Martin Wilkes waits in LaGuardia Airport for his wife and two children to be returned to him.The three have survived the “Miracle on the Hudson” and, like many others, are being shuttled back to the point of departure. In this scene Wilkes strikes up a conversation with a woman named Sarah whose name he can hardly bother to remember. She has come to retrieve her brother, but her attitudes and motives are quite different from his.
“I actually live around the corner,” she says, “right off Northern Boulevard. I could have walked here, for God’s sake.”
“Your brother called you?”
“From some ferry. I wish to hell he had stayed married. His wife could have picked him up. Of course that would have meant being sober enough to drive and that would have been a stretch for her. Who am I kidding? I’d have picked him up anyway.”
“How old is your brother?”
Not that he cares, but it’s his roundabout way of ascertaining Sarah’s age. She’s attractive, or would be had she not thrown on old clothes and left the house without make-up. Emergencies will do that to a person, he says to himself, enjoying the wit of his observation.
“Thirty-two. Got married when he was nineteen. That worked out pretty well, didn’t it?”
“Thank God, no. They say God watches over babies and drunks. This time he took care of both at once.”
She smiles but she isn’t joking. She has been put out by this. Sister and brother: probably at each other’s throats since childhood. But now they’ll both have stories to tell at family gatherings. His near-death experience and her ruined afternoon res- cuing the stupid ass while he wept over his lost clubs.
But Sarah, then. Maybe thirty? He doesn’t want to flirt with some kid and become the deviant of the waiting room, but if she’s Sandy Qualling’s age…
“Kind of young for marriage, I guess.”
“Not to the right person.”
Wilkes ponders a response. If he agrees, she knows he’s not interested. But something noncommittal may move the conversation a step forward. Maybe she’ll notice his failure to agree and ask why he seems unsure and he’ll tell her it’s a long story. And Jesus, if she lives right on Northern and he’s forever flying out of LaGuardia, he can offer to meet her at one of the terminal lounges sometime, maybe continue the long story.
Fantasy. Nothing more. They play out in his mind all the time, always arriving at some point where they no longer make sense. He doesn’t know if such activity is normal—doesn’t broach the issue with friends and colleagues. He never acts on any of them and he won’t today either.
“You’re right,” he says, immediately, regretfully, putting an end to a pleasant day- dream. “You gotta marry the right person. Did your brother say anything about a woman with two kids?”
“Sorry. His teeth were chattering so much I could hardly understand him. He just said he was all right and needed a ride from the airport. It was like being in high school all over again, except then he’d call and beg for a ride when all his friends found some bimbo to make out with and he didn’t. How old are your kids?”
“Nine and six.”
“Good, good, old enough to handle themselves. I wouldn’t want to be a mother with an infant in that situation, especially….”
She stops. There is activity near the door, a murmur, a sense of excitement. Sarah stands up.
“There he is,” she says. “Madras shorts, flip-flops, ear muffs. What an asshole.”
She races over, hugs him briefly, then stands back and shakes her head. Her brother smiles, shrugs. Sarah turns around, gets Wilkes’s attention and points to the survivor as if to say, See? Asshole.
In seconds the two of them are gone.
Throughout the room blankets abound, wrapped around people’s shoulders and draped behind them, some dragging on the floor. Maybe beneath them are business suits and jeans, but now the throng looks like so many monks being herded back to the monastery after some abortive escape attempt.
A few kids straggle in, but the arrivals are mostly adults, business types like him on a midday flight. Many of them seem dazed and nearly all of them quiet. As Sarah said, they’ll have stories to tell in years to come, but right now the tales are bottled up by fear and relief, and when they talk the words come out in staccato outbursts. One survivor says this is the first bus, that more are coming. Another complains blandly about the cold. Another is weeping, the blanket partially shielding his face. A white-haired woman tosses a blanket on a chair and lights a cigarette, takes a few puffs, then without apology grinds it out with her foot. If Wilkes didn’t know it before, he knows it now: this has not been some glorious miracle to the survivors; instead it has been an afternoon of horror and trauma amid the specter of a cold and watery death. In a day or two they may very well celebrate their good fortune, but at the moment they do not feel the least bit euphoric.
He will have to remember this when dealing with Keira, provide her with enough recovery time. And if it takes a day or two or a week, then he can certainly accede to her wishes. Maybe it will put in perspective the annoying childhood friend at the airport, teach her not to lose her composure that way. The kids, of course, that will be different. Kids are resilient—they rocket from dejection to joy in seconds, leaving the trauma for their parents to sort through. Still, he will keep an eye on them too, make sure there is no emotional residue.
But those are concerns for later. When the next bus does arrive and his family bounds into the terminal, he will welcome their safe return before dealing with such minutiae.
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