It was 3:30 in the morning and ours was the only vehicle on the road. The absence of other travelers left me with an eerie feeling that was both calming and terrifying as we merged slowly onto the snow-covered freeway. It was early March, and the blizzard was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise; a stark contrast to the warm spring weather we’d been counting down the days to.
The radio was off—as it was Chris’s habit to turn off the music whenever weather conditions were treacherous—and the only sounds between us were the crunch and hum of the layer of snow giving way beneath our tires, the hiss of snowflakes hitting the windshield, and the low whistle of the truck’s heater.
Each street lamp sparked a snow-fluttered pink-orange glow as we approached, then temporarily blinded us as the snow filled all the light it shone. Snowflakes danced infinitely in the headlights as we navigated along a set of tire tracks another brave traveler left just for us. Without those tracks, I had no idea where the highway ended and the median began.
Somewhere during our relationship, I had become a terrible passenger. It was my instinct to grab the handle of the door in a panic, point at things on the road as if Chris hadn’t seen them—the man had never been in an accident, of course he’d seen them—and drive a hole into the floor where an invisible brake pedal might be. I could sense my body tensing up and preparing to become that nightmare of a passenger as I squinted to see through the veil of thick grey that enveloped the windshield.
‘You’re going to make it worse Alaina, just shut up and let him drive,’ I told myself, forcing my back all the way against the seat.
Chris’s demeanor was the opposite, and he showed no signs of anxiety despite driving under some of the worst conditions I had ever seen. He interlaced his fingers in mine and smiled while he casually steered us along with only the palm of his other hand.
Slowly letting my shoulders relax, I laid my head back and closed my eyes to picture the warm sunny beach in Bora Bora that was awaiting us. I envisioned the quiet calm of the ocean at my feet, the sun on my face, legs, and bare arms—the totality of warmth it would bring; a much-needed break from the never-ending Chicago winter. I imagined lying still and warm in an oversized beach lounger, a Piña colada in one hand, a book in the other, and not a care in the world.
Most of all, though, I pictured Chris.
I saw him the way he’d once been, long before we’d settled into our routine, when he’d kiss me just because the urge hit him, or made love to me because he needed to. I envisioned us laughing and talking with ease instead of forcing small talk to break the silence that had formed after too many years of being complacent in our marriage; after too many years tiptoeing around the personal grudges we each held onto.
We’d gone too long as familiar strangers and I was desperate for the affection we once shared; to touch him with the familiarity we’d had years ago, before we’d let ourselves become physically estranged and shy with one another. I was eager to be kinder, happier, and not always consumed with unspoken resentment toward him. I was sure this trip would fix all we’d let become broken. It had to.
‘We need to talk,’ he’d said the day I suggested the trip, and instead of talking, I’d rambled on about a getaway to “reset” ourselves and our relationship—a honeymoon we never got the chance to take.
Reluctantly, he’d agreed, and the conversation ended there. In the back of my mind the words lingered, though. What would he have said if I’d let him talk?
“What’s this?” he muttered to the silence, shaking me from my thoughts and into a panic as a red and blue light appeared in the haze of snow ahead of us. I let go of his hand so he could steer with both and held my breath, reaching to touch the small pendant on my necklace—a habit I’d formed over the years to calm myself.
A chill ran down my spine. I stiffened from both the fear of what we might see ahead, and what might not see us from behind as we slowed to an almost stop. I clutched the handle of the door and leaned forward as if those couple inches would magically make the scene ahead clearer.
As the police car came into focus, so did the bright pink flames of the road flares. The flares overlapped the tire tracks we’d been driving in and I realized, just as it came into focus, the car which had left them was now upside down in the median.
A police officer signaled us through with a flare, and we passed slowly, watching a man and woman as they knelt in the snow to search for their belongings from the overturned car’s driver-side window.
I wondered, as we passed, what would I need in that situation?
My purse, perhaps? No.
Phone? Not important.
Chris. I would only need Chris. Nothing else would be so important I couldn’t leave it and get off such a dangerous highway. Despite whatever was going on between us, he was my home and my best friend. It was only him I needed. After all we’d put each other through, I wondered if he still felt the same about me?
We drove on with no tire tracks to guide us through the blinding pink orbs of snow, both of us staring ahead into the haze, stiffened and silent for what felt like an eternity.
It was only when we merged onto the I90 expressway leading into Chicago’s O’Hare airport that we were joined by other vehicles. The appearance of other drivers brought a sense of relief, so much so that, all at once, my body relaxed, and I let out a long breath I hadn’t realized I’d still been holding.
We pulled into the parking lot and the airport bustled around us. The roar of departing and approaching planes, the scrape of snowplows, and the constant “SWISH” of passing cars in the slush drowned out the silence that had once been between us, and we exchanged sighs of relief as he placed the car triumphantly into park.
I touched his arm. “Thank you for not killing us, love.”
The corner of his mouth twitched upward, and he ran his hand down my hair to cup my cheek. “Never.”
The moment was short-lived. His eyes darted upward through the passenger side window behind me toward the airport shuttle. “Ah crap,” he muttered, and I heard the screech of the train coming to a stop.
“It’s only a five-minute wait,” I assured him. “We’ll get the next one. We’ve got plenty of time before the flight.”
We’d be flying first on the 6:40AM flight to L.A., and from there, we’d have to endure a four-hour layover to then catch the 12:40PM flight to Bora Bora.
Working our way through security in record time, we arrived at our gate to find only ten other people there.
“See!” He glared down at me. “I told you we could’ve slept an extra twenty minutes!”
It was rare for us to be this early for a flight. Chris was always a last-minute person, and as a result, we had missed two flights during our relationship. Because of the snow, I’d insisted we leave earlier.
“Oh well.” I yawned. “We’ll sleep when we get there.”
We found a seat and I laid my coat across us, resting my head against his bulky shoulder while attempting to ignore the metal arm rest dividing my seat from his digging into my ribs. Just as I started to close my eyes, a shrill female voice came over the intercom in our gate.
“This is an announcement for passengers on United Airlines flight number three thirty-eight to Los Angeles. The flight has been delayed due to snow. Our new departure time is 9:50 AM.”
“9:50?!” I shouted, jerking myself up and looking at Chris. “That’s going to leave us with…” I groggily crunched numbers and time differences in my head, “less than an hour from landing to board in LA. No way we’re going to make it onto our next flight!”
