It was 3:30 in the morning and our’s was the only vehicle on the road. The absence of other travelers left me with an eerie feeling that was both calming and terrifying as we merged slowly onto the snow-covered freeway. It was early March, and the blizzard was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise; a stark contrast to the warm spring weather we’d been counting down the days to.
The radio was off, as it was Chris’s habit to turn off the music when weather conditions were treacherous, and the only sounds between us were the crunch and hum of the layer of snow giving way beneath our tires, the hiss of snowflakes hitting the windshield, and the low whistle of the truck’s heater. Each street lamp sparked a magnificent snow-fluttered pink-orange glow as we approached, then temporarily blinded us as the snow filled all the light it shone. Snowflakes danced infinitely in the headlights as we navigated carefully along a set of tire tracks another brave traveler left just for us. Without those tracks, I had no idea where the highway ended and the median began.
Somewhere during our relationship, I had become a terrible passenger. It was my instinct to randomly grab the handle of the door in a panic, point at things on the road as if Chris hadn’t seen them - the man had never been in an accident, of course he’d seen them - and drive a hole into the floor where an invisible brake pedal might be. I could sense my body tensing up and preparing to become that nightmare of a passenger as I squinted to see through the veil of thick grey that enveloped the windshield. ‘You’re going to make it worse Alaina, just shut up and let him drive.’ I told myself, forcing my back all the way against the seat.
Chris’s demeanor was the complete opposite of mine, and he showed no signs of anxiety despite driving under some of the worst conditions I had ever seen. He interlaced his fingers in mine and smiled while he casually steered us along with only the palm of his other hand.
Slowly letting my shoulders relax, I laid my head back and closed my eyes to picture the warm sunny beach in Bora Bora that was awaiting us. I envisioned the quiet calm of the ocean at my feet, the sun on my face, legs, and bare arms—the totality of warmth it would bring, a much-needed break from the Chicago winter. I imagined lying still and warm in an oversized beach lounger, a Piña colada in one hand, a book in the other, and not a care in the world.
Most of all, though, I pictured Chris. I saw him the way he’d once been, long before we’d settled into our routine, when he’d kiss me just because the urge hit him, or made love to me because he needed to. I envisioned us laughing and talking with ease instead of forcing small talk to break the odd silence that had formed from too many years of being complacent in our marriage.
We’d gone too long as familiar strangers and I was desperate for the affection we once shared; to touch him with the familiarity we’d had years ago, before we’d let ourselves become physically estranged and shy with one another. I was eager to be kinder, happier, and not always consumed with an unspoken resentment toward him. I was sure this trip would fix all that we’d let become broken. It had to.
‘We need to talk,’ he’d said the day I suggested the trip, and instead of talking, I rambled on about a getaway to “reset” ourselves and our relationship - a honeymoon that we never got the chance to take. Reluctantly, he’d agreed, and the conversation ended there. In the back of my mind the words lingered, though. What would he have said if I’d let him talk?
“What’s this?” he muttered to the silence, shaking me from my thoughts and into a panic as an ominous red and blue light gradually appeared in the haze of snow ahead of us. I let go of his hand so he could steer with both and held my breath, instinctively reaching to touch the small pendant on my necklace - a habit I’d formed over the years to calm myself.
A chill ran up my elbows and down my spine and I stiffened from both the fear of what we might see ahead, and the fear of what might not see us from behind as we slowed to an almost stop. I clutched the handle of the door and leaned forward as if those couple of inches would magically make the scene ahead clearer.
As the police car came into focus, so did the bright pink flames of the road flares. The flares overlapped the tire tracks we’d been driving in and I realized, just as it came into focus, that the car which had left them was now upside down in the median.
A police officer signaled us through with a flare, and we passed slowly, watching a man and woman as they knelt in the snow to search for their belongings from their overturned car’s driver-side window. Another police officer stood above them; one hand supporting him while he leaned against the vehicle and watched them pull out whatever they felt was too important to leave.
I wondered, as we passed, what would I need in that situation? I looked around me… ‘my purse, perhaps? No. Phone? Not important. Chris. I would only need Chris. Nothing else would be so important that I couldn’t leave it and get off this dangerous highway.’ Despite whatever was going on between us, he was my home and my best friend. It was only him I needed. I wondered if he still felt the same about me?
We drove on, now with no tire tracks to guide us through the blinding pink orbs of snow, both of us staring ahead into the haze, stiffened and silent for what felt like an eternity.
It was only when we merged onto the I90 expressway that led into Chicago’s O’Hare airport that we were joined by other vehicles. The appearance of other drivers brought an odd sense of relief, so much so that, all at once, my body relaxed, and I let out a long breath that I hadn’t realized I’d still been holding.
