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For What Purpose?

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I wanted to stop something, everything. I applied for a job in airport security and they placed me here.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Face11_600.jpg
Robin Cameron, Photogram, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Room East

This is what they did: they handed over their IDs and boarding passes; they answered questions about their destinations; they took off their shoes; they put their belongings in the plastic bins; they surrendered liquids over 3 oz. (or they didn’t and then were sent for questioning); they collected their belongings; they walked through the scanner; they lifted their arms; they stood, frozen, like dancers or criminals, while the scanner took its picture; they walked through the scanner. The light, in the general area, was a dim blue. It made everyone look holy or sick. I was usually the first one they encountered. I stood at a podium and asked them questions. I had been trained in behavior detection. I looked at the brief quirk of an eyebrow, the tension in a lip. I looked at how long their hands scratched their faces. For a short time and with purpose, or longer, for no reason. They told me where they were going. For what purpose? I asked. Always, there was the brimming hope, the expectation that we would find someone, the liar, the criminal. There was the hope that we would find someone who was dangerous.

That was our job. I had worked here for three years. We had four people in my family. Then we had two. My parents, gone, suddenly, eight years ago, car crash on the way to the opera. My sister did not believe it when I had to tell her. I did. That gave me a power that I did not want.

The night my parents left, my sister and I had sat in the living room while my parents got ready. It was the first time they had ever been to the opera, and our father was, as always, in a hurry, afraid he’d miss a parking space; our mother was slower, buoyed by a sense that she deserved this: not just the opera, but some grand thing to nourish her.

My father got tense when my mother wanted to stop and get ice cream before; I suggested a Caramel Blizzard at Dairy Queen. It was just an idea I tossed off, unthinking, but she looked at me as though I had seen right inside her and said, “Yes.” My sister wanted to get in the game; she suggested that my mother stop at a department store and buy a new purse. My mother shook her head. It would take too long, my mother said. Maybe tomorrow. My sister deflated, a limp balloon. Our parents walked out of the house, my father rushing ahead, my mother touching his shoulder with her fingertips, the two of them tense and determined, imagining they would walk into a room full of sound.

And they were gone. In the long tradition of life after death, it seemed that nothing was affixed to anything—refrigerators and dryers hovered over the linoleum where they sat. That included my sister. She was mad that no one had listened to her idea about the purse. There was no proof that ice cream had been the cause of anything. We watched each other as we got the house ready to sell. My sister and I moved through it, deciding who would get what. This clock. Those earrings. That rug. We would negotiate each item with absurd calmness. We each wanted everything, wanted a safe haven for each item. Mostly, we each wanted our parents to walk through the door again.

Then my sister couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t hear the sound of my voice; it didn’t say anything that would comfort her. She clapped her hands over her ears and refused to listen.

“You told her to get the ice cream,” she said. She was a small, tense girl who burrowed firmly into any ideas that came to her and then refused to come out. She moved, swiftly, to Malaysia to teach English and hear any language but her own.

I was drawn to them, beautiful, standing in their dark blue uniforms, scanning the crowds for something suspect, something that you could stop.

I was left here, with no plan for myself; I knew that I was supposed to live. I felt like I was made of sand. No one was watching me, and I had duty to nowhere. But I wanted to be of use. I took a plane to a small, unremarkable city and decided to settle in. I went through security and watched the agents do their work. They stared at the X-ray machine, they patted passengers’ sides and shoulders, and they fixed their bright, tense gaze on the crowd. I was drawn to them, beautiful, standing in their dark blue uniforms, scanning the crowds for something suspect, something that you could stop. Their faces were serene, enviably remote with understanding. I wanted to inhabit that knowledge and suspicion. I wanted to stop something, everything. I applied for a job in airport security and they placed me here.

I began by screening the carry-ons. Looking for the sharp item, the explosive in the luggage. I saw the ghostly outlines of the passengers’ shoes, jewelry, slacks, lingerie, cameras, the harmless items they tried to sneak through, like a bottle of wine or jar of mustard or jam, and the stupid items, like the scissors and knives. I was good at finding things. I was relentless. I wondered if the passengers ever thought of me as the planes lifted, wings cutting brash into the blue sky, as they gripped the plastic arms of their seats and let out a breath, looking down at the earth through the clouds. If they ever believed in some part of themselves that I had, perhaps, kept them safe.

