Chapter One -- Maia
The first time I met Joel Carter, we didn’t actually meet. It was one of those things where you start a conversation, and then it’s too late to introduce yourself without being awkward. I was a kiosk vendor on the D Terminal of Philadelphia International Airport, Faces on Laces. I sold these plastic bar things you put on your shoelaces so they never come untied.
I’d stopped off to keep my one friend, Janelle, company at the sports bar on D. Salty slid me a beer, even though he knew the name on my ID—Sheila McHugh, age twenty-seven of Rochester, New York—didn’t look much like me or match where I lived or what everyone called me. Janelle was on my one side, talking about not wanting to go home because her mom was giving her grief, and on the other side were two guys in suits.
My first glimpse of Joel—he was suck-in-your-breath-and-straighten-your-shoulders good looking, but there was something else. The way he talked—I’d never heard anyone so passionate about a place before. Maybe that’s because I’m born and raised under the el train near Fishtown.
“You can feel a consciousness there,” he was saying, “a lifestyle and a genuine commitment to being a decent human being, to lowering your environmental impact.”
“What are you talking about—recycling?” the guy next to him asked and I was glad because I wasn’t sure either.
“I’m talking about living in the middle of such natural beauty, you want to be a part of it, to preserve it for future generations. Everyone does. It’s in everything you do—you bike to work, hike on the weekends, consume like a locavore. And the skiing is off the hook.”
They kept talking, Vail and Beaver Creek, Breck and A-Basin, ‘back bowls’ and ‘corn snow’.
It was hard to tell how old he was. Late twenties? Early thirties? But then I guess I was staring because both guys turned to me. Joel smiled and shifted his shoulders, an entrance to the conversation. I tucked my hair behind my ear. The guy behind him ran his eyes up and down me like a scanner, the way guys do.
“Sorry,” I said, “but where are you talking about?”
“Colorado,” he said like it was his name, something he owned.
“Joel Carter,” he said and he scooted his barstool back, telling us all about a place called Boulder, the green space and trails, the mountain biking, the incredible views.
“I’m originally from the East Coast, Jersey,” he said dismissively. “Until I moved out there, I thought you had to go to Europe for this. I never knew America could be so beautiful.”
He talked less to the guy next to him, more to me, what sounded like a fairy tale with dangerous mountain lions and rattlesnakes, snowy mountains and clean air. Without meaning to, I realized I was tilting towards him.
“When I was little,” I blurted, “my dad used to read me this book about a girl named Heidi, who lived up in the mountains in Switzerland with her grandpa. He’d say, ‘If you turn out as pretty as I’m afraid you’re fixin’ to, I’m shipping you off to the mountains with Grandpa and the goats.’”
Joel’s snowy mountain stories reminded me how much I loved disappearing into the pictures of that book, sitting on my dad’s lap, head on his shoulder, before he left.
“Your father sounds like a wise man,” Joel grinned, crooked and cute. Behind him, Janelle was doing the heart thing with her hands.
“Hardly,” I said, thinking how, of all the things my dad took with him when he left, including our parakeets and the blue suitcase, I always wondered why he didn’t leave me that book, knowing how much I loved it.
Then Janelle got a call from her mom; her little boy needed a breathing treatment. We liked to ride the train together, keep each other company and watch for creepers. She tugged my arm and I stood up, and their eyes ran up and down again. I’m six feet tall; I’m used to it. Joel’s was different though; he looked at me like an invitation, like I could just follow him into his fairy tale. Wrong; I had Mark, my boyfriend of six years, waiting for me.
Joel cleared his throat. “Hey, listen, you should definitely check out Colorado. Seven years ago, I was on track for Silicon Valley. I got headhunted by this startup, and they flew me out to Colorado. I never looked back. Sometimes, you have to take a chance to make a change.”
“Yeah,” I laughed and made like I was throwing a dart at a map. Thinking, I’ll just, you know, pick a place, pack up and go.
