Thomas Schuster was going to the airport today.
He felt the years pressing on his back as he bent down to pull on his wool pants. As he tugged harder, he heard a faint rip.”Damm—” he cut off his curse-to-be. Thomas Schuster never cursed. He went to church every Sunday. He would never take the Lord’s name in vain unless he had to.
His shirt flapped open and revealed an undershirt with yellowed armpits as he shuffled downstairs. “Where’s that thing? The—” He stopped at the base of the stairs, trying to remember the word. He could picture what he wanted in his mind. It was long, shiny and sharp. It would help him fix the hem hanging down by his foot. But he couldn’t figure out the name.
“Cindy!” he screamed. His voice bounced off the foyer’s walls and bare floors, then faded into the house’s stillness. He stood there for several minutes, waiting for his wife’s voice to respond with her usual “What are you looking for now?” He also half-expected to hear Eva and Becky’s high-pitched arguments about who would get the bathroom first.
When nobody answered, he sighed. He had forgotten. Cindy had divorced him a few months ago, swearing that she would never set foot in this godforsaken house again. Becky and Eva had long since left home, growing into their adulthoods far away.
He still didn’t understand why Cindy had stood at the front door and said, “I’m finally doing this, Thomas. I’m leaving.” For years, she had muttered about how she wanted more friends, more things to do. Sometimes, she would even mention the word separation, but she stayed, taking out the trash and wiping down the kitchen countertops. Cindy would sometimes stay an extra few days whenever she visited one of her friends. He figured that it was a woman thing he wasn’t privy to.
His slippers in hand, he had staring at his wife, who had deep crow’s feet and was thirty pounds overweight. “What about dinner?” he asked. Fridays were pot roast night, his favorite. She huffed and said, “Goodbye, Thomas. This time, I mean it.” That night, his stomach growled as he wondered when Cindy and the girls would come back.
“Damn that woman,” he said and then sighed. He had bought Cindy the house that she had dreamed of ever since she was a little girl. She had hopping from one military base to the next, following her father’s haphazard tour through the United States military system. He worked hard at the accounting firm so he could afford the mortgage of this house. Once he had filled up his bank account, Thomas Schuster had bought the biggest house on the street with its four bedrooms, a finished basement and an eat-in kitchen. He had gutted the kitchen and put in top-of-the line appliances that provided a prime cooking experience. As soon as a newfangled countertops and lights became affordable, Thomas Schuster installed them, preening with pride.
After Becky and Eva left for college, Cindy changed. New names—unfamiliar names—appeared on the caller ID. Suddenly, she started to go out with her new co-workers from the library, trying out new restaurants and going shopping. She even got into yoga, twisting herself into unnatural positions. She tried to teach him how to breathe, but he was doing just fine on his own. In the mornings, instead of smiling as she usually did when he kissed her goodbye and said, “Love you,” she would look away. He figured it was menopause and hoped she would get over it soon.
Some nights, she leaned forward and nuzzled his neck. With a grunt, he turned away. He didn’t have the words to tell her, wasn’t sure what to tell her. He would lie there, amidst the bedroom’s black shadows, listening as Cindy’s breathing settled into the rhythm of sleep.
It wasn’t like Thomas Schuster couldn’t get it up. No, that wasn’t his problem. Whenever he sat down in front of the computer with a triple-x in the address bar, his plumbing worked just fine. It was just that, sometimes he didn’t feel like using the drain.
When he met Cindy, she was a twenty-five year old free love hippie whose smile reminded him of daffodils and the naughty magazines that his father hid in the closet. Cindy hadn’t smiled that smile in years. Instead, she just frowned every time he came home late after chasing the next bump in his paycheck. He wondered when he would see that smile again.
“Now, where’s that thing?” he muttered, his voice swallowed up by the silence. He searched the laundry room, the storage room and finally found a sewing kit under a pile of blankets in a hall closet.
“There you are, whatever you are,” he said as he held the needle up to the light, trying to see the tiny opening. Mrs. Pinker, the home economics teacher, had taught him how to sew nearly sixty years ago. He was sure he remembered how to do it. Thomas Schuster held the thread up to the needle with one eye closed. The thread shook no matter how hard he tried to hold it steady.