When I wasn’t peering at luggage, I made my attempts to construct a life. I watched the rest of my crew, who had spouses and coffee tables and cars. We had trained together, six of us, all walking into the multipurpose room that held the session, all of us sitting under the sickly blue light, watching videos, PowerPoints, droning narration describing graphs, gestures, behavior, telling us who might bring harm.

They were the first people I had gotten to know since the accident; I was, just then, vulnerable to kindness, and they were generally kind to me. Getting to know them, I lost the need to meet anyone else. Also, each one reminded me of a member of my family. Lester had dark, spongy, lichen-like hair, the same texture as my father’s. Deanne walked briskly, like my sister did when she was planning some sort of coup. Joanne sometimes squeezed my shoulder the way my mother once did. It was as though my family had, like spies, slipped under their skin. We spent our days standing in the bluish airport security area, but between flight times, we became friends.

Each month brought some new announcement. Lester was engaged. Deanne was pregnant. Joanna’s son was graduating from college. There were showers, for brides, babies. There were cards circulated and donations taken for gifts. There were consultations about renovations, there were suggestions for mechanics and schools and what sort of covered dish to bring to church. Someone would drop some groceries by when I was sick, or lend me gardening tools, or help me fix my TV. There was a general sense of accumulation that was dumbfounding and strange and sweet.

My apartment had a balcony with a few pots of roses on it. I tended them, I bought frozen food and defrosted it for dinner, and I watched comedies at night on TV. I had tried, a few times, to make inroads into the world of love, gone out with men whom I chatted with on the Internet. I had met a few of them, sat across from them in restaurants; they were desperate to be liked, the ones I met, and their chattiness about their virtues was depleting. Maybe that was why I didn’t want to go out with any of them more than once.

My fellow crew members were the ones I knew. They had staggered into the airport terminal from their own disasters: bad marriages, drug-addled kids, tumors, depressions, embezzling relatives, early deaths, the rest. We all said “I’m sorry” to each other, everyone had an individual mountain to scale. That was it. We were here to guard others. I felt useful when I stood with my crew at the security gate—that was what pulled me through my day, that sense of usefulness. I was grateful for it.

We all took our work seriously. Lester assumed a dignified, alert expression when he gazed at the X-ray machine, always locating the object that needed to be removed. Joanna was efficient, precise at pat-downs. Estelle was good at helping people organize their possessions in the plastic bins. When I worked with them, I secretly tried to find the parts that seemed to have been sent to me. Lester’s hair. I watched the way he smoothed his hand over it, the way my father had done when he thought about his clients. Joanna’s walk. I waved her over, sometimes, when I did not need her, so I could watch her heels hit the floor, hard, the way my sister’s did when she needed to tell me something. And Harvey, Fernando, and Estelle, each harboring their own treasures—Harvey pointed the way my father did when he was excited, Fernando’s mouth resembled my sister’s, Estelle let out a cackling laugh that my mother sometimes had. I didn’t love them, but I sort of did, if love is being mesmerized by the mere fact of others, and the way they trick you into believing that they contain the other people you have known. It was the sort of love I owned now, and I just lived with it, though I tried to remember what it was to have the love others did. I had those moments of jealousy, looking over the passengers streaming through the gateways—those passengers, strapped into their seats with the luxury of boredom and desire, waiting for their beverage service, believing that they would walk down the jetway into the rest of their lives.

*

I went to work, balanced on my life, this tiny platform. Sometimes, heading to work, I felt like I was going to slide off of it, sparked by a small sight—a gardenia bush like the one that bloomed outside of our house, a blue Mercury driving by. But this usually faded when I entered the terminal, when I took my place at the podium, when my gaze was supposed to locate any hint of mishap in the world.

One day, Joanna read us all a memo; budget cuts would now go into effect. We were not all necessary to preserving national security. One of us would be let go.

Joanna read this to us; it just had been emailed to ALL STAFF LOWER ATLANTIC REGION.

“What did they mean, go? To another airport?”

“No, go. They don’t need us. One of us.”

