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The Closest Exit by Laurie Ann Cedilnik

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The plane was empty, squeezed of all its passengers, ravaged like a juiced fruit. Only Jill and Denny remained. Jill folded the coarse flannel blanket her husband had dropped when he fled to the jet’s restroom. The blanket lay limp in his wake, a skin quickly shed. She shaped the flannel into a neat square, admiring her diamond. It had been recently joined by a modest gold band, but she still hadn’t tired of the stone. It had belonged to Denny’s dead mother, and it was huge. The diamond’s weight on her finger made Jill giddy and high—how could a person own a precious thing that big? The jewel was a fat, sparkling grape; once, Jill had licked it. She kept her tongue to herself as she waited for her husband.  So Denny had a little motion sickness—not a problem. They were out of the air now.

By the time Denny emerged, Jill had gotten the lowdown on every beach in St. Maarten. “Good-bye, Bonnie,” she called to a flight attendant. “Good luck in Barbados!”

Bonnie winked. “Easy on the Daiquiris.”

Jill handed Denny his duffle. He swayed on his feet. Denny had a generous frame but still carried himself like a former fat kid. When he let his posture go, his paunch grew. He was not quite as tall as his wife. There was a piece of toilet paper stuck to the arm of his glasses where he’d apparently tried to blot sweat. The paper was curled into a moist twist, like a tiny tapeworm. Jill flicked it away with her fingernail. “Ready for the honeymoon?” She hoisted her beach bag onto her shoulder and turned to disembark.

 

*

Sitting on the balcony of the Honeymoon Suite, Jill watched the seagulls fish for food as she listened to her husband retch. The gulls circled above and swooped at intervals, dipping the tips of their beaks into the waves. Jill heard another retch, and then a flush. “Come out and look at the ocean.”

Denny’s voice came from the other side of the open glass door. “Gotta lie down.”

“The air will make you feel better.”

“No.” Denny groaned. “Maybe it was those shrimp puffs.”

Denny spent the last half of the wedding reception, after the dance and the toasts and the champagne, popping pastry-encrusted shrimp dipped in a peppery cream sauce. He tried to feed Jill one, but she was resolute. “No carbs,” she said, patting her lace-encased tummy. “I bought a bikini.” Denny indulged in carbs enough for the both of them.

The brand-new bikini was trapped in her beach bag, tags attached, while the cotton sundress Jill wore was almost translucent with sweat. “I’m changing,” she said.

The new bikini was ivy-green, with bright flowers embroidered on the cups. Modeling in the mirror at JC Penny, Jill thought the darker green looked good against her pale skin. She’d had to try on an XL top to accommodate her rebellious breasts, but the suit was supportive and sexy. She was tall, and with her dark brown hair escaping the messy bun atop her head and the ivy fabric hugging her thighs, Jill thought she resembled a tree in reverse, a charming freak of nature.

She had spotted the beach bags on her way to the register. They hung heavy like fat, colorful fruit from the branches of the metal stand. For the one or two trips to the beach Jill took each year, a beach bag had never seemed necessary. But if she was going to spend a full week smack on the beach in her first week of being Mrs. Dennis Symanski, she wanted to look ready. There were several orange-patterned bags left, a couple of pink ones, and one in bright blue. Jill figured that ocean blue was most popular and grabbed the last one before someone else could snag it.

The carb embargo had worked nicely, Jill noted as she posed at the foot of the bed on which Denny lay. A plastic amaryllis on the bedside table loomed over his head in protective watch. Jill gave her overflowing cups a healthy shake. “Ready for the beach?”

Denny lay blinking, a man unfairly inflicted with a harsh punishment. “Don’t do that to me.”

“Bonnie said there’s a ‘clothing optional’ beach on the French side of the island, if that’s more your thing.”

Denny managed to laugh while looking miserable. “Tease. You go ahead. I’ll take some Pepto and see how I feel in a little.” He tried his best to leer, but he looked like he might hurl. “We’ll save the nudie beach for later.”

