Friday April 8th 7:15pm
I sat on the semi-comfortable padded bench typical of Tucson International Airport as I watched the sunset out of gate A9's massive window. I was trying to pass the time before my flight with any distraction my bored brain could create.
I fumbled with the wires protruding from my walkman, I tried to make sense out of the annoyingly unsymmetrical southwest style pattern on the rug, but mostly I tried to people watch without being too overt about it. For some reason airports made me sad — they still do really. There is something about leaving even if it is for a short time that makes me wish I could take everything with me in my backpack.
I had arrived in Arizona five years before in an effort to escape Philly's smog filled skies, dirty crowded streets, and the noise that seemed to stay with you for a few days after you left. But there were some good things back there too. I had good family and friends, hangouts, memories that I could share with others without actually having to explain myself. I had thought that if I left for a little while I could always come back and have those things again. But when I did go back to visit during the summer after freshman year, things were different.
My friends had found new friends and new hangouts, my family had continued on without me admirably, and the memories I had shared with these people had been replaced with new memories that didn't include me. It was then that I realized home had ceased to be home anymore. Philly was just a place where I used to live. I tried my best to make a home in Arizona, but I never got that feeling back again.
I was in my second senior year at the University of Arizona studying English literature. I don't know why I chose reading as my major, I didn't even really like to read all that much, but I needed to choose something and it seemed like a cool thing to be able to talk about at parties. After four semesters and four summer sessions I still couldn't quote Shakespeare or truly appreciate Moby Dick. I was just going through the motions, trying to graduate before my younger sister could catch up to me. My parents weren't happy with my reluctance to finish school on time, but I didn't really care as long as I could finesse them into paying for next month's rent.
I casually glanced around the terminal and sized up my wingmen. There were the usual suspects, a young mother and her baby who had undoubtedly never flown before, a few frat boys, random businessmen, but the one that caught my eye was a particularly attractive young woman. She looked no older than 19 or 20 maybe, and sported a brown paperboy cap over her reddish brown shoulder-length hair. I could tell by the windbreaker she wore that she also went to the UofA. She was leaning against the wall next to the window watching the sunset. I couldn't see her face as she was facing away from me, but I could tell she was different from the rest of them.
While the other passengers concentrated on their watches and flight times, she just stared out the window. Something about her posture seemed sad to me; it was like she was saying goodbye to Tucson, and as odd as that seemed to me at the time I couldn't help but understand what she was going through. I had done the same thing when I left Philly for the first time. I didn't see the cityscape or the marshes in the distance; there was only the sense that I would never see that place again -- at least not like that.
The sun continued its fiery descent beyond the mountains in the distance and left blazing patterns on the other passengers' faces. To me, everything looks prettier during a sunset. The terminal occupants seemed to be more alive and more reverent as the sun gave its final burst of reddish-purple light before darkness overtook them. But darkness never does overtake anyone literally. The lights overhead would keep us protected long enough for the sun to bathe us in the aftershocks of its birth once again.
The sun finally died and the boarding process began. I was in seat 6A, which is the second window seat on the right after first class, so I would be one of the last people to get on the plane. That was fine by me, the less time I have to actually spend on the plane the better, but I'm always amazed how people will get up to stand in line before their row is even called. What point is there in pushing and shoving to get on a flying cattle car? I stayed seated on my bench and waited until it was only me and the girl by the window who hadn't joined the herd. Eventually, she hiked off towards the line. Feeling like I had made a point to all the other impatient travelers, I collected my things -- which consisted of one backpack filled with a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and fresh batteries for my walkman which I always had activated despite warnings from the crew -- and boarded flight 287 bound for Las Vegas.
Friday April 8th 7:43pm
I made my way through first class and bumped into a particularly jittery businessman -- accidentally of course. As I arrived at row six I noticed my window seat had been occupied.
At first I was frustrated with the occupant's obvious stupidity for not being able to read their ticket, but on further inspection I noticed the seat was held by the girl from the window. She noticed me immediately and began apologizing before I had a chance to inform her of her oversight. "I'm so sorry, really, I just wanted to watch the baggage cars roam around. Here, I'll get out and let you in", she said, or maybe something like that. She was speaking so quickly that I had to fill in the blanks.
"No, no it's cool, I like the isle more anyway. I like the leg room", I lied as I put my backpack into the overhead compartment and fit myself the best I could into the cramped seat. She thanked me and went back to looking out the window.
