Strangers

Chapter 1

Embarrassing Awkwardness

“The fact is, you’re not- not, not  a part of my life anymore.  I haven’t talked to you in four months, I haven’t seen you in eight months, you’re not in my life anymore.  What can I tell you I-” Vanessa Tomison gripped the loose skin above of her nose with her left thumb and forefinger.  The center of her forehead rested momentarily on her left index finger’s first knuckle, and she sighed.  She held a cell phone against her right ear  “Okay,” she said softly and resigned.  She seemed to quiver lowering the phone to her lap.  Her fingers felt the sweat on her forehead and she imagined it was a consequence of the stress.

Vanessa Tomison looked put upon, with her her dirt-colored hair flung apart in loopy curls, and as though she hadn’t had a shower in a while.  No one noticed because she was at an airport, and distraught looking people speaking angrily into cell phones are not uncommon in the airport.  Talking to a cell phone in the waiting area of Gate 84b in O’Hare airport, Chicago, she folded into the bustling mass.

She started to scratch, tracing her nails along the top of her thigh in slow straight lines.  This was a habit she’d retained from a youth spent being a nervous wreck, learning to never ever disappoint authority figures.  Her parents, though she still thinks of them and can in her weaker moments be said to “love” them, spent a majority of her childhood as figures of terror in Vanessa’s life.

Her long-time husband had known this, and used it to his advantage whenever he could, which was a primary reason they’d broken up.  As much as she knew he was an idiot, his words still had her father’s foolish authority.  She felt her phone vibrate in the bottom of her purse and rolled her eyes.  She knew who it was, and she wasn’t going to answer.

Vanessa knew what would happen if she did answer, and as she considered it, she began to mouth her half of a dialog to herself.  This dialog was the tatters of her broken marriage, a placating monolog that ran on a loop.  “Babe, I know, we were together for a long time, but it’s been three years babe, ya know, uh, I mean-”  She gestured desperately to her ex-husband, imagining him standing in front of her, always interrupting.  As the palms of her hands faced the ceiling, her mouth opened and she sat back, resting her head against the soft-yet-uncomfortable airport seat.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon, on a Tuesday in September, and the view out of the window overlooking the tarmac was gray and dark with shade.  Vanessa wore a light green waterproof windbreaker and a new, expensive pair of jeans.  She dug her hands into the pockets of her jacket and fell against the backrest of the seat.  With her eyes closed, she imagined digging a burrow, cloistering herself from the wind and the rain.  She fantasized about being alone and warm and quiet.

But then, with her head resting against the top of the seat and her eyes closed, she started wondering how loud she’d been, talking to herself, and whether anyone had noticed her.  Her head raised slowly, and she expected all eyes to be on her, the bag lady who pleads with an invisible tormentor.  It seemed that no one was paying attention to her, so she fell against the seat again.  Her eyes drooped closed.

“Uh, miss,” she heard a light, frail, elderly female voice to her right, but several seats away.  “A-are you okay?”

“Yes yes, I’m fine,” she said, attempting to ward the old woman’s words off by waving her left hand at them.  “I’m just, going through, ya know, divorce.”

“Oh. . . sorry.”  Vanessa had long ago learnt to be flippant about her divorce, and that any comments she made about her ex should be cheeky, not vicious, to make strangers more comfortable.

“No don’t be sorry, when we got married we were young and I still love him, but, we drifted apart.  We can still joke around and we still take part in each other’s lives to some extent, and if he were giving a speech at the elk’s lodge or something, I–”  The old lady had stopped listening,  Vanessa was suddenly gripped with horror, and hurried away not looking back.  She prayed to god that no one would recognize her, after such an embarrassment.

At a point, years ago, Vanessa Tomison had been a nationally ranked fixture on the tennis circuit.  In her career she’d made five grand slam finals; the Australian Open twice and the French Open three times, her only win coming in her final French Open.  She was widely heralded for her net play.  Never the fastest or the strongest, she relied on an almost preternatural gift for ball placement.  They called her the monk, always guiding the ball to the spot her opponent just left.

In the years since her retirement, though the rare and courageous tennis fan would jump up and down screaming at the sight of her, she’d been able to meld into the blob of most crowds.  But this, she realized, was a dangerous situation.  She knew there were probably some people near her who were already now anticipating the excitement of telling their friends they saw Vanessa Tomison talking to herself in the airport.  She imagined what they were at that moment probably whispering to each other:  “Do you see that crazy lady talking to herself?”  “Holy shit that’s Vanessa Tomison!”  “I used to jack off to a poster of her.”  “Now she’s just some crazy lady talking to herself.”  “Yeah I’m gonna take a picture.”

