On my red eye flight, the attendant with butterscotch hair and a black eye keeps replacing the beverage napkins from my tray table. I keep pulling them onto my lap because I did it once and then had more in front of me. I wonder what happened to her eye, think about asking, but can’t think of a good way to put it so I don’t.
As the butterscotch, black-eyed gal stops by a sixth time with a short stack of napkins, I set my collected heap on top of her reaching hand, say, “Who do you think is working harder here? You or me?”
“Who’s working?” she asks, turning her wrist, my napkins fluttering to the tray. She starts back down the aisle.
My boyfriend, Kenny, had a rug-cleaning business. He never got licensed or anything, just cleaned the rugs in big houses in his stepdad’s neighborhood, the closest to family he had. Over time, the people in the neighborhood started ripping up their carpets and putting down hardwood floors, an idea somebody’s wife came up with and passed along to the rest of the wives. Kenny tried trimming yards too, but didn’t do a very good job.
He lives in my apartment and it’s his birthday and I am on an airplane to a new apartment and he thinks I’ll be home in an hour.
Before I leave for the airport, I find an address book from a time when I needed one and sit on the floor of my near-empty apartment, flipping through it with my phone in the other hand.
I dial the fourth number I see and when they answer, I hang up.
I hit redial, apologize, have a brief conversation with a great aunt. I apologize again before rushing off the line, think about how good it feels to be sorry.
In the airplane bathroom, I light a cigarette and blow on the lit end, little tiny sparks scaling my forearm. It’s not lit for a handful of seconds before someone taps on the door, says, “Miss?”
I throw the thing in the toilet, crack the door, and see the woman with the butterscotch hair on the other side. She sticks one eye in.
“I could fine you two thousand dollars,” she says and blinks.
“Is debt the kind of thing people stick around for?” I say back.
“It’s the kind of thing you’re stuck with,” she says, pulling the door shut in front of me.
A year earlier, at his last birthday party, Kenny ordered Chinese and ate it with a fork, used his chopsticks to jab people between their ribs. I got in the bath when his friends came over.
“Babe?” He knocked. “Everybody’s out here.”
I turned up the water hot enough to pink my skin.
Back at my seat I peel a single napkin off the pile and draw a birthday cake for Kenny. His friends are gathered at my old apartment, friends I never particularly cared for, their coats molted and stacked in a pile at the end of my bed, most of them tactfully checking their watches, trying to keep from asking where I am. There’s a real cake, a real Kenny.
I flip the napkin over and draw another cake for me.
The guy next to me taps on his phone, the keyboard clicker on. The butterscotch lady comes by again, no napkins this time, sets down a can of tomato juice.
“I heard tomatoes taste better in the air,” she says. “Just a little airplane trivia for you.”
She turns to go so I say, “What are you doing when we land?”
“Cleaning this plane,” she says.
Still, when it hits the ground and my phone is flooded with missed calls from Kenny and everyone starts to spill from the flight, she grabs her bag and walks with me.
“Don’t you have someplace to be?” she asks me.
“Yeah, but I flew away.” I say.
Kenny buys one-ply toilet paper and moved my couch to a spot I’d had it in before we met.
I don’t think about asking her about the black eye until the question is already halfway out of my mouth and there are three twelve dollar airport bourbons in my belly and she’s singing and she’s mid-Dolly Parton song and then it’s already said.
She stops singing, holds her wine in the air at me. “I thought you’d never ask.” I laugh and pull out the napkin with my cake on it, flatten it on the bar.
“I got in a fight with a Rabbi,” she says. “I shit you not.” I keep laughing and she starts up with me.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” she says. “Rabbi comes up to me and goes, ‘I know your sins,’ slugs me in the eye!” She laughs some more, goes on a bit. Stops. We wait for one of us to say anything. She goes ahead and does.
“There’s a patron saint for Birdflu but not for fight attendants,” she says, “Just a little airplane trivia for you.”
The first time I brought Kenny to my apartment, he tipsily tripped over a pile of my shoes while saying something about Bob Dylan. He borrowed a shirt to sleep.
When we settled in on the couch, our hands decidedly to ourselves, he said, “God, being with you is like breathing. So easy.” And then, “Dude, did you know oxygen can kill you?”
Two other early morning airport drinkers wander in and perch a ways down the bar. When the bartender heads their direction, the flight attendant says, “I was lying,” and in the same breath, “The story is almost the same, but I’m married to it,” puts her head down on the bar next to my sketched cake.
My phone rings. Kenny. I blow out the candles on my napkin, but the flames stay put. Why wouldn’t they?
About the Author: Gwen Werner is a cry-baby and sorority dropout from Iowa. You can find her here.
Story Song: "Molly" by Palehound.