“We’ll make it,” he said, his tone entirely too calm for the amount of panic I felt the situation warranted. “Don’t get all worked up. It’ll be fine.”
He laid his head back and closed his eyes.
Annoyed, I huffed and hoisted myself up out of my seat. “I can’t sleep in this stupid chair. I’m going to find something to read… or do… or eat… you want anything?”
He opened one eye, yawning as he stretched his long legs out in front of him and pulled my coat up toward his chin. “See if you can find me a neck pillow.” And before I could answer, he closed the eye again and smiled.
‘How can he be so calm right now?’ I asked myself as I stomped my way down the terminal toward the smell of caffeine and cinnamon. ‘We are definitely going to miss our second flight. No doubt about it. And he’s not even worried. Of course he’s not worried. Why would he be? He didn’t even want to come on this trip!’
I turned to the left and found a small gift shop. Irritated, I spun the rotating book stand a few times, skimming the titles without really reading them.
‘He doesn’t care about the delay… just like he doesn’t care that I’m walking around the airport by myself! God forbid he walk with his wife and strike up a conversation! Oh no, we can’t have that.. especially not on our would-be honeymoon!’
I, of course, could’ve asked him to join me—should’ve asked him to join me if the purpose of this trip was to mend our marriage. I knew he would’ve. Instead, I found an excuse—much as I always did—to stay angry at him; an excuse to hold onto the contempt bottled up inside me. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the hurt. Or maybe I needed an entirely different landscape in order to even begin to relinquish the weight of all we’d gone through…
I snagged a bright yellow book off the rack, half-read the description, and grabbed a second in case the first was bad. I pulled two neck pillows down from the wall behind it—‘we have so many of these at home, why do we never think to grab one?!’—and threw them onto the counter at the poor little cashier whose head barely made it over the display case.
Bags in hand, I sulked across the hall to a little coffee-shop.
‘It’s not Starbucks. You’re probably not going to like it. You should just walk to the other side to the Starbucks.’
“I’ll have one large coffee with extra cream and extra sugar.”
‘He’s going to want one—even though he didn’t mention it, you’ll just end up coming right back…’
I sighed, “Make that two please… and one of these cinnamon rolls.”
With two boiling hot coffees burning my hands, two bags stinging the ring finger I’d looped them around, and my purse—loaded with toiletries—weighing down my shoulder, I was seething by the time I got back to our seats.
“I got you a stupid coffee and neck pillow, here!” I snapped, handing him his coffee and finally setting mine down on the table next to him to relieve my hands of the heat. Dropping the bags and purse onto the floor, I slinked into my seat. “Ugh. I’ve worked myself up into a frenzy, love.”
He eyed me with an amused expression, taking the lid off his coffee to blow on it before taking a very loud sip.
‘Always the loud sip. Always… Be nice Alaina, be nice. Remember… honeymoon…’
His mouth twitched, and he used his free hand to pat my leg. “It’s alright Ally, we’ll get there, might not be when we wanted to, but we’ll get there soon enough.”
I straightened and reached down to snag the cinnamon roll, opening the little box and holding it between us. He immediately pinched off an enormous bite as I took my first sip of coffee—cursing myself for not walking a little further to Starbucks.
Despite the less-than-pleasant taste, I devoured the coffee and, with Chris’s help, the cinnamon roll in quick time. Laying my head against him, I forced my shoulders to relax.
Why did I let myself get so angry?
‘We’ll get there soon enough,’ I thought. But I couldn’t wait to get to Bora Bora. For some reason, fixing our broken relationship in Chicago—or even the United States as a whole—seemed impossible. The pristine beaches of Bora Bora, on the other hand, would be far too perfect a landscape to stay angry once our feet could land upon them. I couldn’t wait to get us back to being us again—to the couple we’d been before we hurt each other over and over. The truth was, I missed my husband, and I couldn’t wait to get him back—to view him the way I once had.
Closing my eyes, I drifted into a half-sleep, smiling as I allowed myself to be transported away from the cold air of the airport to the warm summer night we first met.
We’d met each other at a concert ten years prior. I was there supporting my then-boyfriend Kevin, a drummer in the headlining band. Kevin had big dreams of rockstardom and I, being freshly twenty-one, an aspiring singer-songwriter myself, and highly impressionable, was completely enamored with the idea of him. It was a fast-paced and young lust that had kept us together for the couple of months that led up to that night.
I was four vodka-cranberry drinks in, having arrived with the band while they set up and sound-checked. Painfully, I’d endured the first two acts, and found myself standing in a long line for the women’s restroom. I had one hand propped on the sticky painted concrete wall to keep my balance while the other hand was fastened around the plastic cup housing the fifth vodka-cranberry of the night. Despite my desperate urge to pee, the straw kept finding its way to my mouth.
The hall was dark except for the light that would spill out of the bathroom along with a wave of female chatter each time the door to the restroom would open and close. Across the hall from me, the light came more frequently, and I watched men going in and out of the men’s room with no line or chatter whatsoever.
I danced from toe to toe, wondering why the gap in the light was taking so long on my side of the hall. What compelled women to chatter in the bathroom while other unfortunate souls pee-danced in the hallway?
The sudden muffled vibration of bass and drums and the sound of cheers from the crowd overhead told me Kevin’s band had taken the stage. Eager to join them, I threw caution to the wind and launched myself across the hall, plowing into the men’s bathroom door and directly into the arms of a somewhat baffled Chris. We fell, entangled, directly onto the men’s bathroom floor, my drink spraying out in an explosion of ice and pink.
He had taken the brunt of the fall, shifting his weight so he hit the ground with an “oof” and with me lying haphazardly on top of him.
I lifted my head, and that was it. My heart fluttered, and I lost the concept of time, space, and that mere moments prior I had been willing to sacrifice all caution just to release the pressure in my bladder. All I could do was swim in those big green eyes.
He smiled up at me and made no move to unlock his enormous hands from my sides. “Well, hello.”
I smiled an awkward “hello” back as reality returned and, with it, the realization that we were lying on the bathroom floor, the door jammed against our sides, with a crowd of men cheering obscene gestures over us.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” I huffed, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. With trembling legs, I stood, extending my hand to pull him up as I pushed the door away from his body.
