by Brian C. Baer
In Rapid City, the man turns to Bridget, the twenty-something in the plastic seat next to him.
“You know,” he tells her, “I love flying. I love everything about it. It’s like science fiction. We walk into a sleek metal tube and when we get out, we’re in another place and time. Anything is possible. Sometimes I feel like I’ll step out onto Mars or Tatooine or something. Isn’t this just the best?”
Bridget cocks her head to the side but her smile doesn’t falter. Her hair is bleached almost as white as her teeth. She wears a bright, amorphous dress, layer after layer of baggy pink frills up to the revealing neckline. Like a jellyfish with breasts, he thinks.
“That’s funny,” she says without laughing. “I guess I never thought about that. I don’t fly much and – sorry, what’s your name again?”
His name isn’t Clive. Not-Clive actually hates flying, the hassles, the noise, the popping of ear drums. But he does love airports and the people inside of them. Airport people are an eternally restless lot, filled with the boredom of limbo, always searching for something to calm them down or work them up. Even when they travel in groups they are lonely. They are the type of people who would believe anything a stranger said, not because that stranger was a talented liar, but because they really want to.
In Des Moines, the man meets Roger, a middle-aged man in a cowboy hat. Roger has perfected his moustache. He has a deep voice and an unhurried way of speaking that makes the man, not-Clive, want to hear him say the word “sarsaparilla”. He wonders which came first, the voice or the fashion sense.
“Hate to fly,” Roger tells him. “I fly once, twice a year and it’s too much.”
“Right there with you,” the man responds and feels his voice slowing, drawling to match. “And these airports ain’t much better.”
Roger laughs slowly. “You said it. Where’re you headed?”
“Oh, you know. To hell and back. Yourself?”
“Visitin’ kids,” Roger sighs. “Grandkids. Ex-wives. Say, where’s your bags?”
“Hm? Oh, I checked those before I left. Say, where do you call home?”
Roger crosses his legs, one elaborately decorated boot over the other, and tells his life story. The man nods, smiles, frowns, laughs when it’s appropriate, and when it’s his turn he invents a life of his own.
The man began with small errors. He changed little details and marveled at how things still hung together. Lies compounded. He borrowed names and personalities from the people he’d known, as if his friendships had been elaborate research for acting roles. He exaggerates until there is no truth in anything he says. His lies become easier to say, to think up. Somewhere deep down, the man feels that he wanders through those wide terminals in costume, in character, becoming whoever he says he is. It’s easier this way.
In Denver, he can’t help but notice the woman sitting in the wheelchair. She is older, older than Roger was, wearing the kind of clothes the elderly wear when they give up entirely on youth. Her hair is short but poufy, congealed into swirls on her head like brunette cauliflower. She is crying. The man slows in the swarm of departing passengers to watch. She keeps her hands on her lap and lets the tears flow down her cheeks unhindered. She is looking at nothing. She’s blind, he thinks.
She sobs quietly until she chokes on her grief. She turns away to cough but does not cover her mouth. The man is walking towards her.
“Is everything okay?” he asks.
The corner of her lip quivers in an attempted smile. “This has been a long day,” she says. “That’s all.”
“I am,” he begins before he realizes he has not prepared an identity for this layover. He does not have a name. “I’m concerned.”
She thanks him. She tells him her name, where she is from. She talks about the troubles the disabled face during air travel, and she hears his mobile phone ringing before he does. He thanks her and steps away to answer.
The woman looks down and to the side, as if looking at her knee, as she eavesdrops. “No, that’s not it,” the man is saying. “I don’t… No. No, this has nothing to do with you.”
The man trails off and clicks the phone closed. She hears a plastic seat groan as he sits next to her.
“Are you having a long day, too?” she asks.
He nods, but she can’t see that.