We pulled into the parking lot and the airport bustled around us. The roar of departing and approaching planes, the scrape of snowplows, and the constant “SWISH” of passing cars in the slush drowned out the silence that had once been between us, and we exchanged sighs of relief as he placed the car triumphantly into park.
I touched his arm. “Thank you for not killing us, love.”
The corner of his mouth twitched upward, and he ran his big hand down my hair and held my cheek. “Never.” His eyes darted upward through the passenger side window behind me toward the airport shuttle. “Ah crap,” and I heard the screech of the train coming to a stop.
“It’s only a five-minute wait. We’ll get the next one, we’ve got plenty of time before the flight.” I bent to pull my ankle boots on, lacing them promptly and tucking my jeans into them.
We’d be flying first on the 6:40AM flight to L.A., and from there, we’d have to endure a four-hour layover to then catch the 12:40PM flight to Bora Bora.
We worked our way through security in record time and arrived at our gate to find only ten other people there.
“See,” he glared down at me, “I told you we could’ve slept an extra twenty minutes!”
It was rare that we were this early for a flight. Chris was always a last-minute person, and as a result, we had missed two flights during our relationship. I had insisted we leave earlier because of the snow.
“Oh well,” I yawned, “We’ll sleep when we get there.”
We found a seat and I laid my coat across us, resting my head against his bulky shoulder, ignoring the obnoxious ping of the metal arm rest dividing my seat from his. Just as I started to close my eyes, a shrill female voice came over the intercom in our gate. “This is an announcement for passengers on United Airlines flight number three thirty-eight to Los Angeles. The flight has been delayed due to snow. Our new departure time is 9:50 AM.”
“9:50?!” I shouted, jerking myself up and looking at Chris. “That’s going to leave us with…” I groggily crunched numbers and time differences in my head, “less than an hour from landing to board in LA. No way we’re going to make it onto our next flight!”
“We’ll make it,” he said calmly. “Don’t get all worked up. It’ll be fine.” He laid his head back and closed his eyes.
Annoyed, I huffed and hoisted myself up out of my seat. “I can’t sleep in this stupid chair. I’m going to find something to read… or do… or eat… you want anything?”
He opened one eye, yawning as he stretched his long legs out in front of him and pulled my coat up toward his chin. “See if you can find me a neck pillow.” And before I could answer, he closed the eye again and smiled.
‘How could he be so calm right now?’ I thought to myself as I stomped my way down the terminal toward the smell of caffeine and cinnamon. ‘We are definitely going to miss our second flight. No doubt about it. And he’s not even worried. Of course he’s not worried. Why would he be? He didn’t even want to come on this trip!’
I turned to the left and found a small gift shop. Irritated, I spun the rotating book stand a few times, skimming the titles absentmindedly. ‘He doesn’t care about the delay… just like he doesn’t care that I’m walking around the airport by myself! God forbid he walk with his wife and strike up a conversation! Oh no, we can’t have that.. especially not on our would-be honeymoon!’
I, of course, could’ve asked him to join me. I knew he would’ve obliged. Instead, I held the contempt inside. My entire life, I’d battled between the internal conflicts I mustered up in thought and the non-confrontational introvert in me that tended to keep those conflicts bottled up. I always complained in my head, that was easy, but vocalizing my emotions? Well, that was something else entirely. All too often, I held back and let my frustration build until I boiled over and exploded.
‘9:50. Ugh. This always happens. Always something.’ I snagged a bright yellow book off the rack, half-read the description, and grabbed a second in case the first was bad. I pulled two neck pillows down from the wall behind it- ‘we have so many of these at home, why do we never think to grab one?!’ - and threw them onto the counter at the poor little cashier who’s head barely made it over the counter.
I sulked across the hall to a little coffee-shop. ‘It’s not Starbucks. You’re probably not going to like it. You should just walk to the other side to the Starbucks.’ “I’ll have one large coffee with extra cream and extra sugar.” ‘He’s going to want one - even though he didn’t mention it, you’ll just end up coming right back…’ I sighed, “Make that two please… and one of these cinnamon rolls.”
With two boiling hot coffees burning my hands, two bags stinging the ring finger I’d looped them around, and my purse - loaded with toiletries - weighing down my shoulder, I was seething by the time I got back to our seats.
“I got you a stupid coffee and neck pillow, here!” I snapped, handing him his coffee and finally setting mine down on the table next to him to relieve my hands of the heat. Dropping the bags and purse onto the floor, I slinked into my seat. “Ugh.” I slid miserably down, “I’ve worked myself up into a frenzy, love.”
He eyed me, taking the lid off his coffee to blow on it before taking a very loud sip.
‘Always the loud sip. Always… Be nice Alaina, be nice. Remember… honeymoon…’
His mouth twitched, and he used his free hand to pat my leg, “It’s alright Ally, we’ll get there, might not be when we wanted to, but we’ll get there soon enough.”
