Terminally A

A foreboding exit from the gates at the airport.

She was ecstatic when his mother texted back a, “YES!”, punctuated with a smiley face. She was going to be in the greeting party. Airport reunions were romantic. Like Love Actually.

She carefully meted out her hair product to hold her waves while still letting them gaily bounce. Not too stiff, just a jauntily released coil when she turned her head. After she positioned her Santa hat, she rewrapped a few strands of curl on her hot iron. Everything would be perfect. She looked a bit wistfully at the special lashes. She loved how they looked, but he thought they looked phony. She lightened. She’d wear them on New Year’s Eve. He’d be down with it for a party. She put gloss on the middle of her top lip to feature her Cupid’s bow. So selfie ready!

She climbed in the back of the Rover with his little sister. Madison was the only member of the family who was indifferent to her. She felt that his sister was exhibiting classically petty tween jealousy. Maybe Madison didn’t appreciate having an extra sister since his parents loved her. Maybe Madison was out of joint because her brother had another girl in his life. Her own squad agreed with her analysis. She was the insightful one among her friends.

Beau’s plane was due in at 3:40 p.m. They had to leave at 1 p.m. to be sure to get there, park and be at the gate for the reveal. She and his mom chatted about how much they missed him. He left in August, so it’d been four months. He didn’t make it home for Thanksgiving because he had papers to research and exams around the corner. He’d been so busy the past few weeks that he’d barely responded to her texts and no longer hearted her Instagrams–even when she tagged him.

His mom said that he’d been stressed, but that she was so happy that he was able to share Thanksgiving at a classmate’s house. Two or three of the “out-of-staters” were generously taken in by her family. Today, though, they’d all get to catch up, hashtag IRL–or as his mom said, “in person.”

Madison barely looked at her, but she was okay with that. She chatted on with his mom about her college applications. Beau’s mom was always so supportive. When she texted his mom that she’d like to surprise him with the family, she got an immediate invitation.

The dad dropped them at the arrivals entrance at the airport. He left them to park the car. They walked into the airport and Beau’s mom eyed the monitor. She couldn’t find his flight until she remembered there was a connection in Atlanta. There it was. Arriving on time in Terminal A at gate 5. They posted up to wait for the plane to land.

She sat next to his mother. Madison sat across from them. So annoying.

She pulled out her phone and took a selfie and set the location to the airport. She selected the filter that made her eyes look brighter, tagged Beau and captioned it “Having myself a merry little Christmas.” There was an immediate fifteen or so likes. She put the screen in front of his mother’s face. The mom smiled and nodded, but was distracted by Madison’s childish self-isolation. She didn’t know why the mom didn’t just make Madison behave. If she had kids someday, she’d make sure that the family stuck together. Then the dad joined them. He announced that Beau’s flight had landed.

They walked up to the gate exit. They’d have to wait for him to cross the line and enter the teary, kissing transition space. She stood just to the left. She wanted him to turn to her and be so surprised. His parents very kindly stood a few feet back from her. They knew it was her show. She hoped that they had their phones at the ready so they could capture their airport embrace after so many months apart. She left her phone in her bag. She couldn’t get a shot of them together. She was getting antsy.

A few people trickled out of the safe part of the corridor into the general population. Then a few more. This was first class. There was a pause and then the bodies came fast and furious. She quickly scanned the faces. She looked up higher. No reason to look at the people under six foot-two. She ran her tongue along her teeth. She knew they were clean and shiny, but it was a habit. Clearing the decks. She tasted the last hint of the wintergreen mint. That was their favorite cover up. Usually between themselves after spicy pizza, but sometimes to hide the evidence of booze. Next semester, she was going to see him at school and drink as much as she wanted like the other college students. Maybe they’d screw later in his dorm room. That seemed very grown up to her.

She glanced back at his mom. She was trying to share a smile, but the mom was still looking at that selfish Madison. She was on the right, in opposition to the rest of them. Ugh. What a drama queen that kid was becoming.

Then, there he was. She took in a breath and blew out through her plumped shiny lips. He crossed the line, and she waited for him to see her. But he looked right. Right at Madison who squealed and ran into his outstretched arms.  Madison threw her own arms around his neck as he lifted her up and swung her around, a complete 360°.  The parents walked up to welcome him, and she found herself alone on the other side of a parade of people with their wheelies and their bags, some stopping to share hugs and others powering through to the baggage claim.

His mother gave him a hug over Madison who still clung to his neck, her legs wrapped around his waist. The mom pointed over the crowd to her. She watched as he looked over at her and then jerked his shaggy head back to his mother. He shook his head in an agitated way. Madison looked over at her, still draped all over her big brother. She narrowed her eyes and slightly turned up the edges of her mouth.

Then she knew what only Madison and her brother knew. Her smile faded. She dropped her head a bit, and she navigated her way through the crowd to the family who would give her a ride home.

Dub Squad

Empty swings in the schoolyard. At least it's a sunny morning.

Zoe had been hoping that her orthodontist appointment would last longer. Or that it would start late. Or that the dentist office would catch fire. Anything to delay or, even better, avoid going to school. Mom wasn’t having any of it.

