A few years ago, I was on my way home to Massachusetts when bad weather stranded me in the Detroit airport for four days. I’d been at a conference in Iowa City—I travel rarely, but this was a point in my career when professional advancement required that I go. I was to receive a signal honor, one that conferred much benefit upon not only myself but also upon the university where I had tenure and no teaching responsibilities. My university had made it clear that it would be ungracious of me not to go. And so I went. I attended panels and listened to my colleagues discuss my research. Former students, now middle-aged and embarked upon their own careers, greeted me with more affection and warmth than I felt I merited; I bought them drinks in the bar, and listened to reports of their various successes. Some of them knew my wife. Others were Facebook friends, and remarked on recent photos of our daughter, Dido. How much she had grown. There was, of course, talk of politics and of the recent winter, how mild it had been. How wet this spring was turning out to be. I have never cared much for change, but of course change is inevitable. And not all change is catastrophic—or rather, even in the middle of catastrophic change, small good things may go on. Dido had recently learned to write her name. The children of my colleagues, too, were marvels, prodigies, creatures remarkable in their nature and abilities.
On the last day, I packed up my suitcase and drove my rental car back to the airport in Cedar Rapids. When I called my wife, she seemed distracted but then neither of us has ever been good at phone calls. And then, there was an appointment on my calendar that could not be postponed, and we were both thinking of it.
In Detroit, my connecting flight was delayed once and then again. Even someone who travels as infrequently as I do knows that travel in this age is an uncertain enterprise, full of delays and inconveniences, but eventually it became clear even to me that something out of the ordinary was happening here. There was a storm system in Atlanta so severe that flights operated by Delta had fallen off the grid all across the country. In consequence there would be no more planes going to Hartford tonight.
I called my wife so she would know not to stay up any longer. “How late is it there?” she said, “One hour back, isn’t it? No, you’re back in Eastern Standard now? So, not quite midnight. You go find a hotel quick before they all fill up. I’ll call Delta and get you on a flight tomorrow morning. You’ll be home in plenty of time. Dido wants you to pick her up after school tomorrow, but we’ll see.”
My wife is twelve years younger than I. This is her second marriage, my first. We look enough alike to be sisters, and she says sometimes, jokingly, that the first time she looked at me, she felt as if she were seeing her future. The longer we have been married, the more, I believe, we have come to resemble each other. We have a similar build; we sometimes wear each other’s clothing, and we go to the same hairdresser. Each of us has a birthmark on a thigh, though hers is larger, three fingers wide. Her breasts are larger and her nipples are the color of dried blood. After she had our daughter, her shoes no longer fit and so she donated them all to a women’s shelter. Now we wear the same size.
When we decided to start a family, there was no question that she would be the one to carry the pregnancy. Carry the pregnancy, she said. As if the doctors were talking about a bag of groceries. But she asked if I would supply the egg. And so I did and perhaps I should not have. I would have loved a child just as much, I think, if she had not been my child biologically. But then, Dido would not be Dido, would she? If she were less like me or even if she were more like me, would I love her more or would I love her less? Would my wife have fallen in love with me quite so quickly, if our resemblance to each other had not been so remarkable?
Dido is Dido and may she always be Dido in exactly the way she chooses to be. That is what I would choose for her. When Dido is older, will she look at me and see her future?
I do not like to think too much about the future. I don’t care for change.
· · ·
I was back at the airport at 7:00 AM for a 10:00 AM flight. In an excess of optimism, I went so far as to check my carry-on bag. And then, when that flight was canceled and then the flight after as well, I was told my carry-on was now in transit though I was not. It could not be retrieved. That night, I took a Lyft to Target and purchased a toothbrush, underwear, and a cheap bathing suit.
Just past the throat of the lobby of the airport Sheraton, where I was paying too much for the privilege of a cramped room with a too-large bed, there was an indoor courtyard with a concrete-rimmed swimming pool. There was a cabana bar, too, in the courtyard, shrouded in plastic sheets; unpersuasive palm trees in planters; deck chairs and little tables where no one ever sat.
The water in the pool was a cloudy jade. No one else ever went into the pool, and the cabana bar was never open. The lighting indicated a perpetual twilight. Except for that first night when every seat on the shuttle to the Sheraton was occupied by a stranded traveler, all of us attended at check-in by a single teenaged desk clerk, I never saw any other guests in the public areas of the hotel.
