With her eyes shut, Anna inserted the metal tab into the clasp and tightened the belt across her lap. Her skin smelled of steel and overused cloth when she brushed away pooling tears with the heel of her hand. The scent of sunscreen and Caribbean salt barely tinged her nose anymore.
The seat beside her rocked and a shadow cooled her cheeks. Sniffing, Anna turned and stared out the window where the sky tinted into amber and magenta. She tugged her gauzy, hibiscus patterned overshirt close and inched toward the oval window. The thick pane, however, kept her trapped inside.
“Sorry,” said the new arrival when he jostled the row.
In the window’s reflection, Anna watched the towering man doff a frayed baseball cap, revealing a reddened scalp. Ducking low, he held onto a set of thick frames while avoiding a smack of his forehead against the overhead bins. He plopped down into the neighboring chair, adjusted his glasses with stubby fingers, and then stuffed a tattered rucksack at his feet. With a grimace, he wiggled into what Anna suspected was a similarly too-thin seat cushion.
Plush chairs circling the pool side tables seemed to reach out of her memory and cradle her in downy softness. Breezes hinted with chlorine coiled out of the depths, and she felt a pair of strong hands glide over her bare shoulders, his skin warm and his touch as gentle as it’d been all night.
The elbow into her side knocked her from the reminiscence.
“Sorry,” the spectacled man said again.
Anna gave him a small grin although her mouth didn’t seem up for the effort. “It’s okay,” she whispered.
“Are….” He crinkled brushy eyebrows above his frames. “Are you okay, Ms?”
“Hum?” She met the older man’s concerned gaze for a heartbeat, and then looked down at her shirt’s floral pattern. “I’m fine.”
She bit her lower lip to keep it from wavering. The sharp sting shot through her mouth and straightened her spine.
You’re a big girl, she chided, you made the logical decision.
With the chastisement echoing, she forced a broader grin and raised her eyes back to her neighbor’s reflecting lenses.
“I’m fine, really.” She uncoiled one hand from around her arm and motioned at his safari-style jersey. “Doesn’t look like you were on vacation.”
“Me?” He chuckled and then turned his cap between his hands to face the faded the Stanford University logo above the brim. “No. Work. I’m a biology professor and we,” he motioned up the airplane’s aisle where the other passengers kept boarding and a pair in similar dishevelment sat, “were on a grant.”
“A grant for what?”
“Bird hunting.” He set the hat on his knee and his voice took on a comforting cadence of someone used to public speaking. “There’s a species of parrot, a Psittaculidae, on one of the outer islands. It’s a beautiful thing. Smallest of its kind. Red as a ruby with a bright lime-green belly. It has this massive beak in proportion to its face,” he added outlining the nose on his own sun-baked and beaming face.
“Sounds unique,” said Anna.
“It is. The problem is no one’s seen in for ten years.”
Drawn in by the tiny bird’s plight, she tilted her head, suddenly curious as to how the story might end. “And?”
“Well,” his shoulders slumped, “we had about as much luck as the last group looking for it. Six weeks of mimic calling, backcountry hiking, camping and….” He held up both hands, revealing empty palms. “Nothing.”
Anna clutched her arms as the idea of the lost little bird deepened the pit already gaping in her gut. “So do you think it’s really gone?”
“All the evidence points that way.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “But I like to think there’s a pair hiding somewhere. Maybe up in the cliff tops, living, breeding, somehow hanging on.”
Her lips curved at the glimmer of hope in his eye despite the proof he’d seen. “That seems very optimistic of you.”
With a shrug, he sat back in his chair. “Better that the alternative, or dwelling on what’s to come.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, we’re going to have to explain ourselves, explain our bills I mean, when we get back. Grants are one thing. Having something to show for it is something else and few institutions like it when it looks like you just wasted their money on a tropical holiday.”
“That I understand.”
He cocked his head this time. “Were you out here for work as well?”
“Me? Oh no,” said Anna.
“Yes.” She wilted into the seat and half hoped a margarita would appear in her hand.
Her neighbor lowered his voice, a paternal thread dulling his inquiry. “From what I can tell it looks like you had about as much luck finding what you were looking for as we did.”
“Oh I found something,” she whispered.
Her gaze drifted into the seatback tray table, the muddy gray the hue of wet sand at dawn, the surrounding tweed a darker shade than Gabe’s coppery hair. His Caribbean colored eyes glittered from her memory, his laughter in her ears. His serious expression during their debates on environmental legislation and how else to make the world a better place softened with the satisfied dimples on his cheeks as he lay among pillows and silken sheets. She felt his arm around her naked waist, the heat of his chest fueled by the slowing beat of a once sprinting heart warm against her cheek. Her lips blazed with their last kiss, surrounded by the saccharine perfume of plumerias in the hotel’s entryway. The floral scent undercut the mint of his toothpaste and the oaky taste of him underneath.