“Ah, forget this,” he said, wanting to say something worse. He threw down the needle and stapled his hem shut. “There,” he whispered. The silver staple glimmered, but only if the light hit it a certain way. Nobody would notice.
On the way to the bathroom, Thomas Schuster passed a spot on the wallpaper that was lighter than the rest. A clear outline of a missing picture was imprinted on the wall, a rectangle of creamy off-white surrounded by a darker white. Sunlight had yellowed the wallpaper surrounding the picture, making the space where the picture had been glow with its whiteness. It was as if someone had marked the spot on a map. Only now the treasure was missing.
He had wanted that picture. It was the only picture he had of Becky and Eve rolling around in the mountain of dried leaves. He hadn’t been there, but looking at his daughters’s faces made him feel like he had been standing there, inhaling the burnt smell of autumn and hearing the girlish laughter. They had liked each other much more back then. All that playful togetherness had been lost as they grew into adolescence and realized they didn’t like each other. Cindy had taken the photograph without telling him. He supposed that she had the right to it since she had been the one there with a camera.
Thomas Schuster smoothed the few gray strands still left on his scalp and spritzed the cologne that he had used for the last forty-six years. His old boss, Horace Muller, had told him that a professional man always smelled clean and masculine. He bought the same cologne that Horace wore, even after Horace went to jail for soliciting a fifteen-year-old for sex.
He adjusting his polypropylene shoe covers and headed out to his car with an hour to spare. The forecast said that there was 13% chance of rain today, but he didn’t want to dirty his shoes, not today. Before he got into the car, he double-checked the trunk for his spare tire and jack. He would be prepared if anything went wrong.
Today was a special day, but Thomas Schuster wore what he always wore: a collared shirt buttoned all the way to the top, wool pants, suspenders and polished brown shoes. As always, he took off his hat before getting into the car. His father had told him that it wasn’t polite to wear a hat under a roof. He figured that a car roof was still a roof.
The car drifted over the dashed yellow lines now and then. Most of the time, it wasn’t a problem since nobody else was on the road. Sometimes though, he would hear a honk and hastily steer his car on the right side of the road. Tonight was a good night. Nobody honked or hollered at Thomas.
After he parked his car and entered the ticketing area, the fluorescent lights’ glare making him squint. Under bright lights, everything looked a little blurry and foggy. His eye doctor had told him that he had something called macular degeneration. He could still see fine, so he didn’t think it was too bad.
ON TIME flashed next to all flights from JFK. He had to step a little closer to read the screen, but once he was certain, he sat down in the waiting area.
Thomas Schuster missed the days when you could go through security and wait right at the gate. It was a better way of doing things, but the whole 9/11 thing ruined everything. Maybe the terrorists hadn’t killed the President, but they sure had killed red-blooded American freedoms like seeing your loved ones come off the damn plane. He liked being able to see the plane taxi up to the corridor and see the person emerge from the gate. Now, he had to wait outside where he couldn’t tell what was going on. All he knew, the plane could crash as he sat ignorant in a windowless waiting area.
He remembered when he had come here to pick up Becky when she came back from her exchange year in Spain. She had run up the tunnel and flung herself at him, saying ”Hola Papa! Te extrañe!” These words meant nothing to him, but he understood her hug. He gripped her hard, happy that she hadn’t gotten herself into trouble in Spain (that he knew of, anyhow).
Becky always was the one who would go do any fool thing that got into her head. When she learned how to ski, she went on the big mountain on the second day, while Eva stayed on the bunny hill for the entire season. Becky dropped out of a top mathematics program her junior year to move with her band to Los Angeles. He told her it was a damn fool thing to do, but she had just laughed and said, “Don’t’ worry, I can always go back to school.” It was a waste of a fine mind. She was a whiz with numbers and could’ve been a mathematician if she had tried. He couldn’t imagine why she had given up such smarts to work retail, waiting for her big break.
