Thirteen, burning with joy, I waited for the chair lift. Sunny, fresh snow; glorious cold air scalded my lungs. The jeaned, brightly down-jacketed teen girls in front split up, hoping to ride with cute boys. I skied up next to one, peach-scented, who turned to her friend and said, Oh, god. An open smirk.
Silent during the ride up, I skied down too fast, falling often, and waited an hour for my dad.
Good day? he asked, knocking bitter snow from his boots.
Great, I said.
I felt like crying. We drove home silently through the piney dusk. Years earlier, I’d pretended to fall asleep on the same ride home. In the driveway, he shook me, then left me in the cold dark when I persisted, probably too tired to pick me up. Cruel, I thought at the time, wanting to be held.
A parent now? No. Preparation for life.
I always thought he had a military fantasy. Black lace up boots, baggy camo pants, a tight black tee. Hair shaved high and tight on sides but very long in back—a ponytail. He licked his thumb before raising his hand and was cruelly dismissive of his peers’ weakest arguments, of which there were many.
Once outside a store I saw him leaning against a car smoking, license plate shoved in the back window, a gleaming black Glock 9 in an OWB holster.
Inside, the cashier was another student, a line of bird tattoos on the underside of both forearms. I’d sat next to her at some dinner. She ate very little and talked about it like it was a moral issue, as if she was eating bible pages, which didn’t go with how she described her life: wonton sexcapades and a bird tattoo you could only see in certain positions and etc. Tl;dr: she was a storm inside a skin.
When I checked out, she printed out an impossibly long receipt and laughed at the size of it. Let me give you this piece of tree, she said, not recognizing me. Later, I heard she’d moved away and become a chicken sexer and then a gumologist. I had to look that one up.
He became a guard at the local museum. A uniform and a military haircut: so flat on top you could drive on it. Someone was talking about a tornado in Indiana while I looked at a painting of an elegant and unsettlingly angry looking swan. He said, We can sacrifice a few Hoosiers.
Decades later, on a plane, I watched cormorants lifting off from mist on the lake beside the airport as we taxied. An hour into the flight fireworks erupted far below us, like anti-aircraft fire trying to reach us and, failing, falling back to earth in canopies of spectacular color. This happened as we passed over city after city, one city handing us on to the next, to be feted or hunted.
The third time it happened, I turned from the window to tell my seatmate and she said, I know you! My husband does too.
They’d married! She’d become a dentist.
He didn’t like the fireworks. Jingoistic, he said. He excused himself and said he was going to close his eyes and pray.
Joking, but with hair standing up on the back of my neck, I said, Do you know something about his flight?
I remembered his crooked smile. No, he said, and licked his thumb. I’m a lay pastor and I have to give a sermon this week. I’m going to pray about what I should preach.
She showed me pictures of their house while he did, which had a miniature version of itself as a bird house.
He’d held her hand as they took off; I’d seen that. After the house pictures, the flight attendant didn’t have her drink when she came back and apologized and gave her back her drink coupon, since it was bumpy and she’d been told to sit as we would soon be landing.
He squeezed the flight attendant’s arm and said to her, We want you to be safe.
After she left, he gave half his drink to his wife, whose name I never remembered.
But her final words to me, spoken as she peered intently at me while we moved down the jetway, have always stuck.
At our age, she said, moving even closer, so that I thought we were going to bump, Everyone has the face they deserve.
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