Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
In the car she says, “I have a ticket to Chicago.” She waits but he doesn’t understand and so she says, “I have a ticket to Chicago. It was to be a surprise but now I think it might be a bad surprise. Now I think I am nervous enough to need to be told to use it. I shouldn’t have presumed to buy it without asking you first.” She says each sentence slowly, as if hoping the next might explain the one that came before or at least excuse it. She waits again but it’s clear he still doesn’t understand. It’s clear he might even be a little frightened. She sees him wondering just how far this ticket from Alabama to Chicago might take her—might it really be a roundtrip ticket not only to Chicago but to Japan and from Japan to Thailand? She has done things like this before, without ever going so far.
He doesn’t understand her ticket—doesn’t understand its purpose—not because he doesn’t love her but because a one-night ticket to Chicago isn’t something he would have considered, certainly not just to say goodbye all over again when saying goodbye is something he and his family have never been good at. Quick curb-side drop-offs—quick enough only to allow the one leaving time to grab his bags from the trunk; quick enough to keep the driver in her seat, maybe a hand through the window, maybe a final gesture, like that day last year when he left for Easter and they had decided what a terrible couple they made and that they couldn’t be together and then, after making that decision, spending every day of the next week together but not touching, not doing the one good easy thing they did together. That was the day she drove him to the airport and was so nonchalant, making stupid jokes, asking stupid questions— “Do I make you uncomfortable?”—hoping all the while that he would shut her up by reaching across the stick shift and squeezing her thigh. That was the day she waited at the curb in the car—just like his mother does when he finally leaves for Thailand, not that she would have known this then—so she wouldn’t have to stand next to him and wish for a hug she knew he couldn’t give her. But he came back to the car that day—the passenger-side window rolled down (by him or by her she doesn’t remember, maybe by her hoping for this or maybe by him having planned this)—and reached in for something longer than a shake of hands but shorter than a hold. And he said, “It’s only Easter,” and she remembers thinking, “Maybe we can do it all. Maybe we can be together in the way we want.” And she knew even then that she would pick him up from the airport four days later, whether he asked her to or not.
By the time she comes up with her first lie, he already seems to understand. She says, “No, I didn’t. I didn’t buy a ticket to Chicago. It’s a nice thought, though. I wish I had.” He knows her and so he knows this is a lie. Or maybe he simply suspects it is at first. He says, “Did you buy the ticket?” This conversation will come back to her in another three years when she confesses that her father cut his toenails in the backseat of their car when she borrowed it to drive to Atlanta for the weekend. The look of horror on his face will make her reconsider her confession and so she will laugh it off as a joke, telling him his face is magnificent, telling him how easy it is to rile him. And she will laugh it off quickly enough that day to fool him into believing her. But then, a year later, when he is telling his sister about the joke and how horrified he was by the prospect, she will confess again that her father really did cut his toenails and he will be horrified all over again but he will realize, just as she does, what a good story it will make even if only between the two of them and so he will laugh, in spite of himself, still a little disgusted.
He tries to bring levity to the car, to the situation. He calls her a terrible liar. He tells her it’s obvious she’s bought a ticket. If only he knew. If only he knew just how good a liar she has and will become. It’s funny how poorly we lie when we want to be discovered and how well we lie when we don’t. Her second lie is when he worries aloud about the money she’s spent and might have wasted and she tells him the ticket was cheap—not that it was expensive, but it wasn’t the 40 or 50 dollars she claims it to be. She tells him also that the ticket is refundable—another lie. She doesn’t want to be invited because he thinks she’s out a couple hundred dollars.
Even though his flight is less than a day away, they don’t say anything more about her ticket. Instead, he points to a dirty white house with a caravan parked out front and says, “That’s where my father’s parents live.” Then he points to the house next to it. “That’s where they lived up until two years ago when they moved so they could rent it out to some family. So they own both houses now.” He points in the back somewhere toward the woods and mentions the catfish pond and golf cart and the box his grandfather checks daily, the box into which people are asked to put one dollar per fish. She nods and looks in the direction as though she can see the pond, as though she can see the box and the hand-written note and the smeared black marker and maybe even a dollar or two shoved deep. “This is the grandfather who trims trees with a shotgun,” she thinks. “This is the grandmother who put a hot iron to your aunt’s forearm.” They do not stop.
There’s something unsettling about those boxes, those coffee cans, those cleaned milk gallons that people leave by the side of the road next to their tomatoes, their corn, their catfish ponds—maybe because they seem so sincere, because they seem so easy to steal. But maybe that’s why they work. Nobody wants to take something so honest, so plain. Nobody wants to waste a lie on something so easy.
He knows she doesn’t like to fly, so he should have guessed how much he meant to her even then when she made that short flight to Chicago. But he must have known even more when she made the seventeen-hour flight to Thailand the following summer, when she lied her way into a fellowship to study Thai for three months. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been that long trip over that confirmed her affection. Maybe it would have been that half-hour flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok when he first witnessed for himself her fear. Later he imitated her, bending his back, shoving his face into his lap, covering his head with his hands, humming. He exaggerated but even a lesser scene would have been horrible to watch. He said, “You scared the shit out of the family across the isle. I’m pretty sure the little girl started crying because of you.” She tells him to shut up but laughs. Is it at this point that he knows how much she loves him? Did he think back, as she did, at all the flights she has taken just for him? Did he count them in his head, count the hours, and wonder at her devotion?
