Cough Down our Sleeves

Traveling swallowing Dramamine/
Feeling spaced breathing out Listerine
I’d said what I’d said that I’d tell ya/
And that you’d killed the better part of me/
If you could just milk it for everything/
I’ve said what I’d said and you know what I mean/
But I still can’t focus on anything/
We kiss on the mouth but still cough down our sleeve

— ‘Dramamine’, Modest Mouse

I made it through security with just enough time  to catch the plane if I ran. I was going to be one of those people, I thought to myself, those hapless characters you see running through airports, with panic on their faces and their belongings swinging everywhere, spooling out a series of ‘excuses me, pardon me,’ as they slalom through the crowds. I’d always regard those desperate souls rushing to their planes, and think, ‘Idiot, why didn’t you plan better? This is your fault.’

Now here I was, a hapless idiot running through an airport. I skipped the people mover so I could sprint. Halfway to my gate, my phone flew loose from my pocket and went skidding down the shinny floor like a hockey puck. For a moment I considered leaving it behind, a casualty of catching the plane. But then I thought, ‘Did I even want to catch that plane?’

It’s Christmas Eve. LAX is a beautiful holiday wasteland. It’s air-conditioned just a little too much. There’s no blinking lights, no jolly Santa. Mostly business as usual save some carelessly-strung garland. I checked my watch and there was just eight lonely minutes before my plane was scheduled to leave.

My heart was pumping blood like a crazy cartoon oil baron drilling for oil. I haven’t ran like this in years, in a full-speed sprint.  The terminal seemed endless, like I was on a treadmill going nowhere. Finally I limped breathlessly up to Gate 62B. There was still a line of people preparing to board. I made it. The trip will carry on as planned. I caught my breath while inspecting my fellow passengers, guessing at their personal stories before wondering what they would think about mine. If they knew.

I stood there with my ticket in my hand and collected my thoughts. Tomorrow I will have to go there and spend Christmas in the hospital. I will have to see it all.

The last text I made was to my uncle, saying I was running late.

I looked around. There was nothing open but a chain restaurant. The sounds of a metal gate closing echoed through the empty terminal.

The flight attendant announced over the intercom that it was the last chance to board flight 231 to Houston. Which my brain translated to: this is your chance to not board flight 231 to Houston.

————

It was the kind of place where the menus and the beers are tall and everything is either constructed of wood or copper. I surveyed my options and picked a Cuban sandwich and a coke. There was a TV showing the president smiling in front of a Christmas tree. At the other end of the bar a man in a grey overcoat hunched over a pile of fries and through the door a mother with a frenzy of bags and children came tumble-weeding into the restaurant.

They consumed a pair of tables behind me and an orchestrated ruckus commenced, some screeching hullabaloo about what to order and who gets the video game, that blocked out the restaurant’s generic, low-key, computer-programmed music I was using to distract myself.

I caught a glimpse of the family in the mirror. There were two boys that were either twins or close enough. They both had narrow faces that made them look like mischievous elves, or else they just really were mischievous and it had nothing to do with their bird-tuft hair and pointy nose. There was also a bored looking teenage girl with her dyed black and magenta hair shaved on the side and a coil of rubber bracelets on her wrist. The mom, herself, had an explosion of frazzled curls parachuting from her head. The entire family was an unfortunate hairstyle.

When the bartender brought the sandwich I asked what time they closed. Before he could answer the mother appeared at the bar, and interrupted us, and then simultaneously ordered and apologized for ordering, without pause. I waited, but it seemed for every item she placed, one of her children shouted a newly revised order, painfully extending the process for everybody. Sometimes I do wonder if having children is the worst punishment you can suffer for having sex. The man in the grey overcoat finished his fries and pushed his plate away from him like he was mad about something. There was a tracker on the TV showing Santa’s flight. It was now midnight on the east coast.

After completing her balance beam act of chicken strips and cheeseburgers, no, grilled cheese, no, macaroni, Coke, no, Sprite, no, Dr. Pepper, she turned and sighed heavily in my direction. “Whew, what a night,” she said.

I took in her cloud of tedious torture. “Tell me about it.”

She took that literally.

“We got caught in the worst traffic here. We took one of those Ubers and the guy was the slowest, I swear, and then I couldn’t find the stupid email, you know, to check in,” she complained, waving her phone at me. “These things are so hard to use when you really need them. Oh well. I can’t complain. Things happen. We’re here now. Were you going to Houston too?” She asked.

Her questioned rattled around in my head like a basketball before falling through the hoop. “Yeah, I missed my flight, I guess.”

