To her chagrin, the mini pizza seemed to be oozing grease out of the cheese. But what did she expect? The pizza, when she purchased it, had been sitting under a heat lamp in a little cardboard box.
Emmy sat perched on her stool, pizza, still in box, lying on the counter in front of her. The lid was up, exposing the greasy mess within. Napkins in hand, Emmy momentarily considered wiping down the pizza in order to remove some of the excess umber grease pooled in the center of the pepperonis. Instead though, Emmy grabbed her apple Snapple, twisted off the cap, and downed a swig. But still nothing about the pizza changed. It remained there, beckoning her to eat it. Emmy wanted to. She really wanted to. The hunger pains were starting to settle in and the pizza was the only thing available for immediate consumption. Soon she would be stuck on a plane with no option for sustenance but a small packet of pretzels. She had to take her pills in three hours, and the best way to keep them down was to take them on a full stomach.
On the other side of the plexi-glass wall separating the pizza place from the airport terminal, mobs of people rushed by. Emmy reflected upon them, watching them scurry like ants. Based upon their choice of clothing, Emmy fancied she could tell where each of their destinations would be.
Christmas was two weeks away and the airport was decorated with shiny red, green, and silver tinsel. Carols were playing quietly over the sound system and there were cutouts of Rudolf taped up on the store display windows. Emmy felt the Scrooge coming out in her among this overwhelming display of the holiday spirit. After she had contacted HIV, the holidays just had not been the same. She knew that she should be cherishing the holidays all the more, with the possibility of only a few left in her shortened life span, but still, there was just something about all those happy families that ground on her nerves.
Her attention was brought back to her pizza by a shift in the airflow, bringing the scent of grease to her nostrils.
Why had she so desired such eating fare when she was younger? Tantrums had been thrown and tears had been shed, all in order to persuade her parents that she absolutely had to have pizza or hamburgers or anything from the Waffle House, all dripping with grease, all delectable to the young palate.
“Excuse me. Is there anyone sitting here?” Emmy’s quandary was broken, her attention forced upon the man motioning towards the empty seat next to her.
“Um, no. No one’s sitting there.” Emmy forced the smile reserved for strangers.
“Do you mind if I sit here then?” The man began to place his pizza box on the counter next to hers.
“No. No, you can sit there.” Using her foot, Emmy pushed her bag further under her chair. She imagined that she could actually hear the discernible sound of pills shaking.
The man remained silent while he sat down on the stool. Emmy watched him as he grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser then placed them next to his pizza box. Then she realized that he was watching her. “Are you…do you need a napkin?” he offered.
Emmy shook her head. “No thanks. I have enough.” Emmy, not sure why she was doing it, held up her pile of napkins for display. “The pizza is awful greasy, so I got a lot of napkins.”
“Yeah. I usually don’t eat pizza. Need to spare my old ticker. I’m young now, but it’ll catch up to me, I’m sure. But this was the closest eatery to my gate. I don’t want to miss my flight.”
“Right. Yeah, that’s why I’m eating the pizza too.”
The man peered at Emmy, then looked down at her untouched pizza. ” Doesn’t look like you’re actually eating the pizza though.”
Emmy felt herself blush, stammering, “Um yeah, I…yeah…I need to get up my courage before I take that first bite.”
“Well, you better get your courage up fast before your pizza gets cold. You don’t wanna have to put it back under that heat lamp, do you?”
“No. You’re right. I should just eat it and get it over with.” Emmy picked up one slice of the pizza. She directed her gaze downwards and took her first bite.
In silence, they both consumed half of their respective pizzas. Wiping his greasy fingers on one of his napkins, he broke the silence. “Where you flying today?”
“Kansas City. And you?” Emmy put down her pizza and looked up at him.
“Kansas City, yeah? Me too. But my final destination is actually Salina, Kansas. I’m renting a car at the airport and driving.”
Emmy looked at her watch. “We better head to the gate. They should start boarding pretty soon. You think they’ll let us take our pizzas onto the plane?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried to get onto a plane with a pizza before.”
They both stood, gathering their carry on bags, pizza boxes, and piles of napkins. In silence they walked down the terminal together.
At their gate there was a notice that the flight had been delayed for an hour. The women at the counter were busy fending off a group of angry travelers, shouting out that the reason for the delay was that the flight crew was coming in from Chicago and their flight had been delayed by the weather. Without the crew, the flight to Kansas City could not leave.
Emmy looked at her watch again. He too looked at his watch. “An hour. Oh well, I guess that’s just one of the perks of air travel.”
Looking at him, Emmy smiled. “True enough. I pretty much expect at least one delay whenever I fly.”
“So, what’s in Kansas City?” Without thought, they both moved over to the hard, plastic chairs, and sat, dumping their belongings at their feet.
