- Narrator: Trey
- Characters: Trey, Jack, and Zaina
- High Spoiler Risk
An hour before Zaina’s flight lands, I finish straightening up my apartment. The housekeeper comes on Fridays, and I’d already managed to make a slight mess of things in the two days since her last visit. It was the first spring break I’d ever spent without my family, and while I missed my parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, cousins, aunts and uncles, I enjoyed the time to myself, devoted to writing one of two novels I’d started earlier in the school year. I’d made significant progress and would have something for Jon and his brothers to read whenever they had the time.
Zaina was sad that the break between semesters at Oxford didn’t align with my spring break at Columbia, but it was a relief to me. I couldn’t tell her that, though, so I listened to her complaining and whining about it all week while I was out of school and she was finishing up her exams. I comforted her with sympathetic words. I did what any good boyfriend would do.
We’d been through the same thing our first year in college, too.
The alarm I’d set on my watch signals that it’s time to go. I check myself in the mirror one last time before leaving. I look fine, wearing a shirt Zaina bought me that I know she loves. I got my hair cut yesterday after seeing a paparazzi shot of me earlier in the week where my reddish blonde hair was hanging loosely over my ears. It was sloppier than I’d intended, and I hated the way it looked. When I told my mother on the phone last night, she admitted she’d hated my longer hair, too. If she did, I can only imagine what Dad thought of it.
Staring into my own eyes, I study them closely. You can do this, Trey.
I wonder if she’ll be blindsided, or if she’ll sense something’s wrong. It hurts to think of what’s soon to transpire. I grab my phone, wallet and keys and head downstairs to the private parking garage in my building, saying hello to a few neighbors along the way.
As soon as I pull out into the street, I get a phone call.
“Hi, Jackson,” he says, his voice gravelly and tired. “How are you?” I hear the chatter of little girls in the background.
“I’m good. Are you guys home?”
“We just got everything unloaded at Livvy’s. I think we’re going to order in. Want to join us? We’d love to see you,” he says, sounding hopeful.
“I can’t, Dad, sorry. I’m on my way to pick up Zai. Her flight gets in at seven.”
“She can come, too, of course,” he suggests.
“We already have plans,” I tell him, hoping that I’ve gotten better at lying over the years.
“Of course you do,” he says. “You haven’t seen her since January. Can you pencil your mom and me in for dinner one night this week?”
“I’ll come over tomorrow,” I tell him, knowing that it will be good to be around my family over the next few days, or weeks.
“Perfect. Your mom will be excited to see you.”
“I’ve missed you guys,” I tell him. “Tell Livvy, Jon and the girls I’ll call them tomorrow. I need to plan a night with them, too.”
“I will. We missed you, Jackson. Tell Zaina we said hello, and we want to see her while she’s in town.”
“I’ll see if she has time,” I say to him. The awkwardness that follows undoubtedly hints at the fact that things aren’t like they used to be with me and Zai. She always makes time for my parents when she’s back in New York.
“Is everything okay?” he asks me.
“It’s fine,” I lie once more.
“We’re always here for you.”
When I can feel myself getting choked up, I decide to end the call. “Dad, traffic’s pretty bad, so I’m going to concentrate on the drive to JFK. I’ll call you tomorrow between classes.”
“Sounds good. I love you, son.”
“Love you, too, Dad.”
Is everything okay? I think of my father’s question again, and remember the agreement Zaina and I made when she left for Oxford late in the summer after we graduated from high school. We’d been dating for two and a half years. That summer–nearly two years ago now–we finally consummated our relationship on a post-graduation trip to St. Thomas. We went with Max, Callen, Brinlee, and seven other friends from our graduating class for two weeks. It was probably the craziest trip I’ve ever been on in my life.
The night before Zaina’s flight to England, we stayed up all night talking on her back stoop. I’m sure the only reason her parents allowed me to stay was because they could hear our voices beneath their window well into the early morning hours. Sure, we kissed a lot that night, but it never went beyond that. We just wanted to spend time together, and we knew the only way we’d get to do that was by being on our best behavior.
We’d acknowledged the difficulties of a long distance relationship. One thing we’ve both always been is realistic, and the reality was, 3,400 miles was a lot of distance to put between two people. Still, we were in love and we wanted to stay together. We agreed, though, that every winter and summer break, we would have a relationship status check. A simple question exchanged: “Are we okay?”
After three checks so far, the answer has been yes for both of us. Maybe the yeses wavered in certainty, but they were still yeses, and that was all that mattered to us.
