Waiting

Ex-lovers meet by chance, 27 years later, in an airport waiting room and share more than memories.

The announcement from Gate 16 was not so loud, but oh so clear, “Flight 1087 to JFK has been delayed due to the expected late arrival of the aircraft from Bradley Hartford. We shall inform you as to the new expected departure for flight 1087 to JFK.” A pause, then a feeble, “Thank you for your cooperation.”

Steven knew that flight might be delayed due to the snow storm in the Northeast, but he had hoped the incoming flight would have somehow beaten the storm. Now all that remained was how to fill the next two hours in the West Palm Beach airport Terminal B.

He did not have to wait long to find out how he would fill the time.

She saw him first. He wasn’t sure just how long she had been looking at him, but what was once Pippi Longstocking bright red hair, was a now light grey shoulder length hair ala the current version of Judy Collins, who they had seen together in concert during their college days in Ithaca, NY. It was the same hair style she had when they went on their first date 32 years ago.

After the two former lovers locked eyes on each other, first Karen waved as if she was in the Rose Bowl parade and she was standing atop the California rose growers association float waving to the crowd huddled on benches along Reserve Blvd. on a chilly Pasadena morning. When Steven smiled back, her face lit up, her eyes opened wide and her ear to ear smile made it easy to determine the joy she had to see her old boyfriend.

Karen took her right hand, cupped her thumb and forefinger and as if it was a comb, she swept back the hair that was hanging over her forehead. And when she did, Steven thought back to when he first saw her sitting on the other side of the Textor lecture hall their junior year in college.

He was bored with the professor’s explanation of Maslow’s theory on Self Actualization, so he glanced around the half filled lecture hall and as he reached the next to last row in the upper left, he saw her do the same thing with her hand and her then red hair. There was something about how sexy she looked when she did that that he decided then that he would walk up to her after the class, introduce himself and see if she’d like to get lunch or whatever she preferred to do. As he did 32 years ago, he decided to get up and walk over to her.

Who was Karen with? Husband? Child? Steven wanted to know before he got up from the all too hard molded plastic seat that had him wedged in among eight other travelers bound for NY’s JFK. Then there was the route to go from his chair to Karen’s chair. She was about 75 feet away, but in between were other waiting passengers, luggage of all shapes and sizes — as were the people — and the seating areas were configured into clusters so that walking from his seat to hers, would not be a linear course.

As he launched his backpack over his right shoulder and pulled out the handle on his luggage, Steven slowly weaved his way through the mass of people, luggage, wheelchairs and two small dogs of unknown breed. His eyes remained locked on Karen as if he would lose her, as he did 28 years ago, if he took his small brown eyes off of her big green almond shaped eyes.

As he got closer, Karen sat upright in her hard plastic molded seat, straightened up her olive green Ralph Lauren golf shirt, put her tortoise shell reading glasses atop her head, took her earbuds out of her ears and placed them in her Louis Vutton handbag. She put the papers she was reading on her left side against the plastic seat, unscrewed her plastic water bottle took a small swig and politely asked the older man sitting two seats away from her, “Would it be alright If I moved your bag off this seat, so my old boyfriend could sit next to me?” The man looked up from his Palm Beach Post newspaper and without a word, but with a bit of a grunt moved his bag off the seat so that Steven could sit next to one of the loves of his life.

As he weaved his way through the airport waiting room obstacle course, the memories he shared with her raced through his mind. From taking her to her first Broadway musical, to hiking in Yosemite to sitting trackside in the VIP section at the Saratoga race track.

He had seen her once after their breakup, 27 years ago in Philadelphia. It was supposed to be just dinner. She was working on her PhD, he was in town for a trade show. He remembers the evening well. Dinner and then back to his hotel room, where they reenacted many nights they shared together in college, and in various bedrooms and hotel rooms they shared post graduation. He had not seen her since she kissed him goodbye the following morning. He often thought of her but never attempted to call. Karen was the one woman he thought he loved, it was just that he never knew what love meant or felt like.

When Steven was within 10 feet of her, Karen stood up and her smile widened and her emerald colored eyes glistened as they welled up with tears. She opened her arms wide and as he took the last two steps, he dropped his backpack which caused his wheeled luggage to tip over and softly land on a woman’s leg, “I’m so sorry, let me get that bag off of your leg. Are you OK?” “Yes, I’m fine, no worries. Go, spend time with this beautiful woman, she seems very happy to see you.” And as Steven stood up after getting his luggage upright, he found himself nose to nose with a woman he had not seen in over two decades, but who was often in his thoughts.

