Gregory T. Janetka
The only reason given for the delay was “congestion at the destination airport,” yet the staff whispered back and forth with averted eyes as if one of “those people” had been spotted—as if anyone would voluntarily come here, let alone want to blow it up. Other than a questionable vending machine, the eleven gates, unaltered since the ribbon cutting ceremony in 1981, were devoid of coffee. I fingered the coins in my pocket as I stared at the spigot that dispensed both coffee and soup, but convinced myself I wasn’t that desperate. Besides a laughable weigh station in West Texas, this was the smallest airport I’d ever seen. That hazy layover of years ago, however, had been a dream—perhaps the entire place had been as well. This airport, a dire slapdash of concrete chic and burnt orange carpeting, was something else entirely. Tired of the suspicious eyes of the gate agents, I stopped next to a steel column, leaned back, and slid down, facing away from the gate in order to stop myself from staring at the bold, 90s style screensaver that crawled across the monitor, screaming over and over again in bright red letters—DELAYED.
My phone buzzed. Another text from Ann, immediately followed by one from my father, as if he knew she was trying to reach me. I couldn’t care less that he hated her. I admit she’s the worst mess I’ve ever come across but I’d rather burn up and burn out with her than fade into gray like him and my mother. Good god, if he looked at my mother with any sense of desire—with any sense of humanity—I’m sure she’d faint dead away. Ignoring them both I put the phone back in my pocket, stuck my headphones in my ears, turned up the volume, and began drumming on my thighs. Anything to avoid the endless screens that filled the terminal with anemic news at maximum volume. Halfway into my drum solo two women emerged from security and walked toward us: the resigned and the waiting.
The first woman, young, really a girl, wearing a tight white tank top, towered atop clear platform heels, drawing hordes of hungry eyes to which she gave no apparent notice. Lust hung in the air like BO in a high school locker room. I turned away from the wreck, but faced with the news again, my attention shifted back to the main attraction. The second woman put a sash on the first that read “Miss Teen Missouri.” Pleased, she completed the look by nestling a glittering tiara among perfect blond, beachy waves. Adjusting the sash once more she wiped an invisible imperfection from the girl’s face. I turned to the gate—the same red letters continued to race across the monitor.
My phone vibrated with another text from Ann, followed on cue by another from my father. There was nothing I could do for either of them and the sooner they both figured that out the better we’d all be. I put it on silent, then into airplane mode, then turned the damn thing off entirely.
The girl began posing against a dirty pink and green wall as fatigued travelers snapped quick cellphone pics. Her simple proximity made their desperate lives interesting, glamorous, if only for a moment, and they drank it in with the greed I felt for decent coffee. I turned up the volume on my headphones and dug into my bag for anything of value, but came up with nothing more than my still unbroken copy of Ulysses and half a bag of black licorice. I chewed on the stale candy while she continued to strike surgically precise smiles.
Forty minutes later I fell into my seat on the plane with a noise that belied my age. I couldn’t remember making that noise prior to moving in with Ann, but now it came with the frequency of a sitcom catchphrase. Besides which, it’d been eighteen hours and two planes since I’d left the comfort of the hotel and I was beat. When I got back, Ann would be waiting at the door—right where I left her—and maybe that’s why I’d dragged this out. That look she gave me every time I left, as if I were running off with her sister rather than running out for milk. Out of habit I checked my phone. Finding it off, I stuffed it to the bottom of my bag. Ann fell from my mind as Miss Teen took a seat diagonally across the aisle.
The business suits and tourist sandals devoured her symmetrical features as they filtered through. I studied their bodily tics while they studied her. A series of grunts filled the aisle as carry-on bags were forced into inadequate spaces above and below. When the seat belt light came on she was free of gapers. With perfect posture she removed the tiara and handed it to her handler, who received it with white organdy gloves and placed it with solemnity into what I could only imagine was a miniature replica of the plane’s black box. After shaking out her hair, she finally allowed her shoulders to fall. I pulled out Ulysses and glanced at my watch—another two hours to go until the final stretch of this madness. Exhausted, I sank into a vigorous sleep, waking violently a moment later when the stewardess placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Can I get you something to drink, honey?”
In the confusion I ordered a ginger ale, something I hadn’t drunk in years. Wiping the drool from my chin, I picked my book up from the floor and tried to return to reality.
Glancing around the plane, I saw rows of eyes fixed on the mini TV screens implanted into each seatback. The disconsonant images swirled together and hurt my head. I’d left my screen off, as had the girl and her escort. As my gaze fell back on her she got up and opened the overhead compartment, revealing a Chinese character on her lower back, along with deep bruises and a long, jagged scar. The tattoo and scar were old, the bruises fresh, all marks of unskilled hands. Large gulps of bubbles and sugar made me giddy and ashamed, but I continued to watch from the corner of my eye as she removed a green-and-black neck pillow and slumped back into her seat. She wriggled to find the most comfortable position and with every action thereafter she shrank—when she removed the Velcro sash, when she slipped off her massive shoes, when she ordered a second box of apple juice. Her acne breathed through her relaxed smile. She existed, she was ordinary, and, finally, she was beautiful. Finishing the ginger ale, I put away my still-unbroken book and drifted into a peaceful sleep.
When the landing gear slammed into the ground I awoke to the gasps of the gallery. A baby cried and I stirred. Slipping her shoes on, the girl resumed the unnaturally perfect posture and, with the help of those gloved hands, climbed back into the sash and tiara. After a touch up to her makeup, she stood tall and commanding, ready to fulfill the yawning desires of the public. I said a silent goodbye as I disembarked and made my way to the last gate, where a long, placid line snaked around the counter. On the white board behind the desk was written one word—DELAYED. Finding the nearest steel column, I leaned back, slid down, put my headphones on, and turned up the volume. Anything to avoid the endless blaring screens.
With the world gone, I felt breath enter my chest again. I turned on my phone and, ignoring all of the other alerts, devoured Ann’s text messages one by one as my mouth filled with the taste of rich, black coffee.