He couldn’t get himself arrested
At 7:30 A.M., Barry Cantor flew up the Saw Mill River Parkway blasting Abbey Road. It was five days before Christmas. He hadn’t had a second date in eight months, and he hadn’t had sex in over a year. It was astounding.
Barry worked, read the Times, watched TV; he played first base for the Condiments and Retail Sauces team. At 32, he’d won a Brammy for Best Consumer Promotion. At 33 he’d renovated the twisty seven-room apartment he’d grown up in. Three months ago, he’d hired a chef to cook for him twice a week. If he behaved himself, he’d be Group Product Supervisor in a year. In all probability, he would never learn Italian; when he was honest with himself, he admitted that he didn’t really speak French.
He took the second Tarrytown exit. All of Barry’s old friends were married, and most of them were fathers; he saw them on the weekends, among their families, carrying things. Possibly there was something wrong with him. He’d been losing hair steadily since his junior year at Dartmouth. On the other hand, he was taller than most men he knew. Plus, there was something seriously wrong with every single woman he’d met lately. Jack Kennedy didn’t get married until he was 36.
He turned into the ice-encrusted parking lot, sick of thinking about himself. It was as if Cynthia had never existed, as if he’d never had someone sleeping next to him. And why would it ever end? Nobody wanted anything anymore.
Not true: Vince Anspacher was seeing three women simultaneously. Barry had been fascinated by Vince’s situation until he’d met Vince’s lineup — neurotic, abrasive, and self-involved, every single one of them, and Kiki was the kind of girl who needed a map in an elevator. Though all three of them were quite passable, visually.
Barry had met Vince at a wedding in July. Vince had seemed on his wavelength, if a little out of his league; his father was a self-made magnate whose empire was written up in the newspaper every day. In September, when Vince had asked to stay till he found a sublet, Barry instantly agreed, thinking being roommates with Vince would lead to membership to clubs he’d never heard of, and also that it might be nice to bump into someone in the hall.
Of course, all that had come of it was repeated reminders of what Barry was missing, and why. Last night, on his way to bed, he saw that Vince’s door was open. Renée was probably naked on the bed. If Vince wanted a woman over — and why shouldn’t he? — fine. But with the door open? The good news was that Vince traveled constantly.
Barry pulled into his parking space and paused as “Come Together” came on again. What was John Lennon singing about, and did it matter? Long before the murder, he’d felt deficient for not liking John more. John was too contrary; Barry always had the feeling that he was missing something, and he wasn’t cool enough to know what it was. Paul, on the other hand, let Linda play in the band — conciliatory to the point of ridiculous. Well, a gentleman. Any kind of critical discussion was of course impossible now.
Barry shut off the car and walked across the frigid Plaza to start the day. Christmas had come to the Maplewood Acres national headquarters in Tarrytown. It had started in November with the reindeer on the lawn. It would end in January with green tuna fish on red rolls in the cafeteria. The offices were trembling under the weight of all the garlands, lights, and desktop nativity scenes. Every year, it started earlier. Every year, it made Barry sick.
Maggie Fahey, an astonishingly beautiful Assistant Product Manager, came out of the deli and walked past him without a single word.
“Top o’ the marnin to ya, lass,” he called after her.
She raised her coffee without turning around by way of greeting.
Very nice. He couldn’t get himself arrested.
Barry kibitzed a little with the coffee guy, who always had his large/light/three sugars bagged before he’d reached the counter. He loved the coffee guy. He took the holly-decked elevator to 5, strode down the hall, and nearly collided with some people who were sucking up to John Rheinecker, Senior VP for marketing and the man behind the Susie Strudel relaunch, which was widely regarded as nothing short of brilliant. Barry hated watching people grovel for Rheinecker and he hated Rheinecker for enjoying it.
“Morning, Cantor,” Rheinecker said in a dry, disdainful fashion without eye contact. His face had the color and sheen of pink grapefruit skin.
“Your Grace,” Barry said, and pivoted into his office.
So he had a problem with authority. So what? On his desk were the shivering remains of Friday’s trauma: the Council had decided to sell Peggy’s Pickles, a beautiful little brand with a loyal following in New England. No reflection on Barry’s management, but still, it grated on him.
Emily King, his putative assistant, wasn’t around. He flicked the lid off his coffee. The Maplewood Acres Morale Survey was still on his desk, blank. The anonymity clause at the top was bullshit — they had everything coded. Everybody else had returned it immediately, lying robotically (the required seminar on e-mail etiquette was very important, the dental plan was very generous). If you’d told Barry ten years ago that he’d be thinking twice about voicing honest criticism, he’d have laughed out loud.
And yet: Henry Ford didn’t form the Detroit Automobile Company until he was 36, didn’t form the Ford Motor Company until he was 40, didn’t release the Model T until he was 45. Of course, George Gershwin was dead at 39. On the other hand, he never married. Still: Gershwin had women flocking around him constantly.
