In the JetBlue terminal Jack tries to stay awake to hear his name called on stand-by. He hates everyone he’s seen in this entire airport. The woman across from him with the sequin-striped sweat suit, her fat feet pouring out of her flip-flops like soggy croissants. She rolls her eyes and wags her head and chirps into her cellphone. Her hair’s pulled back into a stringy, flaccid ponytail — presumably she couldn’t be bothered to shower today. One leg’s crossed over the other and that one flip-flop she keeps jiggling, the way it keeps slapping the heel of her foot, the snotty impatience of it, she’s not even coordinated enough to keep a steady beat going, and the purple metallic toenail polish, she must be from Queens. The sullen teenager two seats over with his gray Yankees cap on crooked, the brand sticker still stuck to the brim, and his white t-shirt way too big, like he thinks he’s a break dancer or something. Jack glares at the kid and tries to hold a nasty expression until the kid looks up, but the kid never does, busy as he is swiveling his thumb round and round his iPod. He’s probably listening to Eminem, the poseur, the disaffected little fucker. (That Jack forgot to pack his own iPod, or at least that he’s thus far been unable to locate it, makes him hate the kid even more.) But at last, here comes the Brillo-pad-hair man again, with his heather gray polo shirt and rimless glasses, pushing that stroller back and forth, one of these off-roaders with BMX wheels and lots of pockets, back and forth, trying to keep his ugly red-headed child from waking up. BMX dad plays at watching where he’s going but he’s really looking furtively around to see if anyone notices him. So, okay, congratulations, dude, you’re a sensitive, caring father pushing a BMX stroller around, the people at church probably have great, swollen, oozing soft spots for you, especially when you wear the matching backpack at the summer strawberry ice cream socials, they lust after you in their own practical ways, raised as most of them probably were with emotionally absent fathers or whatever, you’re a good person, that is what you want us to say, isn’t it, but none of us know quite why. It’s hard to imagine you enjoying all those soccer games, anyway, or all those late hours in the cubicle to pay for parochial school and braces. By the way, your fly’s three-quarters unzipped.
A bitter sweat breaks out down Jack’s back and his butt itches. He stands up and scratches theatrically, pulls at the back pockets of his jeans to unstick his underwear, dares any of these people to be bothered by it.
Jack and Charlotte never really wanted kids that badly, certainly not in their twenties. At first he couldn’t believe it when they found themselves in agreement about it, or he felt in some vague way that he should resist believing her, because all women want kids whether they admit it or not, right? When they talked about it privately, there was always something resigned about her indifference toward raising a family. It was when she talked about it with other people that she seemed genuine and self-assured. She figured people were starting to wonder but were too considerate to ask about it, so she brought it up casually every once in a while, talked about her career, about being for better or for worse insensitive to whatever clock this was that people kept referring to. She thinks children are fine, really, and so does Jack, it’s just, you know, whatever. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. And Jack believed her and stopped worrying about it. In fact, now that she’s passed forty and pregnancy’s becoming an increasingly distant possibility, Jack hasn’t even thought much about it at all.
Now, however, as he recognizes that his contempt for the homely red-headed kid — the self-righteousness of its future, the insufferable sense of entitlement — might be a little excessive, might even be somehow a little sour grapey, Jack is suddenly having a few regrets, chief among them letting Charlotte’s career be the determining factor. Not once, he realizes, did she ever ask Jack if he had it in him to stay home with a baby while she went out and played music. He probably doesn’t (didn’t — it’s time to say didn’t, he guesses, as he watches BMX Dad continue his loop around the terminal), but that’s not the point. She never asked. It was her career (and more important, her womb) and thus her decision.
All the big decisions get to be Charlotte’s. Charlotte doesn’t want children to get in the way of her career. Charlotte doesn’t want her extramarital affairs to get in the way of her marriage. She actually said that last night: “Just because I did this thing that I’m obviously sorry for doesn’t mean our marriage is coming to an end, because it’s not.” Jack got up and went to the bedroom then, got the suitcases out of the closet, thought to himself, Wanna bet?
BMX Dad stops at a water fountain to refill his environmentally sensitive water bottle. Maybe Jack could have done it, stayed home with a baby, put tiny little Reds uniforms on him, made his own baby food in the blender, met up with the neighborhood parents (okay, moms, the pretty ones) and organized trips to the park, the playground, the zoo, walked him to school on his first day. Given his own mother at least one grandchild. The boy would have free art lessons and free music lessons, that’s for sure. He’d probably have been a little artistic genius. And before he went off to save the world (or do some major league damage to it), he’d need Jack for a while. Bullies? Jack would be there. Girls, too. Curve balls, cubism, multiplication tables — check. But there won’t be any multiplying after all. Charlotte’s been on the pill for probably twenty years now, which until thirty-six hours ago Jack always associated with “family planning,” specifically the quote marks, the prevention of their having a family and all that. Now there’s virtually no way to keep from thinking about the convenience these pills must have provided in the event Charlotte wanted to have an affair. As suspicious as he’d been, it’s astonishing that Jack never thought of this before.