“It sucks, right?” She laughed. She stuck her hand out. “I’m Grace.”

Such a Southern name. She had the twang too. She wore a flowery hippie dress with a shawl that looked like she knitted it herself. Her eyes had a relaxed, hypnotizing glow. There was something so natural about her that I felt my entire body let go. Although she carried around something very sad with her too.

I just wanted to be left alone. I text my uncle that I had missed my flight. He hadn’t written back. I just wanted to eat my sandwich quietly and wait for that text, but I couldn’t help falling for her charm. I was a stretchy doll being pulled by two opposite forces. Weak under all my emotions. This will all be over soon, I told myself.

“I’m Gerald,” I lied.

“Well, shit, Gerald, looks like the next flight isn’t till tomorrow.”

“At least I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” I said without thinking.

She looked at her kids. One of the boys had on a blue ‘California’ t-shirt with a picture of the perfect wave crashing on a golden beach where a cartoon girl in a floss-thin bikini shields her eyes from the quintessential California sun. The kid looked to be about ten years-old. There was some kind of smudge on his cheek, or a birthmark. “It’s been such a great trip out here. You know, people were much friendlier than I thought they were going to be,” she reflected.

I asked her, “Did you enjoy yourself?”

“Oh yeah, you know, traveling with these can be a pain some times, but they’re pretty good when they want to be.” The other boy took a fork and began jabbing it into the side of the table. I noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “I want to show them the world while they’re young. I never got to go anywhere until I was 24, and that was to St. Louis, where, if you’ve been to St. Louis, you know, it’s no Paris.”

“There’s only one Paris,” I interjected.

“No. There’s more,” she corrected me. “And I want to take them there if I can. To all the Paris’s.”

A sanguine memory floated into view. A family trip. Red swim shorts. Tall palm trees on the sand. Virgin drinks in coconuts. My father and mother in flower prints. I could almost feel the breeze.

“Like Hawaii,” I suggested.

“What?”

“Hawaii is a kind of Paris…” I said, unsure of myself now.

She shook her head. “I don’t get it.”

I gave up. “Never mind. Travel will open their eyes,” I offered lamely.

The boy in the blue t-shirt with the smudge on his cheek began making a quiet howling sound. She smiled proudly. With his own hand he grabbed his other wrist and shook it.

She said, “You can never love them too much.”

On the television Santa was flying over Pittsburgh. “Where are you guys staying tonight?” I asked.

It was the first time I knew I was going to get on that morning flight.

“Oh, geez. I might look into a hotel room, but probably we’ll just stay here.” She pointed to the benches by the gate. Nearby a worker was riding a Zamboni to clean the floor. The howling boy was now holding his napkin over his face and pretending to be a hostage. They got me, I thought I heard him wail.

Maybe it would be better not to be alone tonight. A surge of goodwill infected me. From what I could tell she didn’t have much money. “I know it might sound crazy, but you guys can stay with me. I have an extra bedroom. I don’t live very far from the airport,” I told her.

For the first time she was lost for words. The bartender came out of the kitchen with a tray of drinks for them. Sippy cups for the boys. But they’re elves, they don’t need sippy cups, I thought. She bit her lip and seemed to be pondering something else entirely. “Let me go check on them,” she said.

What have I done? I worried my sudden offer of generosity was being mistaken as an advance. Not that she isn’t attractive, of course, she is, but I was only trying to do something nice, being Christmas Eve and her having to sleep at the airport with three kids. It really was a genuine, no-strings-attached offer. It might have come off as something else, though, and if I don’t correct it, it’ll stand in her memory of L.A. — and me — as a slimy, opportunistic proposal.  Low and loathsome. It’s not the kind of energy I wanted to give off… such shitty energy on such a shit night. Damn.

She returned with her drink, which was a Long Island ice tea, and I felt better.

“I don’t know. How do I know you’re not one of those Los Angeles weirdos?” She asked playfully.

“We’re nicer than you thought,” I reminded her. “Look, I really am just offering you and your kids a spare bedroom with a queen bed and some sleeping bags. There’s a couch for you in the living room, unless you want to sleep in the guest room with them, you can sleep anywhere…” the more I tried to explain my innocence, the less convincing I sounded, even to myself. “What I’m trying to say,” I stammered. “I have my car here and I have the room. And we’ll all come back here in the morning. It’s got to be better than those benches.”

She laughed in a way of buying time. “I don’t know…”

I told her, “I’m just trying to help.”

She laughed for real this time.