Barry combed through the latest Nielsen numbers for Parson’s Creek Salad Dressings. Dijon Garlic had taken a nose dive nationwide in August. Caesar With Bacon was doing a respectable business in the Rochester test market. His phone rang.
“Don’t lend your father money,” his mother rasped.
“But he’s my father,” Barry said, feeling the floor dropping away. Two years ago he’d given Ira $7,000 to tide him over till the insurance paid when his boat was shredded in Hurricane Carl. In his heart of hearts, Barry knew Ira didn’t have insurance, even though he’d been kvetching about the bureaucracy, the volumes of paperwork, the mental hygiene of the inspectors.
“Fine. Go ahead,” Rose said. “You’ll never see it again.”
His parents had been divorced for twenty-one years. Rose continued to run her coat-lining business in a dingy factory on 36th Street. His father lived on the boat in Queens with Katerina, the Albanian woman who used to clean his menswear store before his second bankruptcy. “He’s got some nerve asking you,” he said.
“He asked your sister. She just called me.” Barry made a mental note to chew out Karen for telling Rose. “Look, I’ll see you tonight,” she shouted over the din. “I’m short two shipments of thread. I gotta clear it up before I get on the plane.”
Barry strolled across the floor to his immediate supervisor, William Plast.
“Good weekend?” he asked at the threshold.
“Cleaned out the garage,” Plast said, with morose satisfaction, motioning him inside. “Took the kids to the church auction. You?”
Barry sat in Plast’s guest chair, causing a Wise Man to topple off the credenza.
“Watched the golf.” Barry said, picking the figurine up and replacing him in the manger.
“Ah, the good old days,” Plast said, with his harassed father look, “when you could just sit and watch the golf.”
They began chatting about the year in salad dressings. Barry had also attended his college roommate’s second wedding alone, and was snubbed by a stout, frosted blonde who couldn’t have been under 40. This was the longest period of celibacy recorded outside Franciscan cloisters. Maybe when he got home that night, he should just walk across the hall to the Divorcée’s apartment and present himself. Barry Cantor: Convenience. Amusement. Discretion. But he couldn’t fuck around anymore. He’d had plenty of intrigue in his life, but other than Cynthia, nothing had ever really gotten beyond preliminary hostilities.
Pointing to the Dijon Garlic visuals, Plast said, “Is there a way of enhancing the drama of the drop?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“To draw attention to it.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
Plast looked as if he’d caught Barry cheating on a math test. He was 43 and five foot four; he was shaped like a pudgy football, and had all the spontaneity and liveliness of cold oatmeal. The idea that Plast was getting laid regularly made Barry furious.
“Look, we’re not gonna get more promotion money next year by dropping our pants and asking Rheinecker for a whack.”
Stu Eberhart passed by and Plast knocked over his wastebasket jumping to attention. Barry was always surprised at how small the CEO was. Tiny little guy, maybe five one or two. Since becoming CEO, he’d survived a triple bypass, and Rheinecker’s maneuverings for his job. Three years ago, Eberhart had traded in his wife of 28 years for a newer model of the same kind of tootsed-up, suburban ash blonde. Last year, the second Mrs. Eberhart had sprung a serious new chest.
Plast turned his attention to Barry’s coupon design. “I don’t like the burst behind ‘Save 50 cents,'” he said sadly. He had a fat simpering wife who agreed with his every proclamation.
“Well, I’m not personally attached to it,” Barry sighed. He missed John Hearne. Hearne was the best boss he’d ever had. No: the only good one. Operating as a team, without formalities, they’d pumped up Maplewood Jam by 13 percent in two years. When Barry was promoted to Product Manager, Hearne was picked to start a low-cholesterol frozen entrées division. Since Eberhart’s bypass, Hearne had a virtual green light on every line extension.
“I like a circle, not a burst,” Plast said finally. “And let’s do it horizontal, the way we usually do it. It works.”
When Barry strolled back across the floor, Emily King was batting around in her cubicle. About a month ago, a tension had blossomed when he asked her to have a drink, which she’d misinterpreted. Like he was interested in this whiny, horse-faced incompetent? The thing had blossomed when she told him her sister was training to become a midwife, and he’d said that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. It turned out that she, Emily, was also training to become a midwife. Did she even have a sister? Emily: preposterous.
“Please check these numbers,” Barry said, and gave her the Nielsens when she walked into his office. “I’ll need them by lunch.”
She glared at him in impudence, submission, and self-loathing. “How the hell am I supposed to do that by lunch?”
“Come in by 9 like everybody else?”
She suppressed whatever she was going to say, took the discs and flounced — yes, flounced was the word — off to her cubicle. She still had her coat on: he shouldn’t see her dingy, stringy body. Lord, was she a pain in the ass.
He trotted down to John Hearne’s office.
