Monday, October 20, 2008

A Conversation

Please let me escape conversation today.

Martha readjusted her pillow, staring out the small airplane window. Typically, she used every public appearance to promote her business. But it had been a tiresome trip. Making arrangements for her dying mother was physically and emotionally exhausting.

The last time she had gone outside without make-up was when Rich rushed her to the hospital to deliver Anna. That was twenty-one years ago. No cosmetic had touched her face in the past three days. Ironically, her personal motto was to never leave the house without a killer pair of shoes and to always dress like you’re going to meet with the President. The President would have to accept a sweat suit today.

She closed her weary eyes. Her poor mother was all she could see. When did she grow so old? How did time get away so quickly? Two weeks was not enough time for her to say good-bye. Yesterday, Martha purchased a plane ticket to return to Des Moines next week. The store would have to operate without her for awhile. Rich could take care of himself. Rich probably enjoyed the freedom.

Rich. Richard. Richie.

“Shall I come with you,” he asked after Martha received the phone call, informing her of Martha’s mother’s deteriorating condition.

“No. You’re in the middle of a semester. I’m used to traveling alone.”

She saw a tinge of relief in his face. He would have gone if she would have asked. Why should he accompany her now? Just because her mother was sick didn’t mean they were automatically a couple again. The thought of her marriage made her sad, but she refused to do anything about it.

The jostling of a passenger buckling his belt next to her made her jump.

“Sorry, did I wake you up?”

A lanky, young man in need of a haircut was settling in the seat nearest the aisle. While she detected no accent, he had a dark complexion making him appear of either Hispanic or Indian descent. Suddenly, Martha was very concerned about how she looked. Then she remembered that she was forty-five.

“No. I wasn’t sleeping.”

The young man shot a sweet smile and took a book out of his backpack before stowing his bag under the seat in front of him.

How refreshing, she thought, not to see him wearing ear buds. His book was entitled Cry, the Beloved Country. It sounded familiar to her. Maybe she had read it before.

Finally, the restlessness in the jet subsided with the plane beginning its’ ascent to the sky. Martha was always fascinated how the chaos of the airport and boarding evaporated once they were airborne.

It seemed her wish for solitude had been granted, as her neighbor was completely preoccupied with his book. Now she felt like conversing.

“Are you from Des Moines?” she asked.

Hiding his annoyance from the interruption, he answered politely. “No, I’m actually from Phoenix and studying in Iowa. I’m going home for a long weekend.” He was hoping that answer would suffice.

“Really? What are you studying?”

“20th Century Modern American Literature. I’m a Master’s student at the U of Iowa.”

“Really? Is the 20th century considered modern?” asked Martha with sincerity.

“Modernism is merely the genre defined by American writers of the late 19th and early 20th century.” He hoped she really wasn’t interested in discussing the factors that defined Modernism.

“So is that book your reading considered modern?”

The young man smiled. “Not really. It takes place in South Africa in the 1940’s. You’ve never heard of it?”

Martha furrowed her brow, “I thought it sounded familiar. So, why are you reading it?”

“Merely, for pleasure. It’s one of my favorites.”

Martha nodded, “Oh, I see.”

After a short pause, Martha introduced herself. “I’m Martha, by the way.” She extended her hand. He decided to close his book and surrender himself to the conversation.

“I’m Zach. Nice to meet you Marta.”

She almost corrected him. But in an instant she decided that Marta sounded more exotic than Martha.

“So, are you going back to Phoenix for any special occasion? Or, do you just need a break from the cold?”

Zach smiled. “A break in the cold will be good, but I also happen to be going back for a very special purpose. I’m going to propose to my girlfriend.”

“How exciting! Does she have any clue?”

“She should. But she thinks I’m coming home only to celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary.” Zach had envisioned how he’d propose at least a hundred times.

Martha identified a look of anxiety, pleasure and love on Zach’s face. Hadn’t her own Rich looked at her the same way a long time ago? Hadn’t he read her a beautiful and mystifying poem upon his proposal to her? Now, he seemed to only look at her in fear or disgust.

“Well, best of luck to both of you.”

“Thank you.” Zach answered. Then, as if he had forgotten his manners he asked, “And how about you? What’s your story? Are you from Des Moines?”

She knew he didn’t care about her story. She barely did herself.

“I used to be. I live in Phoenix now. I came back to Iowa to see my mother. She’s very sick.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Zach was quiet a moment. “So, do you have other family?”

“Oh, yes. My husband Rich and my daughter Anna. She’s a sophomore in college, with an undeclared major. Rich teaches at the college. A philosophy professor.”

