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Ask the passengers, p.3
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       Ask the Passengers, p.3

           A. S. King
 
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  “Want to know why?” he asked in a thick Puerto Rican accent.

  I nodded.

  “Because you didn’t bullshit me and tell me that you know what you’re doing. It means we can teach it to you our way, man.”

  Now it’s October, and I know three things. I know how to devein shrimp really fast. I know how to open clams really fast. I know how to do inventory. (Okay, I know a lot more than that, but some days I feel like that’s all I do. Especially the shrimp-deveining part.)

  I start my day at 5:35 AM with inventory for next weekend’s jobs, which are listed on a roster next to the inventory clipboard. The walk-in freezer is full of boxes, and I sit on the one in the back corner and relax. I wish I could live in here. I’d put the bed there. It’s the only place I feel comfortable anymore. And a bookshelf there. I’m not nervous about what Mom would think. A dresser with a few T-shirts and jeans in the corner.

  There is nothing else like the sound of a walk-in freezer’s door opening. It’s a loud clunk of the huge handle followed by an air-suck sound. It’s a big sound. Like something circus equipment would make. Logger sounds. Or those science-fiction bay doors on spaceships with air locks.

  I pretend to look for a box of frozen pastry shells in case it’s Juan. But I feel my stomach twist because I know it’s not Juan.

  “Need help?” Dee says.

  “Just checking the dates to make sure I get the right ones. Damn, there are a lot of shells here this month.” I say this in case anyone is outside, listening. In case anyone knows.

  Dee lets the door slam behind her, and it sounds even bigger than it does when it opens. The swirling white air dances around the caged freezer lightbulb, and she pushes me right up against the dappled stainless-steel wall and kisses me with both her hands braided into my hair.

  This is not our first kiss.

  Dee is my real best friend, I guess. Kristina doesn’t know about her, and Dee doesn’t know the truth about Kristina, and that’s the way I want to keep it.

  Dee is the funniest person I have ever met in my life. Her laugh is big and confident. She’s laid back and doesn’t like to gossip. She’s also kissing me. A lot. And I’m kissing her back.

  Before I met her here at Maldonado’s, I only knew her as the neighboring school district’s badass hockey star who would periodically get mentioned in small-town gossip. I think the first thing I ever heard was from Ellis. I’m pretty sure she used the word dyke in her description, too. Because if you want to be a small-town girl in U. Valley, that’s what you say.

  The first time I saw Dee was at one of Ellis’s hockey games last year. She smiled at me, and I never forgot it. Or more accurately, I always remembered it. And I checked the hockey schedule and went to the away game at her school, too, just to see if she’d smile at me again, and she did.

  I smiled back. That was right about the time Tim Huber broke up with me, too, so smiling wasn’t something I did very often.

  I didn’t know she worked at Maldonado’s when I interviewed. Believe me, my first day of work was some sort of proof that everything happens for a reason. I’d thought about her smiles for eight months at that point. Probably every day.

  On my second day of work, she said, “Anyone ever tell you that you’re gorgeous?”

  I didn’t answer, but I asked myself the question for a whole month. She must have thought I was ignoring it or just thought she was joking around. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. I was considering it. Astrid Jones. Gorgeous. I’d never really thought about that. Tim Huber said things like cute or sweet or, one time, hot—which turned me off completely because I knew he was only saying it to see how far he could get me to go with him.

  But when Dee said I was hot a month after she’d asked me if anyone had ever told me I was gorgeous? She meant it. “I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. You’re hot!”

  That was the day of our first kiss.

  Now she’s laughing while she kisses me. “You’re not going to tell me to back off again, are you?” she asks.

  “Mmm. Hmm,” I manage while still kissing her neck, her ear. “Back off,” I say. I bite her earlobe.

  So far in my life, Dee is the only person who wants to totally ravish me. I have to stop her all the time. I swear she’d do it right here in the walk-in freezer if she could. Right now. Before six AM. With morning breath. Next to a box of frozen taquitos.

