But I Swear It was Real

There was no mistaking the leopard print suitcase on the airport’s baggage carousel. I couldn’t imagine a great many people who would travel with something so loud and visually offensive. But I love my animal print and its brassy look has saved countless precious moments searching through the ubiquitous black canvas bags as they slid down the tin turnstile and slowly rotated in search of their owners’ acknowledged possession.

Traveling much of the globe for both work and pleasure I have found myself all too often at the mercy of closely-booked connecting flights always inconveniently departing from gates at opposite sides of the airports.

That wasn’t the case this time. This trip was turning out to be so flawless, so enjoyable, so heart-palpating almost to the point of having me questioning when I would pop the zipper on my bag or when I would stumble and break the heel from the bottom of my boot.

Don’t think about it, Dag, I kept reminding myself. History having a tendency to repeat itself, the unnecessary credence that I’d give worry would serve as the assurance of the worst absolutely happening, so I shook off the ever-threatening panic and took off my coat as I’d clutched the leather handle of my bag to heave it from the carousel.

An electrified trickle of sweat beaded from the back of my hairline to the top of my shirt’s collar dripping a combination of nervousness, anticipation and the unknown. The walk from the gate where my plane had landed to the baggage collection area had worked up a sweat on me and it jolted the realization that I had arrived. All of this time waiting and preparing had finally culminated in me now standing where I couldn’t have imagined I’d ever be.

He’d invited me to visit after only a few brief chats; one phone call, multiple emails and several late night instant messaging sessions proved to us both that there was sufficient attraction. Interests in common and endless laughter that we shared over some of the quirkiest, darkest, most insane topics sparked a hunger in me that I’d not only believed that I’d hidden away too long ago to remember, but had just completely lost forever.

The guy is genuinely drawn to me. I haven’t scared him away. My personality doesn’t offend him, I marveled to myself for weeks. What am I doing wrong? Something will happen; it always manages to backfire.

Along with my brown and black patterned baggage came the emotional carry-ons. It’s so much easier to manage when there isn’t another human being watching, being let into the damage, allowed to know or try to understand. Rummaging through the silt that had come to lay at that deep well came considerably more difficult than did rifling through my drawers for the clothes to pack.

All I could do was expect the worst and hope for the best as I would always do.

That giddy feeling of romantic connection clogged my thoughts for days as I meticulously sorted and resorted every shoe and piece of jewelry in neatly formed rows at the bottom of my case. Montrose described in such luscious and vivid detail the places we would visit; the art gallery, the Italian restaurant, the architecture. And as surreal as all of it lived in my mind I wanted so much more of him than what he could show me. To sit and speak with a man whose life had been lived so successfully in the public eye, to pick his brain and hear his voice was what I craved the most.

The handsome celebrity had somehow noticed the page that I had created on a social media site. Either he or some assistant he employed to work his public relations had found one of my posts amusing or shocking enough to draw his attention. Though I’d occasionally read a post on his profile listing an up-coming appearance he’d be keeping or some new gadget that he’d been paid handsomely to endorse, I watched from afar – silent, admiring, a nameless face in a sea of adoring fans.

I’d never consider myself some nobody, but I still couldn’t grasp with any discernible comprehension why he would choose me over the millions of flirting wanna-be trophy blondes that would flip their cyber curls or bat their virtual eyelashes at him daily via a computer link.

But here I was, allowing myself to be mindlessly whisked away, my expectations minimal. I’d hold my breath to watch and wait and see what happened.

It was all too much to understand this dream that I’d never given one thought to being a possibility. The weight of the realization finally and completely landed on me as I pulled the tow handle from the top of my suitcase until it locked into place. Trickles of the previous drops of sweat were frozen into place and new ones traced heated paths over the tops of my shoulder blades. My hands shook under the coat I’d slung in the crook of my arm and could barely grip the handle tightly enough to tilt my bag and tote it along.

I closed my eyes, shook my elegantly curled hair and inhaled deeply. Just be you, Dagmara, I coached myself and exhaled. It’ll do you or him no good to try to be someone or something else. He knows you for you and that is what got you here in the first place.

Regaining my strength, I cocked my bag behind my at an angle to its wheels and yanked it sturdily behind me as I made my way to the door, and to where Montrose had told me his porter would await my arrival with the car to bring me directly to him.

As sure as the sun rose in the east that morning, a nondescript man dressed in a neatly fitted black suit and black tie stood holding a sign that bore my last name, a mannequin in the storefront window advertising the latest sale on men’s corporate attire. I kept my pace normal as I walked toward him and raised my hand to indicate that it was I who was named on his white tag board.

