Sim Sala Bim by Gina Williams
“‘Is this all there is?’
The question caught me off guard for a split second, sucked a little bit of air from my gut…”
Where We Are by Jared Yates Sexton
“The thing that really got her was how I listened to records all hours of the night. She said she didn’t care about my moods, my general nihilism or ill temperament…”
Hunger, Not Tame by Sheila Lamb
“Brutal wind beat against the door of her camper. The cold didn’t bother her—Kate had only ever lived in cold and windy environments—but the sand did…”
Waiting for Flight by Michael Chin
“Carl Perkins spied his son’s ex, Lucy, in the airport terminal…”
Misfire by Joe Oestriech
“An hour after load-out, Biggie pulls the Econoline into the parking lot of the Raleigh Fairfield Inn…”
What of the Raven, What of the Dove by Randon Billings Noble
“A story was growing inside my neck but I didn’t yet know what it said…”
The Line by Amy Collini
“The week before I leave for freshman orientation at Ohio State, my father offers me a gift: an “in” at the plant where he works…”
Moth in the House by Jessica Greenbaum
“Skimming the wood floor like a bi-plane over the November fields,
might wonder where the breeze went, and all the chorus and lilt of the leaves…”
Bubble by Jessica Greenbaum
“Walking through the park, I saw a grackle ferrying a
bubble in its beak as it flew to the tree top where…”
Back Seat Event by Gabrielle Freeman
“I want to kiss you, but
I open the car door, and it is raining…”
Those Birds by Michael Colonnese
“Lined up on the wire,
Everything She Can’t See by Liz Ahl
“The little girl is full of questions
and asks them all, one after another…”
Waterfront Metro Station by Elizabeth Acevedo
“through the speakers
the conductor’s voice scratched
a stop away from mine…”
Waiting for Flight
Carl Perkins spied his son’s ex, Lucy, in the airport terminal. He hadn’t thought of her in years and, at that moment, had instead focused on the feel of the thin, glossy magazine stock paper in his hands. Carl’s business was paper. He sold it by the ream for Double Oak. Whenever he signed new clients he liked to make a joke with them about how it wasn’t official until they signed the contract, printed on a sheet of Double Oak twenty-pound bond. He had used the joke for twenty years, but tripped over his own words that afternoon when he’d forgotten that he would have the client sign his tablet screen. The paper company had decided to conserve and removed itself from its own line of business.
Carl saw Lucy, it seemed, at just the same moment she spotted him. She smiled, her thin lips parting a little too far, revealing a pink strip of gums above her teeth. She got up and crossed the aisle, dragging behind her a duffel bag, the strap wrapped twice over around her hand.
“Carl.” Her tongue curled around the R sound. It had unnerved him that she always addressed him by his first name the first time they met, but he never corrected her. “How are you?”
He got up and hugged her. As soon as he had his arms around her, it seemed like too much for someone he hadn’t seen in so long, or whom he’d last heard from before she broke off her engagement to his son, Nathan. Hugging her felt like a betrayal and yet not entirely unnatural, if only because she was so quick to hug him back.
She wore a pea green tank top, a black zip up sweatshirt tied over her waist. Had he ever seen her hair that short before? She had been a redhead first, and when her hair faded to pink, he had been surprised to learn it was dye all along. She was bleach blond for a period of weeks, then wore her hair darker—shades of brown, black. Standing in the fluorescent light of the terminal, her hair curled around her ears, an oaky shade, maybe her natural color. He smelled traces of smoke—faint enough she may have walked through someone’s smoke break on the way into the airport. Faint enough he probably wouldn’t have noticed were he not jonesing for a cigarette so badly after a day spent inside.
“What are the odds of running into you here?” she asked.
Carl had changed planes in Philadelphia more times than he cared to count, and had to imagine a disproportionate number of flights back to Syracuse came through there, making the odds more reasonable than Lucy suggested. But then, the odds of them coming at the same time on the same night—that felt fated.
