It’s amazing how quickly introducing ourselves with different names escalated to banging strangers in airport restrooms. We’re not swingers, not in the real world—it’s just this airport game we play.
At the bar’s end, I spot my mark: wedding band on the hand holding his nearly empty rocks glass. He stares at the bottle-lined shelves with soft unseeing eyes, fingertips of his other hand resting on his lips.
I like the sad ones. They’re the most grateful when things end in sex.
“Mind if I sit here?”
He startles, nods, sips his drink.
I make a production of situating my roller bag and drop my purse, dumping its contents. “Shoot.” I kneel, grab my wallet.
He retrieves a lipstick and box of Trojans that he hands back without making eye contact.
I ensure our hands touch. “This is embarrassing.”
He looks at me with gray-blue eyes and pity smiles.
“Thanks.” Getting sad ones’ help softens them up—they start feeling more successful than before you showed up. “My flight’s delayed. I’m a nervous traveler anyway. I’m headed to California for a job interview—for, like, a dream job,” I pause. “Sorry, I’m talking your ear off.”
Lies, all of it.
“Good luck with the job.” He drains his glass.
The bartender approaches. “What can I get ya?”
“I’ll have what he’s having.” I nod at my mark’s glass. To him: “May I buy you another, mister…”
“Bill. Sure. Thanks.”
The bartender grabs Johnny Walker Black and makes our drinks.
“I’m Felice.” Our first year, we used names that started the same as our own. Now we’re sequentially going through the alphabet: new year, new letter. “What do you do?”
Standard small talk, and it helps weed out journalists, cops—the kind of guys quick to doubt. Though we all lie to each other all day every day, we still hate Liars.
At least Bill isn’t monosyllabic, but our conversation’s off to a halting start.
I swirl my drink and soak in my new friend. Taller than I first thought with sandy blond hair graying at the temples. Working-man hands that I love with calluses and hangnails. He’s fit in that grizzled way of men who work hard.
“Business or pleasure?” I say.
Something passes over his face. Small muscles slacken then tense, eyes going ever-so-slightly glassy. My guts twist. He scrubs a hand over his face, rough skin shushing against stubble. When he moves his hand away a blankness replaces the emotion that briefly played on his face.
Bill gulps scotch. “My wife and I were on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary trip in Hawaii, but there was an accident.” He stares at the lonely ice in his glass. “Yvonne had an accident.”
Heat floods my face. I hold very still. I haven’t let myself feel shame in a long while.
Bill raises his empty at the bartender and chuckles hollowly. “The way things shook out, I’m on our regular flights home. This guy tried to take Yvonne’s seat on the last flight. Almost got physical. A flight attendant was headed for the air marshal right before I broke down. Don’t know that I ever cried like that before.”
The bartender arrives and wordlessly refills Bill’s glass.
I say, “All his drinks are on me.”
“Oh, no. That’s not, I can’t.” Bill waves a hand. “I’m sorry. Not sure why I’m telling you all this.”
“It’s okay.” For a moment, I wish I were a caring person who could actually empathize with what it must feel like to protect your dead spouse’s seat from some self-absorbed stranger. I have better odds of having fucked that stranger in an airport bathroom.
My mother’s face flashes to mind. I don’t think of her often. She died when I was 12 and was the kindest person I ever knew. I never understood her.
I try to imagine what she would say. “Have you eaten?” I ask. “Should you eat?”
“Felice?” a man calls from outside the restaurant—my husband. “Felice Montreux, that you?” He rushes in and pulls me into an awkward embrace. “How long’s it been?”
“Uh, hi, Dylan.” I use his real name—our abort code. “Now’s not a good time.”
“Nonsense,” he says, arm still draped over my shoulder. “I haven’t seen you since grad school. You’re just gonna blow me off?” He gives Bill a toothy grin. “Hi.”
“Where you headed?” I shrug off his arm and grab my purse.
“New York. Hustling to make my connection.” He backs towards the door. “Walk with me?”
“Gimme a sec.” I turn to Bill. “I’m so sorry—”
“Please, don’t. It’s okay.” He picks at his cardboard coaster’s warped corner. “Catch up with your friend.”
I flag the bartender and pay. I offer Bill a hand, and he shakes it. I slowly pull away, appreciating his rough skin and hard calluses. I bet he’s a generous lover.
Feeling like I should say something more, I consider phrases people use about loss. None of them are real. They all sound like lies I sling when we play airport people.
“Goodbye,” I say.
“Good luck,” Bill says.
Dylan marches us toward the gates at the terminal’s end. “Looks like I saved you from a dud.”
I shake my head. We’ve agreed not to interrupt each other except for emergencies. Lately Dylan’s made a hobby of breaking agreements.
“Hotel called.” He prattles on about a booking change and the woman headed to LA for a reality show who he’ll return to after we talk.
My mind wanders to married men I’ve been with in the airport whose regret kicks in the moment they come. Blood flows back to their brains suddenly, reminding them there’s a real world out there with its rules and responsibilities. I always tell them the same thing. The airport is a world in between, where ephemeral things happen. They’ll board their flight and go somewhere else and leave this moment behind forever. That’s the biggest lie I tell.
Kristie Smeltzer’s fiction has been published by Atticus Review, pioneertown, 101 Words, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and others. She earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of Central Florida. Kristie helps others tell their stories as a developmental editor and writing coach, and she teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. Learn more at www.kristiesmeltzer.com and follow her on Twitter at @kristiesmeltzer.