“My assistant has PMS four weeks a month,” Barry began, and put his feet up on Hearne’s desk, causing a flock of greeting cards to flutter to the floor. He bent down to pick up the cards. “My boss spent his weekend fiddling around with my coupon. My roommate has female guests and leaves his door open. They’re selling my pickles,” he added, replacing the cards one by one in a line on the desk. “Should I be taking any of this personal?”
“No,” Hearne said reasonably, with a look of frank amusement. “But show a little fear with the generals, Barry. They’ll love you for it,” he added, like a salesman.
“Uch,” Barry said, and walked.
Ever since they’d met, Hearne had been Barry’s advance man in life. Hearne was one of the few people at the company who gave Barry hope. But the morale survey had been Hearne’s idea, and Hearne was too deluded to see they were using it for intelligence gathering and mind control. And last week, Barry had heard the man speaking to his wife in a tone he wouldn’t have used on a naughty dog. It pained him to think he’d been wrong about Hearne.
When he came back upstairs, Emily was deeply immersed in a tête-à-tête with the luscious Maggie Fahey in the tinsel-decked pantry.
“I put a big piece of quartz on my heart,” Emily said, in a self-pitying tone. She was wearing a red felt Santa pin on her flat chest.
“I sing to my crystals,” Maggie said proudly.
“It felt good, weighing down, because my heart was already heavy,” Emily said, tragically. “And pink is a healing color.”
“I hate to interrupt this beautiful moment — ” Barry began, but they took no notice of him.
“I have some that I wear,” Maggie continued, “and some others that I keep by the window, so they get air.”
” — but I really need those numbers pronto if I’m going to make my plane.” If he left for the airport by two, he’d miss Quality Control singing the product list to “Deck the Halls.”
Emily looked up at him as if he’d torn skin off her heart, and stalked out like an insulted starlet on a nighttime soap.
“Talk about bad energy,” Maggie said, in disgust.
Some days, Barry was reminded of Jeff Keeley, a PM on Raisin Bread who’d been dismissed after being observed relieving himself in the white-paper recycling bucket. And then there was the legendary Gary Tobias: fired after he exploded at a Beverage Review, calling Rheinecker an asshole for nixing his coffee soda idea. For Barry, there were your Keeley days and your Tobias days. Really, Emily had to go.
LaGuardia was swarming with harassed December travelers. Barry hated the holidays. The crowds, the forced sentiment, the retail pressure, the buildup, the letdown, the crap all over the buildings. Every year, he went to Miami Beach for the antidote, a dose of hot air and cranky Jews, and that made him sick too. In a few hours, he’d be seeing his mother’s doughy legs — spectrally pale, crisscrossed with lines of gnarled blue knots — by the pool. He wasn’t looking forward to it. The idea that he might meet someone there rather than here was laughable, but he kept his mind open just the same. Every year.
There was an exquisite woman on line in front of Barry. She had dense, sculpted black eyebrows and short straight black hair with bangs. She was in a neat black coat. She had matching, clean-looking luggage. He was falling in love with the back of her head, where her hair was shorn into an emphatic point that held his attention. Her left hand was in her pocket.
He stared at the curving point. What do you say to such a woman — I’m Barry: Fly me? While he was debating this, inwardly cursing himself as a coward, she glided up to the counter.
She wanted to upgrade to first class with frequent flier miles and she stood with her body pressed into the chest-high partition. She was gracious yet unyielding, brisk and beautiful. Her hand was still in her pocket. She was going to Phoenix at 3:45. She turned around and gazed at him. She was vivid, she was dark. “We were married in a previous life,” the look said. “Don’t you feel it?”
She got what she wanted. She hoisted her bags and gave him a look that said, “I wasn’t looking at you before; moreover, I’m from Park Avenue, so don’t fuck with me.”
She disappeared beyond a pack of misbehaving kids, but he caught sight of her again as she rose through the ceiling on an escalator. Was it too much to hope that this woman, whom he loved, yes, loved, would give him a backward glance? The airport was throbbing. His heart was simultaneously knocking in his throat and his stomach. She was looking down at him.
It was his turn on line. “I want to change this to the 3:45 Phoenix flight,” he said, out of breath and sweating.
“This is a nonrefundable ticket.”
“It’s a free country, I’ll buy a new one,” he snapped — the flight left in sixteen minutes and his wife from a previous life was escalating away.
The clerk looked up. “Coach or first class.”
“First class.” Barry leaned in confidentially. “I want to sit next to that woman just now with the frequent flier miles.”
The pasty clerk looked up sharply with his eyes.
“I know, but I’m a nice guy,” Barry pleaded. “I’ve never done this before.” The clerk was clacking away on his keyboard — what did that mean? Would he have to explain his love to this man’s superior? “Across the aisle, then.” He dared not look around. “Please! I’m giving you twice the business here.”
“She’s in 3A. You’re in 3B. You’re perfect together,” the WorldWide clerk said automatically. “Next?”
Barry Cantor took off for the gate with serious energy. There was nothing he couldn’t do.
When he arrived at his seat, she was arranging belongings.