In every way I am a poor traveler. I do not like to be confined in small spaces; I am a picky eater and easily overstimulated; in adolescence I was diagnosed with hyperosmia. I do not sleep well when I am away from home, but I have discovered that if I swim to the point of exhaustion, some amount of sleep is possible. The acridity of chlorine masks almost all other smells.
I wish I could make you see what the courtyard in that Sheraton was like. It had something of the feel of a subterranean grotto, or maybe a Roman amphitheater. As a child, I’d pored over a book called Motel of the Mysteries, in which archaeologists in the year 4022 discover a motel and attempt to deduce how the artifacts they dig up were used and by whom; when I floated on my back in the courtyard pool, one hundred feet above me a popcorn ceiling in place of sky, I was as liberated in time and place and purpose as I had ever been. On one side of me was my professional obligation, now fulfilled. On the other was my home and my family and an appointment that I knew I could not delay, and yet here I was. Four nights I stayed in that hotel. I swam in the pool and tried to keep my head free of useless worries. In all the years that I have lived with this condition of mine, I have learned it is wise to mitigate stress. Stress is a trigger.
Four floors of breezeways rose up on all sides of the courtyard. No one came in or out of the hotel rooms that looked down on the pool, and neither did I ever hear anyone in the rooms on either side of the one where I slept. I swam silently so that I would not break the vast still spell of the place, staying in the pool for so long that when I went to sleep, my skin and hair gave off such a satisfactory stink of chlorine that the other smells in the room were little more than ghosts—the burnt-toast smell of the laundered sheets, lingering traces of perfumes and deodorants, stale remnants of repulsive foodstuffs, musk of sex and sweat, mildew-laced recycled air.
Each night I swam, and each day for four days I went to the airport, which was in every way the opposite of my tranquil courtyard. I woke up at 6:30 each morning and rode the shuttle as if I were going to my workplace. I waited in lines and passed through security and went to my assigned gate to see if my flight this time would depart. As the day wore on, and each successive possible flight was delayed and then canceled, I moved from one gate to the next, where, it was hoped, a plane might at last take off. I was one of several thousand people, all of whom were out of place, paused in transit. And here, this was the swimming pool, too, after all, it began to seem to me. A kind of suspended and purposeless motion.
The reason for the canceled flights might have been a storm system, but in Detroit the weather was mild and cloudy, like the water in the swimming pool. The bad storms had only truly affected Atlanta, but Atlanta was Delta’s central hub and for many days, Delta planes continued not to be where they should have been and where there were planes, there were not enough flight crews.
I sat near outlets when I could, and charged my phone and texted friends, called home each time I was bumped to a new flight, and debated renting a car. If Dido was home, sometimes she would speak to me. She could not understand why I would not come home. My wife said that in my absence Dido was having nightmares again. Nightmares about what? “Toilets,” my wife said. “An overflowing toilet. Yeah, it sounds comical but she wakes up screaming. And she wet her pants today because she didn’t want to use the toilet at school.”
I said, “I could rent a car. If I drove, I would be home in about twelve hours.”
“No,” my wife said. “That’s ridiculous. You hate driving. You’re a terrible driver.”
Which was true. And every time a flight was canceled, there was a new gate where I could go and wait, suspended in the cloudy green day. I read the new Kate Atkinson. I drank iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. Passengers swapped gossip and stories. There was a family, I was told two or three times, who had flown over from London to take their three young daughters to Disney World. Now they had been stuck in Detroit for three days. They had not gotten to Orlando, and now they could not get home, either. Eventually, I, too, began telling this story, though I was not sure that I believed it.
Every now and then, a ragged cheer would go up at a gate. By this, we would know that a flight crew had arrived, and these passengers were escaping Detroit Metropolitan Airport. By the third day, I no longer waited only for flights that might take me to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. I allowed myself to be booked for flights that might go to Logan or LaGuardia or even Philadelphia. But these, too, were delayed and then canceled. Each night I left the terminal between 10:00 pm and midnight and rode the shuttle back to the Sheraton. In my room, I washed a pair of underwear and socks with shampoo, rolled them in a dry towel, and put on my bathing suit. I swam until I felt as if I had washed time off of my skin again, and then left wet footprints across the courtyard that would be gone by the time I was asleep. In the morning, I woke up and traveled back to the airport. My wife was growing tired of her role as a single parent, but in the end we agreed there was no need yet for me to rent a car. My wife felt sure that I would be home soon. I told her the story of the English family. Still, she felt I would be home soon. I would be home soon and the appointment on my calendar could be safely marked off once again. Life would go serenely on.