She had worn a maroon tank top and black denim skirt with a chain that linked her waistband to her pocket for reasons Carl couldn’t begin to understand. The moment Lucy walked into the house at fifteen, she seemed impossibly anachronistic, a cyborg femme fatale entering a more primitive time. She came through the door ahead of his son, crossed the orange and white shag rug over the rotted hardwood and shook Carl’s hand.
They ate dinner.
“These rolls are delicious, Pattie.” Lucy reached past Nathan to grab her second one. She dug her table knife into the little tub of whipped butter that they only put out when they had company for dinner because Pattie thought butter and salt and pepper were indulgences in day-to-day life. Lucy slathered a layer of butter as thick as a sheet of thirty-two pound bond and pushed the ends of the bread together so the excess protruded from one side.
“Thank you,” Pattie said. “I bought them at the store.”
“That’s just like my mom.” Lucy sucked excess butter from the space between the knuckles of her ring finger and pinky. “You live in a place long enough and you know where to buy the best rolls, and where you can park when, so you won’t get a ticket.”
“We’ve lived our whole lives in Fayatteville.” Carl ran his thumb over the soft, dry center of his own bun.
“Do you see yourself sticking around here?” Pattie asked. “Or do you think you’ll go away for school?”
“I’m leaving,” Lucy said. Before Pattie could finish her nod of approval to a girl who wouldn’t give Nathan ideas about staying home, much less anchor him there personally, Lucy went on, “There’s a whole world out there. There are chateaus in France so big the people who owned them couldn’t finish decorating before they died. There are frogs in Cameroon the size of cats. There’s a 700-year-old tree in China that can tell good from evil.”
“Nathan,” Pattie said. “Please pass the corn.”
The corn was closer to Carl so he picked it up himself and handed it across the table. “It would cost a lot of money to see all of those things.”
“I don’t care about possessions.” Lucy said. “I won’t have a TV or twenty changes of clothes. I’ll keep what I need and I’ll use my money for experiences.”
Carl had only left the country on road trips to Canada so he and his friends could drink beer and visit strip clubs before they were of legal age Stateside. He wondered how Lucy knew about the rest of the world—if she kept a list, or collected facts the way he could recite batting averages for different Yankees or identify the prices for paper.
Carl could see a boy like Nathan—a boy who did his homework and got up in time to walk himself to his weekend job pulling carts at the grocery store—would fall in love with something less practical.
Carl propped his hand on his chin, his elbow on the table for a second—just long enough to accidentally knock his knife to the floor. He stooped and, beneath the table, saw Lucy’s legs parted at the knees. He saw her panties, probably white, painted pink in the dull reflection of the red vinyl tablecloth Pattie put out for company. The edges of a few dark hairs curled from one side of her underwear.
He came back up quickly, narrowly missed banging his head against the edge of the table, but knocked his hair up at an angle. He ran a hand through it to smooth things out. Pattie got up to fetch the pound cake and a carton of store-brand vanilla ice cream.
After dinner they talked in the living the room. The visit began to feel more like visiting with a couple than meeting his teenage son’s teenage girlfriend. Lucy sat cross legged on the leather couch, her elevated calf swinging in small ovals while she spoke about politics (Clinton would win the presidency; America wearied after twelve years of Republicans), commenting on her favorite Beatles album (Sgt. Pepper), her favorite soda (Diet Dr. Pepper).
Pattie sipped her decaffeinated herbal tea and nodded.
Carl smoked a cigarette on the porch while Nathan walked Lucy home. Her house was about a quarter mile away. If his son took longer than half an hour to get back, it meant funny business. Maybe a stop in her bedroom because her parents weren’t home. Carl remembered being that age. He had girlfriends but never got past second base until college. He shouldn’t have wanted for his son to, and yet he couldn’t help a surge of vicarious sexual tension, ambition, curiosity, and wonder. It could be the sort of night Nathan would never forget.
Pattie scrubbed a saucepan and then the dinner plates. She removed the tablecloth, went outside, and shook it in the yard.
Nathan arrived home after twenty-one minutes.
