I met Andre at the bar where we always went. They treated us nice there. You could sit in the dark alone and light cigarettes you didn’t intend to smoke. Sometimes I even managed to put them out before I started. I was trying to quit. My fingertips were stained brown but I had perfect teeth. Ask anyone who gets that close. White like snow.
But this time I was late to meet Andre. We’d have to drink faster if we were going to leave on time for him to catch his plane. But I hadn’t been able to hang up on the stalker. You have to feel sorry for someone like that. I had to wait until he said good-bye.
Andre didn’t say anything when I walked up to the booth. He was drawing pictures in a pile of salt, faces mostly. Pimento red eyes, crystalline smiles with grainy lips. It made my mouth water. He poured more on the table. He kept erasing it with a cocktail napkin, trying to get it right. I tried to explain about the stalker. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but Andre didn’t care about the stalker’s feelings.
“What did he want?” Andre drew a grumpy face.
“He doesn’t feel well,” I said.
Andre snorted. “Well, he’s sick. Of course he doesn’t feel well.”
The stalker was my ex-boyfriend, George. We broke up a few weeks ago.
“And I’m not sure it’s fair for you to call him that,” said Andre. “Maybe he just misses you. He doesn’t even really call you that much. He just doesn’t understand. I don’t either, really. Understand.”
“It’s getting late,” I said. “Let’s make this one a double.”
Because now we only had time for one more martini. Andre took the olives off their toothpicks, bounced them on the table. The pimentos got rolled in the salt. They looked like Christmas candy, sweet instead of sour.
Andre sometimes breaks glasses just holding them.
“I don’t want to go,” he said, throwing his olives into the next booth. “Maybe I’ll miss the plane.” He checked his watch.
“You don’t have to go,” I said. “There’s no obligation.”
“She probably doesn’t really want me to come,” he said, chewing the pieces of ice and spitting fragments onto the floor.
“It’s not like you know her,” I said.
“Hey,” said the bartender, slipping.
“Two more,” said Andre. “Hurry.”
“She’s your mother, of course. In a sense. Biologically. But it will be awkward,” I said, but really, who was I to say?
“She gave birth to me. So what? Is that a mother?” he said.
“Show me the picture again,” I said.
“She gave me away,” he said. “What does she want with me now? She’s the one who left me. What’s she think it’s going to fix, coming after me again after all this time?”
“She’s still a stranger,” I said. “You could keep it that way.”
“I could,” he said.
“We could stay here,” I said. “Have another.”
He handed the photograph to me. It was crushed and warm from being next to his skin. It was an old photo that she’d mailed him, after she had found him. She was young in the picture, only eighteen or so, but she still looked tired, even if she never did raise a child. She was a captive. He had her in his pocket. He had crumpled her up once, angry, and then pressed it flat again. She couldn’t help that. Who was she? There was a crease right in the middle of her face. I couldn’t tell if she was pretty, I couldn’t tell she was his mother. She didn’t look anything like him. It was a face that didn’t know anything yet. What did she look like now, knowing?
“Do you think she still looks like that?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. It’s what he wanted to hear.
“Still,” he said, shoving it back in his pocket. “I’d like to see it for myself.”
In the truck we sped so we could get to the airport before the end of happy hour there. Drinks are so expensive at airports. They know how desperate everyone is when they are in between places.
“How is he?” asked Andre, meaning the stalker, my ex-boyfriend George. They were all surprised when I left him, especially George. Andre too. Me, even. No one saw it coming.
He called me up to tell me so. Sometimes, not every day. Coughing, some of the times. Hacking up a lung.
“Lalala,” I said. “The same old story. Over and over. Like a song.”
Andre was picking something out of my ashtray. Gum? Change? His fingers were grey and pasty. He smeared them on his pants.
“How sick do you think he is now?” Andre wanted to know. “I’m worried about him. You do know he had a transfusion last week,” he said. “Right? You know that?”
The sky made a noise, the sky was shifting. Deep thunder, but no lightning. It was dark in the middle of the day. The air tasted like blood and steel. Skin prickled and shifted on our bodies.
“You think he’ll die?” asked Andre. He held up an ashy quarter.
“Maybe,” I said. “People do.”
“What else did he say?”
“Same old,” I said. “You know.”
