By Julia Black
It was a full flight to Tampa, which surprised me considering how little I wanted to go to Florida, but I suppose all flights were full in those days. Jason insisted on arriving at the airport two hours early, even though it meant waking up when the city was still dark and rang with that empty sound that always made me feel homesick before I’d even left. He still huffed audibly when we were held up in the security line by two TSA agents flirting behind the baggage x-ray. We sat at the gate for over an hour.
It was the closest weekend to our second anniversary—that is, nearly a month early—with tickets we could afford. To celebrate, Jason wanted to bring me to the place where his family had spent their annual winter vacations, where he said his most treasured memories had taken place. His favorite memories, he clarified, before he met me.
On the plane, I smiled at the cheery young flight attendant, who looked like she’d never been more delighted by anything in her life than the sight of us entering the jet one by one like cattle into a chute. I watched the silk-suited businessmen and the taut-faced old ladies in the first-class cabin stare at any and everything around them to avoid making eye contact with those of us passing through. I wondered if, when the curtains finally closed between us, the wealthy passengers could ever finally relax.
Once the routine humiliations of boarding were complete, we were asked to switch seats with two passengers in the exit row. Jason eyed the extra legroom and wiggled his shoulders a little bit as if to say, Don’t mind if we do. I hated him for it, and for no real reason at all. I took the window seat.
Jason had found me in a grocery store one year and eleven months before, searching the spice shelf for cumin. He told me later that he thanked his lucky stars that he’d been the one to find it misfiled under the nutmeg label, because if he hadn’t, he would have had nothing to offer me. He was so nervous that he asked me the same question twice about what I was making. But the truth is that I was the one who blurted out that maybe he could come over and try the recipe sometime.
Those first few weeks I was carried along in the swift current of his attention. Once starved for romantic love, I turned into a glutton. I told him things I’d never said out loud, excavating childhood memories I didn’t even know I had—flashes of a cruel prank I’d played on a girl in third grade, a dress I’d worn every day for weeks, a phrase from a song my father used to sing to me.
Jason and I didn’t have sex for over a month. It wasn’t that he’d never slept with a girl off the bat, he explained, just never one he’d taken seriously. I think he expected to be crowned for his restraint, but really it just made me wonder how many men had planted me in that first category, and why it should have anything to do with respect at all. The day after we finally slept together, I returned home from his house and cried on top of my made bed. I’d been alone for so long that I had developed a habit of grieving relationships before they began.
And now—now that we’d moved in together, now that we’d celebrated two birthdays and a promotion apiece in each other’s company, now that we talked about the future like it was a given—his presence felt like a slow-acting poison I couldn’t help but drink out of thirst.
A second flight attendant with a startling swipe of metallic lipstick waited with patiently clasped hands for us to settle before she addressed the five in our newly formed exit row rescue committee. I watched her without listening as she gave her speech and performed her stiff, deliberate choreography with fingers that appeared to have been glued together like a plastic doll’s. I noticed there was no ring on her finger and found myself wondering where she slept at night—did she go home to a nondescript one-bedroom somewhere in the suburbs, or book a hotel in a new, exotic city with every trip?
I wondered how many departments of copywriters and lawyers and customer service psychologists had massaged and reworked her words before they reached a thick manual, before she practiced them in front of a mirror, before she put on her starchy navy uniform, before she stood before us and asked herself if she could really count on us to help her save some lives when push came to shove. The men exchanged sober, dutiful looks. Then her eyes were on me.
She repeated: “Are you willing and able to perform these duties should an emergency occur?” I nodded.
“I’ll need a verbal confirmation, please.”
“Yes, I am.”
Jason squeezed my hand on the armrest like he was proud of me. I let my fingers lay like a corpse.
As we taxied, Jason reached for the in-flight magazine in the pocket in front of him and flipped straight to the Sudoku page. I looked at it and wrenched my facial muscles into a smile to show him how glad I was to see that nobody else had beaten him to it with their pen. He leaned over and kissed me. I breathed in his cologne, an expensive European brand that I’d written down in a notebook after we’d been together for a few months, so that if I ever lost him I could find that smell and remember him one day. I thought of the woman I once heard about who was so ravaged by Alzheimer’s that she could remember the act of reading but could not remember how to read. That’s how I felt, inhaling the air around his neck and trying to remember how it was supposed to make me feel.
