All things considered, it’s something closer to vindictiveness than politeness that has him jump into the cab at the last minute and fold himself between her and her luggage. It’s only when she inches closer to her window in response that he becomes aware of the true time commitment of this ride-along.
But the fact was that he really was fine with this – with all of it – and when the cab had pulled up in the middle of their awkward porch-side goodbye, the opportunity to showcase said fineness one last time had somehow felt too enticing to pass up.
However, the ride was now proving itself to be an extension of their weekend. There were unrecognizable bouts of dead air between them, the result of this third thing between the two of them. Something thin, barely perceptible that nevertheless touched everything. Conversation had to consciously be refueled with specific topics and every red light and halted lane convergence now seemed like overtime to some game neither was sure to have been playing all that well. Even the cabbie seems to notice, eventually turning on the radio to fill the lull.
They each take to a window and develop a separate appreciation for scenery, feeling it important somehow that their knees not touch. Having never been one for unfilled silences, it is still him of course that eventually speaks first.
“I have you – well, your character – say this line. In this story I’m working on,” he says.
“‘Years from now, when you’re old and wrinkled, you’ll regret not having been more reckless.’ That’s what she says.”
She chuckles, untying her traveling ponytail to rub the sweat at the back of her neck into her hair, still decidedly unaccustomed to the South’s oppressive heat. “That doesn’t sound like me at all.”
They take the highway and he distracts himself by trying to read the finer print of passing billboards through the hundred-degree miasma. He did need a new dentist, after all.
“Maybe you shouldn’t write about me for a while,” she eventually adds, still focused on her own brown and cracking side of the landscape. “It’s not all that healthy.”
“We do healthy now?” he says motioning between them with a grin.
She turns reignited and extends her ring finger to him with all the decidedness of a middle one. The small but expensive and presumably flawless diamond catches the sun as she clicks her tongue twice. “We sure do.” This starts an exhaust-valve fit of laughter between them that seems to lighten the air and their knees loosen. He catches the cabbie smiling at them through the rearview, on the outside of what to him must appear to be a pleasant five-year-old inside joke. That’s how he likes the world, he thinks, pressing his knee against hers, relieved when she doesn’t move away; at a distance and with her by his side.
Out of habit, he carries her luggage for her. In the unbearable heat, the slight fever he’d been nursing since their little balcony tryst the previous night surges through his body, until he can almost smell it. He had caught a fever on their first anniversary as well, ruining their reservations in the process. Later, she’d admitted that it had been on that night, with him freezing and in sweats shaking in her arms, that she had truly fallen in love with him. You were like an ice cream cone, dripping down my arm, she’d giggled the next morning.
The airport is, as it turns out, a place of strict emotional detachment. Absent are the overwhelmed sobs at untimely departures and reckless hugging at delayed arrivals that he always remembered. People yawn and sigh seemingly at random, lost in their personal annoyances. This middle ground of “friends, really close friends” they were now building left them outsiders in the hustle of families, lovers and soldiers, unsure of exactly which set to mimic. They’d lost that unique flow of theirs – previously the envy of their single friends – and had instead gotten angular with one another. Polite.
“Seriously,” she breathes, fanning herself with a magazine at baggage check-in with her hip out and left leg extended, posing for the passing security officer they both notice leering and abstain to mention. “Is it always this hot here?”
He’d gotten used to those looks from other men years ago and the nineteen credits towards an abandoned theater degree in her would apparently never stop reveling in these spur-of-the-moment performances.
“I don’t know yet. People say it cools down in November.”
“It does. This is the worst we’ve had in a long while,” agrees the wide man behind them. “You’ll be pulling out the night blankets soon enough, believe me.” Personal conversations are apparently open guestbooks in this part of the country.
She smiles warmly and instinctively borrows some of the stranger’s twang. “Well, we’re from the East Coast. Believe me, sixty’s still boiling for us.” The man chuckles and proceeds to share his very serious and not at all insane concerns regarding the East Coast. “Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, it’s all over the place! It’s good food, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day, it’s all borrowed, you know. You can taste it all you want but you’ll really never know it, y’know. Not like a Lone Star steak. A steak here is just home, y’know.” They drift in and out of this exchange as bags are processed and he stands on the sideline of this travelers’ exchange, feeling somewhat superfluous.