  “I dream of this all week,” she says.

  “Me too.”

  “We have to find more ways to see each other,” she says.

  “I know,” I say, but the best I can do is go watch Ellis play hockey for the one game where Dee’s school is the visiting team. Or, well, the go-to-Atlantis-with-Kristina-and-Justin daydream, but I haven’t told her about that yet. Because it’s stupid.

  At the moment, we talk twice a week outside of work. Between her hockey schedule and my paranoia, that’s about all we can manage. Plus, her mom is a bit of a stickler about phone minutes, and Dee only gets fifteen dollars’ worth a week.

  Anyway, not being constantly connected makes the whole thing more intense. It’s better that way.

  Dee and I are washing fruits and vegetables.

  “You done with the mushrooms yet?” Juan asks.

  “Almost,” I say. I finish them, put them in a container and take them over to him. I stop for a minute to watch him slice them. He is like ballet with a knife. “You’re a natural, you know that?” I ask.

  He says, “Natural? What the fuck? Nobody is born this good, man. Takes years of practice. Now get back to work.”

  Either way, it’s beautiful to watch, even if he is a dick sometimes. I send love to him. My brain says: Juan, you are a wonderful, awesome human being and a complete natural at cutting mushrooms, and I love you.

  An hour later, Dee is washing and prepping the strawberries and cherries while Jorge melts dark chocolate in a double boiler. I will spend the next half hour sticking the pieces of fruit with toothpicks, dipping them and laying them on waxed paper. Then, when the tray is full, I will take it to the walk-in freezer. I find myself wishing I were a strawberry. Imagine that: washed by Dee’s soft hands, dipped in chocolate and left in the freezer, where no one bothers you for an hour and a half.

  If I were to explain to you how she really makes me feel, I’m not sure I could. Do I love her? I don’t know. Maybe. I love kissing her. I love the way she smells, and I love her lips. But Dee scares the shit out of me, too. Because she knows. And I don’t know.

  We punch out at noon and walk to the parking lot, which is now full of cars. It was empty at five o’clock this morning. We want to kiss each other good-bye, but instead we wave like awkward dorks and get into our cars and drive away in different directions. She goes left. I go right.

  6

  DO WHAT FEELS RIGHT.

  THE CLOSER I GET TO MY HOUSE, the less I want to go home, so I stop at Kristina’s house. I park in back so Mom won’t see my car.

  “Oh, God. You smell like fish,” she says as I arrive in her room. The sun is pouring through the windows, and as I bounce on her bed to annoy her, dust rises and sparkles in the sunrays.

  “And that’s just my hands,” I say.

  “Ew. No, seriously. You stink.”

  I continue to bounce and watch the dust dance. “It’s probably the brassicas.”

  “Brassicas? What the hell?” Now she’s cranky. My arrival—and my bouncing—means that she can’t stay in bed all day.

  “You know, brassicas? Broccoli and cauliflower? The cabbage family?”

  She’s squinting at me now.

  “Come on. Get up and talk to me. I’m bored. I’m hyper. I don’t want to go home to Claire and her hellish Saturday mood swings.”

  “How long have you been up?” she asks.

  “Four forty-five.”

  “Oh, my God.”

  “How late were you out?” I ask.

  “Like an hour before you got up,” she answers.

  “Sweet.”
>
  “Justin’s mom thinks he stayed over here. He’s probably still out before Chad has to drive all the way home.” Chad lives about an hour away. He and Justin met online at some photography forum. It’s not as creepy as it sounds. “Justin said he’d call me when he was going home so I could call his house and pretend he left something here.”

  “And how’s Donna?”

  She smiles. “Awesome.” She sits up and sighs. “We’re going back to Atlantis tonight. You should come. You could drink. You could dance. It’d be fun.”

  Dancing and drinking. Two things very low on my list of priorities, along with sex, kickboxing and becoming a rodeo star.

  “Sounds fun,” I say. “But I need my beauty sleep if one day Prince Charming is going to gallop down Main Street and sweep me off my feet.”