He took my hand in his, the size of it making mine seem frail and very feminine. He hoisted himself to a sitting position, the wicked smile remaining on his lips. “You frequently burst into men’s rooms? I can be more cautious when exiting from now on.”
Keeping hold of my hand, he stood, towering a good foot above my head as he did so; his bright white teeth still on display.
I took it all in as he stood; those long legs, the broad shoulders, the slight waviness in his dark hair, the way his plain black t-shirt hugged his biceps, and the very slight dark hair of a five o’clock shadow on his face. I’d never seen anything so manly—so handsome. He made every other guy I’d ever dated or shown interest in seem like a boy. This exquisite creature that stood before me was a man.
“Oh God, no, I’m so sorry. I just—
Three men slid around us on their way out, one bumping into my back and forcing me once again to plunge head-first into his very sturdy chest. My cheeks on fire, I pushed back rapidly only to nearly knock over two men coming the opposite direction. “I’m so sorry, so sorry.” I looked back at him. “I’m sorry.”
His smile remained unchanged. “I’ll forgive you if you let me buy you a…” He paused, his gaze running the length of me to observe the bright pink spatter of my cranberry drink covering the majority of my once white Social Distortion t-shirt. The corner of his lips curled slightly higher. “Coffee perhaps?”
I was mystified. This beautiful man was looking at me in a way I knew meant trouble. I’d never considered myself unattractive, but I’d never had a man who looked quite like this regard me in such a way. He looked… mystified.
“Oh… ah… yes… ok,” I managed, following him out the door.
“What were you doing bursting into the men’s room, anyway?” he asked as we entered the blackness of the hallway.
“Oh! I had—have—to pee. Just wait one minute.” I glanced at the line for the women’s bathroom—it’d grown to about twenty-five women deep—then back at the men’s room.
“Here,” he smirked, “come with me.” Seizing my hand, he pulled me behind him.
There was something about my hand in his that sent a jolt of electricity through my body. I blindly followed, beaming at the women whose heads turned to get a second look at him while we made our way through the crowd to a hallway on the opposite side of the stage.
He led me down a set of stairs and through a door opening up to a brightly lit hallway. The contrast had me squinting as I heard him cheerfully boast, “Hey Chuck! This one’s gotta pee. Mind if we use the one back here?”
“Not at all,” shouted a deep male voice from far down the hall.
He placed his hand on an unmarked door and held it open to reveal a private bathroom. Winking, he grinned down at me and said, “I’ll just wait here and protect any other unsuspecting saps from risking the same fate by getting too close to that door.”
I laughed—the sound foreign as it hit my ears. I’d never made a sound quite so nerdy. Cheeks on fire, I hurried inside.
‘Oh. My. God. Alaina.’ I thought to myself, leaning against the door as it closed and taking three deep breaths. I stepped to the sink and squinted my eyes in the mirror at the Picasso of a reflection looking back at me.
‘Get it together, woman.’ I braced the sink with both hands. ‘Don’t be drunk. Please don’t be drunk right now.’ My hair had already started to curl and the fluorescent light of the bathroom amplified every wisp of the fiery red chaos I had spent hours straightening earlier that evening. My eyes were definitely glossed over and… ‘Is that… smeared mascara under my eyes?? Seriously?!’
I grabbed a handful of paper towels, running them under the sink water and wiping my eyes while I hobbled into the single stall to pee.
‘Be cool. Say nothing until you’ve drank an entire cup of coffee… Coffee? They don’t serve coffee here… That means we’re leaving… And what about Kevin?’
Bladder pressure finally relieved, I stumbled out of the stall and walked back to the mirror. I washed my hands and ran them, still-wet, over my hair in an attempt to smooth it.
‘Good as it’s gonna get. We’re going to get coffee, and that’s that… We don’t really like Kevin that much, anyway.’
Part of me expected—maybe even hoped—he’d be gone when I opened that bathroom door. I mean, who was I next to this charming man? He could’ve had any woman in that club. What in the world was he doing escorting an awkward, half-drunk, freckle-faced redhead to a private bathroom, anyway? But there he was in all his glory, leaning against the wall and smiling directly at me.
He stepped forward and offered me his arm; a pure gentleman. “Shall we?”
I blinked at the offered arm, and despite my best judgement, slurred out, “Well, wait juss a second mystery-bathroom-man. I have questions.”
“Oh?” He chuckled. “Please do fire away.”
‘Shut up Alaina, please shut up,’ I thought, but the words kept coming. “One.” I leaned exaggeratedly forward as I pressed my pointer finger into the air. “How does one just magically have access to inaccesssssssible bathrooms down mystery hallways and yet chooses to use the filthy public ones?”
“Well,” he said, smiling and wrapping my arm in his to turn me back the way we’d come. “That’s easy. The owner of this venue is a friend of mine and I come here often to hang out with him. It just so happens I was closer to that hallway than this one when the urge hit me to pee. Next question?”
I let him lead me, leaning slightly more on him than I’d have preferred. “Alright then, TWO…” I had lost control of my volume and the word “two” was shouted, echoing across the fluorescent concrete hallway we walked down. “Where in the hell do you intend to buy me a cup of coffee and are you some kind of outrageously good looking axe murderer who plans to get me all hopped up on caffeine before you chop me to bits?”
He gave my arm a little squeeze and opened the door back into darkness and loud music. At least my volume control wouldn’t be an issue. He leaned down to shout in my ear, “There’s a little diner one block over I’m quite partial to, although I’m afraid I’ve left my axe at home this evening.”
We were working our way through the crowd arm in arm and I stopped, placing my hand on his chest so I stood in front of him, dancing concert-goers bumping roughly into each of our elbows. “Alright fine, I will let you buy me a coffee, but don’t get any ideas. I’m a lady, ya know.”
At this, he smiled wide and his hand worked its way down my hair to cup my cheek, loosening a frenzy of butterflies in my stomach. “You’re adorable. Where in the world did you come from?”
Adorable? There was that word. My entire life I’d been called adorable or some version of it. Just once, I wanted to be “sexy” or “seductive.”
Rolling my eyes, I looped my arm back through his and turned toward the exits. “I come from Hyde Park, and we’d better hurry before the band sees us. I was sorta dating that drummer.”
We’d stayed up all night to avoid oversleeping. Between the cold, the tension of the drive, the first flight, and the complete lack of sleep, my body was done with me by the time we stepped off the first airplane. Once again, I found myself tensed and shivering, but this time from utter fatigue.