His acknowledgement of me was stiff and unemotional, and he stepped back from the line of chauffeurs seeking their own fares, not once moving his eyes from me. The white sheet dropped in his hand to his side and he stopped immediately in front of me.

“Are you Ms. Dagmara?” He inquired in a flat monotone drawl, still locked on me with his dead stare and his rubber face.

“I am,” I affirmed. “Will you be the one taking me to Montrose?”

Finally moving his head and his limbs, the inanimate character reached into the inner pocket of his coat and withdrew a simple business size white envelope. He held it out for me to take.

“Mr. Montrose sends his regrets,” were the only words the man uttered, his voice never wavering or changing.

“What do you mean, he sends his regrets? What’s going on?”

Obvious as it was that this man had no intention of addressing my confused wonder, I sped up behind him and took his arm.

“Hey, don’t just walk away from me,” I hissed at him, getting more heated by the second. “What do you mean that Montrose ‘sends his regrets’? Are you telling me that he’s just not meeting me this weekend? I flew all the way here – he paid for the plane tickets. This was planned weeks ago.”

The messenger looked indignantly at my hand as it released his elbow and he stared again at me with his vacant direction.

“There’s a note in the envelope. Mr. Montrose sends his regrets.” With that he turned his back to me yet again and continued out the revolving glass door and disappeared into the crowd gathered on the curb.

There I stood – motionless, numb from disbelief, still holding in my grip the handle of my bag. In the other arm my coat had begun to slide down to my wrist and over the envelope I’d been handed. My mind hadn’t yet kicked in to formulate my next plan of action, but the bustling travelers pushing and shoving and colliding around me prompted me to move my feet elsewhere in an attempt to avoid the stampede.

Seeking out the smallest, darkest, farthest corner of the chaos that I could find and coming up zeroes, I finally parked my rolling bag and perched on the top of the rested handle. As I fumbled with the flap of the envelope, the tension and suspense of its contents burning my stomach, my palms sweated and my fingers turned to stone.

Inside the envelope I could see a folded piece of white paper and tucked in behind it was an airline ticket to return me home. It was for a flight that left in three hours…the last returning flight that day and for which I’d have to painfully kill time before boarding.

Ripping the folded paper from the envelope, I rapidly scanned the few handwritten words that were scrawled in black ink: “My work has taken me away unexpectedly. It just couldn’t be helped. I’m sorry. Montrose.”

The lump growing in my throat had metastasized, leaving me unable to swallow and my temperature shot into mercury.

“I knew it. I fucking knew it. It never fails. I’m such a gullible dumbass. I fall for this shit every single time. How can I continually be so stupid?”

That’s when the other half of my brain stepped in to answer in kind.

“You have to trust sometime, Dag. You can’t believe that everything that everyone says to you will always be a lie.”

That rebuttal was of little use or comfort and I found myself in a state of suspension unable to fret or cry or feel a great deal of anything. The rejection had numbed me to the bone; I surveilled the upper deck of the terminal, then back across the floor behind me as though paranoid that he was standing in the airport watching me. I’d gone insane and I’d grown despondent over having been duped, and I was convinced that this was some sort of test. Montrose was watching me from some hidden corner of the building to watch how I’d react to this sick surprise and at the last minute he’d jump out at me before I’d completely exited the building.

But I saw him nowhere in the wave of humanity that continued  scurrying and moving; no handsome celebrity jumping out with a bouquet of flowers to greet me, no unexpected bear hug from behind. He’d flown me hundreds of miles to his own turf only to abandon me and leave me to fend for myself in the airport without even having enough courage to face me in person.

If I could have been blessed at that very moment with one magical power it would have been the ability to snap my fingers to instantaneously transport me to anywhere else in the world, anywhere but that airport and preferably back to the comfort of my own home where I would be able to mourn in peace.

Very briefly did I remain in my uncomfortable position before stuffing my ticket and miserable correspondence into my purse and snapping loose the handle of my bag to drag it back to where I’d started this entire fateful journey.

Embracing my wounded resolve I walked with determination toward my assigned gate to check my bags, collect my boarding pass and then find the nearest bar or restaurant where I could drown my sorrows before departure. Step after step I walked harder and faster, buried in manic consideration of what I’d just experienced and the entire exercise.

The droning hum of the spinning wheels on my suitcase turned to a rhythmic clicking as I stepped onto a belt-driven moving walkway and I fell back against the right hand railing to allow the impatient passers-by to hustle along the express lane on the left. I watched every person that passed me but saw nothing; I retained no vision of the planes being fueled just beyond the window that I passed in slow motion. Everything around me was a sucking vacuum that allowed no sound or light and one that I’d been miserable slapped out of as the moving beltway came to an end.