In Thailand, they ate banana roti and bought raw silk for their mothers; they visited the Thursday night bazaar weekly; and, the night before she left, her grant money having finally run out, she talked about Thanksgiving, wanting to make plans, wanting some suggestion of a future together, some promise of his return. They hadn’t had sex in nearly a month. He said the floors were too thin. He said he was embarrassed by the noise. He said he didn’t want his roommates to guess what they were up to. She said, “Maybe I can come to Alabama for the holiday. I’ll have nearly a month of vacation. I can’t possibly spend all of it with my family.” “We need to talk, sometime, about us,” he said, but she ignored him, knowing that he would feel differently when he did come back, knowing he would need some place to live other than his parents’ house.
Her flight arrives in Chicago before his—hers being a nonstop, his being a layover through Dallas. She finds his terminal with an hour to spare. She worries she has the wrong flight information. She washes her armpits in the women’s restroom. She washes her face and reapplies her makeup. She cleans between her legs. Her face turns red. Maybe she shouldn’t have told him about the ticket. Maybe she should have told him she planned to use it.
She is hiding behind other passengers’ families when he finally deboards. She watches him, enjoying the strange distance between them, but the finality of the night reannounces itself in the anonymous call for a different flight’s passengers to board and she realizes that time is running out. They have fewer than 12 hours together.
He stops in the middle of the hallway between terminals. He looks around. She can’t tell, but his shoulders seem to slouch—maybe from the weight of the backpack, maybe when he doesn’t see her—when he finally starts walking. She catches up to him at the payphones. There are people and his eyes are bloodshot and he holds her in a way that she thinks even then he may never hold her again.
He takes her hand at the shuttle stop, where they wait nearly an hour for the bus that will take them to the room his mother booked—the room meant only for one. And the hotelier will start to put up a fight when he sees there are two of them, but instead he’ll glance at the clock on the wall and say, “What does it matter?” and then hand them a key to their room. She can’t know it now, can’t even have guessed, but this is the city where he will one day propose; this is the city where they will come to live together. There will be ice on the water then and breakers in the distance and she won’t be able to say no, not when he asks in the way she’s always hoped he would. “Marry me?” he will say. “Marry me.” And she will say, “Yes.”
The first time she walks off a plane she is thinking of him. She is thinking what a jerk she is for having deliberately scheduled an earlier flight out of Chicago so as not to have to watch him leave. She hadn’t thought it through. She hadn’t realized that she would have to get off the shuttle before him; that he wouldn’t get off with her; that they would say goodbye after all for the final time in front of strangers—strangers watching, wondering why he was staying on a shuttle bound for the international terminal when she was exiting at the domestic. She walks off the plane after the third repairman comes aboard. They make an announcement suggesting there is a problem with the in-air phone service. She counts the repairmen again—three for one phone. She doesn’t like the odds. People watch as she pulls her shoulder bag from under the seat in front of her. “You can’t leave your bags,” the stewardess tells her. “This is my only one,” she says. They let her leave, and she takes notice of the passenger who boards the plane in her place before heading for the international terminal.
They call his row and she thinks, “This is when he’ll see me. He’ll see me because he’s meant to see me even if I don’t really believe things like that.” And the bullet-proof glass is thick. And she wants to touch it but there are people. And he gets up from his chair. And he gets in line. And there is too much time with his back to her—too many minutes during which she is able to daydream that he will turn around and see her one last time and maybe even reconsider. But then he is gone and his plane is on the runway and there are no more stories she can tell herself and she is left here in Chicago with yet another flight to catch, writing letters that begin with words like, “It’s hot in a wet way.”
And it is hard for her to imagine it now, especially so close to the bullet-proof glass of the Korean Air terminal, still missing him so badly, not yet understanding the limitations of his love, the turquoise of the plane’s logo still visible, but there will come a night in another six years, more than four since he’s been back, more than three since her father cut his toenails in their car, more than one since she’s been lying about being happy. The table to her left will be talking about a house they’ve just purchased. The table behind him will insist that the food be prepared “Thai hot” and not “white-people hot.” They alternate their eavesdropping. He whispers, “He is white-people annoying.” She remembers that he can still make her laugh. She leans forward to describe in a quiet voice the man he’s mocked but can’t see. She says, “He can’t drink enough water. His upper lip is sweating now. I think his nose is running.” The service is terrible. The waitress brings him a tea and, once out of earshot, she says, “For my own sanity’s sake, tell me you ordered a soda.” She knows he won’t bother correcting the waitress. It isn’t like him.
On the walk home, she will say, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore.” She will wait, and in the waiting she will think of the thousand reasons she does still want to be married. She will think about restaurants and how she hates to eat alone. She will think about their apartment, their dogs, their furniture. She will think about the espresso machine they’ve just purchased and the beach towel collection they’ve already started and the house he would one day have built for her with concrete floors. She will think about the shelves they built for the living room and the second set she still wants to build for the bedroom. She will think about this day at the Korean Air terminal and the night they just spent here in Chicago when he asked her, “What does a person pack for a one-night stand?” and then went through her bag to find a toothbrush, underwear, a small pack of condoms. And even after that, even after the promise of sex, they did not have it. Instead he pulled down the sheets and fell asleep with his head on her stomach and she was left awake to try to forget the alarm clock set for 5:00 AM. And after all this, she will wonder if it’s too late to take back what she’s said, but she won’t be able to think of a lie fast enough. She will wait and hope that he hasn’t understood but, in waiting, will realize that he has.
Hannah Pittard’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the Mississippi Review, StoryQuarterly, and Oxford American. She is the recipient of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, an honorable mention winner for the 2006 Atlantic Monthly Writing Contest, and a finalist for the 2005 Richard Yates Short Story Award Competition. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she teaches a fiction writing workshop at the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.