E. Thomas McClanahan is a retired journalist living in Kansas City. This is his first published fiction.
The day before she left, they checked into an airport hotel. Julie left her luggage in the room and they went down to the restaurant. She studied the menu, happy and excited. Ryan’s glanced at his menu, then put it down. Outside, he heard the roar of a plane taking off. For an instant, the sun flashed on its fuselage. It climbed rapidly, leaving the teeming clutter of the airport far behind. Julie never looked up.
"I'm so hungry," she said.
He watched her for a moment, then looked back to the window. The plane was gone.
"What are you going to have?" she asked.
He made a "pfft" sound with his lips. "I don't know. Burger, I guess."
She scowled. He knew it annoyed her. It was what he always ordered. This time he didn't care.
They went upstairs to their room and made love. Afterward, she asked, "Are you going to find another girl?" She ran her fingers through the hair on his chest.
"Yes. I plan to start tomorrow."
"Oh, Ryan, don't say that."
"You're the one who's leaving."
"We've been over this so many times. Can't you understand? I want to see new places and meet new people. I'll never have another chance to do anything like this."
He sighed and slid his arm under her neck. She rolled toward him. She rested her head on his shoulder and threw a leg over his thigh. It was as if their bodies fit together, as if she was part of him. Once, on a languid afternoon, naked and entwined, their passion spent, they realized they had been breathing in unison. That was months ago, when it was new, when the whole thing seemed like a dream.
Ryan stared up at the ceiling of the hotel room. It was one of those spray-on textured ceilings. Suddenly he hated it.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked.
She sat up and brushed a few strands of hair to one side.
"We're not going to see each other for months, and you're thinking about the ceiling?"
He felt inert and heavy, as if moving a finger would take tremendous effort. He looked at the soft curves of her breasts, and her eyes — angry now, but still beautiful — and her hair, and her long neck.
"Ryan, please talk to me. I need you to talk to me."
"You want me to pretend?"
"What's to talk about? You said yourself, we've been over it many times."
The next day, he couldn't see her to her flight. He had a class. They said goodbye under the hotel portico. He kissed her and held her for a long time. Then he drove away, turning to wave once. He watched her image shrink in the rear-view mirror. It became smaller and smaller, until she was a tiny figure standing under the portico.
He thought back to the day she’d seen that poster in the lobby of the library. “Study abroad in Ireland,” it said. Below that, a photo of a castle by a river, its walls pock-marked by age.
“Don’t worry,” she’d said. “The time will just fly by.”
At first, she wrote often, of how lonely she was and how much she missed him. Later, she wrote of boisterous nights in pubs with her new friends. He imagined a group of Irish students crowded together around a table, all of them hoisting pints, with Julie in the middle. He tried to imagine himself in the picture. He couldn't.
She pleaded with him to visit her in Dublin. "Please come," she wrote. "The people are so wonderful."
He stared at the words on the light-blue paper. His lips tightened. It was impossible. How could she pretend not to understand? He thought of his parents — his dad still trundling around in his Matco truck, hawking hand tools to mechanics, coming home at night with his shoulders slumped; his mom still clerking in the county assessor's office, counting the days to retirement. Things weren't easy for them. Ryan helped with tuition as much as he could. He worked part-time in IT support at the university library, but with the hours he was putting in, he was barely keeping up with his classes. In his family, money had always been tight.
He never mentioned Dublin to his parents. Why bother them? They’d only feel ashamed if they weren't able to help. But beneath this was something else — the deeper fear that if he went, he'd feel out of place, foolish. He'd be the person who didn't belong.
The months passed. Her letters became less frequent and the long silences inhibited what he wrote to her. He was no longer sure where he stood. Then, with spring break looming, she began writing more often, sometimes two or three times a week. She now found Dublin gray and depressing. Her letters had an odd sense of urgency.
He scanned the faces of passengers filing off the plane. Soon, all around him, people were hugging and laughing, checking the time, veering off toward baggage claim. Julie was one of the last to appear. He called her name and she ran and threw her arms around him. He pulled her close and kissed her neck and for a moment, he was lost in her fragrance.
"How was the flight?" he asked.
"The pilot called it a 'patch of rough air,' but it made me sick. It seemed to go on forever."
"How long was it?"
"Oh, God. Hours and hours from Dublin, then another three hours and something to Denver."
They held each other again.
"I missed you so much."
"I missed you too."
"Yes," he breathed.
She pulled him toward her again and kissed him, hard. She began to tear up. He was struck by her expression. She seemed apprehensive.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes. Oh, Ryan, it's so good to hold you again."
He held her and felt her arms around him and the rest of the world fell away and the feeling came back, as strong as ever.
Outside, it was chilly and the sky was a brilliant blue. As they drove away from the airport they came to a rise and the city spread out before them with the mountains leaping up in the distance and the snowy peaks dazzling in the sun.
"I'd forgotten how beautiful it was," she said.
He glanced at her again and smiled.
He turned into a parking lot and parked by a flight of wooden stairs
leading to apartments on the second level. He opened the trunk, pulled out her large black suitcase and they went up. The apartment had a small carpeted living room with a sofa and a chair. Near the kitchen, where the carpet was worn, he'd turned the small dinette table into a sort of desk with his laptop at one end and books and papers at the other.
"What about Mark?" Julie asked, referring to Ryan's roommate.
