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More Stories by Paige Chomet:
© 2002 Paige Chomet
I usually love airports. They're like nations unto themselves, unable to be claimed by any country, any nationality, any specific people. A place between, beyond ordinary borders. An intersection of daydreams and daily planners. A stagnant yet humming oasis, like a church just before the final hymn.
Before boarding, before the moment of take off, the possible directions one can fly seem limitless.
I love to watch other travelers. Theyre so outside themselves, as if only the future has reality, as if the past has been rendered profoundly irrelevant. Students with full backpacks and worn clothing, living in an unformed reality. Lovers balancing themselves against one another, providing their own gravity, their own updrafts. Families lined up like picture books, memories firing a slide show of years from behind identically blinking eyes. And me... somewhere in the space between truth and consequence, before and after. Somewhere thats anywhere but now.
Airports are so full of spaces.
Many, like myself, pace as if in a holding pattern, checking their watches, turning. Businessmen scan the overhead televisions, memorizing again the repeated newscasts before boarding their flight, before they're cut off from the world's input for the next 96 minutes. Weary tourists with weakened backs try to switch gears between fantasy vacations and real world routines, finding their way back as if waking into a dream.
I walk like someone on their way to confession, counting my sins with each step. His hands still on my skin. His name still whispered in each labored exhale. The face of my husband sleeping beside me, knowing nothing. My own sleepless face, expressionless, pretending I, too, know nothing. And my child, the listening priest, wanting only to have me near, wanting only that simple certainty.
No explanations will suffice, no confessions will ever absolve me.
I ward off a kind of panic by watching a small gathering of children at the window, captured by the magic of flight, feeling the acceleration of takeoff pulling the ground out from under them as they watch the planes rise skyward. Nearby, a few thirty-something women read dog-eared paperbacks, turning pages more rapidly than the newscasters droning above. I wonder which, if any, are the children's mothers. A few men doze, homeless executives in three piece suits, exhausted from making a living. The cries from the children make them shift uncomfortably.
I try to remember the sound of my own son's laugh. I wonder if he's laughed much while I've been away. All I can conjure is the smell of his head as I clean his fingers after dinner, as I bend over him and let myself nuzzle his curls. Greg, my husband and one time best friend, pushes back his chair and turns away, leaving his dishes on the table, carrying his own baggage down his own hall of runways. Leaving his own mess behind, just as I leave mine.
A world away.
I wonder which of these bystanders is waiting for the same flight I am. I decide to walk, work out the kinks, try and repossess my body. There must be an open bar somewhere in this terminal. Somewhere it must be Happy Hour.
Sweat glosses my forehead as overstuffed bags bruise the side of my legs. I hate checking luggage. I want to keep everything I might possibly need at my fingertips and tag all my bags for plane side pick up. It's faster, smoother, controllable. A phobia, actually. My hands have been clutching these bags so long theyre frozen like two claws, holding on past pain, into numbness. I must be crazy. All I can think is, Shit, Ill never be able to open my hands again.
The airport starts to seem like a gigantic Escher-meets-Andy-Warhol public works project. Too many escalators and cookie-cutter storefronts. Too many helpful tips in too many languages. Too many color-coded arrows turning the easy into the complex. All of it meant to be blissfully intuitive. Lugging around twice as much clothing as I ever even unpack, I feel anything but intuitive. Perhaps you can't have one without the other: Freedom without disorientation; travel without getting lost; an oasis without sweaty undergarments; enough dress options without too many shoes. Love without guilt. Trust without betrayal. Everything becomes a burden on the journey back.
If I could just have a drink.
A fairly large crowd is gathered inside one of the sports bars. Must be an important ball game on. I used to love watching ball games at bars. Being one of the few female fans had its advantages back then, unless the game was so engrossing no one paid attention to me.
I set down my bags and work blood back into my fingers. I need something to blot the sweat from my face. A fresh coat of lipstick won't hurt either. Summer Rose, the color my husband likes, with just a hint of peach. It covers the scabbed ridges my teeth have been munching on these last few days. Lip on lip, I work the new color in, then pull my bags to a safe corner. Smoothing my hair, I realize I haven't put my wedding ring back on yet. I reach for my purse, then think better of it.
The crowd is pressed tightly around a single gentleman doing magic tricks or something. From outside the ring of onlookers, I can't really tell what's happening. I order a red wine and decide to watch whatever game is on, even if I'm the only fan, female or otherwise.
