Rachel Skerritt is second-place winner of the Essence Short Fiction Contest
Myli tried her best to mold her face into what she believed an upstanding citizen should look like. Not that she wasn't indeed just that. But as the burly pink-faced customs officer scrutinized both her weathered passport and her widened pupils, she made an extra effort to show her sincerity in all of its patriotic colors.
"Reason for traveling to France." He said it as a declarative sentence, with no questioning intonation, but demanding a prompt response nonetheless.
"I was visiting my parents. They live there." He gave her brown skin and permed- straight hair a sideways glance, silently suspicious at the notion of black people residing in Western Europe. So she decided to add the critical detail. "Military."
She could see his shoulders relax and his eyes almost reveal a twinkle as he picked up the stamp, forcefully imprinted a page in her passport, and handed the slightly worn book to her with a flourish. "Welcome home, Ms. Thompson."
She couldn't help but smile brightly in return before she readjusted the heavy bag on her shoulder, stuffed the passport inside, and followed the arrows to baggage claim. The return trip was always a nightmare for luggage, as her penchant for souvenirs tended to weigh down her already brimming suitcases. Daniel's gonna have something smart to say, of course. He'd roll his eyes at the extra shopping bag in her hand, sighing loudly as he stuffed it into the back seat of his Audi.
Myli shook her head to herself, annoyed at Daniel's overbearing practicality, but also felt a flutter in her chest at the thought of seeing him after three weeks. Walking the streets of Paris with just a journal as company sounded way more romantic that it actually was. She missed him more than she ever had when she spent those five days on her own, walking the Champs Elysées, listening to jazz in the Latin Quarter, staring at the stark colors in the Picasso Museum. Everywhere she turned, people in love were holding hands, hugging, kissing. Doing even more than that, she thought as she amusedly remembered that one couple in the park. Well, maybe that was lust. But still.
What an odd feeling it was, head over heels in love with Paris but hating the notion of staying another day there alone. She called Daniel after thirty-six hours, desperate to see him, trying to entice him with all of the experiences they could share if he boarded a plane that evening. "Myli, you're crazy! Do you know how expensive tickets would be at the last minute like this? Plus, you only have a few days left there anyhow."
She bit her tongue. She could have argued that she didn't mind extending the length of her trip, and she could have easily mentioned the raise he just got at his firm. What else should a lawyer in his twenties be spending money on She couldn't remember the last time he took even one day of his three weeks vacation. But raising these points would have achieved nothing but increased annoyance on his part and anger on hers. In the three years they'd been together, she had learned a long time ago when to drop a discussion.
None of these trivial tiffs mattered though, because she was home now. And as much as Myli loved to travel, she maintained that there was no better feeling on earth than stepping off an airplane and seeing the smiling face of the one who was left behind. Daniel knew her sentimental feelings regarding airport pick-ups. He had to do it often enough, with her parents being stationed all over the world and his rarely being able to accompany her.
He was so jealous of the lifestyle that her freelance writing afforded her, although he could never admit it. Instead, he scorned her occupation, teasing her about her ignorance of the everyday man's nine to five schedule. She hated his dismissive tone when a referred to her "office," the extra room in their apartment that stored her books and computer. He knew she hated that tone. And he hated that he couldn't stop using it.
Timeliness was one of Daniel's greatest attributes, so Myli was confident as she collected her second stuffed suitcase and rolled them toward the exit that Daniel's oak-like build, acorn-brown complexion, and walnut-shaped eyes would manifest themselves before her.
No such luck.
She stepped into the oppressive air of Philadelphia summer and collided with a hot gust of wind that smacked her on the mouth. As she tasted the pollutants on her tongue, she realized that she had inhaled more car exhaust than fresh air, which only served to double her aggravation. Instinctually, she reached into her left jacket pocket for her cell phone. But as soon as she felt its metal smoothness in her hand, she released her grip, remembering the cell phone was dead. The denim jacket that had shielded her from the over-zealous air conditioning on the plane was now sweltering, but Myli was too burdened with bags to bother taking it off. Daniel will be here soon.
