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Expectations (Short Story)

by Salah A. Kornas

“So take me to the airport, put me on the plane–
I got no expectations to pass through here again.”

(Written by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard, Sung by Joan Baez)

The airport bus stopped before she had a chance to pull her luggage down.  The suitcase seemed heavier this time; it was the same one she had used in Europe at the beginning of the year.  It was her favorite, easy to carry from one hotel to another.  Standing in the aisle, she was glad the bus ride was over.  It had taken longer than usual.  People wanted to get their last minute shopping done, and, with the fog, the freeway had become jammed with cars.

She stepped off the bus and walked toward the airport terminal.  A strange feeling of nostalgia ran through her and brought back memories of the different airports she had been to:  Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Madrid.  She thought to herself as the door slid open about how different airports were with the signs, the languages, and the uniforms the employees wore.  Yet they all had those waxed, shiny floors.  It made her aware of her footsteps and the sound of luggage being dragged from one line to another.  She walked faster and saw the reflection of her small body in front of her.  It was as if she were walking in the hospital from her office to the north wing late at night or early in the morning.  The announcement over the loud speaker drowned out all her thoughts.

The line for United Air was long.  With extra time on her hands, she didn’t mind taking her place at the end.  There was only one suitcase to worry about anyway.  She had mailed the Christmas presents far enough ahead of time as usual.

“They look like a newly married couple,” she thought, her eyes resting on a whispering pair in front of her.  “They must be on their way to spend their Christmas with the in-laws.”

She thought of her own parents.  Her father had retired this past summer after being with the same insurance company for thirty years.  Last year, she noticed how quickly he had aged.  His job had been stressful with his many accounts and clients to look after.  He had remained slim, nevertheless, and still enjoyed playing golf.  She smiled, imagining his pleasure at receiving the present she had bought him this year, Bob Hope’s book “The Hooker.”  She had managed to get it autographed at The Bon when Hope was there promoting the heart institution.

She wondered how her dad had survived her mother’s constant nagging over his table manners all these years.  She had tried many times, over the phone to have a more personal conversation with him, but her mother always succeeded in taking over, and he had not protested the intrusion.  Among the family, he had seemed satisfied to be pushed aside, closing himself off within his own world.  It was hard to believe that, at one time, he had been a captain in the air force.  His face danced in front of her and made her think about the resemblance in their features; the bony cheeks, the long noses, and thick eyebrows.  She was glad he had not given her his height, liking the idea of being short and petite.

On the other hand, her mother had not changed much; she was still active and busy despite the fact that she had quit working when the girls were born.  Since she had moved to Seattle, her mother’s monthly letters arrived full of details spelling out where they had eaten lately:  the restaurant, the service, the menu, the prices, who they had seen and so on.  She pictured her coming to the airport wearing one of her many blue or pink polyester outfits, talking to her father, or herself, endlessly.  She was a good mother.  In addition to taking care of her own family, she had watched over her grandmother who lived over thirty miles north of the city.  Despite her diligent attention, she would still manage to get in heated arguments with grandma over some small issue as what to cook for dinner.

Her parent’s house had been paid for long ago, and they had recently purchased some property in the mountains where the family looked forward to spending vacations and holidays.  They had talked about selling their home in the city and living permanently in their “cabin” in the woods.

The small town where she had grown up and gone to college looked smaller every time she visited; she no longer had the feeling that she could ever become lost in it.  The cocoon had broken and her wings had become strong enough with time to travel and experience more than she had ever dreamed about as a young girl who had thought the borders of the world were the mountains to the north and the river to the south of town.  Now she felt a sense of confinement upon return.  But, her parents liked it, and it suited them.

The young bride’s laughter brought her back to the airport.  The line was moving slowly.  The happiness of the young couple made her think about the joy her parents would have if she were to bring a son-in-law home with her.  Her sister, two years younger than she, had married the company lawyer.  And now she had a six year old daughter with a second child on the way.  Cliff, her brother-in-law, had always been good to her sister.  Not having any brothers, it was a relief for her mother to have another man in the family besides her

What was it that made her remember that night a few months back? Was it her imagination or the wine which gave her the feeling there was a double message in Cliff’s words?  He kept asking her about the men in her life, reassuring her that she could trust him, confiding in her his longing to fulfill each other’s needs, to forget the rules of the world.  He had complimented her again and again on her clothes, her figure and her good taste.  His words were not new to her; she had heard them before, but this time they seemed vulgar.  He had come to Seattle to close a big contract. Her sister had called long distance to tell her that he would be in town and had given her his hotel number.  Feeling obligated, she had taken him out, glad to do something for her sister who had so generously entertained her in the past.  At dinner, without offending him, she had succeeded in keeping the conversation centered around the family and work.  The next day, she called him at his hotel and expressed regret that she would have not time to see him again before he would leave.  Wishing him a good trip back, she politely hung up.  This year, she thought, it would be awkward to see him with the family.  She felt uneasy about the prospects of this encounter and hoped her sister would not notice any slight change in her demeanor.

