The Sweetest Thing

       At the Denver airport Claudia pops the rear hatch and I get out

Be in love, you will be happy - Paul Gauguin
and grab my bag. I hate goodbyes. This is our sixth. There will be more, each one getting a little bit easier to take.

       “Call you when I land,” I whisper in her ear. She stops hugging first.

       “Have a good flight,” she waves.

       “Don’t watch that movie with another guy!” I call out before she gets back in the Jeep.

       She turns, smiles, then says something like, “I’ll probably go home and cry.” Or at least that’s what I think she says. Hope she says. The noise from passing jets drowns her out. The Jeep needs servicing. Leaking oil onto the asphalt. I left my Billie Holliday CD in her living room. She’d find the notes in that serial killer book. Then the poems. I try too hard. I should rent Pretty in Pink again. Get some advice from Duckie. Or the Diceman.

       I watch her drive away and reach for my smokes. She hates to see me smoke. It was a three hour drive from Avon and I chewed Trident to fight the urge. I know it’s a filthy habit, but airplanes make me nervous. Lots of things make me nervous. I hate airports.

       We had rented Henry and June last night, but never got around to watching it. Dinner on top of a mountain. Wine. Then came the lightning. The gondola lift was shut down and we were informed that it wouldn’t resume until the storm had passed. So we ordered more spinach and artichoke dip, then another bottle, laughing about being stranded in such a beautiful place. I told her there was no one else on the planet I’d rather be stranded on a mountain with. I wasn’t lying. I never lied to her. I also wasn’t lying when I told her the only time I had cheated on Ally was with her. Four years ago.

       When we finally got home, I took a shower and we had religious sex. Twice. No bruises this time, but I did see angels when I closed my eyes. I never saw angels with Ally. Lust. Desire. Love. But no angels. Wim Winders would be proud.

       My cell rings. It’s Claudia.

       “You left your sunglasses,” she says.

       “I’ll get them the next time I’m up,” I tell her.

       “When will that be?”

       “Maybe a few months,” I lie, knowing I’ve burned all my vacation time for the rest of the year.

       “This is getting to be a regular trip for you, isn’t it?”

       “Well, you can always come see me.”

       She laughs. “I’ll think about it.”

       She always laughs when I ask why she never comes to me. It’s a bubbling, girlish, endearing, sweet, glowing laugh. I have it recorded on tape. I did it one night when she didn’t know, just to get it down. Just for the times when she’s not there. Just for the times when I can’t get to sleep. Which is most of the time. She said I snore, even with the strips on my nose. Ally told me the same thing. Couples saying goodbye. Kissing. Hugging. Doors slamming. Luggage checked. The morning sun makes me squint.

       “You get the exit row again?” she asks.

       “Gonna try. With my long legs I’m hoping they take mercy on me.”

       “It’s an airline, Richard, they take mercy on no one.”

       “Right.” Silence. Don’t know what else to say. We’ve said it all. Except the big three. I told her in an email once and she laughed it off.

       “Well go on in and get your ticket,” she finally says.

       “I’ll miss you,” I whisper.

       “Go on,” she says, “call me when you land.”

       She hangs up. She always hangs up first. I finish my cigarette, then go and get my ticket. They have one exit row seat left. Window. I snag it.

       Security is next. I take off my shoes, dig out my wallet, pen, phone, change. All of it goes in the plastic tub. I feel naked walking through the metal detector. No alarms go off. Story of my life. Why doesn’t she feel the same way? Why is she so cold sometimes? No romance. Someone to hang out with six times a year? I felt the same way with Ally. One who loves and one who is loved.

       I head straight for the bar. Jack and coke. It’s early, but airports make me feel like drinking. The waitress tries to force some small talk, but I’m just not in the mood.

       I changed my Myspace profile to “in a relationship” before I came to see her this time. She spotted it right away, texed me and wanted to know who I was seeing. “You, silly,” I wrote her back. “Oh,” she replied. That was it. Fear of commitment. I thought that was a guy thing. Ally still has keys to my truck. Ally still has a lot of things.

       “You need another one, hon?” the waitress asks.

       I look down. My glass has nothing but ice left. “Hit me again,” I tell her.

       True, we both like to drink. She’s got a belly now from the beer. But I adore it. The sweetest thing. I try and imagine a child inside there. My child. Yes, it’s that serious. She’s not sure. She’s five years younger than I am.

