“You’re a bloody bitch! Do you know that?”
The man was shouting in a fury. Tiny blobs of frothy spittle emerged from the corners of his mouth and he shook like someone who was possessed with the devil.
John didn’t know what the man was shouting about. He has stopped paying attention to the movie shortly after it had begun. He removed the headphones, silencing the enraged man on screen.
The airplane had left New York behind some twenty minutes before. He had been trying not to look at his watch. They still had several hours of flight ahead, before they reached Seattle.
It was a long time to be left alone with your thoughts, a long time to be left wondering. He figured that was part of the reason he had chosen to watch a movie he already knew he’d hate.
He lay back and closed his eyes. He should try and get some sleep: it would help with the jet lag. But scenes from another movie – a far more real one – re-running in his head, wouldn’t let him rest.
Time ticked slowly by in some dark spot in the back of his mind and even more slowly in the depths of his stomach. A female voice emanated from the speakers, announcing they were flying over Chicago. Some of the passengers in the window seats looked out to see the mock-stars on the ground.
John had been thinking of the week before he left for New York. At a few days’ distance, it all came to him much more clearly, the little things more than anything else.
Claire had been – cold wasn’t exactly the word he was looking for. It had felt like she’d been some place else.
With someone else, perhaps. The jealousy bit into his chest with as much fervour as the nausea had been gnawing in his throat. He inhaled deeply; it would go away. Deeper still. Would she go away?
Again the all-too-friendly woman’s voice was heard, saying that, due to unexpected technical difficulties, they would be forced to make an unscheduled stop at Des Moines.
His eyes shot open. They were stopping?! The plane would be late; he couldn’t be late. He looked pleadingly at the passing flight attendant, but she didn’t see him.
Claire would be waiting for him at the airport. She had said so on the phone. She had said they needed to talk. She had sounded so grave, she had said so little. And now he was going to be late; maybe even too late.
He ran to a phone booth as soon as they let him out of the plane and called home. But nobody answered and he left a message. Some time later he was reaching for the phone once more and making a new call to the same number. If he could warn her, if he could only tell her, it wouldn’t be so bad. It couldn’t be that bad.
The phone rang. Once, twice, and again still. And then the answering machine came on:
“This is John…
“And this is Claire…
“And if we’re home, we’re probably… busy.”
He winced at their joint laughter.
“So leave a message.” His voice, followed by hers. “Or try again later.” He knew that pause so well. “Much later.”
He hesitated, wondering what it would seem like if he left her another message. The voice over the speakers settled it for him. “Flight 397 will depart from gate 12 in fifteen minutes.”
John hurried towards the gate, gazing at his watch. They had been detained for only half an hour. Not too bad, not too bad at all.
His stomach wasn’t getting any better. The flight attendant brought him some ginger ale, but it didn’t help much. Discreetly, he examined the little paper bags stuck in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of him, along with the tourism brochures. He had always wondered about those little paper bags. They seemed so frail.
Relieved, he discovered they were lined with plastic. If it came to that, he wouldn’t have to worry about an even greater embarrassment.
The man seated next to him returned from the bathroom. “Feeling any better?”
“Yes, thank you,” John said weakly. He did not want to start up a conversation. He looked out the window but the real stars – the ones in the sky – weren’t visible through the clouds.
“Are you married?” the man asked.
Most people would’ve chosen to start with Hi, my name’s so and so. But of course this man had to ask about Claire. And Claire was all John had been thinking about anyway.
“Well, are you?”
“Me too, twenty years. I expect my old girl will be leaving for the airport about now. We still live a bit far off, you know.”
John wondered where Claire was, what she was doing. She hadn’t been home, and she should’ve been home. He noticed the man staring at him. “Claire and I have been married for seventeen months.”
“Just getting out of the honeymoon stage, huh?”
He shrugged. “I guess.”
He closed his eyes and settled more comfortably in his seat. He didn’t want to continue this conversation. He didn’t want to know what stage he and Claire were going through.
A sudden jolt rattled the whole airplane. The seat-belts-on light came alive and so did the nauseating voice from the speakers. They were going through some turbulence.
“No? Really? We hadn’t noticed,” the man next to him muttered, struggling to buckle his belt as the airplane swayed from side to side, stopping suddenly in mid-air to lurch in the opposite direction.
John’s stomach was turning inside out, the knot in his throat tightening. The movie in his head restarted. He could see himself arriving him Seattle. Claire waiting for him, comfortably seated, knees joined together, hands resting primly on her lap. She would look up at him and say, ever so softly, “I’m sorry.”
The planed rolled around itself, jumping and shaking like a wild-eyed stallion frightened by the blue-white strikes of electricity tat crossed the dark skies.
Behind him, a young voice said, “Mummy, I don’t feel so good.”
The sound of a plastic-lined paper bag being opened was followed by far less pleasant noises. His stomach lurched, openly reacting to the sonic invitation.
The plane finally landed, bouncing off the runway again and again, bouncing and tilting to one side and the other, so much that John was certain the craft would capsize. It didn’t, and they were ushered out by smiling and apologising flight attendants.
John barely noticed them.
He wandered unwillingly into the waiting room. It was as the man had said; their honeymoon was over, he wasn’t ready for this, not yet.
She looked up when she heard his steps approaching. She had a tired look on her face and her hair was gathered up in a severe pony tail. She stood up.
“I know what you’re going to say,” he said before she could as much as open her mouth, “and I understand. If that’s what you want, I’ll leave.”
“Leave?” She was looking at him, seeming both puzzled and amused.
“You don’t want us to break up?”
“Where did you get that from?” She shook her head, smiling, and sat down again. She dug in her bag for a long envelope.
“Are you sure?” He crouched in front of her, resting his arms on her knees.
She looked at him and handed him the envelope. “Of course I’m sure. I have no intention of becoming a single mother.”