Back in the city, Denny spent twelve-hour days at work and sometimes more at home castigating and negotiating and belittling. He gave a derisive laugh whenever Jill ordered her steak medium well. It was a little bit fun to see him helpless. Jill crawled across the bed and gave Denny a long kiss, even though he did not smell delicious.

“I’ll be down at the hotel pool.” She hoisted her beach bag onto her shoulder and it felt weighty, crucial, like strapping on the parachute pack before heading towards the jump.

 

*

The hotel pool was a huge strange shape, a giant punctuation mark in the ground. A sign explained that the water was always heated to a comfortable 80 degrees, and the chlorine scent was so sharp that it stung to inhale. Jill scoped the chaise lounges, looking for one with a view of the ocean, but the slope leading down to the beach made it hard to see the water. Most of the chaises were occupied in pairs—moony couples holding hands, applying lotion to each other’s hard-to-reach places, or sipping twin drinks.

“Miss?” A hotel worker approached her from behind. “You come from the beach?”

Obviously not, Jill thought. Can’t he see how pale I am? “No,” she answered. “I come from New York.”

“No, miss, the beach. If you come in from the beach, you must use the showers.” He indicated a couple of tall spouts positioned over slatted wooden planks to the side of the chaises. “Wash off the sand and salt.”

“Oh.” Jill felt a little embarrassed. “No, I didn’t come from the beach. Thank you.” The man nodded and returned to his post outside the bin of fresh towels. Despite the heat, he wore a dress shirt and a dark vest. He stood vigilant beside the towel bin, eyes scanning the pool area for any potential sand-bearers. Jill wondered if that was his sole duty.

A long outdoor bar snaked around the back of the hotel. Its bamboo stools were mostly vacant, and the bar staff stood in snappy red-and-white suit jackets, their posture unnaturally straight and still. Jill slid onto a stool, surprised to find that the seat was actually hard plastic, shaped and painted to look like stalks of bamboo; from a few yards away, she couldn’t tell. Jill ordered a Daiquiri and watched her bartender shoo a seagull away from the remnants of a dish of what looked like fried worms.

“You should try a Shark Bite.” Some guy settled onto the stool next to Jill’s. He wore the kind of billowing white shirt that she had seen on every other guy since they’d gotten to the hotel, the kind of shirt that she couldn’t imagine anyone wearing if he were anywhere else besides an island in the Caribbean or the cover of a Harlequin novel. Somewhere on the island, all these guys must have agreed to wear their white shirts, unbuttoned halfway, to appropriately display their tanned, crispy chests as they waited around for a bodice to rip.

“Shark Bite?” Jill made a face.

“Captain Morgan’s, curaçao, sour mix. You’d like it.”

Jill rolled her eyes and took her Daiquiri from the bartender. You’d like it. This guy didn’t know two things about her and he was telling her what drinks she’d like. She held her drink in mid-air for a mock toast. “I like Daiquiris,” she told him, and took a long sip. This guy clearly thought of himself as a prize, and Jill as a worthy recipient. She thought of Denny upstairs, pale and sweating, who probably made in a day what this guy made in a week. Denny thought of her as his prize—that’s romance. That, Jill thought, tapping her rings against the stem of her glass, is why you marry guys like Denny, and not guys like—

“Mitch.” Mr. Cocky Whiteshirt held his hand out. She looked him full in the face for the first time. Who did Mitch imagine she was? Probably a single girl, here with a group of friends or her family, hanging out at the bar, hoping to meet a suntanned, tropical drink-savvy guy just like Mitch. Was it a bigger joke, Jill wondered, that she wasn’t that girl at all today, or that she very firmly used to be? Jill felt sorry for nineteen, twenty-two, twenty-six-year-old Jill, who would have felt like she played all her cards right if she got a guy like Mitch to buy her a Shark Bite. Mrs. Dennis Symanski didn’t have to give a rat’s ass about Shark Bites or tropical tans or guys named Mitch.

Jill took his hand. “Jill.” She met his eyes. “I’m here on my honeymoon.”

Mitch looked as surprised as Jill hoped he would. “Congratulations. Where’s the lucky guy?”

