Jack and Diet Coke
November 21, 2009
Chicago O’Hare International Airport
Each time the check-in line moves, I drag my luggage two measly feet, not getting anywhere quickly. I’m about to spend Thanksgiving with my best friend from college, a person whom I haven’t treated all that well during the decade since graduation. It wasn’t anything personal; she’s fabulous. She also happen to be—for better or worse—associated with him. I didn’t feel I could communicate with her without thinking of him, and not thinking of him is critical to my survival.
In the months immediately following my move to Chicago, it was still too much for me to take. When I decided I was finally emotionally able to maintain relationships with individuals who also maintained relationships with him, I wasn’t sure how to go about re-establishing contact. Months turned into years, and it seemed too awkward. Finally Alice, my best friend from college, scrawled the following note at the bottom of the birthday card she’d sent me two months ago:
This is ridiculous. It’s been ten years. We miss you. Come home.
Washington D.C. never felt like home to me, but she made her point nonetheless. Lapse in contact notwithstanding, I love her as if she were my sister. Deciding to conquer all but the biggest of my demons at once, I booked a flight back east. Surely I could visit the life I’d left behind without second-guessing my decision to do so.
In the absence of anything to occupy my mind, it’s hard not to focus on my fear. Desperate for distraction, I study the people around me. It works until my eyes fall upon him.
I’d know him anywhere, though not because the past ten years had left him unchanged. Certainly, aspects of him remain the same—his shock of red hair, bright green eyes, and long, lean figure—but just as many are different. Now his jaw is more defined, his face having long ago lost the roundness of youth. Tiny wrinkles adorn the corners of his eyes, and though his smile is the same, the lines it forms on his face no longer disappear when his expression changes. I want to pretend these changes are a surprise to me, but they aren’t. I see pictures of him daily whether I want to or not.
Though the first-class line in which he’s standing is considerably shorter than mine, he still has one person in front of him. As his eyes scan the room, I’m torn between wanting him to notice me and praying that he won’t.
He looks in my direction, seeming to gaze through me. Any hope he recognizes me—that he thinks of me with the same frequency I think of him—deserts me when my eyes meet his blank stare. I feel part physical pain, part relief when he turns his attention to the woman behind the counter. I’d gotten over him (but just barely) by telling myself (several times each day for nearly ten years) that though Edward Cullen may live and breathe, though he may be the junior senator from my state of residence and that I may have even voted for him (twice, if I count the Democratic primary), my Edward no longer exists. Fifty feet away from me may stand a man with lips I’d kissed and a body I’d clung to in my sleep, but that’s where all similarity ends. As much as I want to believe otherwise, I’m not breathing the same air as the man I love, whom I’d spent the past ten years missing beyond all reason; I’m merely occupying the same space as his ghost.
Minutes later, boarding pass in hand, he hurries toward the terminal without looking back. I spend the duration of my wait wishing I could forget him as easily as he seems to have forgotten me. Just when I can’t be alone with my thoughts a moment longer, it’s my turn to approach the counter. I hand the airline employee my driver’s license and hoist my suitcase up onto the scale.
“I’m showing a first-class reservation to Washington-Dulles. Is this the only bag you’re checking?”
“Coach,” I mutter. “It should be coach.”
“You received an upgrade. Checking one bag?”
“Yes,” I say, dumbfounded. “One bag.”
She hands me a boarding pass with the claim check to my suitcase. “There you go. Thank you for flying with us.”
I’m sure someone has made a mistake, but I’m not about to complain. As I make my way to the gate I wonder if I’ll find a charge for the upgrade on my credit card, but the moment I settle myself into the large leather seat at the front of the plane, I no longer care. This changes when I hear a voice I’d know anywhere (and not solely from CPSAN) ask the flight attendant to hang up his coat.
There’s no way he didn’t plan this.
“Hello, Isabella,” he says, sliding into the seat beside me.
His smile makes me weak, and if there was any question of why I’d put so much effort into avoiding him over the past ten years, I now have my answer. His affectation of formality notwithstanding; in his presence, I lose myself.
I acknowledge him with a curt nod and respond to the tone of his greeting in kind. “Senator Cullen.”
He cringes, but says nothing.
The flight attendant appears and asks for our pre-take-off drink orders. If I have any chance of surviving the flight, I’d best start drinking now.
“Jack and Diet Coke, please.”
“And for you, Senator?” she says.
“Scotch on the rocks.”
The words come out of my mouth on their own. “Good thing your father isn’t here.”
“Please,” he adds, almost automatically.
The flight attendant hurries off to get our drinks.
“I wasn’t talking about your manners, though I suppose my statement could be equally applicable to them. I was referring to you putting ice in your scotch.”
“It’s not as if it’s good scotch.”