But Mom was being selfish. Said she had to get back to work. Zoe felt very strongly that it would be better if they had lunch together, then maybe go shopping. She made her case smartly and forcefully. Mom was having none of it. Stupid office.

Things didn’t go so well at the end of yesterday. Somehow the day got out of hand. It was that idiot project. She was working with Emily and Emma, like they almost always did. They were all in the gifted and talented program. They were all in the orchestra. She and Emily played flute. Emma played the violin. They were all on the same soccer team. Emily’s dad coached. They were called the Purple Reign because their uniforms were violet and they loved to sing “Let’s Go Crazy” on the sidelines. It psyched them up. They all had iPhones and sent each other the most hysterical emoji messages ever. Their moms couldn’t decipher their code.

They stopped singing the songs from Frozen this year. They switched over to binge watching The Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss was more relatable than the cartoon Elsa. The archer’s moodiness was more like they sometimes felt. Alone together. They were growing up.

Yesterday was ridiculous, though. They were close to being finished with their presentation. They worked in Justin Bieber’s Sorry from YouTube. The project was on language and the concept just worked. They agreed that the dancing would be a great way to finish off. Creativity points and maybe some cool points, too. Somehow, though, everything went south.

Emily started by saying that she didn’t think they should spend so much time with a dance video. It made them seem less serious. Zoe felt stung. She was working on their choreography. It was actually her major contribution. She made different signs for them to hold and swap as they were dancing. Using the classroom speakers and a YouTube video was uncharted for the students. She had to get Ms. Waldorf’s permission. Zoe explained how they were integrating a pop video into their research. She was pretty proud of her negotiating.

Before Zoe could respond, Emma piped in her agreement. She said it in a thoughtful way, like, “I hear what you’re saying, Emily. That makes sense.” But she said it as soon as Emily finished her sentence. As if they had discussed it before. Zoe felt a bitter taste in her mouth. She took a big breath through her nose. She blinked her eyes quickly to quell the rising salt water. She exhaled and then took another deep breath.

Emma’s left eye narrowed just a bit and the one side of her mouth turned down. She was thinking for real this time. “But maybe we can keep it and just only do it for half of the time.” It was Emily’s turn to stiffen a little.

“If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine,” Zoe said with a bit more force on the fine than she was intending.

“No, no, no. I’m okay with Emma’s idea. Let’s just cut the dancing short.”

There was a bit of shortness in Emily’s response. All three girls were feeling edgy. Zoe quickly packed her notebook and markers in her backpack. She put her half-eaten Lara Bar that fell out of it’s wrapper in there, too. She didn’t care that it would be gross. She was ready to go. She needed to go.

“Okay. I just remembered I needed to see Mr. Ripley. See you guys tomorrow.” She stood up and shook her stuff to the bottom of her bag, awkwardly zipping it as she walked away. She hoped that they didn’t see the back of her hand run across her eyes. Her last few steps out the door were a sprint.

She was quiet at dinner. She couldn’t stop replaying the conspiracy in her head. Why were they ganging up on her? They had been working on this plan for weeks and this was the first she heard about “too much music.” When she thought the words “too much music” she thought them in a sarcastic baby voice.

And this was after she cleared it with the teacher. After she made the signs. After she figured out how they would use them to “convey their educational messages in an authentic fashion to their peers.” Those words got her the approval. A flare of pride pushed away her gloom.

Were Emily and Emma mad at her? Did she do something to make them mad? Why were they rejecting her? She started to feel a tennis ball sized mass in the middle of her chest rise to the back of her throat. She swallowed it back down before it reached her eyes. Mom started to ask her something but her brother and his friend came home and the dog went off.

Zoe put her plate and silverware in the dishwasher and decided to call it a night. She walked upstairs. She stared at the foam from the toothpaste leaking from the edges of her mouth. Like a sad clown face. She felt a little sorry for the girl in the mirror. She downed a glass of water and watched a little water drip down her chin. It spotted her t-shirt. She pulled on her favorite nightshirt and curled in bed with an unopened book. She gazed absently at the ceiling, her hand resting on the cover of her book, her mind spinning through the end of the school day and cycling through emotions of confusion, anger, sadness and doubt.

Now she had to go back to school and she didn’t know if her friends were her friends. She made herself stop. Mom pulled in front of the school. If Zoe looked at her, she would have seen her mother’s head tilted to one side, studying her daughter with pronounced lines on her forehead. But Zoe had the car door slammed behind her–not slammed hard but with a little extra force–before her mother could finish her assessment.

Crap. It was lunchtime. Everyone would be in the cafeteria. She didn’t want to go in there, but after she checked in with the school secretary, she had no where else to go. She grabbed a tray and kept her head down as she approached the food kiosk.

She put her tray down on a table and felt someone sticking an earphone in her ear. She heard the tinny sound of a song. Emily was attached to the end of the white wire and held the other bud next to her own ear. She looked at Zoe all wild-eyed and crooned, “Is it too late now to say sorry?” Emma was horse stomping her right foot in rhythm to the song. She finished with her best Michael Jackson flourish, which meant she lost her balance. While she did stagger, she stayed standing. The three of them doubled over. Zoe’s snort was followed by another round of shrieks.

