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Ask the passengers, p.9
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       Ask the Passengers, p.9

           A. S. King
 
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  21

  LIFE OFF THE POT IS QUIET.

  I GET INTO JUSTIN’S CAR, and we all take off for Unity Valley. I don’t say good-bye to Dee and I don’t cry and I don’t feel anything but numb indifference. Part of me scolds myself for ever bringing her here. Part of me knew this was a bad idea.

  Maybe part of me wonders if I’m even gay, though only an hour ago, I was about 99.9 percent sure. It’s like I just walked in a big circle.

  But what’s the difference between Jeff Garnet and Dee Roberts right now? Last week, Jeff’s pressing me up against his car like some big jerk and tonight Dee’s doing the same damn thing.

  “You okay back there?” Kristina asks.

  “Yeah.”

  “Something happen with Dee?”

  “Nah. Just tired.”

  “You danced your ass off!” Justin says. “It was awesome!”

  “Yeah,” I say. I think: But what does it matter now? I can’t just dance. I can’t just have fun. If I start having even a little bit of fun, I have to shit or get off the pot.

  My alarm goes off at five, and I hit snooze. It goes off again at 5:09, and I hit snooze again. Finally, at 5:18 I get up and get dressed. I don’t do anything to my hair except run my fingers through it.

  By the time I get to Maldonado’s, I think I may have fallen asleep while driving. Twice. I don’t remember at least four blocks of Washington Street. Dee is already inside, which means I must really be late.

  I smile and pretend I’m not heartbroken. Shit or get off the pot. I can barely keep my eyes open, so the I’m-too-tired-to-talk routine is 100 percent believable. The morning goes by slowly. I devein six hundred thousand million shrimp, and Dee chops broccoli and cauliflower into twelve million trillion perfect little trees. We wash and chop fruit together and grunt occasionally.

  I avoid all contact with both walk-ins until a quick inventory check while Dee is doing dishes. I’m sure she notices, but she doesn’t mention it.

  The only conversation we have all day that isn’t about food is this:

  HER: Hey.

  ME: Hey.

  HER: Wanna go to the lake after work?

  ME: Yeah.

  HER: I don’t have to be home until three.

  ME: Great.

  Dee and I are on our blanket in our usual spot at Freedom Lake, and we’re just lying here on our backs watching the sky. It’s cold today, and we’re both wearing our scarves and hats. I spot a small commuter jet descending to land at the local airport, and I send it all my love. All of it.

  Dee doesn’t have much to say, and neither do I. We’re both tired—or maybe she’s more tired and I’m more pretending I’m tired so I don’t have to talk.

  I ask the passengers: Are you shaking your heads with disappointment? Are you yelling shit or get off the pot from your reclining first-class seats patterned in neutral-colored propellers and airplane silhouettes? Are you sick of hearing me say it?

  As if she’s reading my mind, she says, “Are you pissed off at me for last night?”

  “Nah.”

  Silence.

  “That means yeah, doesn’t it?” she says.

  I sit up and cross my legs and look at her. “That thing you said. It pissed me off.”

  “Thing I said?”

  “Shit or get off the pot.” When I say this, I hear her say it all over again, and this huge, out-of-proportion anger fills me.

  “Oh. That,” she says. She sits up, too. “What’s wrong with saying that? You say it all the time.”

  “I say it to people who take their time at red lights or who can’t make a decision about a subject for their next research paper. I don’t say it about important things like this!” I’m yelling a little. “How can you be so calm and act like it was nothing?”

  She stares at me.

  “Is that how you want to make love to me the first time? Forcing yourself?” I’m crying. I know I’m crying about everyone who’s trying to control me, but I can’t explain that to Dee right now.

  “I wouldn’t have ever done something that made you feel horrible. Jesus! You make me out like a date rapist. You know I’m not like that.”

  “You were last night.”

  “Stop saying that. I was not.”

  “Dude, I had to stop you. If I hadn’t stopped you, what would have happened?”

