by Margaret Verble
Jenny was a Million Miler but had never before sat close to anyone using an air sickness bag for anything beyond the disposal of chewing gum, crumpled Kleenex and candy wrappers. She had once been four rows behind someone who’d died over Colorado. But when a flight attendant whisked his seatmate to First Class, Jenny hadn’t recognized what occasioned the move and felt only mild regret that she hadn’t been upgraded, too. Later, when she passed the expiree on a return from the bathroom, it had a blanket pulled up over its eyebrows and the forehead between the blue fleece and the receding hairline looked no whiter than most for that time of year. The whiff of feces she thought she’d hallucinated; there were no babies on the flight and she didn’t know the packets the attendant delivered to the row after rescuing the seatmate were actually damp coffee grounds used on planes for all sorts of malodorous events. So that wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the man seated next to her retching into the bag. She was thankful he had it, but desperate to change seats.
The plane was full; her seatmate sweating profusely. Jenny tried reading. Her novel was about a trip into the Amazon basin. Ten pages back, someone had accidentally been beheaded and now, neck down, was food for piranhas. Jenny imagined that scene to take her mind off the retching and sweating. Her sympathies lay with the passengers who tumbled the body overboard. They couldn’t hold on to their sanity and carry a headless carcass all the way downriver. Nibbles wouldn’t pain a dead body, even in hordes. Scavengers were a good thing. Jenny wished there were some on the plane.
A flight attendant appeared, holding a carbonated soft drink. She held the cup out over Jenny and said, “This often helps.”
The man said, “Could you?” He lifted his sack of vomit.
The attendant said, “Sure” and whipped out a plastic bag she’d concealed behind her back. Jenny pressed her chin into her neck.
After that, she pretended to sleep. But the man kept sighing like a dog needing walking, and Jenny keep wondering if it was starting up all over again. She opened her left eye, just to check. When she did, he said, “I really didn’t mean to do that.”
She said, “No problem. I didn’t mind.”
He said, “I rather doubt that.”
The word “rather” caught her attention. She considered its use a sign of sophistication. She said, “No, really, I’m always rather afraid that’ll happen to me.” She hadn’t intended to repeat “rather”; that just popped out.
“I’ve never been sick on a plane before. I promise.”
“Good to know.” Jenny smiled before she realized that probably meant he had something contagious. She cleared her throat and put her palm to her mouth.
He said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll clean up.” He motioned toward the back of the plane.
When he returned, his face was ruddy. The fear that he was running a high fever crossed Jenny’s mind at the speed of a cheetah. She said, “Feeling better?”
He said, “Not much. But my stomach’s settled.”
Jenny didn’t get sick until two days later. She’d finished her meetings in Phoenix by sharing a double round of margaritas with L.A. colleagues, and, at first, thought, really hoped and prayed, she was merely drunk. But somewhere on the cool of the bathroom floor, after she decided she wanted to live, she remembered she’d been at least quasi-sober when she’d gone to bed. She stayed on the floor to be close to the toilet and she moved her cheek to a tile she hadn’t rested on yet. A few minutes later, she opened her eyes and decided to sit up. That was premature. She tilted over and eased herself back down to the floor. There she stayed for maybe two hours, thankful more than she’d ever imagined for the odor of disinfectant. Then she awoke with a chill. She drew the bathmat over her shoulders. That exposed her legs to the air conditioning, and, while she was pulling up by clutching the side of the tub, she decided a bath was in order.
The bath did its job. And one of the hotel’s amenities was a robe. Jenny fell into bed thankful to be working for an upscale client and called her Administrative Assistant and asked her to re-book her flight. Then she rolled over and went out like a light.
The maid startled her awake. In all fairness, she startled the maid, too. Jenny said, “I’m sorry. I was asleep.”
The maid said, “Sí,” and backed out of the room.
Jenny groaned. She sat up, switched on the bedside light, pulled the phone to her stomach and pressed O. She told the desk clerk she needed to keep the room and hung up. Then she smacked her lips and swallowed. She thought, maybe, if she didn’t die of dehydration, she might recover and live a long life. She dialed again and ordered soup, 7 UP and crackers.
After the meal, she felt better. Well enough that she managed to check her email and make a few calls. Then she relaxed into her pillows and clicked on the TV. But after two hours of talk shows, news, and the end of Breakfast at Tiffany's she began to get restless. That was when she found the business card of the man who had given her the bug.
She hesitated. On the “Do it” side was the fact that he’d offered to buy her dinner to make up for the meal he’d lost on the plane. Also, he hadn’t been wearing a wedding ring and his card said he was a VP at Nordstrom. Some of Jenny’s best experiences had been in that store. Then, too, there was the “rather.” She picked up the phone before she completed the “Don’t do it” list.
