Prepare for Departure
By Eva Schultz
Michelle flashed her airline personnel pass and headed onto the tarmac to watch Paul’s plane depart. She could see her breath in faint puffs as she walked, zipping up her coat. It was worth being out in the cold Midwestern morning air to spend a few minutes in the sunlight, surrounded by the roar of jet engines and the chatter of field personnel, without the nagging demands of cranky passengers.
She weaved between two baggage handlers and found herself a place along the edge of the terminal, out of the way. She could see Paul’s 737 out in the distance, the sun glinting off the wings, like a scene in a movie where the hero jets off to someplace exciting and dazzling. The next scene is always in a new location – somewhere newer and better. Not in a small market, regional airport where there’s nothing to do.
Michelle shook her head sharply, trying to stay in the moment, to enjoy this last bit of connection before he was gone again. Paul’s itinerary brought him through her city several times a month, and she couldn’t believe her luck when he noticed her, a girl from a no-name town who had taken her first job out of high school at the airport and was still here almost five years later. She’d noticed him the first time he came through the terminal, pilot wings shiny on his chest, a touch of gray at his temples, a wink of good humor in his eye. There was a generalized buzz among the female personnel; everyone had noticed him.
She wasn’t expecting it when he stopped her in the employee lounge to offer her an apple pie snack – the vending machine had given him two. Taken by surprise, she’d blurted out, “Sorry, I don’t like those” before she could stop herself. He’d chuckled and smoothly changed the subject.
The next time she saw him, he’d persuaded her to join a group for drinks at the hotel lounge two blocks over. When she’d arrived to find only him at the bar, his collar unbuttoned, a grin on his lips, he’d said something about no one else being able to make it. Her heart beating hard in her temples, she’d breathlessly accepted his offer of a drink and got lost in his stories all evening. It didn’t seem to matter too much that she didn’t have anything nearly as interesting to say as he did; he had enough stories for them both.
Michelle rubbed her hands together and puffed out another breath in the cold air. Paul’s plane was starting to taxi. She had come out here to watch him depart every time since that first night; even though he couldn’t see her all the way back here or wave goodbye, she felt like she was seeing him off.
Her supervisor, Wendy, a no-nonsense mom in her 40s, had been unimpressed when she realized why Michelle was scheduling her breaks around Paul’s departures. “Trust me, kiddo, he ain’t the settling down type. That type of guy usually has… friends… all over the country.”
Embarrassed, Michelle had hastily insisted that this wasn’t just a fling. In her head, she wondered if you have to tell the other person it’s exclusive -- don’t you both just kind of know?
“Does he call you? Does he text you?” Wendy’s raised eyebrows and expectant stare had shaken Michelle’s confidence.
“He’s… busy. He’s in the air so much, he’s usually too tired. But he always texts me before he gets here.”
Wendy hadn’t said anything except, “Mmm-hmm.”
Michelle had tried to forget the conversation.
The next time Paul came into town, he’d pulled a box of mini apple pie snacks out of his roller bag and presented it with a grin. “I remembered,” he said. “Your favorite.”
Michelle had laughed in confusion, then realized he wasn’t joking. “No,” she’d said awkwardly, “I -- actually -- I don’t like those. The filling is too gooey.”
He’d laughed and put the box away, like it never happened.
Down the runway from where Michelle was standing, Paul’s plane lifted smoothly and turned in a lazy arc into the clear sky. Michelle breathed out, low and long, and watched her breath disappear into nothing.
She turned and started back for the terminal. Her break was almost over; it was time to go back inside, back to working and waiting and dreaming.
“Yeah, his name is Paul,” someone nearby said, and Michelle’s head snapped up.
It was one of the girls who had just started in Customer Service – Michelle couldn’t think of her name, but she’d envied her runner’s physique and perfect cheekbones since the first time she saw her.
“He says he’ll call me next time he’s in town,” the new girl continued, not noticing Michelle as she passed. “And who knows…”
Michelle didn’t wait to hear the rest; she doubled her speed back toward the terminal. There were a lot of guys named Paul in the world, she told herself. It didn’t mean anything. She glanced at her watch and jammed her hands into her pockets.
Her right hand pressed against something. She pulled it out and found herself staring at an apple pie snack. A note was written across the package in black marker – “You’re my favorite,” it said.
She didn’t realize she’d stopped walking until the guy in the food service cart honked at her. Jumping out of the way, Michelle stared around her for a moment at a world that suddenly looked different - sharper, not so romantic and hazy, but real. Solid.
She looked down at the apple pie again, imagining the cloying, artificial taste of the apple goo, the dry, mealy crumble of the outer shell.
She looked back in the direction of the runway. Then she squared her shoulders and strode toward the terminal, crushing the apple pie inside its wrapper and dropping it into the trash can on her way.
Eva Schultz lives in Aurora, Illinois, where she is a business writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her work has recently appeared in Slippage Lit, The Free Bundle, and Fabled Journal. She lives with a big orange cat named Gus and enjoys drawing, painting, and collecting typewriters. Visit her online at http://www.evaschultz.com.