I didn’t tell him that girls like me, from the same-old Fishtown zip code with the same on-again, off-again boyfriend from middle school, those girls didn’t stride through airports and take chances and hop on planes.
“You look like you’re up for an adventure,” he grinned, and I wondered what he saw in me that everyone else missed.
“Can I ask you something?” Joel said, searching my face like he was memorizing me. The breath caught in my chest.
I nodded, waiting, thinking, Anything, ask me anything.
But then his friend paid their tab, and Janelle was hanging on my arm, and Joel checked his phone. He said his flight to Denver was boarding, and it had been really nice to meet me, but we hadn’t really.
I saw him again a week later, Thursday afternoon, early April, outbound. Turns out he was a regular commuter on the United flight between Philly and Denver. He’d fly in from Denver Tuesday morning and back out Thursday. He checked in at the gate next to my stand with a USA Today under one arm and a suit coat draped over his carry-on. Back then, before I knew Colorado, I wondered why he didn’t have a heavier jacket. I thought it was all snow and skiing, year-round. I didn’t know how variable the weather could be, how dry and clear the air was there, how a day could be sunny and make-you-throw-your-head-back-and-stare-at-the-sky beautiful, and a night could leave you shivering, huddled under a hand dryer in a public restroom.
If we hadn’t talked at the bar, I wouldn’t have been able to tell which place was home because Joel Carter walked with purpose going both directions. I used to think I’d walk like that one day, Birkin carry-on, clicking along like high heels don’t kill my arches. Before all this happened, I imagined someday I’d have a job where if I wasn’t there, someone would be calling to book me for a shoot, and I’d be click-walking-and-talking and people would move to the side because they could tell I was headed somewhere important. I watched Joel Carter pass, thinking how I envied his walk, loved his eyes and incidentally, sort of hated my life.
He stopped at my cart one Tuesday in April—I thought he was going to say something about before, the bar, but he acted like he didn’t even know me. He studied my trays and picked one out, right away. My impression: he was a guy who knew what he wanted. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Or maybe I was dead on, and what he wanted was to have his cake and eat it too.
Janelle, who worked the watch cart, Time on Your Hands, coughed to get my attention and then reached out like she was going to grab a handful of his ass, making me choke on my Snapple.
“How much for these?” he looked up as I was wiping under my nose. He’d chosen the Barbie ones and I took it hard. I’d noticed that night at the bar that he didn’t have a wedding ring and I hate when guys do that.
“Four bucks. For your little girl?” I was getting out a paper bag, just facilitating the sale then. Janelle and I always say don’t mess with married men.
“For a little girl I know,” he said, handing me a twenty.
I know this sounds stupid but I felt something zingy go through me when our hands brushed as I handed him the change.
I was just about to remind him that he was going to ask me something at the bar, when they announced his flight, pre-boarding for first-class passengers and those traveling with small children.
“I’ve got to go.” He frowned slightly, a serious dash between his eyebrows.
“Alrighty, then,” I said, blushing, sounding like an idiot. “Take care!”
He walked away, but before he turned the corner, he looked over his shoulder and flashed me this smile. It wasn’t a gotcha-where-I-wantcha grin; it was more a hopeful tilt to the corners of his mouth, a crinkle around his blue eyes, that open door invitation.
“’Alrighty then, take care?’” Janelle drawled and snickered into her Dr. Pepper. “Where you from, girl, Georgia? Alabammer?”
She says I’ve got a serious fetish for men with dark hair and blue eyes. I guess she’s right—I like the unexpectedness. Mark, my boyfriend, has blue eyes, and his hair is brown at the roots. This past New Years' Eve he’d announced he didn’t want to go out. Instead, he came home with one of those peroxide kits from CVS and destroyed the bathroom and all three towels doing it. It looks okay, the blonde. It’s a little brassy and he doesn’t keep up with the roots. It would be one thing if he was growing it out, but then he messes with a new shade every couple of weeks. When I got on his case about the dark stripe at his part he’d said, “It’s just hair for Chrissake!”