He sighed, also remembering how he would come to pick up Eva when she came back from her big-name university. She would just smile and wave as she saw him. Cindy always said Eva was just like him, not a hug person. Now, Eva worked in some fancy New York law firm, earning over two hundred thousand dollars a year telling companies how to cover their asses. After Cindy left, Eva had called, “How could you do that to Mom? Did you cheat?” she shouted. He had never cheated on Cindy. When he had given his word to honor his wife until death did them part, he had meant it. Cindy was the one who broke that promise, but Eva didn’t believe him.
Now the screen said that the flight from JFK had arrived. People milled past security, bleary-eyed as they greeted their loved ones with weary smiles. He stood, clutching a photograph in his hand. He had already memorized the features of the woman in the photograph: her elegant nose, artificially pink cheeks and red lips. What he liked the most was the woman’s big, toothy smile that made him think of better times. He chose her because of that smile.
The blondes who walked by never looked anything like the woman in the photograph. They were all either too young or too old. There was one woman who had the same limp shoulder-length blonde hair, but she ran over to a tall man with two little children, so it couldn’t be her.
He stood there for thirty minutes, watching the crowd thin into nothingness. “She must be in the bathroom,” he thought.
Forty-five minutes later, he was still standing, photograph in one hand and hat in the other. The last flight of the day had arrived twenty minutes ago and the arrival gate stood empty. The only sound in the waiting area was the soft swish of a janitor mopping the floor.
“Hey,” the janitor said, as he pushed the mop towards him. The man was even younger than Becky, who was twenty-five. He supposed he didn’t even shave yet. At the sight of the janitor’s messy hair that dangled past his ears, he mourned the death of neatly trimmed hair that spelled professionalism and neatness. This kind of hair looked as if the man was just too lazy to get a proper haircut.
“Ya need help?” the janitor said.
He decided not to tell the young whelp to cut the slang and respect his elders. The kid didn’t know how to speak properly, but he needed a favor, so he let it go. He cleared his throat. “I’m waiting for someone. She was supposed to be on the flight from—” he frowned, “—oh yes, uh—Boston, no, JFK. Yes, she was supposed to come and she’s not here.”
The janitor peered at him, looking at the coat folded neatly over his arm and his polished shoes. “I just clean floors, but—” the man shrugged. “I can take you to ticketing and see what happened.”
The janitor took his elbow, which made him jerk away. “Just trying to help,” the janitor muttered.
“I don’t need help, young man. I need information,” He paused. “Please.”
The janitor sighed. “All right. Have it your way.”
He marched behind the janitor, keeping his chin high. The janitor shuffled his feet as he headed toward the ticket counter. Thomas Schuster would never say so, but he didn’t walk as fast as he used to. No matter how many shoe pads he bought, his feet started to swell and ache after he took more than five steps and he had been standing for more than an hour and half. He didn’t let any of the pain show as he walked at a brisk clip.
When they arrived at the ticketing counter, the janitor whispered something to the woman working there. She sighed, snapping the gum in her mouth. “Who you looking for?”
He smoothed out the photograph and placed it on the counter. “Her name is Gallina Ivanov. She’s coming from Belarus.”
He could smell the aerosol on the woman’s hair as she bent over her computer, tapping away. “Sorry, I don’t see her on the flight. You sure she got on the plane?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” He pulled out a folded piece of paper. “She said she would come here and marry me. I sent her money for the ticket.”
The woman glanced at the janitor, who took the paper. After reading the creased paper for several minutes, the janitor squinted at him and said, “Sorry, but she’s not coming.”
He cleared his throat. “But she promised.” He tapped the paper. “She said she would come and marry me.”
The janitor leaned forward, his black hair dangling in his eyes. “Hey, look—you kinda remind me of my grandpa so I don’t want nothing bad to happen to you. I’ll be straight with you. There’s no way that she’s coming. It looks like a scam.”
“No, it’s not. She promised. You can see right there.”
The woman cleared her throat, her gum gone. “I don’t have any record of Gallina Ivanov on any flight in the last three days.”
“See? She ain’t coming. You better go home now. It’s getting late.” As if someone had heard the janitor, the lights down the terminal flickered off, casting deep shadows in the cavernous room.
