On the last day, even after stopping at the drive-through coffee stand for some much needed caffeinated reassurance, the woman arrived in her classroom several minutes earlier than she normally would have, if this were any other day. Her students would be clamoring into the classroom at the usual time, of course, but she knew that a host of moments she otherwise would have spent lingering in the reassuring waves of the covers would be futile, today. Moments that she would have, undoubtedly, spent imagining the lines of his face and scarlet tone of his full mouth as it murmured her name. Surging currents of trepidation and excitement propelled her forth, and she set her last day in motion.
An audible sigh escaped her lips as she opened her laptop computer, and folded herself into the high-backed, cracked leather swiveling chair for the final time. She leaned against the comfortable familiarity of a well-worn seat and surveyed the cluttered room; today was the day she would have her favorite kids help her peel away years of student-generated poetry from the avocado and tangerine-hued walls, piling the memories into a single box. Stripping off her cardigan, the black cashmere one with dancing, scarlet cherries embroidered on the shoulders, she felt the anticipated twinge in her nostrils and threat of tears beginning to gather; before submitting to her sadness, she summoned an image of his gleaming visage and again, breathed deeply. The aromas of melted wax from decades of sacrificed crayons gliding in melted puddles over the ancient, ticking radiator made her smile and realize, yet again, that after today, she would no longer be a teacher.
Outside, the bus’s tires skidding over the gravel parking lot jolted her from her reverie and she braced herself for the arrival. Within seconds, the doors squeaked open and the characteristic roar of young people began erupting through the windows: a noise that historically had made her cringe, particularly after rough ‘yesterdays’ in which the students had fought, exceeded the normal contingency of profanity, or pulled any other outrageous shenanigans that left her wondering why she had ever chosen this particular career path. Today, the disharmony of sound, bellowing like a turbulent sea, was a relief, as she knew that once the day began, it would be that much sooner to being complete and that one way or another, everything would be fine.
The front door was flung ajar and the floor groaned and grimaced under the weight of the kids, but unexpectedly, there was not much chatter. Perhaps the students, too, were feeling the melancholy of the day, the preparation of farewell? A striking, dark-eyed girl paused in her doorway, scarcely in sight, but the oceans of sadness in her eyes were apparent to the woman, even across the expanse of the English classroom. Once more, the woman buoyed her emotions and beamed at the girl, encouraging her entrance and the last day they would spend in one another’s company. The day began.
Usually, he would have paid the buzzing electric office lights no heed; they were part of the inevitable Monday-Friday routine, running a desk on the eleventh floor of the Marshall Building. Today, however, the hum only served as a pervasive and frustrating reminder that he was not yet at the airport to pick her up.
“Hey man, did you get that fax from corporate this morning?” the chubby, overzealous man who worked in the cubicle one over shoved himself into the man’s thoughts; this was typical for the people in his office. They really never seemed to know how to mind their own business and just leave him alone.
“What?” he questioned, not bothering to mask the annoyance in his voice.
“I said, did you get—“
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Why? Didn’t you?”
“Of course I did, buddy! I was just making sure, ‘cause last time you asked me about it after we got it and I just wanted to make sure!” The man gazed coolly at the jiggling features of his officemate without another word; the silence abruptly became deafening enough that the conversation ended there.
“Christ,” the man muttered to himself, shaking his head, swimming in aggravation. He glanced at the electric clock on his desk, and lingered, until he realized he had been stationary and rapt for more than a full minute, envisioning the gentle sway of her hips in the sundresses she so often donned, on patios, for the languid spring dusks in Texas.
Though the traitorous clock insisted there were hours left in his work day and before she was to arrive, all at once, he couldn’t tread on the currents of time any longer. Snatching his helmet and gloves from beneath his desk, the man swung his long limbs in dedicated intent to the elevator and into the parking garage. A long, fast ride would help to steady his nerves, and give him more time to daydream without distraction before plunging ahead.
Though arduous, even in the utmost conditions, the woman had always relished air travel. The airport was a destination in and of itself: a bustling, raucous hive awake and constantly pulsating with life. But this trip was unlike any other that she had taken, alone or with a companion or two, and even the atmosphere surrounding her maintained a slightly off-kilter ambiance. She had even selected a different sort of attire for this particular journey; whereas flying generally warranted slip-on shoes and pants made of something comforting, today she sported a flowing skirt and high heels. The walk through security and into the terminal felt longer than any she remembered, but she knew it wasn’t solely because of her shoes.
“Table for one?” the pint-sized hostess chirped, and the woman realized she had been lingering in front of a small airport bistro, entangled in her mental musings, for more than a few seconds.
“Umm, sure, thank you,” she uttered, and followed the tiny woman through the swell of traveling bodies indulging in final tastes and slurps before jetting away. Slipping into her small booth, the woman smiled at the hostess, who turned before noticing and marched away. Imbibing prior to flying was ritualistic for the woman, and she mentally debated if she were more in the mood for a glass of wine or a cocktail; certainly not a beer.