“Wow. Philosophy? He’s obviously a bright man.”

“Oh, yes. He’s wickedly bright.” Martha laughed.

“And you? Do you work outside of the home?”

This was normally the time Martha provided a five minute commercial about her boutique – a boutique that had become financially successful beyond her dreams. But the past week had made her question what she gave up for the success.

“I own a small boutique.”

Zach nodded and wished he could think of more questions to ask the lady. Martha sensed Zach’s boredom in the conversation, so decided to excuse herself to the restroom. When she returned, she let Zach continue to indulge in his book while she rested and pondered.

She pondered her mother. How she loved the sweet woman and how she had visited so little in the past few years.

She pondered Anna and felt lonely for a mother-daughter relationship that seemed to be overshadowed by the father-daughter relationship in the house. Rich had done more than his share of raising Anna while Martha focused on her business. And she pondered Rich. He was a good man. Interesting. Still good-looking. Intelligent. Very intelligent. He used to have a great sense of humor. What happened to it? Martha knew. She killed it, with her drive to be successful. She took her stress out on Rich. How could he still possibly love her?

Finally, the plane began its’ descent into Phoenix. Martha and Zach exchanged pleasantries as they exited the plane. By the time they reached the unsecured area of the airport, Zach was long out of sight.

Martha combed through the crowd in attempt to find her ride home.

“Anna! I didn’t know you were coming to pick me up! Couldn’t your father make it?”

“Mom?” Anna looked bewildered. “Actually, I didn’t know…”

Anna was interrupted by a man sweeping her into his arms. Martha almost thought her daughter was being mugged, until she recognized the young man was Zach.

“Zach! I missed you so much, Zach!” She then playfully pushed him away. “Zach. I’d like you to meet my mother.”

Zach turned around to meet the lady he sat by on the airplane.

“Anna, we’ve already met!”

Zach formally extended his hand, “So, your Mrs. Cadwell? I guess I didn’t get your last name. Maybe I would have pieced it together then.”

Martha forced a smile, but felt embarrassed she didn’t know about Anna’s boyfriend --especially when an engagement was imminent.

Anna could sense Martha’s embarrassment. “Mom. I was going to bring Zach over to the house this weekend. How perfect that you met on the airplane!” Anna flashed a smile at Zach.

“Anna Banana? What are you doing here?” Rich made him way into the circle.

“Daddy!” Anna quickly hugged and kissed her father’s cheek. “How perfect. Dad, I’d like you to meet my boyfriend, Zach Lahiri. Mom already met him on the plane.”

“What a coincidence! So you’re the young man Anna’s been telling me about? Studying English at the U of Iowa, huh? I’m sure she told you that I received my undergraduate degree there.”

Zach extended his hand, “Yes, sir. I was extremely happy to hear that we would both be rooting for the Hawkeyes, despite their current losing streak.”

Martha watched the interaction as if she were a third party observer with her attention focused on her husband. She noticed Rich’s dark thick hair, now speckled with gray. She noticed the natural smile he flashed as he spoke with their daughter’s new boyfriend. She noticed how Rich asked questions and listened. He studied people because he was genuinely interested. “My God,” Martha thought, “he’s spent our entire marriage listening to me. And how could he have possibly cared about the infinite details of lady’s apparel? He’s a brilliant man. I’ve barely asked him anything about his work, his life. And he’s done nothing but hear me rant for twenty-three years.”

Rich turned to his wife and gave her a conciliatory hug. “Are you doing okay?”

Martha hugged him back, something she hadn’t done in a long time, whispering in his ear, “I know I look like shit.”

“No. You look beautiful. Like always. As a matter of fact, I like you best in no make-up and sweats.”

“Mom?” Anna interrupted. “How’s Grandma?”

Martha stared at her daughter, considering her response. “Honey, Grandma’s very sick. But we’ve had some wonderful talks. Maybe you’d like to travel back to Iowa with me next week to see her?” Martha glanced at Rich. “Maybe you and Dad would both like to come?”

Rich nodded. “We’ll come with you. Don’t try to take this on by yourself, Mart.”

Then Martha buried her head into her husband’s chest and cried. “Thank you, Rich. Thanks for putting up with me all these years.”

Rich caressed his wife’s hair. “Thanks for coming home.”

Zach and Anna watched the couple’s tender moment. Anna was relieved to see her parents showing affection to each other. Zach kissed Anna on the top of her head and thought to himself, “Someday. That will be us.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stef, I took the time to read the rest of the first story (good excuse not to work!) Great short story! I'll be reading through the rest of them. Tim