Jill rolled the tiny paper umbrella from her drink between her fingers. Having a food-poisoned husband on her honeymoon didn’t fit in with the matrimonial fairytale she wanted Mitch to associate with her. “He’s playing golf,” she answered. Denny played golf poorly, occasionally, and she knew from the brochure that the hotel had its own course. Mitch nodded. “I like to sail, myself.” The bartender came to take his empty glass, and he ordered two Shark Bites. “Trust me,” he said, “you’ll like it.”

 

*

Two drinks later, Jill decided that Shark Bites weren’t so bad. Her tongue felt fuzzy, all sour and sweet. Jill had learned that Mitch worked in Communications, whatever that meant. A couple of times a year, he picked an island and spent a week there to check out the sailing. This was his second time on St. Maarten. Rented boats here, had two of his own outside L.A. Married just once. No kids.

“You’ve got to see Orient Beach,” Mitch said.

“The naked one?”

“‘Clothing optional,’ yes.”

The rum was taking an edge off of Jill’s decorum. She snorted, sucking the sweet rum concoction out of her pineapple garnish. “Typical.”

“You’d think a nude beach would be sexy, right? But the people there who exercise the option are never the ones you’d want to see naked. In fact, they’re mostly the ones you’d pay not to see naked.”

Jill imagined walking hand-in-hand with Denny, nude, along some shoreline. Jill had hips, wide but not fat, but her breasts were just huge. Gigantic. Porn star tits. Guys she’d been with often seemed surprised to discover they weren’t fake. They’d grab a handful and look startled, as if waking from an intense dream to find themselves in a strange bed. It wasn’t rare for the Mitches in the room to choose a seat on the stool next to hers. And then there was Denny. Denny, with his compact penis and cherry tomato balls. “I’m a grower, not a show-er,” he’d joked, and while it was true, anyone that got a look at Denny’s grower would have a pretty solid idea of the limitations of that growth. He wasn’t miniscule, but he definitely ranked in the lower quadrant of shafts she’d seen. Jill and her huge boobs, Denny and his humble cock. They would look so unbalanced. People would wonder how they fit together.

“What do you think? Another Shark Bite?” Mitch asked.

Humble or not, Denny’s cock could still get the job done, and Jill had just pledged herself to Denny and his anatomy ‘til death do them part. This is our honeymoon, Jill thought. I should be screwing in my ocean view suite, not knocking back Tiki drinks with a composite of every lame one-night stand I’ve ever had. The sun was lowering itself into the sea. Jill moved her wrist as if to look at a watch, even though she wasn’t wearing one.

“Denny’s probably done with his game now. I’m going back upstairs.”

If Mitch was disappointed, he wasn’t showing it. He raised one hand in a wave while motioning to the bartender with the other.

As the elevator rose, Jill realized she didn’t know when Mitch was leaving. He said he was staying a week, but she didn’t know when he had arrived. Not like it mattered. Today was the first day of never having to care about the Mitches of the world ever again.

 

*

Their suite was sealed in darkness. The blackout curtains were pulled tight over the glass doors, and Jill could barely see to turn on the bedside lamp. She groped the plastic petals of the amaryllis before she found the switch and illuminated Denny’s sleeping hulk.

Jill scooted onto the vacant side of the king bed, bouncing Denny out of sleep. He groaned and blinked rapidly. “What time is it?”

“Time for you to get out of bed and start honeymooning.”

Denny lifted himself into a sitting position. His labored breathing and startled eyes made him seem like a frightened raccoon. “I feel bad, Jills. Maybe I should see a doctor.”

“What’s a doctor going to give you that’s better than Pepto?”

Denny sank back down into the bed. “I need to rest.” He closed his eyes. “How was the pool? Nice?”

Jill hadn’t even dipped her toe in. “Yeah, nice. It’s a pretty pool.” She wondered if she should tell Denny about meeting Mitch, but what guy would want to hear about his wife hanging out with some other dude on their honeymoon? He probably felt lousy as it was that he couldn’t have any fun. Jill lifted the side of the bedspread and tried to tug the sheets free. They were tucked tight and she couldn’t get a grip on them, not with Denny weighing them down. She slid between the starched comforter and the silky sheets, still in her bikini, and tried to lie in a way that the rough bedspread hardly touched her. But sleep wasn’t happening for either of them, and after Jill shifted in bed for the umpteenth time, Denny suggested she go get herself some dinner.