In the middle of the night I woke from a terrible dream. Dreams, too, are markers of my condition, or so I have come to believe. It is possible that Dido has inherited my condition just as I inherited my mother’s face, although it is possible her bad dreams are just bad dreams.
In my dream there was a pool in a courtyard, only it was full of moonlight instead of water, so bright I could not bear to look directly at it. But oh, there was a smell that was so delicious and enticing that I went into the pool, my eyes open so I could see what smelled so very good. The moonlight buoyed me up just as water would do, and I immersed myself in that wonderful smell, and my eyes watered and my mouth was so full of saliva that I had to swallow over and over again. I rubbed my eyes and then I saw that standing all around the pool were all of the people I have ever hurt or injured without meaning to. Some of them I didn’t even know or maybe I didn’t remember them, but I knew the reason they were standing there. There, too, were all the people that I would inevitably go on hurting even though I do not wish to—there was my mother, and my wife. There was Dido. Their eyes were so full of pain—I realized that they felt pain for me, because I was in the pool and I could not get out. I was in the pool because of my condition, and because they cared for me, they could not leave me here alone. I was hurting them in this way too, and when I realized this I was so full of anger that I burst into a thousand pieces and bits of my skin flew everywhere and that was how I woke up, soaked in sweat as if I had been running.
I got out of my bed and put on my wet bathing suit and went to the courtyard pool. I wanted to make sure that everything was the way that it should be. I needed to see that my dream was only a dream and not something true. And, too, I could still smell that delicious smell. I needed to know if it was something real.
It was the middle of the night, but in the courtyard where nothing ever changed, it was only twilight. The delicious smell dissipated. I swam lap after lap and no one came to tell me that I should get out even though the hours were clearly marked on a sign tacked to the side of the cabana. No one came and so I swam until my head was clear again and my dream was gone.
· · ·
All of my life, I have been a person in whom strangers have confided. There is something in my face that says, “I am interested in you” to some, and “I will keep your secret” to others. I have my mother’s face, and it is true that my mother was sincerely interested in everyone she met, and that she was a faithful keeper of other people’s secrets. I am not my mother. Sometimes, I think, I am not even myself. But whether a trick of physiognomy, or a habit of expression learned as her child in the way that all children mimic the behaviors and mannerisms of their parents, just as Dido sits at my wife’s desk and makes a face at my wife’s laptop and polishes the glasses that she does not wear, my face has said, all of my life, “I will listen to your story.”
Pity the introvert with the face of a therapist or a classroom aide in a kindergarten room. Like the werewolf, we are uneasy in human spaces and human company, though we wear a human skin. The airport itself was bad enough, but even worse was the shuttle I rode back and forth between the airport and the Sheraton. The driver was a woman in her seventies, an ex-servicewoman, the mother of three grown children. One was an addict, and one had had a breast cancer scare. The other was estranged from her mother, though she lived only twenty miles away. The shuttle driver prayed every night to be reconciled with this daughter—who, it was determined, was my age almost to the month. With each ride, her presumption of our acquaintance grew deeper and by the third morning, she embraced me when we arrived at the airport in case she did not see me again. But although her daughter would not return to her, I did. I had no choice.
Pity the werewolf. Wash off a stranger’s sadness in a green pool. What should a stranger’s story mean? Wash it away. Fall asleep in the clean reek of chlorine and inhabit the fragmentary and uneasy dreams of departed guests whose strands of hair, dander, lardy fingerprints, odd bits of trash, and inconclusive stains inhabit these transitory and poorly lit spaces. If you listen, a hotel room speaks too. It says: I will keep your secret.
· · ·
I tallied my receipts on the fourth day. I checked in with my research assistant, who keeps the lab running on days when I’m looking after Dido, or when I have a flare-up and am confined to my home office. My university had covered my flight, the conference, and my hotel in Iowa City, but now there was the cost of airport food: coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, breakfast sandwiches, packets of unshelled pistachios and Snickers bars, bananas and burgers and power bars. There was my trip to Target; the room at the Sheraton at $119.00 plus taxes every night, checked out of so hopefully each morning; the five dollars I left on the bureau as tip; and the two dollars I gave each time to the shuttle driver. There was the cost of the babysitter my wife was paying to look after Dido while she was at work. My work schedule is flexible, coordinated with my wife’s so that one of us can be at home most days with Dido when her school lets out, but still there was a great deal of business, now, to take care of at the lab once I was home and could go in. That would be more money for the babysitter.