  “What the fuck?” she yells, throwing her hands up. “I can’t figure you out, Jones. One minute you want me, and the next minute you don’t.”

  “That’s bullshit. I want you all the time, but I asked you to be patient.”

  “I was patient!”

  “For two weeks. That’s how long you were patient!”

  She chews on the inside of her cheek. “I just don’t get what the big fucking deal is. I mean, we’ve been together for over five months now. I’m pretty sure I love you!”

  Wow. That was… gutsy. Not romantic, but… wow.

  “Oh,” I say.

  “Oh? That’s all you’re going to say?”

  “No,” I say, trying to be gutsy, too. “I’m also going to say that if you—if you think you love me, then shouldn’t you treat me like you love me and respect me? And be patient with me?”

  I realize that I’m saying this not just to Dee but also to my mother. And Kristina. And Ellis. And Jeff. And maybe even myself.

  Dee sighs and squeezes my hand. “I’m really sorry, Astrid.”

  We look at each other for a whole minute. I trace her high cheekbones down to her full lips and wish I wasn’t attracted to them at all. I think about going back to being an asexual sea sponge, and I cry more.

  She says, “I’m really sorry, okay?”

  “Okay,” I say.

  “It’s just really frustrating for me. I’ve never had a person hold out so long, you know?”

  “Can’t you see how even that hurts?”

  “Yeah. Sorry.”

  We’re quiet for a while. I dry my tears. “Look. I didn’t want to get all loud and mad. I’ve just—just been under a lot of pressure from everyone, and I need a break.”

  “From us?”

  “What?”

  “You need a break from us?” she asks.

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know.” I watch a plane zoom across the sky, and envy the power and control of it. I simultaneously realize that without a pilot, it would crash. “I need to be my own pilot,” I say. “And I don’t understand why my copilot is saying stuff like shit or get off the pot. It just doesn’t seem like a good team.”

  Dee looks at me softly. “I don’t want you to get hurt, you know?” She picks a long piece of grass and scars it with her thumbnail. “Do you remember Deanna Klinger?”

  “Yeah.” I vaguely remember her. I think she ran cross-country.

  “We dated for a while, you know?”

  I feel my whole face go hot. “Oh.” Reason number 543 Dee Roberts was a bad first choice. She has dated a lot of girls, and I haven’t dated any.

  “She—you know—chose the wrong side. It wasn’t pretty.”

  “Chose the wrong side?”

  “Yeah. She found some guy she really liked, and now she’s all hetero.”

  I sigh deeply and lie back down to look at the sky. No airplanes. No passengers to ask. So I ask the clouds. Did you guys know there’s a wrong side and a right side? Why didn’t you tell me?

  The clouds don’t answer.

  “So when you said shit or get off the pot, you didn’t mean for me to make up my mind,” I say. “You meant for me to just come out, be gay, and be done with it.”

  “Well, yeah. I don’t see what the holdup is.”

  “You wouldn’t understand,” I say. “Obviously, this was a piece of cake for you.”

  “Are you saying you might not be gay? That this is all just some kind of joke or something?”

  “It’s not a joke.”

  “So what is it, then?”

  “It’s a question. And I’m answering it.
But I don’t know the answer yet, and I’m sorry.”

  She lies back down and crosses her arms.

  “And you shouldn’t dis Deanna Klinger. Maybe she realized she wasn’t what she thought she was,” I say. “People change, you know?”

  “Are you gonna change?” she asks.

  “How am I supposed to know? I can’t see the future,” I answer.

  We lie there, and when a plane finally appears in the sky, I picture a cabin full of fliers getting excited about their destinations, and I ask: Isn’t it enough to be in love with Dee’s amazing eyes and the smell of her hair? Isn’t it enough that she thinks I’m funny? That we have fun when we mess around at work? Why does everything come with a strict definition? Who made all these boxes?

  PASSENGER #0098

  JOHN KIMBALL, SEAT 22B

  FLIGHT #1209

  CHARLOTTE TO ALLENTOWN

  Jenny is asleep, and I watch her breathing in the seat next to me. I think about what she said last night. I think about what I said last night. I can’t figure out if we were having the same conversation or what.