“People are actually really friendly here,” she concludes waving as the man finally walks away, tripping over nothing.
“You know, not everyone has to fall in love with you,” he says, careful not to enunciate too well.
“Please. I could be his daughter.”
“Kind of my point. What’s your gate number again?” he quickly non-sequiturs before she can reply.
“Gate Four,” she says, thumbing through her phone. “Flight’s not for another two hours though. We definitely overshot.” Her tone isn’t entirely free of accusation.
“Better safe, et cetera,” he mumbles, ignoring the fleeting guilt of having shuffled her out of bed and life so brusquely that morning with the pretense that she might miss her flight. They linger a few feet away from the dreadful security check, which he doesn’t expect to take more than a few minutes without layers, carry-on luggage, or conspicuous ethnicity. He’s suddenly very ready for their second farewell.
“Are you okay from here? I can’t go past the molestation station.”
“We can sit out here for a little while if you want,” she suggests with a shrug, her way of sidestepping the actual request. “Two hours with nothing to do is a long time.”
He doesn’t point out the book or headphones peeking out of her bag and follows her lead to a set of plastic benches by the terminal map. Once some privacy is regained, silence once again becomes noticeable and the third thing re-emerges. A part of him actually enjoys seeing her repeatedly check the time and realize that one-hundred-and-twenty minutes alone can in fact be very pleasant.
“Think you’ll stick it out then? This new southern life of yours?” she finally asks, shifting the bulk of the discomfort back to him. Even before the big fight, the big move, and the latest have a nice life, this had been an early point of contention between them. As much as he hated to admit it, her certainty that he was too soft for the heat, isolation – “not to mention all the football you’ll have to start watching” – and overall dismissal of the idea that he might actually enjoy life there beyond his graduate studies, had all played a more than subconscious part in his decision to ultimately pursue higher education so far away from his former self, reinvented as a frontier man. Answering now that he didn’t know, that he actually hated how orange and proud of it everything was here, wasn’t an option.
“Of course! Are you kidding?”
A distracted “Hmm…” is all she gives him, loading it to the fullest extent.
“So where’s the honeymoon going to be?”
Everything he is suppressing must still somehow make it to his face since she’s already shaking her head with a smirk. “I know, I know.”
“And how old is this guy again?”
She laughs. “Twenty-seven.”
“Testicular cancer starts at twenty-eight.”
She gives him a variation of the 2008 where-are-we-going-to-put-a-dog look. His reply is a simple shrug. “I’m just saying.”
She retreats into her phone and he hates how effortful it still all feels, and he begins to fear that it’s not fleeting but perhaps their new status quo.
Somewhere on her right inner thigh is a hickey, and he wonders if and how it will be explained. If the brief exposure to the heat hadn’t knocked so much out of him, he thinks he might take a stick to that bear just to see what happens.”
Even the rapid-fire sex that had interspersed the visit had only occurred in sudden bursts, always bookended by separate showers. First her, then him and then a few hours of silence with her on her laptop at the kitchen table and him reading in the bedroom. Until the showers themselves eventually overlapped and her improvised bed on the couch remained unfolded for the rest of the visit. That it was such a monumentally bad idea eventually became its own transgressive form of foreplay before falling out of his mind completely – although he noticed that, when she had the choice, she now slept on the right side of the bed. He wondered at various points if she felt guilty but never bothered to ask because the truth was, he certainly didn’t.
With two hours and nineteen minutes left to go, thanks to some delay in Chicago, he almost wishes that this politeness would all suddenly unfurl and send them into a public shouting match granting him an excuse to storm out. Somewhere on her right inner thigh is a hickey, and he wonders if and how the purple bruise will be explained. Then again, she’s a much better liar than him. If the brief exposure to the heat hadn’t knocked so much out of him, he thinks he might take a stick to that bear just to see what happens.
At some point her feet eventually find their way home, tucking themselves under his thigh when she stretches out on the bench, slow and careful like she thinks she has to get away with it. It’s exactly like this that they’ve had their longest, most inane conversations and something releases in his shoulders.
