Up in the Air AgainbyAdrian Leverkuhn©
Paul Overton looked at the instruments and shook his head. The engine temperature looked a high again, and he leaned forward and tapped the gauge with his finger. The little needle crept upward, hovered just short of the red.
"Shit! Goddamned piece of shit!" He slowed and stopped at the red light, looked at an old woman trundling by in the crosswalk, and wondered aloud how many times he'd have to take this old hulk to the mechanic before he'd have to break down and buy a new car.
The car, an old BMW and now almost thirty years old, had been his wife's pride and joy for what seemed like forever, and since her death he couldn't bear the thought of parting with it. He'd managed to hold on to most of their past, but now some things he just couldn't justify any longer. The transmission had gone out last summer and he'd struggled to find a mechanic with enough time and talent to rebuild the thing. Replacements simply weren't available anymore. How long could he hold on to this car? How long had he held on to that past?
And there were so many days of late when he'd felt much the same way about his life: he was wearing out and the parts were getting harder and harder to come by. Things simply didn't work the way they once had, and those were on the good days. The bad days had hardly been worth waking up for.
But that had been yesterday.
Today the sun was out, the sky full of hope and promise.
Today -- Denise Evans had told him she was in love. With him. And suddenly everything was different. Now this old car seemed like an anchor holding him to an unusable past, and he resented the thing and its hold on his soul.
The light changed and he surged ahead, looked down the street for a service station. He watched the gauge slide slowly into the red and saw the first hints of steam seep up from under the hood. He saw a Mercedes dealership ahead, saw the new "SmartCar" banner fluttering on the breeze and on an impulse flipped on his turn signal and crossed the street, turned into the lot. The old BMW rolled to a wheezing stop and shuddered, and Overton turned off the engine and sighed.
A couple of salesmen inside looked at the steam pouring out and pointed at the old hulk, laughed while one took out a nickel and tossed it in the air. Overton saw they were flipping a coin, probably to decide which one of them would have to deal with him. One apparently called it wrong and shook his head, this one walked out to greet his next hapless victim while the one who stayed behind laughed.
Overton, still in uniform, stepped from the car and the approaching salesman hesitated when he saw the four stripes on his shoulders. 'A pilot!' he said to himself, now hopeful that he'd get to sell a Mercedes today, and probably an E class at that.
"Afternoon, sir. Looks like you got here just in time. Is that an old 2002?"
Overton took in the salesman: he looked like a slick Ivy League wannabe and was almost drooling at the thought of selling a new MB today. "Yeah, but it's a Tii." The salesman looked clueless. "Well, it's a 2002 alright, but it's the Tii model. Pretty rare, and quite a bit more valuable. Quicker than greased eel shit, too."
"Seen better days, hasn't it." The salesman wasn't going to be snookered by this approach. He'd drive a hard bargain. "So, what can I show you today? Maybe an SLK?"
"No, I'm interested in the SmartCar."
The salesman looked crestfallen. Puny commission, no room to dicker around on the price. "Oh. Well, yeah, we have a couple inside."
Overton followed the salesman into the showroom and his eye immediately fell on a silver one. "That's cute," he said. "How much."
"Not about. How much? Exactly. Driveaway."
The salesman didn't flinch: "Thirteen eight out the door."
Overton pulled out his wallet and fished out his American Express card and tossed it to the salesman. "Okay, wrap it up. I'll take it."
The salesman chuckled and looked at Overton. "Sir?"
"Put it on the card, would you?"
"Sir? Do you want to trade in the BMW? You want me to get a number for you? Work up a trade?"
Overton turned and looked at his wife's old car. "No. not really. You want it?"
The salesman looked at Overton like he'd just sprouted horns to go along with his pitchfork. "Uh, yeah, sure, I'll take it." The other salesman -- the 'winner' of the coin toss - looked utterly devastated as he watched Overton take the keys from his pocket and toss them to the 'loser'.
"Fine. Write it up and I'll go grab the title from the glovebox."
The salesman shook his head again and walked off to the business office, but he couldn't resist smiling at his colleague and flipping him the bird.