“If it has the word ‘glen’ in its name, it’s still a travesty.” I sound completely inane. Am I actually teasing him about his beverage selection? There are so many other things I want to know—starting with how I ended up sitting beside him. “Did you arrange for my upgrade?”
“Guilty as charged.”
“I wanted to talk to you, and I suspected that wouldn’t happen if you had a means of a escape. If your attitude is any indication, I was correct in my assumption.”
“Why bother? I distinctly remember you telling me that if I left you, you wouldn’t follow me. Ten years in politics notwithstanding, I always took you to be a man of your word.”
“Technically, I didn’t follow you; I happened upon you in an airport.”
“How did you know we were on the same flight?”
“I asked the nice lady at the check-in counter.”
“As one of your constituents, I’m appalled that you would abuse your power in this way.”
“You’re assuming I used the power that comes with being a Senator.”
His answering smile is one I knew long before it earned him his place among People magazine’s sexiest men alive.
“I daresay it wouldn’t have worked had the airline employee been male, unless of course, he swung that way. Apparently, luck was on my side.”
“‘Daresay?” I repeat. “I was sure years of positioning yourself as a champion of the working class would have deWASPified your speech patterns.”
“DeWASPified isn’t a word.”
“Only because the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary haven’t met your family.”
“Ha ha. You’re funny. Just so you know, it’s my voting record that makes me a champion of the working class, not my speech patterns.”
“Clearly. They’re as upper-crusty as ever. It just goes to show, you can take the boy out of Milton Academy, but you can’t take Milton Academy out of the boy.”
He rolls his eyes. “I’m not the only person in this row the past ten years left unchanged. In a world of chaos, you Isabella, are a constant.”
I want to tell him he’s wrong, that I’ve changed quite a bit since 1999, that I’m strong and self-sufficient, and I no longer need a man to know who I am. The words die in my throat, and before I’m able to revive them, the flight attendant returns with our drinks. Edward sips his scotch; I down my Jack and Diet Coke in a single gulp.
Edward looks surprised but doesn’t comment.
“Does five minutes of your attention really buy a first-class upgrade?”
“Five minutes of my attention bought me a look at your travel itinerary; my American Express card bought your upgrade.”
“I’d thank you, but I imagine by the end of this flight I will have more than paid for it.” With my soul, I add silently.
“Is the thought of two hours in my company that unappealing to you?”
“Eh,” I say, shrugging.
To be honest, the prospect of two hours in his company both thrills and terrifies me, but I don’t want him to know that. As it is, I wasn’t ready for him to know anything…much.
“If my presence is that distressing to you, I’m sure I can find someone in coach who would be happy to switch seats with me.”
My answer flies from my lips before I can think better of it.
He smiles, and I know. Self-preservation be damned—this time, I’ll never be able to leave.
The plane begins taxiing to the runway, and the flight attendant collects our glasses before launching into a monologue regarding emergency exit procedures. Grateful for the distraction, I concentrate on her words and double-check my seat belt. After she finishes, I lean back into my seat and stare out the window.
“You actually paid attention?” Edward teases.
“Well, yes. I mean, I know the odds are somewhat slim, but an emergency could happen.”
“Isabella, the instructions the same on every flight.”
“Yes, well, I haven’t flown in a while,” I mutter dryly. “I figured I could use a refresher.”
The noise of the engine picks up, and it’s several minutes before conversation is possible. Seconds after the plane finishes its ascent, our drinks are replenished.
“How does it feel?” I ask. “You know…to have accomplished everything you set out to do.”
“Well, I haven’t accomplished everything.”
“You may not be President, but you’re a senator. That’s pretty big. Besides, I think I read in People you’re only thirty-six. Even Kennedy wasn’t that young.”
“Don’t be cute; you know exactly how old I am. Since when you do read People?”
“I don’t. But when I saw my ex-boyfriend on the cover, I decided to make an exception. Had I known you’d one day be considered the sexiest man alive, I would have insisted you walk around our apartment naked.”
He rolls his eyes. “What makes you think I was talking about my political aspirations?”
“With you, it’s always about your political aspirations. So, is that still part of the plan?”
“What? Running for President?”
“My plan is to serve the people of this great nation; the capacity in which I do so doesn’t matter to me,” he says, as if reading a pre-written speech from a teleprompter.
“I deserve more than a canned answer from you.”
“Why? Because you’re my ex-girlfriend who didn’t realize she was dating the sexiest man alive at the time of our relationship?”
“With all due respect, Senator, I’ve seen sexier.”
“I beg to differ. Oh, and just so you know, the rest of my ex-girlfriends don’t call me ‘Senator.’”.
“Are there many of them?”
“Senators? There are two from each state, and the Union is at an all-time high of fifty states. You clearly didn’t pay attention in eighth-grade civics, but maybe you remember third-grade arithmetic. What’s fifty times two?”
Even his condescension is appealing. If I weren’t still in love with him, I’d hate him.