I looked at them. Estelle cleared her throat. Fernando tapped his foot. A harsh deodorant smell came off Deanne.

“How are they going to decide?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then what?”

“One of us is let go.”

While she was reading this, the second email came: Lester would decide. He had started here a year before the rest of us, and he had, as we all knew, stopped that guy with the steak knife in his sneakers the month before. He had six weeks, and Regional would abide by what he said.

I found it difficult to breathe. Would someone protest? No one did. We were weirdly passive in the face of this announcement. Our dark blue uniforms, so official, so comforting in their way, suddenly seemed nostalgic, with the flimsiness of Halloween costumes; Estelle fingered her collar with a tender gesture that I had never seen before.

“Everyone, stations!” said Joanna, and we took our posts.

It seemed the deepest desire, to be acknowledged, to be deemed worthy of remaining here, with the rest of us, and we sat around the table, eyeing the crab dip, hoping.

We went out to Ruby Tuesday’s a couple times, but now it was different. Lester sat in the middle of the red booth, and everyone observed what he ordered. A crab dip appetizer. Some mozzarella sticks. We all looked at one another. Joanna complimented him on his appetizer choice. She leaned toward him, sparkling with admiration. “Crab dip. Good choice. I always loved its creamy texture.”

“Thanks, hon,” Lester said, dipping in a piece of garlic bread. Suddenly, everyone was ordering crab dip, even those who, I knew, hated it. Several bowls of crab dip sat there, mostly untouched. I ordered one too, immediately. Everyone seemed both tender and monstrous. All anyone wanted was to stay, to be viewed as worthy of inclusion. It seemed the deepest desire, to be acknowledged, to be deemed worthy of remaining here, with the rest of us, and we sat around the table, eyeing the crab dip, hoping.

I noticed that the crew was acting a little differently now. The fact of our potential vanishing from this group freed everyone to reveal other elements of themselves. Now I noticed the things I didn’t want to remember about my family. Joanna suddenly switched from a brisk, efficient worker to a compulsive flatterer, something my sister tended to do. Estelle became a flirt, as my mother did with cashiers at the market when she was bored, and Fernando sat up taller and claimed the mozzarella sticks in a bossy way, like how my father made grand, bullish gestures when he was annoyed with all of us. My heart thrummed with panic. The ground felt like sky.

Perhaps I should be more flexible. I knew this was just a job that gave us money, and we could walk out of the terminal to become something else—a waitress, a manager at Subway, a security guard at a bank. But this was where I had wanted to be. It seemed absurdly arbitrary. Why did anyone decide to hitch their feelings to anything? Why one place more than another? All of the crew members wore amiable expressions, smiled at one another, dipped garlic bread into their crab dip, and looked away.

I imagined my coworkers taking my arms and escorting me out of the airport; I could feel their grip on my skin. I sat with them around the table and wondered: What would happen if I was escorted out of the airport? What would happen to me?

*

A passenger I had never seen before came through the security line. He handed me his driver’s license. He was handsome in a bland way. “John Comet,” I said, and then looked at the name again.

He laughed. “That is my name,” he said. He was a slight, wiry man, and he was wearing a dark blue suit. It was a little limp around the collar, like an old flower petal. He had very white teeth. He had lush, uncombed brown hair, as though his normal mode of transport was running through a wind. I noticed him first because he looked me in the eye. Not like a passenger, but a person. Just looking at who I was.

“Where are you going today?”

“Cincinnati.”

“For what purpose?”

“Business.”

“What kind of business?”

This was not a necessary question; I did not know why I was asking it. But he glanced at my badge, absorbed it, and answered. “I am involved in the marketing of custom luggage.”

“Oh,” I said.

He paused. I handed him back his ID.

The others usually picked up their boarding passes and hustled on, removing their shoes, lunging for the plastic bins. He did not move. He stood there, waiting.

“Sir?”

“What do people say when you ask them, for what purpose?”

A question. I regarded him. “What do you mean?” I asked.

He cleared his throat. “Where do people say they’re going to go?”

“People like to visit other people. Or vacations,” I said. “They like to get away from their home. And conventions. There are conventions for everything.”

