The woman checked the display again and saw that her flight had been delayed, again. She groaned audibly and sent a message to her fiancé telling him to cancel the dinner reservation. He commiserated. The woman looked at the display once more as if it may have made a mistake; then she moved to the newsagent’s and began browsing absent-mindedly. The aisles were narrow and it was hard to negotiate them with her baggage. She despised airports, despised flying: it was almost too much to think she was trapped here for another three hours. Then another five in the air, unless the plane failed and went down shortly after takeoff as they were prone to doing. Then the woman would be dead as a door nail and her fiancé would grieve before getting over it and meeting someone new and marrying her because, after all, life goes on and, anyway, it’s what the woman would have wanted. Something along those lines. I hope the plane doesn’t crash, the woman thought vaguely and she took the latest issue of Vogue from the shelf and brought it to the check-out counter. Swiping her credit card, she made a mental note to add the charge to her expense account.
“Back for more?” the bartender said when the woman sat down.
“Afraid so,” the woman said gloomily. “Another delay.”
“Ouch. Sorry to hear that.”
“What can you do.”
“Gin martini, up, with a twist.”
The man drifted discreetly among the travelers, blending in and drawing no attention to himself. He wore a black jacket and baseball cap. He slowed down as he came to a cluster of food counters. Dozens of people sat eating in the common area. Others read books or worked on their computers. A few appeared to be sleeping. The man figured this was probably his best bet. Hungry, he bought two slices of pizza and a bottle of Pepsi, sat down at an empty table and began to survey the women around him. Only two seemed about the right size, but neither was the right type. This was discouraging. He’d been looking around for nearly an hour and a half and had yet to find a single woman suitable for his purposes. Most of them were too heavy or too short or both. When he was finished with his pizza he stayed put for another fifteen minutes, eyes darting furtively back and forth under the brim of his cap. Every few minutes someone got up and walked away, someone else sitting down in their place. The man brightened when a young woman, late twenties or early thirties, took a table near the window. She was eating a salad and talking on her phone, oblivious to her surroundings. The man sized her up. About five foot five, about 120 pounds, about the right look. Her shoulders were a little broad but he didn’t suppose that would make much of a difference. The man switched tables to get a better vantage point; his excitement was dashed when he saw that her luggage consisted of a single tote bag. He cracked his knuckles and walked away.
“Where are you going?” the bartender asked the woman.
“Home.” The woman was quite drunk. “New York.”
The woman nodded and swallowed another mouthful. “Manatt’n.”
“What do you do?”
“Lil bit a this … lil bit a that,” she said and burst out laughing.
The bartender smiled an indulgent smile. “And you’re doing the same here in Seattle?”
The woman nodded emphatically. She drained her glass and glanced down at her copy of Vogue, spread out on the bar; the words teetered on the page. “The Return a the Bucket Hat,” she read aloud. “How d’you feel bout the bucket hat?”
“I’m not sure,” the bartender said. “How do you feel about it?”
The woman held her nose. “But’s makin a comeback.”
“So I’ve heard. One more?”
The woman checked the time on her phone; she still had an hour. “Best idea’ve erd all day.”
The bartender mixed the drink and set it down before moving to the other end of the bar to wait on a group of four noisy businessmen in suits. The woman skimmed the pages of her magazine and sipped her martini. The idea now was to get drunk enough to sleep on the plane; failing that, she had plenty of Valium. She closed Vogue and called her fiancé. They chatted idly for twenty minutes. He told her the cats were doing well and asked the woman to excuse him if he was already asleep by the time she got home as he was extremely tired. The woman told him not to worry about it. “Minds me,” she slurred, “better go an make sure it wasn dlayed again.” They said goodbye and, after finishing her drink and paying her bill, the woman stood up and made for the nearest information display. She was halfway there before she realized that her bags were gone.
The man held the dress up in front of him with both hands, checking for stains. It was the right size, without a doubt, but he wasn’t crazy about the color: sort of an off-white, like an eggshell. Still, it was modern and classy, something you might see in a magazine or a commercial, he thought. He checked again for any stains or other signs of wear. Everything appeared to be in order; the dress looked brand new. What luck! Pleased with himself, the man hung the dress carefully over the passenger’s seat and went through the bags again to make sure he hadn’t overlooked anything he could use. It was a good thing he did, too, because he found an unopened tube of lipstick. That would complement the dress nicely. The man zipped up the bags and threw them in a dumpster behind the strip mall; then he drove round the front, parked his car and went into a department store.
“I’m sorry,” the saleswoman said, “but I can’t give you a bag unless you buy something.”
“Why not?” the man asked.
“It’s company policy.”
She told him it wasn’t.
The man reached into his pocket and counted the remainder of his cash. “What can I buy for three dollars?”
The saleswoman shrugged. “Some toiletries maybe.”
The man asked where they were and she pointed him in the right direction. A few minutes later he returned with a package of cotton balls. The saleswoman eyed him curiously while she rang it up.
“Do you have a bigger bag?” the man asked. “One that doesn’t have anything written on it?”
Agitated, the saleswoman bent down and rummaged around beneath the counter, coming up with a large, unmarked plastic bag.