His name was Charles Hadley. He went by Charles, not Chuck or Charlie. He picked her up in a Lexus hybrid and drove her to Scottsdale to eat in an Asian/Mexican restaurant. Jenny liked hybrid cars and Scottsdale almost as much as she liked Nordstrom and “rather.” And Charles, well, he purchased the shoes Nordstrom sold in every store in America. Jenny felt she hadn’t died and gone to Heaven only because Arizona was too hot and dry to fertilize that delusion.
After dinner, they perused the gallery windows of Old Town and Charles suggested a drive in the desert. As they were leaving the basin, his Lexus felt like a spaceship, the streetlights seemed like stars, and the night opened up like a vision evoked by a chorus of Black church people dressed in long robes. During the long, winding road up a mountain, the city below took on the look of a sea of glittering diamonds. Jenny opened her window, enjoyed the breeze on her body and felt she could easily leave behind Atlanta, her company, her constricting circle of divorced, female friends, her apartment and her cat. No, she’d have to take Oscar. She couldn’t abandon her tabby; he was the only reliable friend she had. Into her plotting, Charles interjected a question: “Ever feel like leaving it all behind?”
The aptness of the remark seemed like a sign. Beside her was a man who could read her mind, empathize with her feelings, know her soul. She let out a deep sigh and said, “I was just thinking about that. I could leave all but my cat.” Then she was pricked by the thought that Charles might be allergic to animals. But before that fear turned to regret, he responded, “I like cats, too.” Then they both retreated into the sound of the wind cut by the car, the feel of the road, the lights of the city below.
He turned off onto a dark road that wound through desert trees that were short, twisted and scraggly. But the lookout at the end provided a panoramic view of the entire Phoenix basin. He cut the motor and said, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
After that, they sat in silence for so long that Jenny, who liked males to lead in romantic situations, began feeling uneasy. She hadn’t worried at all that a VP of Nordstrom would rape her. But she had expected some sexual move, a kiss maybe, at least a significant look. She said, “Do you come here often?” hoping he’d reply, “No.”
“Not lately. I did in another life.”
Jenny looked at his profile. His features recalled the Indian heads in the gallery windows in Scottsdale. She said, “Do you miss that life?”
His hands gripped the wheel. “Truthfully, yes. But I’m a different person.”
“Do you like your life now?”
“I like the travel.”
Travel was the worst aspect of Jenny’s job and she travelled all the time. One week it was Buffalo, the next Seattle, the next Jacksonville. She was travelled out, and worried she’d never have a faithful husband and adorable children unless she got off the road. She said, “Where do you go that you like?”
“Italy. The Italians make the best shoes in the world.”
Italy didn’t seem like travel to Jenny. She said, “I’ve never been. I go to places like Cincinnati.”
He took his hands off the wheel and rested them in his lap. His handsome face seemed etched with sorrow. She said, “Cincinnati isn’t really all that bad.”
He didn’t make a sound, but his shoulders began to tremble. Jenny never touched a male first as a rule, but this seemed like an exceptional occasion. She put a hand on his arm. “Is there something wrong?”
He shook his head. Then he opened the door, popped out like a champagne cork, and closed it behind him. Jenny was startled. She put her hand on her door handle. But then she thought he might want some privacy. She unbuckled her seatbelt, leaned on the console, and called out his window, “Is there anything I can do?”
He turned and waved her off with an extravagant gesture. “I’ll be okay. Just give me a minute.” Then he jerked. His torso slid below the rim of the door.
Jenny told herself he’d ducked out of sight to conceal his emotions. She looked at the dashboard and then at the keys. They reassured her he hadn’t gone far. She looked at the sky. There was a moon up there; only a sliver. The city below still looked like diamonds. She felt a million miles removed from every worry she had. She leaned her head on the rest and settled into a feeling of contentment she hoped would last for the rest of her life. That was when she heard a faint, “Help me.”
She bolted straight up and jumped out of her door. She first started around the front of the car, but twirled with the realization that the front was close to the edge of the cliff. She ran around the back and yelled into the darkness, “Where are you?”
She heard a distant voice: “Down here.” Then she heard, “Be careful.”
She crouched. The edge of the cliff was not far in front of her. She recalled his sudden jerk and recognized it as a stumble. She yelled, “Have you broken anything?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m near a tree.”
“Can you get back up?”
“I need some light.”
Jenny looked to the car. “What if I turn on the headlights?”
“Give it a try.”
But the headlights beamed out into the sky over Phoenix. She turned them off, got back out of the car, and crept to the edge of the cliff on the knees of her best pair of designer jeans. She felt thankful she hadn’t worn a skirt. She said, “That didn’t work.”
No response came in return.
She said, “Are you still there?” Panic arose in her voice.
But a breathy, “Yes,” floated up. “I was getting into a more secure position. There’s a flashlight in the glove compartment.”
