Pulling into the long-term parking lot at Dulles, Cindy trolls past metal wheeled containers lined up like colorful storage facilities in the hold of a military transport, finding a spot in the Blue Lot, Row H, Number 58. She estimates forty meters to the bus shelter.
Gazing up through the windshield. Jet contrails across the blue overhead as sharp as scars. Meandering, fading, they bleed into the sky like an accelerated version of the human body healing and forgetting. And, she thinks, not a single person of the billions of people who lived before 1950 had ever seen this.
Cindy remembers the moment when those particular scars disappeared entirely for the only time in her life so far. They were the only scars that had. Her co-workers were all out on the roof at the high-tech medical firm next to the Dulles toll road. On September 11 they stared across the flat dull morning. Against the eastern horizon they could see the smoke dissipating from the Pentagon. One cynic she regretted ever sharing anything with had asked her: Did you see that coming? The contrails didn’t reappear for days.
Pulling down the visor mirror, Cindy looks at her make-up, her hair. Languidly bright blond curls, her thin, sculpted eyebrows, blue eyes accented softly, her lipstick sharp but subtle. All in place.
Pulling a joint from her purse she lights up.
Her flight today is to a funeral for one of her best friends growing up. In her way, in that conviction and sense inside her that she can actually read the skein of reality and tell what’s coming, she always felt Jesse’s ambitions would go unfulfilled. She never told him of course, it was just a hunch as opposed to her sight. Eventually his disappointments drove them apart. Unlike her, he became really mean-spirited. He died of some obscure disease; she was convinced his job crept under his skin and killed him. She had seen this and tried to tell him before he even had symptoms, but he wouldn’t listen.
Jesse wound up as a frustrated med tech but his passion was history. Cindy remembers his drinking game, gathering friends in his Victorian manse on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle (a gift of his parents’ early demise): a nerdy salon challenge which invoked a time frame for attendees that not coincidentally tried to put their own lives in perspective. The person with the best, most obscure or momentous true contributions was granted a shot of tequila. This would of course rapidly change who won succeeding rounds, and of course the incentive was that no one wanted to stay sober.
Cindy was often the sole woman at these proceedings, but she did meet Gloria there. She was convinced she was invited only because of her hidden power.
“It’s 1999,” Jesse would say, “what was happening a hundred years ago? One minute!”
“The Daimler automobile was about ten years old—”
“Women were wearing bustles, and, like, twenty-five years later they were wearing short skirts, bobbed hair—”
“The US invaded Cuba and the Philippines—”
“Dude, Cuba was 1897—”
“No,” said Bill ominously, one of Jesse’s historian co-religionists, “Cuba was ‘liberated’ from Spain on January 1st, 1899, and a month later the Philippines’ revolution began.”
“Fuck that, history majors gotta get three ‘obscure or momentous’ contributions to get a shot—”
Bill, fiercely competing for that shot: “—and Alfred Dreyfus was acquitted in France and then re-convicted!”
“Twenty years later millions of people died of Spanish flu—”
“That doesn’t even qualify—”
“January first 1900 begins John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy—”
“Oh! Boer War started—”
“Decembrists were six years in the future—”
“Man, you’re thinking about the 1905 revolution, the Decembrists came before, in the 1830’s—”
“A-and the fall of communism came ninety years later—”
“You gonna play this game or just say inane shit?”
“He’s clearly not interested in drinking—”
“Conrad – Heart of Darkness, and Chekov, Uncle Vanya—”
“Time!” Jesse shouted, taking a drink, as he was the game master and hence exempted from the rigors of the competition. “Bill wins round one!”
Cindy always occupied a place both select and distanced partly because she didn’t drink much in those days and, besides being the only woman, there was after all, her power.
“Second round,” Jesse yelled, holding high his red plastic cup. “The differences between when you were born and now! One minute, go!”
“No cell phones—”
“Wrong, Prince was born on my birthday, June 7, and he released his first album in 1979!”
“Bill, here’s what you’re going to say,” blurted Cindy. Bill nodded enthusiastically because he’d seen her do this before. “Fall of the Berlin Wall—”
“—apartheid in South Africa gone—”
“—and. . . no Al-Qaeda.”
“How do you do that, Cin?”
Taking another hit she remembers this particular evening because later she cowed the boys and downed a couple of shots with easy wins on “Who built the Brooklyn Bridge?” and “Who invented the Geodesic Dome?” But they sometimes thought she was in cahoots with someone when she guessed other people’s answers.
