As he strolled through the Delta terminal, George caught snatches of Sleigh Ride, Blue Christmas and Winter Wonderland wafting from pizza shops and bars, gift kiosks and other cash happy operations. He had a layover in Atlanta and needed something to read on the plane that would take him the rest of the way to Key West. He had wanted to fly there with his fishing buddies, but his teaching schedule held him hostage until this day, the Saturday before Christmas.
Inside a shop called Book Business, he browsed the shelves, hoping something would catch his eye. Mostly it was the jacket quotes that drew him to a book or pushed him away. He turned something by Frances Myers over in his hand, “Irresistible,” said the blurb, “a sensuous book for a sensuous countryside.” Just going to keep on looking, he thought. The man standing next to him pulled a copy of Rasputin’s Revenge from a shelf.
“I’ve read that one,” he heard a woman say. He pricked up his ears.
“Oh?” said the man, a tall fellow with a David Crosby moustache.
“Yes, that’s Lescroat. He’s got a deft touch.”
That voice, thought George.
He turned sideways to look past the tall man to find a woman with sparkling eyes and teeth, set in an almond shaped face. She too was looking past the man with the moustache. “Oh my God, George?” she said.
George was an awkward man who generally wound up stumbling or making the wrong gesture, like grabbing a hand to shake when someone was leaning in for a kiss on the cheek. But he stepped neatly around the man holding Rasputin’s Revenge, and grabbed the woman up in his arms. They hugged for a moment, a warm but sensible embrace.
“Anna? I don’t believe it. How are you?”
“Just fine, George. I’m fine.”
Seeing her gave George’s blood pressure a bump. A discomforting warmth spread from his feet to his forehead. He hadn’t seen her in a year and a half and he had many questions, but on his feet, starting to sweat, he found it difficult to put them in order.
He could use a drink because it wasn’t just his blood that had been stirred. He felt agitated in the pit of his stomach where the disappointment of her and them had set down roots. He’d loved her crazy, like a teenager, and this after his twenty-year marriage blew up, leaving him broken and through with romance, he thought.
Within a year after his divorce, his graying temples and brown-spotted face testified to the many days he’d spent drinking, fishing and sleeping alone. He missed the touch of a woman’s hand on the small of his back and her warm breath close to his ear in the middle of the night.
With Anna, he’d been a kid again, goofy with it. Every day with her left an imprint. He reckoned that the things they held in common were inevitable, happenings foretold by sage prophets who had read them in the stars above. He started running and biking again. He was crazy about her beautiful face, which he didn’t think was capable of anything but kindness. When she said she loved him, he believed as both an impulse that he felt when he searched her green eyes and a position to which he’d arrived after a great deal of rumination. Later, when she told him she needed to “step away,” she’d said it with such finality, he wasn’t sure if he would ever see her again.
“Are you coming or going, George?” she asked.
‘I don’t know,” he joked. “That’s a tough one.”
“Oh ha! You know what I mean.”
“I’m going, onto Key West for a bit. Do a little fishing. See the sights. How about you?”
“Going too. We’re all meeting up at my parent’s in Memphis.”
Oh, the meeting in Memphis thing, thought George. They did that once after he attended a teaching and writing conference in Austin. He flew up to Memphis, where you can smell the river long before you can see it. She flew down from Providence to show him the house where she grew up and take him around to the rib shacks and juke joints of her youth.
“How long are you here for?” she asked.
“The next hour and a half.”
“Let’s see,” she said, staring at his forehead. “Maybe about an hour more. Say, are you okay? You’re sweating.”
“We could sit down,” he said.
They found a bar, and took the last two seats available to them. George expected more questions because it was Anna’s method to ask a lot of questions. During their affair, he had found it endearing, the way she seemed so interested in people, but in the dark hindsight that followed their split, all that information gathering seemed to him just the kind of thing a project manager would do.
The bartender was a big man who wore one of those red and white Santa hats and cheerfully inquired what he could get the two of them. Anna ordered a glass of merlot and George ordered bitters and water for his stomach.
“You’re not okay, are you?” she said and he recalled the time at the Newport pasta house when he’d done the same thing. She’d been really impressed by that. His knowing an old remedy like that was a sure sign he could take care of himself. Undue praise he thought at the time, but it turned out to be one of those little illuminations that fit like a jigsaw puzzle piece when all is said and done.
He wanted to know who she was meeting in Memphis. It wasn’t likely that she’d spend Christmas away from her children. He wondered if they were all converging at her parents for a big whoop-de-do.
Anna’s kids had been a stumbling block for George. The high school senior and the college boy tolerated him but the fourteen-year-old girl loved her papa and tacitly wished George would disappear. George understood that one father is enough for any child, and it wasn’t in his nature to go out of his way to be liked, but it bothered him still that Anna’s daughter thought he was a clod.
“You’re feeling better?” she asked.
“I’m good,” he said. “Just a little excited, I guess, but let me take this moment to wish you a Merry Christmas, before I forget my manners completely. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and happy all the days to come.”
“Tis the season,” said Anna nonchalantly, as if she didn’t hear the regret in George’s voice. He was no good at disguising it, or his desire to know if she still thought of him at all. First, he’d find the language to tell her that she had shocked him so badly he could barely recall the parts that came after “I’ve got to step away.”
