It will be our last excursion, our last momentum fueled by convenience and lust.
Whatever we made of it: work fling? Friends turned intimate? An affair? Our age gap is seventeen years! Laureen is twenty-six. And with Laureen, I hear the crack of her syllables, a hesitation in her voice when we boarded the plane to Hawaii.
“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, waiting for our flight back to Tempe, when Vessman our boss called on video chat. “Change of plans,” he said, his large eyes wide and heavy. This was not unusual with Vessman; he had routed us from Dallas to Miami last month.
Laureen nudges me and says, “Damn, I was looking forward to getting home, checking on my mother. Did you see what that dude had on? That green Polo? Really?”
“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 global banking industry. They had contacted DDC to adjust encryption, code. At DDC, we are always on-call. “Bravado I.T. Travelers,” Laureen referred to us a while back. We made 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 didn’t keep secrets from my wife. We go to therapy, but Carolyn lets me know that she will never forgive me for it, and she is still considering a divorce or separation. I told her, after Hawaii, that I am going to resign.
Laureen and I work on our laptops, somewhere over the Pacific, two hours into our flight.
“Threshold Moon,” Laureen calls her special input of computer code. “Finished.”
She closes her laptop, rubs her fingers across her temples as if she feels a headache coming on. The airplane tilts right suddenly. Laureen tips her drink and sips the last bit of her margarita.
“How is your mother?” I ask. “After treatment?”
“Okay, the last that I’ve heard. My brother checks on her while I’m traveling. He sends text updates that she’s fine. We hope she’s done with chemo and it’s isolated. Thomas, 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’s almost as tall as I am, six feet, and has a much better jump shot than I had at his age.
Laureen and I get along great. 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 in ways that feel unexplainable, that we have become unhinged by the laws of attraction, and always a paw length away from protecting our egos.
“I’m glad I’m with you,” Laureen says, putting the palm of her hand on my forearm. “Only as friends, may that it be. Just coworkers, I get that. Man, that margarita has kicked in.”
“You want anything, sir?” the flight attendant asks, walking by. “We still have cold beer?”
“No thank you,” I say. “I’m good.”
Laureen runs her fingers through my hair; her eyes drift to the window.
“Do you understand all this new 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 big business for us. The honchos in Honolulu. I think it involves a new solution to ward off global defaults. To prevent or soften another catastrophe like 08.”
“You want my flash drive?”
“No,” I say. “Just wait until we land. Or until we get to our hotel. Man, a steak sounds really good.”
Suddenly, there’s a crack, like the sound of metal splintering, searing apart. 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. I mean, if it happens 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 announces that the plane is stabilized. Laureen closes her eyes and folds her lips over, the front of her teeth pressing down on them, as her face flushes white with a tinge of fear, and her eyes widen to the possibility that we will be sucked out into the atmosphere at five-hundred miles per hour.
I feel calm, oddly. I feel if it is my time to break away with the plane and disintegrate into the ocean—there’s not much we can do about it. 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 had died, what God?
The flight attendant says: “Stay calm. Everyone, we will be landing in Honolulu shortly.”
People will say that Thomas Tillson and his mistress deserved their punishment for their adulterous behavior. “God struck them down with vengeance,” a pastor in Mississippi will conclude, not long after the plane crash.
“God had a plan for them, for everyone on that plane, and it is God’s plan and desire that we don’t quite understand,” a pastor in Flagstaff will say with careful deliberation to a big crowd at a mega church.
We don’t hear another sound or any noise from the wing. Laureen grabs my hand and we keep our attention ahead, toward the cockpit. Briefly, I feel like a stranger to her. Maybe it was the refurbished air flowing through the plane? Maybe it was the alarming, sudden panic from the passengers after the sound near the wing? Are we not eventually strangers in the wide spectrum of life? Soon, we will walk across the tarmac at the airport and go to our hotel and order a bottle of wine, shrimp, and steak on DDC’s travel card. We will take a warm shower after soaking in the hot tub. In the morning, we will go to the conference rooms and set up any needed computer terminals. We will deliver the banking code to a gentleman known as Cheong-Le, a banking honcho from JP Morgan. I will read later that Cheong-Le’s nineteen-year-old daughter had leaped to her death off a bridge in Tokyo two years ago, but you could never tell something so tragic had happened behind his dark-pearl eyes.
When the plane swerves left after a bout of turbulence, the flight attendant stumbles. She is curled against the wall, and I see part of her black underwear exposed. Her left foot shoeless. She sees me, and we lock eyes, as if the two of us may die in the plane’s descent—our eyes entwined together, sunken into the realm of how we just might meet again in our next life.
I see Patrick as a baby, holding him. My life does not flash in front of me, but fragments of it jut out, like a spurt of air hitting a candle flame and all the good times in my life fly by.
A hard jolt bounces the plane as we land on the runway. We would learn later that part of the metal on the right wing had broken off.
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, so—”
“Laureen, nothing is meant to be. We’ve had this philosophical conversation before.”
I think about dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, Great Whites’ fins slicing through waves and absorbing the entrails of half-eaten fish. I think about Carolyn and Patrick and how everything will be fine within our family dynamics, complicated as they’ve become. 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. Even fancy hotels’ smells linger around us, and one cannot distinguish it from a lesser quality room. Laureen is gone. Did she catch the next flight back to Arizona? I can still smell her, like a drying towel, her powdered body…her breath like minted coffee and waffle syrup on her lips. I did not leave her, she has left me.
After I got out of the shower, I see Laureen standing by the bed. Her tennis shoes untied, her burgundy hair pulled back and wrapped with a tie, and she says, “Went for a workout. Let’s go for breakfast and finish the terminal install. Get the hell out of here. I understand, Thomas. Look, I love you, but you don’t have to love me. After all of this, we can just be normal coworkers. I’m okay with that. Really, I am.”
She gets a shower and then we take the elevator down, eat breakfast and begin our computer setup and don’t talk to each other for another hour or so. I want more than anything to leave Hawaii, but it will be another six hours. I walk over to grab coffee and stare out of the atrium window, watch clouds break apart and reform, watch a plane disappear behind them.