This wouldn’t be my problem if Cal’s idiot secretary hadn’t booked on an airline with no first-class seats, Angie thought. She knew if she hadn’t groused so much at the check-in counter, he might have waited for her when she went to freshen up. He knows I can’t hold it from Dallas to the Las Vegas airport. She watched the back of her husband’s head swivel like their front lawn sprinkler as he scanned for seats. He was a full five people ahead of her in line and the seats were filling fast. She felt a warm vinegar rise from her stomach.
Covered in a well-polished veneer of Texas patience, Angie showed no signs of impending panic. She hated flying and she despised sitting in coach; it was noisy, cramped and crowded — very unladylike. Closeness to strangers made her uncomfortable, but a lady never shows her discomfort. She raised her chin and squared her shoulders straining the zipper on the purple velour tracksuit. She enjoyed being noticed on Cal’s arm when they went for client dinners and drinks. She knew she looked better than most women in their mid-50s. There are certain precautions, no gluten, PX90 and only red wine – and no, she won’t give up the shoulder pads or the hairspray — they work. She didn’t care when Amber said to her at Gage’s wedding, “They age you, Aunt Ang. You don’t want people noticing the wrong things and believing your best look was 30 years ago.” Angie was convinced her niece was a little jealous since she can’t wear this purple velour Juicy tracksuit — the expensive one — the without the logo on the derrière.
No matter what Amber thinks, she’ll put her Dallas pageant hair up in hot rollers and backcomb it for height and volume. Her hair was always her best feature; so thick and so blonde. During the evening gown competitions, the girls backstage went green over her natural rose gold highlights. Years later, when she was a pageant coach, people continued to comment on her striking hair. Her niece didn’t understand, getting that kind of attention was hard to give up.
She could tell by the back of his head that Cal was scanning the seating options. She hated sitting with the mass of humanity. When they flew first class it was never a problem; he always wanted an aisle seat and she always wanted the window. Pretty people always get the seats they want, she reminded herself. Cal, she mused, while not classically handsome was still pleasant to look at, like an aging screen star. The barely gray at his temples and his manly crow’s feet seemed to give him an assuredness, like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. I like to think that he’d commit murder if I asked him, she thought. Smiling with pride, she watched women in yoga pants and pantsuits looking him over approvingly.
But another woman looked at him, too, eyeing him up like a steak dinner. Angie’s stomach turned. She was a fat woman in a tight black tank top and coated underneath in splashy, contemptuous tattoos. Roses with thorns, skulls with snakes and 40s pin-up girls. She looked like a Barnum and Bailey attraction. Spiky, purple hair, black eyeliner and a silver ring through her nose. With a body like that, why would you ruin your face? This woman had to work for the circus. How else could she make money? Who would hire a woman who looks like that? To do what?
Cal worked in hedge funds — or banking — something with money. Angie never quite understood what he did. All she knew for sure was that for years a toss of her head or a well-placed hand on a forearm was often helpful to Cal. As time went by, she watched eyes wander to the younger wives of older clients. She knew she’d lost some of the God-given sex-appeal of youth, but still, she was never intimidated. She knew she looked good and she believed that it was her calling to give women something to aspire to after those God-given years had passed. She could still fill out a D-cup. She could still flirt and cajole. A woman should be “well put together” because anything else is just plain rude. Going out of your house like that Circus Freak was just plain rude.
“Please find a seat and move out of the aisles so that other passengers may find a seat,” the chirping voice implored from the back.
Angie perfected a skill of watching others watch her, and the man sitting in the window seat away from Circus Freak was staring right at her face. Though she was used to stares over the years there was something strange about his eyes. He had a Rhett Butler mustache, slicked back salt and pepper hair and a brown Drysdale suit – all he needed was a cheap Stetson. His stare wasn’t admiring exactly, It made her uncomfortable and a little angry.
She turned her head casually and looked into his face. Not so bad, she thought, maybe more Monroe-era Gable. He gave her a slight smile and a wink as if to say, “Yeah, I’ve seen em><The Misfits, too.”