“That wasn’t what I was asking, and you know it. Your point is taken regardless; I’m fully aware my question was inappropriate.”
He laughs, but it’s not the canned laugh he gives reporters. He’s not producing the appropriate sound without the appropriate joy ever reaching his eyes. It’s a real laugh. It’s the laugh that haunts my dreams.
Of its own accord, my hand reaches over the arm rest to touch his. He startles and nearly spills his scotch, but he doesn’t pull away.
“And yet you asked anyway. It’s nice to see time hasn’t improved your manners.”
I shrug, squeezing his hand. “I scoff at propriety.”
“Clearly. By the way, do you want the tabloids to report we’re involved?”
He angles his head toward our joined hands. “Don’t get me wrong—I’m enjoying your touch. I just don’t think you realize what a public display of affection toward me such as this implies.”
I drop my hand onto my lap. “Sorry.”
“Me, too. So…what have you been up to?”
“I’m visiting Alice for Thanksgiving.”
“So she said; I meant over the past ten years.”
“Oh. Well, I moved to Chicago and took a job waiting tables while I applied for jobs in marketing. I thought it would be a means to an end—just a way to earn some cash while I figured things out. I kind of fell in love with the restaurant scene, so I enrolled in culinary school.”
“You’re a chef?”
“No, I’m a sommelier.”
He snorts. “You get paid to drink wine all day?”
“You have your dream job, and I have mine.”
“Yours sounds like it’s infinitely more enjoyable.”
“I have no doubt about that,” I say, laughing.
“Do you wear a fancy cup around your neck?”
“A tastevin? I bust one out on occasion. They’re fun.”
“Do they serve a purpose?”
I shake my head. “Not since the discovery of electricity.”
“If wine is your thing, why are you drinking Jack Daniels?”
“We’re on an airplane. I don’t have to see the wine list to know it sucks.”
“Smart woman.” He looks down, swishing his scotch around his glass. “Are you happy?”
“Yes…” What I’m about to say will give him all the power, and I know him well enough to understand what he’ll do with it. But I may never see him again, and this could be the only chance I’ll ever have. “…but I’ve missed you.”
He answers with his eyes closed. “Your actions over the past ten years would imply otherwise.”
“You think I’m lying about being happy? Let’s review: I drink wine for a living. Does life get better than that?”
“No, I think you’re lying about having missed me.”
“My reasons for leaving you had nothing to do with my feelings for you. I thought you understood that.”
“I understood perfectly. It was either you or my career. You made yourself quite clear.”
“You’re over-simplifying it.”
“Am I?” He shakes his head. “I don’t want to spend what little time we have here rehashing what happened that Christmas—that’s not why I upgraded your ticket.”
“Why did you upgrade my ticket?”
“I miss you. For so long, I thought I’d never get a chance to see you again. Then I saw you standing in line. You’re even more beautiful now than you were then, do you know that? I couldn’t let you walk away from me again, even unwittingly.”
“When I told you I was leaving, you acted like you didn’t care,” I say in a whisper so my voice won’t betray me. My efforts prove futile; my voice cracks anyway.
“I know I did.”
“I don’t understand you, nor do I trust you.”
“You have no reason not to trust me.”
“I have every reason not to trust you. You lie for a living.”
“I’m a United States Senator,” he moans indignantly.
“I did try to find you after you left, but no one would tell me where you went. I know I told you I wouldn’t do that, but that was before I knew what it would be like to live without you. I’ve kept the same cell number and email address to this day so you’d have a means to contact me, just in case you changed your mind, if you’d decided you acted that day on anger or haste. If I’d known that Christmas what I know now…”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference.”
“It would have.” He adds in a whisper, “I would have chosen you.”
I wish I could believe him.
The flight attendant takes our glasses and asks if she could bring us anything else before we begin our descent into Washington. Declining, we sit in silence until after the plane has landed.
“Bella,” he begins.
It’s the first time today he’s used his nickname for me.
“I heard you, but I don’t see how it changes anything. Besides, I’m not available.”
“Are you seeing someone?”
I fight the urge to laugh. I haven’t been out on a date in months, but my romantic availability to others has very little impact on whether or not I’m emotionally prepared to go there with him. As far as I know, my reason for ending our relationship still exists—now more than ever. No matter how much I miss him, I know where things will eventually lead. Though I managed to survive losing him once, I’m fairly sure a second time would break me.
“No, just over it.” I’m not, of course. What I am is terrified.
“In that case…” He unfastens his seat belt and rises to his feet before retrieving his laptop bag from the overhead compartment.
My Edward’s gone; Senator Cullen has appeared in his place.
The flight attendant waits for him, holding his jacket. He puts it on, then extends his hand to me. “Thank you for your time, Isabella. I always enjoy touching base with my constituents.”
I shake it tentatively, then he’s gone.