We were late arriving, and if we were to have any chance of catching our next flight, we would have to run.
Our second flight was on the opposite side of LAX. We’d need to catch the shuttle bus over to Tom Bradley International Terminal and sprint to make it to our gate. Grabbing our carryons, we wasted no time bolting the instant we exited the jet bridge.
I hoped to God Chris knew where we were going. He was a good twenty feet ahead of me—his legs being longer than mine—and I focused on the back of his head while I panted and struggled to keep pace with him. He slowed long enough for me to catch up to his heels as we turned into the escalators which would take us out to the shuttle.
Taking the steps two at a time, we caught the shuttle just as it pulled in. The time was 12:15. Boarding had started five minutes ago. I sat down near the doors, panting with my hands on my head. “We’re never going to make it now,” I managed.
“We’ll make it,” he assured me, rubbing my lower back as I steadied my breathing.
Once at Tom Bradley, we sprinted again to our gate. When we arrived at the desk, my side ached, and I had to lean on the counter to catch my breath.
‘Alaina, we’re getting on the treadmill every day when we get back home. This is ridiculous.’
“I’m sorry, sir, you’ve just missed it,” I heard the woman explaining to Chris once I straightened. “I can put you on a flight out tomorrow afternoon at 12:40 or I can place you on standby.”
Chris looked apologetically at me.
“Standby,” I grunted. “I just want to get there.” The idea of wasting a night of my hard-earned vacation time stuck in a Los Angeles hotel room did not appeal to me. I was eager to get to the beach and I hated Los Angeles.
Chris nodded in agreement.
“Alright,” the woman said. “We’ll call your names if something opens up for you. In the meantime, make yourselves comfortable and don’t venture too far.”
Utterly defeated, we turned. Near our gate was a Starbucks, the familiar coffee bean and hazelnut aroma beckoning me toward it. “Well…” I pointed, “Coffee?”
He yawned. “Yeah, I guess.”
“You want me to find you a book to read?” I asked, gesturing for him to find us some seats.
“Nah.” He smiled, pulling his phone from his back pocket and sitting. “I’ll see if I can find us some much-needed good luck.” He winked at me, and I turned toward the warm promise of a vanilla latte.
‘Of course he would pull out his phone,’ my inner voice complained. ‘He would literally prefer to scroll aimlessly for hours through social media or play poker with complete strangers than to converse with his wife. Have I become so boring or have we just run out of things to say to each other? If we can’t even talk in the airport, how are we supposed to enjoy this vacation?’
Fixing things was definitely going to be a challenge if I continued to interpret every action of his as an attack on me. Of course he was unaffectionate. Who wouldn’t be when their wife was always so bitter?
A proper coffee in hand, I took my seat next to him, noticing—despite myself—that he didn’t take his eyes off his poker game as I did so. Shaking it off, I sipped my coffee and pulled out one of the two books I’d picked up in Chicago.
So enraptured was I in the story that I nearly forgot I was stuck in the airport had it not been for the chair serving as a constant reminder, forcing me to shift my legs every few minutes to give each side of my butt equal opportunity to go completely numb.
Chris had fallen asleep and his head was rested heavily on my shoulder. The warmth of his breath on my arm was a welcome heat to my exhausted body. I wondered how he could sleep in such a position, but was glad one of us was getting some rest.
At 10:30pm, I was pulled from my book by the call we’d been waiting for over the terminal speakers.
“Christopher and Alaina Grace, please report to Gate 155.”
I nudged Chris back to consciousness. “They’ve called our names.”
Gathering our luggage, we headed back to the gate’s desk.
“Mr. & Mrs. Grace, I’ve got some good news for you.”
I sighed. ‘We’re going tonight.’
“We’ve got two seats available on the 11:40pm flight. Unfortunately, I can’t seat you together, but one of our openings is a first-class seat, which we’ll upgrade you to free-of-charge.”
Chris and I looked at each other, then back at her. “Yes, great, we’ll take it,” Chris said. “Give her the first-class seat, I’ll take whatever.”
“Alright then,” she said, handing me my ticket. “Mrs. Grace, here is your ticket, seat 2B… and Mr. Grace,” she batted her eyes at him like most women tended to do. “Here you are. You’re seat 28C.”
Spirits lifted, we took our new tickets and sat down inside the gate’s seating area. I laid my head on Chris’s shoulder and yawned as he once again pulled the iPhone from his pocket.
That’s when I spotted him. Jack Volmer… The Jack Volmer.
Almost fifteen years ago, Jack had been on the cover of virtually every teen magazine, and assuredly hanging on a poster in nearly every 16-year-old girl’s bedroom—myself included. He was the tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, perfect-bodied star of the then-popular teen drama series ‘Fairview Nights,’ in which he played the role of Elias Phillip, a handsome teen who’d spent nine seasons falling in and out of love with the show’s lead female. I’d all but forgotten him until he stood in my gate looking rather impatient.
The last decade or so had been kind to Jack. He had to be close to my age—thirty-one—and he still looked fantastic, perhaps even better than he’d looked as Elias. His shoulders seemed wider and more muscular than I’d remembered. He towered over the surrounding men, and he’d grown a short beard which suited his rugged adult appearance well.
I found that watching him and contemplating his demeanor was the only means I had with which to stay awake. Chris was enthralled with his poker game next to me, thoroughly unconcerned that his wife was eye-stalking a handsome man across the room. So, I observed him for the better part of an hour, while he ignored the men standing with him, snapped a photo with three women who entered the terminal and recognized him, and ultimately resigned to sit in one of the gate’s chairs and struggle, just as I had been struggling, to find a comfortable position in it. I watched him until he caught my eye and I was forced to look away.
I focused instead on a mother and daughter directly across from me in our row of seats. The daughter—at-most five years old—laid atop her mother, who was stroking the girl’s long golden hair. My heart warmed at the sight of them and I reached for my necklace, longing for a child of my own I could never have.
A few seats down from them was a young woman with silky dark brown hair. Her phone was pulled outward and upward as she adjusted her facial expression to snap selfie after selfie. I rolled my eyes, scanning the rest of the row of seats to find every single person staring at the screens of their various devices.
