Picture a man of average stature and looks beside a woman of average stature and looks on a flight to New York from small Midwestern towns. Picture him telling her he is a high-stakes mogul on his way to put a bow on a deal involving an entire block of buildings, what he’d like her to imagine as skyscrapers. Picture him dressed, not as a real estate magnate, but more a pig farmer on his way to church.
Picture him opening the small bag of peanuts, delicately, as if he’s unlocking the secrets in an ancient scroll. Picture her looking out the window down at shapes of land sculptured by distance into manageable puzzle pieces, saying: “It’s so beautiful.” Wisps of clouds pass and grow denser as he leans over her to look too and a single peanut lands on her lap, on her dress. On a print of an elegant flower ever so slightly faded. Only a bit out of season.
“Wow,” he says, “cool.” And the word cool flaps around for a moment like a fish on a rock. Picture her watch, with an askance glance, as the peanut rolls to the floor.
Picture an inexpensive hotel in the city with an ice machine in the hall that no longer works properly. Picture them after. After a misshapen moment when he fumbles with a condom, puts it on backwards. Picture what was empty space between them remaining so. Picture a TV on, a bit beyond the foot of the bed—an overzealous commercial announcer’s voice like a madman’s mantra they hardly hear, as she tells him she was once the Iowa state ice skating champion. “Gosh,” she says, “the trophy was so big you needed body builders to lift it.” Even though she ice skated only once in her life, on a frozen lake her brother fell in. The sound of the ice cracking at first like cubes in a cold drink by a microphone, then thunderous as he crashed through. Some men forming a linked line, lying on their bellies to retrieve him. How that was the first and last time she wore skates. Picture how easily the words leave her lips. Spill out like a falls, not Niagara. But her Niagara.
Picture him saying “Wow” (without the “Cool” this time) looking at her teeth, imagine him thinking how a retainer, when she was young, would have spared her that overbite.
Picture them going to Coney Island the next day. Digging their feet into the sand, listening to the monosyllabic sea shanties the gulls are singing. Picture them watching the tide come in, go out, with the belladonna eyes sea-absent Midwesterners possess when confronted with such wet wavy vastness. He has a dental appliances convention to attend early the next day and his mind is meandering as a small cyclone might. He needs to call his wife, imagines telling her of the
wondrous new materials they’ve come up with for night guards. Picture the woman beside him digging those skate-phobic feet further into the sand to the cool spaces where the sand darkens.
Imagine her thinking of her husband back home with the kids. Thinking of the dull neckties he wears: mulch brown and dull end-of-autumn greens. Always on crooked. How she straightens them on the way to church. How they always go back, as if spring-loaded, crooked. How she can’t wait to see that Broadway play with her younger sister who moved to this hulking town. Imagine her thinking how badly the man beside her smells. Never taking a shower afterwards. Imagine her recalling how he looked up at those skyscrapers (reverentially) as if they were holy/poking halfway into Heaven. Some magnate!
Imagine him turning and hoping she’ll smile so he can see her teeth again. Picture her gazing at his open shirt, at his undershirt on backwards and inside out, at that little twisted label. Imagine the silence between them like a tightrope, slack and greased. Picture the gulls overhead getting every word right, the tide getting every word right.