  All I know is that I asked her to marry me and outlined my plan. I told her that we should wait until we’re done with grad school. I told her that we should stay in the area because she has a good chance of getting that job at U of P.

  I’d practiced the speech for weeks. I made reservations at the resort for our weekend vacation. I bought the ring in March. March. I never guessed in a million years that she’d give it back to me. I touch my pants pocket from the outside and feel the ring there against my leg.

  I stare at her beautiful sleeping head and try to extract her reasoning. She wouldn’t answer my questions last night. Don’t you want to get married? Don’t you love me? Is it the ring? Did I do something wrong? Why aren’t you talking to me?

  As I look out the window, I get a feeling of dread in my chest. Like someone is poking me in the throat. Maybe she doesn’t love you, John. Maybe she’s using you for your car. That’s my mother. She’s said that all along. And other stuff. But as I look out the window, all I can think is how wrong my mother is about this. Jenny has always loved me. We’re soul mates. It was love at first sight. I know it.

  So why’d she say no?

  She didn’t even say maybe or let me think about it. She just said no.

  I pretend to cough, and jostle my elbow so she wakes up. This only makes her turn over a little. I do it again and then stroke her head and tell her that we’re landing soon. I give her a minute to stretch and do some neck rolls, but that’s all.

  “Can we talk about this?” I ask.

  “Here?”

  “I can’t drop you off and then drive to my parents’ house without knowing why,” I say. “It’s not fair that you won’t tell me.”

  When she looks at me, she looks heartbroken. “I can’t. It’s too hard to talk about,” she says, and tears roll down her face.

  “Why are you doing this to us?” I ask. “Why can’t you just say yes?” I reach into my pocket and retrieve the ring. “Just say yes.” I’m sobbing. This would be a first for her—seeing me sobbing—and it seems to flick a switch.

  She stares at me seriously. “My mom told me that a Jewish boy marrying a non-Jew is like a mini death for his family. I can’t do that to your family.”

  “What? That’s completely insane. Anyway, who cares? It’s not like either of us goes to church, right? Is that all this is about?” I shake my head and feel relief. It’s so good to know that it’s not me or the ring or anything else. It’s just something stupid her mom said.

  “That’s not what your mom said to me the last time we were at your house for dinner,” she says. “In fact, your mom seems to agree a hundred percent with my mom. I think that’s where my mom got the idea.”

  I say, “What?” but it’s rhetorical and she knows this. She hugs me, and though I have a small feeling of wanting to scream at my mother when I get home tonight, I hug Jenny, and all I can think about is how much I love her and how out of control I feel after all the work I did to make this the most perfect engagement ever. I have no idea what to do. And then… I suddenly know what to do.

  My chest tightens with nerves. “Look,” I say, holding the ring up. She has a pained look on her face. Then I stand and face all the people behind me. A planeful of strangers. I hold up the ring. “I am madly in love with Jennifer Ulrich, and I want her to marry me. She is the kindest, smartest, most beautiful woman I have ever met, and I want to live my whole life with her. All she has to do is say yes.”

  I look down at Jenny, and she’s partly smiling and partly mortified.

  “She’s all freaked out that I’m telling you this, but I want to make something clear. I don’t give a crap where she came from, and I don’t give a crap what my mother said to her. I want to marry her, and I’m not going to let anyone stop us.”

  The people on the plane smile at me. Jenny stands up.

  I face her and ask again. “Will you marry me?”

  When she says yes and I slip the ring onto her finger, the plane erupts with yelling and applause, and it’s as if all of us are possessed by something we will never understand.

  22

  MY NAME IS CLAIRE, AND I’LL BE YOUR PILOT TODAY.