“I can get room service,” Jill suggested. “Order up some Saltines and ginger ale.”

“Go to the restaurant. Enjoy. Just because I’m stuck in here doesn’t mean you have to be.”

Jill wished for a second that Denny would ask her, no, demand that she stay in the room with him. Say something like, “This is our honeymoon, and even if we spend every minute in this goddamned suite, we’re spending it together.” She wished that she could eat outside on the balcony, feeling resentful, rather than eat downstairs in the restaurant, feeling something like relief.

 

*

The hotel’s restaurant was outdoors, beyond the pool, with a view spanning the length of the beach. The waiter seemed confused by Jill, the lone diner, as he unfolded her napkin, poured her wine, and delivered her chicken piccata. The pink sun loomed like a grapefruit slice dipping into the water. It was postcard-perfect. Jill fished her camera out of her beach bag and peered through the viewfinder, but the sun glinted against the lens and distorted the landscape. The sun looked like a raw wound, and the water appeared gray and dull. What was so hard about capturing a single image? She tossed the camera back in the bag and kicked off her sandals, resting her feet on the seat of the empty chair across the table. A fat flower stood in a vase on the table, and Jill tugged at a petal, expecting to feel its familiar plastic resistance. The petal was fine and silky, and came off in her hand.

When the waiter refilled her wine glass, Jill saw the host seating Mitch. He was not alone—a redhead in a peach-colored halter dress trailed him. Jill peered at the couple over the edge of her wine goblet. Liar, she thought, disgusted. His wife or girlfriend or whoever she was barely looked old enough to drink, and Mitch still couldn’t keep himself from hitting on married women pushing thirty at a fake-bamboo beach bar. Mitch and the redhead hovered between two tables; Mitch gestured to one of the tables and she nodded vigorously. As they settled into their chairs, Mitch leaned across the table to say something to her, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye. She held her glass higher, so that Mitch and the woman became blurred and yellow, distorted by the wine, like sea cows underwater.

Now that she knew he was attached too, Jill allowed herself to admit that she had found Mitch just the slightest bit attractive. He was handsome, with an involved head of hair and the fearless look of an eighties action hero. Physically, he reminded her of Jared, who she slept with on and off for a year and a half but who never wanted to “get serious,” yet who had called her, dependable as the rain, every few weeks after she told him she was ready to move on (“from us,” she’d said, although she really meant “from our four-minute déjà-vu sex routine”). In terms of confidence, Mitch reminded Jill of Anthony, one of the least intelligent men she’d ever met, and also, of course, the best in bed. Why did it always work that way? The intellectuals were fun to talk to but were too methodical about sex; the dunces couldn’t hold a conversation, but could hold a girl in positions that seemed impossible when simulated in magazines by eunuch stick figures.

She left her last bits of chicken and wine on the table with a tip and walked out of the restaurant at the far end, so that Mitch wouldn’t get to see her leave alone.

 

*

Denny was asleep when Jill crawled into bed next to him, naked. She pressed the length of her body against his back, but he didn’t wake up. He must be half-dead. Even at his most exhausted, or on the days when someone at work had rubbed him the wrong way and he couldn’t get hard, he would always at least attempt to keep her amused using a finger or two. When Jill woke the next morning she found Denny lying next to her, his head propped up by three pillows, watching 60 Minutes.

“Called the doctor back home, described my symptoms. He says it’s traveler’s diarrhea.”

Traveler’s? We arrived yesterday.” Then: “There’s a TV in here?” It had been hiding, apparently, behind the oak doors of what Jill had thought to be an armoire.

“Supposedly very common. Two to three days.” Jill popped upright in bed. “I know, I know. I’m sorry. I should be fine soon, and then we can really celebrate. Enjoy this place together.” He reached out and grabbed Jill’s ankle. “Maybe we could sit out on the balcony later, hmm?”

She patted the hand on her ankle. “That would be nice,” she said, ducking down to give Denny the quickest little kiss.

