Author's Notes: My eternal love and gratitude to akaminechan, who beta'd this not only once, but twice, and offered endless encouragement as I worked up the nerve to post. More love and gratitude to j_s_cavalcante for her sage advice and suggestions, numerous grammar fixes, and for the scan of the coin at the end. You gals rock the house!
Story Notes: Written for the self-insertion challenge at ds_flashfiction.
I can see that the heavyset guy in the grey business suit is going to cause trouble from the moment he steps up to the WestJet information desk.
Everyone else in the Domestic Departures lounge is staking out space on the chairs or the floor, setting up sleeping bags or calling loved ones to say they're not going to make it home in time for dinner. We're all digging in for a long delay. It's Christmas Eve, and a big storm has blown up out of the Athabasca Mountains west of the airport. We're not getting out of Calgary tonight.
Canadians are good travelers, generally. It's bred into us not to cause a scene, and we all know that no one, not even the airlines, can control the weather. Most of us are content to wait politely for news as we settle in to our temporary home. But the guy in the suit isn't happy about the delay.
"I booked this ticket four months ago!" he's telling the WestJet customer service rep. She's a short, pretty brunette, a little too young and wide-eyed to be frontline staff during a major weather delay. Canadians are famously polite, yes, but things could get ugly fast, and she's a little too much like me--quiet, shy, unassuming--to be able to handle customer complaints without getting flustered.
Just like I thought, she doesn't meet the man's eyes: she starts clicking around on her computer screen like she's looking for a software program that can control the wind and snow.
"I'm sorry, sir, but it's not safe to fly. When the storm is over we will reschedule your flight and ensure that you arrive at your destination as soon as possible."
"And how long will that take?" he asks. The tone in his voice sets my teeth on edge. I don't like bullies. I spent a long, long time working shitty jobs in the retail and the food service industry, and I can't stand a customer on a power trip. "A couple of hours?"
"I can't say, sir," she replies, still not looking at him. I'm trying to send her mental signals: Don't encourage him. Call your supervisor. Because this guy's not backing down. One glance out the big floor-to-ceiling windows that line the Departures lounge should tell this guy that no one's flying out tonight: the snow is blowing so hard and thick we can't even see all the planes grounded out there on the runway.
He just wants to make someone as miserable as he is.
"Look, you call someone--I don't care who--and tell them that you've got people here who have to get home to their kids. It's Christmas Eve, for chrissakes. You get us a plane. I don't want to spend my whole vacation stuck in an airport."
"I'm sorry, sir," she says, and I can almost feel her unease all the way over here by the window. "There's nothing I can do right now."
I close my eyes. Big mistake to use "I". She just made the delay her personal responsibility.
"I don't care, bitch!" he yells, startling everyone. There are about a hundred people in the lounge, and the expletive makes everyone perk up. All eyes are focused on the service rep and the asshole in the suit. Great. Now he's got an audience.
"I flew in from Toronto! I've been on a plane for four hours already! And I'm not waiting around all night just because you guys are afraid of a little bad weather!"
"Sir, if you'll just calm down--"
"I am calm!" He jerks away, his face flushed. I'm pretty sure Business Suit had a couple of those tiny bottles of alcohol to wash down the rubbery chicken and the soggy peas on the flight in from Toronto. I know his type. He reminds me a lot of the commuters I see all the time in Union Station, the soft-looking men in Hugo Boss suits who never give up their seats on the subway, not even to the elderly or the disabled. They wear their McGill or U of Toronto degrees like a badge of privilege: it's there in the expensive laptop bags slung over their shoulders, their two-hundred-dollar haircuts, their confident strut as they head out into the financial district on Bloor Street.
Toronto men. I'm still not used to them.
"Hey, look," he says, in a voice that he'd call reasonable. "You don't want to make me talk to your supervisor, do you? Just make some kind of arrangement, call whoever you have to, but get me on a fucking plane to Vancouver tonight!"
I want to roll my eyes. Nice way to make a demand, pal. Threaten her job and assert your own importance in a single stroke. Yeah, yeah, we're all very impressed you're flying to Vancouver instead of up north like the rest of us schlubs. The regionalism in this country makes me crazy sometimes.
The crowd has lost interest, at least for now. Most people go back to what they were doing: they dismiss Business Suit as another frazzled traveler and focus on quieting their kids down, or finding a space to stretch out on the padded seats. I'm too close to the service desk to shut out the scene still unfolding before me. I could turn away, too, go sit somewhere else, put my headphones on and use my iPod to tune out the sounds of another problem I can't fix right now. But something about the young rep's nervousness makes it hard to turn away.