“Hi there. Can I get you something to drink?” the waiter’s pleasantries were delivered without a trace of jocularity on his stern countenance. The woman glanced at the drink menu perched on the edge of the table.
“I’ll try a glass of your house cabernet, please,” she told him, and without a response, he departed. Though wrought with anticipation, the woman allowed her body to slacken into the plastic-covered cushioning and her mind continued wandering. Would he have recently shaved? Or gotten a haircut? Would they go straight to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, or stop by the apartment beforehand to start unpacking her things?
“Here you go,” the waiter returned, unceremoniously jolting her back to earth, once more. The woman reached for her purse; he questioned, without looking up, “anything else or are you just going to be drinking today?” Tentatively bemused at the acidity supposed in what could almost be considered an accusation, an “oh, you’re one of those customers” proclamation, the woman retorted,
“Just drinking. Alcohol can really be a hell of a conversation starter, eh?” The waiter at last met her gaze for a fraction of a second, and broke into what appeared to be a genuine smile.
“So where do your travels take you today?” he asked, now lingering.
“Texas. One way,” the woman replied, gingerly lifting her wine glass by the stem and placing it to her lips.
“One way, huh? Damn. Don’t hear that one too much. So, are you originally from here then?”
“An hour north, but essentially, yes. This has been in my home for the past eighteen years.”
“Must be something big to drag you from your home to Texas,” the emphasis on the word ‘Texas’ did not offend the woman, as she had started becoming accustomed to the manner in which people pronounced their unspoken distaste for the southern state in the nuances of shared subtleties. Smiling to herself in the shiny blackness of her wine, she answered,
“It is. Something big.” There was a pause longer than what naturally seems to occur in conversational hiatuses between perfect strangers. The pause stretched into several seconds before the woman lifted her head to examine the waiter’s face for potential clues. All traces of his original unyielding affect the woman first witnessed had been exchanged with a tender veneration, gripped in a fist of thoughts.
“I wish you the best,” he told her, a snatch above a whisper. “And this glass is on me.” The waiter quietly patted the table next to her wine glass, and walked away.
As much sleep as he had lost, as much time ruminating in the shower or musing at work, he could not possibly have mentally prepared himself for what was to come. Over the past two years, well, one year-nine months-and sixteen days, he had been quietly delighting in the throes of this long-distance affair; now, he was on the precipice of becoming the daily routine. Was he ready? There was no way to know for sure. But if she was willing to take the plunge, he would be her partner in the dive and resurface on the other side of singlehood and paddle to stay afloat.
He looked at the clock on the wall of the terminal, and calculated that the plane should be landing any minute now. He wondered what she would be wearing, if she would smell as succulent as she always did? The stiff-backed, plastic chair was of no reassurance, and abruptly, the man felt his blood pressure surge in his veins; a tight throbbing began in his temples, which was not altogether unpleasant, but noticeable. The doors to the jetway had opened, and the first flight attendant was pushing a lady, with skin like muddled tide pool, in a wheelchair. Several seconds passed, and no one else was released from the tunnel.
The tide of people finally began dribbling through the doors, first a few, then more and more people poured into the airport. All of a sudden, there she was. If ever there had been a void in the time-flow continuum of life’s natural progression, he was suddenly well within its spiral. She didn’t immediately see him, and he watched her come toward him almost as though they were both moving, stunted but deliberately, along the floor of the ocean. At once, her eyes found his, and her face alighted with a luminous smile. This was it.
Reaching him, she beamed, almost imperceptibly grazing his cheeks with her fingers.
Not trusting himself to say anything without betraying the nearly overflowing spring of sensation that pulsated through his every cell, he took cues from dancing lights in her grin, and waited.
“What’s next?” she asked, blinking, lightly quivering before him. He could not answer her at once, and merely admired the yawning sea of her green eyes.
“Only one way to find out,” he told her, at last.
Together, they stood, trembling, on the edge of the world. Trickling over the hills before them, the sun took its time departing from the day, a day full of beginnings and promises. Though there were people around on all sides, children bellowing and mothers arguing with fathers and each other, they felt wrapped in solitude and content. The woman wove her fingers through his and the man felt a fluttering in his gut; without looking down at her, he knew she was smiling, perhaps even had a wetness to her eyes. He gambled a glance and noted the shadows on the trees behind her did not dare cast themselves on her face. She did not meet his eyes then, but he felt assured that she could sense his stare; by the time she slid her face around to meet his, he was plummeting, headfirst, into the one-way chasm of affection so rich, so bottomless, it could only be categorized as love.
Silently, she pivoted and pulled him into her grasp, her shoe sliding on the rock, crunching in the sunset; he took hold of her arm. The cacophony dulled and rose again in their ears and time hung its coat and slunk away into the darkness.