I straightened and reached down to snag the cinnamon roll, opening the little box and holding it between us. He immediately pinched off an enormous bite as I took my first sip of coffee - cursing myself for not walking a little further to Starbucks the instant the bitter liquid hit my tongue. ‘Not enough sugar and cream could make this coffee enjoyable.’
Despite the awful taste, I devoured the coffee and, with Chris’s help, the cinnamon roll in quick time. I laid my head back against him and forced my shoulders to relax. ‘Why did I let myself get so angry? We’ll get there soon enough,’ I thought. But I couldn’t wait to get to Bora Bora. I couldn’t wait to get us back to being us again. We’d grown distant and I missed my husband. I closed my eyes and drifted into a half-sleep, smiling as I allowed myself to be transported away from the cold air of the airport to the warm summer night we first met.
We’d met each other at a concert ten years prior. I was there supporting my then-boyfriend Kevin - a drummer in the headlining band. Kevin had big dreams of rockstardome and I, being freshly twenty-one, an aspiring singer-songwriter myself, and highly impressionable, was completely enamored with the idea of him. It was a fast-paced and young lust that had kept us together for the couple of months that had led up to that night.
I was four vodka-cranberry drinks in, having arrived with the band while they set up and sound-checked. Painfully, I’d endured the first two acts, and found myself standing impatiently in an infinitely long line for the women’s restroom. I had one hand propped on the sticky painted concrete wall to keep my balance while the other hand was fastened around the fragile plastic cup that housed the fifth vodka-cranberry of the night. Despite my desperate urge to pee, the straw kept finding its way to my mouth.
The hall was dark except for the light that would spill out of the bathroom along with a wave of female chatter each time the door to the restroom would open and close. Across the hall from me, the light came more frequently and I watched men going in and out of the men’s room with no line or chatter whatsoever. I danced from toe to toe, wondering why the gap in the light was taking so long on this side of the hall. What compelled women to chatter in the bathroom while other unfortunate souls pee-danced in the hallway?
The sudden muffled vibration of bass and drums and the sound of cheers from an impatient crowd overhead told me that Kevin’s band had taken the stage. Eager to join them, I threw caution to the wind and launched myself across the hall, plowing into the men’s bathroom door and directly into the arms of a somewhat baffled Chris. We fell, entangled, directly onto the very questionable men’s bathroom floor, my drink spraying out in every which direction. He had taken the brunt of the fall, shifting his weight so that he hit the ground with an “oof” and with me lying haphazardly on top of him.
I lifted my head and our eyes locked. My heart fluttered, and I briefly lost the concept of time, space, and that mere moments prior I had been willing to sacrifice all caution just to release the enormous pressure in my bladder. All I could do was swim in those big green eyes.
He smiled up at me and made no move to unlock his enormous hands from my sides. “Well, hello.” He laughed.
I smiled an awkward “hello” back as reality returned and, with it, the realization that we were lying on the bathroom floor, the door jammed against our sides, with a crowd of men cheering obscene gestures over us while the women giggled in line outside. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” I huffed, my cheeks burning with embarrassment as I hastily stood above him, extending my hand to pull him up as I pushed the door out from his body.
He took my hand in his, the size of it making mine seem frail and suddenly very feminine. His smile remained in-tact as he hoisted to a sitting position. “You frequently burst into men’s rooms? I can be more cautious when exiting from now on.” Keeping hold of my hand, he stood, towering a good foot above my head as he did so; his bright white smile still gleaming down at me.
I took it all in right then as he stood. Those long legs, the broad shoulders, the slight waviness in his dark hair, the way his plain black t-shirt hugged his biceps, and the very slight dark hair of a five o’clock shadow on his face. I’d never seen anything so manly… so handsome. He made every other guy I’d ever dated or shown interest in seem like a boy. This exquisite creature that stood before me was a man.
“Oh God, no, I’m so sorry. I just…” Three men slid around us on their way out, the big clumsy arm of the fatter one bumping into my back and forcing me once again to plunge head-first into his very sturdy chest. My cheeks on fire, I pushed back rapidly only to nearly knock over two men coming the opposite direction. “I’m so sorry, so sorry.” I looked back at him, “I’m sorry.”
His smile remained unchanged, “I’ll forgive you if you let me buy you a...” he paused, his eyes running the length of me to observe the bright pink spatter of my cranberry drink covering the majority of my once white Social Distortion t-shirt. The corner of his lips twitched slightly higher. “Coffee perhaps?”
I was mystified. This beautiful man was looking at me in a way I knew meant trouble. I wasn’t unattractive; I was certainly pretty enough, but I’d never had a man who looked quite like this regard me in such a way. “Oh… ah… yes… ok.” I managed, following him out the door.
