SHE WAS QUIETER THAN NORMAL as we headed to JFK. She was, after all, going to grad school at Stanford. We’d talked about it and I agreed that it was a great opportunity she’d be a fool to pass up. “You’ll always regret not going,” I said. Every time she asked if I was “sure,” I said yes.
There were times when I almost believed that. In truth, I had mixed feelings about it. We’d been together for two years and lived together for one, when it made sense that we share the two-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn neither of us could afford alone and both realized there was no one else we’d rather have as a roommate.
And it worked out really well as we both began our post-college lives. I had my job at an internet data-collection firm and she hers as a grunt at a publishing house, though neither of us were in the “office” more than a few times thanks to the pandemic. We had our work stations set up on the dining room table, side-by-side, and at times it seemed that that one year compressed a decade of marriage into it.
She’d always wanted to go to grad school and get an MFA. I was something of a geek and didn’t know what an MFA was or what it did or what it was good for, but it was her dream and that was good enough for me.
Even in our last year at Cornell we spoke about that dream of hers, but she put it off because she wanted a year in New York and through a family friend got the job at the publishing house. That it ended up being remote was a downer for her and for her ambitions of an office in midtown or near the Flatiron Building but she still felt part of a greater whole during her interminable Zoom calls.
For those and for mine, we set up a little “studio” in my bedroom (where truth be told I rarely slept) with a very Room-Rater-worthy background of classy if largely unread books as the backdrop mixed among various impressive looking knick-knacks. With the door closed for one, the other couldn’t hear what was going on.
In all this, she had applied to several schools, and in the end it was between NYU and Stanford.
And now here we are, on the Van Wyck Expressway heading to JFK and neither of us has much to say. Just banal words.
“You’ll call when you get to your room?”
“My ticket’s on my phone.”
“You’ll let me know when you get someone to take care of my share of the rent?”
“I envy the weather you’ll have.”
We pull up to the American terminal, and as she pays the cabbie I grab her suitcases out of the trunk. The line’s longer than I recall, but we finally get to the counter and she gets her bags checked and her seat and we start towards security.
“They won’t let you through without a ticket,” she reminds me, and as we get to the line for the metal detectors and she only has her backpack and bag for carry-on, she says, “It’s time.”
When there are only a couple of folks ahead of us we turn to each other and hug.
“I’ll miss you.”
“I’m not going anywhere. You’ll be back for Christmas, yes?”
“We’ll see. I may get too busy.”
This hits me. That was never part of the plan. Or so I thought.
She’s next for TSA and I give her a last hug. She says, “I’ll miss you” and I echo it and almost say more but don’t and then she drops her backpack and bag on the conveyor belt and removes her shoes and the push of those behind her washes me aside as I watch her go.
She looks back once and gives me a tepid wave before heading to her gate. Gate 17 for SFO.
* * * *
“You’re an asshole.”
I can’t say how often I’ve told myself that, but it’s rare that I do it out loud. A guy near me looks at me, rather pissedly, till I say, “I’m talking about myself. Sorry.”
He seems to accept that and continues through and out of the terminal.
I’m in no state to go back just yet and instead find an empty stool at a bar/lounge off to the side with a view to the field. The planes, her plane at least, is at Gate 17, one of the last ones. She’ll be boarding in half-an-hour. And gone half-an-hour later.
Gone, baby, gone.
I meant to say it. A thousand times I meant to say it, but somehow the “moment” never happened until she had to go through security. And when she was, I got nothing but the slightest wave.
So, yeah, I was—am—an asshole.
I sit with my scotch, though it’s still early afternoon, and empty stools on either side and several monitors behind the bartender. The one on the left gives the status of flights on the spur where her gate and flight are.
San Francisco SFO AA9390 1:00 Gate 17 On Time
It’s twelve-thirty, and I check the monitor between glances at SportsCenter on the center monitor and sips of my whisky.
San Francisco SFO AA9390 1:00 Gate 17 On Time
I’m catching a cab home cause I’m in no particular hurry to get back to what was until a couple of hours ago our place. What the hell.
“Bartender. I’ll have another.”
He shakes his head as he pours and I figure he’s seen it before, though I say nothing. I feel enough of a schmuck already and don’t think being told I’m not the first will be of much help.
San Francisco SFO AA9390 1:30 Gate 17 Delayed
Oh, taunting me. Her, or God’s, final nail.
She always wanted to go to grad school and suggested Stanford now and then. “Take advantage of the rare chance to live out west.” Who was I to stop her? So when she asked whether she should go I told her she had to. “You’ll always regret not going,” I told her. Having said it, having actually mouthed the words, and having her respond with a “If you’re okay with it” and me insisting I was, there was no turning back.
San Francisco SFO AA9390 1:50 Gate 17 Delayed
Delays won’t be a problem for her. She’ll get a cab at the airport and zip down to Palo Alto. There’s no one there for her. She’s just another New Yorker heading alone to the wilds of California.
But why hadn’t I said anything? Did she want me to? If I said something, said what I desperately wanted to say, would it have mattered? I really didn’t want to ruin the opportunity she was getting. Her dream degree at her dream place.
With me always too dependent on her. No, she never said anything particularly, but I knew I was a drag on her.
I thought the chance to tell her would arrive when she came east for Christmas. She couldn’t stay at “our” place, of course, since I have to find a new roommate—though truth be told I haven’t made much an effort on that front yet—but even if she went to her folks up outside Boston, I’m sure she’d stop in the City. Or I could head to Marblehead.
Then she dropped the I-might-get-too-busy bomb. And I let it pass. I was an asshole, saying nothing. Nada. Rien.
San Francisco SFO AA9390 XXXX Gate 17 Cancelled
I call to the bartender.
“What does it mean that flight 9390’s cancelled.”
“Who knows in this day and age? Maybe they can’t get a crew. It’s all screwed up. But that plane isn’t going anywhere. Whoever it is you’re thinking of is going to have to regroup. There’ll be plenty of folks here in just a minute while they try to figure how they’re going to book another flight. American’ll be no help.”
I take a last slug of my scotch, pay my tab, and walk to the security area.
Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be an asshole.
I tell myself this again and again. Don’t be an asshole.
People are flooding out, most looking at their phones, she among them. She’s nearly upon me when my phone rings. I pull it from my pocket and its ring sounds all around me. She looks up.
“I was just calling you,” she says, surprised at my being there.
“Don’t go,” I say.
“Don’t go. Please.”