Unaware of how immediately the floor had switched from conveyor belt to standard tile, I was mercilessly grounded on the balls of my feet and thrust forward. Reaching one free hand forward to break my anticipated fall, my hefty weighted suitcase had caught the edge of the floor and thankfully held tight. Still gripping the extended handgrip of my case held me back just enough to keep me from the direct face-plant, but just shy of an embarrassing coltish stumble before regaining my composure and balance.

And one that had snapped the heel off the bottom of my right boot.

One simple unintended step broke me into far more pieces than my boot heel. When I crouched over to retrieve the detached lift I pretended to survey the damage, hovering over my foot with my forehead rested on my knee and I wept uncontrollably. With the separation of my heel flooded the devastation that I’d endured that day; the emotional roller coaster on which I’d ridden, flung to and fro, side to side, finally lurching to its stomach-wrenching end and I couldn’t unlock my safety belt quickly enough to get the hell off of the track.

My vision flooded and the endless tears soaked my trousers but I had to keep my head down for the sake of maintaining some dignity out of all of this. Why? I lamented pitifully. Who does something so thoughtless, so cruel, so repugnant?

He never gave a damn to begin with. What a waste of good money on worthless plane tickets – I could have paid a month’s mortgage with what he spent on first class.

Still letting the tears fall where they may and still playing mock cobbler with my ruined footwear, I politely shooed away the one or two helpful souls that offered assistance.

I flipped off a few who had cursed me blocking their path and I inhaled deeply again while digging through my purse for my handkerchief, blotting my face and rising to the weight of my left foot and hobbled on the ball of my right.

Having regained a modicum of reasonable collection once I’d arrived at the ticket agent’s counter, I sighed in bitter relief that checking my bags and departure time went as smoothly as could be expected. With my arm still supporting my coat, my purse still slung on my shoulder and my exhausted palm still gripping my errant bootheel, I limped as respectably as possible to the closest bar I could find. That it was the ubiquitous chain restaurant found in almost any airport was irrelevant. I just simply wanted to get off my feet and flat onto my derriere and get some liquid salvation in front of me.

Heaving myself onto the lacquered bar stool, I stuffed the broken heel into an abandoned corner of my purse – it was doing me little good clutched in my hand and I needed to free up my grip for the chilled mug of beer that would very quickly be served me.

Hooking the one boot heel remaining into the wooden rung of my stool, I leaned into the back of the chair and tilted back my head. I closed my eyes. This isn’t my life. This can’t be happening to me. I must have “Yes, please screw me over” tattooed in fluorescent ink on my forehead.

I could feel the tears brewing again and I cooled the heat rising in me by sucking long and hard off my chilled beer, having barely noticed the suited man who’d come to occupy the seat next to me. I inhaled the subtle scent of the Kenneth Cole cologne that trailed in with him; the whiff launched into the next tirade of tangent tears and I turned away to my purse for my handkerchief and let my hair fall to my cheek and serve as shield to hide my wet depression from sight.

I wonder if Montrose smelled that good. I’ll never know – he didn’t even give me a chance to find out. What an unbelievable jerk.

The bartender set in front of my seat mate a double gin and tonic and I leaned back again, casually analyzing the man’s trouser leg and polished black shoe. His suit was a lovely gun metal gray and the hand resting on his knee was soft and clean with shiny manicured fingernails. The huge silver watch he wore on his right wrist displayed three different zones on a beautiful royal blue face.

He’s left-handed, I thought, thinking nothing odd timing of my observation. It’s just the way I’m wired – those little notices in my world keep me amused, if only ever so briefly. He’s also well-off; that suit is tailored. I wanted so badly to look at the man’s face, believing surely that someone adorned so sharply would be a nice sight to look upon and a welcomed distraction from my engulfing misery.

I looked at the watch on my own right wrist. I’m right handed but somehow got into the habit when I was young of wearing my watches on the same hand…no one had ever told me to do it otherwise.

Two hours to kill now and my beer was empty only temporarily; having an extremely attentive bartender pointing at my depleted mug with his eyebrows raised, I had another full beer placed in front of me within seconds and I thanked him kindly as I pulled it closer to me and tugged at the froth.

As the stranger next to me picked up his second drink, I nonchalantly flipped back my strand of hair and cocked my head just covertly enough for my glance toward him not to be noticed. But as I turned, his eyes unexpectedly met mine and he smiled.

“Cheers.” He raised his tumbler in my direction and sipped from the cocktail.

Embarrassed that I’d been caught investigating, I shifted my head again quickly and repositioned my puffy eyes downward. I said nothing; his acknowledgement incited in me some terror akin to being stalked by a machete-wielding madman and I clasped my hands in the crooks of my elbows to hide their shaking from view.

