She has a strong handshake. It’s assertive, confident. She’s accustomed to meeting strangers. The Blackberry gave her a way. She’s about business, a professional. She dresses like the social workers at the rehab center, right down to the tiny nondescript gold earrings in her ears and the short haircut. She prefers practical to pretty. Maybe her Lean-In suit is carefully packed in her carry-on. I imagine it as some kind of expensive black fabric that discretely hugs her curves, because Lady Lorna is not flashy. Except for her smile. Her teeth are white and straight. Her cinnamon-colored lips don’t need lipstick, and she’s not wearing any.
Her palm is damp against mine. I’m flattered by that. She’s into me. Three years ago, facing what had happened to me, I worried about women, more specifically I worried about sex with women. It never was a problem before, but maybe that’s because I was the one on top, figuratively and literally. But I’m not tall, dark, and handsome anymore. The top dog days are over. In rehab there were plenty of lectures, videos, books, pamphlets, and personal testimonies. Plenty of the power of positive thinking. Scientific sex. Learning to work around the laws of Physics not with them. Meanwhile my dick was dead to me and equipped with a catheter. But I learned to adjust to it, with time, as I’ve done to most things. I’m not a lonely man, and when I position myself just right there’s still a prize in the Cracker Jacks, at least for my company. Turns out there is life after death, even a sex life. It’s just different.
Lorna’s a pretty name, and I tell her that. Sure it’s kind of old-fashion, and I’m pretty sure she’s not Scottish, although you can’t always tell. The pollsters struggle with it, but more and more of us don’t fit very neatly into categories. My full name’s Elijah and I’m not Jewish. My Moroccan mother and Mississippi father named their first-born for an old family friend who is. Perhaps Lorna has a similar story. In any case, she sparkles at the compliment for her name, and her pleasure is infectious. I enjoy it and find myself wanting to hold her hand for a long time, and I believe she’d let me, but twisting my back this way can’t go on much longer.
I’m forced to let go first, and I sort of fall back against the seat, exhaling louder than I intended to, as if I’d just set down a heavy weight. Dammit. She notices because a faint furrow crinkles her brow for an instant. If she asks me if I’m okay I won’t be. Well-meaning people inevitably ask me if I’m okay, constantly reminding me that I’m not, not in their eyes anyway. There was a time when my body was like another one of my jock trophies that Mom still keeps in her antique curio cabinet. I displayed it. People admired it.
“I’m dying for some coffee,” Lorna says as she lowers the middle seat’s tray table.
“Me too,” I say with a smile.
She’s beaming at me, and while I’m not saying that one thing has anything to do with the other, my back does feel better faster, as if she transmits contentment the way most people pass the flu. I relax. I don’t really know why. I just do.
There’s more chit-chat about early flights and stumbling through security in a sleepy daze. We talk about the crowded flight and inadequate carry-on storage. I don’t mention that I usually fly first class or business. And anyway these days I’m the carry-on.
She’s vivacious, I silently conclude, as we talk, but definitely not a first-move kind of girl. I’m listening carefully for the hint of a husband, a boyfriend, maybe even a girlfriend. Maybe she’s an undercover nun. Do they still wear habits? Her hair is short. But no, she’s merely waiting for me to do something, say something. I bet she considers herself a feminist, but she’s as traditional as her name. But maybe not. I think she’s up for a little adventure. Short-lived of course. I prefer not to see myself as some kind of macho asshole but I guess maybe I’m a little old fashion too. Maybe it matters so much more to me now because I have so much more to prove.
We’ve come to a decision point. We can end this right here or have our coffee together and see where it takes us. If we stop now she makes a pleasant memory that will fade with time. If we go forward I risk learning I don’t like her, and maybe she discovers that she feels the same way about me. There’s a lot of can’t in my life, although she has to know that. What if I raise her expectations, or she raises mine, and nothing? A crash. Not exactly the right image when you’re on a plane. It’s not like I can change my seat like Baxter did. She’s already armed with her Kindle. I can simply take out my laptop and pretend to work. We can become two proverbial ships passing in the night. No hard feelings.
Unless you count disappointment. I want to know her, know more about her, even if it’s only for a little while. She’s not a kid but she’s got a fresh face. I don’t think she’s wearing any makeup at all. I’m kind of amazed by that, how well she does plain. Most of the women I know don’t want to answer the front door without their cosmetic enhancements. Hell—some men don’t want to either. When I do T.V I even get made-up. But here she is basically bare-faced, and reminding me of a Hershey kiss, simple and sweet. But maybe it was just too early for her to put herself together this morning, I say in my head, reining myself in. Maybe she’s really as vain as most women are, as I am. The thing is I don’t know and I want to. It’s a short flight. Nothing ventured nothing gained.
“Do you live in D.C.?” I ask, extending the invitation.
“No, I have a meeting for work,” she answers, accepting it. “What about you?”
“Also work,” I say.
She closes her Kindle, giving me the sign that she could be mine for the duration. And what is that? Two hours? Yet I’m kind of excited. Like a school boy. We do a verbal exchange of business card facts: where we work, what we do. Her business is government. She’s Civil Service, and she’s amused by the fact that my job is to get her bosses elected.
“I hope we’re on the same side,” she says.
“What side would that be?” I ask.
I’m pretty sure I know. The only thing red about her is the blouse she’s wearing.
“The correct one,” she answers me without missing a beat and not divulging anything either.
I laugh. She’s smart and funny. Government employees with their talking points. I’ve written a lot of those points myself. People like me make sure the Sunday news shows rarely reveal any news, unless it’s the news we want to reveal.
The drink cart arrives at our row. “What can I get you?” the flight attendant who rescued Window Pain asks Lorna first.