——–

A low, curdled fog engulfed the city; oncoming headlights revealed lingering ghosts on lamp post street corners. The boys were twins but not identical. The girl’s name was Emma and she likes writing things on the frosted windowpane.

Grace’s ex-husband lives in Florida.

The kids were quizzing me about Los Angeles. “Does it ever get dark at night, like really dark?” Marco, the one with the smudge on his cheek, asked.

“A sort of dark,” I told him, picturing coyotes roaming around Griffith Park, the end of the pier on a starless night, remembering unfamiliar gas stations at 3am, I said, “Darkness is only about what you imagine is inside it.”

Grace nodded in agreement.

The kids moved on. Marco asked, “Are there any McDonald’s?”

“A hundred,” I bragged.

The boys laughed at the idea of a hundred McDonald’s.

The fog was twice as bad down Lincoln Blvd into Marina Del Rey. I couldn’t read any of the street signs. We passed under hanging street lamps that made intermittent, Christmas tree-shaped cones of light I used to measure distance. I figured I was 300 Christmas trees away from my street.

“Are we near the beach. I can swim real good. Do you live by the beach?” The other boy asked. His name was Kenny, or Tremor, or something. I didn’t catch it. When he spoke it sounded like his lips were stapled together. Every word he muttered was hard earned. It’s awkwardly obvious why he’s the quiet one. I felt like the whole time he was talking everybody in the car was patiently just waiting for him to stop.

“Not close enough,” I told him, refusing to discuss Westside Real Estate and commerce stuff with a mumbling ten year-old. “Wrong side of Lincoln.”

I left it at that.

The car turned silent. I thought they’d like some country music, but Emma was quick to inform me of my lameness and insist I put on something cool.

“I don’t know how to do that,” I admitted.

Emma groaned like I was the worst person on the planet. Grace laughed. I counted six Christmas trees. “Go for it,” I told her.

Emma sprung from her seat. She lunged between her mother and me and began  poking the buttons and turning the knobs on the radio while bumping me with her shoulder. I yelled, “You’re going to kill us!” Grace found it hilarious. To make matters worse, we were swallowed up by the fog. I wondered if this counted as really dark. Not really; fog is a different kind of dark. A grey dark. Either way we were now blindly surrendering to destiny on the byproduct of a demented faith bound to one day run out of odds… a stopped truck ahead… getting sick tomorrow. Go Westward, young man! Finally Emma found the station she was looking for. “There,” she announced triumphantly, falling back into her seat.

Somebody was singing about booty, a lot of booty; and about the shaking of all this booty.

Go Westward, young man.

“Thank god,” I exhaled.

Grace snickered into her purple gloves.

———

“I think they’ll be alright in there,” Grace said, crossing her leg underneath her as she flopped back onto my couch. All three kids were sleeping in the bed. Her hair seemed different now, it fell loosely to her sides; at the airport I wouldn’t have thought this was possible. Her roots were showing which made her more attractive. There was bedding on the back of the couch for her when she got sleepy.

She didn’t have her shawl on anymore.

We split a bottle of wine once we put them to bed. It’s been three months since I drank and the grape filled my soul with pompoms. I forgot all about tomorrow. Little cheerleaders jumped up and down in my chest. I was giggly for once.

“I can’t believe we have to be back at the airport in seven hours,” she groaned.

“Airport check-in: take two,” I joked.

“I’m glad we’re not crashing there tonight. What was I thinking?” She laughed. “Some mother.”

“Don’t give short term woe such long term credit. You’re a great mother. You love them more than I’ve ever seen.” This was true. “You’re on top of it.”

“You’re so nice.”

“Thanks. That means something to me right now.”

She laughed. “At first I thought you were an asshole.” She leaned in next to me on the couch. Her skin smelled like vanilla and citrus. “You were all serious.” She made a funny-serious face by way of impersonating me. “I’m having a sandwich, nom nom nom,” she said in my voice, I guess.

I laughed a little too guiltily. “I’m not an asshole all the time.”

“Just when it counts, huh?” She joked.

“I guess,” I said, marveling at how accidentally accurate her casual musing was.

——–

We took turns using the bathroom. It was close to four in the morning. We met in the hallway and hushed each other, giggling about how it looked, two adults sneaking around, tip-toeing on squishy carpet, whispering….

It was nostalgic in a way. I didn’t know I missed sneaking around.

“I’m so glad I met you,” she whispered.

“I’m glad too,” I told her. “Who knew?”

Somebody hiccuped.

Laughter.

Room-spinning.

“Merry Christmas, by the way” I pointed out. “It’s not how I expected to be spending it.”