For a moment the crowd shifts and I see the center of attention: What looks like an accountant very near retirement, handsome grey streaks overtaking his temples, an older version of the fleet god Mercury. Watching his jaw muscles, I imagine him an athlete once. Probably still works out twice a week, by the cut of his jacket. Not unusual for an upscale sports bar. But it seems this fellow has drawn a crowd for an entirely different reason.
One of the closer spectators gasps. Waving a square piece of napkin tissue in the air, she rushes to sit at a vacant table. Her friend squeals in delight alongside. A few strangers nod thoughtfully back and forth. I wonder what the trick is, or whats been written on the paper.
I stand and stretch, trying to see over their shoulders. Just the act of standing up without the weight of luggage feels good. I seem lighter, thinner, sexier. Being with David always makes me feel sexy again. I take a few steps toward the mysterious napkin, sensing my calf muscles firm and tight above my pumps, sensing the sidelong looks of the nearby men. I stand on tiptoes to get a better view, arching my back.
On the napkin is a caricature of some kind. The middle-aged Mercury must be an amateur sketch artist. The woman broods over the parts of her the artist decided to emphasize, to exaggerate, no doubt feeling less sexy than before. I lose interest as the crowd reshuffles and a new model settles into the hot seat.
The crowd is still too dense to penetrate, so I make my way carefully around the room. At several of the other tables, people bend close to their own prized cocktail portraits. Arguments, awed silence, heated debates bubble up all around me. Only a few tables are engaged in the usual good-natured ridicule or beer ad bantering. Pretending I'm trying to get a better angle on the televised game, I move behind a few of the more subdued tables, trying to see how good old Mercury really is.
The first thing I notice is that the sketches aren't very accurate. Not even as cartoon caricatures go. But there is something frighteningly realistic, like the details of a Dali nightmare, yet captured in just a few strokes of a simple blue ball point. I search the subjects' faces, seeking resemblances. I listen, trying to catch what people are saying: "Why would he choose to put you in different clothes?" "It looks more like your mother." "When is this supposed to happen?" "How could he know...?" Most people are reacting as if their fortunes have just been told. Or some secrets been unwittingly spilled for all to see. As if the image now in their hands is more than a drawing.
I dab sweat from along my hairline with a cheap single-ply cocktail napkin and stand, needing a drink. Accidentally scraping my shin against my overstuffed bag, I look down and see Ive just put a 3 inch run in my pantyhose. Shit. I decide I need something stronger than the house wine. Maybe something with Tequila. I stretch, feeling the silkiness of my blouse move against my skin like cold sheets. I love sheets before making love, before the heat of sex makes them so much harder to sense. I think of Davids face before. Gregs face after.
At the bar, I want to check my own face in the background mirror, my hair, my make-up, but a series of tall liquor bottles, lit from the bottom in a rainbow of neon colors, blocks my view. I glance toward the middle-aged artist and see him staring not at his latest subject, but at her reflection. My eyes follow his...
It's not a woman in a yellow blazer with bleached hair, too long for her age, curled and sprayed and full of perfume. It's not the woman sitting on the stool. In the mirror is a hollowed-eyed youth, hair raven black, circles like bruises ringing her eyes, streaks of mascara tears chiseled into her cheeks. Instead of her hands folded demurely over a matching yellow purse, on the bar in front of her is a mass of bloody tissue in the shape of an infant, a blue mass of death covered in a film of oxygen rich red life and a tangle of ghostly grey. I look back at the man's face. Instead of being frightened or disgusted, hes merely intent, deciding how to fit such a visage onto his tissue canvas. He begins to draw, caring nothing for his hands, never taking his eyes from the mirror.
What would it be like to be a drawing? To feel the shape of me form in slow, sure strokes? To see only the unfinished part of me, not knowing what the whole might become? I smile at the idea, thinking how David would have asked just such a question. I wonder for a moment if maybe he did once, and I just placed the words into my own voice. I smile wider. Then frown.
Avoiding the womans reflection, I try to view her profile through the gathering. Too many heads in the way. None of them seem able to see what I see; none of them see a different reflection, a different person in the mirror. They are riveted to the mans hands, to the way the lines of his drawing partition the white spaces between. Smiles begin to disappear as the woman takes her portrait and backs away. "Is it your daughter?" someone asks. No amount of makeup can hide the woman's wrinkles now. I glimpse the paper long enough to see it is just a face. The artist chose to leave her hands and their contents out of the frame. But the way she discards her purse at her table, without a second thought, makes me shutter.
