Janet Clare ~ Flight

Carol brought the baby home and put him in the bassinet, then sat on the edge of the bed star­ing at him. He slept peace­ful­ly while she toyed with a loose thread on the flo­ral quilt. She was young, but not fool­ish, and she, along with her hus­band, Dan, both want­ed this baby. But what struck her that day, what she hadn’t real­ly thought about until that very moment, was the per­ma­nence of this baby. How he wasn’t like the big new TV that over­pow­ered their square Santa Monica apart­ment. He wasn’t just anoth­er pos­ses­sion. He wasn’t even theirs. He didn’t real­ly belong to them at all.

This baby was a sep­a­rate, brand new human being and they were respon­si­ble for him. For a while. They, in par­tic­u­lar, Carol, had a new job for which she’d nev­er filled out an appli­ca­tion and which, frankly, her qual­i­fi­ca­tions were ques­tion­able. What she did know, how­ev­er, was from that point on her every thought and move­ment would be about this baby. Her life would nev­er again be as impor­tant as his. It was the sim­ple truth. And, it scared her plen­ty, feel­ing her­self begin to dis­ap­pear that very day. Well, too late for that.

Carol’s the­o­ry of par­ent­ing was main­ly to keep him alive. Keep the mon­sters at bay, keep him safe, and always love him enough. So he could leave. That was the goal. She under­stood and accept­ed it and she thought par­ents who didn’t were crazy. Whining about the day the nest would be emp­ty even while it was still full to the brim. They failed to under­stand that the great sad­ness of a child impaired or depen­dent was his inabil­i­ty to live on his own. To leave. She and Dan and their baby were the lucky ones.

Her son grew up just the way she’d hoped, strong and smart and capa­ble. He went to col­lege 3,000 miles away and she didn’t moan and cry though for sure he’d left an emp­ty place in her as big as the Grand Canyon. A year lat­er Dan left, too. With his sec­re­tary. A woman as old as Carol and not as pret­ty, by anyone’s yard­stick. It was a sto­ry so banal Carol was embar­rassed to tell it. So, she rarely did. Never much of a girl-talk girl, any­way. No one’s busi­ness and no one cared. She didn’t cry when Dan left, though she wasn’t sure why. It just seemed in the order of things that hap­pened.

So here she was, on her own not exact­ly at the prime of her life, but not dead, either.

For the first few weeks she didn’t cook any­thing. Just sat on her bed and ate cere­al. She watched Netflix series. Six months went by. Still, one bowl, one spoon. Twenty bucks at the mar­ket. She went to her job down­town where she was a pat­tern mak­er at a cloth­ing man­u­fac­tur­er. It was a place where her tal­ents were great­ly val­ued and where they still did things the old-fash­ioned way and not just with com­put­ers. There was a time Carol had want­ed to be an archi­tect, but con­struct­ing clothes was the clos­est she ever got. A kind of build­ing, she liked to think, where struc­ture was impor­tant. She’d admired the design­er, Norma Kamali, who named her com­pa­ny OMO, which stood for On My Own; this was after her divorce from her part­ner-hus­band and Carol thought it was a clever name, although she also thought those lumpy shoul­der pads of Norma’s were a men­ace.

Her son rarely called, which was to be expect­ed and she wasn’t sur­prised or hurt. What would be the point? Instead, she called him once a week. He always said he was fine. Fine being one of those words that said noth­ing at all. He liked col­lege and didn’t mind the cold. And, oh, yes, he had a girl­friend named Polly. Why Carol imme­di­ate­ly thought of pol­li­wogs she didn’t know. She imag­ined a girl with braids who wore white col­lars, not at all sure if a girl like that was her son’s type. But then she didn’t know his type.

Egged on by her co-work­ers, Carol went on an inter­net dat­ing ser­vice and met a guy named Gil who had recent­ly moved to Los Angeles from Arizona. He picked her up in a turquoise truck bright as a beach ball. High up in the pas­sen­ger seat, she felt like she was in a car­toon, half expect­ing bal­loons of words to come out of the top of her head.

Nice dress,” Gil said.