My mother had called while we were waiting to board. Our conversation turned to a passionate young congresswoman who was giving an exasperated interview on half a dozen TV screens across the gate. I liked her. I liked that she gave my friends hope in our apocalypse-hued era.
“Well, she sure has a lot to learn about how the world works,” my mother said disapprovingly.
I had recently read an article in a science journal about how global temperatures could soon reach a point at which clouds start to disappear. Then we would watch as our atmosphere slipped over an extinction-level cliff. I asked my mother if she was aware that when my friends decide if they want to have children, their answer doesn’t just depend on money or lifestyle or the havoc pregnancy might wreak on their bodies. Their answer depends on whether or not they think their grandchildren will survive the earth we leave them. I was surprised to feel like someone had buried a fishhook in the back of my throat. I blinked. “Can you even understand that?”
“Well, you and Jason are certainly too smart to get caught up in that kind of thinking,” she said in a clipped tone. Spying an escape hatch to more palatable conversation, my mother continued, “How is Jason? I’ll bet he really needs this vacation.”
At Thanksgiving, Jason had told my mother how he was gearing up for another raise after a grueling year. Sometimes I called him while he was working from home and heard the sound of a basketball game in the background.
I looked back to the television, where a chinless state senator was now being interviewed, his mole-rat complexion blending with the marble walls behind him. Stammering, confused captioning unfurled beneath: “IF THE DEMOCRATS WILL NOT CONDEM INFANTISIDE, WE WILL. WE ARE A PARTY THAT VALUES THE, THE, THE SANCTITY OF LIFE.”
“Jason is fine, Mom,” I replied. “We’re both pretty overworked right now, to be honest.”
She sighed at the silence and said, “I should let you go, sweetie. Give Jason a big kiss for me!”
As the plane took off, I laid back and closed my eyes, awaiting that weightless moment when the engine’s thrust seems to counter gravity in perfect equilibrium. By the time I opened them, we had emerged from the clouds. I ran a finger along the stubbly curve of beige plastic, thinking of cafeteria trays and hospital beds and other public surfaces designed to be so neutral they become dehumanizing. I thought of the bits of polyethylene and polyurethane and polypropylene that, centuries from now, would dip and bob on the waves below with no one left to name them.
The latch inches from my fingers politely instructed, “Emergency use only.” I imagined the satisfying plastic click of the release. Would it allow itself to be opened mid-flight? I’d seen it depicted in films where the plane cracks in half, the way the sky inhales you until you’re a speck against a cloud. Once, foolishly, I had clicked on a video that captured the moment when a stuntman doing pull-ups on the edge of a tall skyscraper lost his grip and plunged out of frame. An overwhelming loneliness swept over me then, wondering what thoughts would have roared through his head and knowing that no one would ever know.
I pulled out my phone and started to scroll through Instagram, where the algorithms had been feeding me a steady diet of ads for Botox and egg-freezing clinics and cheap online therapy. I retreated instead to an article I’d left open about a sex trafficking ring that had been raided in the city where we were going. I leaned over and showed Jason. His eyes scanned the page.
“That is … a travesty.”
I opened my mouth to correct him but decided against it. I’d been harsh on him lately, and I was hoping that by agreeing to this trip I could heal a thousand cuts with a single poultice. I cupped my right hand around the back of his neck and looked at him.
Jason played football in college. He still regarded it as a central part of his identity, despite the fact that his muscles had slackened and a soft curve had filled in what was once a sharp angle between his neck and his chin. A few weeks before our trip, he had asked me if I had noticed his first gray hairs. Of course I had noticed them weaving like silver snakes through the dirt months ago, the same way I noticed my own, the same way I notice the leaves turning brown. He pouted and told me I was supposed to lie to him. Surely he’d noticed things about me too. The soft half-moon of flesh that had moved in beneath my belly button. My eyebrows that I tugged at until they became patchy. Again and again I pushed my imperfections on him, hoping to become solid, but met no resistance. I knew I should be grateful, but his blind affection made me feel like a wisp of smoke.