She hurried to the nearest corner she could find and turned it, finding herself in a dimly lit franchise steakhouse.  The place was covered in shiny black linoleum and there was a jukebox in the corner, so she determined it was probably a good place to get a drink.  The hostess offered her a menu and proposed finding a seat, but Vanessa just asked about the bar.

The bartender came over to Vanessa and she ordered a Bloody Mary.  She sat back and cooled herself off, watching two political pundits jabber at each other on a TV.  She couldn’t stand political pundits, blah blah blah, blah blah blah, but it passed the time.  She sat at the bar and spaced out for what seemed like ages, then took out her phone to see the time.  It was 4:34, meaning she’d only been at the bar for seven minutes, and she ordered a second Bloody Mary.

“Havin’ a rough time?”  A small, chirpy young woman took the seat next to her.

Annoyed and embarrassed, Vanessa snapped back, “No I’m fine, thank you.”

The woman, a small, mousy brunette with expensive-looking hair held her hand out.  “Meant no offense, I just saw you having a conversation on the seat over there,” she motioned toward the seat where Vanessa had been talking to herself.  “And I just want to tell you, I know what you’re going through.”

Vanessa’a face shone fully red as it radiated heat and sizzled, she felt a defensive humiliation.  “Oh I’m- I’m sorry, you weren’t supposed to hear that.”

“Oh don’t worry, I didn’t really hear you, I just recognize the expression that’s all.”

“What?”

“Actually I did hear you, most of us did, I think you were definitely speaking louder than you thought, most of us heard you.”

Vanessa’s hands dropped into her lap as her mouth fell open, landing with a light plop.  Looking out of the tops of her eyes, she scanned the bar.  She considered briefly allowing her head to fall into her hands, but she instead reenergized her spine, sitting up and putting her elbows on the bar.  “It’s just my ex-husband, dragging his hee-.”

“I know, you don’t have to get into it, I said I understand, about awful people I mean.”

“Thanks,” Vanessa was grateful for the opportunity to forget her problems.  “My name’s Vanessa, yours is?”

“Alexandra, but just call me Alex, and I know your name, you’re Vanessa Tomison, right?”  Alex smiled with all her teeth.

Vanessa chuckled loudly.  “Vanessa Tomison, yes.”  She drank deep from her Bloody Mary, then shook her compatriot’s hand.  She for the first time inspected Alex up and down.  Alex was dressed in a tailored gray suit, with a matted-finish leather attaché case at her hip.  She looked like a lawyer or a CEO, someone busy and humorless, with her hair in a tight ponytail like Merris from Cheers, but her toothy grin and giggle made her seem fun and approachable like a coed.  “And you’re Alex, before I learn your last name maybe I can buy you a drink.”

“Oh no this is my third,” said Alex, raising her glass of black liquid and held it up, before lowering and placing it in front of her.  “But I’ll get you another bloody Mary when that one’s done.”

Vanessa, without missing a beat raised her glass and downed the rest of her drink.  “Bartender, another bloody Mary please.”  The two women laughed into each other’s faces.  Alex raised her hand over her head, Vanessa obliged her by slapping it, and continued to ask questions.  “What’s your name?  I mean what’s your full name, Alex?”

“Alexandra Fritsch,” Alex said, holding out her hand, “pleased to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, Alexandra.”  Vanessa began to feel tipsy, viewing the world through increasingly blurry lenses.  Suddenly struck, she burst out laughing, her mouth held in an open smile.  “If someone’s gonna be present for such an embarrassing, moment, I should know their name.”

“You should, but can you?  I mean really, I mean what if my names’s not Alexandra?”  She tilted her head, arching her left eyebrow to seem suspicious.  “What if it’s Duchess?”

Vanessa chuckled and sipped her drink.  “Then you’re probably a dog, if your name’s Duchess.”

Alex leaned back there, allowing her eyelids to droop low above her pupils.  “My dad used to call me Duchess.”

Vanessa’s face flashed a deep red as she struggled to suppress a laugh.  “I’m so sorry.”

“No it’s fine, he’s alive.”  Alex took a long drink of black liquid through her straw.  “He just doesn’t call me Duchess anymore.  He just called me Duchess when I was a kid.”

“Did you used to hate it?”

Alex sneered as if she’d smelled something offensive.  “Hate it?  No, I loved it!  When he would reach down and scratch behind my ear and call me Duchess, some of my favorite memories as a kid.”

“O-Okay, yeah,” Vanessa nodded slightly, considering that she should probably change the subject.  “So, where are you heading to, today?”