There was a confusion ahead of her in the line.  Everybody was complaining.  The airline had just announced that the fog was still thick enough to justify the closing of the runways.  Suddenly people were moving everywhere to make alternate travel plans.  They formed long lines by the phone booths trying to get hold of friends and relatives to tell them about the situation.  People were already talking about renting cars, driving to Portland in groups and sharing expenses.  She found herself standing in the middle of the confusion.

What was she going to do?  Her small suitcase stood next to her and her handbag remained tucked under her
arm.  She had been going home for Christmas every year for the last nine years, and now, with this fog, she felt disordered and strangely out of place.  The two hour flight seemed inconceivable.  When she reached the ticket counter, she realized that all her waiting had been in vain.  She could not get a clear answer as to when the flight’s expected departure would be.  She was given answers which ranged anywhere from a couple of hours to the next day.  It would all depend on the lifting of the fog.

She suddenly became aware of how crowded the airport was.  People were swarming about like fish in a net.  The more they moved, the more the net seemed to tighten about them; she could not see that invisible force with appeared to control the movement.

She walked toward the lounge, feeling that she could use a drink and a place where she could rearrange her thoughts.  The lounge was surprisingly empty.  She took a seat by the window and placed her order.  Taking a sip, she tasted the bitterness of the gin and shivered slightly.  From her seat, one could not see the runway.

The airplanes were grounded like huge birds with their wings glued to their bodies.  The weather reports had been contradicting each other all day long.  It was hard to get a idea about when the fog was expected to lift and made it impossible to take the reports seriously.

Every year she mechanically had made the same plans.  The travel agency had called, as usual, and had prepared everything for her, sending the ticket, charged to her American Express, to her her office.  Even her yoga instructor knew she would be missing two weeks of class.

She had kept up with her yoga practice faithfully for the past five years as running around the lake did not appeal to her.  Occasionally she enjoyed walking around it after work; it gave her a chance to escape from the stress of the hospital and its demands.

Outside, the fog wrapped everything in a smoke-like robe.  She hoped that it would not be cold and snowy at home this year.  But, now, she would have welcomed snow, or even rain, to come, to replace this fog.  Absentmindedly she reached over and picked up the book which lay beside her, still drawn to the fog and its obscuring haze.  She toyed with the idea of reading Nadine Gordimer’s “Burgher’s Daughter.”  She had bought the book a few days back and, not having had the opportunity to start it, she had brought it along to give her a chance to enjoy some occasional solitude at home.  She liked Nadine Gordimer.  One of her staff, a nurse, had gone to Africa, worked for a year, and had become familiar with the censored writers there.

She, herself, had thought a while ago about quitting and going to work in some third world country for a few years.  Having been a head nurse for over five years had distanced her from direct contact with patients.  It had changed the nature of her profession into an administrative job.  The joy she had experienced being promoted at the age of thirty had diminished although the pay was good, starting salary at thirty three thousand, and the idea of working at a public hospital made, for her, the medical profession an honorable
and dignified one.

She overheard at a table next to her, two women conversing in Spanish.  She thought about how she had put off the idea of taking a night class in Spanish at the “Y” for some time.  Her desire to work abroad or to be involved in a worthy cause had not extended beyond giving a check or a contribution from time to time upon solicitation.  Those who worked for her had found it easy to request schedule changes to accommodate their political activities.  She ruefully thought of how she once had hopes of doing more than this.

Ordering another drink, she dismissed the idea of reading.  Her eyes remained fixed on the window and the fog.  Drawn into its obscurity, she felt enclosed, enchained by it.  There was nothing to do but wait it out.

His face suddenly appeared amidst the vaporous, cloudy swirls.  Looking at her watch, she pictured him sitting at the bar at the Madison, his tie loosened, holding a drink in hand with his finger crooked, his other hand occasionally twirling his key chain.  The 28th floor must be fogged in by now, she thought.  The usual crowd would be arriving at the bar to have their after-work cocktail and to chat.  Some of them scarcely missed a day of what had become an obsessive ritual. None of them cared what was going on between the two of them. It was hard for her to tell, after all these years, what they really thought.

“And let me play among the stars…let me see what spring is like…”  The music in the lounge sounded distant and brought thoughts of last night back.  He had become frustrated with her.  And she had cried after he had left over her own disappointments.  She was tired from trying to explain.  How could she define something she felt and could not put into words?  Her feelings had been removed, inaccessible.  In the beginning, he had not noticed.  She had thought that this time it would be different.  Or maybe, that the feelings — or lack of them — would disappear.  But, now, they had come between them.  She had tried to convince herself this time that she would be able to direct her emotions, but time had proven her wrong once again.