He stood, his foot softly tapping as I spoke. “Don’t be scared,” he said.

I looked at him. “Why do you think I am?” I asked.

He smiled. It was the sort of comment that should have gotten him hauled over for questioning.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just a sales guy. I know things sometimes.”

He was right. I was scared. But somehow, his asking made it fade for a moment.

“Are you scared, Mr. Comet?” I asked.

His shoulder twitched, just slightly. He was.

“No,” he said. “Just traveling.”

There was a sorrow in his voice that sounded exactly like I felt. I was surrounded by liars. He had nothing to gain by my fear. We were two planets floating, separate, in the blue air. Oddly, that stirred me. He smiled at me, those bright teeth, and then he walked on to his destination.

*

He showed up at the airport three days later, and then three days after that. I could see him from far away, his gait quick and clipped as he went through the airport; he slowed down when he began to approach me. Each time, he handed me his ID and asked me a question. The second time, he asked me: “Why do you think people like those conventions?” The third time I yawned when he approached me, and he asked, “Ms. Orson. Did you miss your coffee this morning?” Passengers had to be careful when asking questions, so as not to seem too interested in how this place operated. He seemed merely to believe I had something he wanted to hear. When I answered him the third time (yes, I had missed coffee, in fact), he nodded, his eyelids flickering, and I was startled, for I thought I detected something else about him: he wanted to know who I was.

There were two weeks left before Lester made his decision. I walked into the airport in the morning, past Deanne, past Joanna, past Estelle, past Fernando, past Edward, past Lester. I wanted to talk to them, but did not know about what. Our conversations had become oddly cheerful and stilted, so that no actual information was being conveyed. Today they were extremely fascinated by their various procedures and for some reason were having trouble looking at me. Joanna leaned forward and brushed my shoulder with her hand. Tenderly.

“How are your roses?” she asked.

It seemed strange to even ask a question; the roses weren’t the point at all. Civility was a form of distraction.

“Great,” I said.

She nodded. Then she got to the point. “You notice how Lester’s been walking around us,” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“He’s been spending more time near you,” she said. “We’ve discussed it.”

My throat felt cold.

“What did you discuss?” I could see a smile in the crease of her eye; it crushed me to see it.

“I can’t say. There was consensus.” Joanna stood, arms crossed, sheathed in the armor of this alleged consensus.

“Why were you talking about me?” I asked. Softly.

“We’re trying to help you,” she said. “We’re trying to give you a heads-up—”

“How nice. A heads-up,” I said.

She stepped back, her face reddening. Joanna! I stared at her, noticing the mole on her left cheek, the patch of grayish hair above her forehead, parts of her I had never quite seen before. When had they become part of her? Then I glanced at Fernando, and I saw a birthmark on his ear, and I saw Estelle limp in a way I had never noted. I shuddered. What else had I missed? In them, in my family? Had I missed some flaw in my father’s driving, so that I had let them go to the opera when they should not have gone? Had I made a mistake in telling my mother to get ice cream? Who had we been, truly? I worried that I was having difficulty remembering them. My parents had fought, on and off, during my childhood, trading off in their bossiness; my father’s realm concerned time, his need to be punctual. My mother wanted mostly to treat herself, with pretty shoes and desserts with clouds of whipped cream—those were the ways each one disappointed the other. Sometimes they walked through the house and their words sounded like metal lids pressing down on steam. That’s when my sister liked my voice, when we went into the yard and came up with names for the roses that grew there: the Orange Queen, the Tropicana, the Snowburst; the roses seemed parental in their way, watching us.

As I thought about that last night, my parents became cartoonishly diminished, my father blind, my mother rushing, me oblivious to it all because I just was.

But I remembered, too, the moments when my parents loved each other, when their shared hunger for the world was such that they decided to take us somewhere new. Sometimes, we jumped in the car and went to a random place: a donut store in an alley, a tarnished merry-go-round, where they walked beside us, holding each other’s hands.

I didn’t know what about them to remember. As I thought about that last night, my parents became cartoonishly diminished, my father blind, my mother rushing, me oblivious to it all because I just was. Then I remembered getting off the phone and telling my sister that there had been an accident, and not being able to tell her the next fact, my mouth dry, bitter, until I did, and I wondered what she had heard in my voice then, or after, what I had done, ever, that made her fly so far away.