“Do you ever wonder why people grow the way they do?”  This question, odd and open to interpretation as it was, made Vanessa immediately begin to scan the seats around her, looking for something that would allow her to escape.  Seeing only light coats and sets of luggage, she responded.

“Grow the way they do?”  Vanessa began to fidget and look at her cell phone.  “What way is that?”

“I mean it’s interesting, what forms people.  I mean I’m sure you meet nasty, evil people all the time, I mean everybody does, so what do you think about it?”  Alex crinkled her nose and played with her hair and yawned, like a kitten.

Feeling full of alcohol and joy, Vanessa leaned forward, placing her hand on Alex’s shoulder.  “Can you- I mean, I just wanna keep it light, ya know?  I’m drunk by now and I just wanna, forget, about all that stuff.”

“Oh no I’m sorry, don’t listen to me I’m a lil’ tipsy too, I guess.”  An explosive cackle escaped from Alex, causing her to jerk reflexively.  She continued to laugh, making a performance of it by slapping the table with her bare right hand.  “I’m- I’m just a lil’ tipsy, and I’m, I’m, ugh, I’m nothing.”

Vanessa bristled, unsure of what to do.  “You’re not nothing, look at you.  You’re beautiful, you’ve got a very nice, neat suit on.  You’re a professional, obviously, I mean, what-what do you do?”

“Nothing, not a god damn thing, that’s what I do.”  Alex finished off her drink.  “I travel the world drinking in airport bars.”

“Yeah I do that too,” said Vanessa, who was beginning to enjoy this line of dialogue.  She’d been drinking in bars before, and she’d enjoyed it.

Since she was 12, Vanessa had been a tennis prodigy, and so hers was not a life that allowed space for any kind of debauchery.  For her entire life, she’d at all times been kept track of.  She’d had a practice schedule, a match schedule, a food schedule, a sleep schedule, a study schedule, and eventually even a sex schedule.  And so after her retirement at age 33 after finally winning the French Open, she’d gone on a bit of a tear.

Now she was 53, and things had cooled off since her wild days, but on occasion Vanessa still drank.  “I’m drinking a little harder though, because I’m not flying to a match, or even to give lessons to some rich kid.  I’m going to L.A. to deal with my fucking ex-husband.”  She scoffed as her hand dropped from it’s position holding her chin up and slapped the table with an open palm.

Alex smiled wide.  “Oh, he’s your awful person.”

“Oh no, he’s not awful.”  Vanessa considered, then drank deeply from her Bloody Mary.  “Yes he is, he’s the fucking worst.”

Alex smiled wide, allowing her mouth to open slightly.  After an extended pause, she rippled with laughter that sounded like cannon fire.  “Oh yes!  Yes!”  As her palm slapped the bar top Alex shook her head slowly left to right.  “I hate the worst.  I mean just those people in your life that just, stand in the way, you know?”

Vanessa answered, “No I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” but really she had thought about them.  The enemies, the villains in her life had been making themselves known.  In the guise of Marcus Edwards, whom she’d once fallen in love with, was a true villain, a true enemy.  Considering Marcus and the havoc he had wrought, she corrected herself.  “No I get it, I know shitty people.”

Alex continued, “But I was just gonna ask, I mean, you know about those people, don’t you, who-who are, clearly,” she looked off in the distance, playing with her straw keeping one end submerged in her drink, “superfluous.”

“Superfluous?”

“Well not only superfluous, wicked too, but, but–” Alex placed her right palm on her forehead, wet with sweat.  She peeled her lips tight, exposing her teeth, and from her leapt an anguished sucking sound.  “Sorry about that.  I’m kind of messed up.”

As she furrowed her brow, Vanessa tipped her head to the left.  Alex was so young, Vanessa realized, though her clothes were expensive, neat and pressed, they were thrown together and messy.  She walked and spoke with confidence, but frequently seemed to forget what she’d been talking about.  Vanessa felt some twinge of concern, and a vague wish to rescue Alex from herself.  “You’re not messed up, I do the same thing.  I get, it, you get caught up in whatever you’re saying or thinking, and it just sort of runs away with you.  I get it.”

“Yeah the same kind of thing happens to you, huh?”  Alex reached into her case and pulled out a simple burgundy glasses case and opened the front of it.  She pulled out what looked like a schoolgirl’s first pair; they had large, circular lenses and bulky, black frames.  “Like when you were talking to yourself a minute ago.”

Vanessa laughed, finished her drink and placed its empty glass on the bar.  Reaching her feet out to touch the floor, she shifted her weight and separated herself from the stool.  She stepped back and touched Alex’s shoulder.  “Well I’m gonna go to my gate now.”