My wife and I had decided that if there were no flights to Hartford or Boston or New York today, then tomorrow I would have to rent a car. This would give me two days to get home before my appointment. Even I could manage six hours in a car one day, and six hours again the next. I could even, my wife suggested, look around at my fellow would-be passengers. Maybe one of them might be willing to share the cost of a car. “Maybe,” I said. “You think the English family has made it home yet?” she said. “Maybe,” I said. “Next month we’ll go camping,” she said. “I ran into Molly at the co-op and she was telling me about this place in New Hampshire. Right on a lake. A little playground for kids, and lots of trails. She’s going to send me a link to the campsite. That sounds amazing, right?” “Maybe,” I said. It was a little hard to think past the next few days, getting home, and my appointment, and then catching up with work. I had my phone plugged into an outlet, and right then I was scheduled to leave on a 2:15 flight, and we talked until my flight was canceled and I had to hang up and unplug my phone and again go to book a new flight. Dido was asking about a dog again, because she’d snuck down the basement stairs to hunt for treasure. We have the usual sort of New England basement, which is to say that it is damp and cold, with a floor of tamped-down dirt. I have never liked spending time down there, but Dido is fascinated by it. The previous owner died in her nineties, and her children didn’t bother clearing out the basement before they sold the house to us. There are old chests of drawers, some of them hiding photo albums or Depression-glass saucers, celluloid hairbrushes decaying around the horsehair bristles, the tangles of human hair coiled around the animal hair. There is the rocking chair, the hat rack and the hatboxes full of mouse droppings and shreds of silk, the washing board and the bundles of faded letters and the dog crate that is big enough Dido can stretch out inside it on her back and look at the gouges on the interior ceiling. Dido wants a dog so badly that my wife said she could almost taste it. Could almost hear clicks on the wood floor upstairs while she was downstairs, as if Dido were conjuring a pet into existence by force of her extraordinary will. And Dido was still having nightmares. She was making my wife go with her into the bathroom each time to hold her hand while she peed. My wife had tried to get Dido to explain what was so terrifying about a clogged toilet, but Dido could not articulate this to her. She could only dream it over and over again.
In the same way, my last day in Detroit followed the established pattern. I moved from gate to gate until there was only one flight left to wait for. This last possible flight into Hartford was scheduled for 10:30 PM, and then its departure was postponed and postponed again until eventually it was almost midnight and the agent at the gate got on the speaker to tell us that it was looking likely to be canceled. The airport was shutting down for the night.
On my phone was a series of texts from Dido. Dido loves texting, because she knows that it is something that adults do. Earlier in the evening she had somehow gotten the phone from my wife and used it to text me her name, over and over. Dido. Dido dido dido dido dido. And so on. There was a long string of emojis too, mostly made up of toilets, ominously, and then strings of words made up from predictive text. Then more toilets. By the time Dido is a proficient speller, perhaps it will no longer be necessary to spell at all.
I began to text my wife as people around me disconsolately collected their belongings. But the agent at our gate came over the speaker again to tell us new information had been supplied to her. It now seemed possible that a flight crew from Cleveland would be arriving in twenty minutes and might yet be assigned to our flight. So we were to wait.
We waited without much hope. We had all heard similar announcements over the past few days. But in the end, there was the crew, and here was the plane, and we all got on and the plane took off. It was a full flight, of course, and I had a middle seat. There was a woman a decade or two younger than me in the window seat, whose clothing was more youthful still. Dickies jeans, plum-colored hair, shitkicker boots, and a cropped T-shirt with DTF in a Gothic font. In the aisle seat was a woman just a little older, heavyset and tired looking, wearing the kind of clothing and minimal makeup that signals camouflage worn by lesbians in administrative offices. And when they looked at me, I knew what the two women saw. I was wearing the same slouchy black cardigan over the same black jersey dress I had worn for the past four days. It was my wife’s cardigan, and days ago it had smelled like her, but it no longer did. I had on a wedding ring and a smoky eye, thanks to the MAC boutique in the Detroit airport, where a bored aesthetician told me about the Roller Derby match that her girlfriend had dragged her to the previous weekend and how she’d realized, watching the very first jam, that her girlfriend was cheating on her with the worst skater in the league. The smoky eye did not suit me. I’d been wondering, though, if it would stay on in a swimming pool. I’d been thinking all day about the swimming pool. Even here, on the plane and on my way home, I held that swimming pool, that cool and empty space, inside my skull as if by holding it there I might contain everything else that must be contained. I do not do well in small spaces. I do not feel safe when I am far from home. I am not safe when I am far from home.
