This story is by John MacILROY and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
He would later blame it on the Bloody Marys. But it was always on him.
Mencken, wasn’t it, said there’s always a solution to every problem — neat, plausible, and wrong? Something like that. Yeah. H. L. Mencken.
* * *
Delta’s Flight 2308 to Boston had just wheeled back to the gate after making it no further than the inner taxiway. This could be trouble. Moments before, he had watched his girlfriend board the plane, something you could do in those days before TSA took charge, the departure lounge open to all. She was an understandably reluctant — no, terrified — flyer after her last flight some months ago. It was also a 727, old even then, a United into Chicago that took a 23,000- foot barrel-roll before the pilot got it under control, just seconds before plastering everyone aboard into a cornfield somewhere in Iowa.
Their pre-flight ritual was now always the same. Arrive at the airport early enough to get her a seat in the back of the plane. And allow plenty of time to have a few drinks to take the edge off, but not let the rabbit go too far down the hole. That demanded the precision of a space-suited technician batching something at the CDC. This afternoon, the ritual had seemed to be working its magic, generous pour Bloody Marys the drink of the day. Maybe a bit too generous.
The plane nuzzled back into the jet-way, its engines spooling down and the security door opening with a whoosh. Two flight attendants stepped out, shiny Delta wings, crisp sky-blue uniforms, the older one visibly annoyed. The younger one looking like she was just along for the show, slightly bemused.
Maybe a good wings, bad wings deal?
They took a quick look around the departure lounge, the older one quickly fixing her armor-piercing gaze on him. It was an obvious choice. He was the only one still in the area. The right age too.
“Looks like it’s your girlfriend in the back of the plane, tall red-head, hysterical, drunk. . .”
Alison. With one “l.”
“. . . babbling on that the 727 likes to take 20,000-foot barrel rolls . . .”
Well, they do.
“. . . and that it makes no difference anyway,” her stare icy, “because someone doesn’t love her.”
No! I do. Well I think I do. It’s complicated. I don’t know. Maybe.
The good wings — taller, early twenties, deep tan, blonde hair in a pony tail — decided to join in the fun. “And he didn’t propose to her.”
Soft accent, maybe Alabama. But no, I didn’t.
He looked at her longer than the situation called for, which she noticed.
This is one of my problems.
“Something else about a zone. Crazy,” she added.
“We’re going to boot her off the plane,” the older attendant said, no soft Alabama here. She paused. “Unless you can think of something.”
“To calm her down, no bullshit.”
This one’s Jersey for sure.
“Listen, she nearly went down a few flights back — the famous barrel roll on that United to Chicago, the pilot hailed as a hero, taming that plane just in time. All over the news, not three months ago.”
Shift the monkey.
“She didn’t deserve those little airborne acrobatics . . .”
Build a little sympathy here. Good.
“She just needed to take the edge off, you know, before take-off.”
Clever. But no smile. Not even Alabama.
“Think of something? Calm her down, huh? Then we’re good to go?”
Yeah, I know how to crawl out of this hole.
* * *
They met while in Boston, in the fall of 1980, at the bar that everyone thinks looks just like its namesake on television, but really doesn’t, until you go upstairs.
She had sailed through the University of Rhode Island, a Phi Mu on a full tennis scholarship, a bright and popular jock, a minor legend on campus. Her wicked sense of humor matched her killer serve, a lefty’s advantage, she would often tell him. Her engagement to a mid-fielder on the URI lacrosse team imploded just before graduation, and she took a job as tennis coach at a small prep school just outside Boston, teaching an American lit course and living in Newton. A gifted teacher, but underpaid, after a couple years she worked out a sweet part-time deal so she could begin graduate work at Simmons, with the idea of moving on.
He landed in town after a pleasant four years at Colgate and three years in an executive development program at a regional bank in Charlotte. His resume was strong enough to get into Boston University Law, but just barely, popping in from the waiting list just weeks before classes started. He loved Boston, tolerated law school, and met Alison in that upstairs bar. It was a not-quite-chance meeting pushed along by her Phi Mu sorority sister, who was a paralegal in the law firm he clerked for part-time, just around the corner. He was in his third year, recently un-moored from a once-happy relationship which had gone missing on the rocky shoals of a long-distance romance.
As they say, both their lights were on, old wounds soon forgotten, new promises to be made.
They danced through the rest of the year, a magic time of hopes and dreams, a quiet confidence that they would both land jobs of choice in Boston, or at least nearby.
* * *
Nearby it was for Alison, who pivoted seamlessly into a corporate training job on the eighteenth floor of a building made famous when its windows suddenly started exploding, glass shards spewing-out like a crazed urban volcano, crashing to the street below. His nearby, it turned out, was a headquarters corporate legal job promised just outside Boston, but actually delivering him to an eighth floor office on Dodge Street, in Omaha, the company’s regional outpost.
