At the Terminal by Elizabeth Genovise:
When Rachel disembarks, Gate 22 is empty except for a custodian sweeping up the floors. He glances at her as she passes by and she averts her eyes. She hurries into the first bathroom she sees and chooses a sink in the back corner, setting her bag down on the shelf under the mirror. In the same order that she checks herself in the mornings at home, she adjusts her hair, her lip gloss, and the drape of her skirt. After a long moment of staring at herself in the glass, she takes out a comb and tries to shift the part in her hair. But the tendrils won’t fall where she wants them to, and when she shakes her head, the old part just realigns itself. Cursing, she jams the comb into a side pocket of her bag and exits the bathroom, brushing her skirt down again as she goes.
He’ll be waiting downstairs, she knows. He’ll be leaning against something, wearing that expression of adoration that she has carried with her like a locket since she saw him at a conference in Chicago two months ago. In Rachel’s carry-on, stuffed into a tiny pillbox, is her wedding ring, along with the delicate silver necklace her husband gave her on their fifth anniversary. Heat spreads from her neck to her cheeks as she readjusts the bag on her shoulder. Underneath the cover of a notebook and makeup case, she has silk camisoles and teddies, pastel blues and soft violets, wrapped in tissue like gifts and fragrant with an eau de toilette she bought yesterday.
It is strange to her, what comes to mind after she steps onto the moving walkway and no longer hears her own heels on the linoleum. She thinks, maybe it’s the terminal shops with their displays of candy and gum. There has to be some explanation for why she would be thinking of Frankie Torres, her neighbor and schoolmate when she was ten, the kid with the speech impediment.
Rachel’s best friend then, Lacy, used to yell things at Frankie when he came out on his front porch with his water guns or GI Joe’s. She’d say things like, “Tell us the biggest word you know, Frankie. Say ‘rudimentary.’” Rachel never knew where Lacy got her words. Frankie would go on playing, but his face would turn different colors, red and then a little blue like he was holding his breath, and Lacy would laugh from over on Rachel’s porch and say that Frankie had his own language, retard language.
Once, right before Christmas, Rachel was in the White Hen Pantry down the block from her house and she saw Frankie there, standing at the counter. She came up behind him holding a Snickers bar and heard him trying to talk to the cashier. He was trying to ask, “how much is this gum,” but it came out garbled and sputtering and the cashier kept his mouth straight for just a second and then burst out laughing. Rachel felt her eyes burning and so she focused them on the gum, the mint green packages. When Frankie turned around and looked desperately at Rachel, she tried not to see him. She did make herself look at the clerk, though, and she said, “He wants the green kind. Just put it with mine.” But Frankie had walked out, his dollar bill crunched in his fist and straining out from between his knuckles like some growing thing.
The crowd thickens a little after she steps off the walkway and starts toward the escalators. The rising white noise of voices and the occasional sneeze or laugh is startling to her, like a radio wakening in the middle of the night as a truck passes by. She hears a violent cough somewhere to her left and then she is thinking of Renee Mingott, her first boss back in high school when she worked at a daycare center. Mingott’s trinkets, that was the joke. The woman kept a pile of medals and crosses in her top desk drawer, a discovery Rachel and her friends made halfway through that first summer working there. Rumor had it she buried the things outside evil places like abortion clinics. When Mingott was done barking at the girls about whatever it was that day—forgetting to disinfect the toys, leaving the TV on longer than it was supposed to be—she’d hack and cough and retreat to her little office where the girls could hear those Saint-this-and-that medals clinking together. They found out later she had cancer of the throat. Their new supervisor told them that Mingott had insisted the whole way through that she would be healed.
She thinks now of making love with Carthy Adams, next to the iced-over lake south of Ypsilanti where she went to school. It was her first time and when he lifted her with him into the back of the car she looked out the rear window and saw the lake under the moonlight and was absolutely certain that she wanted it to be him. The water wore the new ice like a veil, the moon sparkling in the eyelets. Rachel kept her eyes open. She wanted to watch Carthy and she wanted to see the clouds they made with their breath. Carthy was not so long ago the rough-limbed boy she liked to steal the college president’s canoe with. But he moved so slowly in her that in her mind she saw a boat tied in for the night, rocking on harbor waves. At one point he said into her hair, “Don’t you forget this.”
She wouldn’t, because a few weeks after that, Carthy went back to the lake with his brother and decided to walk out onto the ice. He fell through and by the time his brother had hauled him out of the black water, Carthy was gone. She thought of him at strange times during the next few years, like at a Christmas dinner or a baseball game, and then later when she met her husband, whose eyes made her remember.
On the escalator, she grips the rubber railing. The crowd swims beneath her, brown and blonde heads, caps, scarves, bright jackets. It is frigid in Chicago—she can feel the draft already, seeping through the parking garage doors on the lowest floor. Halfway down, she sees him waiting for her. He is leaning against an abandoned rental car counter and in his hand is a red fleece, no doubt for her.
Her backpedaling steps surprise the people behind her—This is a down escalator, what are you doing—but she turns all the way around and begins to zigzag between them, flailing for the rail as she goes. Though her steps are uncertain, she doesn’t fall. She did this as a child and she can do it again, this awkward ascent, this stumbling toward solid ground.
Elizabeth Genovise is a graduate of the MFA program at McNeese State University in Louisiana. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Pinch, Yemassee, and other journals.