“So,” he ventures, giving her plenty of time to interrupt, “would I like him?”
She smiles, having obviously already considered the question at length, and just as he starts to dread another polite answer she begins to shake her head. “You guys would hate each other within seconds.
“Jorja calls him the anti-you,” she continues with a hint of pride in her voice. He frowns, unable to read which of the two men it’s leaning towards.
He thinks back to that afternoon the air conditioning had broken down, the only summer they lived together. They’d been driving each other insane all day in that cramped midtown apartment – too hot to talk, let alone touch each other – when she’d woken him from a nap by jumping on the bed with a tray of melting ice cubes in each hand. They’d then waited for sundown by crushing ice between their teeth until mouths were good and numb. In hindsight, it might just be one of the most amazing things that can happen to a person; to have someone kiss you so long and with so little purpose that your entire system eventually goes haywire: hot and cold, and wet and dry, until it all stops mattering entirely. That had been his second fever in their time together.
“Stop that,” she says, leaning forward and tugging at his earlobe with the bad, bejeweled hand. It’s their first touch since their fingers grazed on the coffeepot handle earlier that day in false hurry.
“You’re romanticizing me again, Scuba. I can tell.”
“And he doesn’t?”
Eighty-four minutes left to go and neither of them seems too concerned to continue sidestepping those land-mine topics they’d so diligently avoided till now.
“Ad execs don’t romanticize,” she clarifies, feeling the weight of a non-answer. “They establish and satisfy sound market demands.”
“He romances me,” she continues defensively, adding weight to the word. “Less pressure.”
“Now, see, how can I stop writing about you when you keep saying things like that?” he says, leaning back to stare at the glass dome above. If it shattered right now, I would shield you, he thinks, and then says aloud.
“Be still my beating whatever,” she scoffs. Yet she moves in closer, removing the buffer between them by lifting herself onto the seat right next to him, keeping her toes tucked under his thigh.
“So, why did you really fly out here?”
He knows the pretext – that she had wanted to give him the news in person. And the subtext too – that she missed him and wanted to see how he was adjusting in this new land. But what he needed right now was the missing piece; the logic he knew was behind it all.
“I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else.”
He’s no great conversationalist but believes it’s still her turn to talk so he waits, tapping his fingers against the back of her foot as he does, careful not to slip into a massage. This silence is entirely hers.
“I think I needed to make sure. That I wasn’t making a mistake,” she finally sighs and just like that the whole weekend feels like a poorly graded assignment.
“C’mon, you know what I mean.”
He smiles, if only to reassure her, but doesn’t look down just yet. “I do. The ouch stands.” At some point, and without his noticing, their fingers intertwined on the back of the empty chair and he realizes that he has been probing the intrusive object around her finger for a moment now.
‘It’ll be too weird otherwise,’ she says. ‘Me getting married and you not being there.’ It feels both genuine and the possible set-up to a cruel joke.”
Thirty-nine minutes left and they run out of topics again, leaving conversation with nowhere to go but back to that illogical pearly-white wedding invitation left behind on his kitchen counter that he knows he’ll be using as a coaster.
“I really do want you there,” she says, to which he snorts but doesn’t let go of her hand, still focused on twirling the ring.
“I’m serious. It’ll be too weird otherwise. Me getting married and you not being there.” It feels both genuine and the possible set-up to a cruel joke.
“Is it going to be an open bar?”
“Then I definitely shouldn’t come.”
“Oh c’mon, I expect to be at your wedding too one day.” And there’s the punch line.
“Sure. Maybe I’ll hit it off with one of his sisters at the reception and we’ll all move into a giant three-walled house together facing an audience.”
“One sister. And she hates me.”
“Well, to be fair, you did just fly across the country and repeatedly cheat on her brother.”
It’s patently unfunny and that’s the funny part and just like that they’re both laughing again. So hard, in fact, that the old man with visible sweat pits on the bench across from theirs eventually whips his newspaper at the pair of them until they’re both upright, pursing their lips to suppress the snickering. Whoever he might be, he knows that some Tuscany enthusiast who picks his honeymoon from dull pre-assembled honeymoon packages doesn’t laugh like this. Doesn’t make her laugh like this.