  “Wow,” she says. “You’ve been listening to Claire again.” Kristina is allowed to call her Claire, so that’s what we call her when we talk about her. I have to call her Mom to her face. “She’s so jacked up on that these days.”

  She reaches for her phone and brings up a text message. It’s so Claire. Kristina, WHEN r u going to find a good boy like Justin 4 Astrid?

  “I wish she’d just mind her own business,” I say.

  “Right?”

  “Last time I dated anyone, she just nitpicked me about him anyway.”

  “Yeah. That was Huber, wasn’t it?”

  I look at the message again and wonder how many moms text their daughters’ best friends behind their backs like this. I wonder why she uses text-speak. It irks me so much that I almost want to reply. Hi Mom. Y r u being so creepy n txting my frnd?

  “Yeah. Huber,” I answer. I don’t like to think about Tim Huber.

  “She thinks you’re not over him yet.”

  “That was a year ago,” I say. Sometimes it feels like yesterday, though.

  “Yeah,” she answers. “Isn’t it hilarious that she asks for a boy just like Justin?”

  This should be when I tell her about Dee, but I can’t. Even though she’d totally understand, she might tell just one person. And that would be just one person too many.

  “Shit,” I say. “I’d better go. The world will explode if I don’t have my room clean by three.”

  “Thanks for waking my ass up for nothing,” she says. “Tell my mom to bring me some coffee on your way out, will ya?”

  It’s four o’clock. My room is clean, and I’m out on my table looking at the sky. I’m thinking about Dee. About how inadequate I feel. About how her hands know what to do but mine don’t. About how I always have to stop her when she wants to keep going.

  My brain people say: Astrid baby, it’s because you’re not gay.

  They say: You’re not strong enough to be gay.

  They say: Mom would never forgive you if you’re gay.

  I try to stop thinking about it, which is easier on weekdays when I’m distracted by school stuff like Zeno of Elea, lit mag, and the dirty looks I still get from Tim Huber’s friends. But now all I can think about is Dee and how this all started. How she told me how gorgeous I was. How flattered I felt. How exhilarating it was to be wanted. This is why I doubt. It’s the loophole. It’s the question no one ever wants to ask.

  Am I doing this out of desperation? Is it some weird phase I’m going through? And why, if any of the answers are yes, does it feel so right?

  There is a 747 high, leaving a crisp white line through the cloudless autumn sky. I ask the passengers: Am I really gay?

  But they don’t answer me. They are reading their in-flight magazines and sipping ginger ale. I send them love—as much as I can gather. I ask them: What do I do now?

  PASSENGER #54627563

  ELAINE HUBBINGTON, SEAT 3A FIRST CLASS

  FLIGHT #4022

  CLEVELAND TO PHILADELPHIA

  MEMBER OF WINGS ELITE CLUB #HU3456

  I know about two hours into the flight home that I have to leave John. Call it a moment of clarity. Call it a message from God. I stare out the window at the sky and feel this smack of reality right in my heart.

  He hasn’t done anything to deserve it. He’s loyal and sweet. He still buys me thoughtful presents on my birthday and on our anniversary. I just don’t love him. It’s not fair that he’s wasting his life on me, a person who will never return his feelings. And it’s early. Married only five years—no kids yet.

  Yet.

  Our last discussion was groggy. I’d set the alarm for four and was pulling on my socks when he rolled over and lightly stroked my back.

  “When you get home, let’s talk about a family again.”

  “Mmm hmm,” I said.

  “We have the space.”

  Is that the most important factor for deciding to have kids these days? Space?

  His comment echoed the whole flight to Chicago. We have the space.

  What I should have said was, “Why don’t we go shopping for antiques? That would fill some space.”

  What I should have said was, “How about a home gym? Or a flat-screen TV with surround sound?”