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Joanna. She looked frightened, of me? Of herself? “Don’t ask me, ask the consensus.”

I did not want to believe what she said was true. “I have to protect our country,” I said, softly, and went to my station.

*

I went for coffee with John Comet. We met at a diner near the airport. I had never had coffee with a passenger before. The table, the silver forks on their paper napkins, the hill of white sugar in the canister, everything seemed shiny and theatrical. We had been guard and passenger, and now we regarded each other warily, now something else. I ordered coffee and I got an English muffin, as he did.

“Why are you this? A security agent?” he asked.

I told him what had happened to my family. And then how I had felt, walking through an airport. I wanted to wear that uniform and stand at the security gates; I wanted to feel how it would feel to be the gatekeeper, to decide whether or not it was safe to allow them to walk through the scanner, to shepherd them safely to their planes.

At work, the last few weeks, I had been holding everything in, every nuance of feeling. Now John Comet was sitting here, completely innocent, and I wanted to unload everything onto him. His hand reached up and smoothed his light brown hair from his face. With purpose. A blameless gesture.

“So that’s what I’ve been doing,” I said. “For three years.”

“Well,” he said. “I see.”

We were not exactly great conversationalists. The silver sugar canisters glowed in the sun.

“How did you get into custom luggage?” I asked.

“I’m in marketing,” he said, leaning forward slightly. “This company hired me and asked, what do people really want to take with them when they’re going somewhere? Some people bring lots of, you know, toiletries, other people say screw that, I just need my tennis shoes. We aim to please everyone. We give people ways to carry things. Anything.”

He spread more butter on his muffin, vigorously.

“My wife didn’t like luggage,” he said.

“Your wife?” I asked.

“Ex. She took one bag when she moved out. With our son. Louis. She left all his stuff. His toys, his Pokémon cards, etc. I knew he’d want it. I had to bring it to him.”

“When did she move out?” I asked.

“Two years ago. And a month. She’s waiting tables in Miami. Married a new guy. Louis is in third grade. ”

His voice was coarser than I had expected. He had a slight accent, maybe New Jersey. He stirred some sugar into his coffee, gently, and then a bit harder.

“So,” he said, his voice quieter, “I tell my customers you need lots of pockets.”

We talked about nothing. How I grew roses on the deck of my apartment. A few of them, yellow, pink, and cream, their fancy faces turned toward the sun. He owned rare beetles, a unique specimen that was usually found in Brazil. His voice became wistful as he told me about them. “I was on a tour when I saw one. Sitting on a leaf. It had green, purple wings that looked like glass. It looked like it had come from another galaxy. But here it was. I wanted it. I had never wanted anything like that. I wasn’t supposed to bring it back. But I did. I have four of them. They live in a custom-made cage by the refrigerator. They eat lettuce and carrot shreds.” He whispered so that his words felt like a treasure bestowed on me.

We ordered more from the menu, from the breakfast side, bacon and French toast and scrambled eggs, and the dinner side, pot roast and fettuccini Alfredo and steamed broccoli. There was nothing so special about him, he was just a luggage salesman, not even really a handsome one. He wanted to be caught. He tried to conceal nothing. His face was just his face. I knew that he could see everything in mine, the raw haggardness of wanting. I did not feel like a security agent. When his hand reached for mine, it made me feel like God.

*

The next day, I tried to look past them all, toward the lines of passengers, toward John Comet. I saw him again and again, coming toward me, but it was not him, there were hundreds of not hims, marching to their destination. They walked, clutching their briefcases, their faces damp, to New York, Philadelphia, Boise, Las Vegas, a crowd of people to be questioned, searched, waved on, or detained. My heart was a hook; it was reaching toward John Comet. He came along, finally, dragging another piece of luggage with many compartments. He seemed to be a candle, glowing through the airport’s blue dimness, though his incandescence was invisible to everyone but me.

We met in the same coffee shop again a few days later. His presence before me as a regular human was startling and almost disappointing; it was as though he were a ventriloquist for the John Comet I saw, glowing, in my mind. We ordered what we had before, and also Jell-O and a salad of beets.