Nathan was a good boy, Carl thought. Perhaps too good of a boy. If a child didn’t try to get away with anything, what stories would he have to tell at the poker table and how could he avoid life’s bigger mistakes without smaller ones along the way? Carl prided himself on being a good father. He didn’t raise his voice. He taught his boy how to shoot baskets at the playground, and he went to school open houses. But did he command too much respect?
While Nathan brushed his teeth, Carl crossed through the open doorway of his son’s bedroom. He hadn’t changed his posters since elementary school, portraying basketball players who had since retired, a movie he couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Nathan mention. His yearbooks lined the middle shelf of his book case. Carl pulled one from middle school and flipped the heavy pages, printed to survive a lifetime.
Before he got to Nathan’s picture, he arrived at Lucy’s. Lucy, wearing a cap with the Syracuse University logo and a necklace with obscenely large metal links. Somewhere between sporty and faux-urban, she was a different girl then. Carl felt betrayed. He had sensed an authenticity about her—a sense that she had something ineffable figured out, and the fact she was another person altogether three or four years earlier seemed to undermine the whole thing.
Carl didn’t notice his son enter the room until he stood right beside him in his white t-shirt and red gym shorts—worn, with a ripped pocket that drooped outward.
“What are you doing?” Nathan asked.
Carl didn’t make any effort to hide the page of the yearbook. Surely, Nathan knew it by heart. What did boys his age do but look at pictures of girls they liked? Carl had masturbated at least two or three times a day when he was Nathan’s age.
“I’m pretty tired,” Nathan said.
Carl put the book back on the shelf. He closed his son’s door behind him and before he had made it down the hallway to the master bedroom, he heard Nathan flip the switch to turn out the lights. He was a good boy.
Carl slept with his wife that night, moving harder and faster than he had in sometime, remembering young sex and the innocence of girls who forgot to cross their legs.
After the woman at the counter announced that their flight had been delayed two hours, Carl proposed that he and Lucy get a bite to eat. She picked up the pink and white-polka-dot duffel bag. The strap buckled. They wandered past the soft pretzel stand and a convenience store. Carl didn’t try to engage in conversation, rattled by the persistent rumblings from loudspeakers, and the ways in which streams of people forced he or Lucy to drop back into single file to let the foot traffic pass.
While they waited for their server at the Blue Moon Diner, Lucy explained she had lost her job working with a non-profit that built houses for people who lost them in Hurricane Katrina. She alternately referenced the bad economy and that her job had been a contract position, to the point Carl wasn’t sure if she was laid off, fired, or if there were no job left to do.
They sat on opposite sides of metallic booth at the diner, on red vinyl seats, a rip in the back of Carl’s sealed with duct tape. She dousing a ring of fried calamari in marinara sauce.
“Your tattoo.” Carl sucked the chicken wing sauce from his thumb and studied Lucy’s clavicle, in the space between the maroon shoulders straps.
She moved the left strap to the side to fully expose the word CUTIE.
“That’s nice,” he said.
“It’s what a boy in New Orleans called me.”
Carl tapped a celery stalk against the rim of his little plastic tub of blue cheese as if he were knocking off ashes, the celery perched between his index and middle fingers. “A boy?”
“First boy I got serious with since Nathan. I saw him for a few months when I first moved.” She bit into a piece of calamari, silly because they were all bite sized, and rubbery enough that they didn’t break readily. She tugged between her teeth and fingers but it refused to break, so finally she put the whole thing in her mouth. “He lived across the hall from me in my first apartment.”
“You shouldn’t shit where you eat.” He had wanted to sound cool—had heard the expression decades ago and it seemed as though it would strike the balance between hip and wise. The profanity felt ugly on his tongue, though.
“And so I moved to my second apartment in New Orleans,” she said. “But after that, after I told him I never wanted to see him again and actually meant it, I still wanted to remember how I felt those first few weeks.” She ran her middle finger over the pet name.
She was foolish. She was Nathan’s age—what, twenty-nine years old? What did a twenty-nine-year-old know about identifying important moments in her life? Carl was fifty-six and thankful he’d never fallen into circles that got tattoos or God knows what band name or TV sitcom might have scarred his body. “How did it feel?”
