Waiting

One.

In the dark, Andrew squeezes my hand. He starts to speak, but I put my fingers against his mouth. He takes my hand and kisses it. His hand is much warmer than mine. I ignore the boom and rattle. My heart?

He leans forward.

In the end is my beginning. Someone said that. T. S. Eliot? Shirley Jackson?

I haven’t known Andrew long, so flying off for the weekend always felt a little foolish. Too fast, but I’ve always been a careful sort of person. Maybe that’s always been my problem. I think too much. Lie awake at night. Thinking.

On average, we spend seven years lying awake at night. I don’t know how the statisticians figured that out.

Two.

I feel Andrew’s lips against mine, and I cling to him, memorizing the feel of his mouth, his tongue and letting him cocoon around me until I am bathed in soft shimmering heat.

Why was I so afraid? I waited for too long. Foolish me.

We spend five years waiting in lines. In banks, in supermarkets, in airports, we stand, holding our place, waiting our turn, like eternal sheep. Some people jump the lines, push out of place, but most of us wait. People like me.

Three.

Andrew is rocking me against him in a gentle rhythm, and I cry out. I don’t want this to end. Life is swirling about us in an eerie cacophony, and I dig my nails into his shoulder as we slide sideways.

We spend somewhere between forty-five and sixty-two minutes every day waiting. We spend thirty-eight hours a year in traffic jams and another twenty weeks stuck on hold. We wait to hear from loved ones and lost ones, for life to occur, and death to arrive.

Andrew’s cheek is wet against mine when the plane gives a mighty shudder, straightens, and the lights blink on. They sputter a little then blaze bright. We separate as white-faced people pull themselves back into the upright position.

Flight attendants begin checking the passengers to make sure nobody has been injured by flying baggage or worse. People speak in jittery voices, laugh and cry. They want to call family and friends, but there is no cellular service, so they wait.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. We apologize for that turbulence.” The pilot has a slight Southern accent, and his voice is smooth and sweet as apple butter. He has a gift for understatement. “It seems we ran into some vicious weather and were struck by lightening. So we will be touching down in Logan International in ten minutes. Our company representatives will be there to redirect you once you reach the gate. Y’all have a pleasant evening, and thank you for flying Jetway.”

Out of the window the lights of Boston glitter diamond-like in the darkness. Below us, the treacherous Atlantic churns. Rain spatters against the window. The right engine coughs and sputters, shooting out tiny flames.

The runway seems to appear from nowhere, its lights welcoming us to Boston. I reach for Andrew’s hand, but he wraps his arm around my shoulders. With the plane only about ten feet off the ground, no one speaks. We can all see the fire trucks.

The plane swoops down towards the runway and thuds down hard. We skid a little as the pilot applies the breaks, but eventually we slow and begin our taxi to the gate.

Andrew squeezes me. “We could skip the whole waiting for another plane thing and spend the weekend in Boston.”

I look at him. Time is a precious and mutable thing. Three seconds can feel like three hours. Forty years can fly past in what seems like ten minutes.

“I’d love to stay in Boston with you.”

His wide smile crinkles the lines around his dark eyes. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

A Crack in the Ice

            “Ella! No!”

            She heard his voice just as the ice around her began to split apart, cracks sliding through it like serpents. She could hear the rush of water below.

            One minute she had been sailing heedless on her silver blades, laughing at Carl’s unease about the glassy lake, especially when there were no other skaters; now she stood paralyzed in its center, huddling into herself.

            “Try to catch hold of my jacket!”

            She flung out her arms and tried to grasp the flutter of orange. Her island of ice tilted and freezing water soaked her feet. “I can’t! I can’t” Already a two-foot wide fissure separated her from Carl. “Get help!”

            She saw the doubt on his face, but he grabbed his coat and skated away faster than she thought possible.

            She was safe enough here on this little piece of ice, she thought. All she needed to do was wait. She stared up at the gray sky. The air felt heavy with the threat of snow, and she rubbed her hands over her arms.

            She’d always mocked Carl for being cautious. “Take a chance,” she always told him. Maybe he had been the smart one.

            The ice cracked again, this time right through the middle of her island, and she had to throw herself to the side to avoid sliding into the dark water. But now the smaller island tipped precariously and cold water poured over the sides. Ella pulled herself up, but she was completely soaked.

            Once she had dreamed of going to the Olympics. She had worked so hard. Practice every morning at six; practice after school; then she finally quit school to practice all the time and work with private tutors. She had come in seventh in the Olympic trials. Seventh. That was her best year.

            Oh, she had gone on to work in different ice shows, but it wasn’t the same. She was never a star. Not the way Mama wanted. Not the way she wanted.

            Flakes of snow began to drift down and caress her face like cold kisses.

            Carl loved her. He never cared whether she was in the Olympics or not. She loved and hated that about him. Could you love and hate at the same time?

            She held up her hand to catch a snow flake, but the effort exhausted her.

