for a short time. Relief washed over me and I felt the color leave my neck.
I couldn’t look at her as I said, “No, they…we haven’t kept in touch.” Truthfully I cut them all off. I couldn’t bare to see their social media posts, pictures, smiling faces. How could they be happy without me? Time and acceptance had since changed all that. I knew it was wrong to have blamed them for my own troubles. They played their part in my life when I needed them. That was enough of a burden for them to carry.
“Tina moved back to New Mexico,” she said. “Brandon finally found a job in a clothing store.” We both laughed.
I said with a grin, “Of course he did.” Brandon, openly gay, was a total fashionista. For him to end up doing anything else, well that would have been unfortunate for the fashion world. “What about this practice you’re looking into?”
The handsome waiter returned with two glasses and a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Shiraz. I waited as he poured a sample into the glass in front of my companion. She swirled it, lips curled up and glancing at the waiter. I was jealous. As jealous now as I was then. For a small amount of time, those lips were only meant for me. The anticipation I felt as she raised the glass to her mouth to sip the velvety red liquid pulsed through me like the flashes of lightning outside. As her glass returned to the table I remembered I was supposed to be breathing.
“Very nice, thank you,” she smiled up at the waiter. He finished pouring the glasses and finally acknowledged my presence when he asked, “Would you like to order anything else?”
“The pizza with the honey and pears, please.”
“Wonderful choice, we’ll have that right out.”
Now she couldn’t look at me when I simply looked at her, waiting for her response. She spun her glass of wine. “It’s similar to what Tina was doing, working with the ACLU.”
Why was she lying? “Through a firm, or directly with the ACLU?”
“Through a firm.” She glanced at her phone, which was laying on the table in front of her.
“Good for you,” I said, still perplexed at her dishonesty. “I’m working for a consulting firm now, I work with banks still, though.”
“You know you were really good at that,” she complimented.
“I don’t miss it. Well, not all the time.”
“So you travel for work?”
“More than I care to. But it keeps it interesting.”
“You never could sit behind a desk,” she chuckled. My phone dinged to alert me that my wife sent another text. I’d been so distracted I never responded to the last one. I typed quickly to tell her I would let her know as soon as we were boarding the plane.
“What’s she like?” I didn’t look up until I hit send.
“She’s awesome. She’s really involved in our community, volunteers a lot. It’s good because I travel so much.”
Her head nodded, “That’s good.” Those two words were beginning to wear on me. Suddenly pulled back into reality I decided to be forward.
“What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean why are you here, in Dallas? Is the firm you’re interviewing with not in Colorado?” She hesitated, shuffling the napkin on her lap. Then she cleared her throat the way she used to before she got ready for mock trials in law school.
“I was in Chicago.” The weight of the statement could not have been greater. I’d caught her in a lie when we lived together. Rather than going to D.C. with her group from school like she told me, she had flown to Chicago to see someone she’d dated in college. Confronted with the messages I’d found she got angry, told me I was insecure, that I didn’t trust her. For some reason I wasn’t surprised.
“I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“Didn’t take us long to get back here, did it?” I leaned backward in my chair and took a large gulp of wine. Time had not healed my wounds as I thought it had. “What are we doing here? How did you see me sitting in the terminal?”
“You sat down in front of me,” she claimed.
I leaned into my words, “That’s impossible, I’d been sitting there for an hour. There was some other guy sitting where you were, literally moments before I saw you.”
Shaking her head she insisted, “No Charlie, you sat down in front of me.” The sound she emitted was a cross between disbelief and amusement. Her hands flopped onto the table. “I can’t believe this.”
Aggravation and confusion rained down on me. Here we were, the first time meeting in years, and we were already arguing. I sighed as I tried to sort out just how this encounter could have happened. Of all the airports in all the world, she had to be sitting in mine. The waiter returned with the pear covered pizza. He looked to her, “Anything else I can get you?”
She didn’t look up to him, merely took one of the small plates on the table and set it in front of her. “I think we’re okay, thanks.”
“More wine, perhaps?” Out of the corner of my eye I could see his head turning between us looking for some kind of acknowledgement.
“We’re fine,” I grumbled. I didn’t even want to eat. The waiter shuffled away. “What’s this all about, anyway?” I asked.
She pursed her lips before she replied, “I saw you, and we haven’t even spoken in years and I thought maybe we could at least keep each other company while we’re stuck here. But you seem to want to insist on picking up where we left off.”
Aggravation was now mild anger. “Me?!” I sat up quickly but then reminded myself there was no reason whatsoever to be irritated. How could she think she could just waltz up and start over? My emotional inebriation had now worn off completely. I thought myself a fool for even agreeing to have a drink with her.
Gently I set my glass to the side and leaned onto the table. “Look, I was shocked to find you sitting across from me. I don’t know how you got there so quickly, or why you even came to sit by me in the first place. I’ve moved on, I’m happy. I have a great life and I certainly don’t need to sit here in an airport digging up feelings that I no longer need.”
She swallowed her bite, placing her fork down on her plate. “We have a son.”