They briefly kissed and then hugged for what seemed to be a bit too long. The hug although warm and embracing, felt different. There was something missing. And as he slowly pulled away, he snuck a glance at her chest and noticed that what was once there, no longer was. Karen stepped back, but held his hands in hers as she looked at what she thought was a mirage among what you might expect a crowded airport terminal might resemble when all departing flights from southern Florida are delayed on a February Sunday evening.

“You look mahvelous! I must say your salt and pepper hair makes you look so distinguished.” And as she said those complimentary words she lifted her left hand out of Steven’s to brush back his greying hair that had gotten a bit messy when he reached over to retrieve his luggage off of the woman’s leg. She did hold on to his other hand and Steven held on as well.

And without hesitation he leaned in and gently kissed her lips as he put his hands on her hips. She kissed back and wrapped her arms around him as if to confirm that this man she once and perhaps still loved was with her on a Sunday night in a crowded airport terminal, about to once again go their separate ways perhaps for one last time.

After some laughter, Karen said, “Let’s sit.” And as they did they shared another laugh as if both realized what had just happened was real and serendipitous.

“What brought you to Palm Beach?” “Doing research at a clinic and getting a break from the freakin’ Boston winter.” “Boston? Didn’t know you were living there.” “Yes, been there 10 years. The Feinstein Center is an international facility that specializes in speech therapy for special needs kids. I’m one of the managers there and sit on their Board of Directors.”

OK, Steven thought. Should he kill the moment or play it out. He knew she was the №2 person of the world famous clinic and that she was a prominent person in the development of auditory treatment of special needs children. A Google search he had done on Karen a few months ago, provided an up to date profile on the woman he was sitting next to and staring into those eyes that he had not looked into for over two decades.

He wanted to ask her so many things, How are your parents, alive or deceased? Her sister? Children? But he needed to ask about what was no longer there, because he still cared about her and wanted to know that she was alright.

“You probably noticed that my 38 D’s are gone. Replaced eight years ago with a pair of more manageable silicon implants. I’m a survivor. I had breast cancer and had both breasts removed. Had chemo and radiation, not a pleasant time in my life.” But with a renewed sense of energy, her voice picked up and shared, “I’m now cancer free, I work out four days a week, do yoga just about every day and eat a lot of green stuff.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through that. I know a woman who had a similar experience it was very difficult on her and her family.” Steven hoped that opening would throw back the curtain as to her family situation. It did.

“Um, yeah well, my husband left me, but he graciously waited until after all my treatments were finished, but well before I was declared cancer free. He liked my old pair and it freaked him out they were no longer part of the Karen package. I sorta knew he was seeing someone before I got sick, but wasn’t totally sure. Cindy, my 27- I mean 24 year old — is at Ann Arbor, law school studying environmental law, she wants to save the world. She’s a smart girl, but she’s had a hard time processing what her father has done. I see her a couple of times a year. She loves Boston, so she comes in the Spring and Fall we have dinner in the North End, even take in a game at Fenway when the Sox are home. How about you? What’s going on for you in West Palm?”

Steven’s Google search had not revealed some of the information Karen just shared, so it took him a minute to absorb it and then to share with Karen that he was staying with a friend from home who had just retired to Delray Beach and they played some golf, caught a Mets Spring Training game and ate and drank a bit.

“Kids?” No, no kids. I was married 22 years, divorced eight years ago. I’ve been living in Long Beach in a coop on the boardwalk since then. I’m a writer. Started out writing advertising copy, which I still do a little bit of, but I’ve been lucky that I’ve had more and more short stories and essays published in the few magazines that remain and some literary websites.”

“A writer. Well, you always did have a way with words, so I guess that makes sense. So, let me guess. You spend your days doing all sorts of things — doing research, of course and then when the moment hits you, you rush to your laptop and craft some cool story.”

“It sounds like you’ve been stalking me.” He ended the sentence with a laugh and Karen laughed along with him. “My friend’s husband is a writer, he’s a non practicing attorney that writes articles for a bunch of high brow legal websites, and I know he spends parts of his days riding his bike, playing tennis and getting high. Do you still smoke weed?”

“Yes. My arthritis qualified me to get a medical marijuana card, so I get a regular monthly supply. No smoking, though in NY. I use those vape pens that look like a cigarette holder. It’s good stuff. I try not to exhaust my monthly supply too early, but my friends always seem to know when I get a new supply from the dispensary.”

“Do you keep in touch with Madeline or Kathy?’’ Karen seemed to squirm when Steven asked about her close college friends and he regretted asking when he noticed her discomfort. “Uh, well, it was sad actually. Kathy died 10 years ago, a drunk driver hit her car broadside. She died instantly. She was coming to Boston the next day to help me set up my new brownstone. When I got the phone call I was devastated. I loved her. She was going to stay awhile since my health was just getting better and she had just gotten a divorce. I miss her.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” And as he reached out to hug her, she leaned into him and he wrapped his arms around her and she sobbed and kept her face nestled in his chest. Steven remembered he had a napkin in his pocket, left over from his Starbucks coffee and he slowly pulled back and wiped her tears but said nothing.