My career relied on technology but I abhorred it. I yearned for the simplicity of earlier decades when people would actually talk to each other. Over the past year, I’d made it a point to keep my own phone buried deep in my purse to avoid the addiction to mindless scrolling we all tended to suffer from.
Jack stood again and paced with his phone pressed to his ear, drawing my eyes once again in his direction. He had an arrogance about him when he walked, standing taller than the people he passed with an expression that exuded immediate dismissal to anyone who might try to approach with small talk. He sauntered to the large window overlooking the tarmac and stood with his back facing me, the tensed shoulder blades beneath his shirt defined and easing in response to the direction of the hushed conversation he was having.
I wondered what it might be like to be the woman I imagined was on the other side of that phone… Would Jack Volmer neglect his wife in an airport to play poker with strangers or would he be so consumed by her that he wouldn’t even notice his flight had been delayed? Would he ever tire of her stories? Or forget to notice her when she’d put on something seductive before bed? Was he sweet and romantic or did all men lose that intensity over time? Would I have been doomed to be in the same situation regardless of who I’d married, or had I just married the wrong man? Or maybe he’d been the right man, but I hadn’t been the right woman.
‘We need to talk,’ my mind reminded me, forcing my eyes to Chris’s phone as he opted to fold his two-pair when a flush showed on the table. I sighed. Perhaps it was the phone that was in the way of fixing things.
‘What if I launch it in the ocean the moment we get there?’ I laughed to myself. ‘He’d be forced to look at me then.’
The gate was now bustling with people eager to take flight. Several paced near the desk and more than one person had taken a seat on the floor to avoid sitting too close to a stranger.
After what felt like hours, I heard the long-awaited announcement of, “Good afternoon passengers. This is the pre-boarding announcement for flight 89B to Bora Bora. We are now inviting those passengers with small children, and any passengers requiring special assistance, to begin boarding at this time. Please have your boarding pass and identification ready. Regular boarding will begin in approximately ten minutes’ time. Thank you.”
Anxious travelers began to stand all around us. Jack hung up with whoever he’d been talking to and hovered near the desk.
After a few minutes, I gathered my carryon, purse, books, and neck pillow. “You gonna miss me all the way back there in coach?” I teased.
“Al, I’d miss that face even if you were seated in the row in front of me.” It seemed earnest but also slightly forced.
‘He’s trying.’ I reminded myself. ‘Go with it. It’s a start.’
I stood and stretched upward. “Wake me up when we get there.” I bent to kiss him on the lips, hoping he might touch my face or pull me into the kiss the way he used to. When he didn’t, I forced a smile, kissed his forehead, and hurried onto the plane, swallowing the lump in my throat hard.
As luck would have it, I found my seat in 2B was next to The Jack Volmer, who was looking all too comfortable with his long legs spread out in front of him in 2A.
Lifting my carryon into the overhead bin, I hurried to take my seat beside him, allowing the agitated looking man behind me room to take his.
I extended my hand as I sat. “Alaina,” I said in introduction.
He observed me with a half-smile but didn’t take my offered hand. Instead, he crossed his arms over his chest, laid his head back against the seat, and closed his eyes. “Jack,” he responded, the corner of his lip raised in a smirk, “That’s some hair you got there…”
I touched my head and realized all the hard work at taming my curls twenty hours prior had come undone and my head was two times larger than it had been upon arrival. “Oh, God,” I laughed, pulling it all to one side and pinning it against the seat. “It’s been a very long day. We’ve been on standby since this morning and traveling since 3:30 AM.”
He smiled with his eyes still closed. “Sounds dreadful. Who’s ‘we?’”
“My husband and I. We missed our connecting flight because our first flight got delayed. They didn’t have any seats together, so…” I shrugged, realizing I was rambling, “here I am, hair and all.”
He grinned, but did not respond.
I’d never flown first-class before—never saw the value in spending that much more on a ticket to get to the same destination. As I reclined back and stretched my legs out in front of me, I decided I might have been wrong all those years flying coach.
Amid the sea of passengers flooding the plane, I spotted the emerald eyes of my husband. As he passed, I exaggerated my stretch, sticking my tongue out at him and wiggling my fingers in an innocent wave.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said as he slogged his way past me, looking back over his shoulder to add, “I’ll see ya in a few hours.”
I watched him disappear into coach—well, all but a forehead and one long leg poking out into the aisle. The sight of him so far from me stabbed at my heart. I genuinely missed him. I’d been missing him for a few years.
This trip was my idea, and I’d been unfair in the airport. The minute we landed, I would commit everything I had to fixing our marriage—no more excuses to be angry. Letting him go was not an option.
Happy to have the opportunity to finally close my eyes, I did so, and only opened them again as the plane navigated away from the terminal and the flight attendant began her safety presentation.
“Newlyweds?” Jack asked, eyes still shut.
I laughed at that. “Hardly. We’ve been together for ten years.”
He opened his eyes at that and whistled a sarcastic “impressive” note. “No wonder you didn’t give up your first-class seat.”
Taken aback, I turned toward him. “Excuse me?”
“I’m just saying… you could’ve offered whoever had the seat next to him your fancy first-class seat. They probably would’ve loved to trade. Why didn’t you?”
I paused. I really hadn’t even considered it. I could’ve traded, and ten years ago, that would’ve been the first thing on my mind. Why hadn’t I thought of it now? I pursed my lips and spun to look down the aisle, thinking about whether to run back and attempt a sudden trade.
“Only messing with you, Red,” he said lazily and poked at my elbow between us.
I frowned. I hated being called ‘Red.’ But I couldn’t shake the guilt his comment left me with.
“Do you think they’d trade me now if I ran back there?” I half-stood and bobbled with the plane as I faced coach. There was a middle-aged couple sitting next to him sharing a magazine. I wondered if I could convince them to separate.
A soft hand touched my elbow. “Ma’am, please take your seat.”
I twisted back to see the scornful look of a very pretty flight attendant. Her dark brows furrowed over brown eyes.
“Hmmf.” I sat down to avoid her scowl. I also hated being called ‘ma’am.’ It was a new term for me as I’d hit my thirties and one I couldn’t get used to. I clasped the seatbelt on and, after a moment, looked over at Jack.
He even sat with arrogance. His eyes were closed, arms were crossed over his chest, and his legs were sprawled out wide in front of him. Even with the legroom of first-class, he was taking up my personal space.
Annoyed, I stretched my own legs, forcing him to adjust his position as my boot grazed his.
