The male flight attendant raised his eyebrows innocently, as if he hadn't heard me.
"Another one of these," I said, holding up an empty single-serving bottle of scotch and tapping it with my index finger. He got it that time, and frowned as he set off down the aisle.
It was 10 a.m. in Boston, 7 a.m. in San Diego, but in seat 13A on Flight 417, 37,000 feet over western New York, it was happy hour.
• • •
The couple next to me had been asleep on each other's shoulders for at least an hour. Their children sat three-across on the other side of the aisle, all under eight years old, talking and teasing and giggling. A terrifying sight if there ever was one. No wonder these two were completely zonked.
I looked down at the yellow notepad in front of me, full of words written and crossed out and rewritten in blue and red ink. My head fell back and my gaze wandered out the window. My eyelids sagged and I drifted off. . . .
Cam and I hardly ever fought until recently, and then it was as if we were making up for lost time. It always started with Nothing. An offhand comment taken too seriously, a silence that lasted a moment too long. Then: "What's wrong?" "Nothing" - there it was - and we were off again.
And now I was off to San Diego. For a week. On the longest direct flight between any two cities in the lower 48. A good way to get away when you need some space. It was business, and of course had been planned for months, but the timing was impeccable.
I was glad I had remembered to get my extra set of keys from her before she stormed out. It was a request that carried an unmistakable heaviness of finality, but the way that conversation had gone I had nothing to lose. A lot can happen to an apartment in a week, especially when a jilted ex might decide after a few cocktails or a bottle of wine to come housesit. A TV could find itself smashed face down against the floor of the living room, or a closet full of suits and shirts might wander out back into a dumpster and spontaneously burst into flames. Like the Bermuda Triangle, this phenomenon has never been satisfactorily explained, but it is generally known that these sorts of accidents happen with much greater frequency around the time of a messy breakup.
• • •
The male flight attendant was at the front of the plane. When he saw my service light go on, he turned and said something to the other flight attendant that made her roll her eyes. They both turned and looked at me. Then he started down.
"Guess I'll need a refill," I said, flashing him a huge, mocking smile over the sleeping parents. It was now 9:43am in California.
I don't remember when I first met Camille. We had mutual friends - many. Advertising is a small circle in any city. Not to mention a profession that is known for heavy drinking; hence the trouble remembering.
I have an early memory of her, like a blurry photograph. In it, I'm at a coworker's birthday party at a bar on Lansdowne. I'm talking to a group of girls, making them laugh by generally being an ass, and she's somewhere just outside the circle, moving, not looking at me. She's wearing cheap plastic neon orange Wayfarer knockoffs - I can tell she's taking this party almost as seriously as I am. I continue my stories, my stupid jokes, but glance over and around the heads of my audience, catching flashes of orange as she dances under the lights.
Later that night, I catch her at the bar. We talk about Amsterdam, about the thrill of traveling alone, and the fear of drowning in a canal after eating too many over the counter mushrooms. Mostly we bullshit, and we laugh. She holds her liquor well as we go round for round, until suddenly I'm opening my eyes to the bare wall of my apartment, face down on my couch in my underwear, alone but alive. Smiling.
• • •
The conference was being held at a downtown hotel. It was my first time to San Diego, and I was looking forward to a free afternoon to explore the city waterfront. There's something about open water for me. I've never felt as at peace with myself and the universe as at the helm of a sailboat, alone, calm and singularly focused; the definition of Zen. This time watching from shore would have to serve as a proxy for the real thing.
The fight the night before, the final fight, was still fresh in my mind and became more colorful and dramatic each time I relived it. I reveled in the slow-motion replays. Of course it was more a matter of what I shouldn't have said than what I should have. Foolish; yet typical of me. Burn the ships, there's no going back.
A chime rang, and the Fasten Seatbelt light came on. The pilot announced turbulence ahead.
• • •
One time, early on, I had stepped away from the bar for a moment and some six-foot-five oaf thought he saw his chance with the girl everyone was watching, who tossed her hair and laughed too loud and whose eyes glittered in the dim light. He towered over her, head on, talking far to close to her face. Two hundred and thirty pounds of testosterone and not an ounce of charm; a caveman. She smiled up at him, eyes glassy with liquor, fearless.
I'd always had a knack for being able to size someone up and pretty quickly identify their biggest insecurity. It wasn't a talent that had always served me well, but one look at him and I knew. I walked up all smiles.
"How are we doing here?" I asked, grinning.
"We're great. Get lost," replied Crog the Man-Beast, over his shoulder. He turned back to Cam.
"You look like you're about to club her and drag her back to your cave. How's that working out for you?"
"Get the fuck away from here, man. You're fucking up my game!" I looked down at Cam, not two feet away, who was sipping her vodka tonic through a straw and watching this exchange like she was in the front row at a movie theater.
My smile grew. I turned the screws.
"Do you really think she's interested in you? Look at you - you're wearing glasses."