I avoid the mirror, turning away from whoever might be next in line.
I dab sweat from alongside my nose, looking down, checking the lines of my body just below the neckline of my blouse. The lace of my bra frames the swell of my breasts, clean softness against the slight sheen of moistened skin. I wish I could take a shower. I should have taken a shower this morning. Greg will know. How could he not know already? Each night as I undress, unable to face him as I once did, half hidden in my closet, I wonder if he knows, if he can see the self-conscious stiffness of my fingers as they work the buttons, unhook the bra, slide the nightie over my head. All the while, Greg on the bed, waiting yet no longer watching. No longer hoping. The power of self-deception, of pain avoidance. I wonder if avoidance itself isnt more painful in the end. I wonder if I should just tell him. Then I think of David, full of his own kind of avoidances, and I know Ill never tell, never ask. The risk is too great. In Davids hands Im like a drawing, his drawing. If I were to see him day after day, the details would fill themselves in and he might discover someone he hadnt expected. Someone I hadnt expected.
The time isnt right, anyway. The time just isnt right.
Tapping my fingernails on the lacquered wood of the bar, I slide towards the bartender, taking advantage of the shifting crowd. My leg catches on the legs of one of the stools and a foot long run slithers up the side of my pantyhose. Shit. I order a gin and tonic, a double, with a twist of lime. I watch the bartenders elbows and wrists as he works. I measure the curve of his seat against the size of my palm. When he hands me the drink, I look over his shoulder, expecting to see what should have been my own reflection, looking attractively aloof. But there is no me in the mirror.
I feel my head snap around, looking behind me. Only strangers. Only the drone of the ball game and the ordinary anonymity of airport ambience. With the drink firmly in both hands, I turn back. Face to face with whomever it is thats looking back at me.
An incongruent face, patched together without seams, one eye blue, one deep brown. A light glows from one side, like a crescent moon, connecting eye to mouth but avoiding the nose. My hand moves involuntarily to touch it. To touch myself. I forget to breathe from the thrill, the pleasure, the sense of being known. It is the fingers of my lover. The mouth of my husband, before we were married, so very young and boyish. No, not my husband. It is the mouth of my son, grown. I pull my hand away. The moon fades. The image shifts. Nothing remains constant, as if my face is being projected through running water, through layers of heated air, through a slow motion mirage.
I lift my glass and drink as much as I can before the burn of the liquor overtakes the coolness of the ice.
Suddenly there is a crowd pressing in. Go away, I think. Too many selves. Too many changes. I don't want to see. But the crowd speaks, "Do another. Do another." And I realize the artist has moved beside me and I have suddenly become the subject of the bar's fickle curiosities. The faces of the crowd arent mine. But I can see myself reflected in their stares.
"I don't want to be drawn," I plead, quietly, to the gentleman at my elbow. But he isn't looking at me. Only at my mirror self.
His reflection, seated next to me, is so solid, so real. I look back and forth, between his inverted image and his flesh and blood reality. No, they arent the same. The mirror self is younger, at least 15 years younger. My reflection hand reaches toward his and I hear myself ask, "Please. Don't draw what you see."
He stops, turning to face me. My hand is on his. The naked drink, condensation dripping onto the bar, sits between us. He looks into my eyes. "They're green," he says. My real eyes, I think.
"Don't draw me, please."
He asks why with a slight twist of his head, not needing to speak. Then says, "I can draw you either way."
He knows. He knows I know. Only he and I.
"I...don't want to choose," I say, feeling oddly black and white, drained of all color.
Sweat glosses my forehead as my overstuffed bag bruises the side of my leg. I look down and see a run along my pantyhose from just above the ankle all the way to the hemline of my skirt. Shit. I wish I'd have just checked the bags. I turn into the crowded bar, already tasting a cool High Ball sliding passed my chapped lips.
I must've looked like a mess because a handsome middle-aged gentleman takes my bags and helps me to the bar. He hands me his cloth handkerchief so that I can dab the greasy moisture from my face. I apologize and thank him in the same breath, handing the handkerchief back. He refuses it, wanting me to keep it. I put it in my purse, wishing Id have put on lipstick when I had a chance. I let him lead me to an open stool at the bar.