Looking again at the contrails, she thinks about conversations with Jesse when, despite the fact that they were friends, they disastrously dated for a while. Jesse would reel off these monologs about how change accelerated: 1515 to 1815, primitive guns, the United States and the French Revolution, the decimation of Native Americans through invisible germs, the invention of canning by Napolean’s army, the slave trade. 1815 to 1915, the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution, trains, electricity, radio, incandescent lights, motion pictures, the discovery of radioactivity and the speed of light, the airplane and then 1915 to 2015 – poison gas, rockets, jets, nuclear weapons, television, communism and fascism, men on the moon, interplanetary robot probes, World Wars, a Cold War, widespread vaccinations, AIDS, genetic mapping, the internet, impossible devices Isaac Asimov wrote about in the 1950s, these personal, hand-held computers——
He was always thrilled with the past but wouldn’t believe in what she could tell him about the future.
Another car pulls into the spot directly across from her. Quickly lowering the joint she looks over into the passenger seat, pretending to adjust something before she leaves the car. Figuring the person who she now sees is a guy will grab his bag first, leave his car and be on his way.
Instead he just sits there. Not looking at her exactly, not fiddling with his phone, just. . . sitting and staring blankly. Not at her but sort of through her car. Then he pulls out a flask and up-ends it.
Cindy’s paranoid and self-conscious now, not sure whether she should wait this guy out or not. A bit resentful, she decides to smoke the rest of the joint instead of saving it, casually tilting her head, holding it like a cigarette.
She feels totally justified in her paranoia as not just pot-induced but a reality that stems from how men usually see her, frame her in their minds just by looking at her.
But it was so much worse when she was fourteen, fifteen. That’s when she knew she had the sight. A power to predict – at least sometimes. For a few months when she was fifteen she cut herself, convinced it was the only way to let it out, thinking somehow she could bleed out into the universe and be rid of it. But it just got stronger. Instead she started curling her hair, wearing shorter skirts, and long sleeves at all times.
And now as an adult even when they get to know her, it’s bad. They see one thing and get another. She always keeps her sight well hidden. “But it’s who you are,” Gloria will tell her. “You’re amazing. You were even right about my dog, remember? Months before the vet caught it.”
“You don’t understand,” she tells Gloria. “If I told them, it would be even worse.”
The Air Force ROTC provided Cindy her mechanical engineering degree. She wanted to find a job in a top-tier company, maybe doing international consulting for Booz Allen or Bechtel, but instead she works for a medical company that clearly has a glass ceiling. Just yesterday they went through a bullshit modern management exercise, where all her issues regarding women’s advancement were put in the “parking lot” – the holding pen for ideas that never get addressed.
To counter the image of all this military/mechanical stuff in college she signed her name “Cyn.” Maybe just her overcompensation, but she sort of lives up to the monicker when she’s not being snarky and correcting male colleagues on their technical mistakes.
Despite her frustration, Cindy tells herself she has what could be considered to be a successful professional career. What she doesn’t have is a steady boyfriend who isn’t threatened by that career. By a woman mechanical engineer at the top of her class. Despite how her exquisitely painful and sexual femininity attracts too many guys, she eventually gets this all too often: “Wow, you’re a bigger geek than I am!”
She never gets to the stage where she talks about her clairvoyance because obviously no one would believe her and why make things worse?
One set of guys would be turned on by the frilly white socks and black patent leather high heels she’d wear outside of the office, only to be crushed by her intellect even when deployed with what she considered just low humor like a multilingual pun. The other set would love talking to her at work, but once they were out on a date, the same seriousness that made her a great engineer seemed to them to make her a driven succubus that somehow had the word RELATIONSHIP tattooed all over her body on the first and last dates.
Consequently, there was a lot of fucking, but not a long duration of sharing intellectual and emotional property rights.
Eventually Cindy finishes her joint, gets out of the car, and grabs her carry-on. And immediately the guy does too. They both begin walking vaguely together toward the shelter.
She decides to rehearse in her head her eulogy for Jesse. She has most of the pieces and is trying to fit them together:
One way to talk about Jesse is to recall the times we would go out to the great wild coast forests of the Olympic Peninsula, and celebrate the natural world, and then because my dad was a pilot, going out to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma and lie out on the hood of my car at the end of the runway and watch C-141s screaming in overhead to land, and then in a pilgrimage too far before its rightful time, going out to visit Bill Fernstunker’s grave, our dear friend who died just after we left college.