“Coffee with extra cream and one Splenda,” she says.
“And what can I get you, Mr. Abbot?” the attendant turns her attention to me while her hands manage Lorna’s coffee.
I’m not surprised that she knows my name. I do stand out in a crowd so to speak.
“Coffee,” I say. “Black.”
The attendant passes Lorna’s cup of coffee over me, and then the Splenda and two creams, which apparently are not enough because Lorna asks for two more. I get my black coffee and sip it as I watch her prepare her concoction. I prefer espresso, and my favorite is Mom’s spiced coffee, with sugar cubes and no milk. I want to tease Lorna about taking a little coffee with her cream. It’s an old joke but maybe it’s too soon. I settle for watching her neatly clean up the tray table between us, carefully stacking the empty cream containers one into the other. That done, she finally sits back in her seat and drinks her coffee, if you can call it that.
Conversation is easy with her, but I’m also naturally good at it. Most people enjoy talking about themselves. All you have to do is ask the right key questions and things flow. Lorna coordinates a project aimed at developing long-term sustainable housing for homeless families. She dresses like a social worker because that’s what she is. She refers to her work as policy practice. “Structural interventions,” she explains. “Stable housing leads to all kinds of positive outcomes for people.” Apparently her work tackles an assortment of societal ills, addressing something she refers to as the determinants of health. I kind of glaze over at times, focusing instead on her slender neck and plump breasts. By the time the flight attendants do their first pass through to collect the trash I’m picturing Lorna on a city council, maybe in a state house. She’s impressive. I’d vote for her.
“But enough about me,” she eventually says. “Would I have seen you on MSNBC?”
“So not Fox then?” I tease.
She giggles at her own reveal.
“What about CNN?” she asks.
“In either case my performance must have been pretty forgettable,” I say.
Yes, I’m part of the punditry class. Talking heads, the lot of us.
“I don’t watch the news 24/7, you know,” Lorna tells me. “Maybe I just missed you.”
“Good save,” I say.
“Well have you been on T.V.?”
“A few times,” I admit.
She appears to be impressed.
“Wow,” she says. “I’ll look for you next time.”
“Assuming I’m not on at two a.m.”
“I’m thinking you’re primetime,” she replies.
I get a little rush from that, an emotional one of course, but it feels good nonetheless.
“So who are you working for?” she asks. “Anybody I might know? Somebody big?”
“Client confidentiality,” I say with a grin. “I think you know something about that.”
“Just don’t reveal any names,” she coaxes.
Her voice is mellifluous.
“I suspect you’re smart enough to figure it out regardless.”
She smiles, as a reddish tint rises up beneath her brown cheeks.
“Well okay, if you won’t tell me,” she pouts.
I want to touch her puckered lips, kiss them. My plumbing fails but there’s still water in the pipes, and it still gets hot. I’m not really sure that I have a type, but I’m kind of surprised that she is it. Shit—it’s nine o’clock in the morning and all I can think about is what she’s concealing beneath that black sweater and slacks. Maybe a lacy bra, a pair of black panties.
“Maybe when I get to know you a little better,” I hear myself say.
Her eyes widen. She’s surprised too. I know what the words mean, what I’m asking. The plane is making its initial descent into D.C. Ninety minutes ago she was telling Window Pain that I can’t stand up. She must know there’s a lot more can’t’s where that one came from. But the end is near. They’ll carry me off last and give her plenty of time to put some distance between us.
“I’ll hold you to that,” she says.
Her eyes are shining. The knot tying up my intestines releases. It never used to be this hard before, but okay, it is what it is. Her response is vague but I can work with it. A flight attendant returns to the intercom to tell us to stow our tray tables and return our seatbacks to their upright positions. Lorna gets busy fishing around in her giant bag.
“Your seat belt,” I remind her.
“Okay,” she says hastily stuffing the bag back under the middle seat before sitting up and buckling herself in.
As the plane slows and descends, a flight attendant returns.
"Mr. Abbot?" she says.
"Yes," I reply.
"You're not making a connection, right?" she asks.
I hope I am, I think to myself, but confirm with the attendant that I'm not.
"Good," she says. "Will it be okay for you deplane after the other passengers?”
“Sure,” I reply.
And the first shall be last. The wheels drop from the belly of the plane. I don’t look at Lorna, afraid of what I might see in her eyes. Instead I take a minute to let myself worry if my chair made it on board and in good shape. I can’t really be okay until I’m back in it again and mobile. Each time they take it away from me it feels like I’m losing my legs all over again. The plane touches down, bouncing a little, and so does my right leg. I draw a deep breath willing it to stop. I’m so fucking crippled. It’s not what I want her to see.
“Here we are,” Lorna says.
“Welcome to D.C.,” I say before the intercom attendant does.
The local time is 9:30. We get the weather report and baggage claim instructions. People take out their phones to make calls and send texts as the plane taxis to the gate. I should send Hal an update with my ETA. It might be closer to eleven before I get to the office. The plane stops and we hear the familiar freedom chimes, followed by the chorus of metal clicks as seatbelts are released. Everybody's in a hurry. The center aisle instantly fills. I hear Lorna release her belt too. There’s no need for me to do so. I’m going to be here awhile.
The overhead bins are opened. I watch. Lorna bends down to collect her bag. If she’s going to hold me to it, I need a way to contact her; and I don’t know her last name. In the old days I’d have it already, her number, and plans to hook-up this evening.
Once the forward door is opened, the rough river of passengers with their luggage begins to flow out and away. Lorna glances at her wrist watch. Her meeting began at nine. She’ll have to climb over me again, but it’s time for her to join the flow. She can. I can’t.