At the Terminal
Francie should have had a suitcase. Something in understated tweed, perhaps, or maybe one of those old hardsides with a matching cosmetic case, or a rolling duffel at least. At her age, she should have worn a better outfit than a T-shirt and baggy denim overalls and certainly better shoes than her canvas sneakers. Francie fiddled with a strap on her red backpack, which was faded and warped with age, rolling the nylon in her fingers the way she used to roll cigarettes until she'd quit two months earlier. She glanced at herself in the airport terminal window. Her burgundy modified bob—carefully blow-dried straight that morning right before Clive said, We need to talk—now frizzed in the damp Seattle air.
She was three hours early for her flight home to Phoenix. Since she didn't have to check luggage, she waited on a cement bench outside the terminal, where city buses hissed and groaned, and exhaust fumes mingled with the odor of damp soil from potted vincas and geraniums. A late-summer storm had just blown through, and she shivered in her short sleeves—in Phoenix, it would be over 100 degrees. The sky was still mostly dark, the clouds discordant, dropping rain in light, skittish bursts. Rainwater dripped steadily from the roof onto the concrete—plop, plop, plop. Francie kept her sunglasses on and shoved a wilted tissue underneath them from time to time. She looked up, and a drop of water landed on her forehead—plop.
Francie took out her cellphone and dialed her sister Jean. Francie had met Clive, indirectly, through Jean: She bought Francie a DSL connection and Internet dating subscription for Francie's 34th birthday.
On the night of Francie's birthday, Jean had handed her the gift certificate and said, "Now, don't freak out."
They were washing birthday-dinner dishes at Jean and her husband's house in Tempe near the university, where Jean was an associate professor of anthropology and working on a study of single women in the 21st century. At 30, Jean was married and up for tenure. Francie worked as a hair colorist, a now four-year career that her mother and father, both economics professors, called a delayed backpacking trip to Europe.
Francie said, "I'm not your guinea pig, Jeanie."
"No, you're my sister. And you need to get out of the house."
"Hey, I like my house." This wasn't completely true. Francie rented a one-bedroom guest house, where she stayed in on weekends, listening to the same CDs for weeks at a time, where she ate soup with her face too close to the bowl, where she locked the door the second she was inside and checked it again in the middle of the night. The part she did like was the dark, grassy backyard, where she could see stars and planets. She'd been tracking the progress of Mars since August because she had read that it was closer to Earth than it had been in centuries. She'd sit out there with some Johnny Cash or Steve Earle on the stereo, and she felt safe, happy even, just looking up.
Jean said, "Well, I'm telling you now, honey, it doesn't like you. When was the last time you had a date? Don't make me ask about sex."
Francie frowned. It had been a year, for both. Bad first date, bad sex, bad hangover—the trifecta. She bit her lip, trying to remember the guy's name, and then cleared her throat. "OK, so you give me a gift where I won't leave my house. I'll sit in a dark room, chain-smoking, while some guy gets off to my picture."
"It's not like that at all." Jean squeezed soap onto a sponge. "It's anonymous, yes, which is the paradox of social interaction in a technological age. And yet, it harkens back to old courtships in many ways. Letter writing. Except faster."
"Like Jane Austen on speed," Francie said. "Like Simone de Beauvoir to Sartre, but not."
Jean, a woman with no patience for irony, flipped soap suds off her hands. She gave Francie a look—which Francie took to mean, And you wonder why you don't date.
Francie touched her sister's hair. "You need your roots done. Maybe some highlights too."
Jean knocked her hand away. "Just think about it for Christ's sake." She picked up a plate of cupcakes and the coffee pot and headed for the dining room. She stopped and looked back. "I'm worried about you. You used to be fearless."
Francie listened to the cellphone ring, watching people unload from a blue shuttle van. Two flight attendants with matching chignons stepped out with their tidy luggage carts. Francie touched her frizzing hair as Jean's voice mail picked up. She remembered what her sister said before this trip, Francie's third to Seattle. Jean loaded her up with condoms and said, This is it. Six months in, third visit. This is where you get in or get out. Francie said into the phone, "I'm getting out. I can't get out of the Pacific Northwest fast enough." Suddenly she wanted to smoke so badly that she started coughing. She stuck a strap of her backpack in her mouth and bit down hard.