She likes that piece because it’s all about how different they were. And it’s kind of a ramble, which is not how she normally thinks or speaks.
Another way to talk about Jesse is when we were in college and Jesse and Bill were DJs at the University of Washington radio station spinning jazz and educating me on Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy and Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus and after they would get off at one in the morning we would cruise, smoking spliffs, listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Offspring.
Cindy considers skipping the spliffs part. She reflects on how she appreciated Jesse’s and Bill’s subtle apprehension of her smarts but also how, as geeks, they probably just thought they were lucky having a beautiful young woman as a friend. Albeit one who kept her scars and her apprehensions under cover.
That one, abortive dating season with Jesse aside, she loved Jesse and Bill because they knew enough to never try it with her even though they let her know they wanted to.
This isn’t personal enough, Cindy thinks, this is too intellectual, it’s not emotional, it’s not, not, affecting. People will just think of me as being too cold. And if I talk about what I knew would happen, I’d just sound like a witch. Or a bitch.
So in her own head thinking about this, she looks up to realize she’s pulled her metallic carry-on past the shelter. She stops, turns around and walks back to the plastic canopy where that guy is sitting.
“Hi,” he says.
“Where you headed?”
“Nashville,” she says.
“Wow, what’s in Nashville, the music business?”
She looks down in her calculated way that projects both being demure and off-putting.
“No, not for me. How about you?”
“Well, curiously enough, Nashville also.”
“But it’s an iffy thing; I’m on stand-by. And I gotta get there soon because my brother’s got some problems.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, still looking down.
He shrugs. His brown hair falls casually across his eyes. His beard is incredibly rich and thick, and he seems like someone with the Nashville connection as a person of considerable talent who plays fiddle or mandolin. Only then does she notice the instrument case propped up against his carry-on.
“That’s really why you’re going to Nashville,” she says. As she talks to him, she scans him, and she feels like he’s eyeing her up and down surreptitiously even though he is really looking right at her.
They look up at the light of the bus meandering through the parking lot now that the sky overhead is tarnished, turning darker.
“Then what do you do?”
“Music’s my passion, but actually I’m an engineer.”
“Really.” Her interest piques, she looks more directly at him. “Who do you work for?”
“I’m an engineer too,” she says. “MedLife Labs.”
“We’re neighbors,” he says with a chuckle.
“I guess we are.” Her smile is genuine.
The bus arrives and they drag their luggage in. At the terminal, they find themselves in the same line.
“Same flight, too?” he says, showing her his itinerary.
“It seems so. Good luck,” she says, as she heads for security.
After a drink to diffuse her buzz, she wanders over to the gate. There are three names on the waitlist display. She sees the bus shelter guy sitting there with his instrument case, engrossed in his tablet. She looks at the names and then it clicks. Walking over to him, she says, “Patrick?”
He looks up, startled. “Oh, it’s you, hi, how, how did you know my name?”
“I guessed,” she lies, nodding at the overhead display. “Any luck?”
His mouth twitches, his head tilts, “Doesn’t seem like it. They say it’s full. There isn’t another one until really late tonight or tomorrow. My brother’s been, um, detained by the police and he really shouldn’t be. It could make it worse. He, he’s got problems.” That word again. “That’s why I’m anxious to get down there.” His expression spoke to her of worry, irritation, exasperation.
Sometimes Cindy feels like she’s always bending over backwards for guys, and when she catches herself, she becomes pretty hard. This is a different situation. She doesn’t want anything, and Patrick doesn’t either and she doesn’t owe anything.
But then something occurs to her. Later, Gloria assures Cindy that she couldn’t possibly know. Or if she had, she wouldn’t have done what she finally did.
“Listen,” she says carefully, “I’ll give up my seat if you need it and take the red-eye tonight. Or a flight tomorrow morning. If you want.”
Patrick looks up at her. His eyes seem to be relieved, but then a kind of distracted resignation fills them, as if something clouds his vision. “Thanks, thanks, but—“ He seems to search for something in front of him. “I appreciate it, but I can’t—“
“It’s okay,” she says, “I’m just going down for a funeral and I was going to arrive a day early just to look around, see the place—“
“Oh, you’re going to a funeral, I’m sorry—“
“It’s okay, well, okay, it’s kind of a downer trip for both of us, but if you need the seat—“
“No, no,” he says, looking away, “I can take the later flight, my sister can get to the facility earlier and deal with— just deal.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he says, looking now again at his tablet.
“Well,” she says. “Nice to meet you?”