“Like I was new.” She drank from her strawberry milk shake, a shade lighter than her duffel bag. She pushed the straw to the side so the tip pressed against her cheek, and drank straight from the glass. “I grew up where my parents had decided to settle down, and, you know, I followed Nathan to college.” For the first time, she diverted her eyes. “New Orleans was the place where I didn’t have to be Lucy anymore.”
“What’s wrong with your name?”
“It’s just nice to be called something else for a while.”
They had made a game of it. Lucy called herself Natasha. She was a Russian foreign exchange student whose accent inexplicably sounded more like she was Irish. Nathan went by the name Albert. He was a young genius when it came to languages and when things became too difficult, he would translate Natasha’s thoughts for waitresses and toll booth workers. Carl tried to play along, and introduced himself to the gas station attendant as Larry. Pattie pinched his arm and told him not to encourage the children.
It was the first time Carl and Pattie had two young people along for a trip—they made the drive to Florida alternating Labor Day weekends. Nathan was old enough to bemoan the car ride, his legs too long to be confined in the backseat. It was Carl’s idea to invite Lucy along as a peace offering.
For all of the wanderlust she’d spoken of at the dinner table, Lucy had hardly traveled anywhere. Along the drive, Nathan took pleasure in asking her where was the farthest south she had ever been. Each time, the answer came back the same: “Here.”
It seemed every time Carl started a story, Pattie unfurled a new corner of the map and called him to attention—warning him of the fork in the road ahead or where they needed to turn to avoid the toll road.
They got to the timeshare long after dark and ordered Chinese takeout. Pattie took the Pennysaver from outside the door and spread it out so they wouldn’t need to clean the table afterward. Carl thought it a waste of newsprint, but didn’t debate the point. They set the glossy meats, the greasy vegetables, the mounds of white rice across their little dining table and feasted. Carl and Pattie turned in shortly after.
Carl got up early. Pattie was asleep, her back to him. The sun was just coming up. He crept from the room, back out to the living room, where he was pleasantly surprised to see the table cleared, the empty cartons and newsprint bundled in the brown paper bag the Chinese food had come in. The leftovers stocked the fridge. They smelled awful in the moment, but he was sure he’d want them again come lunchtime. Carl started a pot of coffee.
When it was ready, he carried his mug out to the porch. The sun had barely risen and the air felt cooler than when than it had the night before. He liked this time best. Between things. Quiet. The coffee steamed and smelled of a different blend than the one they bought at home. He set his cup on the porch railing and lit a cigarette.
He heard murmuring and walked to the edge of the porch to see who else was up. It was Florida, and so he had come to expect six o’clock power walkers, or puttering old birds out on their own porches, awaiting the morning paper.
The gentle blue ripples on the pool reflected the faintest rays of light and sparkled. Reclining patio chairs lined the perimeter of the water. Only one of them was occupied.
Nathan sat, legs out straight, back propped at a 45 degree incline, barefoot in his maroon swim trunks and the same Yankees t-shirt he wore for the drive the day before. Lucy reclined, half beside him, half on top of him, both legs curled over one of his, head on his chest. She wore khaki shorts and a black bikini top, tied over her neck, a white flower approximating the location of her left nipple. The white plastic of the patio chair bent beneath them and they talked just loudly enough so Carl could hear the rumble of their words, softly enough so none of the language filtered up to him.
They’d been up all night, Carl felt sure. He took a drag, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and chased it with a sip from his mug. A second after the coffee hit his tongue, he knew he’d messed it up. It went down the wrong pipe and a second later he coughed uncontrollably at the tickle in his throat. He spattered coffee on the railing. Below, Nathan and Lucy shifted to get a look at the commotion. In doing so, Lucy shifted more weight on top of him and the chair gave way. Four or five of the slats split and the two of them crashed to the pavement. Lucy laughed.
Carl retreated from view and stifled the rest of the coughs into the sleeve of his robe. In lieu of an ashtray, he stubbed out the cigarette on the cement floor of the porch and hid the butt behind a potted plant.