He told me about his son. “Halloween,” said John Comet. “I’ve never been able to take him around for Halloween.”

“Why not?”

“His mother makes up stories about me.”

I took note of his face. It was not the face of a liar; a liar’s face was speeded up. His face was still, which was hard to do if you were pressing something down.

“What sort of stories?”

“Oh, like I didn’t watch him. He ran into the street.”

“Did he?” I asked.

“No!” he said. He said it so sharply I believed he was honest.

“Not when I was there.”

I leaned forward, watching; I understood that he wanted to spend time with me partly because he wanted to be judged.

“Why did she say this about you?” I asked.

“She wanted to get away,” he said. “She loved someone else.”

He clasped his hands. He was sitting there like a cup of coffee. Looking at him, his square face, his dark eyes, his salesman-ness, you couldn’t tell he was someone who had slid off the surface of his family into nothing.

He tasted dark and sour, of coffee and salt, and I wanted to follow that taste into the rest of him.

We left the coffee shop. This time we drove to his apartment. It wasn’t what I expected, but was a worn-out, motel-like place, with stucco walls and a red rippled roof. At the door of his apartment, we started to kiss. He tasted dark and sour, of coffee and salt, and I wanted to follow that taste into the rest of him. His fingers held onto my shoulders. I had never noticed everything this way. The lights from the streetlights were long, radiant bars.

Then his body rustled and he stepped away from me. “They’re awake,” he said.

The window was open. Inside his apartment, right beside the window, was a large wire cage. It held four beetles. Their shells resembled glass: purple, green, and iridescent, the colors so deep everything around them was shameful, blanched. The beetles were almost braggy in their gratuitous loveliness. We stood, faces close to touching, as the beetles made their way across the limp shredded lettuce with their fragile black legs.

“Let’s go inside,” I said.

I felt his breath on my ear, his body pressed against mine. I longed for him so much my fingertips hurt. John Comet paused. “Not now,” he said.

“Why not?”

“They’re eating. We can watch them from here.”

I wanted to go in now. I wanted to touch those shells that resembled glass but weren’t. But mostly, I wanted John Comet. I wanted to press our bodies together, run my hands along his arms, his chest, and walk through him like a door to my salvation. Instead, we stood for a long time, looking at those beetles, gleaming.

*

The next day, I was stationed at the end of the bin conveyor. I was the last person passengers would encounter before boarding their flight. Lester came up to me.

“You’re on questioning today, Sally,” said Lester, brightly.

“Yes, sir,” I said. Lester had taken to carrying around clipboards, taking absurdly copious notes. If I slipped up, the decision would be easy.

I was, in my porous state of longing and fear, highly effective. I found items of interest. A Swiss Army knife, art-deco scissors, a package of firecrackers.

And here was John Comet, pulling along his luggage. His face set in its same expression. He was off today to Philadelphia. No sign of what we had done the night before, or what we hadn’t. He stood in the body scanner, arms lifted as the machine whirred. He was highlighted under his right arm.

“He needs a pat-down,” said Deanne, looking around. “Is there a man available?”

There was not.

John Comet looked at me, his face blank as milk. “She can do it,” he said.

Deanne looked at me eyes raised, like, do you want to touch this weirdo?

I stood very still.

“You good with this, Sally?”

“I’m a team player,” I said, crisply.

We went in a corner.

“Lift your arms, sir,” I said.

He raised them into a T. I could search him however I wanted. I began to slide my hands down his arm. His arm was surprisingly taut and thin in the airport light, as I pressed down the sides for any metal objects. He stared straight ahead, at nothing.

“Done?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

I squeezed the other arm. Sometimes people set off the machine for no reason. A slight move, a radiance, a ghostly threat only the machine could see. I stood, official, wearing my uniform, but I did not want to let go of his arm.

He let out a breath. Of love? Desire? Annoyance? Did he just want to get on with his day? I lifted my hand off his jacket. Slowly. A fingertip, a palm, the thin material of his suit. Each moment was sorrowful, releasing him. I missed each inch, each cell slowly. Slowly.

I let go. Then I stepped back, back into the world of only me. “All clear,” I said. “You may proceed to your destination.”