Reclining, I’d started to allow myself to enjoy the comforts of first-class until the plane vibrated in preparation of takeoff, reminding me that I was a very nervous flyer.
My mouth became dry, and as the plane sped forward, forcing my head back against the seat, I clenched my eyes tightly shut.
I realized, as the wheels came off the ground and my stomach floated up toward my throat, that where I would normally squeeze Chris’s hand on takeoff, I was now squeezing Jack’s… hard. But as we ascended at what felt like ninety degrees, I couldn’t let go.
‘Oh God, level out… level out…’
On the verge of hyperventilation, I squeezed harder, gritting my teeth, and begging myself not to throw up as my stomach lurched.
‘Oh, please level out… please…’
The sounds around me grew more and more muffled as the pressure filled my ears. I swallowed several times, but they only grew more clogged—more painful. A cold sweat washed over my skin.
‘Oh, don’t throw up, Alaina… You’re a grown woman… please don’t throw up.’
Every muscle in my body tightened as the plane climbed higher. ‘That’s got to be the clouds… we’ve got to be leveling out soon. Oh God, please don’t let me throw up. Alaina, you are so ridiculous.’
The world around me continued to shake and I could feel my head starting to swim; moisture forming at the back of my mouth. ‘Oh, don’t you dare throw up… get it together… oh, please level out!’
As if to oblige me, we leveled out and my stomach returned to its appropriate position. I opened my eyes and turned my head to see the very amused expression of Jack Volmer—his fingers still locked in my fist. I let go and reached up to turn on the overhead fan.
‘Oh dear god, air…’ I took several deep breaths as it washed over my face, letting my heart rate settle.
He’d said something, but my ears were too clogged to make it out.
“WHAT?” I asked too loudly.
“ARE YOU GOING TO THROW UP?” He shouted, turning everyone’s heads around us in my direction.
“No,” I snapped, lowering my head between my knees to catch my breath. ‘Maybe… Jesus Alaina, get it together.’
I opened my mouth wide and closed, wide and closed, swallowing over and over until my ears finally popped. Slowly, I unfolded and laid my head back against the headrest, feeling his eyes observing me the entire time.
Cheeks on fire, I tried to compose myself. “I’m so sorry… I’m a nervous flyer… I didn’t mean to… touch you.”
He rubbed his fingers where I’d nearly broken them. “You’ve got a hell of a grip, Red… This actually kinda hurts…”
“Don’t call me Red,” I growled, taking another deep breath.
“Won’t happen again,” he assured me, placing both hands up in surrender.
“Sorry… about the fingers.” I attempted to recover. “What… ah… what are you doing in Tahiti?”
“My kid sister’s getting married there.”
“Oh, that’s sweet.” I faced him. “We’re going for our honeymoon and—”
“Sounds thrilling,” he interrupted, my cheeks turning red with embarrassment as I realized he was annoyed and silencing me. “I’m going to try to get some sleep now.”
He produced a set of earbuds and popped them in his ears before I could continue. “Night… Red.”
‘You smug bastard…’ I thought, closing my own eyes as I reclined back. ‘Hope those fingers bruise.’
I heard the familiar ‘ding’ of the seatbelt sign turning off just as I drifted to sleep.
I was transported to the diner on that first night with Chris. Billie Holiday was playing from a radio in the nearby kitchen. The restaurant was small, and its only inhabitants were Chris, myself, a cook, and a waitress.
The booth he picked was well-worn, showing tears in several spots on the fabric where I sat nervously peeling at one. Chris was seated across from me, not breaking his gaze, even when the little waitress came over.
She was all of five feet tall, a hundred pounds if she was soaking wet. Her skin was leather. The boxed blonde hair on her head had grown out about three inches to expose grey and dark roots, and her voice was low and full of grit I could only imagine came from a lifetime of cigarettes and parties. “Can I get you two somethin’ to drink?”
Still staring at me, he said, “Two coffees and a couple of menus please.”
Ears and face on fire, I smiled, shifting my focus from him to the tear in the seat and back. “You’re making me very uncomfortable staring like that.”
“I don’t mean to make you nervous, it’s just really hard to look away. You’re very wonderful to look at.”
‘Say something witty, you fool,’ I thought, but my mouth wouldn’t form words. The only sound that escaped it was an awkward, “meh heh heh.”
“Do you really not see how beautiful you are? I mean, look at you.”
“Oh, well, I…”
I sighed, having no idea how to even respond to those kinds of words in my drunken state. “Listen, cheesy-mystery-man, I’m gonna be honest, I’m not my best self right now and until I’ve had that coffee—and maybe some eggs—I’m probably going to say something awkward and stupid that I’ll be embarrassed for later.”
“Well, I don’t mind if you do, so long as I can sit here lookin’ at you. My name’s Chris. Christopher Grace, if you’d like the whole thing.” He stuck his massive palm out toward me.
I took it, happy to shift the conversation away from my looks. “Alaina McCreary.” I shook his hand, squeezing too hard and regretting it almost immediately. “What’s the deal with you, anyway? Where are you from? What do you do? How often do you steal women away from concerts to woo them over coffee?”
“This is a first,” he admitted, and paused while the waitress clumsily laid out our coffee cups and poured too much coffee into each.
“Soups tonight are cream of broccoli and chicken noodle.” She laid a menu out in front of each of us. “I’ll be back momentarily to take your order.”
As she walked away, I reached for the cream and sugar, adding what I could before the cup would overflow. Without a thought to gracefulness, I leaned my head down to the mug where it sat on the table and sipped—loudly. I became painfully aware of his eyes on me long before I raised my head back up.
‘And that’s the night. See ya later, Chris Grace.’
He smiled in wonderment rather than running out the door, and continued on with his story. “I’m from Arlington Heights. Started out as a construction worker for my dad’s company, got my general contractor’s license and now he and I build houses side by side as Grace Construction. That’s how I came to know Chuck Miller next door. Built his house for him. Gave him a good deal too.”
Holding my coffee like a human being now, I decided not to speak until I’d finished the entire thing. I made it a habit to raise the mug to my lips whenever I thought he might pause in his story to potentially ask me any questions.