“That’s perfect,” the man said.
Back in his car, the man folded the dress and slid it into the bag along with the lipstick. He put the cotton balls in the glove compartment and drove off.
Approaching her apartment building, the man’s girlfriend was surprised to find the man sitting on the steps leading up to the security door, smoking a cigarette. The sun was setting and it was getting cold and windy. Rain clouds gathered in the sky.
“What’s in the bag,” the man’s girlfriend said, contriving an air of apathy as she moved past him.
“What bag?” the man grinned. He flicked his cigarette into the street and stood when she unlocked the door. “Can I come up?”
The man’s girlfriend glared at him from the doorway. “What if I say no?”
“I won’t make any trouble. Promise.”
“Give me one reason why I should believe you.”
The man held up the bag. “I’ve come to mend fences.”
She rolled her eyes, determined to stay angry at him, or at least to appear so, and let the man inside. He trailed her up the three flights of creaky stairs and down the corridor with the stained carpet and into her apartment. She switched on the light and put her bag down on a chair in the kitchen, sighed and poured some white wine into a glass. The man asked her how her classes were.
“Did you work this morning?”
She carried her wine over to the couch and sat down. The man followed. He dropped the bag on the coffee table and sat next to his girlfriend. He said:
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
The man’s girlfriend sipped her wine. “I thought you never wanted to see my hideous face again.”
“I don’t think I said hideous.”
“I thought I deserved the worst life has to offer.”
“You know I didn’t mean that.”
“Then why’d you say it?”
“You threw a vase at me.”
The man’s girlfriend shrugged.
“Anyway,” the man said, “open that bag and see if I think you deserve the worst life has to offer. Go ahead.”
“You have to apologize first.”
“I’m sorrier than you can imagine.” He leaned forward and took the bag from the coffee table, placed it in his girlfriend’s lap. “I want to make it up to you.”
The man’s girlfriend put her glass down and, no longer able to maintain the façade, smiled. “What is it?”
She took the dress from the bag and unfurled it. The man asked her what she thought.
“It’s pretty.” She looked at him fondly. “Is it new?”
“Of course it’s new. You think I would give my girlfriend a used dress?”
She stood up and held the dress out, just like the man had at the strip mall. Then she pressed it to her body to check the size. Her smile widened.
“How did you buy it? I mean,” she added gently, “you’re not working now.”
“I had some extra money laying around,” the man said and leaned back on the couch, triumphant.
The man’s girlfriend continued to inspect the garment; gradually her expression shifted from one of delight to one of suspicion. She furrowed her brow, sniffed the dress.
“Try it on,” the man said encouragingly.
“There’s no tag.”
He was prepared. “I always take the tags off gifts. So people can’t see the price.”
She fixed him with stony eyes. “Is that right?”
“I can see why in this case.”
“Why?” He gave a perplexed smile.
“It’s a Stella McCartney.”
The man paused for a moment. He raised an eyebrow and said, “Yeah, so?”
“So? These dresses are like two thousand dollars.”
“No …” he stammered, trapped. He sat up. “OK. Sorry. It’s used. I should of told you. But look,” he said, reaching into the bag, “I got you lipstick too. See? Not used. Not even opened.”
“Where did you get this dress,” the man’s girlfriend demanded.
“You know. At one of those shops. Those … vintage shops.”
The man’s girlfriend dropped the dress, inhaled sharply and gripped her face with both hands. She started muttering to herself. When she took her hands away she looked wild.
“What’s the matter?” the man said. “If you don’t like it I can take it back. No big deal.”
“You’re insane.” She pointed at the door. “Get out.”
The man started to say something but she spoke through him. “Get out and stay out.”
“I don’t know what you think I did,” the man protested, “but I swear this is all on the—the uh … the up and up.”
“Don’t make me call the police.”
“The police?” That was it. He told her to go ahead and call the police. Then he told her what she could do with the dress. There was a terrific row. The man and his girlfriend fired insults at each other as loudly and violently as they could: he was a good-for-nothing thief, a deadbeat and a loser, just like his father and his brothers; she was an ungrateful cow who deserved the very worst that life had to offer, and if he never saw her hideous face again that would be too soon, and this time he meant it, mark his words. “Get the fuck out and don’t come back,” she hollered, “and take this shit with you.” She flung the dress at him, followed by the lipstick. The neighbor downstairs rammed a broom handle against the ceiling. On his way out, the Stella McCartney draped neatly over one arm, the man opened the tube of lipstick and began scribbling on the wall. “Just applying some makeup,” he said calmly, “then I’ll be on my way.” Moments later the wine glass shattered against his knuckles.
The man cursed the woman at the airport for getting him into such a scrape as he drove through the pouring rain toward the medical clinic, his hand, bleeding profusely, wedged into the bag of cotton balls.
Michael Howard is a writer and teacher living in Vietnam. His fiction and creative nonfiction can be read in Fleas on the Dog, After The Pause, The Forge, New Pop Lit, Hypertext Magazine, The Opiate and The Fiction Pool, among others. His political essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications and have been translated into several languages.