It was a par­rot green sun­dress she’d pulled from the back of her clos­et. A dress Dan had hat­ed. Gil had on a yel­low cow­boy shirt with pearl but­tons. The tech­ni­col­or bold­ness of their com­bined ensem­bles, along with the truck, made her gig­gle. They drove to Malibu and Gil remarked on how spec­tac­u­lar the ocean was to him being from the desert. He had a wide-eyed appre­ci­a­tion that Carol found appeal­ing.

They ate fried clams at Neptune’s Net on Pacific Coast Highway, then went back to her apart­ment and had sex in the bed­room where she’d once watched over her infant son, star­ing at the ceil­ing now with the same sense of con­fused detach­ment. Forever out­side of her­self, Carol feared that one day she’d wake up with­out any thoughts what­so­ev­er.

I’ll call you tomor­row,” Gil said, snap­ping the pearl but­tons of his yel­low shirt as he walked out the door.

He wouldn’t. But it didn’t mat­ter. That but­ton snap­ping would get on her nerves in no time. And, besides how long could they keep up the col­or­ing book aspect of their rela­tion­ship? Primary col­ors could only take you so far. Sooner or lat­er you need­ed some black and white, some gray.

It was almost a year since her son left for school and her hus­band left for­ev­er and Carol was get­ting used to being alone. Whether by choice or not, it took time to reach a lev­el of ease with alone­ness and she knew now she wouldn’t give it up light­ly.

Six months lat­er, Dan called. He said Ivy had left him. Caught off guard, Carol thought he’d said some­thing about poi­son ivy until she remem­bered his secretary’s name was Ivy. Ivy Shaw. And now she was gone and he was dev­as­tat­ed because he’d lost a per­fect­ly good sec­re­tary and mediocre fuck. Or so he said, although God knows Carol hadn’t asked.

Why call me?”

He said he’d like to come back, give it anoth­er chance.

Carol want­ed to laugh out loud, but she was trem­bling too much. “We’re divorced, she said. “Don’t call me again.” She hung up.

A week lat­er on a rainy Friday night, he showed up at her door. “I don’t have any­where else to go,” he said.

You don’t have here, either,” she said.

But she wouldn’t turn down a dog in the rain, so she opened the door to let him dry off, then looked past him as a car pulled up and her son got out. Taller, more robust, he had a girl on his arm, an obvi­ous­ly chic young woman who gazed ador­ing­ly at him. Carol kept the door ajar as the foy­er filled with peo­ple drip­ping on the shined wood floors.

This is a sur­prise,” Dan said. “All of us here at the same time.”

That was what we hoped for, sur­prised, mom?”

Completely,” she said.

Boxed in, over­whelmed. She was hot, a sud­den fever per­haps. Her soli­tude inter­rupt­ed, her one bowl, one spoon, her hard-fought com­fort. The much need­ed rain, clean and fresh, brought with it a sense of renew­al and in one quick move, Carol grabbed her coat and keys and ran past every­one and out the door to her car.

She felt a surge of pow­er as she drove into the night. Wet hair string­ing her face. Wet shoes, pool­ing. She held tight to the wheel and won­dered why she’d left her own house, whether to turn left or right and where the hell was she going. She drove down the incline road and on to Pacific Coast Highway. Even on a rainy night, the lure of the ocean was intox­i­cat­ing. She pulled into the park­ing lot of Duke’s where she remem­bered hav­ing Tuesday Tacos with Dan years ago when it seemed they were still in love. The rain let up. There were maybe fif­teen cars in the lot. Everyone else snug at home. Rain being a cat­a­clysmic event in L.A.

She was on her sec­ond mar­ti­ni when she dialed her home num­ber. No answer. She let it ring a long time, hung up, then dialed again. Still, noth­ing. She lis­tened to it ring for three full min­utes, then ordered anoth­er drink, catch­ing her reflec­tion in the mir­rored wall behind the bar.

~

Janet Clare has had short fic­tion and essays pub­lished online at Manifest Station, First Stop Fiction, among oth­ers, and anthol­o­gized in The Truth of Memoir and Spent. She stud­ied at UC Berkeley and UCLA and cur­rent­ly lives in Los Angeles. Her first nov­el Time Is the Longest Distance will be pub­lished in 2018.