His eyelids fluttered. I didn’t know what that meant. He nodded at me, and smiled, a beautiful smile, and took hold of his luggage and walked to his gate, and I stood in the light, as he went away.

*

John Comet called me two nights later. He had just gotten off his plane. He wanted to see me. Now.

We met in the diner. He wasn’t hungry. He wanted to walk out of the diner into a park. He had the worn, dazed presence of someone who’d crossed a time zone—something had been lost. His hair was damp and sticky. His body had the stale smell of airplane air.

To believe another could make room for you, could perhaps keep you safe. That had to be the answer, because I did not want to contain only myself, my rotten sadness.

He pressed his mouth to mine the moment we walked into the park. The park black, the grass glistening under the grayish fluorescent lamplight. He kissed me hard, slowly, as though trying to inhale some important element inside of me. Gold. We fell together onto the grass. We were velvet and water and arms and lips and we were no one and that was what we wanted, to climb into another person and stretch out into their lovely darkness. To believe another could make room for you, could perhaps keep you safe. That had to be the answer, because I did not want to contain only myself, my rotten sadness. His arms were thin and steely and the earth was hard and damp under us. We were alive, weren’t we? Didn’t this prove we were alive?

Suddenly, he rolled away. I lay, breathless, beside him.

“I saw my son,” he said.

“Good,” I said. Now, on with it. He stretched beside me, a bar of candy.

“From the street. He ran toward me and then he was mad.”

“Why?”

“He said I missed all his baseball games.”

He stood up against the starry streetlights.

“I wanted to go,” he said. “How could I convince him? She didn’t tell me about them. She wanted Raymond to go with her. The asshole. Not me.”

He stood, pacing, as though he wanted to run now, to some other future, as though he could not bear this moment where we were housed.

“Maybe you did something,” I said, a little irritably. “Think for a minute. Maybe you did.”

He knelt beside me. His face held one feeling. He was distraught. He loved his son, I could tell that.

“What?” he said. “Can someone tell me?”

I thought of my parents, leaving the house for the opera. I thought of the last time I had seen them alive. I thought of every gesture they made, one after another, each one leading to the final disaster. Or was each one random? What did any single action mean? I watched them put on their coats, my father’s black wool coat full of holes, changing it for a brown one he didn’t really like, my mother walking around, always ready to leave before he was, and looking at my sister and me and saying, “I have to stop to get something to eat.”

I looked at John Comet, standing there. The earth like a cracker under his feet.

“I can’t tell you anything,” I said. “You can kiss me now.”

I grabbed his shoulders. I could feel his breath on my face, I wanted to taste it. He took my hand and stood up. We walked out of the park to my car.

He stared at me; his face was utterly familiar to me. Fear.

“Oh,” he said.

We stood, examining each other. He did not move.

“I,” he said. It was a breath, a softness—I. I what? I want to? I don’t want to? I am afraid? I can’t? There was an expanse of air between us. What was the purpose of this, love? My skin was as thin as silk; it barely contained me. He rubbed his hands over his face and stepped back. I stood perfectly still as he walked away from me.

*

The next day, we were on orange alert. The passengers were quiet, obedient during orange, looking at us with a damp-eyed gratitude that we would protect their little beating hearts.

Lester stood, looking official, perhaps knowing already who would go. The rest of us didn’t. I stood with good posture in my uniform. I tried to imagine what I could do to convince him that I should stay. The others schemed in a similar fashion. Everyone was very polite, as though their old selves never existed, as though none of us had ever met.

“Can you pass me some new gloves? I do appreciate it.”

“I’m happy to do X-ray till noon if that would help you out.”

The best manners. Smiling. Who the hell were they? Clouds rolled across the airport, filling the runway with mist. Flights were landing, unloading their passengers back to earth. I saw the passengers, feet just touching the ground, rush out, to their loved ones, that most earnest of gestures; I did not know how I would be part of that eager, massing crowd.

Lester was walking around, looking at his clipboard. He walked over to me.

“Sally,” he said. “Can I talk to you for a sec?” A sec.

We walked over to a corner.

“Well,” he said. He coughed.

I waited. One sec. Then two. My hands froze.