The flight attendants began their robotic spiel that I had seen a hundred times before on similar flights. But as they were explaining the fascinating intricacies of the seatbelt my attention kept diverting to the beauty sitting next to me. I masked my interest by pretending to look out the window and turned up the volume on my walkman. She seemed a bit happier now that we were actually on the plane and almost to the point of no return. Just before takeoff one of the flight attendants helpfully informed me that, "All electronic devices must be turned off and stowed for take-offs and landings." I tried to bluff her by saying that it was off and I was just wearing the earphones for comfort, but she didn't believe me and was happy to remind me a second time. I took them off and quickly realized that I had the volume up way too high for any sort of fast talk. I chastised myself under my breath and heard a giggle from my left. Window girl had her hand over her mouth, trying to hide her amusement.
I finally got a good look at her face. She looked so young and beautiful, yet she had a weariness about her that could only have come from age and experience. Her large almond shape hazel eyes were expressive and vibrant. To this day I have never seen that spark of divinity in anyone else. Of course, my thoughts were not as articulate at the time. I could only reply with a muffled chuckle of my own.
Before I continue, I should mention that I detest flying in general. I hate flying, but I loathe take-offs and landings most of all. Something about being rocketed across the ground at a hundred miles an hour with nothing but a few flimsy tires to stop us is more than a little disconcerting for me. But as I gripped the armrest in preparation for the most harrowing experience my stomach goes through, I noticed that she had done the exact same thing. It was too late and my hand covered hers. I pulled way and turned to her apologetically, but she didn't seem to be upset. She just giggled at me again, and I couldn't help but laugh at my awkwardness. I could tell then that there was something special about this girl. She made me feel less cynical, like I didn't have to be so angry, like I could just laugh about things and let it go. She also made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I forgave her for that. Before I knew it, we were completely airborne. At the very least she had distracted me long enough to get through the first rough spot.
"That's the worst part," she said. "Well, the second worst, I hate the landings the most. It feels like the landing gear could snap off at any moment," she continued. I was stunned, more so at the fact that she was talking to me more than her words. Not that girls don't typically like talking to me, I'm not an ugly guy and I can be quite charming when I want to be, but she just kept talking like she assumed I was on the same wavelength. She went on about how she hated flying but didn't have the time to drive the seven hours back home. Again, I'm paraphrasing. I couldn't catch all that she was saying because of her habit of talking quickly. But I liked listening to her. She had a kind of sing-song voice that made whatever she spoke of seem about ten-times more interesting than normal. I followed along as closely as I could, catching a full phrase here and there and replying with some sort of anecdote. Gradually, I manage to coax out some facts about her. She was indeed 19, from Las Vegas, and was about to finish her freshman year at the UofA. She was going home because she missed her mom who lived by herself in a two-bedroom off the Strip.
"What about you," she asked. "Why are you going to Vegas?"
"I'm not really," I said. "I have an hour layover and then I'm heading to Philly for a wedding."
"Oh really," she squealed. "I love weddings! Is it yours?"
"No way," I bellowed. "It's my cousin's wedding, again. I'm not too keen on going but my mom says I need to be supportive. I told her that I was supportive that last two times and those hadn't worked out, maybe I'm jinxed."
She giggled and told me the story of her aunt Julie who had been married five times and each time the guy was younger and the marriage shorter. "I was the flower girl every time. Let me tell you, I can throw flowers like it's nobody's business." We both laughed. "Hey, what were you listening too?'
"Oh, just some Dave Matthew's."
"I love Dave Matthew's!" She bounced in her seat, "Can I have a listen?" I handed her the ear phones and turned on the walkman. As she listened she closed her eyes and mouthed the words. I watched her, bewitched by the movement of her lips and her sway, like some kind of beautiful red-haired serpent. The song ended and she handed me the earphones. "I love that song," she added. "So you look a little too old to be a student. What do you do in Tucson?"
"Hey, I'm only 23!" I did my best to feign injury, but I had heard this too many times from my parents and it didn't bother me anymore. "I'm a super senor, which is a lame name for people who couldn't get their shit together quickly enough and have to spend an extra year in school." I regretted my candor almost as soon as I finished speaking, but she didn't seem to notice.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm undeclared still. I'm thinking of going into medicine but I don't think I have that kind of time." Her face wore a far off expression, more like the one I had witnessed back in the terminal. Suddenly, the spark returned, "plus, I don't think I have the brains for something like that. I think I'd like something in social work, or maybe teaching, I don't know. What do you study?"
"Cool! What are you going to do with that?"