Today, it’s not time for another status check. This is only a spring break. Things should be fine between us, and based on recent conversations, someone in a long distance relationship may believe that things are fine. But anyone close to me would know that things aren’t fine between Zaina and me. One person in particular knows this better than anyone.
As if on command, my Land Rover announces another communication: “Incoming call from Her.”
I don’t bother to fight the smile from spreading across my lips. It’s innate. It’s the most natural reaction my body has ever had to another human being. No matter how melancholy I feel in this moment, no matter how much I’m dreading tonight, she still makes a spontaneous grin appear with just the thought of… her.
I can’t answer her call, as much as I want to, and I know she doesn’t expect me to. I’m sure she will leave a voicemail, though, giving me something to look forward to for the rest of the evening. I have no doubt that was the entire purpose for her call.
“Voicemail from Her.”
I hope she can feel it.
Finally past all the traffic and at the airport, I find the baggage claim where Zaina should be and wait. I keep my sunglasses on, hoping to avoid being recognized, but they don’t do much good. Most people just look at me–I don’t need to catch them in the act, either, I can feel their eyes on me–but some actually approach me, saying hi and asking me for a picture.
I think of Her to make the smiles look genuine.
“Tria!” I hear Zaina’s shout over the rest of the noise in the terminal. My heart still reacts to her nickname for me, having grown accustomed to it. When I see her, I just want to hold her in my arms. I can honestly say I still love her. I’ve known that I hadn’t stopped, but I’ve also known that the love isn’t romantic anymore.
Her body crashes into mine with force, and I wrap her into me tightly, swaying gently from left to right.
“Welcome home, Zai,” I say softly.
I continue to keep her close while she tries to push away, no doubt to kiss me. I finally ease up, and she laughs, thinking I’m teasing with her. She grabs the collar of my shirt to pull my face to her level, but I turn my head to the side just enough to make a statement. It’s not one she’s ready to absorb.
I meet her curious gaze as she pushes me back, releasing my shirt abruptly. Tears are already beginning to form in the corners of her eyes. I hold her free hand tightly in my sweaty palm, smiling apologetically.
“Are we okay?” she asks, punctuating her question with a tear on each cheek. She’s so quick to respond to my unspoken message.
“No,” I barely whisper as I shake my head, my eyes never leaving hers. It’s just then that I notice people recording this moment when a flashbulb goes off. I don’t think she’s noticed yet.
“No,” she exhales in a long breath, looking up at me, shocked. I pull her back into my chest as she starts crying, hiding her face from prying eyes and cameras. I can feel the quick breaths as she weeps into her favorite shirt while I try to soothe her, running my hands up and down her back.
“I’m parked right outside. Let me take you to the car and I’ll come back for your bags. We aren’t alone here,” I tell her.
“Okay.” My arm still across her shoulders, and her head still nestled into my body, I guide her to the parking lot and get her settled into my SUV. I hand her the tissues my mom had tucked behind the passenger seat the last time I had a cold.
“How many bags?”
“Three,” she tells me. “Same ones as last time.”
“Good. I’ll be right back, Zai.” She nods after I shut the door, and when I turn around, I notice a few people had followed us to the garage. “Can you please give us some privacy? Please?” I ask as patiently and politely as I can, given the intensity of the situation.
A paparazzo shows up just then, his telephoto lens pointed at my car and the camera shooting in burst mode. “What’s happened to Zaina? Why’s your girlfriend crying?” he asks, not bothering to look at me as I walk past. When I don’t answer, he catches up to me, hurriedly switching cameras. “You too good to talk to me?”
“Back off,” I tell him as he glides directly in front of me, now recording me on video.
“Just answer my questions, and I will. You’re a journalist. I’m a journalist. Just trying to get the story. You know how it is.” I put my hand over my face, trying to take away any more opportunities for a good interaction. He’s just insulted me by comparing himself to me.
“With all due respect, what I do and what you do are not even on the same echelon, my friend.”
“True,” he says. “You’re just a college student and I make bank for my work. I probably just made five Benjamins in the last two minutes.”
“Let’s meet up in twenty years and talk, big guy, okay? We can look at income, cars, health, expanse of homes, attractiveness of wives, number of children and dick size, just to get a good comparison. You in?” I ask, shoving past him with my shoulder when I see Zaina’s luggage on the carousel.
“Classy language for an Ivy Leaguer!” he calls after me. “With that video, I bet I’m up to a grand!” he boasts. As I grab for the last piece of luggage, I flip him off with my free hand, not caring what he does with any of his material at this point.
©2015 Lori L. Otto • Distribution or duplication is strictly prohibited without written permission from the author.