  When did I go from human being to baby machine to fill your space? That’s what I wanted to say to him. But instead, I just held off calling until after dinner. Each sticky-sweet thing he said made me want to puke. “I miss you” vomit. “I’ll keep the bed warm for you” gag. “I love you” heave. I wanted to say, “I think I loved you, too, once, but I don’t anymore. Find yourself another uterus to fill your goddamn space.”

  Instead, I said, “I miss you. Keep the bed warm. I love you, too.”

  Lies.

  The blue sky at thirty thousand feet asks me uncomfortable questions. It asks: Why did you marry him? Did you ever love him? Will you?

  It asks me: What do you do now?

  The blue sky at thirty thousand feet gives me answers. It says: You never loved John. You hit thirty and panicked. You’re too selfish to admit you made a mistake.

  The sky says: Stop being so selfish. Everybody deserves a chance at real love. Only once you let him go will you find yours. Do what feels right.

  7

  ASTRID TO HOME PLANET: PLEASE RESCUE ME.

  “IT’S SATURDAY… let’s go somewhere fancy!” Mom says after galumphing downstairs from her office at ten after five.

  Dad, Ellis and I are in the den. I’m reading the beginning of Plato’s Republic for humanities class. Ellis is watching a documentary about triathlons. Dad is in his Saturday stoner clothes. He has white paint on his dark brown hiking shorts. His T-shirt gives the illusion of having been sweaty and dried out again. His hair is Hollywood windswept. He’s got a graying goatee, and if you look close enough, you can see Cheetos dust in it. The only thing he did while he was “cleaning out the garage attic” was take a few hits from the pipe he hides up there and exhale out the exhaust fan toward Bob’s house. Technically, my father is The Dude from the movie The Big Lebowski, only he’s totally in the closet. (Jones closet tally: 2)

  Mom looks at him for an answer.

  Dad says, “Nothing fancy for me. I’m beat.”

  “What do you have to be beat about?” she asks. “You didn’t even work today.”

  Dad says, “Weekends off. The perks of working for the man.”

  “Sorry,” I say. “I have to read this, and I have to get up early for work.”

  I don’t even know why we answer. Dad and I both know she wasn’t really asking us. She looks to Ellis and puts on an annoying high-pitched voice. “A Mommy and Me night?”

  As always, mere mention of this tradition makes me want to throw up in my mouth. Ellis chews on her lower lip for a second. I think she may roll her eyes to herself as if she knows how annoying this is to the rest of us. Then she claps her hands together and says, “Let’s get really dressed up, too!”

  “Fancy!” Mom chirps, and the two of them go upstairs in a fit of adolescent bliss.

  An hour later they’re gone, and Dad disappears to the garage again on some vague errand, which means he’s going to toke up.
I wish he didn’t act this way. He’s like some kid, and I’d much rather he knew that I know and I don’t care.

  I’m the only one who’d be halfway cool about it. Ellis would probably cry and turn him into the D.A.R.E. cops. Mom would freak out. My mother has never held back on how she feels about stoners. Hippies. Do-nothings. Druggies. “All those brain cells!” she’d say. “What a waste!”

  Frankly, the more I read about the philosophers of ancient Greece, the more I think her life is a waste. What’s she learning? What’s she questioning? She knows everything, which means she doesn’t know anything.

  I mean, yes, at the beginning of humanities class, I thought most philosophers were a bunch of entitled Greek guys sitting around thinking up crazy shit (like Zeno) while the women and the slaves did all the work. But then this week we started to learn about Socrates.

  Socrates lived in the fifth century BC in Greece. He didn’t write anything, which means most of what we know about him comes from what other people said (a little like living in Unity Valley). His favorite thing to do was to prove to people that what they thought was truth might not be true. This did two things for Socrates: (1) It earned him the label “one of the founders of Western philosophy,” and (2) it eventually annoyed enough people that they put him to death by making him drink hemlock.

  A lot of what we know about Socrates comes from his most popular student, Plato, who wrote many things, including The Republic, which is an imaginary discussion between Socrates and a few others in order to demonstrate the Socratic method. The Socratic method is what Ms. Steck wants us to practice most during this class.

 
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