I didn't like thinking about life after college. I knew it had to happen at some point, but the thought of having to pick up and move again was a constant thorn in my side. Which was stupid because I didn't even really like Tucson either. "Write, I guess. Or teach maybe. That's about all you can do really."
"That's ok, like you said, you're only 23. You have plenty of time to figure something out," she smiled at me but I couldn't get the sense of dread out of my brain. She must have sensed my unease and changed the subject. We talked about all manner of things, music, movies, and the weather. My funk never had a chance against her never-ending stream of stories and questions. Before I knew it we were landing and we braced for impact. As soon as the plane finished slowing she stuck out her tongue and rolled her eyes. I had never seen a girl do that before and it made me laugh out loud. She just elbowed me in response.
Friday April 8th 9:50pm
The plane reached the terminal and the flight attendants read their goodbyes over the P.A. system. As we were deboarding I realized that I had never got her name. Maybe if I was lucky I could get her number and call her when I got back to Tucson.
"By the way, I'm Adam," I said in my best attempt at acting casual.
"Oh yeah! My name is Maeven, but everyone just calls me Mae." She offered a delicate hand for a shake and I took it. My hand wrapped almost completely around hers and I had to be careful not to squeeze too hard.
As I met her gaze I forgot about asking for her phone number, but instead felt an overwhelming sadness welling up. It had just dawned on me that after we left that plane we would probably never see each other again. Phone number or no, I wouldn't be in Tucson for much longer anyway so what was the point? Somehow I managed a meek "it was nice meeting you," and reached for my backpack in the overhead bin.
"You too," she said. Her voice was sullen and she reverted to that far away look again. I didn't want to leave it like that, but I didn't have the strength to get anymore attached just to lose her. I shuffled out of the plane with the rest of the herd and as I reached the jetway I increased my speed in attempt to distance myself from her.
I stepped into the terminal and was struck but the cacophony of noise coming from the slot machines, the announcements coming from the various gates, and the people boarding and deboarding. Suddenly, I heard her call out my name from behind, "Wait, wait Adam!" I stopped and turned around. She was jogging towards me and she had the spark with her again. She was out of breath by the time she reached me but was too excited not to speak. "I just got a great idea. Instead of going to Philly why don't you stay with me this weekend? You said you didn't really want to go to the wedding anyway right? So forget them, hang out with me. We'll have fun I promise!" I was having trouble understanding her but I got the basic idea. At first I thought she was crazy. I couldn't just not go. But she was right in that I was not looking forward to it. I didn't want to sit through another meaningless ceremony. I didn't want to look my father in the face and tell him I had no idea what I was going to do after school. Mae could tell that I was struggling with her proposal but didn't back down. "Please," she said. "Please come with me." The spark in her eyes bore into me, and I melted.
"Ok," I said, almost in a whisper.
Friday April 8th 10:07pm
Her mother was waiting for us as we sauntered out into the parking lot. She appeared to be in her late thirties but I could tell that she had been through quite a bit. She was haggard, like someone who had pulled too many double shifts and had little to show for it. My dad had that look. Mae embraced her mother tightly. It was a beautiful type of hug; the kind that only two people who truly belong together could give. I admit that I felt a little left out, but I enjoyed watching them.
"So who is this with you," she asked as they pulled away.
"This is Adam; I met him on the plane. He's going to be a writer someday."
I was a little taken back, but flattered that she was trying to make me look good in front of her mother.
"Oh, how nice," she said. "I'll have to keep my eye on you in the future then won't I?"
"Yes ma'am," I replied as enthusiastically as I knew how.
"Well why don't you put your things in the car and we'll get going." I nodded, grabbed my backpack and Mae's suitcase and lifted them in the trunk. I went to open the passenger door for Mae when I noticed she was nowhere around me. She had walked back toward the airport stopping short of actually going back in. Even though her back was turned to me I could tell she had the far away look again just like she had back in Tucson. I was beginning to wonder what she was doing, but her mother didn't seem to think there was anything odd about it so I stood at the car door waiting for her. After about a minute she returned to the car. She flashed me a cute smile as she stepped into the front seat. I took my place in the back.
"All finished Mae," her mother asked.
"Yep, I'm all set."
We reached her mother's house in short order. To my surprise it was exactly as Mae had described it, a two bedroom house off the strip. It was almost indistinguishable from the other houses around it save a large cast iron welcome sign hanging above the front entrance. It was obviously built as a part of some housing development as they were all painted the same beige color with a white garage door. Though they were cookie cutter and cheap they were definitely livable and clean. I lived in a similar development back in Tucson.