Denise Evans sat looking out the train's window as it approached the station in Bridgeport. She was locked within the tortured confines of her infidelity, wondering not simply about her choice, but the contours of her life and all she'd negated about her understanding of herself. 'Paul Overton!' she said to herself again. 'How? Why?'
She'd never once been involved with a man, never even felt attraction to men in general, yet when she was honest with herself about her feelings toward women she admitted to a softly smoldering ambivalence. She'd drifted into her first relationships with women not out of furious attraction; rather, she'd felt oddly detached from them emotionally and never once a physical attraction. She'd first become involved with a roommate in college and, as most of the boys she came in contact with were hopelessly clueless about what to make of a girl who wanted to fly jets in the Air Farce, she'd simply made the obvious choice. At least it had seemed obvious eighteen years ago.
But when she told Paul she felt jealous of his life with Peggy, about the life and love he'd known for so long, she'd had to admit to herself that she'd drifted into relationships on false pretenses almost all her adult life. Now, with her thirty-seventh birthday looming, she felt an overwhelming desire to connect with Overton, to love him as she'd never loved anyone before and, most uncharacteristically, to have a family with him. She couldn't explain these feelings, they just -- were.
Yet, as the train pulled into the station she knew she was going to have to explain these feelings, and soon. Her explanation would be painful, shatteringly so. Miriam Davies had been the closest, truest friend she'd ever had in her life, and the last thing she ever wanted to do was hurt her.
She saw Miriam standing by her car in the lot outside the station; saw the simple, expectant smile of a lover longing to hold the burning crucible of the familiar once again, and her heart lurched.
She wanted to turn around, run back to the city and call him. She wanted to run away from the pain she knew was coming, from the tortured questions and ruptured understanding, and in the span of one solitary heartbeat she realized she didn't want to run from anything ever again. And certainly not ever from this feeling that had sprung forth so silkily, so easily... so naturally.
No, not from him. Not ever from him.
He walked into the house, into the emptiness, into his past, and the presence of two women hovered in the air -- locked in mutual refutation yet joined to him beyond any simple denial of fact. One soul gone, now a memory fighting time to remain in the grasp of one so long loved; the other living, fighting for recognition, for a place by fires banked down for so long that only the faintest embers remained.
He walked into the house, into the memory of sounds now long departed, the echoes of laughter and tears fading from his mind's eye. In the kitchen, in the little niche by the 'fridge, a covey of photographs met his glance -- and he turned away from them as though he wanted nothing more from them. He walked through the house, through the fog of lurking memories, looking at porcelain figurines she'd bought on their trips together, at the exorbitantly-priced fabric on the re-covered sofa she'd simply had to have, and everywhere he looked he saw her not far away, hanging back in the shadowlands of different days.
He walked up the stairs to their room and went to her closet and opened the door. He'd not once looked in this sacred space in all the time since she'd moved on, and the smell of her -- the smell of lingering perfume and the rich leather of her shoes -- danced along the byways of memory. He closed his eyes as the waves of other nights washed over him, and he felt a longing for her touch, a visceral longing he'd denied himself in the countless nights since . . .
He sat in the overstuffed chair in the little study tucked neatly off the side of the bedroom and looked out windows at Spring blossoms waving in the evening twilight, and he felt his eyes filling with tears. He gripped the arms of the chair, tried to hold it back just a little longer, but it was no use. He started to cry, gently at first, but soon he was overcome with a sorrow bourn of impulsive guilt.
First, he'd slept with a stranger, even fallen in love, he said into the gathering darkness, then he'd come home and given away her car. Driving home from the dealership he'd been overcome with the intense desire to sell the house, to get rid of every remnant of that past, and finally, to turn his back on Peggy once and for all time and simply . . . move on. Opposing tides pulled at him, and caught in the rip he struggled to breathe.
But, he'd asked himself when he turned down their street once again, how do you turn away from that past without sacrificing your humanity? How do you turn away from memories so vast and uncontrollable? How turn away from your soul-mate and dare to dream of another future? Would she always be there, her memory forever in the shadows, always crowding out whatever happiness he dared stake-out as his own?