A man in a wheelchair stopped at a bench a few feet from her. He was an older man, maybe in his fifties, with silvery hair down to his shoulders and a Fu-Manchu style mustache. His left leg was missing from the midthigh down, and his blue sweatpants were folded under the stump. He held his left arm close to his body, maneuvering the chair with his right. He carried a duffel bag in his lap and wore a Teva sandal on his good foot. Francie could see his yellow, overgrown toenails and this made her morning coffee rise in her throat. He did not look in her direction. He repositioned the wheelchair in awkward jerks next to the bench and set the brake. Then he pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it.
Francie rubbed at the goosebumps on her arms and watched the man smoke. She had long noted how people smoked, believing you could tell a lot about personalities, even how a person made love. The man exhaled quietly, blowing the smoke downward. Flicked the ash rather than tapped it. She would say he was thoughtful, calm, occasionally aggressive. She was trying to picture him making love—lying back against the pillows, holding a waist, a breast with one hand, could he be on top? could he feel his missing leg?—when an image of her and Clive came unbidden into her head. He had woken her up at dawn, moving hard inside her, a morning of whispers and gentle sweat and blue light.
"Rat fucker," she said loudly, pushing her sunglasses up her nose. "Aldous Huxley meets Atticus Finch my ass." The man in the wheelchair did not look at her, but a woman coming through the doors jumped slightly then walked a wide circle around her.
She took a deep breath, and then hunted in her backpack for nicotine gum. All she found was a restaurant mint at the bottom of the pocket. She picked off the fuzz and popped it in her mouth, crunching down hard. She had started smoking when she was 14, sneaking Marlboros at the bus stop with her friends, the smoke blending with the puffs of their winter-white breath. That was part of the reason she had quit—after 20 years, her voice was sounding as deep and dry as an old well in the mornings. Aside from the nicotine kick, she missed the physicality of it, the hot smoke in her lungs, the loose, moist tobacco in the packet. She had picked up rolling to save money, but it also gave her a strange sense of achievement—a tight, neat cigarette, no bulges—and she was tough and wizened and slightly glamorous when she held one loose between her fingers—Greta Garbo meets Madeleine Albright. Without it, she was more of a foul-mouth, aging woman in a tight tube dress, showing all of her dimpled flesh to the world, tugging at the ill-fitting elastic of her life.
The other reason she had quit was because of the non-smoking Clive. She looked at her hands. She had started picking her cuticles, and her red-rimmed fingernails were slightly blue with cold.
She walked over to the man in the wheelchair. "Excuse me," she said. He looked up at her then. His eyes were large and bright blue, his mustache darker than his hair, and she realized that he was younger than she thought, somewhere in his forties.
She said, "I was wondering, do you think I could bum a cigarette from you?"
He studied her for a moment, or maybe he was just looking at his own reflection in her sunglasses. He looked back to the street.
"No," he said.
Francie stood still, her mouth slightly open. In all her years as a smoker, no one had ever said no. I'm out, maybe, or It's my last one, but never, No.
"Well, do you think I could buy one then?" She felt in her pocket for change. She had stuck some dollar bills in there for tips.
"A dollar." She held it up. "For one smoke."
"Go buy a pack."
"I don't want a pack. I just want one." She could hear her voice, wobbly as a toddler. "Look, I'm kind of having a bad day."
"That's your problem."
Her mouth dropped open all the way. Her throat seized up on her, and she walked back toward her bench. She picked up her old red backpack and started down the stretch of sidewalk, casing the ashtrays for butts, but the sand on each was raked and clean as a church driveway. A bus from a hotel pulled up. People poured out, arms full of windbreakers and purses and carry-ons. They bustled past, some of them frowning slightly at Francie, who had sat back down on her bench and begun to sob. Big, breaking, shoulder-jerking crying.
The man in the wheelchair said, "Jesus, lady. Is this what you do when you don't get your way?"
"You know, I am a nice person. I am not mean," she said, plugged-nosed. "I always gave people smokes. Always."
"Good for you."
She shook her head, searching for the words, and all that came out was, "Go to hell."