He decided that, if the children were to see him, it was important they think he stumbled upon them just now, not that he’d been eavesdropping. So, he counted to a hundred before he looked back down. Nathan and Lucy weren’t looking for him. On the contrary, he found Nathan sliding patio chairs, one by one, evening out the distance between them so it was difficult to tell a chair was gone. Lucy tilted a parasol to better hide the broken chair they had stashed in the shrubbery. The two of them embraced after they had finished their work and Lucy laughed again.
They had done a neat enough job. Carl wondered if management would say anything. By the time the kids were done, he could hardly tell that anything was broken or missing.
Lucy told Carl she had to pee and left him alone to wait for the bill at the diner. Across the way, her duffle bag bulged at peculiar angles, as though there were all manner of boxes and shoes, maybe a hair dryer inside.
The waiter pressed the bill to the table beneath his thumb. “You can pay at the register.”
Carl studied his name tag. “Pedro, did you see the girl I was eating with?” He picked up the bill as though he were examining it. “Do you think she’s pretty?”
The boy folded his hands in front of him. “I thought you daughter was very lovely. Thank you for dining with us tonight, sir.”
He was gone before Carl could say anything more. Most folks would look upon the two of them like father and daughter, Carl realized. At a certain point in life, people stopped looking at you with suspicion or judgment, but rather with the assumption you were old and harmless. Carl ran his fingers over the receipt, white paper streaked with pink, the roll almost finished.
Lucy stood by the register, twisting the ends of the wrapper on a red and white candy mint. She stood with one foot flat, the other up on her toes at an angle, talking with the maître d’. Inside an hour, Carl figured he would be seated on the opposite end of a plane a plane from her. He reminded himself that he might never see her again.
Beer had foamed over the lip of Carl’s beer can, and he raced to suck it dry. He popped the second can and it foamed just the same. He handed it to Nathan and rather than gulping down the beer, he held it at arm’s length and tipped it, pouring the suds between the slats in the wooden porch.
Carl didn’t drink often, and when he did, he favored whiskey. The beer was left over from a Super Bowl party, and it wasn’t until he was drinking from it and watching Nathan set down the can and wipe his hands on his jeans that Carl remembered how Nathan spent the game. He and Lucy had sat close, Nathan in his Jim Kelly jersey, Lucy in a white t-shirt colored in silver and blue puff paint to proclaim her a Cowboys fan. Carl figured she was just being contrary.
Now, on the edge of summer, sitting barefoot on the front porch, Carl wondered if giving his son a beer was the wrong response—not a manly way of forgetting problems but a reminder of a very specific night before Lucy said they should see other people.
“Drink up,” Carl said.
Nathan picked up the beer-soaked can by the edges of the rim and sipped slowly. He winced at the taste. “I don’t like it.”
Carl didn’t know if Nathan—eighteen years old—had ever had a beer before. Nathan spent most weekend nights with Lucy, doing God knows what.
“There will be other girls.” Carl sipped some more of his own beer. “Lots of them.”
All Carl knew was what Nathan volunteered. He sat down at the dinner table. Pattie asked him how school was. He said Lucy dumped him. Pattie asked where. He said by the flagpole. She asked when. He said right after school. She asked why. He said he didn’t want to talk about it.
And he seemed fine.
He didn’t break anything or cry or lash out at either of them. He finished his dinner, did his homework and went to bed early. The trouble was that he did the same thing the night after that. And the night after that. He slept through almost the entire day Saturday, except for when Pattie summoned him for lunch, and then for dinner. Each time he reported to the table, hair matted and parted by the whims of his pillow, wearing the same gray sweat pants, the same plain white t-shirt. Sunday, Pattie said Carl ought to talk to him.
“You know that painting of the lighthouse?” Nathan asked.
Nathan’s last birthday, Lucy had given him the piece of art that she said she had painted with him in mind. Pattie said it was a warning sign—that the two of them were comfortable enough to give such intimate gifts, that it suggested more than trading CDs or even jewelry. Carl thought it was nice of Lucy to give him something personal.