As they sat there in quiet, a large man with a suitcase on wheels knocked into them and said nothing as he continued on his way. The two of them got a sense that dozens of eyeballs were surreptitiously looking at them.

“Still drink scotch?” Karen laughed and smiled, “You remembered?” “Of course I do. Let’s get one now and give our audience a break from their entertainment.” “Good idea.”

And the two of them got up from the cramped sitting area pulling their respective wheeled piece of luggage and meandered through the crowd to the bar on the other side of the sitting area, from which a couple was just leaving two seats that offered a close view of the weather channel that showed the Nor’easter was dropping over a foot of snow with 50 mile per hour winds on the two airports these two former lovers were trying to head to that night.

“Your parents?” “Both gone,” she said, “my father 10 years ago from a heart attack, my mother eight years ago from a stroke. Yours?” “Both gone as well. My dad 20 years ago from a heart attack, my mom nine years a ago from a fall in her apartment.”

As the bartender approached, Karen spoke up first, “Johnnie Walker Black and water.” She turned towards Steven as if to ask him his order, “I’ll have a Corona” as he looked at his drinking partner and wondered where the night was headed.

“Tell me about Cindy, do you have a picture?” “She’s a beauty. Great laugh, doesn’t take life too seriously. She just broke up with her boyfriend, which is kind of sad because I thought he was the one. Cin never fully explained why they split, but she does seem much happier now.”

Steven realized she did not offer up a picture of her daughter, so he asked again, “Can I see a picture?” Karen then started to stir her scotch with the plastic stirrer faster. She then started to twist and turn in her bar stool. “it’s funny, my family and friends say how much Cindy reminds them of you.” “Me?” And then Steven realized that Cindy’s age coincided with their Philadelphia rendezvous. Was it a coincidence?

“This is to announce that Flight 1146 to Boston’s Logan airport will depart at 7:45. We will start pre boarding in 20 minutes for handicap travelers and those traveling with children at Gate 15.”

The announcement served as the bell that rang in school to signify the end of class and that it was time to move on to your next class, gym, lunch or study hall. For Karen and Steven it signified the end of another chapter in their joint lives, which with the news that Karen’s daughter was the same age of their last sexual encounter suddenly had Steven’s mind racing as to what and how to ask if among the things Karen and he had shared, if Cindy was included.

“Let me get the check, I can expense it to the Center.” And with that Karen pulled out her platinum Amex card from her wallet and laid it on top of the check.

“Cindy’s father?” Karen did not look at Steven after he asked the question. She signed the credit card bill, finished her Johnnie Walker Black, collected her things and before she got up from the bar stool said, “Steven, I’d tell you if I could, but I’ve never actually been sure just who is Cindy’s father. Oh, I always told her and everyone that she was my husband’s child. Although Kathy and Madeline were always intrigued by how much Cindy resembled you. They’ve put pictures of you and her side by side and pointed out the similar features you two have. I always chuckled and said it was a coincidence.” Steven stood up as Karen pulled up the handle on your suitcase. He put his hands around her waist, kissed her on the cheek and whispered, “Please tell her that I love her. Take care of her — and yourself.”

Karen grabbed Steven around his waist with one hand and reached for Steven’s cellphone that was on the bar. “Your code please.” “2488” And then Karen typed in her cellphone number which caused her cellphone to ring. She answered and turned off the phone.

“Steven, it was wonderful to see you. It really was. You’re as good looking as you were in college, a rare feat.”

“Karen, you look beautiful. It was nice.” And then Karen gently put her fingers on his lips and said “Shush. I’ll text you her picture. Maybe you can come to Boston in the Spring. That would be nice.”

And then Karen put her pocketbook over her shoulder, pulled her suitcase toward Gate 16 and got on line with the rest of the passengers heading to Boston. As the line began to move toward the plane, Karen turned to Steven who had not moved from the bar and blew Steven a kiss goodbye.

And as she walked down the jetway, Karen texted Steven a picture from her friend’s daughter’s wedding, of a beautiful 20 something year old woman with her arm around Karen raising a glass, as if making a toast.

The text message under the photo read, “Thank You!”

Steven sat down at the bar, staring at the photo on his phone. “Want another one?” Steven looked up at the bartender and answered, “No. One is good, thanks.”

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Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson

Essays that provoke you to consider options on national events.