“It’s you,” he said. He coughed again.

“What?” I asked.

“I’m 90 percent sure. I can tell you end of day. You do a good job. I don’t know why anything happens.”

What am I, I thought.

“End of day I’ll give you the final answer.” He coughed again and walked away.

I walked out from behind the screen. I noticed the others watching me. I did not know what else to do. I went to my post. John Comet. I could not stop thinking of him. On the grass in the park the night before. It was better to put my mind there, the wet muscular darkness, and our breath, to be somewhere other than here. And then there he was. His luggage rolling behind him. A different suitcase today, one I had never seen. Many compartments. I tried to look professional, for the last time.

“May I see your ID?”

“Certainly.”

He smiled, his beautiful bright smile. It made me ache to see it. “Where are you going?”

“Today. Philadelphia.”

“For what purpose?”

He took a breath. “Not sure.”

“Sir,” I said. “For what purpose?”

He looked at me. He blinked. “Family,” he said.

I handed him his driver’s license. “Proceed,” I said.

So he walked on. Barefoot by the conveyor. Trudging on to somewhere. His innocence was illustrious and galling. My whole body was a question mark. About the mechanics of everything in the world.

Lester was looking at us. I followed his gaze. He was watching John Comet, who was standing, like anyone, while his luggage went through the X-ray machine. The lines were slow today, people somber, trembling. Everyone thought everyone else would blow things up.

Some of the beetles started to crawl out of the suitcase, gliding green jewels. They were beautiful in their gaudiness.

And now Lester was standing. He was walking toward the X-ray machine. He was putting his hand on John Comet’s shoulder.

“Sir, can you step here for a moment. We want to take a look at your bag,” Lester said.

John Comet‘s face was white. “Why?” he asked.

“Sir, we’re on orange alert,” said Lester.

John Comet walked with Lester to a corner. I stood at my podium. I could see Lester start to unzip the bag. There were many compartments on the outside to unzip. One. Nothing. Two. Nothing. John Comet stepped forward. Three. Lester lifted a baggie full of lettuce and examined it. John Comet shook his head. Lester opened the baggie and sniffed the lettuce. He opened the main suitcase and lifted the lid. John Comet stepped forward and held his hand over the suitcase, as though to warm his palms.

“What the hell?” Lester said.

The beetles were crawling inside the suitcase. I could see them, the four large ones, their shimmering shells, the almost dainty way they made their way across the suitcase. There were not just four. There were more, there were smaller ones, dozens, all of them moving like a shimmering square of purple/green silk. The other passengers stopped as they walked by. There were gasps. Some of the beetles started to crawl out of the suitcase, gliding green jewels. They were beautiful in their gaudiness, their pure beetle-ness, but others didn’t think so. A woman shrieked. Lester slammed down the lid.

“Agriculture!” called Lester. “For god’s sake. Get them on the phone.”

A man placed his ID on the podium. I did not take it.

“Miss?” the passenger said, annoyed. “I have a flight to catch.”

I looked at him. I stepped away from the podium, leaving the passenger standing, boarding pass in his hand. I was running. “No,” I shouted. The word pierced the air; no one was supposed to shout here. I wanted to shout more. John Comet was looking around the security area. His eyes were burning, and his face reddened; now it was all over, for he looked as though he were going to burst. Lester. He was going to remove him, in a moment, he was going to apprehend his luggage, take the beetles, charge John Comet with god knows what. John Comet was looking for me. I knew this.

I thought of my parents just then, how they rushed through the door to the car that night, I thought of John Comet, standing, collar limp with heat, on a sidewalk in Miami, watching his son from across the street. I thought of how I did not know how I would be able to walk out of this airport now, how I would go on to the next thing.

And then I was running to John Comet, before they arrested him, I was running through the security area so fast the others looked up. I wanted to reach him before they took his suitcase full of the beetles he loved, those puzzled, glimmering creatures, before I could reach forward, before I could rescue them.

G

Author Image

Karen E. Bender’s story collection Refund: Stories will be published by Counterpoint Press in January 2015. She is also the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Narrative, The Harvard Review, and other magazines. Her work has also been selected for Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Pushcart Prize. Visit her at karenebender.com.

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