“What were you doing bursting into the men’s room, anyway?” He asked as we entered the blackness of the hallway.
“Oh! I had — have — to pee. Just wait one minute.” I looked at the line for the women’s bathroom - now about twenty-five women deep, then back at the men’s room.
“Here,” he smirked, “come with me.” He seized my hand and pulled me behind him.
There was something about my hand in his that sent a jolt of electricity through my body. I blindly followed, beaming at the women whose heads turned to get a second look at him as we made our way through the crowd to a hallway on the opposite side of the stage.
He led me down a set of stairs and through a door which led to a brightly lit hallway. The contrast had me squinting momentarily as I heard him cheerfully boast, “Hey Chuck! This one’s gotta pee. Mind if we use the one back here?”
“Not at all,” shouted a deep male voice from far down the hall.
He placed his hand on an unmarked door and held it open to reveal a private bathroom. Winking, he grinned down at me and said, “M’lady. I’ll just wait here and protect any other unsuspecting saps from risking the same fate by getting too close to that door.”
‘Oh. My. God. Alaina.’ I thought to myself, leaning against the door as it closed and taking three deep breaths. I stepped to the sink and squinted my eyes in the mirror at the Picasso of a reflection looking back at me. ‘Get it together woman.’ I braced the sink with both hands. ‘Don’t be drunk. Please don’t be drunk right now.’ My hair had already started to curl and the fluorescent light of the bathroom amplified every curly wisp of the fiery red chaos I had spent hours straightening earlier that evening. My eyes were definitely glossed over and.. ‘Was that… smeared mascara under my eyes?? Seriously?!’
I grabbed a handful of paper towels, running them under the sink water and wiping my eyes as I hobbled into the single stall to pee. ‘Be cool. Say nothing until you’ve drunk an entire cup of coffee… Coffee? They don’t serve coffee here… That means we’re leaving… And what about Kevin?’
Bladder pressure finally relieved, I clumsily opened the stall and walked back to the mirror. I took another deep breath, washing my hands and running my still-wet hands over my hair in an attempt to smooth it. ‘Good as it’s gonna get. We’re going to get coffee, and that’s that... We don’t really like Kevin that much, anyway.’
Part of me expected - maybe even hoped he’d be gone when I opened that bathroom door. I mean, who was I next to this charming man? He could’ve had any woman in that club - what in the world was he doing escorting an awkward, half-drunk, freckle-faced redhead to a private bathroom, anyway? But there he was in all his glory, leaning against the wall and smiling directly at me.
He calmly stepped forward and offered me his arm. “shall we?”
I blinked at the offered arm, and despite my best judgement, slurred out, “Well, wait juss a second mystery-bathroom-man. I have questions.”
“Oh?” He laughed, “please do fire away.”
‘Shut up Alaina, please shut up,’ I thought, but the words just kept coming. “One.” I leaned exaggeratedly forward as I pressed my pointer finger into the air, “How does one just magically have access to inaccesssssssible bathrooms down mystery hallways and yet chooses to use the filthy public ones?”
“Well,” he said, smiling and wrapping my arm into his to turn me back the way we’d come. “That’s easy, the owner of this venue is a friend of mine and I come here often to hang out with him. It just so happens that I was closer to that hallway than this one when the urge hit me to pee. Next question?”
I walked obligingly, leaning slightly more on him than I’d have preferred. “Alright then, TWO:” I had lost control of my volume and the word “two” was shouted, echoing in the fluorescent concrete hallway we walked down. “Where in the hell do you intend to buy me a cup of coffee and are you some kind of outrageously good looking axe murderer who plans to get me all hopped up on caffeine before you chop me to bits?”
He gave my arm a little squeeze and opened the door back into darkness and loud music. At least my volume control wouldn’t be an issue here. He leaned his head down to shout into my ear, “There’s a little diner one block over that I’m quite partial to, although I’m afraid I’ve left my axe at home this evening.”
We were working our way through the crowd arm in arm and I stopped, placing my hand on his chest as I stood in front of him, dancing concert-goers bumping roughly into each of our elbows. “Alright fine, I will LET you buy me A coffee, but don’t get any ideas. I’m a lady, ya know.”
At this, he smiled widely and his giant hand softly worked its way down my hair to my cheek, loosening a frenzy of butterflies into my stomach. “You’re adorable. Where in the world did you come from?”
Adorable? There was that word again. My entire life I’d been called adorable or some version of it. Just once I wanted to be “sexy” or “seductive.”
Rolling my eyes, I looped my arm back through his and turned toward the exits. “I come from Hyde Park, and we’d better hurry before the band sees us. I was sorta dating that drummer.”
He looked down at me and back to the stage, “Was?”
“Well, yeah, but then all this happened,” I motioned to our entwined arms, “and I gotta see how this plays out.”
We exited the venue and crossed the street to the diner.