The inside was a monument to the empty nest. It was clean and tidy everywhere except for the various home improvement projects in different degrees of completion. The living room was in the process of being repainted but had obviously been restarted several times because there were three different colors going. The hall way bathroom was almost finished being retiled.
"I'm so sorry about the mess Adam," said Mae's mother. "I wasn't expecting my daughter to be bringing home boys." She was bustling around the various rooms trying to make her little monument seem less so.
"Believe me, I'm not typically brought home so this is rarity for me too. By the way do you have a name or should I just call you Mom?"
"My name is Robin, but you can call me Mom if you like."
"Yeah, Mom is everybody's mom around here," interjected Mae.
"Mom it is then," I said as I placed the bags on the couch. Mae expressed a desire for food and sleep and I had to agree with her. That's another thing about air travel; even though you are sitting the whole time you feel worn out. After Mae and I gobbled down a turkey sandwich each, Mom laid down a makeshift bed for me in Mae's room. This surprised me because I knew that even though I was 23 my parents would never let me share a room with a girl, especially a girl as pretty as Mae. She had shed her windbreaker/shorts combo and was dressed in a long t-shirt, socks and little else. She crawled into bed and buried her face in her pillow. She was asleep moments later. Taking that as my que, I stripped to my boxers and made myself comfortable.
Before laying down for a well deserved rest I had to stop and consider what I was doing. I had blown off my cousin's wedding to hang out in Vegas with a girl I had known for less then a few hours. I had to admit that I was nervous as hell. I had no idea where this was going or what I was going to do. But I also knew that I belonged there. Mae's house had been the closest thing to home I had experienced in five years. I looked over at Mae who was breathing heavily into her pillow, her red hair spread across her face. Yeah, I belonged there.
Saturday April 9th 3:48am
I awoke in the middle of the night with the sudden urge to pee and stumbled my way into the hall bathroom. On my way back to Mae's room I noticed that the light in the kitchen was on. As I got closer I heard what sounded like crying. I entered the kitchen to see Mom sobbing alone at the kitchen table with a cup of tea in front of her.
"Mom," I called out quietly.
"Oh, um... ," she stammered as she tried to rub the tears from her eyes. Her mascara gave her away. "I was just having a cup of tea. Would you like some?"
"Yeah sure. I could use some tea." I lied. I didn't really like tea but I wasn't used to seeing grown women cry and I didn't want to leave her alone. I sat down as she brought me a mug. "So... ," I started. I wasn't used to caring about other people so this was a new experience for me. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, well... no, not really," she said. "It's just hard seeing her like this."
"What do you mean?"
She had trouble finding the words, "Ya know, having to quit school because nobody would leave her alone."
"Leave her alone about what," I was starting to get confused.
"About her condition of course."
Her expression spoke volumes. Mae had told me nothing. "Oh no, you poor thing," she said, her mouth agape. "I screwed up big time. I shouldn't have said anything." She started to leave.
"Wait a minute," I said. "What's going on?"
She sat back down and sighed heavily, "Mae has epilepsy. Or at least she had epilepsy. Three years ago she had a treatment that was supposed to cure her. It was experimental and she knew the risks, but she wanted to do it anyway. She was tired of people treating her like she was delicate and a freak. The doctors went into her brain and found the part that was causing the seizures and fixed it. Everything was fine for a while, but then she started getting these massive headaches. Turns out the doctors screwed up and damaged a blood vessel," she started to tear up again. "It could burst at any moment, it could be tomorrow, it could be twenty years from now, or she could be dead in her room right now for all we know," she had to stop and wipe her face. "It just isn't fair. All she's ever wanted is to feel normal and those doctors assured me that it was safe. Oh please Adam, don't tell her I told you."
I could do nothing but nod as I looked down at my tea. It was happening again. I was going to have to leave someone else behind. I was going to lose home. But it hurt more this time. It wasn't really me that was leaving. I was the one being left behind and where she was going I couldn't follow. No matter what I did it wouldn't make a difference. I took a sip of my tea but it tasted like ash in my mouth. Mom came over to me and embraced me like she had her daughter earlier. Her touch made me need to ask a question, "How... how do you deal with it?"
"The only way I can sweetie. I help her live with what time she has left. That's all we can do right?" I didn't answer; I just took another sip of my tea.
I went back to Mae's room and as I crawled back into bed I couldn't help but check to make sure she was still breathing. She was. Relieved, I fell back into a fitful sleep.
Saturday April 9th 9:30am