Emmy was taking a drink from her Snapple. Swallowing, she replied, “What?”
“Kansas City. That’s where you’re going.”
He paused before asking again, “Why are you going to Kansas City?”
“Oh yeah. Sorry. I was drinking and then got distracted. Kansas City, right. I’m going there for a conference.” Emmy hoped he wouldn’t want specifics; she wasn’t prepared to tell him that she was speaking at an HIV/AIDS conference, because that would only lead to personal questions. Today, Emmy firmly decided, if this man was going to ask questions, she was going to lie.
“Conference for what?”
“Corn.” Emmy thought that it was feasible enough, a corn conference in Kansas City.
“Corn?” He leaned forward to look at her, placing his elbows on his knees.
“What do you do that you go to corn conferences in Kansas City?”
“I’m in college.”
Emmy paused. She was tired of the questions that strangers asked her. Each question answered only led to more stupid questions, all of which she would have to think of answers to. “Yeah, on corn. So, why are you going to Salina?” she hurriedly changed the subject.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Why? You shouldn’t be sorry unless you killed my grandfather.” He smiled after saying this, leading Emmy to believe that he was making a joke, but its dark humor was beyond her. “Now that we have some more time, do you wanna go to the cafe down aways and get some coffee?”
Emmy hesitated momentarily before deciding that some caffeine would do her some good. “Sure, why not. But you know what? I’m gonna go ahead and throw away the rest of my pizza. It’s too cold by now anyway.”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
The cafe smelled like warm coffee and cinnamon. A cappuccino machine hissed in the background, nearly drowned out by the sounds of the patrons. The atmosphere was dark, softly lit by small orange lamps placed reverently around the cramped cafe. The people were hurried as they often are in coffee shops and in airports.
Pushed to the front of the counter, Emmy scanned the chalked in menu quickly, not wanting to waste time. “Tall eggnog latte, please.”
“You want whipped cream?” The barista seemed un-vexed by the commotion around her.
“Okay, yeah. I’ll have some whipped cream.”
“You want extra cinnamon?”
Emmy paused, trying to concentrate on what was being said to her. “What? Cinnamon? Is that what you asked?”
“Yeah. Do you want cinnamon? You know, like sprinkled on top.” The barista waited, pen poised over Emmy’s tall cup, ready to write down her order and move on to the next customer.
“Okay, cinnamon is fine.” Emmy was shuffled out of the way, like a joker being rejected from a deck of cards. She moved off to a corner to wait for her drink. He soon joined her, a slice of coffee cake balanced precariously on a plate.
“I hate places like this, but I need my caffeine fix,” He nearly had to shout over the din.
Emmy smiled. “Me too. I always feel like I can’t breathe or something. There’s just too much going on.”
“Yeah. Too many people, and these coffee shops are always so small.”
“Yeah.” Emmy couldn’t think of anything else to say, so they waited in silence until their drinks were called out. Pushing up to the pick-up counter, Emmy was momentarily forced up against him.
Out of the body and luggage melee of the coffee shop, Emmy breathed deep of the airport air and then sipped gingerly on her eggnog latte. “This was so worth it,” she purred.
“What did you get?” he asked.
“An eggnog latte. With whipped cream and cinnamon.”
“Sounds good. Must be a seasonal thing.”
“Yeah. Just about the only thing I like about the Christmas season is the availability of eggnog. What did you get?”
“Just a cup of house brew.”
Blowing and sipping on their respective drinks, they made their way back to their gate. Sitting down in the same seats as before he turned to Emmy and said, “Do you want any of my coffee cake?”
“No, that’s okay. Thanks though.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. After half a pizza, an apple Snapple, and this latte I’m covered until at least Kansas City.”
“But all those liquids, you better eat something more substantial to absorb them or you’ll spend the entire flight in the restroom.”
Emmy laughed. “That’s what my mom used to say. Always match what you drink with food and that way you won’t pee all the time.”
“Yeah. But I’m not sure that it’s true. I bet it’s just a myth, like waiting to swim after you eat.”
“No, that one’s true,” he said.
“Really?” Emmy asked, skeptically.
“Yeah. It happened to me once, that’s how I know. I was seven maybe, and we were at the lake. I had just eaten a sandwich and some cookies or something like that, and right afterwards I jumped in the lake. I got cramps really bad, but luckily I wasn’t too far out, so I just swam back. But yeah, it’s true though.”
“Wow. And here I was this whole time assuming that it was all a big lie.”
“Yeah. I used to think it was just a myth too. That is until I proved it.”
Emmy paused to sip on her latte. “What lake was it?”
“You said you were at the lake. I was just wondering what lake it was.”