He looks up eagerly, says, “Yes, certainly, very nice to meet you. Oh and thank you, thanks, I really appreciate the offer.”
“Do you have a card?” says Cindy.
“Sure, sure,” and grabbing one out of his scuffed denim jacket, hands it to her. She offers one in return.
“Cindy.” He smiles. “Very nice to meet you,” he says, and extends his hand.
“Nice to meet you, Patrick,” she says as she shakes his hand and pockets his card.
After Cindy’s plane arrives in Nashville, she rents a car and drives to the hotel and then just goes to bed. She knows Jesse’s place is already full and after all she doesn’t know Tony, his partner, that well. The memorial service is the day after tomorrow.
The next morning she drives around a bit and decides to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame. She looked it up on the Internet and she decides she likes the cool architecture. Plus she feels she needs the distraction, since she is positive this time she’s correct. That isn’t always the case.
Later back at the hotel she eventually checks the news on her phone then quickly turns on the TV to check for the footage of the 10:30 p.m. United flight last evening crash-landing short of the runway.
She sits down on the edge of the bed, intently watching the images of the flaming fuselage crumpled in pieces and shredded like painted, crusted fabric. Rescue crews in bright tunics mill around against the backdrop of fire and rescue vehicle lights strobing burning arcs into the video cameras.
As usual, this makes her feel horrible, but she rationalizes from experience: they would never believe her, they wouldn’t change the flight; she’d just be labeled crazy.
Then she starts listening to the news drone: “—with 187 people aboard, including seven crew members, and now nine known survivors, including two crew. The survivors have been taken to Vanderbilt Trauma Center—”
Her phone rings. It’s Gloria.
“Oh thank God, you’re okay! You weren’t on that flight!”
“No, no, I’m fine.”
“That’s so horrible. Were you supposed to be on that flight?”
“No, I was an earlier one.”
“Jesus, did you change your ticket? Did you see something coming?”
Cindy doesn’t answer, her eyes are glued to the TV. “Don’t worry, Gloria, I’m fine.”
“The funeral’s tomorrow? Christ, how bizarre, you fly down there for a funeral and then this—”
“I’ll be back in a couple of days, honey, see you then.” And switches off.
There is no immediate news about who the survivors are. For a moment she feels really bad about not giving up her seat to Patrick but also thinks firmly she’s not going to keep inflicting scars on herself. She knows she’s special and refuses to be seen as a freak or someone deluding herself.
Eventually, around eleven they announce the survivors, all badly injured. And apparently Patrick is one of them.
The next day she sorts through Jesse’s funeral experience as if she’s in an emotional swamp. She haltingly staggers through her eulogy. Sitting through the other speakers she’s mired in worry about a stranger she met only fleetingly but is afraid she may encounter again. And then there’s the quiet, needless panic about her own brush with a speculative death that she brushes away. In a perverse, morose moment, she feels it would have felt better if he had actually died. At the wake that follows, the banter and laughter and reminiscences about Jesse tangle her up in a cacophony she finds unnerving to navigate.
A week after Cindy returns to Virginia, she calls Patrick’s Bechtel number. All she has is his business card and it doesn’t include his cell phone.
“Yes, can I help you?”
“Hello, yes, I was wondering if Patrick is available?”
“No, I’m sorry, he’s out, can I take a message?”
“Well, actually, I really want to get ahold of him, you see, I met him on the night of his flight to Nashville—”
“Oh my oh my God, really? I’m so sorry, that was horrible—”
“Yes, yes it was. Do you know how I can talk to him . . .”
“Well, um, I’m not sure, we don’t have guidelines on what to do on that—”
“Is he still in the hospital?”
“I think so, I haven’t seen him here obviously—”
“Do you know what hospital he’s in?”
“I actually don’t, but I think also the family would have that info, and I don’t know what they’re allowing people to do—”
“Thanks, that’s fine, I appreciate your help.”
The next day, scanning the Internet, she finds out from news sources that Patrick indeed survived, but he is now paralyzed below the neck. A week ago she might have reached out to him. Now she feels just guilty enough not to. As usual, Gloria tries to reassure her.
She fingers his card lying on the desk in front of her computer and lingers on the lightly embossed name of his employer. Smiling despite herself, she reaches for her phone to call Bechtel’s Human Resources.
Gloria later tells her she’s perfectly justified.
“You think so?”
“Certainly. So will you get the job?” Gloria asks archly.
“We’ll see,” says Cyn.