Tuesday night, I tracked clues to determine Mark’s whereabouts. First, in the shoebox by the microwave was the stub of his paycheck and a receipt for a case of Bud Light and a WaWa hoagie slip. Funny; as idiotic as Mark can be about a lot of things, he’s crazy about saving a paper trail.
The bathroom was still dripping, and it smelled like moldy shower and the Axe I’d gotten Mark for Christmas. Wet towel and martini glass boxers on the floor, a Bud can and razor ash by the sink. Another empty on the dresser in the bedroom and beside it, on deli paper, the dry stub of a cheesesteak, wormy onion ends dangling out. I balled it up and retraced back to the kitchen. I opened the fridge—no more beers—which means he took them to get his drink on with Nick.
I called Janelle but she said she had to stay home with Damien, that he was getting sick and her mom was giving her The Eye. I called my sister Scarlett but she was out with Rudy, her boyfriend since forever. I fell asleep waiting, on top of the covers, in my clothes.
When Mark got home, it was after midnight. He curled up behind me, smelling like beer and fry grease and smoke, familiar. He mumbled something into my hair about how he was off in the morning, and we should head down to jeweler’s row.
“You’ve got a birthday coming up. Take a look at some rings.”
I didn’t answer. I rolled towards him and let him unbutton my jeans. I’ll admit I thought about my crinkly-smile commuter man while we did it, and then Mark was passed out and I was freaking wide awake until the light outside the skinny window went from black to grey and the garbage truck started banging down the alley outside.
Wednesday night I went to Julie’s Corner with Janelle. She was buying B-52 shots and Mark showed up after work, trying to get my attention by flirting with these patent leather girls from Temple.
Janelle snorted, “Girl, you got legs longer than I am tall and a face like Gigi-fucking-Hadid. If you’d do something with your nasty hair, you could have any guy in this place, in any place. Don’t you see how guys look at you? Why Mark?”
I twisted my hair off my neck. “We’ve been together a long time, since seventh grade…” I hadn’t told Janelle about our pending legal thing. Working side by side in the airport, people walking by all the time, we’d never talked about my dad leaving, why I don’t live at home, or the modeling thing. Mark and I had been through plenty, but it was more like we were brother and sister in a messed-up family, soldiers from the same war zone. We took care of each other, and that counts for something, even if I had no intention of marrying him.
Mark bent over the back of some chick, helping her line up her pool shot, mashed up against her thigh, looking right at me, and I just waggled my fingers back at him. Whatever.
Mark and Nick disappeared, and when I walked all twelve blocks home, he wasn’t there. At three in the morning, he showed up and we got in our usual fight about common courtesy.
“What am I supposed to think?” I sighed, opening up a trash bag. I’d already texted my sister.
“Just what I told you—me and Nick were brainstorming ways to get our legal situation sorted out.”
I didn’t answer, but he could see I was packing, throwing my clothes in garbage bags. Again.
“What? I’m taking care of things! You think you’re going to financially save us? You still think some legit scout is going to spy you in the airport, fly you off to Paris? You think we’re going to be rolling around some hotel bed in piles of your modeling money? You’re almost twenty-fucking-years old, Maia!” and he whistled, a sound like a bomb dropping.
Mark was heating up mac and cheese, banging the pot on the stove, and our apartment was so cramped my shoulder slammed against his. Something about how sad and sharp and bony his was, like a little boy’s, was almost enough to make me stay.
“I just meant—” Mark tried to stop me in the fishy stairwell, Scarlett waiting for me below, his face all sorry and soft. “I’ll sort this mess out. And maybe, babe, maybe it’s time you find a new dream?”