I knew he was building a defense in his head against the creeping idea that we were not equals in this thing. I was aware of several points he added to his tally: There was the time when we’d just been seeing each other a few weeks, when I had three glasses of wine and accidentally introduced him at a party as my “boyfriend” before we’d had the talk, and he blushed so hard I thought his ears might bleed. There was the time I giggled as he kissed my stomach and he asked me what was so funny and I told him I wasn’t laughing, I was just “smiling out loud.” Years later, he would quote my once-warm words back to me, a desperate reassurance to himself that the person who had said them was still beside him.
The captain’s voice came over the speaker in the cheery, undulating tones of a baseball announcer.
“Folks, there is a little bit of fog on the ground, but we are still looking at an on-time arrival around 2:32 p.m. Any beachgoers out there, don’t worry, we’ve still got a balmy temperature of about seventy-nine degrees. And hey, don’t forget to wipe any lipstick stains off the sides of your cups. We’ll be reusing those on the next flight.”
Jason looked at me in disgust as the plane stiffened in silence. I pried the cup of my headphone off my right ear.
“That was a joke, folks.” Everyone around us laughed nervously, relieved to have the brief social aberration swept away. “Cabin crew, prepare for landing.”
And then we were in Florida. Outside the airport, the bludgeoning humidity seemed to exist in all three states of matter at once. It smelled like wet Band-Aids and mulch. Still, my dry winter skin gratefully drank up the air’s moisture, and standing there outside the sliding glass doors at the arrivals terminal, it occurred to me for the first time that this trip might have been a good idea after all.
I quashed another argument when I learned that Jason had unnecessarily rented an SUV, because this was after all his trip and it was what he was most comfortable driving. It was a forty-minute drive to Clearwater, and by the time we got there I was so restless that I suggested we stop at the beach before heading to our hotel.
We parked and walked to the boardwalk. There was no horizon to speak of beyond the choppy gray water. The sky simply rose out of the sea a few hundred yards out like an endless wall of slate. Jason kept apologizing and explaining how it usually was and should be. But the weather didn’t bother me. The dull landscape only made the rainbow of beach umbrellas brought by stubborn tourists pop more brightly. I suggested we just be grateful to make it here before the sea rose and swallowed the place up.
I took his hand and led him toward a human statue standing on a platform, painted head to toe in silver, slowly lifting two pleated fabric wings to the sky.
“Oh! Is she supposed to be Nike?” I asked. Jason looked at me quizzically. “You know, Winged Victory? The statue? In Paris?”
The performer’s head swiveled slowly toward me, and she winked. Jason turned to me, mouth agape, as if I’d just won a prize. He pulled a five-dollar bill out of his wallet and held it up for the woman to see before letting it float into her collection bin.
Our hotel was a shabby collection of suites across the road from the beach. In the lobby, a leathery woman in a Grateful Dead T-shirt handed us a cartoon map and informed us that we’d missed today’s sunset dolphin cruise but could catch it again tomorrow. We thanked her and rolled our suitcases past the pool, where a scrawny man covered in tattoos smoked a cigarette and nodded at us.
In the room, we had slow, heady sex without bothering to close the second-floor curtains. I could feel Jason searching for my eyes, so I hooked my chin around his shoulder and fixated on a spot on the ceiling until he came. We laid side by side on the bed, stretching our sticky limbs and enjoying the soft breeze of the ceiling fan and the watercolor light of dusk. Before long, Jason’s breath slowed. I gently unlaced my fingers from his and peeled myself off the bed to go to the bathroom. In the harsh white light, my skin looked tired and sunken, like some scaffolding had been removed beneath the flesh.
I crept into the front room, slipped on a dress from my suitcase, and scribbled a note on the counter: “Went for a walk, be back soon! xx”
Outside, I weaved through sun-blitzed families in oversized T-shirts. A skater with long hair smiled at me, triggering a hazy fantasy about the night we could spend together. From the beach, I could hear softly strummed acoustic covers playing over loudspeakers for waterfront diners. I had walked over a mile before I realized it had grown dark. The scene around me had grown notably sleazier, and looking around at the head shops and neon lights, I suddenly craved a cold, watery beer. Hooters glowed orange a block away, but in front of me was a bar named The Rack. I decided to support the small business.