Just as she was about to smile back she realized Cal was moving into an open window seat two rows ahead. Long-legged yoga pants sat on the aisle; the only seat would be in the middle, and he knows she can’t sit in the middle.
“Don’t sit there, Cal,” she called out, “I don’t want to sit there.”
But he never turned. He never even glanced back. He smiled at the co-ed in the yoga pants and she pulled her long legs up under her chin. Before she knew it Cal was settled in and she was looking at the front page of his Wall Street Journal.
She took pride in her ability to sway a potential client when Cal had to do his work. For years her sweet countenance and plunging necklines made her a popular dinner companion. He would tell her, “Wear the red VonFurstenburg. No man can resist you in that dress.” Now she felt like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce; she played her part – raising a son and a daughter while he traveled for work – and he knows she can’t sit in the middle.
“Ma’am, you really need to choose a seat,” a surly attendant called from up front. The Indian family behind Angie was losing patience. A wave of frustration and their toddler propelled her forward. The only seat left near her husband was two rows behind him, in the emergency row, middle seat.
All Angie could see was the fleshy collage in stretch pants. Why would any woman get a tattoo? She stared down the emergency row and studied the design on the woman’s bicep. It was a heart. Not a curvy, derriere-shaped heart but the actual muscle. It had veins, an aorta, everything. It was wrapped in dirty bandages, knotted and frayed like it was The Mummy’s heart. And it looked like it was . . . decomposing?
Poised below the mangled heart was the curvy form of 40s pin-up girl with long legs in silk stockings and garters. That was when a woman knew how to dress, she thought. But why would any woman get a tattoo of another, more beautiful woman? She must be a circus performer or a lesbian or West Virginia white trash. No matter, I can’t sit next to someone who . . .
“Ma’am!” The stewardess had slithered up the aisle to unclog Angie’s anxiety. “You really need to sit down. There is a seat right here in the emergency row.”
“I don’t want to sit there. There seem to be lots of seats in the back with two seats together,” loud enough for Cal to hear but he never looked up from his paper.
“Ma’am those seats have children in them, they are just hard to see,” the attendant explained.
She didn’t want to be sandwiched between the fat, tattooed woman and the bargain basement Gable in the emergency row. There was no seat back for her drink. Where would she put her carry-on? She had to be able to get to her carry on.
“Cal, switch seats with me,” she called out.
Cal never looked up from his paper.
The other passengers could feel Angie’s anxiety. Some looked away while others leaned in and pulled out their cellphones in case the incident became post-worthy.
Then Gable called out to Angie, “Madam, there is plenty of room and I will take care of any emergency that comes along.” He smiled generously and gestured to the center seat. She was still panicked. She could not sit next to that woman. Whether he saw the horror in her Southern veneer or just read her mind, Gable got up and sat in the center and invited her to sit next to the window.
As long as she didn’t have to sit in the middle — Angie stepped past the tattoo queen and fluttered into the seat. The nosey passengers settled back, the stewardess mouthed, Thank you, to Gable and moved on.
“I’m Stanton,” he said, offering his hand.
“I’m Angie,” taking his hand daintily.
“Short for Angela?”
“No, just Angie.”
“Stanton, don’t call me Stan,” he smiled. She was taken. This is a man who understands courteousness and confidence — and good hair. It was not as greasy as she thought.
He settled in for a conversation with a new friend, “Do you fly often?”
“Too often,” she said irritably as if to an old friend. “We are on our way to Las Vegas for some kind of conference. My husband Cal,” she tossed her head back in his direction, “is a regional director and he has to give a talk.”
“Sounds important,” Stanton said giving a nod in Cal’s direction.
She pulled out her book from her bag to prepare for the flight.
“What are you reading?”
She demurred and showed him the cover of the bodice ripper. “This is what I read while I wait for my husband,” she whispered, “I enjoy the sense of adventure.”
He looked at her for a long minute, raised his thick eyebrows and pursed his lips. She could not tell if it was a look of curiosity or smugness.
She remembered Professor Kline telling her that she was going to lose the brain under her hair if she kept reading those poisonous excuses for books. Savage Surrender wasn’t a title that impressed but she never worried about looking smart.