            Her island rode low in the water now, and she was surprised that her legs were dangling off the edge. Funny. Her feet were completely numb. Was that good or bad? She closed her eyes and felt the snow brush against her face, cold at first then pleasant like a blanket. A perfect blanket. It was so quiet now. Were there voices in the distance or was it just the wind? She didn’t know. She preferred the quiet.

            Would Carl find her? She didn’t know or care. Everything was serene. She felt like a clock winding down. Tick tock, tick tock, tick . . .

           

Ken’s Bad Day

“Damn it, Ken, the city says we need permits for the building. They shut down construction.” Ralph stormed around the room, his face red, his hands waving. “What are we gonna do?”

Ken wanted a martini extra dry, but he knew he’d spend the rest of the day hunting down the right people in the city to begin to process of getting the permits quickly. “I’ll expedite the situation.”

“You should have seen this coming,” Ralph said.

Ken resisted the urge to tell him that he had seen it coming, and he had warned Ralph in writing. It wouldn’t matter. Life was cruel that way.

It was close to five, and the city offices were closing. But it didn’t matter. Ken still had to go over all the plans for the building site. He had to talk to the architect, the engineer, and the construction manager. When he left at seven-thirty, he figured the roads would be clear, but there was a Phillies game and a rare Thursday Night Football game. Traffic was a mess. It was as if all the mystic forces in the universe were conspiring against him tonight, along with Ralph, the city, and every motorist in Philadelphia. He let a string of curses fly when a taxi cut him off.

When he pulled into his driveway, it was almost nine.  In the gloom of the solar lights he could see a bunch of deer roaming through the back lawn munching on the bushes, and he wished he had a crossbow. The damn things had overrun the area. They looked pretty, but they were dumb and destructive. He was tired of dealing with dumb and destructive things and people.

The front door jerked open, and wife greeted him. “You missed dinner.”

“Yeah. We had a problem with the permits for the site.”

Caroline’s mouth tightened, but her voice remained even. “It would have been helpful if you called.”

He didn’t answer. He pushed past her and dropped his briefcase on the bench by the door. With the kids away at college it was just the two of them, so at least it the house would be quiet.

The kitchen smelled like burned chicken, and he wondered why she hadn’t kept a better eye on it. Then he decided he didn’t care because he didn’t feel like chicken, burned or otherwise. He just wanted that martini.

He dealt with morons all day; he didn’t have any obligation to satisfy them at night. He wasn’t a goddamn fireman there to solve every single catastrophe in the world, but when he wasn’t around everything went to hell. All he wanted was some peace and quiet and a martini or two, but he heard the continual unspoken accusation from Caroline radiating in his ears.

You’re late. You’re inadequate. Why don’t you get a better job?

It was always there running like a counterpoint to everything. He wanted to tell her, “If you hadn’t let yourself get pregnant so fast, if you hadn’t insisted on three kids, maybe I could have got a master’s and got a better job. If your job paid more, we wouldn’t always be short. If you didn’t spend so much on the kids, we could go on vacations. If I got a break one in a while, life would be easier.”

He glanced around to see if she was behind him, but she wasn’t. He mixed himself a martini, heavy on the gin. He dropped in three olives, brought the shaker, a glass, and the bottle of olives, shuffled into his office, and slammed the door. He settled into his recliner and put up his feet. Lately he hated coming home, but tonight, he thought he might turn on the television and settle in here and relax to the mayhem of Thursday Night Football. Dallas vs. the Eagles. Sweet.

After all, Caroline had taken over the bedroom, decorated it in fluffy white with pink flowers, and that stupid cat of hers always slept in the middle of the bed. God forbid he should try to come between Caroline and her goddamn Sam. He was a big bastard too, half Maine Coon and half alley cat. She rescued him from the SPCA, and he loved Caroline and only Caroline.

Ken swallowed his drink. Damn he hated that cat. He poured a second martini. He finished that drink a little slower and thought about mixing a third, but he felt a little woozy. Where the hell was Caroline that she couldn’t fix him something to eat?

He shuffled out into the hall. “Caroline!”

When she didn’t answer, he didn’t bother with the lights; he just started up the stairs. Goddamn Caroline. He felt his foot collide with something soft, and an unearthly screech sounded in his ears. Two glowing green lights launched themselves at him and he stepped back into air.

Ken hit his head against the wall then rolled limply to the bottom of the stairs. The cat stood on his chest hissing furiously.

“What the hell!” He heard Caroline, but her voice seemed far away.

The hall light snapped on. Feet clattered down the stairs. He felt the cat leap off his chest and land on the floor with a thud.

“Oh my God! Are you all right?” Caroline’s voice barely penetrated the fog. “Oh, darling. Oh baby, that was a bad, bad fall.”

Ken waited for her to lean close, but she didn’t. He opened one eye to see her cradling Sam and kissing him as if he were the most precious thing in her life. For a moment, just before everything went black, he swore the cat winked.