Rachel My Canvas
Seven hours in purgatory with the cast of
I'd never seen her before but I knew she was the embodiment of my high school failure come to finally forgive me ten years later in an airport thousands of miles from home. I watched her flop her backpack onto the row of seats and unfold her plane ticket as she dropped gracefully beside me. Long curly hair, soft snug shirt, comfortably flattering overalls. Of course I was astonished that she'd even spoken to me as we waited to board the plane, and that I'd managed to sound clever and interesting - it was like turning on the TV and unexpectedly seeing myself on a game show, describing my home life in a few sentences with unimaginable charm. After several seconds of wondering how I'd made it this far into the competition and why I didn't remember ever applying to be a contestant, I began to recall repressed daydreams in which of course the entire country wanted to be as clever and graceful as me and of course I was the only one really equipped for the job and instead of debating how I had become a contestant I began to wonder what I'd win.
She said her name was Rachel and she'd been visiting her parents and taking classes from a New York dance coach who'd made someone else famous years before and who found her wholly enthralling but she decided to return to California to keep studying whatever it was she was studying here. I'd been in Manhattan for nine rainy days of eerily blissful romance with a woman who'd casually rejected every advance I'd made when we both lived in the same state. The taxi driver woke us before sunrise - I'd turned the alarm off - and there would be no time to shower or eat or repeat our vow that the long-distance thing wouldn't work and the whole romance we'd suddenly built was an impossibility but our friendship was of great importance. I pulled my bags together and she followed me into the hall and we kissed goodbye again and again.
I knew I was unpresentable but Rachel and I spoke like sudden friends and we agreed to continue our talk when we boarded the plane. First class looked like an empty hospital, a few old chubby bodies reclining under blankets, but behind a curtain the coach section was packed, a children's schoolbus grown to suffocating maturity. A blonde guy I couldn't figure out was assigned the seat next to mine. He looked normal, rugged, friendly but prone to violence, the kind of guy I'd expect to live my entire life without speaking to. Since I left retail I've been avoiding unnecessary contact with the general public and I'd much rather have found a seat next to my sexy new friend than have to confront any of my unfamiliar demons now.
I'd met Rachel minutes before, I didn't know her and she didn't know me and so there was nothing to prevent me from planning and evaluating our romantic future together. I envisioned the two of us smiling steadily together like two vials of epoxy formula in an exhaustive laboratory as the costumes were changed below our paper-doll faces, the figures placed in holiday dioramas and family arguments and worst-case scenarios that we might avoid if I played my cards right. I'd made the mistakes before - I knew I couldn't make premature assumptions about her character or develop a need for her emotional support before I was sure she was single. I'd have to be subtle and patient, each move according to strategy. Romance is like chess, except in chess you can't suddenly pile all your pieces onto the same square and spend the rest of your life waiting for the other person to make the next move. They designed the game to avoid such maneuvers, but then they had thousands of years to figure out what worked and what didn't. My flight would end in a few hours.
I could see her curly hair above the center row of white seats and finally the uphill floor leveled out and I was free of my seatbelt. Rachel dragged me toward the empty first-class section but the attendant, determined to prevent a peasant uprising, insisted that the other passengers would be furious if we were allowed to move into more comfortable seats. Rachel moved back through the crowded coach section like she was naked in a cornfield until she found an empty stretch of floor and we sat cross-legged to converse excitedly like future lovers who'd just met. I had to admire her complete disregard for the unnoticed rules of civilization that keep most people from sitting relaxed on the floors of airplanes or eating with their mouths open and even before the stewardess told us we'd have to find seats I was starting to realize that I still had much to learn about who she was and what our time spent together might bring.
We stood again and now I knew I would have to confront him. I returned to my assigned seat and the blonde guy looked up from his magazine. "Man, I just met this girl, and I'd really like to talk to her, and we can't find seats together...do you think you could...trade seats with her, so I could talk to her, do you think?"
Expressionless, he mumbled "Sure, I could do that."
He stood to gather his things and Rachel dashed up behind me, her hands pushing the air down in front of her. "Oh, no - don't make him move. No, don't move, no. We'll find someplace else."
She faced him, shaking her head. He looked at me like I'd planned it. I looked at her like I hadn't. He waited, willing to do anything except decide which of us he admired less. I relented. "Sorry - we'll look somewhere else." He sat down.
The holiday backgrounds were slipping away from my daydream images of Rachel and myself I'd pondered only minutes before, but she was still oddly sexy, clumsily adorable, and I knew I didn't want to sit next to the blonde guy now, so we kept searching, unsuccessfully, for an available pair of seats. I told her we'd have to ask him to move again and she agreed.
I'm pretty good with people. I knew the way to approach a tense situation was from underneath, making a gentle offer without threatening the authority of the other person by demanding that they follow my will. "Ok, I'm sorry, man, but I really want to talk to her" - my eyes squinted meagerly, hoping for solidarity - "and we couldn't find any seats together, you know? So do you think you could - "
He inflated. He shook. He interrupted. "WHY ARE YOU BEING SO FUCKING TIMID ABOUT IT?!"
I forget if I responded or not, since I was too busy melting into the background like Gumby on a hot stove, but he did move and at last I was sitting beside my Rachel, who joined me in heckling him inaudibly from our safe distance.
We talked about dancing and theater and she was very cute and she laughed and smiled at everything I said. I really wasn't sure we'd be compatible in the long run, but around her I'd become the romantic I knew I could be and I was too excited to do anything but enjoy our conversation and hope I didn't say anything idiotic. The plane shook with stomach-churning turbulence. I was rambling about something impressive when the pilot interrupted, announcing that we'd be detouring several hundred miles out of our scheduled flight path to avoid storms. I asked Rachel some question about her childhood and she laughed at the funny way I'd asked it and she said she couldn't speak any more because she was getting queasy. She told me to keep talking to her but every time I said something she laughed and now she told me she couldn't laugh any more or she'd vomit. I tried to think of dramatic stories I could tell to distract and comfort her but soon I gave up and read a magazine. The plane continued to shake and I remembered I sometimes get sick when I read in cars. Rachel started to moan. The pilot announced that we'd be delayed another hour because of the storms and Rachel's face was now in her hands as she curled into fetal position. I wondered what would be the appropriate moment to ask for her phone number. She clutched her stomach and howled like a trapped animal. I knew the time was coming soon - it felt so gutless to wait for our goodbye that might not go as planned anyway. Finally she disappeared to the bathroom and I felt like a failure, like I finally had another chance to act before it was too late and now she was throwing up and I'd dropped the ball. I'd have another chance, but I'd fumbled on principle.
I threw up once in elementary school, after fleeing a square dance where I'd just become partners with my true love Lisa, whom I was too shy to talk to. I'd been sick all day, and I didn't want to puke on her, so I ran. I never told her that I wanted to dance with her more than anything, that she was everything to me. I'd been too shy to state the obvious and now I'd grown up charming and clever and I was still too shy to admit my interest to someone before one of us had to run off and throw up.
My seat shook gracelessly, incessantly. I was alone.
The flight was ending. She returned from the bathroom and we exchanged phone numbers as the plane landed. She lived seventy miles away and as I rode the bus back to my house I decided I wouldn't call. She seemed flaky, attractive but not really someone I could spend time with.
She wasn't really the embodiment of my high school failure. I really didn't know who she was; I could only guess that it wasn't worth trying to find out. I'd lived much of my life afraid of being alone and now that I'm somewhat beyond that, I'm afraid I'll too easily push the wrong person away. But I'm doing my best. I'll forgive myself.
1996 Martin Azevedo
ej@templeofdominoes dot com