I texted my wife again. On a plane! Getting in around 3, so don’t wait up. I’ll take a Lyft. Love you. Then I turned off my phone. You could feel every passenger on the plane holding their breath as we waited to see if we would, in fact, take off. And then the exhalation when we did. I clasped my hands tightly in my lap as the plane taxied and then rose up, the ground visible only as stacks and necklaces of lights that shrank to sequins, then bright pinpricks, shrank until everything was a velvety black.
There was no reason for it, but I thought of the shuttle driver’s daughter. Though the daughter was my age, a middle-aged woman estranged from a woman who was near my mother’s own age, her face was the face of my Dido.
“Well,” the woman in the window seat said. “I guess we’re going to get home after all.”
On my iPad I had the first three episodes of a television show that my wife did not care to watch. But the woman in the window seat waited as I took out my headphones and just when I was putting them on she said, “I don’t know you, do I?”
I lifted my headphones. I said, “I don’t think so. No.”
“No, I do,” she said. “Don’t I? Martine?”
“No,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m Abby.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Did you ever live up in Vermont? Burlington?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve been there a couple of times, though. It’s pretty.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It is. I lived there for a while. Oh, God. A while ago now. I moved up there because my girlfriend was opening a gallery, and I’d just gotten my degree. But then she dumped me a month later, and I should have just left but I didn’t. It just seemed so embarrassing, packing up after just a month. So I slept on her couch for a couple of weeks until I found another place to live. And then I stayed there for eight years! Until another breakup, like one of those burn everything down to the ground breakups. But fuck, it’s pretty up there. Just, you know, the dating scene is a little incestuous.”
“Small towns,” I said.
“Tell me about it,” the woman in the window seat said. “I was trying to explain it to a friend in New York once. I ended up drawing her a diagram with everybody’s name on it, and then these different colored lines. You know, who’s dating, who used to date but now they’re just friends, who broke up with who and now they won’t talk to each other, who’s in a poly relationship, who hooked up but thinks that no one knows, and then all the asterisks.”
I said, “Being married makes everything a lot less complicated. Sometimes.”
The woman in the aisle seat, on the other side of me, shifted. Her thigh rubbed against mine. She was pretending to read the in-flight magazine but I could tell she was listening.
“For Christmas, my friend took the diagram I’d drawn her and embroidered it all. Got it framed. I was like, what am I supposed to do with it? Hang it on a wall? But it was pretty. She used different stitches for the different kinds of relationship lines. What do they call that? A sampler, right? Anyway Martine was part of that whole scene. You look so much like her. I wish I had a picture. She and Leila. They were married when I met them, but then it turned out that Leila had this whole other life. She’d had a girlfriend in Quebec the whole time she and Martine were together, which you would think would not be easy to pull off, but Leila was a sales rep for a company in Quebec, this printing company, and so she was up there for a couple of days out of every month. Sometimes a lot more. But then Martine found out and threw Leila out and Leila moved up to Quebec, although she kept coming back to Burlington and telling Martine that she really thought they could work it out if Martine could just figure out how to get past it. She wanted to try therapy, and when Martine wouldn’t go for it, Leila used her keys to let herself in while Martine was at work. She texted Martine and said not to worry, she was just there to pick up a pair of jeans she’d left behind, but when Martine got home, it turned out that Leila had actually been there to pick up her favorite strap on. Like, seriously? They don’t have sex shops in Quebec? After that, Martine went through this whole phase. She was wild. She fucked any girl who looked at her twice. She would have fucked a cat if the cat had seemed into it. And she tried everything else too. People do that sometimes, you know? When they’re going through something? Like my best friend growing up. She used to say she was putting the ‘ho’ in Hoboken. But you know, it turned out she was having all these other problems at home. It was how she felt in control.”
“Did you?” I said. “Sleep with her? Martine?”