“Hi,” he said briefly, as if to be polite. 3A looked at him in wild disbelief, and then busied herself among her bags, taking out volumes of reading material. He took out his own volumes, as a sign that he wouldn’t bother her.
When they were both settled, he chanced a direct look. She gave him a polite, closed-mouth grimace of a smile, and gazed out the window.
That was okay. It was a long way to Phoenix; she’d have to use the bathroom sometime. In the meantime, the excitement had ebbed. It was nice just sitting next to her. She was somewhere between 28 and 38. Perfect. She smelled like hyacinths, tangerines, pencil shavings — strong, strange.
“Ow moy Gawd,” a man behind him said, and rocked Barry’s seat as he searched for something.
Maybe she’d be a horror show when she opened her mouth. It would serve him right. An ugly stewardess arrived to ask what they wanted to drink before takeoff.
“Tomato juice, please,” she said, “no ice.” Unplaceable accent, lovely voice.
“Ginger ale for me!” he said, with growing confidence.
He pretended to read Progressive Grocer. He would invite this woman to dinner at his home with his personal chef. This would impress her.
Last night, for example, when Barry got home, Pippa wasn’t around, but the place smelled fabulous. There was homemade minestrone on the stove and a moldy-looking cheese laid out on a board. He tried it. It tasted like the dusty concrete floor in a dank French basement. He was in heaven.
“I saw the most amazing film,” Pippa had said when she walked in with his dry cleaning. “Did you ever see it? The Deer Hunter?”
“Oh, I think I may have seen that one — was that a talkie?”
Her skin was bad, her eye makeup was runny, and her hair was a nightmare. There was a frazzled, undiscriminating energy about Pippa, and five weeks earlier, when she’d come to audition with a meal, he’d looked at the leather jacket and the Day-Glo orange hair, and wondered if she was on drugs. But her eyes were a lively vaporous blue, and she smiled when she talked. She didn’t stop talking. She was a junior at Columbia, torn between law and architecture. She’d been Type A, but now she wasn’t sure.
“Wow, what a crowd,” she’d cracked, nodding at two plates in an otherwise empty cabinet. Barry was mad at himself for thinking drugs; he was getting middle-aged, for Christ’s sake. She was a pretty person going through an awkward period. The food was fantastic — he couldn’t have been more surprised. He’d hired her on the spot, canceling appointments with two other hopefuls who’d answered the ad he’d placed in the Times.
This woman in 3A looked like she liked to eat. He would invite her to dinner and ask Pippa to make something spectacular. She’d made napoleons from scratch one night her second week. He’d watched her rolling the dough out with a rolling pin. He didn’t even know he owned a rolling pin.
“So, you’re Jewish,” his chef said, with an overcasual air, tossing flour across the dough.
The eternal issue. “Yes ma’am, I am.”
She was pretending to read her cookbook. “And Vince?”
“Vince is half Jewish. The worst kind: he thinks he’s better than everybody.” He watched her digesting the information. “And you?”
“I’m nothing. So Vince’s dad is like a big important — ”
“But Christian nothing, right?” he interrupted.
“My father was Catholic and my mother was Presbyterian,” she said, picking up the square of dough and slapping it down to roll it in a different direction. “They became Quakers in college and against anything organized afterwards.”
Vince was wandering around in a bathrobe with a glass of Scotch. He looked like a duke’s son dissipating himself at Oxford in a PBS miniseries. Pippa scooted around him shyly. She had a crush on Vince. It was irritating.
“So,” Barry asked him. “How’s tricks?”
Vince’s eyes half closed.
“Have you thought about clearing the decks? Being alone for a while, to figure out what you want?”
“Alone,” Vince said, as if it were a foreign word. “I don’t think I’ve been alone for more than” — he paused in thought — “a week since I was 17.”
What an extraordinary statement. “Well then, clearly you need to try it.”
“Has it worked for you,” Vince asked, bored.
“Now, now, it’s not nice to make fun of the afflicted,” Barry said, annoyed. Pippa was blushing at the sink as she brushed melted butter onto the pastry dough. So what, Vince was connected and rich and good-looking. He was a prick. “Do these women know about each other?”
“Not specifically,” Vince yawned, and sat at the table. “They know I date other women. They’re all seeing other guys.”
“Laura’s number one, right?” Barry asked. Vince shrugged. “Doesn’t it bother you that she’s seeing other guys? Let me be clear: when we say seeing, we do mean screwing — yes?”
Vince turned his palms up on the table. “Yes.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“Well, I don’t want to watch her do it, but no, not really.”
Astonishing. There are only two kinds of situations a man can handle: very serious or purely sexual. Anything in between and you’re in trouble. Vince was in trouble. Although: he envied Vince’s ability to just coast with a girl while she was around. He, Barry, couldn’t bear to spend even an evening with someone who didn’t have end-game potential.
