They stood like phantoms by the clearing boarding gate. He knew the deception had reached a point of no return as the gate agent called out the names of four missing passengers on his alleged flight. Their constellation was about to collapse like smokers’ lungs. None of the names matched his so her guilty conscience faded. He had been lying too.
On weekdays, Paula was invisible, save for instances when someone needed toilet paper. She wiped down the sink, scrubbed mirrors and toilets, swept the floors and emptied the trash. Occasionally, she spent her break with an iced coffee and her phone by the bear-shaped statue on the observation deck. Its cracked surface felt witchy against her dry skin.
She didn’t receive many messages and when she did, it was usually Fiona, who had quit the day she discovered an audition invitation for a CW show while rummaging through a forgotten backpack on the lady’s room. Paula shouldered the blame when the manager found out she stole a passenger’s possession and attempted to impersonalize her.
Turned out well for Fiona though. Leaving behind the asbestos-ridden airport premises, she now chameleoned in the LA sun, working acting gigs and waiting tables at a beach bar. She didn’t think she could ever be as bold as Fiona and there was something soothing about hiding adrift in everyone’s shade, observing disembodied languages becoming landlocked, then flying off the tarmac. But Fiona’s way of tasting a fountain of lives through acting gave her an idea.
Kenneth started experiencing tunnel view by the time he was three hundred and thirty-seven steps away from home. The pavement melted with featureless faces streaming in and out of the airport. As he turned around, he counted backward from twenty. He couldn’t remember what came before fourteen, but either way he did better than the week before.
His therapist would say three hundred and thirty-seven steps were better than zero. Even a single step on the street held more probability for re-socialization than being confined to his one-bedroom apartment. His pulse slowly returned to normal as he reached for the door and when he entered, he lay down on the floor, swiping his forehead with the back of his hand. Next week, he’d go for five hundred steps, he thought. Hell, he’d aim for the airport. Let the therapist be shocked for a change.
On weekends, Paula became a heavily made-up, French manicured, ash-blond wig-wearing woman. She sat at Gate 63, sometimes with a newspaper in hand, other times pretend-absorbed in a book. The heaviness of her presence felt legitimizing, making the weeks and months ahead appear almost promising.
She watched kids cutting tree shapes out of rainbow colored paper and businesswomen arduously typing on their Mac Books. Some men piqued her interest, but it was their shell that she wanted. She pictured herself accompanying them on their flights to fresh terrains, stepping through unjaded insides of homes, workplaces and restaurants.
When she headed out with the newly arrived masses, she adopted their air of glamorous confidence and it helped bridge the days ahead. Fiona would call her efforts sad, she thought. But she didn’t have to know. Anything was better than spending time off at home.
He should have felt proud, or exhilarated, but his body was out of touch with spaces in-between, reacting with a loud numbness that was unstirred by any amount of counting. The distress must have been etched into his face, because next thing he knew, a well-off looking woman asked if he needed help. A mix of disgrace and respite overcame him, as his brain spun a lie involving a canceled flight. She said she was in-between flights. They sat down for coffee.
Itching to leave, he barely touched the cup, hiding his trembling hands under the table. He waited for her to see through him, so he could go home. Then he promoted himself to a businessman, who frequented the city on a regular basis. Someone as gracefully composed as her would be good for him, he thought. Turned out she traveled on business trips in the area quite often. Could they meet again next time they were in the city? They exchanged numbers. He took three Ativan when they parted ways.
After the names were called, she didn’t look too upset. There was a sense of relief and disappointment. Was it coming from her or him? She was biting her lips. The tarmac on the other side of the windows started to melt with the ochre horizon. Five hundred steps. He should have stuck with his original plan of five hundred steps.
ANA PRUNDARU holds a MSc from Lund University and is the author of three chapbooks. Her work is forthcoming from The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Gargoyle, Diagram and others. More at: https://amprundaru.wordpress.