“She promised.” He glared at the janitor.
“People break promises all the time. The way of the world,” the janitor said, putting a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“No, they don’t.” He snatched the paper, crumpling it in his hand. Then he started walking.
“Hey! Wait a minute! You got a ride home?” the janitor called out.
He ignored the voice and kept on walking until he felt the blast of cold when he stepped outside. He walked in front of bright headlights that screeched to a stop. A few voices shouted, “Watch it!” He kept on walking.
He entered the parking garage, feeling shooting pain up his calves every time his feet hit the pavement. Thomas Schuster ignored the feeling of knives twisting into his feet and walked as fast as he had done as a young man. As he reached the car, he leaned on the smooth hood, panting and wincing. The orange lights overhead flickered, making him dizzy.
“Damn that woman,” he whispered, his voice lost in the expanse of the parking garage. His car was one of only five cars on this level. “You don’t break your promises. You do what you say you will do. It’s simple.”
Muttering under his breath, Thomas Schuster fumbled for his keys and after a few moments of aiming his key, he managed to open the door. As he sat in the car, he stared out of the windshield, looking at orange-bleached concrete blocks.
Thomas Schuster knew he should go home to sleep. He went to sleep every night at exactly eleven-thirty and it was already eleven. He wondered what he needed to do tomorrow morning. The answer was nothing. His accounting firm had told him that he needed to take his retirement pension and go home after fifty-plus years of service. Both of his daughters lived thousands of miles away, full-fledged adults with their own lives. Cindy had left the house that she had wanted so much and he had no idea what else she wanted.
Something buzzed in his pocket. He blinked, trying to identify the noise. Then he remembered; he had a cell phone for emergencies. Only telemarketers had called him so far.
“Hello?” he said carefully. He hated telemarketers.
“Daddy!” Becky’s voice sounded in his ear. He had always told her that she should use a more professional tone—it wasn’t becoming for a woman to sound so thrilled at everything—but Thomas Schuster smiled anyway. He could imagine her grinning as she said these words. Becky had inherited her mother’s stunning smile and he was glad for it. Then his smile faded.
“Is everything okay, Rebecca? Did anyone get hurt? Are you safe?”
She laughed. “Yes, Dad. I’m fine and everyone’s safe. You’re such a downer. You think the worst in everything. No, I just wanted to call you and say that we got our first big gig in a club in LA. It’s a famous club.”
“Gig? What’s that?”
“A job, Dad.”
“Are you going to be working there, then?”
“No, it’s an one-time thing. It could be our big break.”
“Oh, hmm,” he grunted, staring at the car’s gray roof. “You know, you can still go back to school and get that degree. You’re good at math.”
A soft sigh emanated from the other end. “I know, Dad.”
He squeezed the rim of the steering wheel. Cindy always scolded him for not telling the girls how much he loved them. “Just doing things isn’t enough. You need to say it, too,” she had said. He didn’t see the point of that fluffy nonsense since actions spoke louder than words. Now he remembered something else. He had promised himself when he had seen Cindy’s glowing face as she cradled the girls. He promised that he would love and provide for his girls. Maybe saying so wouldn’t be so bad.
He thought about what to say, tapping the steering wheel. Finally, he said, “I’m happy for you Rebecca. It will be good. You have good work ethic. You always showed up to band practice in high school.”
“Thanks, Dad,” she said in a soft voice.
He cleared his throat and said, “I love you. I’m proud of you.”
“I love you, too, Dad.” she said in a surprised tone. “Thanks Dad. That—well, thanks.” Muffled voices came from the background, but he couldn’t understand the voices. “Oh, someone’s here—I need to go.”
“Wait—oh all right. Call me if you need anything…or–”
“Okay Dad. I’ll—I’ll call you after the gig. Bye,” she said, her voice hurried but happy.
When the line went dead, he sighed. He folded the emails that Gallina sent him and put them in the glove compartment and started the car. The car rumbled to life under him, relaxing his feet.
Thomas Schuster drove home. Now he had something to wake up for.
Ⓒ Cristina Hartmann