“Me either,” she said, her voice falling.

I smiled. “I’m glad you enjoyed L.A., and the kids did too. ” I told her. “See it’s not so bad.”

“It’s no Paris,” she sighed.

“Fuck Paris,” I said.

I grabbed her hand, not knowing what I was going to do next.

We looked into each others eyes, like sailors looking for land, rocking back and forth, watching the horizon, the stars dancing with the waves; maybe like sailors that were a little seasick, too. I let go. “Thanks,” I told her, backing away. “I just needed to find my balance.”

She did another one of her impersonations. “I’m just trying to help,” she said while slugging me slow-motion in my chin.

One of the boys yelled out from the bedroom. Grace laughed out loud and then covered her mouth. We gave each other a ‘oh, now you’ve done it’ look. She squatted and pretended to fart.

I fell under a spell.

Then I shooed her toward her children.

———

“The sun is almost coming up. We can’t see that motherfucker. I will die if I see the sunrise,” Grace wept.

I told her, “I think that might be extreme.”

“You know what I mean. Oh my god. I’m 36,” she sighed indulgently. “Emma is in high school. And, the boys, oh god, the boys are just, like….” She shook her head in awe of her life. “You have the right idea, Garald.”

“I do?”

“I’m just saying, it’s hard,” she laughed, then released a lungful of heavy shadows that lowered the temperature in the room. “Imagine that you feel like you’re constantly tripping over imaginary string; your foot is caught on string, and when you look down, it looks like there is string; but really there isn’t any string. You convince yourself that the string isn’t there, and you’re not going to trip, and you start to walk around normally again, but you’re always worried that one day maybe there will be real string there? And one day, you’ll feel the string and see the string but you’ll tell yourself, no, it’s in my head, and then you will trip over it. That’s what it’s like to always worry about them.” She motioned behind her to the guest bedroom like an umpire throwing a strike sign.

“I guess I don’t have a clue how hard it is,” I confessed.

I thought about the hospital and seeing my dad. I wondered what it was going to look like to see someone die. Did he worry about me like Grace worries about her kids? Was I just too small to see it? My uncle never text back. What did that mean? Am I too late?

“This wasn’t how it was supposed to turn out,” she continued. “There was a solid picture of how tomorrow was going to look. Not just because tomorrow is Christmas. Fuck Christmas. But every tomorrow. I was done, I thought.”

“It’s the holidays. It’s just a shit time for life-stuff. Don’t worry, everything will be better soon,” I told her and wanted to believe it. The room felt thick with things unsaid. I felt inside out. “I’m going through something too.”

“How did we get here?” She asked heavily, lost in her thoughts, not looking for an answer.

I gave her one anyway. In the only way I knew how. “Well, a long time ago we were sperm and then we landed in an egg because, you know, sex; and that was nice for a while, but then we grew too big for mommy’s stomach, so out we came, belly aching from the beginning,” I joked. “Then, of course, the early years, where we ate a lot of mushy food and learned not to run with scissors. Eventually we grew tall enough to ride roller coasters and do keg stands, speaking for myself, of course,” I babbled. She was dead silent. “What?” I asked.

She was talking to me and not talking to me. “I just want to get carried away, too, sometimes.”

I knew exactly what she meant. “What do you mean?” I asked anyway.

“Jesus Christ, Gerald!”  She yelled.

“Shhhhh!” I pointed at the bedroom. “And on his birthday, too!” I joked and pointed at the ceiling and heaven beyond.

“I don’t care,” she moaned, drunkenly. Then she put her head on my shoulder. I put my hand on her knee and squeezed it gently. She made a purring sound. I could feel her chest rising and falling next to me.

“I have to visit my dad tomorrow.”

She closed her eyes. “I don’t want to talk anymore, Gerald.”

“My name isn’t Gerald.”

“I don’t care,” she whispered reassuringly, as if that made everything alright.

Something pivotal was careening out of control. I stood up and felt nauseous. Something was off; like there’s a change in the geometry that now made the walls curve. Or the color orange is now missing. I felt a chill too. There’s not a scale in existence that could measure the extreme weight of living. I looked out the window and saw that the fog was too thick to even see the driveway. The fog had made the city disappear.

“We have an early flight,” I told her, “I’m going to sleep.”

“What about me?” She asked, her eyes closing drowsily.

I didn’t answer.

I did lie awake and think about the question, as the echoes of the morning hour bounced around the room like black moths at a camp fire….

Like green blips on an air traffic controller’s screen….

Like an EKG.

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