“Oh, right. It was,” He paused to think, “Boy oh boy, that was a long time ago. I’m not sure which lake it was exactly, one of those Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs I’m sure.”
“You’re from Tennessee?”
“No, Kentucky actually.” He took a bite from his coffee cake, tentatively, like he was afraid of it. Emmy watched in rapt fascination until she realized that she was watching him eat and that was kind of weird.
“Kentucky. Hmmm. My mom’s from Kentucky and she makes this really good chocolate chess pie and we used to tease her because she would make chili and serve it over spaghetti. Well actually, it was my dad who would tease her about that. I didn’t really know any better until my dad pointed out that serving chili over spaghetti wasn’t normal.”
“Yeah, that’s a Cincinnati thing, serving chili over spaghetti. I bet your mom was from Louisville, because it kinda caught on there too.”
“Yeah yeah, she was from Louisville. When I was growing up we would drive there and visit my grandmother.”
“Where are you from?” He had finished his coffee cake and was now folding the paper plate into smaller and smaller sections.
“Reading, Pennsylvania? Never heard of it.”
“Most people haven’t.”
“But you live here now?”
“Yeah. Well, not here actually, but in Terre Haute. Are you from Indianapolis?”
“No, Chicago. But my ex-wife lives here. I decided to fly out of Indianapolis so that I could drop in for a quick visit with our daughter. She stays with me during the summer, but I usually come down sometime around the holidays to celebrate a mini-Christmas with her and her mom.”
Emmy felt something change in her. All of this time she had been assuming so much about this guy, and then to have his ex-wife and daughter dropped on her like this, it was a little overwhelming. Emmy wasn’t quite sure why though; he was after all, just some guy in the airport. Why did it matter that he had been married before? He would be in and out of Emmy’s life in a matter of hours.
Emmy took a sip from her eggnog latte and realized that it was cold. She stood up and turned to look at him. “I’m gonna throw my latte away because it’s cold now. I’ll be right back.”
“Oh hey, can you throw this away too?” He handed her his empty cup and the folded up paper plate.
Emmy looked down at the new items pressed into her hands. “Sure, why not? I’m headed that way anyway.” She turned and walked towards the garbage can.
“Thanks,” he called after her.
At the garbage can, Emmy paused to reflect on the events that had unfolded so far at the airport. She couldn’t figure out why she felt so disappointed that he had an ex-wife and a daughter. Emmy knew it was an irrational feeling given the circumstances. She didn’t even know his name. He didn’t even know that she had HIV.
Sitting back down next to him, Emmy asked, “What’s your name anyway?”
“Ted. And you?”
“Nice to meet you, Emmy.”
“You too, Ted.” His name felt foreign in her mouth, as if it didn’t quite belong to him. She felt stupid saying his name and suddenly had the distinct impression that she was being duped and that Ted was not his real name.
“Is Emmy short for Emily?”
“No. It’s short for Emmaline.”
“Emmaline,” Ted repeated her name slowly, like he was relishing it, “That’s a very pretty name.”
“It sounds like a name that would be in a country song.”
“Yeah? You think so? Emmaline,” he repeated her name again, “Emmaline. Yeah I guess it kinda does. ‘Don’t break my heart, now Emmaline, don’t break my heart for it’s already broken and can’t possibly be broke no more,'” Ted sang with a twangy drawl.
Emmy clapped quietly and smiled. “That was good. You just made that up?”
“Yeah. I guess it’s the Kentuckian in my blood. Gives me the ability to make up country songs on the spot.”
Emmy was about to respond when she was cut short by an announcement over the intercom. “Flight 3704 to Kansas City will begin boarding momentarily.”
“That’s us.” Ted leaned over and started to gather up his luggage.
“No apology or anything,” Emmy muttered.
“What?” Ted sat back up and looked at Emmy.
“Oh, they didn’t even bother to apologize about the hour delay. I think that’s pretty rude, don’t you?”
“I didn’t even think about that, but now that I do, I guess that is pretty rude.” Ted, bag slung over his shoulder, stood up and paused as if he were waiting for Emmy.
Gathering up her carry-on bag, Emmy began to get her pre-flight, boarding shivers. Every time, like clockwork, right before boarding an airplane, Emmy would get nervous and start to shake. Part of the nervousness was caused by a slight fear of flying, but mostly it was a fear of possibly catching one of the many diseases swirling around the confines of the airplane. Eventually, she realized, as her diseased advanced she would have to start wearing a mask. And then people like Ted probably wouldn’t want to talk to her.
Worried that Ted might see her shaking and assume that she was scared, she tried to cover it up. “I just noticed how cold it is in here.”
Ted paused as if testing the air temperature. “Actually I’d say it’s a little on the warm side.”