When the pre-takeoff drinks arrived, Barry turned to 3A and said, “L’Chaim.” She gave him another disbelieving glance. What was with the disbelieving glances? Get over it, Girl: I am sitting next to you and we are going to Phoenix! What he would do when he got there, he had no idea. He went back to Progressive Grocer.
Everyone said that it happened when you least expected it. Barry was 34 years old and he hadn’t even kissed a woman in ten months. So how could he not expect it? He was the only man at Maplewood Acres over 27 who wasn’t married, with the exception of Bob Stenglis, head of Beverages, who was queerer than a $3 bill. Even Cynthia had gotten married. The woman next to him was making notes in the margins of a document in tiny, neat handwriting. What did that portend?
He tried to calm himself. He tried to contain his expectations. But he missed the multiformat evening where there was food, entertainment, and then going home and getting naked. Barry missed talking. Was this really too much to ask?
Both he and his intended ignored the stewardess’s safety routine. What if she lived in Phoenix?
The plane skittered off to a bad start; Barry felt his stomach drop. The woman leaned back with eyes closed.
She was wearing earplugs.
What the hell was he doing?
He’d signed for the ticket without even looking at it.
How much had this date cost?
The plane was tilting and shuddering as it ascended. Long distance was not an attractive option at this stage of his life, even if she was terrific in bed.
Everything dropped suddenly; there was an audible, cabin-wide gasp as the plane pitched and a grinding rattle started. 3A sat forward, took out the earplugs, and held them tightly in her hand. Land and water veered up at dangerous angles in the windows next to her. Everyone was alert, looking around.
“Captain Don Baker has informed me,” the stewardess came over the speaker, “that we are experiencing some turbulence. Please sit back with your seat belt fastened and we wish to remind you again that there is no smoking anywhere on this flight, and there are smoke detectors in the lavatories, and tampering with a smoke detector is a federal crime subject to penalty and fine.”
The lurching and the terrible grinding rattle continued. Was he going to die on this plane? Not possible. There were often bad moments, but the plane always came through. Always. Barry slipped his airsick bag out just to have it handy. Throwing up on his dream girl could not be his last act before dying.
The speaker thundered, “SIT DOWN! 29D, SIT DOWN!”
Barry and the woman exchanged wordless, petrified eye contact. A smell like garlic wafted through the cabin; the plane seemed to be slowing down.
“I have a very bad feeling about this,” she said, in a low voice. Her teeth were curvy and unnaturally white.
“Me too,” Barry said, and without really thinking about it, he put his hand out on the drink rest between them. She put her frozen hand in his. They laced fingers. She had the loveliest brown eyes. He couldn’t possibly die yet. The pilot announced in an explosion of static that they would be returning to LaGuardia.
“Fly!” he heard himself barking. “Don’t talk, fly!”
The plane pressed up again, turning sharply to the right. When the about-face was completed, the grinding stopped.
There was an absolute, terrible, plane-wide silence.
The plane began to fall. Barry found himself stepping on the gas. The woman, ashen, let go his hand and grabbed at the seat in front of her. He handed her his airsick bag and she heaved, neatly, behind the sharp pleats of white plastic. He held his hand between her shoulder blades, wondering if he would live long enough to touch the point on the back of her neck.
He touched it, and she made a terrible face and heaved again into the bag. The plane plummeted and there was fear in his mouth. The stewardess began barking over the speaker, demanding calm, sounding terrified herself. The man behind them chanted, “OW MOY GAWD, OW MOY GAWD, OW MOY GAWD!”
Barry smelled smoke and burning hair. The plane was on fire? The woman handed him the airsick bag and he threw up on top of whatever she had thrown up; the idea of it made him retch again. He sat back, sweating. She handed him a Wash’n Dri. He was too weak to take it. Land was appearing and disappearing in the windows. His heart was pelting his ribs. She opened the Wash’n Dri for him. He wiped his mouth and sweating forehead.
The lights went out.
He was going to die now. And all because he couldn’t get laid.
The woman was looking at him with luminous eyes. He grabbed her and they braced their arms around each other tightly. The pilot said that he was attempting an emergency landing.
“Just fly the fucking plane, Jack,” Barry shouted, and at this the woman laughed, and turned her face to him and kissed him flush on the mouth. Her lips were soft, and she tasted of vomit acid; he supposed he did too. Noxious fluids were part of life too. There was another lurch, and Barry almost threw up again, almost threw up in this beautiful woman’s mouth. He tried to stabilize, but he had no idea what was happening.
“Justine Schiff,” she said, and squeezed his right hand so fiercely he gasped. The stewardess demanded a tuck position. They bent over their knees; the pressure from his seat belt was intolerable. The plane was fighting up again; he felt it like a creepy vibration in his lower back. Why was this taking so long?
“Land! Crash even!” He sat up indignantly and looked around:
An empty plane.
This was terrifying. He quickly got down. She was looking at him from a few inches away, red-faced in her tuck position. She had the most unusual little thumbs — shallow and wide, with tiny rectangular nails way up at the very top. The variety of human life was just endless.