Business Suit gets in her space, setting his laptop bag down by her little kiosk and tapping his fingers impatiently as she types. The service rep doesn't know what to do: she's really not good at confrontation. I can sympathize with her. She's still hoping this asshole will see reason and go back to his seat. And Business Suit hasn't caught the clue bus yet: there's nothing she can do. The typing is just for show.
I can see him getting angrier and angrier. It's starting to sink in, maybe, that she's not doing much of anything except giving him some time to cool off, and patronizing a guy like this is the worst thing you can do. He straightens his back--university debate team, I guess, before he finished his MBA--and leans over her, trying to see what she's doing on her screen.
"Are you finding me a flight?"
"Please step back, sir," she says, her voice high and tight. "As I said, there's nothing available for--"
He moves so quickly I barely see it. Just a step toward her, one hand circling her wrist, and all of a sudden Business Suit is pressed up close and he's got a hand on her shoulder.
"You get me. The fuck. Out of here."
I stop pretending like I'm not watching. I look around for a security guard--stupid not to have checked earlier, but I didn't think the Suit would get physical--and see no one. Just tired travelers who seem determined to ignore what's going on. Maybe, to them, it looks like the rep is still handling things. The guy is close to her, yes, but he's checking her screen like she's pointing out options for him. Maybe they can't see that he's got his beefy hand locked around her wrist.
I stand up, poised to call attention to what's going on. There's a familiar sensation of self-loathing coiling though me--I always hesitate too long, always hope for the best outcome until it's far too late--but a movement to my left distracts me. A tall, thin guy in jeans and a tight t-shirt lopes toward the desk. He was sitting a couple of seats down from me on the bench but I didn't notice him; bad spatial orientation on my part, I guess, or else I was too fixated on the action between the service rep and Business Suit to notice him.
He's not the type I would have expected to step in. He looks like an aging hustler, strong and slim-hipped, his dishwater-blond hair gelled up into spikes that shouldn't look quite that good on a guy pushing forty. The new guy is taller than Business Suit but he's at least forty pounds lighter, and Suit looks like he knows how to throw his extra weight around. If Suit starts to get violent I'm not sure how the new guy will handle it. He's wiry and he moves with fluid economy of motion, but one of the things I learned growing up in a rough n' tumble logging town is that skinny guys don't do so well in a contest of raw strength.
He waits, quietly, just behind the Suit's shoulder, and makes eye contact with the service rep.
"Everything okay here?" he asks. His voice is calm, steady but rapid. Business Suit turns to look at him.
"We're fine," he says tightly, just as the service rep shakes her head. The thin guy nods to her, and puts a hand on Business Suit's shoulder.
"Step back and take your hand off her." His voice is low, threatening, and it sends a chill down my spine.
Suit shrugs him off, but the new guy doesn't move his hand. Instead, he tightens his grip, his fingers digging into the guy's shoulder, and Business Suit huffs in shock.
"You need to step away from the lady," Spiked Hair says.
"Who the hell are you?"
"I'm Chicago PD, pal. And weird as it is, I know how to make a citizen's arrest in this country. In fact, some of my best friends are Mounties."
Wow. A real big city American cop. I've only seen them on TV. Not that the tall, thin blond guy looks like anyone from the cast of Law and Order. But he looks tough and hard-edged, different from any of the Mounties I've ever met. I think he's even got a tattoo.
The service rep looks relieved, and grateful. Business Suit is good at bullying young women but he doesn't seem willing to take on a US cop; he lets go of the rep's wrist and steps back, hands up, placating. "I don't want any trouble," he says.
"That's good," the cop says, almost sneering at him. He keeps his attention fixed on Suit as the guy gathers up his laptop bag and slinks away.
The American cop turns his attention to the service rep, who's looking a little shell-shocked.
She nods and rubs at her wrist like she's trying to wipe away Suit's touch. "I'm fine. Occupational hazard." Even that line seems scripted, and her smile is forced. She's still so new at this job. "Thanks," she tells him, shaking it off enough to flash him a million-watt smile. "What a jerk, huh?"
I smile. That, at least, doesn't seem like part of the script. She's amused the American, too, and wow, that's quite a smile. It changes his whole face, makes him look younger and more relaxed. He's dropped the cop attitude, and I expect him to flirt a little with the pretty young service rep he's just rescued. But instead he murmurs something else to her--a suggestion to call in a more experienced rep to deal with angry types like Business Suit, I hope--and strolls back to his seat.