 

*

On the beach, Jill picked out the least crowded spot and settled herself in a vacant chaise. Crowds swarmed along the shoreline, and she thought she could pick out the same couples—were they the same? There was really no way to tell the difference—that she had seen yesterday, lazing around the pool. At the beach, though, there were children, and plenty of children. Children stuffed plastic pails full of sand, splashed water at each other, dripped syrup from sundaes into the sand and squawked to rival the gulls. During their engagement, she had sat on Denny’s sofa, cocooned in his arms, and talked about the two kids she wanted to have. “Patrick,” she said, “after my grandfather, and Annie,” just because she liked the name. Now, watching the loose clumps of kids fly around like confetti tossed to the breeze, she thought she might need to choose between Patrick and Annie. Either one was bound to be a handful. Denny wanted two kids, but he could be talked down. She thought of her friend from work, Nina, who couldn’t conceive, and for a moment before guilt found her, she felt jealousy. The women who couldn’t conceive were, hopelessly and inexplicably, always the women who wanted most to have children. “You could adopt,” Jill had once suggested, and Nina had drawn up as if slapped.

A familiar voice shook her from remorse. “The Honeymooner,” Mitch declared, and Jill recoiled. The Honeymooners—her mother had loved that show, had pointed out the block where Jackie Gleason grew up every time they drove past it in Brooklyn. The show had scared Jill as a child: Gleason, fat and wild-eyed, would scream at his TV wife and she would simply shake her head in resigned pity as the audience howled. A city bus depot in Brooklyn was named after Jackie Gleason, bore a life-sized statue of his character even though the actor had not been a bus driver himself; apparently being a guy who played a bus driver on television was enough to earn him that sculpted honor.

Mitch dragged a chaise over to Jill and sat down. “Another day on the links for your husband?”

“Nope.” Jill watched a young boy dump a pail of wet sand on a little girl’s head; the girl wailed. “He’s got—” there was no way Jill was going to say the words traveler’s diarrhea to Mitch, so Jill thought of an ailment that might befall Denny the Gifted Golfer—“a migraine.” Mitch looked at Jill like he sensed her lie and wasn’t sure how to take it. “I’m serious. He hasn’t been able to leave the suite since we got here.”

“Jesus, that’s awful.”

“Yep.” Jill smiled warmly at Mitch. “Is your lady friend big on golf? Or does she prefer to go sailing without you?” Mitch froze. Jackpot. Jill congratulated herself.

“You mean…”

“Red, curly hair? Peach halter dress? Spaghetti-strand legs?”

“…Erica.” Mitch nodded, swallowed. “We met at the Tiki bar.”

Jill sat up. “Here?”

“Yep. Yesterday.”

Erica must have popped onto her plastic stool as soon as Jill popped off of it. Either that or Mitch had sidled up to Erica, introductory Shark Bite in hand. Jill suppressed her huge grin for a second, then thought, what the hell? She laughed out loud. “And now, Erica is…?”

Mitch seemed to be measuring Jill. “Back at the bar? On another beach? Meeting the cruise ships? Who knows. We didn’t exactly make long-term plans.” Jill’s laughter punctuated his speech. “I’m out of here tomorrow morning, anyway. So, now that you know as much as I do about Erica, tell me about your guy.”

Yesterday, Jill had been eager to flaunt her matrimony to Mitch, but today she didn’t feel like talking about Denny. Mitch was just asking to be polite. He didn’t really want to know that Denny was a manager at one of the bigger banks, that he cheered for the Red Sox, or that in a few more years he would probably be as bald as his father. His father who had, Jill remembered, teetered up to her at the wedding reception, tipsy on hundred-dollar-a-bottle Scotch, and said to her with red-rimmed eyes, “We never thought Denny would find himself such a beauty.”

“Denny is a lawyer.” What did it matter? Mitch wasn’t anyone she planned to be exchanging Christmas cards with in the future. “Entertainment law. Negotiates for the Hollywood actors who come out to do Broadway shows.” Jill had no idea if what she was saying made sense, but it was so easy to just invent a life for the two of them. Mitch nodded, looking a little bored. Jill considered throwing in a fib or two about herself, but she knew the things she could tell Mitch about her own life that would excite him the most were likely things that were true.