Jenny found the torch without any trouble and once again got on her hands and knees, this time at the edge of the cliff. She peered over. Below, she saw rocks and ledges, scraggly trees, cactus and yucca. She heard, “Over here,” and flashed the light to her left, up a tree and then down. She found him on a flat ledge, his back against the base of the tree. He put his hand to his face to protect his eyes from the light. She moved the beam to the trunk of his body, but that highlighted his lap, so she moved it to his knees. She said, “Are you sure nothing’s broken?”
He said, “Pretty.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I think there’s a rope in my trunk. The lever’s at the left of the driver’s seat, on the floor.”
Jenny found the lever and then found the rope. It was about the thickness of her forefinger, but synthetic and appeared long enough. And peering deeper into the trunk, she found a spare floor mat. She shined the light on her jeans’ knees. They looked bad, but she had a good cleaners. She took both the mat and rope to the edge of the cliff and shone the light down to his knees again. She said, “I’ll throw you an end and we’ll see how long it is.”
He said, “Give it a try.”
The first throw didn’t come anywhere close. She wound up the rope and tried again. That toss got closer and he leaned over, wiggled his fingers in the rope’s direction, and nearly took a tumble. Jenny gasped and he clutched the trunk of the tree. She said, “I’m going to move to my left and drag it over toward you.”
That worked. They pulled the rope at both ends to take up the slack and when it was it taut between them, Jenny said, “Now what?”
He said, “Good question. Let me think.” They stayed in position, not moving, until Jenny saw a meteorite fall. She said, “Did you see that?”
“I’m facing the cliff. Maybe you could tie your end around something and I could pull myself up?”
Jenny looked around. The only thing she could use was the Lexus. “What about your bumper?”
“That might work.”
Jenny let go of the rope. But, unfortunately, Charles was still holding the opposite end taut. He pulled harder to take up the slack. Jenny’s end slipped below the rim of the cliff and Charles nearly fell off his perch. He was trying to wedge back into a secure spot when Jenny positioned the Lexus with its lights beaming into the air directly over his head.
She shut those off, got out, and searched the ground with the flashlight beam for her end of the rope. She said, “Now, I can’t find the rope.”
He said, “That’s because it’s down here.”
“Never mind. I’m going to toss it up. See if you can catch the end.”
The rope emerged from the edge of the cliff like a snake sticking its head out of a basket. It fell back down, and rose up again. On the third rise, Jenny reached for it with the hand not holding the flashlight. That’s when she slid down the side of the mountain. She came to rest on her rear, about three feet from where Charles was wedged. They both coughed at first, as her slide had raised some dust. Then she said, “Oh, God, I could’ve killed myself.”
“I know.” He coughed some more.
Jenny ran her hands down the front of her jeans. She wished she’d worn dark ones. Then she patted the earth around her, hoping to find the flashlight. She didn’t, but she saw in the light from the city below that she was on a ledge. One of her shoes was still on a foot, the other one missing. That bare foot seemed to be hanging in air. She pulled it close to her body. Charles said, “I don’t think that ledge is stable. You better come over here.”
While she was moving, she said, “You didn’t happen to see where the flashlight landed?”
“I was hoping you still had it.”
Jenny raised two empty hands.
They were silent after that. Jenny didn’t know for sure what Charles was thinking, but her thoughts ran rampant – We’re going to die out here, fall off the side of the cliff, break every bone in our bodies, be eaten by buzzards. She remembered the body devoured by piranhas. Their feeding frenzy had turned the Amazon pink. She put her head in her hands and started to cry.
He said, “It’s worse than you think.”
She sniffed. “I don’t see how that could be.”
He said, “I might as well tell you. I need to tell someone. I’m HIV positive.”
Jenny thought she’d heard that wrong. She said, “You’ve positive about what?”
“I’m HIV positive. That’s why I was crying.”
Jenny looked at the face of the cliff and sniffed some more. Then she wiped her nose on her sleeve. She said, “Let me get this straight. You’ve taken me to a romantic overlook and you’re HIV positive? Are you crazy, or gay or what?
He said, “Well, at least two of those three. I thought it was rather obvious.”
“Rather obvious? Rather obvious? Can’t you talk without saying ‘rather’?”
Charles repositioned his back against his tree. He said, “You’re mad.”
“Mad? Me! Why would I be mad? First you practically vomit on me, then you give me the flu, then you conceal your identity.”
“I didn’t conceal my identity. And I didn’t give you the flu.”
“You’re denying that?”
“Yes. My doctor’s trying out drugs on me. They’re making me sick.”
“Well, that’s tough.”
“That’s pretty judgmental. Are you a religious nut?”
“No! Not everybody in the South is crazy.”
“Well, you could show some compassion. I feel like a leper already.”
