We'd slept in the same bed on the night I arrived. I held her like I used to with her head on my chest, my arm cradling her. But it hadn't felt real. Her back was a xylophone and her breasts, naked against my ribs, deflated wine bladders.
As she slept, her cheeks hollowed and her jaw slackened and revealed a dark, cavernous mouth. Breath, moisture, oxygen, blood, would travel in and out how many more times?
After that first night she'd taken to the couch. We'd been too close.
I left her sitting there crying over the squirrel or its tail or that she is dying and there is nothing we can do about it.
I had to leave. There were things to take care of -- a job and a pregnant wife.
I walked out the door, got into the rental and drove to the airport on the cement roads of Central Florida.
At the airport, I sat in the bar and waited for the staff to set up. Watched as they filled the ice bins and washed the glasses. There was an ease and slow rhythm of whooshing hands, a lipstick rimmed glass in each, into the soapy water, the blue disinfectant and out, shaking them dry. Two clean glasses.
I thought that maybe I would become a bartender. A bartender with a wife dying on a couch in the muggy heat of Florida and a wife pregnant in New Hampshire during mud season.
No problems here, pal. I'm just washing glasses.
After two drinks and three hours in the smoke filled bar, the interminable fifteen minutes at the gate while the flight attendants toyed with us. Behind the desk at the gate, heads down, tapping furiously into the computer terminal while a line of people waited with questions hanging on tense lips. Oh, they knew about the line but they wouldn't look up. I wanted to say, "Do you see me? Can you hear me?" But I said nothing and sat in a hard plastic chair with the others.
The bliss of numbers called and the sloping walk down the plank to the tin can and my assigned seat. I pulled down the tray, even though I was on the aisle and the window seat not yet occupied, wishfully thinking that the cocktail cart would come jangling by before take off and the window seat would remain empty.
After the families with squalling babies in shitty diapers had found their seats, a girl -- a sullen teenager -- stood in the aisle beside me. I took my time putting the tray back up, removing my folded sweatshirt from the seat, placing it in the overhead compartment and then, and only then, did I let her take her place by the window.
There you go, sweetheart, enjoy. Don't think you're going to be getting up any time soon though because I'm not moving again. Not unless I have to.
She settled in, Walkman blaring, hunched over a magazine. As she bent to take a whiff from a perfume ad in which a Satyr ravished a luscious woman in a red velvet gown and white bodice, her lank hair brushed the bare skin on my wrist. I shuddered with the thrill of it and she eyed me before turning back to the Satyr.
Do you know what I could do to you?
I dreamt of Shasta in a red velvet dress and myself as Satyr, until I awakened to the smiling face of the attendant, who waved a minuscule bag of Teddy Grahams and asked if I'd like a beverage.
The girl spied as I poured a rum into my ice and topped it with the Diet Coke. And then she yanked her headphones off, shook the Walkman and shoved it deep inside the bag at her feet. She sat back roughly; arms across chest, crossed one thin leg over the other and I felt the air from her swinging foot near my exposed calf and noticed her legs were covered in a pale fur.
I could tear her apart like a dozen feral cats and there is no tree for escape.
"Are you okay?" she asked me then.
"What?" I said, staring into her eyes, deep and rimmed in a thick smudge of black makeup.
"You're just, um, like crying." She turned to the window, embarrassed.
"Sorry," I said, and excused myself, seeking the solitude of the john.
Finding the bathroom occupied I busied myself by staring at the emergency exit. Minutes passed. I read the signage on the door and toyed with the idea of swinging it open to let the pressure of real air meeting canned air suck me out. After me would come the cocktail cart, a coffeepot, a smiling flight attendant and a box of Teddy Grahams, hurtling down toward the community below. Children in a field would stretch out their arms to the graham-cracker treats raining from heaven. And I would hit like a missile, exploding on impact.
That second before I met the ground.
The occupant exited. In the mirror my features seemed muted by a few days' beard. I was a stranger, in a flying bathroom.
If we went down, I would be trapped with the stinking tank of bile. I became crazed with thoughts of exit and had a hard time with the door latch until I hit the magic switch.
I rang for the attendant. "I'm fine," I said to the girl as I waited.
"Okay." She turned back to the window and chewed on a piece of her hair. I would have liked to take just one strand of it and roll it between my teeth as she was doing. We could share that, she and I.
The sensation of one piece of hair caught between two teeth.
When the attendant was almost at my seat, I held up my empty plastic cup and signaled I wanted another double. "Please," I mouthed. The attendant smiled tightly, whisked away my trash and continued up the aisle.
Hurry up. I'm dying here.