A waiter had shown up to take their drink orders. “Two Shark Bites,” Mitch offered.

One Shark Bite. I’ll have a Tequila Sunrise.”

Mitch shrugged at the waiter. “Why not? Two Tequila Sunrises.”

Jill composed her face in mock seriousness. “Trust me. You’ll like it.”

It was Mitch’s turn to laugh. “So Jill,” he asked, “have you ever been sailing?”

 

 

Mitch couldn’t get a boat to himself on such short notice, so he and Jill hitched along with a group of tourists taking a ride on a catamaran to a cay called Prickly Pear. The cay was uninhabited, Mitch told Jill. Jill couldn’t fathom a place that was uninhabited. Though their apartment was in a luxe hi-rise on a good block, she and Denny could hear her neighbor’s nightly sneezing fit through their bedroom wall.

The catamaran’s operators provided free rum punch to the tourists on the ride. The punch tasted more of spices than rum, but the relentless sun assured that all the passengers drank their fill. Jill and Mitch kept themselves separate from the group of excited tourists who traded stories about where they were from, what brought them to St. Maarten, how long they were staying and how they were already planning their next return. Who do they all imagine we are, Jill wondered? We probably look like a couple, on their first big vacation or… Jill let herself finish the thought: on their honeymoon. There was no reason why people shouldn’t think she and Mitch were newlyweds. She wore her rings. They were on a catamaran, sharing rum punch in the sunshine—this was what people did on a honeymoon.

A guide read an over-enthusiastic monologue into a bullhorn, explaining how St. Maarten was the smallest inhabited island divided between two nations: the island was basically bisected, the Dutch controlling one side, the French the other. Each side even used different currency. The guide went on about how the division was a peaceful concordance, but it sounded like a confusing mess.  Was there an invisible border? Where did you exchange your money? Still, she was curious about the French side of the island; before she left, she’d like to see it.

Comment dirais-je,” Jill said to no one. It was the thing she remembered best from high school French.

“Say what, Shark Bite?”

Jill shrugged. “It means How should I say. It’s useful for stalling during oral exams.”

The catamaran passed a few party boats blaring island music and bearing sunburned college kids, drunk and gyrating in pairs and groups. Jill squinted at the boats as they drifted farther away, trying to catch a glimpse of the past Jill among the swarm, and neither pleased nor dismayed when she could not find her. She saw a lone fisherman out in a rowboat, jerking his line and drawing a fish from the foam. The man looked delighted as the fish thrashed, its lip speared by his hook.

The water as they approached Prickly Pear was so blue, and the sands on the shore so white that it all looked fake to Jill, like a prom photo backdrop. The salt from the sea stung her eyes and she felt dizzy and light from the rum and the waves and she thought, this is water. This is why we say water is blue.

When the catamaran docked, there was to be a complementary barbecue on the beach, but Jill and Mitch walked away from the group, wordless in their pursuit to leave the others behind. Jill wanted to ask where they were going, but realized she would be fine with any answer.

Mitch kept his eyes trained on a distant shoreline. “This place has some great snorkeling.”

Jill stopped walking. When Mitch turned to face her, she caught his eyes and didn’t look away. “I would love to snorkel. Some day. But not today.”

A nice thing about uninhabited islands is that the parts inhabited by day are always buzzing, while the crooks and coves on the quieter parts of the island are empty, serene and untouched. Mitch led Jill to a rocky enclave where the gravel in the water pinched her soles, but it turned out they didn’t need snorkels after all—small bright fish circled all around their feet, scattering as they splashed past. Deeper in the enclave, around a bend, they found a sandy cay, a perfect, king-sized cay, from which they could hear and see nothing but the lapping of waves against the reef.