Which puts him close to me again. I try not to stare as he sprawls out, sliding down into the seat and spreading his legs wide apart. He looks like one of my students, suddenly, and I wonder how a middle-aged cop has managed to hold on to the body language of a young college freshman.
"That was well-handled," I tell him, a little surprised at myself. I'm not the type to speak to strangers, let alone offer a random compliment. "She was a bit overwhelmed."
He turns to me, eyes locked on my face. I wonder what he sees. Another tired traveler, I guess. I didn't bother with makeup, like usual, and I'm dressed in dark jeans and plain, warm sweater. Flying always make me cold.
He might think I'm a student: I've got my own laptop bag, and even though I finished my degree a while ago I still give off that stressed-out, slightly panicked vibe of fourth year university. Or maybe it's the glasses, or my serious expression. Something about me always makes people ask what my major is.
"Thanks," he says, and the kind of awkward silence I dread of settles in between us. This is why I don't talk to strangers: I always want to fill that silence and I end up asking stupid questions, or saying stupid things. I just never got in the habit of talking to people.
"I hate guys like that," I confide, waving in the direction of the service rep's booth. "I'm sure she appreciates your stepping in."
He shrugs and hunches a little, burying his hands in the pockets of his jacket. It suddenly hits me that I'm talking to a middle-aged cop. He probably doesn't give a shit about what some Canuck chick thinks about his decision to intervene. It's his job, something he must do every day.
Scratch that. His days probably involve encounters much more serious and intense than a mildly rude guy at an airport kiosk. My ears burn with embarrassment and I start to wonder if it would be impolite to gather up my stuff and move somewhere else.
"I hate guys like that too." He glances at me, eyes quick and sharp. "You Canadian?"
I smile. "Yeah." His question relaxes me, at least a little. It doesn't sound like I'm imposing on him, and that's always one of my worst fears when I talk with someone new. I'm even feeling brave enough to try a tiny joke: "It looks like you're stuck with a bunch of us tonight."
He nods. "I don't mind Canadians so much. You guys are okay."
It's an odd thing to say, but I'm beginning to think that this Chicago cop is an odd man. "Were you supposed to be on the Vancouver flight?"
I'm hoping the question will spark a long explanation on his part, something I can listen to and nod at and ask questions about. It takes me a while, sometimes, to settle into a conversation. But he just says, "Nope" and I decide that he's probably not the type to do all the heavy lifting in a conversation.
"Oh. So you're going north, then." That makes me like him a little more, for some reason. That old regionalism cuts both ways.
"Yeah, Prince George to--" he checks his boarding pass, "Fort Nelson, and from there I gotta rent a car."
I'd whistle, if I could. "That's a long trip. Do you have to cross the Yukon border?"
"Yep." He looks out the window and checks the snow that just keeps on falling. "I was really hoping to make it tonight. Christmas Eve. You know."
He sounds so sad as he says this, and I feel like he's letting me see something I shouldn't. His defenses are down, and this delay is clearly killing him. Somehow I don't think it's the prospect of a drive over the Yukon border in a blizzard that's put that note of sadness and longing into his voice.
I once read that, in the earliest days of frontier settlement, it was considered a fighting offense to ask a man where he was from. The West symbolized a fresh start for everyone, and by asking a man his last name, or anything about his roots, one obliterated that chance to wipe away the old and build a new story. Since then I've always been careful not to ask too many questions of people about their background; like me, everyone is looking for a fresh start. But polite conversation and my own sense of curiosity seems to dictate that I ask the man about his holiday plans.
"Are you visiting a friend up there?"
Another one of those quick, sharp glances. This American is definitely the suspicious sort, and I'm not sure it's entirely due to his policeman's training. "Yeah. Old friend of mine. We haven't seen each other in a while, though." He sighs, slumps, and glances at me. "I'm Ray."
He offers his hand. It's slender, long-fingered, and a metal bracelet dangles from his wrist. I didn't really figure him as the jewelry type, but the bracelet is plain and unassuming and, somehow, works on him. When we shake I catalogue calluses and a muscular tension in his grip that he doesn't bother to hide. Had the confrontation with Business Suit turned physical I have no doubt Ray would have welcomed the chance to unleash some of that tension he carries in his handshake.
I tell him my name in return, and he's quick to ask, "You going north, too?" Ray is a little more interested in talking now, and I wonder if he needs the distraction from whatever is eating him up inside.
"Yes. Prince George. Not nearly as far as you need to go."