And her silent wish was granted when, ten feet in front of her, the crowds parted and revealed Daniels confident stature, freshly cut fade, and the short-sleeved checkered shirt that Myli had bought him the year before and had long abandoned the hope of ever seeing him wear. She smiled widely enough to reveal a single dimple in her left cheek. His tuned back gave her the perfect opportunity to sneak up on him, something that he always did to her. She looked around at all of her luggage, eyed an armed guard standing nearby, and decided her valuables were fairly safe.
She did a brisk version of the tiptoe, quickly approaching Daniel, sliding her arms around his waist. His middle felt chiseled, not the soft stomach that she'd left weeks ago. He's probably been to gym every day since I left. Then he turned around. "Oh my God! I'm so sorry. This is so embarrassing." Myli folded and unfolded her arms several times as she stared into a face that was not her boyfriend's. While he did possess Daniel's rich brown skin tone, this man's eyes were narrow, exposing just enough of his pupils to reveal their honey coloring. His lips were fuller than Daniel's, Myli noted as he watched her with an amused expression, pulling in his mouth momentarily. At the sight of his now-moistened lips parting to reveal a seemingly endless row of square, white teeth, Myli felt something in her stomach. And it was no longer embarrassment.
"Don't worry about it." His voice was low and silky, like a late night deejay, and his words drew her in like a high-powered magnet. It almost hurt her neck to turn away and check on her bags, abandoned orphans on the sidewalk. Once she broke her gaze
though, it was easier to stay grounded in reality, and she rushed back over to her belongings before she could humiliate herself any further.
Her heart was still pounding from the awkwardness of it all when there he was again. "Waiting for someone?" he asked with an almost amused lilt in his voice.
"Uh huh." Her answer barely squeaked past the knot in her throat, and she hated the way her voice sounded to her eyes. His slanted lids masked the full movement of his eyes, but Myli could still sense his X-ray vision assessing every inch of her: once-white travel sneakers, form fitting khakis, bare midriff, stiff jean jacket, and a round face that glowed with the sun's heat and encompassed two glossy lips, a delicate nose, and lowered eyes, which had the potential to open wide like saucers.
When was the last time Daniel looked at me like that? If she wanted him to notice something about her appearance, she'd have to be the one to point it out. "Honey, what do you think if I flip my ends up instead of bumping them under?" He would barely look at her before answering, "Any way you wear your hair is beautiful babe." Thinking that was the right answer. Wrong.
"Do you mind if I keep you company while you wait?" An innocent enough question. But Myli heard something lurking underneath the surface of his words. Still, she was powerless to say no. Instead, she cocked her head slightly to the side, as if to say it was his call.
To avoid uncomfortable silence's impending stranglehold, he studied her paraphernalia for a conversation starter. At the sight of the tag on her carry-on, his caramel lips parted and turned upwards.
"Are you from Hawaii?" She laughed at the absurdity of his question. "No. Why?"
"Maile is a Hawaiian flower. I thought your name might be a derivative."
Something about the way he said "derivative" sent waves of warmth down her spine. The only four syllable words that Daniel ever used were legal terms, like "litigation" and "testimony." He'd get exasperated when she tried to bring "fancy words" into their fights, such as when she called his work ethic indefatigable to a fault and his capability for romance incommensurate to hers.
She silently scolded herself at her failure to remember her Hawaiian connection. "My parents are military. They were stationed there when they had me and changed the spelling to make it easier for the masses."
"Fuck the masses. You shouldn't have to dumb shit down for them." Harsh words, but he flashed his Chiclet-like teeth to take the edge off of the statement. Myli knew that she should be offended, but she wasn't. She was actually impressed by his ease with profanity. You had to wonder about a guy who could identify tropical flowers and toss a curse word around in the same breath. He'd officially intrigued her. She was about to start asking some questions of her own when the sound of his voice made her forget the words assembling on her tongue.
"So where do your folks live now?"