“Please turn off all mobile devices and prepare for takeoff. Flight attendants buckle in.”
Angie immediately tucked her book between the seat and her hip, gripped the armrest to wedge into the corner.
“I hate to fly,” she stated without looking at him. “I really hate to fly.”
She could feel the Circus Freak looking at her, too. She didn’t like to show vulnerability in front of another woman but she was close to the window and could brace herself for impact. Who cares what the fatty thinks?
She felt her hair crunch as she pushed deeper into the corner. Like a drowning man about to go under, she drew a deep breath then exhaled, spurting out words like water from a broken hose.
“Some people say they are afraid, but I don’t think they mean it. People who have a real issue, a real phobia . . . People just don’t understand how difficult it is to keep your composure when you can’t breathe. Can you keep talking to me, Stan, Stanton, until we get to the cruising altitude? I don’t care about what, just talk to me. It is better for me if I am distracted. I’m like that when the nurse draws blood, too. I have to be distracted or I faint dead away.”
Without hesitation, he patted her hand, “Of course, Angie. Have you been married a long time?”
She began to pant in time to the increasing rhythm of the wheels rolling down the runway.
“How long, Angie?” he prodded, sliding a calloused hand over her white knuckles.
“30 years,” she gasped just as the bottom fell out and the wheels pulled up. He squeezed her hand as the plane rose and said, “How is that possible? Did you marry him as a teenager?”
The cocktail of anger, flight nerves, and his gallantry made her giggle uncontrollably. She shook her head and looked down at her sparkling slippers. She reminded herself that panic is not a good look. She noticed that he was still covering her hand with his.
He knew how to flirt and cajole. Is this what it is like when she does it? It’s quite pleasant. Suddenly, the intercom bong, like a call to prayer, made her feel calm. They were up. She was up and everything was okay.
“I was 25 when we got married and that was really late in our crowd,” she confided. “He wanted to wait until he was established. All of our other friends were getting married but we waited. In fact, some were even divorced before Cal decided one day that we should go to the courthouse.”
“Still, thirty years, that is impressive these days,” Stanton said.
“You think so? Thirty years would have passed anyway.”
The drink cart began to tinkle up the aisle and she hadn’t even noticed. The surly flight attendant left her station and came to the emergency row to Stanton. Stanton placed his hand on Angie’s wrist as if to press the pause button and gave the attendant his full attention.
“Sir, may I get you a drink?” Surly cooed, “on the house, of course.”
“Well, thank you,” Stanton replied, “I think I would enjoy a drink. May I have the Buffalo Trace Bourbon and a Canada Dry?”
Surly nodded in appreciation of his choice and scribbled it down.
“And Angie, would you like a drink?” he asked.
Angie gave a catty smile to the flight attendant and said brightly, “Yes, I would like your best white wine. Please.”
Surly looked at Stanton for a long moment and he conceded. He pulled his wallet from his jacket pocket and gave over his credit card. He then touched the arm of the Circus Freak on the other side of him and she pulled off her headphones. “Would you like a drink, madam?” he asked, “I’m buying.”
“Thank you, but no,” she replied with a polite smile that made her nose ring sparkle. Without looking at Angie she returned to her book and headphones.
Surly shook her head and retreated to the cart.
Stanton turned back to Angie who sat sullen, slightly annoyed at his generosity. He ignored her pout and remarked on her attitude, “Angie, I get the impression that you are not happy with your situation with your husband right now.”
Angie decided to fall for his bait.
“Happy? What does that mean? We’ve three children, they’re 12 months apart and they’re all up and out.”
“And what are their names?”
“Calvin, Jr., Roger and Ellen, after my grandmother.”
“They must make you very happy, as they say.”
“As who says? Children don’t make you happy, they make you something and someone you are not, just for their sake. Don’t you have any children, Stanton?”
“No,” he said, choosing not to take her bait, “but I admire people who do it. I had my chances but I was always a little too…” he paused, “selfish, I suppose.”
Angie raised her eyebrows at this disclosure. “Good for you,” she said in genuine admiration. “Good for you for knowing your mind and sticking to it and not letting someone talk you into something you didn’t want. Good for you.”
