A few minutes later, with the plane still on the tarmac, the scene repeats, only now she says, “I already told you, can’t do it!” Fifteen minutes go by, he presses the button again. She’s not coming. Through the loudspeaker she says, “Sir, I’ve told you and told you, I can’t do it. No, the answer is the same. Can’t do it.”
5D sighs, thinks it through; it’s a short flight and she’s not thirsty. She tugs her bag from under the seat and pulls out the water she bought in the terminal. She’ll have to remember to expense it after the conference. “Would you like this?” she asks, “I don’t need it.”
He looks at her for the first time, a little flustered. “Sorry,” he says. He takes the water. “Thanks.” Silence, and then, “I’m not having the best day.” He adjusts his seat. “Honestly, I think those three words, ‘can’t do it’ are the second worst three words in the English language. ‘Can do’ is so much better.”
She’s reluctant but hooked. “Okay,” she says, “what are the first worst three words?” Immediately, she regrets the question. She could have had a seat in the quiet car on the train. She could be reading in peace by now. He turns towards her, “Make an appointment,” he says, then he’s off and running.
“I don’t usually talk to people on planes, but I left my wife today and I’m not going back. I ended up at the airport, muscle memory, I guess, used to fly this route all the time. I’m not sure what to do when we land.” He fumbles with the water bottle and she notices that his hands are shaking. He is talking too fast.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she says, and reaches for her novel, but he continues as if he hasn’t noticed.
“I just called my brother again,” he says, glancing at his phone. “He lives near LaGuardia. But we haven’t seen each other in years, not since I got married really. He didn’t pick up the phone this morning and he hasn’t answered my texts.”
He adjusts his seat and looks down for a moment. With the plane finally taking off, he puts his phone in airplane mode. “He doesn’t like my wife much, didn’t even want to be my best man, and I guess he was right to be worried. He thought she was out of my league, but not in a good way if you know what I mean.”
5D slips her book back in her bag. So much for reading.
“We’ve had our problems, of course, everyone does, but last week she finally stopped talking to me, nothing, nada. I’d ask her how her day had gone and she’d walk away. She stays in her home office unless she needs to use the kitchen or bathroom. It’s a big room.”
He’s a consultant. His wife is a contracts lawyer. They both work from home now which is not a hardship in their McMansion, a gift from her parents, worked from home, he says, correcting himself. He laughs a little at this, no kids, he says, and too much space.
5D nods. She’s starting to wonder how this conversation began.
This morning, he had approached his wife’s office almost on tiptoe: should he knock or just go in? Ten feet away, plenty of time to turn back, go down the stairs, drive into his own office downtown, pretend nothing was happening. He had a lot to do, he was behind in his work and his boss was none too happy, blamed it on work-from-home, even though it had nothing to do with that. But it was a grim day. He didn’t want to go out.
In the hall he could see the sky through the small window; the light was dim but even so, it lit up a dust ball—or something—in the corner. Way off, and he thought it was strange that this registered, he heard a dog barking, not fast and sharp, but as if he’d been barking for a long time, lonely, but not howling yet. The hallway had an odd smell, a little tarry, a little musty. The cleaning crew didn’t come anymore; his wife had dropped them when COVID started.
He needs a therapist, she thinks. Where’s the punchline?
He says that he stood there for what seemed a long time, too long. He tried to remember what his dad used to say. Sometimes he would say “KISS, keep it simple, stupid!” No, that wasn’t it. “Move towards the problem,” that was it, that was right. Well, the problem was just down the hall.
He stops for a moment as the plane’s loudspeakers croak out something about turbulence and seatbelts. 5D takes a deep breath; she knows he’s not finished. They both check to make sure they’re securely fastened.
“I finally knocked and she answered ‘What is it?’ I could tell she was irritated, but I opened the door and looked in.” The room was full of smoke and he had started to cough almost immediately.
“One of the last things she said before she stopped speaking to me was ‘I’ll smoke if I feel like it.’ She knows I have asthma.”
5D notices his eyes reddening. She nods to hurry him on.
“I said, ‘We need to talk,’ but before I could get the next sentence out, she had swung the chair around to face me, stubbed one cigarette out, and reached for another.”
“I’m busy, we have a big meeting Monday, can’t it wait?” She had stared at him, holding a long pause, something he recognized as one of those negotiation strategies they used to laugh about. He noticed, and this surprised him, how small and close together her cold gray eyes seemed. It’s funny that when he’s not with her, he thinks of her as a beautiful woman. He told her he needed some of her time and that he hardly saw her anymore, but he started choking up towards the end.
“I wasn’t crying,” he says. “It was the smoke. She turned her back on me then. Do you know what she said?” They are close to landing. They put their tray tables up.
“I can’t imagine,” she answers.
“Three words. She said, ‘Make an appointment,’ that’s what she said. That’s all she said. ‘Make an appointment.’” He shakes his head. The two passengers both sit in silence for a minute. The plane is closing in on LaGuardia.
He says he wants to finish his story, and 5D nods again. They’ll be landing soon and he’ll move on. He tells her that after that, he packed a small bag and called his brother. And now he’s confused because he can’t predict what will happen. He’s pretty devastated; he doesn’t want a lot of drama but he’ll be damned if he’ll make an appointment.
The plane is landing at last. The engine noise is louder than ever. They both get caught up in the push-and-shove of disembarking and when 5D finally wrestles her bag out of the overhead, he is gone. Seeing his empty water bottle stuffed in the seat pocket, she’s surprised by a stab of anxiety. Why would she worry about a stranger? She wonders where he’ll go now, if his brother will answer his calls, and how many times he’ll have to hear “I told you so.” But she shakes it off and heads for the cab line, thinking how tired she is already. She’ll never see him again. And she has a whole day of conferencing in front of her, a whole day to dodge her colleagues with their dinner invitations.
What could be holding up the line? One of the cabs has stopped because a large man in a camel coat is pounding on its window. Someone climbs out of the cab’s backseat. She’s not sure it’s her former seat mate, but she watches as the large man takes the smaller one in a bear hug while the whole line of cabs waits. Maybe it’s him, she thinks it might be. The driver pops the trunk and the large man grabs the carry-on. Their backs to her, they walk toward the parking decks until they are out of sight. The last she sees of them the large man has draped his coat around the other man’s shoulders.
Finally at the front of the line, she hands the driver her bag and folds herself into the back seat. “Make an appointment,” she murmurs under her breath. Awful. What’s wrong with people? She’s glad his brother came to help him. She rummages through her purse for her hotel’s address, then settles back in her seat. He’ll be fine, she thinks, and in ten years, he’ll think of it as a starter marriage.
She feels, what is it? A bit of energy. She’s not so tired. It’s optimism, she thinks, “positivity,” one of those silly self-help clichés. She’s not used to feeling good. For a while, she looks out the window. She decides to call her brother from the hotel. In the meantime, she pulls out her cell, scrolls through her conference invitations, and starts to text her RSVPs.