It’s only when he calls that things come rushing back, like the color of his eyes, the same breakfast I made him every Saturday morning before we got back into bed with the Times, the pilling of his old brown sweater, the one I used to sleep in when he was out of town, even though it made me itch. I just don’t want him to call me anymore. If somebody else was there to take care of him, maybe he wouldn’t call me all the time. He could get someone, if he tried. Friends, or he could pay someone.
It would rain soon. Outside the truck, the sky was gray like soft metal, metal you could mold with your bare hands, the softest lead. The clouds starved the sun; the light grew thin and runny, like soup.
“Maybe it’s none of my business, but when was your last test?” said Andre. “You’re still negative, right?”
I hit his shoulder. I hurt my hand.
“Ow,” we said together.
“You’re drunk,” I said.
We both laughed.
It was rush hour so we went slowly. Somebody cut us off. I leaned on the horn until other people in cars banged mute on windows and cursed me in the silence of their cars. But they were the only ones who heard what they said. I was safe. Everyone saw us. Everyone looked. I leaned harder.
“Stop that,” said Andre. “Hurry up. I’m afraid of flying. Let’s get this over with.”
“What will you do? How will you get through it?”
“Get drunk,” he said.
“Besides,” I said.
“I will not believe,” he said. “I will cease to believe in flight from this moment on.”
“I’d like that,” I said. “I want not to believe in things. It’s a gift.”
“Well, it’s common sense,” he said, “that one hundred tons of steel—”
“—and flesh,” I said. “All those soft little bodies.”
“—cannot be lifted 30,000 feet in the air, on its own, do you see, with no tricks. It is impossible. I mean, there must be some law of physics—”
“True,” I said.
“—it simply cannot happen,” he said. “And if in fact I do arrive in Baltimore, if I happen to find myself there, I will choose to accept that fact, and not dwell on how it has come to pass.”
“That is wise,” I said. That is why he was my friend. This woman who was his birth mother did not know that. She knew nothing about him. She gave him away.
That‘s how much she knew.
Soon, the rain came. Everything was liquid. Colors moved fast around us. The gin was slick in the back of my throat. I stared at my hands on the wheel because they still had outlines, and I was comforted. We did not slow down. Someone honked at us.
“I should be afraid of driving in a car with you,” said Andre. “But I’m not. I’m afraid of flying.”
“You don’t have to do it,” I said.
“How would you like to die?” said Andre. “Do you ever think about it?”
“Oh, absolutely. Disease,” I said.
“Do you even realize what you’re saying?” I could feel him looking at me, but I did not look back. I shrugged.
“When I’m old, of course. Really old. I just want to know I’m dying in advance so that I can arrange it. So I can be at home, surrounded by loved ones,” I said. “I mean, not alone.”
“Control freak. I suppose that means drugs?” he said. “So that there’s no pain, but maybe some cognitive problems. So you can only make out shapes and colors. Maybe?”
“All right,” I said, compromising. No pain for a loss of discernment. It seemed like a fair trade. Preferable in fact. “But faces, I want faces still. A little comforting recognition. Just not too much emotion attached to them.”
“Not me,” said Andre.
“No, I want death fast,” said Andre. “With drama. Drowning maybe, they say it’s not really so bad. Some thrashing and then you just relax and let it take you down.”
“Hypothermia is supposed to be good,” I said. “First you’re cold, but then you’re warm and tingly. Like sleeping.” I sighed. It was a satisfying thought. “I’ve definitely changed my mind. Put me out on the ice field when I start to babble.”
“You want it all so easy,” said Andre. He stared out the window. A car full of kids drove by. One of them made a face at us.
“Maybe the plane will crash,” he said, thoughtful. “The oxygen masks will malfunction so I pass out before I hit the ground. Thirty seconds, maybe one minute of wild abandon, pure terror, screaming without shame. Just think. You could be completely hysterical. You could finally have an excuse to go completely mad. Absolute abandon, completely genuine emotion, nothing holding you back. How many people are walking around, just waiting for an excuse like that?”
“Not me,” I said. “That sounds like the worst.”
“And then, massive head injuries so you don’t feel anything. No actual pain.”
“I just don’t want to feel anything,” I said. “That’s the most important thing.”
“But what about the thirty seconds of terror? Think of the thrill, the adrenalin. I mean, you only live once.”