I start to wonder if Ray has read the same book I have. His questions are polite but contained--he's curious, but he doesn't want to force an admission. I don't want to tell him that I'm privately relieved to be stuck in an airport on Christmas Eve. The holidays have always been strained and anxious at home.
"I haven't been back there in a while," I explain. "Not for nearly four years. I've been in Ontario."
"What do you do there?"
"I'm a college teacher."
This surprises him. I think he was expecting me to say something different.
"But you're just a kid!" he says, and his energy is suddenly infectious. I can't help but smile.
"I know. And believe me, it makes it harder to control a classroom when you're the same age as the students."
He laughs, and that awkwardness between us dissipates. Ray must be one of those types who have to feel you out before they decide if you can be friends. Once you're in, you're in. My boyfriend's a bit like that, dog-like in his initial distrust of people, but friendly and loyal once you breach that initial barrier. I'm much more willing to let people in, but they only make it so far.
"How'd you land that gig?"
"Through a friend," I explain. Or don't. "And I know how lucky I am. I think I'm good at it. Sometimes."
That makes him smile, a rueful little grin that pulls at the corners of his mouth.
"Do you like your job?" I ask him, and his grin fades away. Ray's face grows lined and tense. I can't decide if he's closer to forty or fifty: when he smiled at the service rep I thought he was much younger than he seems now.
"It's okay. I've been doing it for a while. This guy I'm going up to visit used to be my partner, but it hasn't--"
His face closes over, and once again I get the sense that I'm seeing something I wasn't meant to see. "It hasn't been the same since he left."
The snow is falling heavily now; it glows amber in the orange lights used to illuminate the runways. The lounge has grown quiet; we've only been talking for perhaps half an hour but it's close to one o'clock in the morning here in Alberta, and people are tired. There are a few other murmured conversations but it feels oddly private, as if we're alone in the midst of a blizzard.
"I wasn't supposed to make this trip alone," I tell him. "My partner was supposed to come with me this year."
He twists his head a little at my use of "partner." I replay our conversation, and the longing in his voice to spend Christmas Eve with his friend registers on a different note. Oh.
Back in graduate school, when we were all trying so hard to be hip and political, I picked up on the use of "partner" to describe a lover of either sex. It was supposed to be a way to help eliminate the heteronormativity of "husband" or "girlfriend" from everyday vocabulary and strike a small blow for equality. I call my boyfriend my partner, now, because that's what he is. And the word, which Ray has interpreted as something different, has opened an unexpected connection between us.
"Tough...you know. To spend the holidays alone?"
I nod. Yes, it certainly is. "Does he know you're coming? Does he know about the delay?"
Ray shifts uneasily, and bounces his knee up and down. His surfeit of energy is familiar from teaching two semesters of composition to restless students. "I wanted to surprise him. He doesn't--"
Ray breaks off, apparently frustrated with himself. He twists in his seat to look out the window. I suspect he speaks because I am safely anonymous, too young and quiet and restrained to be a real friend. Our paths probably will never cross again, and maybe that is why Ray continues to speak.
"He doesn't know that I wanted to spend Christmas with him. I don't even know if he'll be there. Might be out on patrol."
He blinks out at the night. "He's a Mountie."
Oh. A cop and a Mountie. That makes sense, or at least it might explain why Ray is so uncertain about whether or not his friend will be happy to see him.
"What's he like?"
He stops twisting and fidgeting for a moment, and Ray smiles again.
"He's a good cop, but he's completely loony tunes. Guy has no fear. And he's real polite except when he gets pissy, and he's funny and weird and..." Ray's voice grows softer, warmer. "He's my partner. I trust him with my life."
"But not with your holiday plans?"
He barks a laugh, and the momentary horror I feel at saying something so personal ebbs away. Americans.
"Yeah, I guess not," he says, rubbing at his eyes. We don't speak for a while, but the silence isn't awkward. We both watch the snow drift down outside, and the night closes around us like a warm, dark cloak.
"Thing is, I'm kind of a coward."
I glance at him. "I don't think that's true. There are four hundred people in this airport and you're the only one who said anything to that man at the service desk."
He shrugs, one thin shoulder rising slightly. "That's different. That's what I do, y'know? Kick some heads, book the bad guys. But I'm not so hot at explaining stuff. Saying the big things."
I smile, and when Ray sees my expression he looks wounded. I'm quick to reassure him. "No one is brave when it comes to saying the big things. Or at least, most of us aren't. Can I tell you a story?"