“No,” the woman in the window seat said. “I mean, I hooked up once with Martine at a party. But we were both pretty out of it. There was some good shit at that party. This one girl, Viddy, she got this idea that she could juggle anything. She took a bunch of knives out of a kitchen drawer and threw them up in the air. Cut her hands all to pieces, and then everybody was just dealing with that. It was bad. I was an ambulance driver for a while, so I was doing first aid, and I had Viddy’s blood all over me, and I really wanted to get cleaned up and this girl, Martine, it was like she didn’t even notice the blood. But it kind of ruined the mood for me, and Martine went home with somebody else. There was something she was looking for, and I guess she just had to keep looking for it until she found it. I don’t know what happened to her, but I hope she found it.”
“Maybe she did,” I said. And I did hope she had.
“Who knows?” the woman in the window seat said. “Maybe.”
The flight attendant came down the aisle with drinks. I will be honest. I badly wanted a real drink. But I had a Coke instead. The woman in the window seat had a gin and tonic and the woman in the aisle seat asked for a tomato juice. She said, “I used to know a girl like that. In New York. A long time ago.”
We both looked at her, me and the woman in the window seat.
“She worked in advertising,” the woman in the aisle seat said. She drank her tomato juice and then wiped the red off her lips with the back of her hand even though there was a cocktail napkin right there on her tray. “She’d come to poker nights with a friend of mine. Tuesday nights. Penny something. My friend said Penny had the nicest apartment you’d ever seen. This enormous prewar apartment up near Columbia that no one could have afforded, but Penny was subletting it for hardly anything at all because it was haunted. No one else could live there. Apparently you couldn’t even spend the night without seeing things or hearing things, really awful things, but Penny slept there like a baby.”
“Some people just don’t see ghosts,” the woman in the window seat said. “They’re not sensitive or whatever.”
“No,” the woman in the aisle seat said. “Penny could see the ghosts just fine. She could see them, she could hear them, for all I know she played poker with them on every night of the week except Tuesdays. She just didn’t care. She wasn’t afraid of them. She wasn’t afraid of anything.”
“I’m not really afraid of ghosts either,” the woman in the window seat said. “All that kind of stuff is kind of stupid. No offense if that’s not what you think.”
The woman in the aisle seat said, “No, you don’t understand. I mean this Penny literally wasn’t afraid of anything. She wasn’t afraid of snakes or the dark or thunderstorms or serial killers or being mugged or dogs or heights. She told my friend that she didn’t really understand what fear even was. Her mother used to hide behind doors and then jump out at her, to try to scare her when she was a kid. Took her on roller coasters and to therapists. She was mugged at gunpoint twice in one week in New York and my friend said she just laughed about it. But she was curious about what it was like, to be afraid. So she and my friend would go to horror movies and afterward she would ask my friend why they were scary. What it felt like.”
“That would be nice,” the woman in the window seat said. “Not to be afraid of anything. I’m not afraid of ghosts, but I’m afraid of everything else. I don’t even know what that would be like, not to be afraid of everything.” She turned to me. “I mean, you’re afraid of something, right?”
“Flying,” I said. “Myself.”
“Right?” the woman in the window seat said. “Right! I mean, imagine not being afraid of anything.”
“Straight and curly hair,” the other woman said. “People with straight hair wish they had curly hair and people with curly hair wish they had straight hair. You wish you weren’t afraid of anything, and my friend said Penny wished she could be afraid of anything, even though she had this gorgeous apartment because she wasn’t. She had a lot of girlfriends, but the relationships never lasted very long because none of the girlfriends would sleep over at her place. The ghost or whatever was there frightened them away the first time they slept in her bed. Nothing Penny could do could make them stay, and Penny didn’t want to give up her apartment. But eventually she fell in love with this girl Min Jie, and she gave up the apartment for her and they moved in together and got married. My friend went to the wedding. Min Jie was a cheesemonger. She knew everything about cheese. Did you know that for a while you could buy a cheese made from women’s breast milk? Min Jie said it was a soft cheese. A little like a goat cheese. She worked in this shop in Midtown that had every kind of cheese, imported chocolate, pâtés, tongue, marrons glacé. Lobsters, Golden Osetra caviar, tupelo and lavender honey, Sacher tortes, so the spread at the wedding was amazing, my friend said. The wine was some of the best wine she’d ever tasted, and there was plenty of it. Fountains of it. Tables of smoked fish and shrimp and mussels in carved ice bowls. Penny got up and toasted her bride and said that perhaps she would never know fear, but now she knew love.”
