This is Part 2. Read Part 1 here.
I woke an hour and a half later. Leslie was still sleeping, her chin dipping so low I feared her neck would snap, but her expression remained soft. She had very long eyelashes and freckles. I wonder if she dreamt of anything. The flight attendant came by, peroxide hair arranged in a style I would later hear referred to as “the stegosaurus” and collected our empty cups of water. I folded Leslie’s tray up. She stirred, fluttering her lashes and then woke, flipping the red blanket down in a huff.
“It’s getting hot. I don’t need this anymore,” she said as though to someone in a dream. Then her eyes opened and she peered down at her watch, “Wow. That was fast!”
She lifted the shade and peered down. I leaned over her armrest and did the same. A vast expanse of lush vegetation sprawled out beneath us, divided here and there by dark, glittering rivers and neat white suburbs. It was nearly six thirty pm but the sky was still light and I imagined the locals slowly making their way to bustling restaurants. Imagining life in a new place begins in the sky.
“It’s so green,” I said.
She nodded, “Yeah, I always forget.”
“Your parents picking you up?”
She nodded again, keeping her eyes on the window. I’ve traveled enough to know how disorienting inflight naps can be. You wake up thirsty and somehow more tired than before you fell asleep; the last thing you want to do upon waking is continue whatever pointless conversation you’d been having with your seat mate. It was fine, no offense taken. I leaned back and wondered what I’d eat in Charleston that night. Grace had mentioned something about fried chicken and oysters and I’d read in the inflight magazine about twelve layer coconut cake. Vegetarianism be damned. Sweet tooth be damned also.
“Actually,” Leslie said.
I turned to look at her. I hadn’t said anything.
“If I were to be really honest, I’d like to follow my boyfriend to wherever he goes for grad school.”
“Oh,” I said, “Okay.” I figured out what Leslie had dreamt about.
“But I mean, I know it’s stupid to think like that because-”
“-You still have to finish school.”
“Yeah. I mean I only just decided to really do the nursing thing, but it’s two or three more years, depending on if I get more summer classes next year,” she looked down at her hands, soft, white, short-fingered – a little girl’s hands – then said, “I don’t think Graham will wait for me.”
My heart sank for her, knowing that two or three years might as well be an eternity for a girl who already had an inkling of “getting out.” She had said she liked small towns, but she liked any town Graham was in, regardless of size. It was only natural at her age – well, I thought about it – at any age.
“But I’m also pretty tired of Salt Lake City and it’d be nice to change things up a little, you know?”
I nodded. I did know, but not about following some filmmaker boyfriend who, if he didn’t break up with her as soon as his sneakers touched LA asphalt was probably, let’s be honest, going to cheat with an LA bimbo or turn gay.
I suddenly disliked this Graham who dreamed so much bigger than his sweet-natured, scrunchy-wearing girlfriend whose summer plans comprised of hanging out with her parents and their dog and who, endearingly, couldn’t bring herself to withhold an essential truth from a stranger on the plane. She did not need to say anything else; it was clear she’d shown Graham all her cards.
The Embraer dipped lower and lower and suddenly a bump, a lurch, and we were rumbling down the runway, a low wall of greenery on either side. We pressed our heads against the seat backs. Leslie gripped the armrests. It’s the part I like and dislike most about any flight: woohoo, we’re here! But wait, it sounds and feels like the brakes aren’t working and I’ve just spent the last few hours of my life feeling very dry, talking to someone I’ll likely never see again about things that don’t apply. Or they do, but how or where, I’m not quite sure.
Limited though my relationship repertoire is, I wanted to say something to her, something that was sensitive to her situation but also could make her feel strong rather than hung up or left behind. He would leave and she would stay. She’d cry for a while, maybe a few weeks and then be sad for two months. She’d gain some weight. But she would concentrate and do well in her studies. A group of girls would ask her to join their study group, and then to go shopping and eventually, they’d all plan a trip or two to the mountains.
She’d share her notes with a nice young man who like her, had never seen “Citizen Kane” or “Reservoir Dogs” and didn’t want to and who, one winter evening after returning her notes to her, would eventually summon the courage to ask her to Thai Food. Wouldn’t it be nice to share a warm curry on a cold night like this? He’d meet her at the entrance of her dorm (something Graham never did, she always went to his apartment), and they’d walk to the restaurant together. She would talk as much as she used to listen to Graham. They’d mull over the menu, decide to try something safe (Pad Thai) and something new (Green Curry). The flavors of the Pad Thai would would make her a little wistful but at the restaurant there were so many other flavors. It tasted so much better than anything she’d ever made Graham. She would wince at his name and begin to push the thought away…
It wouldn’t be until she got home and put her things down, washed her face and gotten into bed that she realized she had not pushed the thought away, not really. Like Graham, the thought of him had furtively gone away on its own. She’d fall asleep realizing she looked forward to seeing this guy in class tomorrow. He liked movies too (“Have you seen ‘Bruce Almighty?'” he had asked during dinner. She had, and she loved it.) but didn’t want to make them. He liked small towns. He liked dogs.
But first there was the question of summer.
A few years ago a friend was in love with a man who vaguely wanted to do big things in the nonprofit world. They dated off and on, off and on. He said she was emotionally volatile. She said this was largely due to him. But they loved each other and decided, two lonely weeks after one particularly exhausting fight, to give it one more go. She worked on her temper and he noticed. He seemed steadier himself and the outline of his career plans grew bolder. Things were going well. They planned a summer road trip down the California coast.
A few weeks before their trip I saw her over lunch. She told me about their plans.
“That sounds so romantic,” I said, seeing the optimism she felt. I imagined my friend and her lover sharing long intimate stretches of coastline, quiet except for their mutually agreed upon playlist flowing from the stereo. On music, they shared a soul.
She rolled her eyes but nodded, trying to temper her excitement. It wasn’t just a road trip. It meant something. These things, these trips, they meant a lot of things. Most obviously, a forward movement together.
Two months later, a postcard arrived in my mailbox.
R—– and I broke up. she wrote, Well, actually, he broke up with me during our trip.
He had parked the car at a famous trailhead a ways from the coast. The plan was to hike together up a cliff to a lover’s bench upon which they could sit and watch the sunset. She had heard much about this view and prepared a camera; but it stayed in her bag. He walked a few steps ahead of her and they spoke little during the hike, which suited her fine. They were a little less than a mile away when she felt him slowing down. He bent down to tie his shoelace and beyond his hunched figure she saw the cliff’s edge peppered with tall grasses and the straight, sturdy back of the lover’s bench.
Beyond that, she saw the water, dazzlingly dressed by drowning rays. She took the lead, keeping her eyes on the horizon but noticing here and there the beauty of the path. There were flowers she would never know the name of but whose blooms she could appreciate, and the sea breeze that kept them cool. They stayed like this, she several steps ahead, for a few minutes more. He did not speed up.
“Slowpoke,” she called back to him. When he didn’t respond she turned and saw that he had stopped walking and stood silent several yards behind, watching her.
She hated backtracking, but there was something about the way he stood – both fearful of some unknown and resolute that he should not advance – that made her do so now. As she approached she saw on his face a strange, undefinable expression – undefinable because it made her angry, hurt and sad, the three-legged altar that would bear the months of wretchedness to come. She knew it was up to her to walk toward and then past him to the car. Behind them, the windblown lover’s bench remained unoccupied.