"He's gone back to Tampa for the break."
He set her suitcase near the chair and she put the tote bag and purse on the sofa. He laid her coat next to them, then he turned toward her and in her eyes he saw that lively, mischievous look that he loved and they came together in a rush and he carried her into the bedroom.
Afterward he lay back and stared at the ceiling — at the spray-on texture ceiling — as if seeing it for the first time. He thought of saying something, then dismissed the thought. In the past, when they’d gotten together again after a separation, sex for her had been uncomfortable at first. This time it wasn’t.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" she asked.
"I don't know. Like I'm a specimen in some science class."
He wasn't especially surprised. He'd had a couple of encounters of his own. Maybe it was nothing, something best left unmentioned. After an absence, it always took time for them to mesh, to become part of each other again.
When Ryan awoke the next morning it was still dark. He looked at his watch: 6:08. Today was the day Julie turned 21. They had planned to go skiing, and then go out to dinner in the evening. He leaned over and nibbled her ear.
"Time to get up."
She gave a low moan and stretched. She reached back, grabbed his arm and drew it under her own arm, pulling him closer.
"If we're going to go, we better go," he said.
"Slave driver." She sighed, threw back the covers and sat up. For a moment, she sat at the edge of the bed, breathing heavily. Then she flopped back and pulled up the covers.
"I don't feel right."
"I think I'm still shaky from the flight."
She turned toward the wall. Ryan stared at her shoulder, white and smooth in the dim light. Her long hair was spread on the pillow.
"You'll feel better once we get going."
For a moment, she was silent. "Can't we just sleep in? I so need to rest."
He was in the chair, lacing up a boot. "Okay."
"Are you angry with me?"
He took off his boots. He stared at the wall, then stood and turned toward the door.
"Where are you going?"
"Think I'll make some coffee and read a bit."
He went to the kitchen, closing the bedroom door on the way out. He pressed the "on" button of the percolator. Soon it was making the rhythmic gurgling sounds that announced the beginning of each day.
He poured a cup and booted up his laptop. He checked the news on Yahoo, glanced at Reddit and checked for new items on a blog hosted by a web-security outfit. It was the usual stuff: phishing and email scams, viruses. He had trouble concentrating.
He picked up his coffee along with one of the chairs near the table and carried it over to the wide window by the door. He drew open the drapes, sat down and waited for the sun to come up. The morning was heavily overcast. Outside near the parking lot, a sudden gust of wind shook the branches of a leafless tree.
He was disappointed about the skiing. He was the one who'd taught her, and by end of last season — the last season before Dublin — she was able to handle the expert slopes. Julie loved to ski more than he did. A day on the slopes would have been like old times. But after her experience on the plane, maybe it was too much to expect. Besides, if this wind kept up, driving in the mountains would be no picnic. The place where they'd planned to go was on the other side of a pass famous for high winds and ground blizzards. Traffic up there could be a nightmare. Yeah. Why not take a day and relax?
In the parking lot outside, he watched a darkened figure in a hooded parka. The man was bent against the wind, making his way to a small car in the gray light. Ryan sipped his coffee.
The car's lights came on. It pulled away in the gloom.
* * *
That evening, they went to Chez Mon Cousin, a restaurant near downtown tucked in a renovated historic mansion. The receptionist led them through a labyrinth of corridors and nooks to a room toward the back. She seated them in a corner next to a wall of red brick, near a window full of plants on shelves.
Earlier in the day, Ryan had worried that dinner would have to be scratched as well as the skiing, but after sleeping in, Julie was more like her old self. He made a light lunch — soup and sandwiches. Then they went to the store and stocked up for the week. It was still blustery outside, but it was clearing from the west and patches of sun appeared among fast-moving clouds. He looked toward the mountains. The skiing conditions were probably excellent.
For dinner, she wore a dark knit turtleneck with a little gold necklace, from which hung a small pearl. He watched her as she studied the menu. The light made silvery highlights in her dark hair. She was more lovely than ever. He felt a catch in his throat. She looked up and saw him.
In her eyes there was that sudden flicker of fear, the same look he had seen at the airport.
The server appeared, a girl with dyed black hair and a ring in one nostril.
"Have you decided?"
"I think so," said Julie. "I feel adventurous. I'll have the cuisses de grenouilles." She pronounced it in what sounded to Ryan like perfect French.
He glanced again at the menu. "I'll have the burger," he deadpanned.
"Oh, God!" Julie rolled her eyes.
The server seemed confused. "I'm sorry, sir. We don't have burgers."
"Darn. Guess I'll have the blackened trout." He did not attempt pronunciation of "truite a la Creole."
"Let's order some wine," he said. Then, to the server: "She's 21 today."
"I don't care for any," Julie said, looking away.
"I don't care for any."
Ryan glanced up at the server. "Could you give us a minute?"
Julie sighed and put down her menu. She stared listlessly at the white tablecloth, avoiding his eyes.
Another couple came in, with a little girl carried by the father. They were seated at a table on the other side of the room. The man put his hands under his daughter's arms and carefully placed her in a booster seat. Julie watched them for a moment, then sighed. She seemed far away.
"You can't drink at all, can you?" Ryan asked.
"No," she said, staring down at the table. She turned toward the window and wiped a tear. She clutched the little pearl on her necklace as if it were a source of some nameless hope.