Her phone vibrates against the flat surface of her magazine and she quickly untangles their hands. “One sec.” The custom ringtone – something like the recording of an old woman shouting profanities from afar with two sets of giggles in the foreground – echoes an entire history that he knows nothing about. She doesn’t answer but begins to text right away, with a look in her eyes he can’t quite place. Fondness and a hint of something else.
“I guess I’m not cabbing it home after all,” she eventually says and it feels like she’s already boarded the plane.
In another one of his stories, she’s a predatory therapist and says to an increasingly unstable patient who professes his love, “I make love; you love. That’s the difference between us, Mister Simons.” It’s the closing line of that story. He follows her eyes to the large screen of arrivals and departures across from them and waiting any longer might cost her the flight, so they start to move. This translates to him stuffing his hands in his pockets and keeping his chin pointed outwards as she slips on her sandals and abandons the ponytail, combing her fingers through her hair in the glass reflection behind them, flooding the air with a chemical scent of processed vanilla. Connecting flight and all, he predicts at least one lengthy armrest conversation and two business cards in her purse by the time she steps foot in LaGuardia.
“Are you going to tell him?” he asks, and for a split second something seems to tighten in her arms.
“Are you kidding?”
And he might have been actually; it was getting hard to keep track. Because come to think of it, he wouldn’t want that either. This, well, it wasn’t a guestbook for the world. He wanted it to be theirs, impervious to audience participation.
“Maybe I should sign you two up for couples’ therapy…”
“And here I was thinking bread maker,” she says distractedly, screwing the loosened diamond back to the base of her finger.
They stand for a few more moments, a little nervous, a lot unsure, and once again he speaks first, because something has to be said in the very next second or else he’s fairly certain the vanilla fumes will turn noxious.
“Listen,” he begins and quickly stops, frowning at the weird echo in his own voice. It takes him another moment to realize that he is not the only one speaking. He then quickly beats her to the punch, dreading her next words and how final they could actually be this time. “If you give me a handshake right now, I swear to God I’m raising my hand when the priest asks if there are any objections.”
She blinks her assessment. “They don’t do that anymore; too many unforeseen incidents apparently. Does that mean you’ll be there?”
He shrugs, hoping for some ambiguity. Of course he’ll be there. It’s pathetic and pitiful and a slew of harsher synonyms but he’ll be there. He’ll commit a thousand times over not to go but he already knows how that final-hour coin toss will go, no matter how many do-overs he may need.
He’ll overpay his ticket, overspend on the dry-cleaning of his tux, maybe even buy a new one, and when she makes her way down the aisle, flawless, what he’ll be looking for will be that imperceptible look sent his way. A hint that it’s all still some middling chapter, a rest stop on respective journeys that leaves the endgame the same as it was two years ago. Sure, he’ll shake the man’s hand for that look.
“Be happy for me, Scuba.”
She pecks him on the lips and pulls him into an airless hug. He finds himself imagining a tall, whipcord-lean ad executive tripping and cracking his skull open against the edge of a conference table, halfway through a PowerPoint about market shares. His mind isn’t always a nice place.
“You know I love you, right?” she adds, and if nothing else he’s grateful for the rhetorical. He wants to tighten his grip but knows she’ll then be the one to wiggle out of it first, so he settles for the upper hand of being the one to break the embrace, lingering to place a kiss into her hair, stealing a whiff for the road.
“Yeah, yeah. Tell it to your fiancé.”
She chuckles. “Asshole.”
In a corner of his mind a retired couple – one half in remission, the other the sole beneficiary of recently ordered affairs – decides to recapture something by traveling to a very specific hotel and past thick purple drapes. They rent a fully equipped room and, after changing, spend a few minutes taking in the various buckles and ropes, re-establishing boundaries and trust. They settle on the word ‘phosphorous’. “You know I love you, right?” the wife whispers softly against her husband’s lips, who in return can only nod before receiving the first whip crack.
Ben Philippe is a Fiction Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, and his work has previously appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Five Quarterly and other publications. He was the winner of the Tennessee Williams 2013 Fiction Contest, judged by Michael Cunningham.