A sour, yeasty smell hung in the dark air and my sandals stuck to the vinyl flooring. I walked to a round, high-top table, where I felt suddenly childish on my tall stool that left my legs swinging in the air. A young woman wearing a baby blue bikini top and frayed denim shorts approached my table with a tray carrying a single pint glass full of ice water. Her taut and slightly distended belly made me think of a little girl at the beach.
“Hi there,” she said, beaming. “I’m Olga, and I’ll be your server tonight. Have you been to The Rack before?”
I couldn’t help but laugh, not out of ridicule but joy at the idea that I might be mistaken for a regular at this West Florida breastaurant, where I was being served by a teenager with a name fit for a cartoon opera singer.
“Nope, Olga, this is my first Rack experience.”
She looked as if she’d been bopped on the head and raised a finger in the air like she was testing the breeze. “Oh my gosh, I forgot your menu. I’ll be right back!”
She scurried to the bar in tiny steps that barely left the ground to keep from toppling off her heels and returned a moment later with a massive, spiral-bound menu. She flipped through it expertly and dragged a long fingernail down the laminated page.
“Happy hour is on ‘til eight. Two dollars off all drafts and fifty cent wings. Can I get you started with a drink?”
I ordered the cheapest beer available. As Olga went to fetch my drink, I eyed my dinner companions—identical middle-aged men in polo shirts tucking into cheeseburgers the size of their heads. Occasionally a stare would catch on the hook of a passing bikinied body before dislodging itself to return to the basketball game above.
Olga placed a pint glass in front of me, and I thanked her. As she was about to turn away, I could see her wrestling with her curiosity.
“So, are you from around here?” she asked.
“No, I’m from New York.” Her eyes widened, like she had spotted a kindred spirit. “Just here for a few days.”
“No way! You’re so lucky. Ugh, I wish I could go there. Do you ever go to the Met?”
“Yeah, of course,” I replied, regretting my potentially condescending tone the moment it left my mouth.
“Ugh, I follow them on Instagram. I would love to see a Rembrandt in real life. Or a Renoir. I always mix them up” She gave a storybook sigh. “What’s it like in New York? Your life must be so exciting.”
“Yeah.” My mind flashed to the glistening view from the D train as it crossed the bridge to Brooklyn on my way home from work. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
“What brings you to Clearwater?”
I swallowed, unwilling to bring Jason into the conversation. “Just here to see the sights.”
She looked puzzled. “Huh. Are you a Scientologist?”
Come to think of it, I had seen an unusual amount of Scientology signs around the city. It must have been a hub of some sort. Did Jason’s family know that?
“Where are you from?” I finally asked, eager to turn the questioning away from myself.
“I was born in Russia, but I moved here when I was two years old. So, I don’t know, am I from Russia?” She continued before I could answer, leaning into her elbows on the table. “My parents are in the Church, but I left when I was fifteen so now I live on my own. I get to go to the beach whenever I want, which is pretty great, but people here are so fucking boring I want to blow my brains out. I would love to move to a big city. I’m saving up for art school, but I have to finish paying these off first.” She rubbed the pad of her finger over her braces. She watched me vaguely as I took a sip of my beer. “Oh, did you want to eat something?”
She recommended the sweet and sour wings, rolling her eyes into the back of her head in ecstasy as she described their deliciousness. I laughed, charmed again. I told her she could share a few if it wouldn’t get her in trouble. She looked at me conspiratorially and skittered back to the kitchen. I looked at my phone for the first time in over an hour. The screen was littered with notifications from Jason.
Where are you I’ll come meet you
Two missed calls.
Babe where are you I’m worried
I turned off my phone and watched Olga make her rounds among the other customers, endeared by her unselfconscious adolescence and appalled at the middle-aged men ogling her. She returned to check on me more than was necessary, returning with an ungodly stack of sweet and sour wings on her third trip. She looked over her shoulder to the bar and, satisfied that she wouldn’t get caught, perched herself halfway on the stool next to me.
