The man in line behind Alice wore a navy suit with well-shined shoes. It was six in the morning and Heathrow was waking up; the duty-free stores were still shuttered, their roll grills locked tight against predation, but the eateries had opened and the aroma of fresh coffee and baked goods wafted through the airport air. Alice was starving, but before she could do anything about it, she first had to figure out how she was going to get herself home.
Her first two years of college had been a bust; she’d made few friends and gone on zero dates. Terrified at the prospect of a summer at home (her parents’ closed-door fighting; her mother’s tearful entreaties that she mustn’t rock the boat) and desperate for redemption of any kind, Alice had scraped together some money and flown to Europe to visit a boy. She’d met him two summers ago on a teen tour and had carried a torch ever since, retreating into memories of their one, magical kiss every time she saw a hand-in-hand couple crossing the quad, so happy and out of reach.
In Alice’s daydreams, the boy had been pining for her too, and would drop everything to whisk her away on a summer’s worth of romantic adventures—oh, the stories she’d have to tell! But what happened in fact, when she turned up at his door, was that the boy didn’t recognize her. Humiliated and sad clear through to her bones, Alice made her way back to the airport, where she was told there really could be no refunds or date changes on her super saver fare. Which was why she was here, in line: because the cheapest one-way ticket she could buy involved a layover, and this too had gone wrong. Her incoming plane had been delayed, with the result that she’d spent the previous night upright on an airport chair, reliving the most excruciating moments of this latest failure and wondering how she’d explain any of it to her mom.
The man behind her spoke. “Not in any hurry this morning, are they?” he said, his voice resonant and deep.
Alice startled, her spine suddenly alight. She looked back over her shoulder. “No,” she said, thinking the man looked the way the popular boys would look in twenty years, after they’d grown up and become successful. “Unfortunately not.”
She turned back to face the front of the line and ran her index finger over her eyelids; her contacts were dry and scratchy and this was the only way she could think of to ease their painful grip on her eyeballs. As she did this, she told herself—again—to forget about the popular boys, whose rejection of her had been complete.
The man behind her spoke again. “Did you sleep here last night?”
To Alice, there was something stirring in the timbre of his voice; it was casual, confident, warm—qualities she longed for in a boyfriend. Uncomfortably aware of her sour breath and unbrushed hair, she turned again to face him and was surprised to see concern in his brown eyes, precisely the sort of empathetic attention she craved.
“I missed my connection,” she told him. “I’m hoping to get booked on a new flight.”
The line they were standing in wound in compressed switchbacks around heavy, metal stanchions hung with blood red rope. Alice had a lump in her throat when she turned back to face the front of it.
“I have a day room,” the man said.
Alice heard, but didn’t think he was talking to her.
“I have a day room,” he said again, this time leaning forward so his words brushed against her ear.
This close, Alice noticed his aftershave, which was crisp and delicious-smelling. And she was embarrassed, suddenly, of the T-shirt and peasant skirt she’d been wearing for three straight days, and of her dirty, size-ten feet. She was ashamed of her greasy, overnight-in-the-airport skin and ashamed, too, to be where and who she was—stranded and so obviously unloved.
“I’m sorry?” she said, wishing for the umpteenth time that she was one of the pretty, cared-for girls who flitted around campus, effortless and sure.
“I have a day room. It’s here, at the Novotel. I’ll be going as soon as I’m sorted.” The man smiled gently. “You’re welcome to come with me. You could take a shower and have a nap.”
The man’s white shirt glowed. It was mesmerizing, as was the bluish shadow of his in-growing beard. In one of their saner moments, her parents had warned her about strangers, but nonetheless, Alice was conflicted. This man was obviously only trying to be kind—look at his grooming, his good suit; surely he meant no harm.
“Oh, wow,” Alice stammered. “Thanks, but I couldn’t.”
“Of course,” the man said. “I understand.” He shrugged, as if to say he’d tried. “I just hate to think of you stuck here when you could be comfortable, and safe. You never know who’s out here.”
As Alice considered this, her mother’s words came back: Why must you always be so difficult? and Just be sweet and agreeable, dear; you’ll find everything’s easier that way. But the thought of being alone with him, in a hotel room...
“I’m all right here,” she said. “I’ll just wait.”
The man nodded and Alice, who could see how dejected he was, felt guilty now. She couldn’t bear the thought that her refusal might hurt or disappoint him, even in the teeniest way.
The man must have sensed the struggle inside of her. “We have time; you can think about it,” he said, pointing at the line. “It’s just that you’re so lovely.” He reached out and took a lock of her hair in his fingers.
As he spun and caressed the strands, Alice felt a frisson of attraction: hers for him, certainly, but also his for her. Maybe he wasn’t just trying to be kind. She’d been looking at the floor, but now she looked into his eyes and saw that he could love her. Really love her. Naturally, there’d be those who’d ridicule the age difference, and even those who’d refuse to believe that this worldly, handsome man could possibly have chosen her—awkward, unwanted her! Her own mother would probably be among them. But that wouldn’t matter, not to Alice, because she knew he’d cherish her always.
He stepped closer. “So, so lovely,” he whispered, wrapping her hair tightly around his fingers.
Alice inhaled, drinking in the tingling, sweet-smelling nearness of this dreamy, god-sent man when, beneath the yummy top notes, she caught a whiff of something unsettling and dark.
She’d reached the head of the line. “Next,” the agent called to her.
Alice hesitated before she walked ahead. “I’m so sorry,” she told the man, too scared to go with him, but heartsick, also, to have let him down.
Since that day in the airport, thirty years have gone by. During that time, Alice has put up with selfish lovers, bad bosses, and unreliable friends. She’s endured bratty children, gossipy neighbors, and the paunchy husbands of those neighbors, who got handsy when they drank. Her faithless husband left her last month, taking their assets with him.
Then last Saturday, Alice went to the grocery store. In her basket were several cans of tuna and the fixings for a small salad; she was wearing sunglasses to hide her red-rimmed eyes. A tall man in golf shorts walked toward her. He had tonic water and limes in his cart; he was looking at his phone.
“All right if I jump in front of you?” he asked without looking up, running his cart over her big toe and destroying the pedicure she’d given herself that morning.
(“You’re making a federal case,” her husband had said the day he left, after she complained about the dirty underwear he’d left on the bathroom floor. “Can’t you just grab them when you take the hamper downstairs?”)
Alice recognized the man’s aftershave. “Okay if I go ahead?” he asked again, oblivious to her throbbing big toe and the blood blister that was forming beneath her mangled nail. “Mickelson and Woods are tied.”
Alice took a deep breath, deciding the man had been heavy-handed with the aftershave and that anyway, it smelled like shit.
“Ready, dear?” the cashier said.
Alice inhaled, choked, then she swung her basket jauntily and walked ahead. Yes to the cashier, and a big, fat NO! to everyone else.