Hell, if they’d had children, Charlotte probably wouldn’t have found it so easy to jump into someone else’s bed.
Jack wonders if her confession would have been more shocking, more painful, if he hadn’t read her diary. Probably. He wonders if she’d ever have confessed at all, if he hadn’t read her diary. He wonders if this nausea rises from lack of sleep or too much coffee or just Charlotte having sex with other people, maybe countless people, who knows how many people (who knows if Charlotte’s to be believed?), and sex without condoms with people who sleep around, Jack can’t believe he didn’t think to bring this up last night, it would have made Charlotte feel so shitty.
Having sex with Charlotte couldn’t possibly be intimate anymore. It’d be like sliding back and forth in there against some other guy’s oily junk. Jack would be just another blind, mewling piglet fighting for access to his mama’s teat.
He gets up uneasily and wheels his suitcases toward the bathroom. The tiles in there are shiny and sea-foam green, and he breathes through his mouth in case there are any smells. The only stalls big enough to accommodate him and his luggage are the handicapped stalls, both of which are occupied, so Jack takes his chances and lines up his suitcases next to a few others under the fold-out changing tables. When one keeps falling over, he kicks it as hard as he can, knocking it into someone else’s, which also falls over. An older man rubbing his hands under the blow dryer steps away without looking at him. Dude’s wearing an I ♥ NY t-shirt, so screw him.
The suitcases righted, Jack finds an empty stall with a decent seat and no turds floating in the toilet. He spreads his ankles to keep his bunched jeans from touching the floor. Sitting down triggers a tremendous release of gas, which reverberates inside the bowl and brings the conversation in the next stall—between an adult and a resistant child—to an abrupt halt. Jack puts the tips of his thumbs deep into his ears so he doesn’t have to hear any more of himself, or of anyone else. The bathroom sounds woozy now, underwater, the near constant humming of the hand dryers punctuated by the whispering of faucets and flushes.
A laminated flyer on the inside of the door advertises, of all things, an upcoming concert in the JetBlue terminal — inside the actual terminal — by a balding soul-patched man named Chris Daughtry. “Live in T5” it’s called. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Which is quite possibly the dumbest thing Jack has ever heard of. He can’t tell from the picture if this singer would be country or R&B. Probably both — record companies these days will stoop to anything. The guy kind of looks like Neil. Jack moves his jaw around, trying to relax his mouth. His tongue’s either tense from stress or he’s about to gag. Maybe he should stand up now and turn around, but Jack can’t seem to coordinate his jeans or his breathing and now that his thumbs are comfortably stopping up his ears, he’s afraid to take them out. He closes his eyes and counts imaginary jumping jacks.
Slowly, very slowly, he lets his jeans slip to the floor and shuffles carefully around to bend partway over the toilet bowl, working the back of his tongue, hoping to encourage whatever’s down there, if it must come up, to be quick about it. When this doesn’t produce any results, Jack sticks his tongue out and opens his mouth as wide as it’ll go, even breathing for a moment through his nose (getting very briefly a citrus-flavored detergent scent), but nothing comes out, and all this heaving strains a muscle in his neck — a sharp pain radiates from the right side, some little bulging spasm or tendon stretched the wrong way over a bone. Jack pulls his thumbs out of his ears and holds his throat, trying to push something back in or massage it away. The nausea has receded in the face of this new pain, but as Jack stands there, half naked, trying pathetically to stretch without raising his hands above the stall’s walls and thus puncturing his little cube’s implied privacy, he feels the back of his tongue rising up to meet the roof of his mouth. The tears come fast and hot. He turns to sit again and lands on the seat at an awkward angle, throwing it off center to the bowl, throwing his body off-center and almost into the wall of the stall. When he rights himself, he sticks his thumbs back in his ears, covers his eyes with his other fingers, takes a deep breath, and weeps freely. He rocks back and forth on the toilet seat, giving in to the weeping, ferocious and sloppy. When he feels the tip of his penis touch the front rim of the toilet bowl, he slides back on the seat, revolted, angry, coiling tighter into his body’s paroxysms.
So much emotion, too much, which is what always gets Jack in trouble. He’s too sensitive, too honest, too forthright, and now he’s being punished for it.