And the painting itself—it was art! No childish gesture, no literal transcription of something in the world, but rather a visionary’s depiction of what might be. A sky turned orange and purple against the setting sun, reflecting darker colors on the water beneath it. The shadowy forms of trees lined the bank, a mile or more away.
“I don’t think it’s very good,” Nathan said. “I think I’ll throw it away.”
Carl stole a look inside Nathan’s room the next morning while the boy showered. He had taken the painting down but left it leaning against the wall. An asymmetrical coil of picture hanging wire protruded from hooks on the back. Nathan had hung the painting himself.
The painting would stay like that for weeks, but never left Nathan’s room. One day, he turned it around, to face outward. Another day, he hung it on the wall again.
“Why did you split up with Nathan?”
They walked the airport corridor at a slow pace, Lucy’s steps uneven, her right leg taking shorter steps beneath the weight of her bag. “We got so comfortable. We knew all of each other’s stories. I knew if he ate too many slices of pizza he was going to have to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. And he knew that as soon as I saw someone on TV cry, I was going to cry, too. And we knew Saturday nights we would be at a bar with all our friends and Sunday afternoons we would read or play board games at the coffee shop.”
A man in a bright yellow shirt interrupted them. He offered them brochures and asked if they wanted a free flight to Tahiti.
“There comes a point,” she went on, “when you realize you’re looking at the whole rest of your life. That if you don’t change something, you’re never going to do anything else again. And it’s not that what we had was so bad. But I was twenty-three. I couldn’t know my whole life yet.”
Carl scratched his forehead. He had meant to ask about the first break up, when they were high school kids, but he supposed the answer wouldn’t change all that much.
She stopped outside the restroom. “You mind watching my bag for a minute?”
He took the bag by the strap. It staggered him for a second. He could hardly believe she had carried that weight all this time. But she didn’t look back. An old Chinese woman stutter stepped and paused to avoid a collision as she left the bathroom. Lucy kept moving.
When Carl had found the hair clip on the sofa in Nathan’s one-bedroom college apartment, his junior year, the boy snatched it from his hand and said a friend must have left it. When Pattie removed a long, curly black hair from Carl’s sweater after he stood up from the same couch, she didn’t say anything—just held it up to the light so they both could see it, and let it fall to the filthy carpet. Neither of them said anything when they observed the lighthouse painting hanging in the kitchen.
Carl and Pattie visited Nathan and brought carton upon carton and tin foil containers of chicken and pork and rice and dumplings and steamed vegetables. Pattie had said she wanted to recreate the Chinese buffet that was Nathan’s favorite spot to eat back home, and that he could use the leftovers for any number of meals in the days to come.
Carl was content to let their every observance go—the wine glasses in the cupboard, the presence of Greek yogurt Nathan would never eat in the refrigerator. But after dinner, Pattie excused herself to the bathroom while Carl and Nathan packed up the leftovers. In retelling the story, she would say she had no hidden motivations, and that she never would have gone snooping in her son’s things had she not noticed a second toothbrush balanced in a plastic Solo cup by the bathroom sink.
After she saw the second toothbrush, she opened the medicine cabinet and found the birth control pills. She let herself into the bedroom and found the closet, jam-packed with clothes, so few of them Nathan’s so many of them the skirts and blouses “that I’ll never forget Lucy flouncing around in.”
The questions started.
When did Lucy move in?
At the start of the school year.
Were you going to tell us?
Is she going to school here?
She transferred this fall.
When did she decide to do that?
When did you start seeing her again?
On they went. Nathan wasn’t sarcastic, the way Carl imagined other boys his age might have been, nor did he get angry the way Carl himself did when Pattie got on a roll, nagging him for not putting up the storm windows before the first autumn chill, or concocting theories about why he put on weight. Nathan was removed—talking to a crazy person. Pattie complained that the money they gave him for college wasn’t meant to support her. Nathan countered that Lucy paid half the rent. For his part Carl tried to take Pattie’s side but there was little for him to say as she went on and on. He passed the time, instead, inspecting Nathan’s inkjet on his desk, seeing how much Double Oak printer paper he had left, feeling relieved he was right that he hadn’t needed to bring him another ream on this trip.