Mitch and Jill might not have been a soul match, or even intellectual pairs, but in sex they were part of the same school. No one needed to ask questions, to check or confirm or assess that the act was satisfactory; what one body demanded, the other answered. Jill hadn’t found her single self among the women on that passing party boat, but she found her easy enough with Mitch. She had thought, or hoped, it would be difficult to return to that Jill, but apparently that Jill hadn’t gone far. She welcomed her back as one welcomes the old friend that knows exactly what you like: how you fix your coffee, how you like your crusts cut, things that you would think but never say sober. The smutty things uttered, as if they were programmed, and the instant way Mitch responded in turn made Jill understand that she was not special. Nor was he; but they were likes, if only in the basest, briefest sense. Likes always found one another, no matter who or what stood in between. Trust me, Mitch had told her, you’ll like it. He wasn’t wrong.

 

*

On the ride back the tourists, full of rum and barbecue, dozed or watched the waves through heavy-lidded eyes. Mitch and Jill weren’t talking much, either. The sea, reflecting the sun, seemed a bright blood orange, a blend of shades too beautiful to try to talk around.

When everyone disembarked and walked with lazy strides back to the hotel, Mitch told Jill he’d better go and pack. “I should be down later, though. For a late dinner.” It wasn’t a question, or a test—it was simply a statement, one she didn’t have to answer. When she made no offer to join him, Mitch lifted a hand to Jill and he headed toward the lobby.

It was dinnertime, and the pool was practically empty. Jill dropped onto a chaise and closed her eyes. Her chest and shoulders stung from the sun, or from the salt water, or where Mitch’s tongue had licked the salt from her skin. She took a deep breath, the smells of the ocean mixing with the smells of smoke from the kitchen grill.

“Miss? You come from the beach?” Jill kept her eyes closed and nodded. “Please use the showers before you use the pool. Wash off so you don’t get sand and salt in the pool.”

Jill looked up at the man in charge of the towels. He held a neat stack, folded fresh, and he offered one to her. “Yes,” she said, taking the towel, “thank you. That’s a good idea.” In full sight of the staff, Jill stood under the spray, her skin pricking at the water’s unexpected chill.

 

*

The door of the suite was chained from the inside. Jill rattled it. “Denny? You okay?”

“Just a sec,” Denny called, barely audible. After a few seconds of shuffling he came to the door in a terrycloth bathrobe and unhooked the chain.  On the balcony, a small table had been set for two. There was an elaborate chicken dish on one plate, a hill of white rice on the other.

“If I’m feeling better tomorrow,” Denny said between bites of rice, “we can check out Maho Beach.”

“That one by the airport?”

“The planes fly right above your head! You can lie on your back and take pictures.”

“That sounds terrifying.”

“Nah, it’ll be great. Can you imagine?” Denny chewed his rice with a smile. “Right over your head.”

“I thought we could go see the French Side of the island.”

“What, French side? It’s the same island.”

Jill pinched the petal of the rose in the vase on their table and was not surprised when it remained fixed to the stem, immune to her insistent tug. She summoned a smile, rubbed Denny’s shin with her toe under the table. “There’s a nude beach on the French side.”

Denny smiled, able once again to leer. “There’s only one woman on this island I need to see naked.”

It was what every wife would want to hear, whether or not it was true. Jill knew it was true. She knew that they would, in the years to come, go to countless dinners and parties and functions and Denny would present her to his companions, grinning, This is my wife.

 

*

An expanding crowd of twenty or thirty tourists were gathered at the edge of the road that separated Princess Juliana International Airport from Maho Beach. It was no cay, but still, the beach was gorgeous, in spite of the smell of jet fuel that blew in with the ocean air.

“Air Jamaica.” Denny, like everyone at the beach, had to yell to be heard over the jet engines. “See, over there? She’s getting ready.” A plane striped in yellow, orange, pink and blue wound a slow path along the airport’s single runway. “Get your camera!”

Jill unzipped her beach bag and dug out the camera from its depths. Maybe now she could finally get a decent photo of the beach. She took out her wrap and draped it across her shoulders, shivering in her bikini. The wind picked up as the jet picked up speed.

The tourists’ chatter grew louder and more excited. A few began to lie down, side-by-side like fish in a can on the sand, while some stood at the edge of the road watching the jet prepare for liftoff.  The plane blazed along the runway.