Men found her attractive, but she had grown bored with their flattering compliments.  Some of her women friends envied her for all the attention she met with every time she walked into a get-together.  Years back, she had enjoyed this, but, now, it had become old.  Over the last few years, she had become objectively aloof every time she lay beside him, or in his arms.  This same feeling had repeated itself in the few brief relationships she had had, leaving her with a discontent.  When he came along, she had fought hard with herself not to get involved.  One evening, however, after everybody had left, they had remained at the bar and talked.  His frankness and knowledge had impressed her.  They had known each other for over a year but never on a personal basis.  She was lonely and he was there.

And they had continued to see each other from time to time since then but had avoided talking about tomorrow or the future.  She had no intention of marrying at this point, and he had a wife and children.  Once he had shown her his wife’s picture, and she had found her to be an attractive mother with her children beside her.  It seemed like things could go on forever the way they had been.  She had no desire to look for someone else.  The future?  She had no idea and in fact, did not think about it much.

What had gone wrong inside her?  Where had all the fire gone?  And why had she kept going through the same things over and over again in her relationships — even when she was in Europe?  The young art student, nine years younger than she who thought her to be the same age as he, had made love to her on the beach.  The beauty of southern Spain, the wine, his youth, had not succeeded in bringing back the flame.  It was the same back in Seattle with him.  She remained removed, distant.

From her window she could see that the fog had slowly started to clear a bit, and she could slightly make out
the end of the runway.  Her thoughts went back to her mother. She could see her moving from one room to another, preparing her old room for her, making sure that the Christmas decorations were in order, and that there was enough water in the tree.  She remembered how she would allow herself to be hidden outside until her parents would regretfully tell her grandmother that she would not be spending Christmas with the family this year.  After her grandmother would express her disappointment, she would come running through the door to surprise her.  One year she had hidden herself in the closet; another year she had crouched behind the drapes.  Her grandmother had fallen for the trick each time.

The idea of having her own Christmas tree crossed her mind.  She admitted that she would like to have one of her own some year.  It would look nice across from her fireplace — not too tall and simply decorated.  At night she would turn the tree lights on, sit in the corner and watch it. There was still time for her to buy one with three days left to Christmas.  She could even still call her friend Judith and tell her that she would be able to make it to her Christmas Eve party. People in Seattle had given up inviting her to do anything with them over the holidays for years.  They were resigned to the fact that, at Christmas, she would be flying back home.  Judith was the only one who continued to send her an invitation year after year.  It had become a tradition for the Madison crowd to go to Judith’s house for a Christmas party.

Well, she thought, she could perhaps stay this year in Seattle and offer to have everybody at her place instead.  She knew most of Judith’s friends and had been acquainted with “the crowd” for years.  The small condominium where she lived would hold up to twenty five maximum.  People would come, and she would serve them appetizers and drinks.  She had a small bar which she rarely used, and she could put on some of the records she had recently bought.

She looked through the window and saw that the fog had dispersed.  Some of the flights were preparing to take off.  She was seriously considering staying and spending her first Christmas here in Seattle.  She would call her mother and make up an excuse.  Her parents would still have her sister and her family, Grandma, and her uncle.  She would miss seeing her young niece, but her presents would be there to make up, in part, for her absence.

She needed to break away.  She needed to make her own life.  She would write a long letter and try to explain, although she doubted very much if her mother would understand.  As for her dad, he would probably be more accepting of her decision.

Tomorrow she would go and sign up for a Spanish class that would start at the beginning of the year. She would study her Spanish with the idea of working towards hiring on with a relief agency or an international health organization within the next two years.

She would call him, arrange to see him after the holidays as he would be busy with his family for the next
week or so, and she would explain to him that the time had come for both of them to change their relationship and remain, if it could be possible, just friends as before.  She would tell him about her need to sort things out.  She hoped that he would not be hurt. She had always been aware of his fragile personality and his overwhelming sense of guilt.  He had never made it as a corporate lawyer, had never seized the opportunity to work for a big firm in D.C. or New York.

The activity on the runway had increased; flights were preparing to take off, carts carrying luggage could be seen moving between planes.  One wouldn’t think that the fog had existed only a few hours before.

She left the lounge and stepped quickly into the restroom to straighten her hair.  In front of the big mirror she couldn’t see her face for the steam which had formed from the hot water which had been left running in the sink next to her. Thinking about the return to downtown Seattle, she asked herself: Should she wait for the bus or call a cab?  Without making a decision, she reached over and wiped off the mirror.  Noticing some gray hairs hidden among the black, she made a mental note to tell her stylist at her next appointment.

Her flight number was called, and they announced the gate number.  She walked slowly, as one in a dream, toward the gate.  Inside the airplane, she took her seat and opened her book.


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