       “How about this weather, huh?” a guy next to me asks. Suit. Clean cut. Looks like scotch in his glass. Wedding ring.

       “Nice,” I say, nodding to the mountains. “It was all snow and ice last time I was up.”

       “Business or pleasure?” he asks.

       “A little of both.”

       He raises his glass and we toast. A total stranger. I’ll never see him again. Married to his wife, his job, his kids, his car, his house, his life insurance. Commitment.

       “Great day for flying,” he says.

       Great day for sleeping late with her beside me. My hands would find her belly, then lower. It never took very much to get her wet. Is that a good sign? Is it me or just anticipation of the final act? She always has an orgasm. At least I think. Ally confessed to faking a few. Towards the end it was more like a chore. A duty. A job. No wonder Van Gogh cut off his ear. Dali kept a mistress most of his life. He made her immortal. Muse and mistress.

       There was a paper on the bar. Employment section. Accountant. Bartender. Marketing. The cost of living was higher here. Claudia was paying two grand a month on her condo. I had nothing to go back to. Ally had both cats, my paintings, books, TV. Take a leap. Don’t look back. Call her now. Come back and get me. Probably halfway to Vail by now. She’d be pissed. I’d tell her that love made you do crazy things. She’d laugh. I needed to hear that laugh again. I needed.

       “Those are going down pretty easy this morning,” my waitress says. I looked down. My glass was empty again.

       “We like to drink,” I tell her.

       “We sure do,” she winked. “Another one?”

       “Why not, she doesn’t love me,” I tell her.

       “Why don’t you ask her?” she says.

       “I shouldn’t have to ask.”

       She walked away. I reach for my phone. No. Leave it alone. Give her some time.

       “To love,” the stranger next to me says, holding up his glass. His wedding ring glints in the clear sunshine.

       I suddenly hate him. I get up, move to the nearest table, and turn my back. Smug. Self-assured. Happy. It could be me in ten years. It could be me in five. Stop kidding yourself. Broke, alcoholic, and alone, that’s what you’ll be. Stalking younger girls who work in Blockbuster. Renting movies they’ve never heard of. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? Charade.

       “You call her?” the waitress asks as she sets my drink down.

       I look down at my phone. There’s her name and number on the screen. All I have to do is press the green button. One action setting into motion an equal and opposite reaction. Dominos falling. Making the mouse trap go “snap”.

       “No,” I finally say. “I’m gonna give her some space.”

       “Lot of good jobs here,” she says, nodding to the paper.

       I look down. Three want ads are circled. I wouldn’t even have to rent a U-Haul to get my stuff up here. Then again I could get new stuff. Shed my skin. Begin again.

       “Let me get my tab,” I tell her.

       She flashes me a sad look, then turns. I pay, leave her a good tip, then head for my gate. So many faces. Most of them don’t even show any hint of emotion. Just waiting for something to happen. Occupying space until their flight arrives. Working on laptops. Reading. Killing time. I can’t stand airports. Just a few more days with her. That’s all I needed. Wanted. Craved. Pan’s Labyrinth is two days late. I could get Ally to return it. She still had keys to the apartment. Was that poor little girl just imagining the whole thing? I had to forward through all the torture stuff. Just can’t take that, even if it is make believe.

       “No sir, I can’t do that,” the girl at the ticket counter says.

       “But I have to hear her say it,” I tell her. “At least once.”

       “I’m sorry sir.”

       I start walking toward the glass doors. They’d fire me. I miss my cats. 1 checked bag held indefinitely at the Memphis airport. She hates my smoking. No clean clothes. I’d have to go through security again anyway. Naked. I never lied to her. Jets overhead. We could watch that movie together tonight. Anais Nin had no trouble saying it. We could get stuck on top of a mountain again. More religious sex. More angels. More. She’d laugh. Maybe if I got her a ring? Down on my knees. In front of God and everybody.

       Couples saying goodbye. Kissing. Hugging. Why did she always stop hugging first? I hate airports.

Keith Wood successfully escaped from Philadelphia, lived in Austin, Texas for a while, but now is back home in Mississippi. He has been published in a few little magazines and wrote for Woopsy magazine for a while. He sends most of his stories and poems to Underground Voices and Cherry Bleeds, and hopes that his mom isn’t reading any of them.

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