Surly had returned with their drinks, three bags of nuts and the credit card. She smiled at Stanton and ignored Angie as she set down her wine.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Yes, thank you,” Angie added acidly.
When Surly was out of earshot, Angie took a couple of long full swallows of the white wine and continued.
“I loved my kids. Three busy children. A 65-hour-a-week husband.” She took another sip, “it does not leave much room for anything selfish. There is a lot I gave up and I wonder sometimes if I had made a different choice . . .”
Suddenly, the intercom rang with a full, round bong.
“This is your captain speaking. The Rocky Mountains can sometimes make this a bumpy ride so please stay in your seats with your seatbelts fastened and your chairs in the upright position. Thank you.”
As if on cue the fuselage started thumping and rattling along the air stream. She reached out and grabbed Stanton’s hand. Under his large palm, She flipped her hand over and interlaced her fingers with his. She squeezed with each thunk.
“I’m terrified to fly,” she began again. “Cal makes me do it. He says that I will get over it if I just keep flying. But it never seems to help no matter how many times.
“Why don’t you take a train?” Stanton asked, reprising his role.
“Cal says the train takes too long – and he is right.”
The moment she gave her husband credit the plane leveled out and she could breathe again. She cursed him under her breath and turned to Stanton. “In 30 years I’ve never done anything like that before – held a stranger’s hand.”
“Is this something that you want to do?” said Stanton. “On a plane I mean.”
She blushed and they both laughed. The wine was making her feel randy.
“Do you mean have I ever been with a man since I’ve been married?” She paused for effect. “No. That is not who I am.”
She had offers, propositions, and drunken gropes in hall closets but she was always the picture of the proper lady, the unattainable woman. She knew it added to her mystique – that and the hair.
“I’ve never been with any other man but my husband, so I don’t really know.”
“You have never slept with another man in your life?”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. He is my husband.”
“Oh, yes, but Angie. You don’t even have a special place to go back to. Where do you go when you want to feel like you are 25 again?”
“I haven’t felt like I was 25 in 30 years,” she laughed. “What kind of special place do you mean?”
“Isn’t there someone, somewhere who made you feel special, beautiful, and you go back to there at night, when you are alone?”
She knew, of course, what he meant but played along. “I think you are making this up. Where is your special place?”
“My special place is Biloxi, Mississippi, 1990 boot camp at Keesler Air Force base.”
“You were in the military?” She interrupted.
“Does it seem that unlikely?” he asked. “I was good with my hands and they wanted me to work on planes and I wanted to get out of Arkansas.” She gave him an accepting look and he continued.
“I loved that place. Everything about it was sensuous, you know, hot and sticky. Everyone moved slowly and the girls wore as little as they could get away with. It was a glorious time. Me and my buddies hitting the town on the weekends.”
“And the girls loved ‘a man in uniform,’” he winked, “we really played it up.”
“We found out that June 15 we were heading to Kuwait City- so on June 14, we went into town for the last time. None of us knew if we were ever going to see a Mississippi girl ever again.”
She watched him go to this far off place in his mind. He even looked younger as he talked. “There are songs about women who make men out of boys – and that was Jacki. Make any man weak in the knees. She was the ringleader of this band of local girls looking to meet noncoms. She was beautiful and smart and had a lot of spunk – like you.”
Angie blushed but said nothing.
“I don’t kiss and tell, but I will say that I was lucky enough to be the one she chose that night to leave with a beautiful experience. And I carry that memory with me to this day. Everyone should have a memory that they carry to remind them they are lovable and desirable.”
For some reason, she felt tears hover heavy in her eyes but she would not let them bubble over. She wanted him to be unsure if it was his story or her heavy mascara. He leaned in and cupped her hand again.
“And I would hold hands with you anytime you like,” he whispered. She did not flinch or look away and he did not relent.
The intercom bell shook them out of the moment and the captain’s voice cleared out the space between them.
“We are beginning our descent into Las Vegas International Airport please stay in your seats with your seatbelts fastened, your tray tables up and your chairs in the upright position.”