By first instinct, I seek out the mirror behind the bar, checking my hair, only there I am, gorgeous and without blemish. My hands freeze in mid air, not knowing where to primp, where to touch. This is not me looking back, wide-eyed. Neither is it a perfect Victoria Secret model. Just a simple beauty, me but not me. Me before. Or maybe a new me after. I cant tell.
"What would you like?"
I answer as if from habit. As the bartender moves away, I see the gentleman's face looking back at me. It is young and generous, hopeful and so very intent. I look back at the older man next to me, somehow unstartled. He smiles, and I know he knows. I smile too, relaxing my face for the first time in hours. Maybe weeks.
"Do another. Do another," the crowd behind us asks. The man unfolds a cocktail napkin, smoothing it carefully on the lacquered bar, and begins to draw. A line drawing of a beautiful woman. I can't tell if shes dancing, free of all constraints, or if she is posing for some unseen lover. The lines are so simple, she could be nude, perhaps not. I think of David, the first time, blushing. Then look at the crowd pressing in more closely. Faces move from the napkin drawing to me. Only the man watches my mirror image.
Handing me the portrait, he becomes more serious. "I would like to draw you again," he says. I lean away.
This is me? I fold up the napkin, feeling the stares of the crowd as if each one is an x-ray, a CAT scan slicing up my spirit. They all knew? You were drawing me?
My shoulders hunch. Greg yelling from the doorway, making me shrink, too full of guilt to defend myself.
Im sorry, he says. I didnt mean to offend you. I look at his mirror self, a boy now, grey still marking his temples, thinking everything must be his fault, internalizing everything so personally that it hurts. How the world hurts its little boys.
No. Its okay. Its beautiful. He doesnt believe me. I dont believe me. I want to touch his hair, the curling grey that sparks outward like tiny feathers. Its just... I look at the feet of the crowd, embarrassed.
The gentleman artist stands, telling the people that there will be no more portraits today. Please find something to amuse yourselves. Please.
My drink finally comes and I cool my fingers along it's slippery corners. Im finally able to look back into the mirror. But the man is gone.
Sweat coats the outside of the glass as I breathe, in, out, remembering the feeling of being alone. I can feel the burning of my skin creep up from the top of my hands, along the outsides of my arms, flaming across my back. Spreading like panic. I let my fingers paint two swirls on the sides of the glass, condensation dripping as if from an incision. Two eyes, crying. I take a drink, swallowing twice. And then again.
We are at a table in the corner, a candle dancing between us, centering our secret world. If everywhere else would go completely black, if everything else would cease to exist, only our shadows would flicker into the void.
"What if the entire notion of knowing where we are is a complete fraud." I love David's voice. I love the look in his eyes when he begins to focus his thoughts, when he becomes so intent. I wipe away the tears from my glasses' swirling eyes. "What if all the ties that bind, all the definitions that give us place and identity - like family, job, nation, beliefs - what if theyre the product of one gigantic illusion?" As he speaks, the yellow flame deepens the colors of his skin. I want to undress him, let the flame spread and spread. "What if all these things that define us, all the things we imagine as being the glue of our lives, what if theyre more like cement, the stuff of walls and immovability and constraint? What if life can't really begin until we invent our own language, each one of us, word by word? What if the only way to feel human, to truly start living, is to move alongside, step through the looking glass..."
He holds up his own glass and looks at me through it. Or makes me look at him through it. His face distorts and flows. I lean forward and kiss his fingers. Its ok, I say, not wanting to interrupt, unable to help myself. Another firm will pick you up. Someone will want you. I want you.
"This has nothing to do with that," he says, perturbed. "Imagine if context holds no real meaning, if expectations arent allowed. Even for those that say they love you. Especially then. Just suppose that being lost is the starting point. Thered be nothing but bewilderment and riddles. Wonder and wondering. Innocent surprise. Terror. Life."
He takes a drink before putting his glass back on the small round table. He leans in on his forearms, his voice hoarse from too many long nights. I feel so bad for him, but cant show it. Part of the game of loving.
"I look around a room like this and think how some people continually get updated, as if they possess a built-in hook-up to some great database of Social Definitions, and whenever a new version comes out, Culture-Morph beta version 8.3a, zap!, it gets downloaded into their souls and, click!, they've adjusted without missing a step. Acculturation on the run. He takes another drink, looking away. I feel like I never got the original version. The little boy who couldnt figure out how to grow up. He taps the tabletop with his clean and perfect nails. Whenever I think I know how to behave, some new fad or general memo comes along and puts me in my place."