Alex shot her hands out in a sudden, panicked way as she reached for Vanessa’s hand.  “I’m sorry, that was supposed to be funny, I didn’t mean anything by it.”  Her head lowered and she looked at the ground.

“How old are you?” Vanessa asked, truly curious.

“Twenty-five,” Alex said, continuing to cast her eyes downwards.  Vanessa was struck by a pang of compassion, considering what she’d been at twenty-five, sneaking out of a hotel so her coach wouldn’t see her, and always, always getting caught.

Vanessa looked at Alex for a second, and spoke with the voice of a trusted elder confidant and mentor.  “I think you’re doin’ fine.”  As she turned and started to walk away, Vanessa put her hand on Alex’s shoulder, trying to create a touching goodbye.

Alex chuckled, shaking her head and keeping her eyes forward.  Just as Vanessa was about to turn the corner and step into the flowing river of people, she heard Alex loudly say “I’m not,” and start laughing.

Vanessa felt odd.  Alex had reminded her of her own youth, and filled her with conflicting emotions.  She remembered the intensity of feeling, the glorious highs she’d felt on the court, the sense of energy coursing through her veins, and she did miss it.  More than that though Alex reminded her of the negativity and darkness that came with youth.  Confusion and horror, the way she would be seized by righteously violent indignation, only to fall to her knees and feel sorry about the blood dripping from her hands.  She’d been awful, she knew now.  Mean, defensive and cocksure, she’d told people to their face that she was better than them.

So maybe she’d judged Marcus harshly, and she should try to empathize.  Thinking it over, she thought maybe it was just that he was so in love with her, and that he couldn’t let go of that love.  This complete devotion couldn’t solely be negative, could it?  Her post-retirement tear of drugs and sex had led her on a sort of downward spiral, and that was when Marcus had come into her life, and she did credit him as her savior of a sort.  He had encouraged her to straighten up, and to devote herself to tennis again, which she found then that she still did love.

For the last fifteen years she’d been one of the most sought after and head-hunted tennis coaches in the nation, with a standing contract as chief consultant for the U.S. Davis cup team, and having coached both male and female winners of majors from all over the world.  Marcus had been with her through all this success, and their wedding had been wonderful.  The first few years of her marriage had been joyous, but over time his charms had worn thin, and she’d sought an amicable separation.

Vanessa again plucked a cell phone out of her pocket and hit a couple buttons on its face.  She was calling Marcus again, but this time she’d be the reasonable one, always speaking softer than he was.  “Hello, Marcus, I was short with you earlier and I think I might have been a little unfair about some things.  Yes, I’m heading to the plane now, I’ll see you late tonight or early tomorrow, and–”

Marcus had interrupted her, and her face contorted in frustration.  “Look it’s over, M/ark, I’m not coming back, I just want to sign these–”  Vanessa scoffed as she tore the phone away from her head, hung it up and planted it back in her bag.  Her exhaustion was tenable and obvious.  Marcus, she realized, was loathe to free her.  Whether his retention of their legal bond was evidence of worship and devotion, or merely an operation of spite didn’t matter.  She wanted to be done with him and never to see him again, and the least he could do would be to give that to her.

Her want of divorce had become more frenzied in recent months, as she’d fallen in love.  His name was Aloysius Mertin, and Vanessa felt she could not have asked for a more balanced and understanding man.  Aloysius had never met Marcus, and Vanessa had in fact taken steps to hide her new relationship from her ex-husband.  She suspected that somehow Marcus had learned of her new love, and set out to destroy it, or at least ensure that she would never marry again.

Vanessa saw Marcus as a petulant child, screaming at the universe for denying him candy.  As much as Marcus had become a figure of frustration and anger in her life, when she was honest with herself she recognized that she still had feelings for him.  When she saw him, she could still see the kindness in his eyes, that night when he’d seen her all alone at that table and he’d come over and said “Hi, do you wanna come sit at this table?”

And than later, on their date, he just said “let’s just sit.”  And they just sat down in the middle of the sidewalk next to Schuba’s, wrapping their legs together.  And he was so cool, and she was really disarmed by his openness and honesty.  He’d even asked for a kiss, and though they’d been slowly dry-humping on the sidewalk for an hour or more, she said no even though she really really wanted to say “yes.”

That, Vanessa realized, was the past, and that she shouldn’t let pleasant memories of what he was cloud an accurate observation of what he is.  And he is a problem, and if she wanted to live her life happy and free, she had to delete him somehow.  The last half hour of wait before her flight was set to depart, she thought of her options.  Short of the illegal, inconceivable, and completely obvious solution, there were, she thought, legal routes still open to her.