The drinks came and George watched Anna wrap her knobby fingers around the stem of her glass. She had knobby toes too and George thought they fit well with the 90- watt smile, and predilection to read dreams and tarot cards. There was something witchy about Anna that jibed in peculiar ways with her work. Project managers should be able to read tea leaves, he thought. Tea leaves, bones, focus groups. What’s the difference? And she had a knack for drawing connections, conjunctions, and parallels that were not brittle. She’d look at a clock and the time would be 11:11 or 2:22 or 4:44. 11:11 came up most, “double pixie sticks,” she said. And when he was in love, those numbers became a lambent sequence in his mind, merging into a great unity of kindred spirits.
There was no way, he thought, he could dive back into the pain of losing all that. But here she was now, sitting next to him in of all places, an airport. When they were lovers, they had been so over the moon about people-watching in airports that they joked about leaving their professional lives to work at one. On dates sometimes, they’d go to an airport, find a place to sit, break out the Parcheesi board and watch the comings and goings of people in love.
He thought better of taking a dive into the past, however. Old timey hand wringing and supplication just wouldn’t play in the airport bar.
“How’s the family?” he asked.
“Everybody’s fine and waiting for yours truly at their grandparent’s house.”
“And your folks?”
“Fine. Dad and mom celebrated their golden anniversary this year.”
“Wow,” he said. “That’s something.”
“It is, and to think I almost didn’t go. Ted was the tipping point on that one.”
“Tipping point?” said George, while his stomach began kicking the name Ted around.
“Yeah, he convinced me that although my parents haven’t visited me in years, I shouldn’t miss their big moment.”
“No, how could you?”
“Well, he was right, of course. I would have regretted it terribly. And if we hadn’t gone, mom and dad wouldn’t have met a very special man.”
‘Who’s that?” said George, pretending to be slow.
“Ted, of course.”
George drained his bitters and soda and signaled the bartender.
“Ready for a drink, friend?” he smiled.
“I’ll have a Manhattan straight up, rocks on the side.”
“You got it. And you, pretty lady? Another merlot?”
“I’m fine,” said Anna.
“Fine fine, everything’s fine,” said George, stuck on the familiar ring of “a very special man”, as in “you’re a very special man, George.”
“Oh c’mon, George,” Anna laughed. “I don’t expect you’re alone these days.”
He was alone and he was too irritated to let her know it.
“I thought you didn’t want a relationship. Remember? You said you rushed into things with me. You should have given yourself more time for you after your divorce.”
“George,” she started but was interrupted by the bartender who was setting George’s drink in front of him.
“Thank you, kindly,” George said.
“George,” she started again, but he bulled ahead, telling her he’d waited so very long to see her, wondering how she could have steered so clear of him when they lived only miles apart, ran and biked the same bike path, drank the same coffee at the same coffee shop and borrowed books from the same library.
“I just shuffled the deck, George. I wanted a change, so I joined the Y and decided to bike on different days. I don’t know; it’s not so hard to change one’s patterns.”
Maybe not, he thought and suppressed the urge to point out the irony of having come together this time, after so long, in an airport. He decided that he would not mention it. She would have to.
“It’s a curious thing to me still,” he said, determined to finish strong, “you’re telling me that you’d always have a deep and abiding infection for me, and then kicking my ass to the curb.”
“Affection,” I said.
“I said, you know what I said, you’re making jokes.”
“But Ted all of a sudden.”
“I know you’re not alone, George.”
“That’s right,” he lied. “I’m not.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that we’re not girlfriends and this isn’t pillow talk.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Why’d you have to feature Ted, is all? Why don’t you explain to me how when you stepped away, after all the love talk and intimacy, you could forget me so completely?”
“You don’t know that.”
“I wrote you and all I got back was ‘Oh you,’ and ‘the deep and abiding affliction thing.’
“George, don’t you think it’s possible to fall in love and then out of love and still love?”
“Jesus, what? No, I mean, honestly Anna, I never understood half the things you said.”
She laughed and George regretted saying it because he didn’t mean it. He understood most of what she said, even when its logic was confusing, but in matters of the heart, one was either ready to jump bones or not. The rest was double-talk.
“You don’t need Ted,” he said, the whiskey starting to singe his mind a little. “You don’t need anybody.”
“But you do.”
“I do, but only when they need me too.”
“Bingo,” she said.
“Bingo? What? Did I just win something?”
“Look George, you needed too much, the wanting to mix in and take a role in things after awhile. I wasn’t…I mean, I think you need someone who’ll be at your backside in the morning and there in the evening too.”
“And you’re not about sticking to anybody’s backside.”
“I don’t know.”
“Should I ask for the check?” he said, catching the sudden fatigue in Anna’s eyes.
The bartender, standing within earshot and polishing a glass, looked up,
“You got it, friend.”
They sat there quietly, while George hoped that she would say something, anything about an airport, some little something to show him she remembered how happy they’d been. He couldn’t explain to himself why that might be so important other than taking from it the knowledge that the whole thing had not been flimsy or a trick of the cards, as deliquescent as snow in a cheesy holiday song.
He put it out there. “Funny us meeting up in an airport, huh?”
Anna shrugged and said, “Well, life is full of coincidence, George. You can’t read too much into coincidence.”
“Uh-uh,” she murmured.
George stood up, kissed Anna on the top of her head and dropped twenty dollars on the bar.
“You know, that’s too bad,” he said and began to walk away.
“George,” she called after him, just loudly enough for him to hear, but he kept on moving. He wouldn’t turn back from the hustle and bustle of people in motion. He’d join them now. Feeling foolish and alone, he’d step back into his happy holiday life.