"Already there." He nodded a couple of times.
"You know, I am this close here." She held up her thumb and index finger. "I'm hanging on by this much."
"Welcome to my world." He took a last drag and flipped his cigarette butt into the street. He popped his jaw for a perfect smoke ring. He said, "Life's a bitch, ain't it?" and he lifted his hand in salute.
Francie's hands started to shake. She pushed herself off of the bench and stood over him, shoving her sunglasses on top of her head. Her face and neck felt hot, and she knew her eyes were red and puffy. He squinted, folding his good arm across his stomach. His cigarette pack poked out from the top of his shirt pocket. Before he knew what she was doing, she grabbed the pack and stepped backward.
"Why, thank you for your generosity," she said. "Sure, I would love a cigarette. How kind of you to ask." She put one in the corner of her mouth. She patted her pockets automatically.
She looked toward the street where he'd tossed his butt, but it had burnt out. She looked up and down the stretch of benches and not one other person was smoking.
"Where are all the goddamn smokers?" she said, the unlit cigarette dangling out of her mouth.
"This is Seattle," the man said. He held up his lighter. He pushed it under the waistband of his sweatpants and snapped the elastic. Then, he smiled.
Francie screamed. It was loud enough that it echoed off the concrete terminal and a cabbie driving past flinched and swerved, loud enough that her vocal chords burned, loud enough that a security guard was headed in their direction.
The guard looked at the man, then at Francie. "Everything all right?"
Francie nodded. "I was just startled. The wind blew, and something hit me."
The guard frowned.
She said, "I thought it was a bat."
"Bats in the belfry," the man in the wheelchair said.
Francie jerked her thumb at the man. "Painkillers," she whispered loudly to the guard.
The guard gave a slow nod, still frowning, and walked back toward his post.
Francie touched her throat, shivering. She looked at the man in the wheelchair, and he looked back. She crumpled the cigarette in her hand and then tore open the top of his pack, dumping the remaining cigarettes onto the sidewalk. She stepped on them, twisting her sneaker on each one. Her sunglasses fell off her head, cracking on the cement, so she stepped on those too, until she created a rather large pile of paper and tobacco and plastic in the middle of the sidewalk.
The man pushed out his cheek with his tongue, and then sniffed. "You owe me a pack."
"Yeah?" She pointed at his leg. "Make me."
He shook his head, and then looked back toward the street.
Francie crossed her arms. She said, "Does nothing faze you? Anything at all?"
"Not much. Definitely not temper tantrums or a pint-sized lunatic with hair the color of turnips."
"Wow." She touched her hair, smoothed down the sides. "You are a wretched little man."
"So I'm told."
Francie checked her watch. It had only been 15 minutes since the shuttle had dropped her off. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the guard headed in their direction again. She scooped up the mess on the sidewalk and dumped it in the garbage. She grabbed her backpack and hurried through the automatic doors into the terminal, thinking of a stop-smoking commercial: a craving only lasts 90 seconds—take a walk!
"Ha!" she said. She weaved through the foot traffic, which was growing thicker, people getting out of town early on Friday. She dodged a family that was lumbering past with two strollers, and she ducked into a newsstand. She picked up two chocolate bars, a pack of gum, a lighter, a long-sleeve Mariners T-shirt, a tiger-striped scarf, and a "Sleepless in Seattle" sleep mask, dumping it all at the checkout counter.
"I need a pack of Winstons," she told the clerk. "Actually, two packs."
The clerk started ringing her up. Francie added another candy bar and a cheap pair of sunglasses to the pile. She told the clerk, "I was dumped today. By a man I met on the Internet."
The clerk glanced at her quickly, then back at the register. "$97.53," she said.
Francie handed over her credit card, undid her overalls and pulled the long-sleeve shirt on. The radio was on in the shop, and it was then that Francie learned that Johnny Cash had died that day, after a long bout with illness, mere months after his beloved June Carter also went to glory. This news made Francie's throat tighten up again, and she tucked her chin inside her new shirt. She unwrapped one of the packs and put a cigarette in the corner of her mouth.
The clerk handed her the credit slip. "Oh," she said. "You can't smoke in here."