There were restraining orders, of course, but Marcus had money, and that made him very difficult to hold on a piece of paper.  “It’s just paper,” he’d said, speaking of their potential divorce.  “Paper can’t make me forget that I love you, and when you see that you do still love me, you’ll agree.  Or not, it doesn’t matter.  I will never stop.”

She’d tried to be strong, careful not to blink, “Yes you will.”  She’d lifted her bag from the floor and placed it on her lap, unzipping it and pulling out a clipboard.  Her lawyer, sitting next to her did the same thing with his briefcase, pausing to whisper nonsense to her.  “You’ll have to,” she’d said, as she zipped up her luggage and placed its wheels on the floor.

The sound of the rolling wheels trailed from her outstretched arm as she pulled alongside her a small rolling carry-on bag.  It was the Tumi ‘Alpha’ continental carry-on, which was absurdly expensive ($1595.00).  Marcus had given it to her when they’d first started dating, and he was showering her with gifts.  They were gifts she too could’ve easily bought herself, as tournament winnings, endorsement deals, and her award-winning tennis camp conspired to give her a fortune almost comparable to his, he knew more of the finer things, and had cursed Vanessa with a taste for them.

So now all the gifts he’d given her, even if she’d since replaced them, were still a reminder of how important to her Marcus had once been.  Every time she put the bag down and felt it glide smoothly over airport linoleum, she thought to herself “This is a good bag.”  And she remembered when he’d given it to her, and that they’d once been happy together.

She arrived at Gate 26c, the gate her flight was set to depart from, and stood in a long line.  The people in the line all looked haggard, as Vanessa imagined she had to be looking.  She felt as though stress were a transparent film of only slightly viscous sludge, and she was covered in it.  Standing in line, she recognized the oppressive dreariness of the situation, and was glad to be rescued from it by the voice of Alexandra Fritsch, her new twenty-something drinking buddy, yelling “Vanessa!” from far away behind her.

It started faint, and Vanessa grinned subtly as Alex neared.  Though the way their conversation had ended did disturb her slightly, she felt that she needed the distraction, and welcomed Alex with a friendly smile.  “You’re going to LA too?”

Alex folded her hands in front of her knees and spoke sheepishly, “Yeah, yeah I am, I live there, I guess.”

“You guess,” Vanessa said as she laughed out loud, feeling still pretty tipsy.  “Well have a good flight.”

“Thank you I will.”

As they sat across from each other in the waiting area, a stewardess picked up the intercom and spoke into it.  “Flight 380 to Los Angeles, now boarding first class passengers.  Both Alex and Vanessa walked toward the entrance to the airplane trailing rolling carry-on luggage behind them.  When they saw each other from across the doorway, they each grinned and nodded, striding calmly onto the plane.

Vanessa told herself that she probably shouldn’t drink any more, and grinned in recognition of the fact that she was likely to ignore her own advice.  She thought that it might be a very fun flight, and also that if she were not careful, she might ruin her life before touchdown.  She smiled to herself at the half-joking notion.

Like all people, Vanessa, upon entering the airplane’s passenger hold, had first to find her seat.  Until she found her place, separated out and attended to, she couldn’t be comfortable.  So she sat in seat 3B, a prized seat in first class, both in the center and near the aisle.  She arrived at her seat, retrieved her iPod and laptop, set down her isometric seat cover, and settled into place.  As she was just about to finally sit as she noticed, to her thrilling trepidation, Alex was sitting just across the aisle from her.

“Hey Alex, this is gonna be fun!”  Vanessa felt that Alex’s previous behavior at the bar, though concerning, could be forgotten without consequence.  She imagined herself saying “We were both drunk, it’s no big deal.”  This was fantasy, however, as she thought it better, instead, to try and reintroduce fun into their relationship.   “Okay, whatta ya say I buy your first drink, and you buy every other drink.”

After her joke, Vanessa laughed, but was quickly silenced as a concerned scowl crept over Alex’s face.  “Once we’re up in the air we’ll have fun, but I’m really not good with takeoffs, so I’ve just gotta psych myself up a little bit.  We’ll talk when we’re airborne, though.”

“Oh,” Vanessa said, slightly embarrassed.  As she took her seat her eyes darted around the cabin, and she rolled them as she anticipated tedium waiting for them on the plane.  Ever since she was a little kid being carted from city to city for junior tennis tournaments, she’d always loved flying.  Then she considered that, being the experienced flyer she considered herself, she was just the person to help Alex through a tough flight.  “It’s okay, just relax.”

Strangers

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