“Your eyes are going to kill me by the way,” he noted, and continued, “I moved to the city about a year ago, an idea that I thought was good at the time, but I can’t wait until my lease is up so I can move back. Too much noise here. I want a yard and a neighborhood and the freedom to drive and park my car with ease. Are you ready to talk yet or do you want me to just keep going?”
I brought the cup back to my lips and looped my pointer finger around in a circle to signal him to keep talking.
“Alright then, well, let’s see, I was a baseball player in high school, ran a little track, started college—decided it wasn’t for me—learned my dad’s trade, moved here, went to that damned bar almost every night waiting for you to bump into me, and here we are. Did you know your eyes are both blue and green depending on which way you look at them?” He tilted his head.
I swallowed hard and set the mug down no the table. Glancing around the room to test my vision, I decided I was headed towards sober faster than I thought.
“Track, huh?” I smirked a little.
By the time breakfast arrived, I felt like myself again, and conversation flowed freely.
“Well,” I was saying, “I put off college to pursue music. I’d even gotten a producer interested in recording me one night after one of my acoustic gigs.” I poked the eggs with my fork. “But it didn’t really lead anywhere so here I am, twenty-one years old and in my freshman year of college.”
“Did you end up recording anything?” He smiled, holding a piece of bacon. “I’d really love to hear it.”
“I did.” I scooped up my hash browns as I fumbled around my purse. “And I still play sometimes.” I took a bite, producing an iPod and earbuds. “I’ll always have music but a design degree will pay the bills.”
I thumbed through the songs for a moment until I landed on my personal favorite. “You really want to hear it or are you just being nice?”
He glided across his seat, circling around the table to slide in next to me on my side of the booth. He picked up one earbud and placed it in his ear, handing me the other. “Show me.”
I was immediately intimidated by his presence near me. He excited and scared me all at the same time. Feeling self-conscious, my thumb hovered over the play button. “I mean… it’s not… it’s ok… it’s…”
His hand curled over mine and forced the thumb down, inciting goosebumps up and down my arms as acoustic guitar and piano filled our ears.
I watched his face as he listened and his lips curved upward when my vocal began. He said nothing, just stared at me while the song continued.
As the last notes of the piano rang out, I pressed the “Stop” button and pulled the earbud from my ear, rambling, “It still needs some work, and I don’t know if I like the second chorus…. I wasn’t feeling that great when I sang it, and —”
He touched my hand over the iPod and my stomach danced. “It’s beautiful,” he said softly. “Very sad, but very beautiful. Who made you feel this way?”
“Oh..” I blushed. “Thank you… Just some boy once.”
Some boy being my on-again-off-again high school boyfriend who had just recently proposed to a girl he’d only been seeing for a few months… I decided to leave that little detail out of the conversation. I shuffled the iPod back into my purse.
“Well, whoever he is, he’s a complete idiot. Just look at you!”
And he was looking at me… the same way he’d been all night, only now he was inches from me. “You’re amazing.”
I laughed nervously, “Ah… Well, you haven’t seen my temper yet.”
He raised one dark eyebrow, tilting his coffee mug in my direction. “I look forward to it.”
We stayed just like that, on the same side of the booth, talking until 7am. He told me about his mother, an artist who struggled with depression, and his father who doted over her. I told him all about my own mother and her challenges raising two girls all by herself. We shared our dreams of the future—both of us wanting children and a home far outside city living. He showed me pictures of his work, and I shared two more of my songs with him.
When people started to pour in for breakfast, we decided to part ways. Standing just outside the door, he placed his hands on my face.
I’d been waiting all night and morning for that very moment. My stomach filled with excitement. Everything quivered in anticipation. His face drew closer to mine, and he whispered, “Wake up, Alaina.”
When I looked up at him, I saw that past him, the clouds had grown dark. Rain began pouring on us, and a crack of thunder nearly swept me off my feet. He clasped my face and shook me… hard. “WAKE UP!”
I was jerked awake by the plane lurching and a squeeze of my hand so hard I thought it might break. My eyes opened to stare into the wide, fear-ridden blue eyes of Jack Volmer.
Around us the plane was a blur of flashing lights and shaking colors. I couldn’t focus on or hear anything around me. There was a stabbing sensation ripping through me, and my seat was shaking so hard I was sure my insides might spill out. The scene around me had erupted into a trembling chaos, but what stood out was that there was no sound at all.
I realized, in a haze, we were crashing… rapidly. I could see the oxygen mask already on my face; bits of pink and yellow flipping through the air in the quick flashes of light that flickered around us.
I grabbed the seat in front of me and looked to my right. Jack Volmer was gripping the seat in front of him, mask on, temple pressed against the seat, eyes wide and staring at me. A sharp pain ran across my skull, and his eyes grew wider. Dazedly, I blinked, my eyesight blurring as Jack reached to touch my forehead and it all turned black again.
I knew the impact woke me. After having fallen in complete silence, my hearing returned, and the world around me became deafening. I could hear the water rushing in, the loud creaking of the sinking plane, the shouting of men, the shrill screaming of a woman, and a sobbing child nearby.
Immediately, my mind moved to Chris, and I twisted in my seat, the motion sending a stabbing pain up my left side. Bright yellow fuzz filled my vision.
As it cleared, I noticed the back of the plane was gone, and there was only an infinite blackness where it once had been. Violent waves reflected in the lightning flashes from the gaping hole that had replaced the back of the plane. We were floating in the nose. There were maybe five rows of seats left. Where were the rest? Where was Chris?
The water was rushing all around me, pulling my body upward. I needed to get out.
‘I’m going to die here.’
The water rose up my chest to my neck. My hair was drenched and wetness dripped down my face as I fumbled with the seat belt beneath the water. I couldn’t get it unlatched. It was stuck… I was stuck…
‘I’m going to die here!’
Panic ran up my neck along with the water as it reached my mouth. I took one last gulp of salty air and felt a hand on mine beneath the water before I blacked out again.
I woke in a raft in the blackness. I noticed the pressure of an inflated life vest around my neck and shoulders, bodies all around me—on top of me even—and we rocked so violently I had a constant feeling of falling. My stomach in knots, I reached out for something to grab onto. I touched an arm and followed it outward to a rope. My other hand found an ankle as we slid downward for what felt like an eternity.
I was pinned beneath two male bodies lying face down in a pool of water. There was water coming in from every angle. From above, it was pouring rain, and the waves would lift us and spill over onto us every few seconds.