Carl hoped he might see Lucy that night. For all that talk of her, he missed the girl. He had thought her pretty and funny and that their son could do far worse. But half an hour later, he drove back east on I-90, silent save for the spatter of rain drops, the rubbing of windshield wipers against glass. Pattie’s fingernails dug into the upholstery. Carl hit cruise control and daydreamed about everything that was and everything that might be.
Standing back in the airport terminal, Carl recalled that Nathan fell out of touch for a matter of months. A week before Christmas, Nathan had called Carl and made plans to come home on Christmas Eve. Carl didn’t dare ask about Lucy until the two of them were alone on the porch, Carl smoking, Nathan shoveling the thin layer of snow from the cement front steps. Nathan confirmed he had made the drive home with her and dropped her off at her mother’s house before he came home.
They didn’t speak of her again.
Another Christmas, Nathan came home and made mention of Alison. Carl asked who she was and Nathan said she was just some girl he was seeing. Later, at Pattie’s prodding, he showed them a picture of her on his phone—a girl with strawberry blonde hair, a toothy smile, and freckles. And like that, Lucy was out of their lives. The next time he came home, he made mention of a different girl. After he left, Carl lamented that he didn’t show any sign of settling down. Pattie said he was still young.
Even when they were alone, Carl and Pattie never spoke of Lucy, and the girl started to feel like some ex-girlfriend of his own. He remembered moments that he—not Nathan—had had with her. Like the time when he came upon her practicing folding different models of paper airplanes at the kitchen table, in preparation for an activity she and Nathan would lead at the day camp where they worked that summer. Nathan was in the bathroom, Lucy had handed him a sheet of Double Oak twenty-four pound bond—far too nice of a paper to use for children’s games, but who was he to ruin the good time? So he folded his best glider, age old muscle memory guiding each crease. The plane sailed from his fingertips all the way out of the entryway to the kitchen before it spiraled to the ground, producing a lovely flourish even in the act of crashing. Lucy squealed and applauded the flight as if she had recovered some piece of her younger self in watching it. In that moment, Carl thought that he, too, might somehow rediscover the things that had gone missing in his life–that he might recover everything he had once loved.
Lucy asked how he had folded the plane and he laid his hands over hers. He would never forget how tan her skin had turned from baking in the sun, and how strange it seemed that it was, simultaneously, so cool to the touch.
And there she was again, at the airport. Leaning, half sitting with her back to a column, eyes on her phone. He stood beside her, watching the desk as the airline workers in their navy vests shifted papers and talked amongst themselves, preparing to make an announcement. Carl thought about trying to change his and Lucy’s seats so they could sit together. He thought of inviting her to his apartment for dinner sometime. Since the divorce, he had surprised himself with his perfectly reasonable cooking abilities.
But Carl didn’t know that she wanted any of that.
Carl remembered something his father told him when he was a very old man. His father said never to force relationships—that people came in and out of a man’s life when they were meant to. Carl wanted to dismiss his father’s words as platitude, as things old men said to forgive lost acquaintances and die in peace. But then, he never could disprove what his father told him. He supposed that was the very essence of old men’s proverbs, just like the slips of paper from fortune cookies Nathan used to collect after Chinese dinners—the reassurance they’d never be proven wrong, even if they couldn’t ever be proven quite right. After his father died, Carl wrote the words down, apropos of nothing, on a steno pad at work. Standing in the airport, he couldn’t remember if he had thrown away the note or if he still had it somewhere.
The announcement came for them to line up to board. Lucy stood up straight and picked up her bag. No sooner had she rested the weight on her shoulder did the strap finally give way. The mass of the bag tumbled to the floor, pulling her sweatshirt to one side so her tattoo showed for a second. Cutie. She reached after her bag, more frazzled than Carl had ever seen her.
He scooped up the handles of the bag. “I’ve got it,” he said. “Let me carry it for now.”