Angie had pulled away in order to organize herself for landing, mints for off the plane, the phone was in the pocket of her bag. She continued to ready herself in her own little space and ignored Stanton. She could see from her special side vision that he was sitting, just sitting in preparation for landing, not fussing or even trying to catch her eye. He sat in the center seat as if he were the only person on the plane staring off into a world of his own. She wondered for a minute if he was on a street in Biloxi.
She envied his composure but she could never be like that, too much to worry about, too much to consider. The prevention of the panic attacks and the flirting made the flight go faster, for that alone she was appreciative. But it was time to get ready to disembark, head to the ladies room to freshen up then an Uber to the hotel.
At the hotel, she could start reading her book, have her evening glass of red wine and read until she fell asleep. Cal would need to meet the partners and they would want to smoke cigars and play poker into the wee hours.
She had busied herself so deeply on her to-do list that the descent didn’t register in her stomach until the plane was only 500 feet above the ground. She didn’t feel any panic but she reached over with her hand and slipped her pinky finger into the crevice of his ring finger just the same; both just continued to look forward. As the plane lowered the wheels she could feel Stanton apply a little reassuring pressure to her fingertip. They continued to sit in silence, still connected through the landing and the taxi to the gate.
When the plane stopped the Circus Freak jumped up to retrieve her bag from the overhead. Angie was surprised at how cat-like the woman moved. Before waddling up the aisle The Freak turned to Stanton. Angie noticed through her sidelong vision the tattoo sprawled across her chest Let It Be. With a broad smile, the woman said to Stanton, “You have a lovely Vegas. Thank you for an uneventful trip.”
The Freak scowled at Angie, only for a moment, but the moment lasted long enough for Angie to know the woman had similar feelings as her own. She tried to decide if this revelation was a problem but thought better of thinking of it at all.
Stanton spoke to The Freak as he stood up next but Angie could not hear what he said to her. The Freak smiled at him and turned to leave. Stanton pulled a leather satchel from the overhead and in a single move reached into the bag, pulled out a card and leaned over to place it on the armrest.
“Text me if you would like to have dinner . . . and talk some more.”
For a split second, he gave her the sparkling Gable eyes and disappeared up the aisle.
She stared at the card for a moment then reached over and placed it in her breast pocket. She let a few more people pass to make sure she would not run into him on the jetway or down in the baggage claim.
Cal was finally waiting for her standing at the gate with the carry-on. “I called the Uber,” he said as he hurried her along, “so please be quick in the bathroom.” Nodding she stepped into the ladies room. She emerged from the stall and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She put her hand over her pocket and felt the edges of his card then held it there close to her chest.
What would a lady do?
Wash her hands, fluff her hair and have an Altoid.
Cal again was waiting for her with the rest of the luggage. She took the smaller bag from him and followed wordlessly to the exit. She tried to look around at the other cars and the other passengers but the black Lincoln MKZ pulled up just as they stepped out onto the sidewalk.
“The Bellagio, yes?” the Uber driver asked. Cal nodded to him.
The driver opened the door for Angie and she stepped primly inside. Cal settled in next to her as the driver pulled away from the curb.
“You go ahead up to the room,” he told her. “I’m meeting Miles and Grayson in Bobby’s Room for a couple of hands. Grayson wants to impress Miles and play the big room one time. He cashed in their Bali vacation money to do it.”
Cal chuckled, “Vanessa was so angry that she gave his Mercedes the business with his Callaway driver. She thought if she did 20k worth of damage to his car there would be no way he would still choose to buy in.”
The story tickled him so much he laughed aloud and made the driver look. When he realized there was no prickly comment, Cal noticed that Angie wasn’t really listening; she looked very far away. Cal thought to ask why she was so quiet but chose to enjoy the rare silence instead.
Kelley Crowley has worked as a radio personality, a music journalist and as the lead publicist for the world’s largest invention show. Her work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, The Pittsburgh City Paper, and various trade publications. Crowley currently teaches in the Media and Communication department at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia where she encourages her students to listen to the words and not just tap to the beat.