"France. I just got back from visiting them, actually." She waved her hand above her suitcases, as if to prove her statement legitimate. That's when she noticed that he didn't have any bags. He must be waiting for someone.
"Are you picking up your girlfriend?" I can't believe I just asked him that. Daniel would have a fit. Not because he'd be jealous, but because he hated the way she asked people inappropriate questions.
The man gave her a long look, almost trying to see through her exterior in order to discover the true reasoning behind her question. "Nope. Don't have one. And I'm presuming that you don't have one either. A boyfriend I mean."
Myli felt her cheeks getting warm. Did my question make me look desperate? She had to douse those fires immediately. "Actually, I do." He caught her defensive tone and put up his hands in mild surrender. "My bad. A woman who looks the way you do - I should have known. But you just said you were coming from France, and you're all by yourself. Did you go to Paris?"
"I spent a few days there."
His eyebrows, perfectly shaped rectangles, raised in surprise. "I can't believe you went to the most romantic city in the world with only your parents to keep you company." His narrow eyes were practically laughing at her.
"My parents couldn't go, so I went on my own."
"Tu es une femme tres independente, oui?"
Myli almost fell off the suitcase that she was propped against. An African-American man who spoke French with a flawless accent. She was a sucker for foreign languages. (Of course, Daniel made no effort to become bilingual in high school or college. He'd studied Latin instead, figuring it would be helpful when learning terminology in law school). Ordinarily, Myli would have jumped at the opportunity to practice her French, but her accent was so inferior that she was too bashful to utter even a syllable.
"I guess I'm pretty independent, yes."
"Et ton petit ami est tres stupide. Une belle femme comme toi cherche un autre amour bientot."
This is crossing too many lines. "My boyfriend isn't stupid. He's just busy. And I don't plan to find any other love interests anytime soon, thank you." She tried to look directly at him as she firmly gave her response, but his playful expression was threatening to make her laugh.
"So your man is busy, huh? If I were your man, I don't care how hectic life got. I wouldn't keep you waiting at the airport."
The smirk that was tugging at Myli's lips disappeared at the sound of his pseudo-chivalrous comment. It really wasn't like Daniel to keep her waiting. What if something happened to him? She suddenly felt guilty, conversing with this attractive man while Daniel could be hurt or stranded somewhere.
Myli's temporary companion noticed the crease in her forehead and the sudden nervous shifting of her feet. His expression changed from mocking to sympathetic. "I'm just teasing you. How about you give your man a call, see where he is."
She was relieved by his kindness, and a warm affection for this stranger spread through her chest. "I think I will. Do you have a cell phone I can borrow?"
He shook his head. "I don't. But you can use that," jutting his chin toward an unoccupied payphone several feet away.
Myli couldn't remember the last time she used a payphone. She felt her wallet in her right jacket pocket. The lack of coins in the zipper compartment made it feel very slim. She definitely didn't have enough change to place the call. I guess I could call collect.
"Cool. Could you stand here until I get back? I don't want to lug all this stuff with me. I'm sweating enough as it is."
"I won't move a muscle." He gave her a reassuring grin as she set down the bag that had been creating an imprint in her shoulder, and jogged over to the payphone. Staring the whole time at her pile of bags, she dialed the operator, rattled off Daniel's cell number, and suddenly his voice, along with quite a bit of static, was coming through the receiver.
"Myli, there's a crazy accident on 76. I just got past it. I'll be there soon." His fatigue and frustration resonated even through the bad reception.
"No problem, hon. Love y-" But as she finished her goodbye, she realized that he was already gone. She commanded herself not to be mad, gently hung up the phone, and walked back to her bags and her new friend, who, as promised, was standing in the exact same place that she left him.
"Everything okay?" Genuine concern. Myli let the feeling wash over her like warm bath water.
"Everything's fine. He'll be here in a few. Thanks for watching my stuff... I'm sorry, I don't even know your name."
He extended his arm, and when she him her hand, he brought it to his mouth and gently kissed it. "You can just call me the Good Samaritan."