“I was going to a wedding,” she said in a normal voice.
“Right before Christmas?”
“I know! She has some nerve.”
“I think I wet my pants!” he realized. She handed him some Kleenex from her bag. “Hey, nice meeting you,” he said, and she laughed.
He stared at the tiny little horizontal window of her thumbnail as if he could see his future there. He repeated her name over and over as they went down.
None of that, now
When things got very bad, and luggage went caroming through the cabin, Justine was too terrified to speak. Just because you’re ruthlessly organized and thinking ahead constantly doesn’t mean you’re covered against every eventuality, and acts of God. However, it felt very familiar with Barry Cantor. She didn’t even know his name until after she’d kissed him. She had never kissed a man first. What did it say about her life that she was comfortable kissing a stranger in a crashing plane.
There was deafening violence. If she made it through this alive, she would have to reassess her entire way of living. She was hit by things flying by in the massive crunch when the plane smashed across the ground. There was a scramble, people climbing over her to get out, pushing frantically at the door. On automatic, she slid down the yellow chute into freezing brown water, thigh-high.
She was alive. She waded through the filthy, icy swamp to the edge of the tarmac. People in orange jumpsuits and ambulances were speeding around. They were hosing down black smoke in the center of the plane. There was a big, wide wall of shrieking noise. She stepped up onto broken concrete in sopping panty hose. She was looking for Barry Cantor.
But there were so many people, so much twisted garbage. The smell of burning plastic made her gag. A huge bus came to ferry them to the terminal. She must have turned her ankle in the crush to get out of the plane. There was pushing and raised voices in the bottleneck at the door. Inside, everyone was milling around dazed, wet and flushed, wearing silver thermal sheets around their shoulders, panting white steam in the cold, gagging. She didn’t see him anywhere.
Someone gave her a silver thermal sheet. Suddenly, she had never been this cold; her clothes were swampy, her thighs were chafing. Her coat was on the plane. Her shoes were gone. The ankle was throbbing.
“Passengers from WorldWide Flight 358!” a tough Brooklyn voice spat from the system. “Please proceed into the processing area.” The noise was painful. She had never been this cold. There was craziness all around. She almost cried. The tough voice continued to shout at a blistering volume: “If you or a member of your party is unable to walk, please stay where you are and bring it to the attention of a member of the ground crew.”
Justine realized with shame that she hadn’t thought about her mother. She’d thought about her father, briefly, just after she threw up. She had wondered what kind of impact, if any, her death would have on his life. But she hadn’t thought about her mother.
There was chaos in the terminal. The noise was intolerable. Justine pulled herself along a carpeted wall. She wanted a shower, dry clothes, sweaters, quiet. She spotted Barry from behind — he was the tallest man in the next lounge. He looked like somebody’s husband. She hopped up behind him and put her hand on his arm. He squeezed her in an excruciating hug. Chaos continued all around. She closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe.
Someone lurched into her and she fell forward; Barry helped her to a seat. He was exactly the sort of guy who never spoke to her. He smiled as if he wanted to cry. He really did look like somebody’s husband. But did he look like herhusband.
All at once, he began talking. “Can you believe this? Nothing like this has ever happened to me! I’ve always wondered how I would handle it — did you?”
“Not really,” she said, smiling at his enthusiasm.
“I thought you handled it great! I was so impressed with you!” he said, squeezing her waist with both hands. She cringed and crossed her legs, forgetting her ankle. The whole of her leg throbbed. “I knew it was the end when the stewardess got scared.”
She wanted to lie down and be still.
A woman sitting nearby began talking at them: “Did you see that elderly man going down the slide?” Blades of gray hair were plastered to her forehead. She was trying to bend her glasses back into shape. “Oh, my Lord!”
Barry took the glasses from her and tried to fix them. “Did you go out the back or the front?”
“The back,” the woman said.
“We went out the front.” He returned the glasses and asked a squat, lumpish man across from them, “Back or front?”
It was over. Justine wanted to go home and take a shower. She wanted to take a shower with Barry Cantor. Why was he talking to these fat old people he didn’t know? A whole new group had gathered; they were exchanging stories, displaying their burns and bruises.
“This man in front of us had a seizure,” a woman younger than Justine said to Barry. “Do you think he died?” she asked, screwing up her face like a little lost lamb.
“Barry,” Justine said. “I have to go.”
“Really?” He turned back to his new friends. “Well, adios, it’s been surreal.”
“I want to give you my card,” the glasses woman said. They waited while she dug around. “I don’t have it,” she wept, making a face Justine didn’t want to look at. “I don’t have anything.”
Barry put his arm around this woman’s shoulders. “You have what God gave you,” he said. “That’s all anybody ever has.”
Oy, she thought. She didn’t want to stand around for this.
The fat guy said, “Cry, it’s all right, let it all out.”
Justine was disgusted. She needed to pee. “Barry? I have to go. I’ll be back.”
There was a cutout symbol of a woman, and she followed the arrows, limping down the fluorescent boulevard. Violently bright lights suddenly turned on behind her. The Eyewitness News Team had arrived.
In front of her, a fleet of airline personnel was coming at her, fast. She would soon be up against a wall of these uniforms. She had to go. She limped, head down. A brisk blonde in a navy blue suit planted herself firmly in front of Justine. The rest of the fleet marched on.
“Ma’am, you’re gonna have to stay in the designated area for safety reasons. We’ll have a doctor with you momentarily.”
“Bathroom.” People were rushing by with medical equipment.
The woman pointed with her whole arm towards the chaos. “Turn right at Gate 17A, there’s a restroom down that concourse.”
The door with the circle and the triangle was ten feet away.
“That’s off limits, sorry.” The woman was squeezing her inner elbow and pulling her back towards the heat and anarchy.
“It’s right there,” Justine shouted.
“We have regulations during an emergency situation.”
“You have regulations about that bathroom? Get your fucking hands off me,” Justine snarled, freeing her arm. The woman stepped back. “I’ll sue your ass off.” She began to limp to the door. “You personally, not WorldWide. I’m suing them separately.”
Justine slammed into the empty bathroom, and sat directly on a toilet seat, in spite of a lifetime of training. She urinated with her shoulderbag resting on her thighs. Something terrible was going to happen. She sat with her arms braced over her knees, shaking. Several files were on the plane — days of research, lost.
She hung over the sink, running her wrists under cool water as if she were drunk. The tough voice sputtered, “Passengers from Flight 358! Please be patient! Everyone will be given complete and comprehensive medical attention free of charge!”
“Stop yelling at me!” Her feet were raw and numb, like frozen meat. This was terrible. She limped out smack into the airline blonde who was now with a white-hatted nurse. The nurse didn’t touch her, but looked at her directly. “Are you feeling all right?”
Justine burst into tears. “I, my ankle.”
“Let’s have a look at it. Can you walk to those seats?”
“We are not responsible for accidents that occur in unauthorized areas,” the officious bitch hovered directly behind.
“You’re making me nervous,” Justine snapped. “Go away.”
The uniform left. Justine rolled her panty hose off, barely worrying that anyone would see. The nurse asked what her name was, where the flight had been going, what day was it, what year was it. “What is this,” she asked, suddenly petrified.
“We always check for head injuries. Now blood pressure.”
“Hey!” Barry sat down next to her and she felt a strange rush of relief. “How’d you get your own private nurse?”
When the nurse finished with her and turned to Barry, Justine paid close attention. He was big, and had meat on his bones without being fat. That happened sometimes with men. He squeezed her hand in time to the nurse’s pumping as she took his blood pressure.
“What day is it?” the nurse asked.
“The first day of the rest of my life,” he offered freely. “Did anyone die?”
“No,” the nurse rose. “Okay, I’m just triage, I don’t treat you. Both of you get on line three, and you stay off that foot.”
A whole crew of navy blue Worldwide personnel set up shop in their lounge. She and Barry were given the numbers 67 and 68 on the third medical line. People clamored to be interviewed on television. She lay down over three seats and put her head in Barry’s lap. All she wanted was quiet. He continued to talk compulsively: the turbulence, the noise, the landing, the injuries, the engine. She wrapped her legs in the silver sheet.
The night before, she’d been at the end of her third 18-hour day in a row when Chris Farlowe had called her in to ask her to work on a tender offer. She’d declined. She never declined.
Farlowe was tall, stout, unpolished, unrepentant, and often enraged. He had routinely asked her to be acting partner on choice assignments. He whipped off his glasses and said irascibly, “Trouble at home?”
“Do you have a personal problem. Things of that nature. Don’t go into it,” he added quickly, a hand up in warning. “I don’t want to know.”
“No, but I have a wedding this weekend,” she said, and his weedy gray eyebrows shot up. “Not my own,” she reassured him.
“Thank God,” he said offhandedly, as if the idea were so preposterous it barely qualified as a bad joke.
So of course she had to burst into tears on his desk.
“What?” he shouted angrily.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. Farlowe jumped up to slam his door. He had no tolerance for apathy, never mind hysterics. He waited — clapping his hands — for her to compose herself.
But she couldn’t stop. This was beyond unprofessional. This was corporate suicide. He sat on the Management Committee, the Partnership Committee, and co-chaired the Corporate Department.
Farlowe shook his big, lolling gray head. “Come on, Schiff,” he kept warning impatiently, drumming his fingers on the desk. “None of that, now.”
Women were one thing at Packer Breebis Nishman Grabt. Married women were something else. A single woman trying to get married was the lowest form of life. From this moment on, no matter how many 18-hour days Justine billed, Farlowe and partners would treat her like a coed resting between shopping sprees at Saks.
Barry Cantor would not stop talking.
“It’s going to be at least three hours on this line,” a man with a bandaged hand told them on his way to his exit interview, and Justine almost burst into tears again.