“Do you think so? I feel rather chill.” Emmy stood up next to Ted.
“Uh oh, I hope you’re not getting sick.”
To Emmy, Ted looked genuinely concerned. Trying to change the subject, she said, “God, I hope not too because I have a presentation to give tomorrow. And the last thing I want is a cold.”
“What is your presentation on?”
Emmy mentally slapped herself. Damn her for bringing the subject matter back to the corn conference. “Corn.” She forced a smile, hoping that he would drop it at that.
“What about corn? It’s such a broad subject, isn’t it? I don’t actually know anything about corn, I’m just a lowly high school history teacher, but it seems to me that there would be more to corn than just corn. See what I’m saying?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I see what you’re saying. And there’s a lot more to corn than just corn for sure. But usually I try not to get into it because it’s boring to the regular Joe.”
“But what about the title of your presentation. Can you at least tell me that?”
Boarding announcements were made and together, with the flow of the other boarders, Emmy and Ted started to move towards the gate.
Emmy’s mind buzzed as she searched her mind desperately for a presentation title. She didn’t know how much time had passed, but it was apparently quite a lot when Ted said, “I’m waiting.”
“Oh, sorry. I lost my train of thought. Don’t you hate when that happens? Your mind just starts to wander,” Emmy mumbled while trying to figure out a good sounding title.
“Yeah. I especially hate when that happens and I’m in front of my classroom. One minute I’m talking about The Civil War and the next minute my mind just goes blank and those kids just sit there staring at me, waiting. But you probably know all about that, what with giving presentations, and I bet you do some teaching yourself, lower division GE classes?”
“What?” Emmy glanced up at Ted.
“Student teaching?” Ted started to look confused.
“Right. Student teaching. I’ve done some of that.”
Ted narrowed his eyes. “So what did you say the title of your presentation was? Or did you ever tell me?”
He knows something is wrong, Emmy thought to herself. He can tell I’m lying, why else would he be so interested in my presentation? Mind whizzing now, Emmy knew she would have to say something. “The title of my presentation is ‘Corn Grown for Hog Production’.” Emmy knew that when he got to Salina he would probably look up corn conventions in Kansas City on-line. And then he would know for sure that she had been lying to him. But for now Emmy didn’t want him to know that she wasn’t telling the truth.
They were next in line for boarding. Ted handed the flight attendant his ticket and flashed his ID.
Stopping to wait for Emmy, he said, “Oh. That sounds kinda interesting.”
“I think it is.” Emmy flashed a fake smile and together they walked down the jet-way to the airplane. She hoped she sounded sincere.
On the airplane, squeezed in the aisle with the other passengers and all of their luggage, Emmy and Ted began to separate, both headed for their respective seats on opposite ends of the plane. The flow of passengers was moving slowly as people waited while others shoved their bags into the overhead compartments.
“It was nice talking with you, Emmy. That made the delay so much less painful.” Ted ducked into his aisle seat, looked up at Emmy and smiled.
“Yeah, it really made the time fly by, you know? Usually I don’t talk to people in airports, but this wasn’t so bad.” Someone behind Emmy was pushing up against her, but she had nowhere to go with all of the people ahead of her.
“No, it wasn’t. Have fun in Kansas City and good luck with your presentation. I probably won’t see you in KC because I have to bolt to pick up my rental car and head to Salina to get to the funeral on time, so this is our final goodbye.”
Emmy sighed. “I guess so, yeah. That’s weird, I’ll probably never see you again.”
“It’s sorta sad when you put it that way.” Ted smiled ruefully.
Emmy was pushed from behind again and this time the line actually started to move. “Okay, bye.”
Emmy rode the current of people back to her seat towards the rear of the plane. When finally at her row, she sat down in her window seat, put her carry-on bag, filled with her numerous medications, under the seat in front of her, and fastened her seat belt.
Turning her head to stare out of the window, Emmy let out a long sigh. If she had told Ted the truth would he have still wanted to talk to her? In general, Emmy avoided personal confrontations just in case her secret got out. She didn’t want people to judge her, especially strangers. The few times she had blurted out her story she had been treated differently. Some people gave her pity, others were disgusted, and still others tried to sell her on God. It was the disgust that Emmy could handle. The pity she despised and those that tried to convert her were barking up the wrong fence because she already believed in God.
Eventually everyone was seated and the plane began to move, but Emmy, lost in her own thoughts, didn’t really notice. It struck her as odd that airplanes could even fly at all. Looking around at her surroundings, but not actually absorbing anything she saw, Emmy felt the strangeness that pervaded the air. It was almost like a science fiction movie, a trip to the moon. Only this flight wasn’t headed to the moon, rather it would land, as scheduled, in Kansas City.