  CLAIRE IS IN ESPECIALLY ROTTEN FORM when I get back. When I walk in, she’s mincing Dad into tiny pieces about putting a knife in the wrong drawer. When she sees me, she barks, “Astrid, come here.” I can’t even send my love to her, she’s that bad. Claire, I am not sending any love to you because you are a horrible person right now. Who made you eat bitch for lunch? Who poured you a tall bitch beer float? Who sprinkled bacon bitch on your salad? I nearly crack myself up with these but keep a straight face for the interrogation.

  “What time did you get in last night?” she asks.

  “Just after two.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yes,” I say. “Why?”

  “Because sometimes teenagers lie, that’s why.” Picture Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That acrid, biting, accusatory tone she takes every time she speaks.

  “What movie did you see?” she asks. The second she asks it, my brain goes numb, and I can’t even think of one title of one movie ever made. Like, ever. Not even my favorites. All movies are titled Untitled in my brain.

  “I only saw about half of it. We were late getting there because Jeff’s car broke down, and Justin had to help him get it to the garage.”

  Where the hell did that come from? I seem to be a natural liar. Who knew? Up until two weeks ago, I’d gotten by on doing nothing exciting and telling the truth all the time.

  “What was wrong with his car?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. Then I head up the steps so I can change out of my shrimpy-smelling work clothes, and once I do, I sit on my bed for a minute and stare into space. I don’t feel right about Dee. I don’t feel right about lying about Jeff. I don’t feel right about anything.

  I make Frank S. appear. This time he’s on the flat roof outside my window, so I have to open it and let him in. When he gets in, he hovers over the warm radiator a minute and then looks at me and smiles and sits down on my vanity bench.

  “Are you ever going to say anything?”

  He just looks at me.

  I sigh. “I wish more people would be like you, Frank. I need quiet people in my life.”

  He keeps looking at me.

  “That said, I could really use some advice, you know? Got any advice?”

  He doesn’t have any advice, so I ask myself the same question. Hey Astrid, got any advice? And the only answer I have is to tackle the problems I can tackle. Like lying to Jeff.

  I take out my phone to text Kristina about how I can’t do this to Jeff anymore, and when I flip it open, there’s a message waiting for me. From Dee. It says: I’m sorry for being an ass. How about we agree on a signal? When you’re ready to take it further, you say “Abracadabra” or something. Until then, I’ll be more pa
tient, and I will shut up right before I’m about to say something stupid.

  A huge part of me wants to text back abracadabra because that would make such a great line in a movie, wouldn’t it? It would be so romantic and make everything perfect.

  But this isn’t a movie.

  Ellis arrives at my door a few minutes later.

  “Hey.”

  “Oh, hey,” I say.

  “Everything okay?” she asks.

  “Sure. You?”

  “Yeah. I guess.” She shrugs. “Some stuff could be better.”

  I think she means Claire’s mood, but in case they’re about to go off on a Mommy and Me wine binge/country club buffet/shopping trip or something, I keep the speculation to myself and continue to reorganize my closet, which is what I’ve been pretending to do since she showed up at my doorway.

  “I saw Jeff last night,” she says.

  “Oh yeah?”

  “He was walking around Main Street. You weren’t with him.”

  “So?”

  “So you’re lucky Mom and Dad didn’t see him, too.”

  I sigh. “God. That kid.”

  Ellis sits on my bed, and I sit on my vanity bench, where Frank just was. She says, “You need to watch out because Mom is getting all buddy-buddy with his mom, and they’re, like, joking about weddings and shit.”

  At times like these I wish I was a passenger.

  At times like these I need an air sickness bag and an oxygen mask and a chair cushion that doubles as a flotation device.

  “I think I need to throw up,” I say. We both think I’m joking until I catch a whiff of my shrimpy catering pants on the hamper and I jog to the bathroom and puke. Twice.

  When I finish brushing my teeth and go back to my room, Ellis is still sitting on my bed.

  “Wow. So I take it you don’t like Jeff Garnet?”

  “Yeah.” She smiles at me a little—like she feels bad for me. “Were you serious about Mom talking to his mom? Because that’s just gross. What’s wrong with her?”

  “She thinks it’s cool,” Ellis says.

 
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