I'm not prepared for his low, rueful chuckle. "Is that, like, a Canadian thing? You all storytellers?"
I nod quickly. "It's a national imperative. Anyway, I want to tell you about my boyfriend."
I'm prepared for his quick look of betrayal. He thought I had a female partner, and I try to smooth over the confusion quickly and get to the point. "We met when we were eighteen. His roommate was my best friend at the time, and I went to a party at their dorm. We spent the night together, and a couple after that. On the third night he told me he loved me."
Ray closes his eyes and leans back in his chair. "I like this guy already. He acts fast, huh?"
I shake my head. "I didn't know it at the time, but no, he doesn't. He's actually a pretty hesitant person. It's not like him to make that kind of declaration, particularly when he doesn't know someone very well. But he was being brave and trying to be honest about how he felt. And it freaked me out a little. I wasn't sure I felt the same way."
"So what did you do?"
I'm blushing now; even the tips of my ears feel hot. "I told him I liked him very much."
Ray groans and covers his face. "Oh, god, you didn't give him the, `I just want to be friends' speech, did you?"
"God, no." I shudder slightly. "I wouldn't do that to someone. But I did explain I wasn't ready. And you know what? He was okay with waiting until I was ready to say it. He said he wanted to tell me how he felt, and not because he wanted me to feel bad, or say something that I didn't mean. He just thought I should know that someone loved me."
Ray's quiet, letting it sink in. He twists a few times in his chair, shifting around as though changing position in his seat will help him think. Finally he speaks.
"You Canadians are pretty good with the stories. But you kind of suck at endings. When did you finally tell him?"
I smile, remembering. "A couple months after that. It wasn't a big deal by then. He knew how I felt, and he knew I wasn't very brave."
"It's a good story."
"Does it have a point?"
"I think your Mountie must know how you feel, Ray. And if he hasn't already guessed...well, tell him anyway. It's always good to know when someone loves you."
"Huh," Ray says. He stares out at the snow, his body twitching while his mind works. "I think maybe, sometimes, that he feels the same way. That he gets me, like your boyfriend gets you. Think I should call him?"
"It can't hurt. Just let him know the flight was delayed. He might appreciate some advance warning."
"Okay." Ray stands, suddenly determined. There's a bank of telephones over by the darkened Starbucks stand. He eyes the phones warily and pats down his pockets for loose change. All he comes up with are American quarters.
"Dammit," he mutters. I've already hauled out my wallet, telling myself sternly not to be embarrassed by the bright blue appliqu flower on the front. The change pocket is a bit too small and it takes me a second to fish out the right coins for a long distance call to the Territories. When I start to count the change out for him, I giggle a little and hold up a quarter.
"What?" He takes the quarter and holds it up to the light. His grin lights up the airport.
"Take it as a sign," I suggest. It's one of the old quarters I carry for good luck. Queen Elizabeth on one side, a Mountie, horse and all, on the other. I always had a thing for the Musical Ride.
Ray grins at me, and flashes another one of those blinding smiles that takes years off his face. "Hey, thanks," he says. "I'll pay you back."
I smile back. "I know you're good for it."
He marches over to the pay phone, and feeds the loonies and quarters in like he's plugging winning coins into a slot machine in Vegas.
I pull out a battered book of crosswords and immediately start cheating. Giving him his privacy seems like the polite thing to do.
He's on the phone a long time, and I think he and his Mountie must have managed to connect, because when he strolls back to his spot on the bench he's grinning. He actually does a little shuffle-jive step and spins around, which makes some of the people huddled along the wall a couple feet away eye him suspiciously.
"Well, I told him." He drops into his seat and folds his arms across his chest, and then immediately springs up again. I expect him to start beating his chest any second.
"I take it that your Mountie--"
"Ben," he says instantly, still performing his victory dance.
"Ben," I continue, "was happy to hear from you?"
"Dee-lighted," Ray confirms. "He's going to try to fly down and meet me at the airport in Fort Nelson. It'll save some time, and we can spend Christmas Day together, maybe, if they can get us out of here by tomorrow."
"That's great!" I mean it. I'm enough of a closet romantic to find this love connection kind of thrilling. How often do you get to witness a happy ending? "And you'll tell him?"
"Dunno," Ray says, and the light in his eyes doesn't dim. "I guess we'll see. Let me buy you a coffee, okay? You can give me some tips on how to say the important things in Canadian."
"Sure thing, Ray," I say, and put away the crossword book. Suddenly spending Christmas Eve in Calgary International doesn't sound so bad.
End Departures by Nos4a2no9
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