“Very romantic,” the woman in the window seat said. “Nobody’s ever said anything like that to me.”
The woman in the aisle seat said, “That night they went home and they made love and afterwards Penny lay in their bed in their new bedroom, which was so much smaller and dingier than the bedroom in her old apartment had been, and she was happy. And Min Jie came out of the bathroom with a bucket of live eels she’d procured at work, and she dumped the eels over the bed and all over Penny. And my friend said Penny sat straight up in the bed and started screaming because she finally understood what fear was.”
“Seriously?” the woman in the window seat said.
“That’s what my friend said,” the other woman said.
“That’s fucked up,” the woman in the window seat said.
I said, “Excuse me” to the woman in the aisle. In the last few minutes I’d become aware that I was getting my period, days before I should have had it. Everything was wrong, everything was happening that shouldn’t have been happening. But I was almost home. Surely we would be home soon.
I went in darkness down the aisle of the plane, passing women sleeping, women playing games on their phones or their iPads, women talking. That delicious smell from my dream was in my nostrils. Blood that shouldn’t have been there was between my thighs. But we have no control over our own bodies. The things we feel. The things that happen to us, over and over again. The things we crave.
At the back of the cabin, there was an Out of Order sign on one toilet. The other was occupied. So I waited as patiently as I could. I tried to picture Dido, who would be asleep in her bed. Or perhaps she had had another nightmare and Martine was letting her sleep in our bed.
What my wife shared with former lovers does not diminish what we have together. It isn’t as if, before, she killed a lot of people. She just fucked them. And perhaps we would not be together now, if Martine had not been who she was then. She was one person then, and is another person now. I never met that other person. That other Martine. And yet sometimes when I think of those years when I did not know her, I am filled with such a frenzy of jealousy that I imagine, as if compelled, finding those lovers in whatever homes or lives they occupy now. I imagine tearing at them with my nails, rending their flesh with my teeth. Making blood run in thick streams, enough to fill ten thousand swimming pools. So much blood it obliterates everything that came before she and I—
I pictured my swimming pool, cool and green and empty. Why would anyone be afraid of eels? Why be afraid of a creature, harmless, caught in a bucket? They only want to get out. In a plane, too, you are suspended. You cannot do anything. You cannot get out. You cannot always be the person you thought you were, no matter how badly you want to be her. Change is inevitable.
The toilet door opened and a woman came out. She said, “The toilet’s clogged. I wouldn’t go in there.”
In the galley just behind us, one of the flight attendants turned and said, “Oh, that’s not good. That’s not good at all.”
“Excuse me,” the woman who had come out of the toilet said. I let her go past.
I began to go into the toilet and the flight attendant put her hand on my arm. She said, “No. I’m sorry. You can’t go in there. We’ll be landing soon. Can’t you wait?”
The floor of the toilet was wet. The stench was intolerable. Swollen plugs of wet toilet paper sloshing in the metal basin. Writhing. I turned and looked at the flight attendant, and she recoiled. She took her hand off my arm and stepped back. She said something in such a small voice that I could hardly hear her over the sound of blood in my ears. Mice have louder voices. She said, again, “Are you okay?”
I could not answer her. I could not speak at all. What she saw in my face was not the thing that is usually there. It was the other thing, the thing that lives inside my skin. I turned and went back up the aisle to my middle seat. The moon in the window in every row went with me like a cold white lozenge that I could have slipped under my tongue.
It went with me like a thing on a leash, all the way back to my seat.
They would be announcing our arrival soon. I might get a little blood on the seat, but what’s a little blood? Women bleed. Everyone bleeds.
The women on either side of me had been talking to each other. The woman in the window seat had a car in long-term parking, and she was asking the other, who didn’t have a car, if she would like a ride into Northampton. She said to me, “Do you have a car, Abby, or is someone picking you up? Do you need a ride? Where do you live?”
I had a feeling as if I could have run the whole way home, all thirty miles or so. But I wanted to be home with my wife and my child. My appointment was waiting for me, though I thought perhaps I might be a little early for it this time.
“Sure,” I said. “I would really appreciate that.”
Kelly Link is the author of the collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters, and Get in Trouble. She is the co-founder of Small Beer Press and co-edits the occasional zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Link was born in Miami, Florida. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts.