She hopes that I will leave my wife. She knows it won’t happen. It will be our last excursion together—an end to this—whatever you make of it: a fling, a work-friendship turned intimate, an affair. Yes, our age gap is alarming: seventeen years. She is twenty-six. With Laureen, there is a crack of her syllables, hesitation in her voice. I’d told her over drinks that this was it, no more of us, together.
“At least we have the weekend. Of all places, Hawaii,” she says. “Our last hurrah. Sucks to be us, huh?”
I take in her sarcasm.
We had been having drinks at one of the bars at SeaTac, killing time, waiting on our flight back to Tempe, when Vessman, our boss called on video chat. Change of plans, flights, and this was not unusual with Vessman. Laureen says, “Can’t believe this! I was kind of looking forward to getting home, checking on my mother. Did you see what that dude had on? That green Polo blinded me.”
“He hardly sleeps,” I say.
A banking convention at the Omni Hotel in Hawaii and Vessman thought we should go, at the last minute. American and Japanese investors will be there. Hotshots in the industry. We needed to adjust some codes, spreadsheets, install new encryption.
We work for DDC. Laureen and I often have downtime in between travels. We are always on-call. “Bravado I.T. Travelers,” Laureen referred to us awhile back. We make good money, but I hated the rigorous nature of traveling and I wanted to quit, honestly.
Carolyn had sensed something might be going on, and I had told her about Laureen. I had never kept secrets from her. We attend therapy and it is working, but Carolyn has told me that she will never forgive, and divorce or separation is not ruled out yet. I have told her, after Hawaii, that I am going to resign. I will “freelance,” work-from-home…
Laureen and I work on our laptops in flight, somewhere over the Pacific.
“Threshold Moon,” Laureen calls her special input of computer code. “Finished.”
She closes her laptop, rubs her fingers across her temples as if a headache comes on. The airplane banks right. Laureen tips her drink and sips the last bit of it.
“How is your mother?” I ask. “Doing better, after getting home?”
“I have not spoken to her in a few days,” says Laureen. “My brother checks on her while I’m traveling. We hope she’s done with chemo and it’s isolated. God, I hope. Hey, do you think I curse too much?”
I think about my son Patrick, who’s fifteen, plays on the freshman basketball team in Mesa, Arizona, where we live. He amazes me how he’s almost as tall as I am, six feet, and has a much better jump shot than I did at his age.
Laureen and I get along. But it’s not as though we can finish each other’s sentences. We are not so agreeable, but more like two frisky cats attracted to each other, always a paw length away from protecting our egos.
“I’m glad I’m with you,” Laureen says, putting the palm of her hand forcefully around my forearm. “Only as friends, may it be. Just coworkers. Man, that Bloody Mary has kicked in!”
“You want anything, sir?” the flight attendant asks, walking by. “Another Diet Coke? We still have cold beer?”
“No thank you,” I say. “I’m good.”
Laureen runs her fingers through my hair; her eyes drift lustfully away, as if there is always that moment when she can have me.
“Do you understand all this code, Thomas? I hate how Vessman always has these last-minute assignments for us.”
“I know what you know,” I say. “The banking side is huge for us, though. The honchos in Honolulu. I think it involves a new solution to ward off global defaults on mortgages, a new code to protect against Default Swaps. To prevent, or at least soften another catastrophe like 2008.”
“You want my flash drive?” says Laureen.
“Wait until we land. Or until we get to our hotel. Man, a steak sounds really freaking good!”
Suddenly, there’s a crack, like the sound of metal splintering, grinding. It is loud and near the wing by the window where we sit.
“What the hell was that?” Laureen snaps, squeezing my thigh. “I’m not ready to die, Thomas.”
“You’re not going to die. Relax. I mean, if it happens it will happen fast and you won’t feel anything.”
Probabilities. I think how we both accepted the astronomical odds that we go down in the ocean or get torn to pieces. We accepted it, Laureen. The laws of physics now determine our fate.
Of course, I don’t tell her that.
“What?” she says.
She pulls her hand off my leg. She presses her face to the plastic window. I lean forward, hoping to see if something has hit the wing. In front of us, a teenage boy turns and says, “I bet the engine blew.”
The captain comes on and announces that the plane is stabilized. Laureen closes her eyes and folds her lips strangely until the puckering of them turns clear and her face reddens as if in a flustered thought at any minute we will be sucked out into the atmosphere at five-hundred miles per hour.
And oddly, I feel calm. I feel if it is my time to break away with the plane and disintegrate into the ocean—there is nothing that I can do about it. Yes, I can pray to God, but stopped that long ago. After Carolyn went through two miscarriages, after my father’s suicide, numerous close friends who have died, and after my sister’s torment with lung cancer… What God?
I can do what the flight attendant lady says: “Stay calm. Everyone, we will be landing in Honolulu shortly.”
People will say that Thomas Callaway and his mistress deserved their punishment for weaving in and out of their adulterous behavior. “God struck them down with vengeance,” a pastor in Mississippi will conclude. “God had a plan for them, for everyone on that plane, and it is God’s plan that we cannot quite understand,” a pastor in Flagstaff will utter with careful deliberation of tongue.
We don’t hear another sound or any noise by the wing. Laureen grabs my hand and we do not look at each, the silence making it feel like we’re only strangers in the grand scheme of things. Soon, we will walk across the tarmac at the airport, go to our hotel and order beer, shrimp and steak on DDC’s travel credit card. Take a warm shower after soaking our stiff bodies in the hot tub. In the morning, go down to the conference rooms and set up any needed terminals. We will deliver the banking code to a gentleman known as Cheong-Le, a honcho from JP Morgan.
When the plane swerves left after a bout of extreme turbulence, the woman flight attendant falls. She is curled against the wall, part of her black underwear exposed, with her left foot shoeless. She sees me and we lock eyes, as if the two of us will die in the plane’s descent.
I close my eyes and see Patrick as a baby, holding him in my thoughts. My whole life does not flash in front of me, but fragments of it, like the jumpy spurts of candle light and all the good times in my life, fragments of my experiences that have only extended through work and feeling good about it, and the boredom it sometimes brings.
A hard jolt, then we land.
The sun has not set and the clouds in the distance absorb a purple color of fading light in the air. I smell Laureen’s sweat; she hugs me and says, “Well, not the best flight that I’ve had, if this was meant to be. Whatever.”
I think about dolphins somewhere out there, clown fish maybe, Great Whites’ fins through waves and the entrails of half-eaten fish. I think about Carolyn and Patrick in Arizona and how everything will be fine in our family. I will let Laureen go. I am sorry for all of this.
The next morning the sun heats my face and arms through the curve of the hotel window as I lay in the comfort of the white sheets. Laureen is gone. Did she catch the next flight back to Arizona? I can still smell her, like a drying towel, her powdered legs…her breath like minted coffee and waffle syrup stuck to her lips. I did not leave her, she has left me. After I got out of the shower, standing by the bed is Laureen: her tennis shoes untied, her burgundy hair pulled back and wrapped with a tie, and she says, “Let’s go for breakfast and get this over with, then get the hell out of here. I understand, Thomas. I love you but you don’t have to love me. After all of this, we just become normal coworkers. I’m okay with that. Really, I am.”