She rose and limped to a patch of empty carpet and lay down with the silver sheet. People were rushing, screaming, crying. She’d lost her shoes, her coat, her files.
Barry squatted down by her side. “What’s up?” he said very loud.
“Tired. All of a sudden.”
“That’s it? No problems under your clothes I can check?”
His teeth overlapped in the front. He was very charming. It was a shame he was talking so loud.
“Passengers from Flight 358! After you have seen Airline and Medical Representatives, you are free to depart the recovery area!” A small cheer erupted; Barry participated in it. “There will be vouchers for the 7 P.M. WorldWide flight to Phoenix!” There was an eruption of derisive laughter. “And there is no smoking in the terminal, subject to fine and/or imprisonment!”
Justine sat up. Why were they sitting around waiting. If she wasn’t going to Phoenix, she should go in and work on that tender offer.
She rose. “I have to get out of here.”
“Don’t you want your luggage?”
She wondered if Barry Cantor was the kind of guy she might have slept with in college, but didn’t have much use for now. On the other hand, hadn’t she decided to rethink her life?
No: some things were core concerns. He was sitting there like all the other sheep, waiting for somebody else to make arrangements for him. This infuriated her.
“I’m going.” She held her hand out, disappointed.
“Oh, I see, a polite handshake at ground level.” He pulled her into him and squeezed. He pressed his lips to her forehead. He was tall, he was solid. There would be no question who weighed more. She was near tears again.
“Look. All I want is a shower,” she said. “I want a steak.”
“You need some help with that?”
I thought you’d never ask, she thought. “Yes,” she said.
There was massive traffic on the Grand Central Parkway: everyone on both sides of the highway was watching the column of dirty gray smoke and the dousing of the plane. Justine tried to slow her heart down with the biofeedback exercises she’d learned at an ABA seminar in Duluth last year. She’d obtained a fast-track release by cornering a uniform and saying, “I am an attorney with Packer Breebis Nishman Grabt. If you think I’m waiting on line you’ve got another thing coming.” After they’d signed medical waivers and release forms, a WorldWide man escorted them to the head of the taxi line and gave them booklets about postcrash trauma, psychiatric referrals, socks, toiletry kits, and packets of smoked almonds.
In the cab, Barry held her bad foot delicately. It was rapidly losing outside skin sensations, and the internal pressure was mounting. “We met in a crashing plane!” he told the driver.
She wanted to shoo him away. She wanted to kiss him again. As an experiment, she leaned her head on his chest. It was comfortable. She closed her eyes.
The car yanked forward and back.
“Hey!” Barry shouted through the partition. “We’ve brushed with death already once today. Don’t stop and start like that.”
“Well said,” she said. They got comfortable again.
“Wait a minute,” Barry shouted. “I don’t have my wallet!”
The cab stopped short; horns honked. The driver glared at them in the rearview.
“I have it! I have it!” Justine shouted, waving her wallet.
Barry looked at her as if she’d produced a live animal from her sleeve. They sat up and separated. She wondered if she’d make it to the TriBoro without wanting to disinvite him. All well and good at 20,000 feet hurtling to the ground. Inching through Queens in a foul-smelling cab was something else. She didn’t have to decide until they got to her building. She didn’t owe him anything. She didn’t want to talk.
“Well, we had a bonding, near-death experience, and now we’re realizing that we’re strangers,” he said seriously. “That’s normal. I’d say let’s bond further in the shower, but you’re not the type.”
“How would you know?”
“You’re the type who hands a man a moist towelette in a crashing plane. Something tells me you want your own shower.” He smiled broadly: “Hey! I have two showers.”
“No,” she said. “Home.”
He looked disappointed, but he didn’t push it. A cemetery loomed up on the left side. “Mr. Khalil Abdul!” he shouted to the driver. “We almost died! And now we know what life is!” The driver turned on the radio, loud. Awful noise saturated the air.
She hadn’t given this driver a passing thought since getting into the cab. Normally, she’d have been acutely aware of whether he’d try to chat her up, shortchange her, take her out of her way, or drive like a maniac. Surprising herself again, she kissed Barry on the mouth. She could tell they would be compatible this way, but she didn’t want to get into it now. She was too tired. He laughed, as if amazed.
As they turned on 76th Street, she handed him money, told him to demand a receipt, and kissed his cheek, which was salty. “Dinner?” he asked. “Yes.” He took her card, but he didn’t look at it. “Tonight?” “No.”
“I’ll call you then,” he said, and looked at the card. “Wait! No! I want the home number.” She began to tell him how rarely she was at home, but he interrupted, “I need a pen. Khalil!” The driver handed back a pen. Barry Cantor wrote the number on the card, and gave her such a sweet, impressed, lovely look that she almost got back into the cab. He pulled her in and kissed her nose. “Nice meeting you,” he called, loud and sarcastic. She stepped carefully over ice in the WorldWide socks, limping bare-legged into her lobby. Everything felt completely different.