"Does it look like I'm smoking in here?" Francie said.
The girl blinked, averting her eyes, her neck splotchy with red. Francie put on the sunglasses, the tag still dangling from the side, and wrapped the scarf around her neck, then stuffed the rest of her purchases inside the pockets of her overalls until she bulged like a scarecrow. She stopped halfway to the exit and turned back. She took out one of the chocolate bars and handed it to the bewildered girl.
Francie walked back through the terminal, the unlit cigarette in her mouth, lighter in her hand. She passed a coffee stand and realized it was the same one where she had met Clive in person for the first time. They had been phoning and e-mailing like mad. Once she had gotten past the initial horror of writing to a stranger who had a digital picture of her head, she found that it suited her. She wrote about things she never voiced, like why she had left academia, how it felt like existing in a vacuum—the push-around-the-floor, suck-up-the-hairballs kind. Francie's unfinished dissertation was on hairstyles in the 20th century, which was how she got into the hair business: field research. At the salon, she got to listen to people talk about their lives—births, deaths, work, houses, music, recipes, baseball games, breakups, first dates, weddings, lifetime loves. It was a powerful position, too—people don't mess with you when you're wielding scissors and bleach. Her cyber self was bolder, wittier, sexier—Ani DiFranco meets Clara Bow—than the self who had started to chastise teenage drivers, who talked to herself in public, who woke up alone each morning with ever-lingering creases in her cheeks.
Clive was a Web designer who had majored in art history. He read books, played the trumpet, could hold conversations on postmodern criticism and "The Simpsons," and he made Francie laugh hard enough that she tripped over curbs. She had flown to him each time, letting him pay for a hotel. When they first met at the coffee stand, they had stood a couple of feet apart, smiling and staring at each other. He was thinner and slightly taller than Francie had imagined, his dark brown hair longer than in his pictures, shaggy on his pale forehead and neck. Then he had stepped forward, put his hand on her face and said, Look at you. It's you. Later, he had put his hands up in her then-blonde hair, kissing her neck and everywhere else he had promised, and she had felt old and new things, naked and trembling.
She thought about that morning, when Clive had sat across from her on the hotel bed, after they had made love for two days, saying things that she'd heard in other places, at other times, in different terms, from different mouths—It's not you. It's complicated. I love you, but not in the way you want me to. She'd looked at his face—a stranger's face still, though she'd tried to convince herself otherwise—and the cold pain of past failures had swelled inside of her, rising too fast, cutting through muscle and tendons, until she had found it hard to breathe.
Flicking the lighter until the metal was hot, she walked fast through the terminal, and she thought of all of the other things going on in the world at that time: a war in Iraq, soldiers dying every day; Mars glowing orange in the southern sky each night; Johnny Cash, gone; the Cubs and the Red Sox with shots at making the playoffs. There it all was, moments of the world and her world colliding, carved into her like an old public park bench.
As soon as she was outside the terminal, Francie cupped her hand and lit the cigarette. Her nostrils flared and she inhaled deeply. The smoke tasted slightly stale and flat, harsh in the back of her throat. She flinched and blew out hard. She took another drag, sucking until the cotton filter was hot, until her cheeks sucked in. She looked up, and saw that the man in the wheelchair was still sitting there. Francie walked over and sat on the bench next to him.
He looked at her, and she blew a stream of smoke in his face.
"So," she said. "How 'bout those Cubs?"
He glared at her. "I'm a White Sox fan."
"Of course you are." She flicked the cigarette too hard, and the whole cherry fell off. She relit it, wincing at the smoke in her eyes. She pushed her new sunglasses on top of her head. "You know, I don't get you."
"You don't know me. Go tell it to someone else."
"A person needs a little help, a little compassion, but not your problem."
"I'm serious, lady." He flipped his wrist at her. "Get the hell away from me."
She crushed the cigarette under her shoe. She walked behind him. Calmly, she took off her new scarf, bent down and weaved it through the slats of the wheels and the metal frame under the seat, knotting it tight. Then she sat back down.
He reached down, grunting slightly, and pulled at the scarf. "Undo it. Now."
"Nope. Not until you say something nice. Tell me something good."
He glanced at the security guard, who was pacing about a hundred feet from them.