I tilted my cheek against Rudy’s cold car window while Scarlett drove us under the streetlights on Shackamaxon. It was Wednesday night, which meant Joel Carter, my commuter man was somewhere out there in the same city of brotherly love.
“Hey,” Scarlett said. “No itching?”
I shook my head; whenever things are bad, I get these anxiety hives that start on the back of my neck and creep up my scalp.
“Okay,” she smiled, “let’s take that as a sign.”
When I woke up Thursday morning, Scarlett was in the bathroom, and because my crazy sister likes to sleep with the windows open no matter what time of year, I heard geese honking, coming back to the city after a winter in Florida.
I rolled over and yelled, “Stupid birds! Don’t come back! Just keep on flying!” What were they going to find here but some dirty water in Fairmount Park or get their babies run over by the cyclists down along the river?
“You want to borrow something cute for work?” Scarlett asked, toothbrush sticking out the corner of her mouth. I was feeling like Mark’s warehouse winch couldn’t hoist me out of bed to face the fact that I had moved back home and there was a pile of Glad bags with my life’s belongings littering our crumby floor.
I’m seven inches taller than my sister, so I pulled on my own jeans but borrowed her sunflower T-shirt and black flats, significant only because these were the clothes I ended up wearing for the next five days. Then Scarlett made me sit on the toilet seat lid while she did my face and put my hair back.
“God, what I wouldn’t give to have your cheekbones,” she breathed as she brushed on powder. Her breath smelled like toothpaste. “Or your legs. Or your anything.”
“Please,” I told my sister, who is the hale-and-hearty kind of pretty, the kind where, when she’s forty, she’ll look exactly the same: rosy and curvy and creamy. Mom says she favors our dad, and she doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
“It’s true. And you know why I’m doing this? When you look good, you feel good, you know?” She held up the mirror for me.
I’ve got clear skin, winter-pale, with a few freckles and a straight nose. I think my eyes are a little too big and my lips too thin. With my hair back, my neck looks super long, like the game where you fold the paper and pass it around, and just make two marks where the neck connects to the head if both people draw in a neck. Scarlett says when I become a supermodel, it could be my signature, but I usually leave my hair down. It drives her and Janelle nuts.
“Beautiful.” She snapped her compact closed with a puff of powder. Honestly, I went along because it felt nice to be fussed over, and because I knew my commuter would be coming through again that afternoon.
I put my wallet in my purse and made sure I had lip balm, enough money for lunch at the food court between the terminals and the ID of Sheila McHugh of Rochester, NY. Then, when Scarlett wasn’t looking, I tucked my real license in my bra. Scarlett gave me a ride in Rudy’s car and made me promise to come out dancing with them that night.
For no good reason, I hugged her when I got out of the car. I guess because that’s what people do when they get dropped off at airports.
Thursday morning was slow. Janelle was off, so it was Anime Boy at her cart, and he’d asked me out when he first started, so now we ignored each other. I was wondering who’d watch my cart for lunch when I saw him coming through security—Joel Carter. He was doing his serious walk, like those rainy day Franklin Mills mall walkers in their jogging suits. His bangs ruffled as he walked.
Right past me.
No look, no smile, no snowy mountain fairy tales, no “can I ask you something?” Just that crease between his eyebrows.
Looking back, it’s hard to say why I did it. It was one of those things that seemed like the only option at the time, but in reality was pretty stupid. I opened the cash drawer and tallied up the money. With the float, there was just over three-fifty. I put it in the mustard-colored envelope and marked down the amount. I straightened the merchandise, stacked the trays and pulled down the rolling screen, locking it.
“You closing down?” Anime asked. I made a noise that could’ve been yes or no, and he went back to Naruto and snacking on his cuticles.
I didn’t know what to do with the profits for the day—too risky to leave them in the cash drawer. I put the float envelope in my purse and I swear I was planning to mail it back to Ritchie, all the way until I got to the counter and realized I’d need the money for my plane ticket to Denver.