“Fasten your seatbelts, here she comes!” Denny picked up Jill’s camera from the sand as she struggled to keep her wrap from flapping about her shoulders. The fabric slapped against her skin like unhinged wings.

When the plane’s long shadow began to cover the beach, Denny shouted something Jill couldn’t hear, eye pressed to the viewfinder. Jill’s sunglasses blew off of her head. Her wrap caught the breeze and quickly disappeared. The blue beach bag somersaulted towards the shoreline in a race with towels, sunhats and bamboo mats, purging her belongings along the way. Jill cried out as sand flew at her eyes and spit against the gale as grains found their way into her mouth. She covered her face with her hands, dumbed by the roar of the engine, and waited for the wind to die down.

And it did: for all the excitement and gales and lost sundries, in a few seconds, it was done. The plane’s impact could only be seen in evidence of the sunbathers’ ruffled coifs. The extreme serene after the noisy takeoff was disappointing, more disappointing than if Jill had never seen the plane at all. Denny, at the moment, was thrilled. He bragged about the amazing shots he’d gotten. When they would get the prints back—and see the jet as no more than a smudge on the lens—he would pan the experience as “overrated,” while Jill would wish, again, that they had stayed longer, searching for her empty beach bag. Even if it had been blown into the water, she was confident that if she’d looked a little longer, she could have found it.

 

*

The crowd on the flight back was sparse—Jill and Denny could have each had their own row of seats to stretch out in, but neither of them mentioned it, or tried to move. Denny dozed in his reclined seat. Jill never reclined her seat before takeoff, in apprehension of the moment when a steward would tap her shoulder and ask her to return to her seat to the upright position. It was much better to stay tense and uncomfortable until the little seatbelt sign went off and you could tip back those three inches, at last. And no matter how often she’d flown, Jill couldn’t manage to sleep through the preflight briefing. It seemed important to listen wholly to the instructions, eyes on the instructor like a prized pupil—if there was to be a test later, Jill certainly wanted to pass. She’d lain under the belly of an aircraft; that was enough aviatic risk for one trip.

Jill read along with the worn pamphlet: Your seat belt has been designed for easy fastening and release. To fasten, insert the metal fitting into the buckle, and adjust to fit snugly. Your seat belt should be worn low and tight across your lap. Obedient, she adjusted the belt.

You are on board a 757. There are ten emergency exits, five doors on the left and five doors on right, each marked with a red EXIT sign overhead. The overwing doors are equipped with a ramp and off-wing slide. Denny loved to sit in an emergency exit row—all that extra legroom. Jill hated it; too much pressure, swearing up and down that she could lift forty pounds and would assist her fellow passengers in the event of a crisis. If there was an emergency, she couldn’t say that she wouldn’t try to be the first person down the slide. Of course, the airline assumed the opposite: if there was a loss of cabin pressure, you’d be trying to put the mask onto your child or elderly seatmate before you’d give yourself the oxygen. Jill imagined the masks ejected from above, dangling before her and Denny. It seemed a perfect snapshot of where they were headed: Jill aiding her husband while she held her breath.

Sure enough, a steward came along to tap Denny’s shoulder, asking him to raise his seat back. He awoke grumpy, like he’d been asleep for hours. “How long’s the flight?” he asked Jill.

“Four and a half hours.”

“Where’s the camera? Want to see if we can get another shot of the beach?”

“Go ahead.”

“You’re closest to the window.”

Jill felt rude, talking openly while the attendant continued her speech, so she brought the camera from her new tote, a cheap straw thing.

“You have to lean in farther. Left—to the left. You see it?” Denny asked. “The beach? Right there.”

Jill shushed Denny. Passengers rows away turned to stare. The in-flight announcement was already over, but she knew the ending. It was the same on every flight, no matter the origin or the destination:

Thank you for your attention. We will be airborne shortly.

 


Laurie Ann Cedilnik‘s fiction has appeared in Epoch and Black Warrior Review, among others. She holds a bunch of degrees from the University of Houston and Wellesley, among others. She has taught creative writing at Loyola University and Grand Valley State, among others. A former editor of Gulf Coast, she finally lives back in Queens.

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