Francie said, "You could ask that guy for help."
She lit another cigarette, and they stared at each other, smoke curling between them. Francie looked at the man's gray hair.
"OK. I'll start. You have very nice hair. It's in really good condition." She studied his head, thinking of her dissertation. "You know, hair has serious roots in social perceptions of sexuality. And power. And politics. And race, of course. It's complex stuff." She reached out to touch it, but he swatted at her hand.
She tapped her ash and blew smoke slowly out of her nose. It tasted terrible, and she was still tense, her stomach hollow and acidy.
"I just found out Johnny Cash died," she said. "I mean, I knew it wouldn't be long. When June died, I knew it. He loved her too much."
"Or because he spent most of his life as an alcoholic speed freak," the man said.
"You can mess with me, but come on. The man is a legend, and he's dead."
"Cry me a river. I don't owe you anything."
He reached down again, flailing, breathing hard. Francie saw his armpits were damp.
She said, "I'll help you if you ask me. Sometimes we all need a little help."
"Don't you have a plane to catch?"
She checked her watch. She still had two hours.
He tipped his head back. Francie unwrapped a candy bar and took a bite. They sat for a few moments like that, the man looking up, Francie chewing.
"I have trouble relating to people," Francie said, her mouth full.
"Really. I wouldn't have guessed that."
"I don't generally run around tormenting old men."
He narrowed his eyes. "I'm 48."
"Really. I wouldn't have guessed that." She folded the foil over her chocolate, then bent at the waist and looked out at the sky. The clouds were moving fast. She wondered where Mars was now. It was even larger here in the thin northern sky. Two nights ago, she and Clive had sat on the hotel balcony, staring up at it. Everything had seemed calm and right and luminous underneath that orange glow. She'd looked at Clive's shadowed profile and thought, Maybe.
She told the man, "Maybe it's some kind of strange energy from Mars throwing things off. You know, it's as close as ever to Earth right now."
"Mars would explain a lot about you."
"You should talk. Fu Manchu meets, um." She waved her hand, smiling slightly. "Bartleby the Scrivener."
He didn't smile back. "What do you want from me? I can't fix anything. I'm just a guy at the airport. I'm just waiting for a ride."
"I don't want anything. Well, that's not entirely true. A little compassion. Maybe a little interest in a fellow human being."
"That's rich, considering you haven't asked one thing about me." He patted his empty pocket then ran his hand over his head. "Not even, 'What happened to your leg?' Everyone asks that, even if they don't give a goddamn."
Francie looked at his stump, then at the good leg, the yellow toenails. "What happened to your leg?"
She leaned over and held out her half-smoked cigarette. He hesitated a moment but took it.
"None of your business." He took a couple of deep drags, exhaling slowly. Then he said, "Vietnam."
He nodded. He lifted his hand and looked at the cigarette. He said, "June wrote 'Ring of Fire.'" He glanced at her. "June Carter wrote 'Ring of Fire,' not Johnny."
"So, that's something good, right?"
"That's just stating a fact. If you would've said, 'June and Johnny were an honest-to-God love story,' you'd be a free man. Just like that."
"Just like that." He let out a disgusted sigh. He narrowed his eyes at her. "What's that hair color?"
"It's Black Cherry."
"And you did that on purpose?"
"Hey. I like it."
"It doesn't suit you." He looked at her head, her face, and then down her body. Her stomach gave a slight jump, and she thought again of him lying on his back and what it would feel like on top of him. Her cheeks grew hot.
He said, "You should think about growing it out."
"God, men. Don't be so predictable. I look terrible in long hair. My face is too long and oval for it."
"Your face is fine."
"Clive liked my short hair." She shivered, remembering his hands and breath on her neck. "Although, he did say, 'Whoa,' when he saw the color."
He shook his head slightly and raised an eyebrow.
She shrugged. "He's a guy I was dating. Someone who won't be writing me a love song." She touched the tip of her cold nose, and the smell of cigarettes on her fingers made her wince. "Things haven't been going very well."
"You can't always make people behave the way you want them to."