“Excuse me. I just feel deceived.”
After that, they sat in silence. Jenny studied the face of the cliff, afraid to look in any other direction. Eventually Charles said, “We have to get off the side of this mountain. I don’t want to die with a bigot.”
Jenny’s last boyfriend had been a Muslim businessman from Morocco. She considered herself anything but a bigot. She said, “And I don’t want to die with someone who’s trying to kill himself.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I slipped.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have gotten out of the car. And you shouldn’t have vomited on the plane. And, most of all, you shouldn’t have taken me to a romantic overlook when you were gay.”
“I never thought of it as romantic. I thought of it as scenic. You’re from out of town. I was trying to be polite.”
Jenny sighed. The truth was that a polite man was not a species she was overly familiar with. The Moroccan had been polite at first; at the last he had wanted a personal servant. The boyfriend before him had been a Georgia Tech-educated engineer. Fifteen years out of college, he talked only about golf and money. The boyfriend before him, well, there had been a long dry spell in there. Jenny didn’t like to think about that and was getting chilly. She said, “Any idea how we’re going to keep from freezing to death?”
Charles said, “I left a sweater in the car.”
Jenny thought, That figures. But she said, “I mean, how’re we getting down from here?”
Charles changed his position so he could look down the face of the mountain. “I’ve seen trails up here. People climb these mountains. It’s rather the thing for the outdoorsy types.”
“I don’t suppose you’re one of those?”
After a long silence, she added, “I don’t guess you have your phone on you?”
“No. Do you?”
“It’s in my handbag in the car.”
After that there was a considerable silence. Then Jenny said, “I don’t even have one of my shoes.” She drew her naked foot under the opposite thigh.
“I’ll get you some new ones. This is my fault.”
“Don’t say that. You didn’t mean to fall down the side of the hill. I feel dumb for even calling and asking to you take me out. How desperate was that?”
“That’s okay. I needed someone to talk to. And I know there aren’t many decent men out there. I’ve got experience.”
“I thought gay men were better.”
“Depends. They’re great at arranging flowers and expressing feelings. But most are just as self-centered as straight guys. I’d prefer a woman if it weren’t for the sex thing.”
Jenny didn’t know what to say to that and she needed to go to the bathroom. She said, “I hate to get off the subject of men, but I need to pee.”
“Me, too. I was afraid to mention it.”
“What should we do?”
“I try not to go in my pants.”
“Mine are ruined from the rocks, but I agree. You go first. It’s always easier for men.”
“I have bashful bladder. You go first.”
“I could do it over there behind that yucca. But you can’t look.”
“I’ll turn my head to conceal my disappointment, if you’ll do the same.”
After that business, the air grew chillier. Jenny again drew her shoeless foot up under her. Charles said, “Let me give you my sock,” and started removing his shoe.
“Is that hygienic?”
“I’m not bleeding. And my viral load has almost disappeared.” He held out his sock.
Jenny took it, slipped it on and said, “How’s the prognosis these days?”
“Well, not for foot injuries.”
“Good, I guess. My doctor says I’m more likely to die of cancer or heart disease than AIDS.”
“How about your partner? Does he have it, too?”
Charles looked down between his legs. “He left me.”
“Geez, your love life is even worse than mine.”
“Yeah, it’s grim. I wish things would get better.”
“If we could get off the side of this mountain, that would help.”
“We can at dawn. There are trails, I promise. At least, for now, things can’t get much worse.”
After that, they huddled together for warmth, and slept for about an hour until they were startled awake by the sound of a car. When the motor shut off, they stood up and yelled. After about two minutes, a dark figure appeared above them. It said, “Anybody down there?”
They said in unison, “Yes!”
“What’re you doing?”
Charles said, “We fell. We need help. Can you call somebody?”
Another body appeared. The first body said to the second one, “There’re people down there.”
The second body said, “They own the Lexus?”
The first one yelled down, “You own that Lexus?”
Charles said, “Yes. That’s me.”
“Do you have the keys on you?”
“No. And the rope that was in it, I have down here. I could try to throw it to you.”
The two figures disappeared. Jenny said, “What do you think they’re doing?”
“Trying to figure out what to do, I guess.” Then Charles yelled up the side of the mountain, “Hey, guys. What’s the plan?”
But no answer floated down. In a minute, car doors slammed. An engine started. Jenny and Charles exchanged puzzled looks. Then another engine started. Charles said, “Oh shit! They’re stealing my car.”
“They can’t! I can’t get back to Atlanta without an ID!”
They both started yelling. But after a while, they stopped, and just breathed heavily. Jenny looked out over the Phoenix basin. Some of the lights had gone out. The city looked as distant as one on another planet. Charles rested his forehead against the side of the mountain. He said, “I feel like we’re a million miles from nowhere.”