“…change seats,” said her neighbor.
Anna shook her head when the offer processed. “He’s on his way to DC already.”
“And you’re stopping in LA?”
“No.” She blinked and found her eyes damp. Sniffing, she dug a crumpled tissue from her pocket and dabbed her fluttering lashes. “Allergies,” she said after a quick nose blow.
Her neighbor gave her lie an understanding smile.
“I’m heading all the way to Vancouver actually,” said Anna.
“Yes, I’m an engineer up there.”
“You don’t say.”
Anna balled up the tissue and glided onto the bedrock of rote explanations. “I design and oversee the construction of carbon neutral homes. It’s a small firm, but we’re growing fast. I’d just finished up a major build and decided to take a break before the next project.”
Her own rambling curve left Anna glancing out the window again.
“I wanted a break. Something easy, relaxing…not….” She ripped the tissue in two and stared at the ragged edges. “It’s the right thing to do,” she whispered, “the logical thing. We decided it together. It wouldn’t work out…him in one place, me in another, let alone a resident of a different country.”
She looked up at her neighbor, his brow furrowed like the beach at low tide.
“That makes sense right?”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure I understand your question.”
“It wouldn’t work,” she said, her hands tightening on the two clumps of tissue. She felt the flimsy sheets beginning to melt against her sweating palms. “I’ve got a job, a life, a career. I can’t just pick that up and move and he can’t either. It’d be crazy…stupid. Right?”
Her neighbor twirled his cap in his fingers and then stared at the logo above the brim. “You make a logical argument.”
“I know.” Anna fell back into her seat and slammed down the window shade.
“But,” said her neighbor, “I find logic carries more weight in science than it does in life.”
Peering at the bits of tissue littering her lap like dandruff, Anna bit her lip and listened to the hefts and grunts, the seat groans and apologies of the other passengers settling in for the flight. A few laughed or talked in low murmurs. One flight attendant passed by to help load a primary-hued paper bag into the overhead bin. The sides crinkled with his shoving, and Anna jolted when the lid smacked down. An oppressive sense of claustrophobia smothered her and doubled when a man of island-proportion claimed the aisle seat in her row. She set her hand on her belt’s buckle and flipped up the window’s shade.
Night had fallen outside, and the airport’s lights silhouetted the palm trees and twinkled brighter than the stars eking out of the velvet sky.
“What am I doing?”
Her whisper misted on the plastic. Finding her reflection lacking an answer, she tipped her head forward and rested against the oval curve.
Around her the bustle began to dwindle, fewer belts fastened, and the shuffle of books, papers, or bodies against the cushions quieted. The flight attendant marched up the aisle with a methodical tread and Anna felt his gaze on her bowed shoulders when he strode by during his inspection of the passengers in his care.
His passing glance made her feel somehow smaller and more a piece of cargo than a person. A piece of cargo to be hauled three thousand miles across an open ocean dotted with islands and a swath of land where other people lived and loved. A piece of cargo to be delivered back to her apartment with a suitcase of dirty laundry, a wounded heart, and an array of new deadlines a part of her still felt eager to face come Monday morning. And yet a piece of cargo she wanted desperately to shove thorough the window and leave on the tarmac.
No, she corrected, to label and ship off to DC.
Anna closed her eyes and bit her lip again. The pain failed to hold back the film of tears pooling in her eyes. She planted her elbow on the armrest and shoved a fist under her chin, hoping her neighbor wouldn’t disturb her sleeping feint.
He opened an issue of Scientific America instead.
“Excuse me,” said someone up the aisle.
At the voice, Anna snapped open her eyes and caught her heart in her throat.
“So sorry,” the voice said again.
The flight attendant marched by on an intercepting course. “Can I help you sir?”
“I’m just looking for someone.”
Anna stiffened down to her painted toes. Her head turned although a voice inside of her warned against it, warned against what her eyes would see, what logic said wouldn’t be there, couldn’t be there.
“Ms?” Her neighbor’s frown entered her peripheral vision. “Is everything okay?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, snaring Gabe’s attention over the interceding seats from where he stood in the aisle, straining to peer past the flight attendant’s blockade. When he saw her, Gabe’s dimples reappeared. “Maybe….”
“Ah…I see.” Her neighbor unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned toward the rotund man beside him. “Excuse me, sir, but I think the young lady has a parrot who is in need of this seat.”