"I didn't mean him. I meant me. But that's quite an assumption. I didn't try to make him 'behave' in any way." She thought of the things Clive had said to her that morning, and she pushed her cold hands between her knees. "It's really not about him. It's more like an amalgamation of things. But it's true that he doesn't love me."
"I hope you're not asking me to feel sorry for you."
"God, no. Not empathy. Never that." Francie exhaled hard. "You're not a woman, that's for sure. A woman would have said, 'It's not you, honey.' Even if it wasn't true."
"Clearly, I am not a damn woman."
Francie felt a tightness in her lungs, her mouth dry and tinny. That pain was rising again, glass shards in her veins. She looked at her hands, at the inflamed cuticles, the wrinkles and dry skin, the dirt and chocolate under the fingernails. She stood and walked behind the man. She leaned down and untied the scarf then put her face next to his. His mustache brushed her cheek, and his long hair was soft on her ear. She smelled laundry soap and cigarettes and sweat.
She said, "I want you to tell me something good. Something kind. Lie if you have to. Or you are going off that curb, I swear to fucking God." And at that moment, she meant it. A shaking, blind anger radiated off her skin and got trapped in her clothes, a hot smell of nicotine and iron and talc. She put her knee against the chair and gave it a shove. He was heavier than she'd thought. She shoved it again, harder. He put his foot down and held out his hand.
She pushed him forward until the wheels were a few inches from the curb, then rolled him back. "It's not that high. Maybe you wouldn't get that hurt. Unless I get some momentum." She took another step back.
He cleared his throat but didn't say anything.
Francie glanced at the security guard, who was talking to someone in a car. She said, "'It was an accident, officer. You know, the painkillers. I tried to grab the chair . . .'"
He touched his temple, pushed at his hair. She watched his belly rise and fall.
"Afraid?" she said into his ear. "Welcome to my world."
He scratched at a spot on his stump. Francie leaned forward, angling her body so that she could see his face. He licked his lips and looked her in the eye. She was close enough to see the different colors in his mustache and eyebrows.
He said, "Go for it."
She blinked, surprised.
He lifted his foot and faced the street. He gripped the chair with his good arm. "Do it," he said. "Do it."
Francie looked at the back of the man's head, at his shiny, healthy hair, again at a loss for words. She turned her head away. She was suddenly so tired that she sat down on the concrete. Her sunglasses slipped down her nose. She sat for a moment, hand over her mouth, her left leg growing wet from a puddle. "Okay," she said finally. "You win."
She put the scarf around her neck and stood up, brushing at the dampness on her pants. She adjusted her sunglasses, nodded a couple of times, and checked her watch, as if he had just given her directions. She hefted her backpack on, then reached into her pocket and pulled out both packs of cigarettes. She tossed them in his lap.
He picked up the cigarettes and put them in his shirt pocket. He nodded at her, and she shrugged, lifting her hand. She walked toward the doors. Her backpack slipped, and she hefted it up higher.
"Hey," the man called out.
Francie turned and looked back at him.
He said, "It's not you, honey." He didn't smile, but he held up his hand. Then he wheeled himself down the sidewalk.
Francie watched him go, the second man who had made her cry that day. She wiped under her eyes and blew into her cold hands, rubbing them together. She went through security and waited in a plastic chair, her red pack on the seat next to her. She watched passengers emerge from the tunnels, dazed, rumpled, towing cargo and kids, and she thought about how quickly things can change. Just like that, for better or worse. She looked at her watch—she still had more than an hour until her flight. She looked down at her boarding pass—her ticket out of that city. The date was bold and black: September 12, 2003. The day she got dumped. The day she accosted a man in a wheelchair. The day she quit smoking, again. The fiercely jagged day that she already wanted like hell to forget. She sat at the terminal, and she closed her eyes, willing it all to hurry up and fade, as if by sheer resolve she could hasten the process, do without the weeks or months of hollow nights and red eyes, so that tomorrow she would wake up with shoulder-length hair the color of topaz, her mind on someone new, and that faraway day would come to her suddenly as she stepped off a curb somewhere, the faces now nothing but flashes of light, the details only muted fragments: the flick of a lighter, the glow of a planet, the soft hair of a stranger, an old self who struggled with the new, who loved and lost, who wore sunglasses in the rain.