The girl spoke. "You drink a lot."
"I said you drink a lot." She had several strands of hair pulled out in front of her, braiding them. "Just an observation," she said and began another plait.
"It wasn't a compliment. It's bad for your health."
My liver crinkled. My kidneys throbbed against my back. My gallbladder pushed itself against my ribs, bloated with bile. How would she know about what is and isn't good for me? Precocious brat.
"I'm not sure it's any of your business," I said. "And for your information this is only my second drink."
"Fourth." She stopped plaiting as she pondered, lifting two closed fists to me and raised her fingers one by one as she ticked off my cocktails.
"Actually it'll be your eighth. That's two doubles at the airport. Four. One double already. Six. And then this one that's coming makes it eight."
"My wife's dying."
She turned her blackened eyes on me, looking earnest and reached a hand out. She grabbed my arm.
I wanted to jump out of my seat and scoop her up in my arms -- a small child in need of rescue from a fire. I would run up the aisle, playing my pan flute, knocking over the trash gals and push my way into the cockpit with her. I would tell the pilot and the co-pilot and whoever else to get out of the way because I would save us. I would land this plane. I would save her.
"It's okay," I said, swirling my drink. I moved to take a sip but I'd lost my taste for it. Her hand burned into my arm. "She's my ex-wife really."
"Oh." She released me.
"I visit her when I can. Once a month usually."
"Uh huh." She bored of me. Plait, plait, plait. Over, under and over and under.
"I still love her."
"Uh huh." Heartless.
"We were going to have a baby but when she got pregnant the hormones brought on the cancer. It's lying there just waiting for the right climate, the right toxin, the right moment to spring to life and take it all away." I'd never had to go this far before. "We didn't know about the cancer when the baby died though. That's what broke us up. The baby."
"I thought the baby died."
"Well he did." I had her back. "He died. It was too much and so we just, I guess, drifted apart." She said nothing and I twirled the empty rum bottle on my tray as if we were playing spin the bottle. It stopped and pointed to the seat in front of me occupied by an old man who smelled of cigars and shoe polish.
"That's too bad." she sighed.
"I'm married again now." She offered no reaction. "She's pregnant. Due next month. That's why shešs not with me. They won't let her fly." Pam, who is too young for me, hated it when I visited Shasta.
The girl pulled a sweatshirt out of her bag and shoved it under her head against the window. Her ears were small and covered in the same fine down that protected her legs. I wanted to reach out and follow the curve of her ear.
There was Shasta and me at nineteen driving across Wyoming or Montana or somewhere big where a red road stretched for miles. By mid-morning it was in the high 90s and we stopped by a fence that went on forever. The tall grass waved at us and we saw an antelope far in the distance. Impossible to judge miles out there. You could see everything.
Shasta laughed at the thrill of it. We stood for a moment in the silence and let it consume us until the heat got too much.
In another state on another road, she studied the map as I drove. "Are you sure we shouldn't take that next exit?" I asked and then frustrated by her lack of response took it anyway.
"What are you doing?" she yelled.
"You didn't answer so I took the exit."
"I didn't answer because you always ask me if 'I'm sure' and I am sure and I'm sick of you asking it."
"You didn't answer."
"I didn't think I had to," she said as she folded up the map and crossed her arms. "You've now added ten extra miles to our day."
"You didn't answer," I said.
"Don't talk to me. In fact, don't talk to me for the next twenty exits. I'll let you know when you're absolved." She knew how to punish me then.
"But you didn't answer," I said again. Shasta rolled a shirt up and used it as a pillow against the window and fell asleep.
The road was straight and from time to time I watched her. The hard sunlight filtered in and lit up her forehead.
"Where are we?" she asked when she woke.
"Fine," she said. "You are now absolved."
I reached over and grabbed her hand and held it up in the air. We laughed until I swerved over the line and had to put both hands back on the wheel.
Pam would be waiting for me at the gate. The girl would see her and know that it was all true, mostly. She would feel bad then because she would think of Shasta, her final days stretching before her, exits on a long red road, and of this new wife, fat and happy with a brand new baby to look forward to. The girl would be hurt then and I didn't want her to hurt. Ever.
I let her go ahead of me. "Thanks," she said. "Good luck with, you know, everything."
I busied myself with my carry on bag so the others wouldn't stop and let me go ahead.
When the plane was empty, I finished my last drink. And then I walked, almost ran up the aisle, breathing hard, choking.
I ran until I saw Pam. She had her hands on her belly and she was smiling.
The light behind her was the light on Shasta's forehead as she slept in the car beside me, a crown of golden absolution.