I shifted a little beneath the weight of the men on top of me so that I could try to get a glimpse of what was going on. A flash of lightning above lit up the wall of water approaching us.
‘Chris!’ I thought, trying to wiggle free to search for him.
“Stay still,” said a man’s stern voice, breath hot against my ear, “or we’ll all fall out.”
“The back of the plane!” I yelled atop the roaring ocean. “Does anyone see the back of the plane?”
“Please!” I shouted against the wind. “The back of the plane! Do you see it?”
The steel voice returned to my ear. “It’s gone, stay still now.”
“But my husband!” I cried. “Please look! Please! My husband was in the back!”
An enormous wave took us then, and we rode it partially up, my stomach sinking as we reached our stopping point and it rolled us back down to crash over us. As we tumbled, those on top held the ones on bottom tighter. We all clutched the ropes and a leg locked around mine. We were under water for a second, then back upright.
My side and my head stung. Sharp pains washed over my entire body. The men on top of me pressed down harder, pinning me against the bottom of the raft. I lifted my face so that I could inhale, then lowered it into the flooded bottom to exhale. Over and over, I did this, just barely breathing.
Up a wave we’d go, and bodies would stiffen. We’d all hold on as we traveled up, praying we’d make it over and not tumble back down. Once over the top, on the way down, we’d all shift. Legs and elbows bruised and bloodied all of us as we rolled and bounced through the storm, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing each other on every rise and fall of the ocean beneath us.
Lightning danced across the blackness only to make the blackness that was swallowing us more terrifying. Giant black waves pushed us out into more blackness. We were tossed up and down, forwards, backwards, upside down, and sideways. There was no break; no time to exhale.
As our bodies were jostled around, I realized there was another woman pinned to the raft next to me, and between us, a child. I adjusted my grip so one of my arms crossed over the child to a rope. This did very little for my breathing situation—my face pressed even deeper in the growing puddle—but the position secured her better between us. Feeling my arm near her head, the woman next to me did the same, draping one of her arms across mine atop the child to grab a rope near my head.
We flipped again, this time going deeper under the water. I struggled against the men pinning me to the raft; the threat of drowning urging me to fight, but we came up again and I settled back down. Everything was stinging now.
“Hold on!” the man shouted above me, and as suddenly as he’d shouted, his weight shifted, lightened, and he was gone.
A knee came down beside my face and I stretched my neck to see what was happening. I didn’t dare let go of the ropes. Without the man’s weight to hold me in, I wasn’t sure I could stay in the raft on my own.
We dipped hard to one side, and the sound of skin sliding against wet rubber reverberated in my ears. “Don’t let go,” said the man. “We’re going up again, I’ll pull you in as we slide down. Just hold on tight. I won’t let you go.”
Up we went, and without his body atop me, I floated upward, stomach feeling as though it had made its way up to my throat as I begged myself not to fall out. Just as suddenly as we’d gone up, we sped back down.
Evening out with a crash, I heard a male scream in agony. A heavy body came down across my back and rolled across my legs, followed by the familiar weight of the man who’d been there before. The heavier man adjusted his position, grabbing hold of the raft’s rope nearby and pinning my legs beneath the bulk of his weight. The other man took his place over me, chest pressing down against my back to keep me from falling out.
Over and over we fought the waves until, after what felt like hours, we were reduced to a soft bobbing on top of the water. Collectively, we all released our grips on the rope and each other. The men who’d been holding us down shifted, and we all sat upright for the first time in hours. It was pitch black. So dark, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.
Exhausted, I leaned back against the rubber, all my muscles giving way as I did so. “The back of the plane,” I whispered, my voice gone from me. “Did anyone see the back of the plane?”
Someone’s fingertips found my shoulder.
“Who’s that?” I jumped at the touch, looking out for some sign of Chris in the darkness.
“Your head,” a man said, his words cut short by an outburst of violent coughs. “You’re injured.” He struggled to clear his throat as he tightened his grip on my shoulder. “You should lie down until daylight.”
Sliding closer to me, he wrapped his palm tightly around the top of my head. “It’s Jack.”
“I’m fine,” I argued, trying to wiggle free of him to look around. “Did anyone see the back of the plane?”
“You’re not fine!” He hissed, his voice hoarse as he stifled another cough. “Your head is cut bad. Stay still.” He positioned his body behind me, coughing with the effort, and pressed my head back against him.
“I’m fine!” I squirmed, but the quick motion shot pains up and down my body, “AAAH…” I straightened against him in pain, and he placed his palm back over my forehead, urging me to lie back.
“My husband was seated in 28C, towards the back of the plane,” I persisted, giving in to my physical predicament and lying my head against his foreign chest. I could feel the rattling in his lungs as he laboriously inhaled. “Did anyone see what happened to it?”
“Storm took us by surprise,” said a male voice at my feet. He breathed heavily between words, “Tried to get up above it, but we were already in the thick of it.” Another deep breath, “Lost the tail, and I tried to level us out. The back of the plane broke off long before impact… we got lucky…”
“Mama?” cried a small girl, “mama?!!” Panic setting in, she grew louder, her words cracking as she worked herself into a wail. “MAMA?? MAMA??!”
“Shhh…” came a woman’s voice, and I could feel her movement nearby as she comforted the girl. “It’s gonna be alright, hush now.”
The child whimpered, but quieted.
“You’re the pilot?” Jack asked over my head.
“Yes, sir,” the man managed. “I’m so sorry. We had no warning, no signs… it just formed right over us all of a sudden. There was no storm in the forecast. No rain… no clouds… I don’t know what happened.”
“That wasn’t no storm,” a man with a thick southern drawl said softly, “there wasn’t no sound to it… no sound at all… and the lightning… It hit us over and over—I saw it myself hittin’ us—and it didn’t make no noise.”
“There was no turbulence either,” a deeper voice added. “No wind… even when the back of the plane broke off… Did you notice? There was no wind.”
“No sound even then,” the southern man continued. “Like someone hit the dang mute button. I don’t know what in the hell that was, but it wasn’t like no damn storm I ever seen.”
We rocked along then in silence with only the occasional coughing from Jack or sniffle from the little girl. None of us would sleep, I knew; not with all we’d just been through.
In a daze, I leaned back into the chest of the man holding my forehead and longed for the man who should’ve been in his place. I wrapped my fingers around the pendant on my necklace and closed my eyes.