Those two Ems knew her well. And, they were exactly right about cutting some of the music at the end. In fact, all was right.

Lean Wit It

A 1970's era Yamaha 250cc. It's blue. It's agile and small.

They were going to go to the movies and, afterwards, most likely to Big Boy. He was the friend of her friend’s brother from a neighboring high school. He had a dark mop of long loose curls and a friendly grin that showed a small chip in his top tooth. It was from a Little League accident. A misplaced baseball. He didn’t play sports now. He preferred machines. Engines, specifically.

She didn’t really know him, but they met watching a basketball game at her school. For the next few weeks they quietly asked about each other, until her friend gave her number to the brother who passed it on to his friend. That was a few weeks later, after basketball and baseball seasons. It was the end of the school year, with long days that closed in cool nights, by the time he was coming by to pick her up.

She looked at the clock. She needed to be ready to answer the door when he arrived. The idea of her father opening the door to meet him was too awkward. She had to get there first. But there was time.

Getting ready wasn’t a big production. She grabbed the hot pink tube and unscrewed the lime green brush. Great Lash. It was waterproof. She wasn’t very skilled with the wand. She wished it was more like a magic wand and she could conjure the eyes of the models in Glamour. Her lashes always ended up with clumps. Her sister used a safety pin to separate clumps. But she didn’t trust her clumsy self with a needle pointed at her eyeball.

Today there was only one clump. And it wasn’t that bad. She fumbled around on the dresser and pushed past the brush for her lip gloss. It had a little bit of color, lots of sticky shine and tasted like Dr. Pepper–her favorite soda.

That was it. She looked at the clock. Scheduled pickup in 10 minutes. She went into her sister’s room and sprayed some cologne. Maybe too much. It’d dissipate some anyway. There usually wasn’t any left by the time she got home but she definitely smelled of the juice of sweet, nameless flowers.

Ugh. Her dad was puttering around in the garage. He had the lawn mower out and a brown stubby bottle in his hand. This wasn’t her plan but it would make for some additional drama. She perched herself on the arm of the couch in the front room, closest to the door. She heard him coming.

His was a full-sized bike, but it wasn’t the biggest bike. It was Japanese, so it had that higher pitched whirr. He tuned it to be loud. It didn’t growl and pop like a Harley, but kids didn’t own Harleys. He swung it into the short wide driveway. She came out of the house before he turned off the engine and looked at her dad.

Hmmmm. No reaction. She was sure that he’d say something.

The boy removed his helmet as he swung his leg off of the bike. He had a worn but clean white t-shirt with the fading name of a band. He jeans were crinkled by his knees and at the top of his leg where he bent to sit. The helmet in his hand was white, and he rested it on the seat. Her dad looked up and nodded.

“What time you going to be back?” he asked him. She got there first and told him that they were going to see some ensemble racing comedy and then grab pizza or a burger. “Okay,” was his reply.

She looked at him sideways. He didn’t mention the chariot.

The boy shook the man’s hand and walked her to the blue motorcycle. He asked her if she knew how to lean in a turn. She lied and said she did, as if she always rode on the back of bike. He handed her a helmet. It was blue with a full face. She put it on and felt like she was wearing a goldfish bowl. She could barely hear and what she did hear was the echoes of her breathing inside. The weight of the helmet made her feel like a bobble head. She had to concentrate to hold her head steady.

He got on the bike and she sat behind him on the flat seat. He started the engine and she saw her mother come out of the house, into the garage. Her dad was back tinkering with the lawnmower and her mother smiled and waved as they tooled off.

Her confusion over the lack of parental reaction was overtaken by the lurch of the bike and the wind cycloning her hair. She felt a little weird with her hands around this stranger’s waist, but the gawkiness was sidelined by the rush of the ride. The boy didn’t show off. He didn’t take chances. He didn’t weave or speed. He knew that the bike itself was enough show.

She automatically leaned into the first turn. He looked back at her and nodded. She was happy that he couldn’t see her ear-to-ear ingenue grin. It wouldn’t be cool and she couldn’t help herself. She was sorry when they got to the theatre. The movie was funny enough, but ran long and he had to work in the morning. He rode her back home.

It was different riding in the dark. Not only was it much cooler, but the direct exposure to the lights of oncoming vehicles and the amplified sound of the engines–the one underneath them and the ones all around them–added a sense of danger. Not fright, but excitement.

He dropped her off. She didn’t want him to walk her to the door. She liked the motorcycle much more than the boy. And she was disappointed that she didn’t shock her parents. That was to be part of the fun.

She was done with that dalliance, and decided to concentrate on her regular beau. The one that her parents liked. His car was fast enough and it seemed there was no tweaking her parents. No danger. No excitement.

In her head, she heard the high whine of the engine just before the shift and remembered her head jerking back as she rocketed behind a stranger down a dark road.