He resists the urge to return Charlotte’s calls, to call her and shout at her. Or to let her know where he is and that he’s not dead.
Jack jams his unchecked suitcase into the overhead compartment and takes his seat.
New York City is the greatest city in the world, he thinks: You can leave it and go anywhere at a moment’s notice.
A woman sits down next to him, an extraordinarily well-preserved woman who’s probably ten years his senior. She reminds Jack of his high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. Gable: thick blond hair and charming wrinkles you want to believe are the byproduct of this healthy-looking tan, rather than twenty-five years of squinting at formulas on the blackboard. This woman’s glasses are small and elegant (in contrast with Mrs. Gable’s big-ass eighties glasses). Her perfume is exotic, sexy, and the smell of her takes the edge off Jack’s exhausted alertness. He imagines he’s sitting next to Mrs. Gable, that he’s smelling her intimately, that it she who is soothing him. He closes his eyes and works to preserve the illusion. The more he concentrates on it, the more this woman’s scent stirs within Jack a strong desire for Mrs. Gable, even though he didn’t really find Mrs. Gable all that attractive in high school, and Jack kind of likes this. Something about the woman in the next seat has transformed his chemistry teacher and Jack feels a tender sort of gratitude on her behalf.
Maybe Jack can sleep now, maybe he won’t have to stay awake and fight back all the flashbacks to last night’s revelations. Maybe things will be okay for a couple of hours. Jack closes his eyes, breathes his neighbor in deeply. The plane lurches into motion.
Jack’s just starting to doze off to the engine idle’s white noise when his neighbor taps him on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” she says — she has a British accent — and points to the fan over Jack’s seat. “I think that’s quite enough, don’t you?” With her hand held up like that, her jangly gold bracelets fall down inside the loosely rolled-up sleeve of her shirt. Jack switches off the fan and smiles at her. The plane has stopped moving.
Unable to resist, Jack asks her what perfume she’s wearing.
“Sorry?” she says. Her smile is intensely polite, which so startles Jack that he apologizes in return, then tells her it was nothing. He turns back to the window to watch other planes taking off ahead of them and wonders if she thought he was keeping the overhead fan on to dispel the scent of her perfume, that he doesn’t like it. He turns back to her, but she’s inserted her ear buds and closed her eyes. The top of her bra is clearly visible inside the collar of her shirt. It’s pink. She’s probably worn pink bras all her life, Jack imagines, no matter the occasion. He likes this about her.
She leans toward him to pull out with her other hand the shirttail she’s been sitting on, and the billowing fabric of her pushed-up sleeve brushes against Jack’s hand on the armrest. She lifts her chin, too, and sighs, and Jack can smell her, all of her, he thinks, her throat, her bra, the parts of herself she’s touching in the effort to free her shirttail. Maybe, he thinks, he should try aromatherapy. The gold bracelets jangle quietly every time she moves. Maybe, he thinks, he should ask the flight attendant for some salt peter.
She’s breathing deeply now, her body rising and falling. Jack wonders if it’s living in America that’s made her so preppy looking or if England just naturally has a lot of preppy people. He wonders if she reads different sorts of books, or what passes for trashy airport fare in England. He hopes it never becomes apparent what music she’s listening to, because he knows it would be a huge disappointment.
Her arm presses slightly now on Jack’s arm, she’s very definitely asleep, and he’s lulled by the rhythm of her breathing. He imagines Mrs. Gable lying on top of him, breathing, presenting the loose skin of her throat to be nibbled and sucked on. Then it occurs to him that all this arm touching is probably just his neighbor’s gradual way of claiming more armrest space.
The end of this marriage, he thinks as he starts to drift off to sleep, is about more than just Charlotte’s fling. It’s her unwillingness to share. She’s too secretive. He needs more than this and he deserves better. That’s right, whisper his demons. You do. Maybe you will find it in Miami. Jack closes his eyes. Even the effort to keep them closed exhausts him.
Charlotte’s explanation for everything is that Jack is desperate and crazy. He’s driving her away. Depending on what sorts of things she at any given moment needs defending against, Jack is either too earnest and sensitive or he’s just another tool in a five-thousand-year-old patriarchy concerned first and foremost with controlling women’s sexuality. Jack keeps moving his little pawn back and forth between these two extremes, between Charlotte’s bishop and Charlotte’s queen, which are closing in, which are cornering him. That’s right, whisper his demons, nothing left to do but surrender with a sneer — or go out like Butch Cassidy. Which is it going to be? We’d be happy to choose for you…
CHRISTOPHER ROSS’s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from the Southern Review, the Georgia Review, the Cortland Review, and the Good Men Project.
Read more work by Christopher Ross:
Story in The Cortland Review