Now, in the gathering darkness, he knew his first impulse had been the correct one, at least for him. He'd sell the house. Call Peg's brothers and sisters and have them come claim any memories they wished and cart them away, then broker off the rest and be done with that past.
A clean break. That's what it would take to move on, and he knew it in his heart even as tears coursed down his face. She'd never leave him if he stayed here . . . she was everywhere in this house. Waiting around every corner, waiting to seduce him once again into the tender warmth of what had now become a fatal embrace. She'd always be in this house, watching, waiting . . .
He went to his closet and took out a large duffel and began putting clothes in it, then toiletries. He filled another much smaller duffel with vital papers and mementos of his flying career, then carried the lot down to the garage and the little silver SmartCar waiting there, and there he dumped the stuff, in the tiny space behind the seats. He plugged his phone into the charger after he started the car's tiny motor, and opened the garage door, then backed down the driveway. He stopped and looked at the house one last time, seeking validation perhaps, or at least understanding, but all he saw was her shadow lurking in an upstairs window, looking down at him and laughing.
Denise Evans looked across the table at the face in the flickering firelight and knew she would always feel love for this woman, this healer, but she knew their 'relationship' was over. Miriam Davies was hard core, had always been on the radical fringe, and loathed the very thought of men. Her group of internists, each running with the wolves, were united in that feeling. They unashamedly ran a practice of women, by women, and for women, and that's how she'd met Miriam, though now almost three years ago.
And while there was many noble characteristics Miriam possessed, her well-developed empathy rose above all others. She connected with people -- instantly. She saw them, felt them almost as if they were inside her own being -- men and women alike -- and she'd always used that ability to help people, to care tenderly for her patient's deepest wounds. Perhaps, Denise once thought, that empathic sight was what had driven her from men . . . perhaps she felt basic truths in men that repelled or revolted her. But tonight, getting off the train, Miriam Davies had looked at Denise Evans and been torn apart by what she saw, and rather than going out to the farm they had each sought the quiet certitude of neutral ground.
Little had been said on the drive over to their favorite little hideaway; little needed be said. They sat in a quiet corner by an old stone fireplace, ordered wine and a small dinner, and looked at one another through the building, uncomfortable silence. The sommelier came with wine and opened the ancient bottle, Miriam tasted and approved, and as quickly, the bright-eyed girl filled their glasses she was gone.
"To better days," Miriam said, holding her glass up.
"And distant friends."
"Distant? Really? This is rather sudden, Denise."
"Yes. Yes, it is, isn't it."
"Can you tell me about her?"
So, here it was, Evans thought. Not merely a betrayal. No, this would be murder. A soul's murder. She held her glass up and looked at the candlelight through deep red currents; the memory of Paul Overton sweeping across her in that instant. The feel of him, of his hands on her face, of the taste he left in her mouth. She looked away from Miriam to hide the warmth that suffused her being at the very thought of him taking her again.
"Oh my God," she heard Miriam whisper, and she turned from her desire, turned to look back at the anguish that washed over her friend's face. "No, Denise. No . . ." A single tear ran down Miriam's face; she then stood and walked from the table.
Evans sat in the uncomfortable silence and waited; waited for her friend to return. To finish what had to be finished.
Minutes passed. She looked at her watch, took a sip of wine.
"Excuse me. Ms Evans?" Denise turned to look at the young hostess who had seated them. "Your friend had to leave. An emergency. She left your luggage up front, said she was sorry, and hoped you'd understand."
Denise nodded and thanked the hostess, sat back in her seat and sighed.
"Well, so much for going home."
Her dinner came and she picked at it for a moment, then pushed it away, reached for her purse and took out her iPhone. The little box connected to the 'net and she went to her email, saw a note from Paul and opened it:
'Got home and crashed, I mean really crashed. Couldn't take being is that mausoleum one more night. Packed up and heading for my boat in Mystic. How's it going on your end?'
Denise Evans looked at these words on the screen for a long time; they filled her with hope, and suddenly she felt like she wanted to sing out loud. Now full of energy, she paid the bill and walked out into the night and dialed his number. He picked up on the second ring.