Electricity traveled from Myli's fingers all the way to her brain, making her giggly and light-headed. She fought for a clever comeback. "In order for me to call you that, you'd have to do more for me than just watch my luggage.
Still holding her hand, he gently pulled her closer. "Well I'd like to do a whole lot more for you than that.
The rational side of Myli knew that she should be yanking her hand away, but she was enjoying the tingling on her skin and the excited flipping in her stomach. Suddenly a car horn blared loudly right in front of them. They both started at the sound, and he released her hand abruptly. It was a station wagon, and the driver was motioning to the family standing behind them. Thank God. She hadn't been caught, but the incident had succeeded in killing the moment, and Myli was level headed once more.
"You should go. My boyfriend will be here soon." Her own reluctance at saying those words shocked her. She wasn't ready to say goodbye. "Maybe we can keep in touch?" What am I doing?
"I'd love that. But I don't think it would work for either of us. You, with your man, and me with my...job."
It occurred to Myli that she didn't know a single thing about this man. Several times she'd wanted to probe - ask him what he was doing at the airport, where he learned French, why he knew about Hawaiian flowers. But it had been hard enough holding up her end of the conversation, with his sexy eyes boring holes into her face. Even now, it was all she could do to ask the logical follow-up inquiry: "What do you do?"
A pause. "It's complicated. Forces me to be on the go all the time."
She wanted more details. She wanted to fill in all the missing pieces of his enticingly mysterious profile. But the questions were lodged so far back in her throat that she couldn't expel them into the air. She swallowed hard.
"Goodbye, Myli. You are a beautiful person. I wish I could know you better." "Same here." She didn't want him to walk away, though she knew it would be the sensible thing for him to do.
"This is going to sound crazy. Feel free to say no." Myli eagerly awaited his request, knowing that she wouldn't refuse it, no matter what it was. "Can I kiss you?" It was almost a whisper, simultaneously hesitant and aggressive, sensual and sensitive.
It was crazy. She knew it was. First, she didn't even know this man's name. Second, they were surrounded by travelers, taxi drivers, even an official with a gun in his holster. Public displays of affection were fine in Paris. Definitely not appropriate in Philly. And finally, even more insane than anything else, was the fact that Daniel could, at any second, drive right up to her and witness the entire spectacle.
With all of these factors in mind, she allowed herself to be pulled into his body by a guiding hand on her waist, and submitted to a gentle finger on her chin, raising her face to his. Their lips brushed each other's lightly at first, and then with increasing intensity. Myli savored each sensation, from their tongues meeting in hungry sweeps, to his hand rubbing her back, tugging on her jacket and moving inside, tracing lines on her shirt, drawing her as close to him as possible.
And as quickly as it all had begun, it ended. He stepped away from her with his hands behind his back, seemingly embarrassed at the passion that he had just displayed. Myli, equally ashamed, barely looked at him as he took backward steps, increasing the distance between them.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." And with that, he turned his back to her and practically ran inside the terminal.
Myli's thoughts were swirling inside her head. She had just kissed a stranger. A gorgeous, worldly stranger, but a stranger nonetheless. And the kiss was more wonderful than any kiss she'd ever shared with Daniel. Her nameless companion clearly loved to travel, as did she. Maybe it was all fated. Daniel was supposed to be late so that she could meet...him. Whoever he was.
That's it. I gotta find him. The policeman was positioned just a few steps away from her now. If she ran and caught up with her admirer, no one would dare steal her bags. She could just rush inside, slip him her information, and tell him to contact her the next time he was in town. Better yet, perhaps she could meet him abroad somewhere. They could hike through the South American rain forest, or safari in East Africa.
Breathless from the excitement of her decision, Myli reached into her jacket pocket for a business card. And her eyes opened wide like saucers. Right then, she realized what the unexplainable something was that had been lurking underneath the stranger's words. Because there was no longer a business card in her pocket. Nor was there a wallet. Or a cell phone. Only Myli herself was left inside her jacket, joined solely by her guilt in one pocket and the stranger's betrayal in the other.