“Omaha?” Alison couldn’t believe it. “Nebraska?”
“Go Cornhuskers. Nice office. No exploding windows.”
“Look, we’ll figure it out. I’ll fly east on business all the time, you’ve got that outreach teaching gig, flying into Denver all the time. Corporate travel too. We’ll make it work, even make it fun.”
* * *
They actually did work it out, at least for a while. But after almost a year of cross-country flights and stolen weekends, Alison upped the ante.
“It’s time for The Talk,” she said one evening. He knew this was long overdue, and something he feared.
They used to laugh about it, The Talk, that moment of truth when all the bullshit of long-distance relationships stops, reality addressed. He had even come up with some nonsense he called The Zone of Expectation, a kind of trigger for The Talk. It was, he explained, a calculation in any relationship which could predict when one or the other would call the cards — usually the woman, he always added, the kind of thing you could get away with, back then. The Zone was a thoroughly goofy alphabet soup of ideas, mostly to do with relative and base-line ages, time-in-relationship metrics, geographic complications, jobs, past dating disasters, signs of the zodiac, certain holidays running in an arc from Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day, and birthdays — a twenty-fifth birthday a kind of ground zero within the Zone, trumping everything else. The whole thing was cooked up over beers with his buddies, every one of them the walking wounded, veterans of The Talk and The Zone.
“I’m serious,” she added. “Pull out your stupid Zone Calculations and figure it out. We’ve been dating for almost two years, no sign of a ring. And I’m logging more flight time than most pilots, including that clown who tried to kill me.”
There it was: time-in-relationship.
“Flying, I might add,” to Omaha.”
“And I doubt you have planned anything special for my birthday,” she continued, her red-headed Irish spooling up.
There’s the birthday.
“So here’s the deal. I’ll meet you in Lauderdale — you love the Kileys, they’ve got a condo down there, and we’re invited for a long weekend. Good friends, good times, we toast to Cambridge, my birthday and safe landings, work on our much-neglected tans, and we sit the hell down and figure out where we’re going.”
There it was. The Talk.
* * *
The Kileys — their best friends in Boston — were great hosts, the hot sun, warm memories and chilled wine all working their magic. The Talk was always lurking in the shadows, of course, but Alison only nibbled around the edges. The company helped, and the weekend flew by.
They got to the airport early Sunday, brunch and a few Bloodys the order of the day. Probably, he thought, The Talk too. Despite a great weekend, he knew their relationship was bending under the weight of distance and indecision, mostly his. His vision of their future was unclear, their relationship a shaky lean-to unlikely to last, he figured, the next winter. But conversation all weekend was light, happily drifting in other directions. But he knew The Talk was just below the surface, ready to explode, like those old World War II bombs they still find in London, when digging deep.
But with Alison well into her third drink — she had urged the bartender towards a generous pour — and her flight time near, he was pretty sure this would not be the day.
Retreat and live to fight another day, right?
There were the usual tears, of course, but everything had seemed buttoned up when he watched her leave down the jet-way, unsteadily, but on her way.
* * *
“You’ll bring her out?”
That’s the idea.”
“I get her calm, she goes back in?”
“Calm as a clam, the only way.”
The wings with the pony tail wheeled around and back into the plane, quickly returning with Alison in tow. She had tightened her profile a bit, but not much. Here we go.
“Alison, marry me.” What am I doing?
“We’re . . . gonna get married?”
“Just like real grown-ups. Like the Kileys.”
“We’re. . .gonna . . . get . . .MARRIED! Still slurred, but we’re making progress here.
The wings were more than happy with this, but not interested in more loving drama for the day, giving him a clear wheels-up look, satisfied his something had pulled this rabbit out of the hole, Alison almost calm as that clam. A quick hug, a wobbly retreat back into the plane, and Delta 2308, non-stop to Boston, was off. Without drama, his Continental flight to Omaha took off later that afternoon.
Now what have I done?
* * *
On Tuesday afternoon, Alison called him, plans for the wedding already well under way — a ring picked out, a small reception booked into a favorite restaurant in Cambridge, just off Harvard Square. They got married three months later, he not knowing how to slow it all up, which would have been the better course. She moved to Omaha, hated it, soon hated him, and the marriage blew up just after their first anniversary, the one about paper. They had even fought about that, she claiming it was about clocks.
Either way, their time was up.
Genius solution at the airport. Guess Mencken had it about right. . .
He would later learn that Alison married an older investment banker — a good guy, said the Kileys — and they were doing well, living in an expensive brownstone on Beacon Hill. He was pleased about that. A year later, he married an Omaha girl, a young divorcee, this time a well-planned proposal over dinner at the French Café. Soft lights, no flight attendants hovering, his vision unclouded. They sailed through their first anniversary, happily — paper, she agreed, a good sign.
And it was.