"I'm here. Are you alright? Sound a little weak in the knees."
She told him about her ride up on the train, about meeting Miriam and her response, and about being stranded now at a little French place outside Bridgeport.
"So, are you there right now?"
"Uh, yes." She suddenly felt vulnerable, exposed.
"Hell, I passed that exit about five minutes ago. Can you give me directions?" He listened; so attuned was his memory to assimilating such data, he had no need to write down what she said, and he told her he'd be there as quickly as he could.
"You said something about a boat in your email? Do you have a boat?"
He laughed. "Yes, I do. I do indeed."
There was the thinnest layer of fog over the marina when they pulled in, and from their vantage above in the parking lot, it looked a lot like a sea of masts planted on a field of misty snow. The boats were simply not visible in the clinging mist, only a vast forest of pale tree-like masts hovered above in spectral hues, dancing silently above an unseen sea.
Denise unfolded herself from the SmartCar and looked out at the luminous landscape. It seemed a little unreal to her, but decidedly familiar, too. A half moon hung above an island -- Fisher's Island, Paul had said when they turned into the marina -- and with the moon above, the clouds below obscuring a distant sea, simply everything about the scene reminded her of the view out the cockpit at night, flying across the Atlantic. Except here she was, her feet on the ground, her roll-on bag in the back of Paul's impossibly tiny car, and now she was looking out on a sea of sailboat masts, and Paul Overton said he was going to live on his sailboat for awhile . . .
"Just until I can sell the house. I guess I'll have to move the boat into the city, though. Too damn far to drive all the way to Kennedy from out here. Shame, to. Love it here."
"Paul? I've never been on a boat, any kind of boat, in my life."
"Yeah? Well, I can't even swim across a pool."
"Cool. I'll teach you."
"Paul, is there any problem out there you feel you can't handle?"
He opened the hatch, pulled her bag from the car, then slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and took her hand in his. "I don't know, Denise. I think if you're patient enough you can find a solution to just about any problem, but sometime the solution is right in front of your face. I think we get into some lousy habits as we get older, and those habits obscure solutions." He looked at her standing in the moonlight, the cool seaborne breeze drifting through her hair, and there it was . . . The solution was so simple. This woman was so . . . right.
"So, you've never been on a boat? Ever?"
"Paul, I grew up outside of Alpine, Texas. The closest water was the Rio Grande River."
"I guess that might make a difference." He chuckled as he guided her down the ramp toward the water. "Well, anyway, some boats are better than others."
"I'll have to take your word for that!" She sounded dubious.
They turned on a concrete walkway and, now deep in the clinging fog, continued feeling their way down the misty ramp. After passing row after row of boats he turned again and made his way along another finger pier until he came upon a sleek black hull, the name on the side -- 'Peggy Sue' -- clearly visible in the moonlight. He set their bags up on the deck and climbed up himself, then disappeared into the gloom.
"Paul, this thing is huge!"
"Yeah? Peg always said I was over-compensating for having a little dick."
"You call that thing 'little'?" She heard him opening a lock, moving boards, sliding a hatch open.
"Well, it's a relative term?" Footsteps going below, a light turning on and a warm glow filling the space behind the dewy port-lights.
"Relative to what?" she said quietly, far too softly for him to hear. A light halfway up the mast popped on and the scene around her filled with milky white light.
"Oh, come on. It ain't that big!"
"You heard that?"
"Hey, sound carries in fog." He came back up on deck. "Hand me the bags, would you?" He took them from her and put them in the cockpit, then came back for her, reached down for her: "Here, give me your hand."
She reached up, took his hand in hers, felt herself stepping into a strange new landscape of compound curves and awkward handholds, narrow decks littered with a million things to trip over. The dark planks underfoot were wet with dew; everywhere she put her hands she felt water. She followed Paul into the cockpit; he stopped and held his hand out again until she was safely over the coaming, then he disappeared below. She stepped over to follow him -- at least until she could see the interior of the boat from the head of the companionway -- and she stopped dead in her tracks.