As she nibbled my wings down to the nub, leaving only occasionally to do her job, she told me she was organizing with some of the other girls at the bar against the manager who was pocketing their tips. She lived with her older boyfriend and the Russian truck driver who would show up at the end of his route and invite himself over for dinner, but never before leaving and returning with a whole rotisserie chicken and a gallon of milk. She licked her fingers and took out her phone to show me a haunting portrait she’d painted of him. When I told her I thought she had a future as an artist, I believed myself.
Once the warm weight of three beers had sunk into my muscles, I asked Olga what time it was: Nearly three hours had passed since I’d left. She brought back the check and stood by as I scribbled out an extravagant tip. Feeling an awkward silence rising up between us, I jumped to smother it like a fire.
“Well, Olga!” I started to stand. “It’s been so great to meet you. Thank you so much for the wings, and good luck with everything!”
“Wait!” She licked her thumb and, before I knew what was happening, it darted to my chest, where it met a single drop of sweet and sour sauce an inch above my low neckline. My lungs froze mid-inhale as she lifted the liquid from my skin with a deft but firm swipe and raised her thumb back to her mouth.
It was the strangest, most unselfconscious gesture I’d ever seen. Once again, I couldn’t help but laugh, a single, vaulted note from deep in my chest. It was a sound I hadn’t heard from myself in so long. I pulled my business card from my purse and told her to reach out if she ever made it up north. As I walked away, I thought I could feel her watching me with some longing, but by that point I was drunk enough that I didn’t know.
I walked out into the airy night, struck by how expansive the air suddenly felt all around me. It was hard to believe that just a few weeks before I’d been standing at the sink, sobbing into a dish towel after the sudden, overwhelming realization that even after I cleaned up this mess, there would always be a new sink full of dishes that would replenish itself until the day I died.
Back at the hotel, I slipped off my sandals when I reached the second-floor balcony to dampen the sound of my steps. I heard murmuring voices coming from inside one of the rooms and was puzzled to learn that it was ours. I slowly lifted my key card to the lock and pushed the door open to find Jason sitting red-eyed at the round, plastic wood table flanked by a rectangular man and a thin, lipless woman in short-sleeved navy police uniforms. Jason lurched up at the sight of me.
“Babe, where have you been? Are you okay?” he shouted at a volume that embarrassed all of us, wrapping his arms around me. I stiffened under his grip.
“I’m fine.” I held his face between my hands and looked him in the eye. “I’m fine.” I turned my attention to the cops. “What’s going on?”
The young officer began to cross-examine me stiltedly.
“Ma’am, where have you been for the last twenty-four hours? Have you been solicited for any kind of, um, illegal services or encountered any … suspicious individuals?”
The young man was winging it.
“Twenty-four hours?” I looked back at Jason. “I just went out for a drink. Jason, is this about me?”
Jason shrank into himself. The female cop shook her head at her colleague and started toward the door. I thanked the police officers and apologized again for wasting their time.
After they’d gone, I let Jason rock me side to side as we stood in the middle of the kitchen-living-dining room and didn’t press him on the lies he’d told the police. “I thought I’d lost you,” he murmured. “Don’t ever do that again.” Behind his voice I heard a tick in the rotation of the bedroom ceiling fan that I hadn’t noticed before. The air inside the room felt otherwise dead.
“Let’s go to bed. I’m tired,” I said, detaching myself. Jason walked obediently back to the bedroom, while I detoured to the bathroom. I ran the water in the sink to cover the noise as I repacked my toiletries. I laid the case in my suitcase, otherwise untouched beside the kitchen counter, knowing that in the morning, before he woke, I could leave again and go anywhere.
Julia Black is a writer from New York City living in Los Angeles. For her day job, she travels the world telling stories—she’s taught documentary workshops in Palestine, shot short films in Japanese National Parks, and contributed storylines to the Apple TV+ show Little America. Her work as a journalist and essayist has appeared in Esquire, Bon Appétit, The Cut, and others. She is working on a novel based on the remarkable women in her family.