"Social Change is a hard date to dress for," I suggest. We laugh. But David's smile fades too quickly. His hands fall to his lap.
"Nothing makes me feel connected to anything anymore. Job, family, being in love." I listen but stop watching. His voice sounds like the battery behind his tongue has run out. "It's a hard thing to realize all your previously satisfying forms of suitable conduct have suddenly become ridiculous. Not just out of date, but embarrassing. Nonsensical. Who would have guessed how thoroughly getting fired could break somebodys heart?"
I want to hold him. My little boy. "You'll find something else," I say, thinking he already has. Wishing. "There are plenty of companies that need your kind of expertise."
He has a momentum all his own now. Energy from a unreachable source. "Maybe that's why so few do it," he says, pushing with his voice, pushing at the cement around him. "Why almost no one jumps off the edges of the map, walks through the waterfall into the hidden city. It's not that they're afraid of discovery, or even of getting lost. Their hearts are broken. They can't see their own feet or remember how to touch the ground."
I move my chair against his. Take his hand and press it against my lap. If only I could open my body to him, like the city behind the waterfall, and let him discover what he needs.
"I think most don't do it," he says, only to himself now, "because they've been convinced there is no edge to the map, no other side to step into. They believe that what theyre told is all there is, and that's that. As if the world of Published Definitions and Posted Rules is folded in onto itself, like the universe after the Big Bang. Like a napkin...
He lets me move his hand, without resistance. With his other hand, he takes the napkin from under his emptied glass and wipes his mouth. I think I have to start something on my own, he confesses, avoiding my eyes. Something all on my own.
I press his hand against me, glancing away from the uncertain look on his face. Be my little boy again, I think. Just be mine. Just be mine. I close my eyes as his fingers find me through the thin cotton, as my breath grows more shallow, concentrated. I lick my lips, biting the edges, wanting his own teeth against my neck, pulling at the side of my breast.
"Miranda," he says. I am unable to answer, falling past my own waterfall. "Miranda, if you step out of the frame, do you cease to exist?" I'm falling, caring nothing of death or life. Just loving the fall. "Miranda. I... I don't even know what love means any more..."
My silk blouse is unable to soak up the sweat from the back of my neck. It just smears the moisture around, making me feel hot and chilled both at once. It's oddly disorienting, not carrying my bags through the airport. I never check them, ever, because I know they'll get lost or redirected to Timbuktu or torn open in customs because my electric shaver starts vibrating for some stupid reason...
Just a panic attack, I think, hating the feeling of my skin burning, my fingers starting to tingle, the world growing too bright. Why didnt I keep my bags with me like usual? Nothing to hold.
If I could just have a drink. I walk a little faster, searching.
A fairly large crowd is gathered around one of the sports bars. Must be an important ball game on. I used to love watching ball games at bars. That's how I met my husband, Greg. I wonder if he's watching at home. But, no, hes in a different time zone. It's past our sons bedtime by now. And Greg always lets him sleep in our bed when Im out of town. Hed be sitting straight-backed, catching up on paperwork. Or asleep in his clothes, printouts strewn across the floor.
Just as I am about to find my way passed the crowd to the bar, a garbled voice over the P.A. announces that my flight is boarding. I stop, surprised. I look down at my feet. A long thin run, perfectly straight, mars the entire length of my pantyhose. God, how long has that been there? I slip over to the wall, hiding the run from view. Leaning heavily, I wonder what to do. I just need a drink. Just one drink before I go back home.
The voice repeats the numbers on my ticket. Confirming it.
Imagine the irony if I missed my flight while my bags actually made it there without me. I wonder if anyone would even notice. I wonder what would happen to the bags if I never came to claim them. Try as I might, I cant even recall whats in them anymore.
I think of how Greg used to meet me at the gate, steam curling up from a cup of coffee in his hand, papers spread around him, spilling out of his worn briefcase.
I think of David, how he used to drive me to the airport, how he used to wait for my flight to be called, how the words would turn his face so sad, as if the call for me to board ripped half his soul away.
I think of my sleeping son, warm beneath the sheets I once thought of as the center of my world.
I just need a drink first. Just one.
I shuffle around the corner into the bar and see a mans face in the mirror, a face like Mercury, staring back at me. Something is in his eyes, something deeper than reflection. He stands, offering me his seat, and I wish my hands werent so empty.
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