"Fuck you!" growled Crog, turning away from Cam and shoving me in the chest. Bullseye. I held his death stare and my smile widened.
"What's the matter, four eyes?"
Playground stuff. No grown man would really let something like that get to him. Yet all the deepest insecurities are born there. And I had guessed correctly.
Nobody had called him that since the little boys and girls ran around him and threw things at him, until he grew and grew and they stopped calling him names and started getting out of his way, letting him cut them in line and take the last slice of pizza, and he had gotten used to that; a geek in the body of an ogre. I recognized it immediately.
He was drunk and his aim was poor. His punch only grazed my jaw and throat on its way to rest on my collarbone. I turned my head back just as four huge arms wrapped around his from behind and dragged him rapidly towards the exit.
I walked back to Cam, who hadn't moved from her stool.
"His glasses looked just like your glasses."
"Right?" I took her empty glass out of her hand, and reaching over to set it on the bar, kissed her. "Another drink?"
I rubbed my eyes. It was late, and my contact lenses were starting to dry out. As I looked around to try and get some service, I caught my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. How much that little boy had grown.
• • •
My window shade stuck, then flew up as I added pressure, and I was suddenly blinded. The sleeping couple next to me didn't even twitch. My glass was empty. Some kind of service around here.
We fancied ourselves something special, deserving of only the best. We went to the nicest restaurants and sat at the bar, sipping $17 cocktails and exchanging banter with charming bartenders who made six figures a year. We pretended money was no object, leaving twenty dollar tips on forty dollar tabs; but when I got hungry I would excuse myself to take a phone call and walk around the corner to Burger King or Wendy's for a double cheeseburger. We dressed up and snuck into $500 a plate fundraising galas, imagining ourselves at home among the so-called movers and shakers. Whatever status and privilege they had earned, we felt we deserved it too, and more.
When we weren't out drinking, which was most nights, we stayed in, drinking just as hard. We had a better tolerance for it than most, but that didn't mean mornings weren't painful. We certainly had our routine: Gatorade, fast food hash browns, double espressos. At least it got us both to work on time, most of the time.
We lived well outside our means, but rarely acknowledged it to ourselves or each other. I pretended I didn't have an enormous outstanding bank loan that I'd taken out to finance my apartment, and she pretended she paid even a fraction of her credit card bill each month. But we took pride in the fact that we were otherwise completely self-sufficient. Once in a while one of us would become especially disgusted with our financial state of affairs, and declare immediate self-imposed sanctions, with the other pledging to follow suit. This never lasted more than a few days. We thought we were fearless, living only in the present. But the stress of being the victims of our own Ponzi schemes was wearing on us.
• • •
"...and tray tables locked," repeated the flight attendant for the second time. I rubbed my eyes and sat up. My notepad peeked out of the pocket in front of me. The past six hours had seen it filled with words - words of remorse, regret, rationale. Words that had been furiously crossed out and replaced with more words. Too sentimental, not heartfelt enough, trite, maudlin... most of the words were the wrong words. But I had pushed on in search of the right ones.
It had begun with an observation - simple, but devastating if it held any truth.
"We never have sex when we're sober," she had said suddenly as we were lying in bed. It was a rare Saturday night where we hadn't gone out, hadn't binged at all, and were in fact going to bed at the charmingly early hour of eleven. I had a six-hour flight that left early the next morning, and in an unusual flash of good judgment had proposed we keep it low key.
"We must be having a lot of sex, then," I replied, rolling my eyes without opening them.
That was just enough. The next fifteen minutes passed in fast forward as that spark turned into a bonfire fueled by everything that had been left unsaid for the better part of a year. She sat up. The lights came on. I sat up. She got out of bed. I lay back down and rolled over. She leaped back on the bed and punched me in the kidney. I roared and stood up. We faced off across the bedroom, and I said my mental goodbyes. My final request delivered the only pause - then my keys were brought from her purse and in a single motion hurled at my head. Then her jeans were on, and she was gone.
I walked into the kitchen, reached up and took a glass out of the cupboard. I picked up a fifth of Jack by the neck as I walked back to the couch and sat staring at the black screen of my TV.
• • •
My cab ride from the airport to my hotel was in silence. I thought about asking the driver about the city, but instead spent the ride with my face out the window.
The hotel was nicer than I had expected, especially the room. High ceilings, a king size bed covered with thousands of pillows, and a shower the size of a tennis court - we would've really torn this place up.
I had eighteen hours to explore San Diego before I had to be presentable the next morning. As we'd landed I'd seen dozens of white sails screaming around the bay. I grabbed my notepad and room key and headed to the elevators. I pressed L, and the doors closed.
I had to fold the entire notepad in half to be able to stuff it into the mouth of the trashcan outside the elevator bank. I stopped in front of a mirror as I made my way across the lobby, and undid another button on the front of my shirt. Then I walked into the hotel bar.