“A little uptight, aren’t you? Don’t worry – if I’m the worst person you encounter today, I’d say you’re doing pretty well.”

His pathetic attempt at humor enraged me and brought back to the forefront of my mind that the worst person I’d encountered that day hadn’t even been in the flesh.

“If that’s the best pick-up line you can formulate, you’ll need to do better than that,” I sourly countered.

I glared at the chuckle my snark had elicited from him.

“I’d also say that those eyes of yours would prove that I’m right,” he softened, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his double-breasted suitcoat. “Let me guess – you’re either going to or leaving someone who just has or will shortly break your heart. Am I close?”

Up to that point the majority of my day had left me in no mood to tolerate some armchair counselor; at that very moment of some complete stranger putting some organizational chart to my love life was – in my eyes – justified attempted homicide or at the bare minimum assault and battery.

“Your omniscience abounds,” I salted, immediately hating myself for even engaging in further shredding what little dignity I’d been able to cling to that afternoon. I bit my lip and waited for him to arise from his chair and walk away in a huff at the sting of my slight.

But he held fast and unwavering and smirked again before falling back into reticence. I turned to look directly at him, examining the details of the rest of him beyond his suit.

His salt and peppered hair was short and tapered at the nape of his neck, and flowed to one side of his face from where parted. He was a big man with thick features and massive hands.

His tan cheeks were pocked from either illness or rough living, and his voice was smooth as new-fallen virgin snow.

“I may be just some guy sitting at the bar next to you, but I can be a pretty good listener.”

I scoffed. “You don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to discuss it, and – no offense – but the last thing I need right now is a man’s perspective on anything. Thanks anyway.”

He shrugged. “Ok,” he moderated, “then just tell me your name. That’s a fair request – would you agree?”

Not normally one to lie – even at the little white level – I rapidly lost my typically-prided morality and responded cordially to his question.

“Fiona,” I heard the false moniker leave my lips. “My name is Fiona.”

The sophisticate handsomely reached out his hand to accept mine in introduction.

“Fiona. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Martin. That wasn’t so difficult now, was it?”

Treating his ridiculous question as rhetorical, I said nothing but caught the bartender’s attention and switched my preference from beer to Jameson’s whiskey on the rocks.

That seemed to somehow amuse my new-found companion and as he reached his hand out to garner the same attention of our server, I admired his white gold cufflinks adorned with Mother of Pearl stones. Having placed his own order for the same whiskey, he turned his wrist to provide me a better view of his jewelry.

“They’re Italian,” he mentioned humbly. “They caught my eye the last time I was in Rome. I just couldn’t pass them up. It seems that mine isn’t the only high-quality taste in gems.”

He motioned to the sapphire rings on my fingers. I quickly pulled my hands back to my lap. My actions surprised even me. I had no idea what I was doing. Under any other circumstances I would have been gushing over this gorgeous, well-to-do man working so hard to drum up some sort of civilized conversation.

But prior disastrous events of the day and my empty tummy quickly absorbing the drinks I’d ingested proved adversarial in my ability to give a damn about anything. And though proud of myself for having at least dropped my biting sarcasm, engaging the poor guy was proving more challenging than it should have been.

My mood and struggle seemed just as resistant to him as it was to me.

“I’m talking too much and you’re just not in the conversational mode. I get it. I didn’t mean to invade your space, Fiona. It was rude of me to do so.”

Not feeling badly enough about wallowing in my own pathetic self-pity, I was now zapped with the pang of guilt for having made him feel badly, as well.

That he was so nice and so patient and so adorable was cause enough to shine an even more-glaringly obvious light on how badly I chose men.

I let myself off the hook by convincing myself that I was simply never in the right place at the right time or in the presence of the right people.

Could I be now? He’s a guy at a bar in an airport, for God’s sake.

“No…Martin,” I began. “You’re not rude at all. In fact, you’re shockingly kind and I’ve been nothing but snide with you when all you’ve done is offer up some pleasant conversation. It’s I who owes you an apology.”

I jokingly put my index finger into his bicep and pressed, his firm and tight muscle under his suitcoat certainly hadn’t escaped my attention.

“What are you doing?” He looked down at my hand with a warm grin.

“Just checking.”

“Just checking?” He repeated. “What are you checking?”

I smiled back. “I just wanted to see if you were for real or if you were just a figment of my imagination.”

My quirkiness ignited an explosion of laughter from him and he shook his head.

“They don’t get more real than me, darlin’, I can promise you that.”

Unsure of what prompted me to do so, I checked my watch.

“Oh,” I gasped as I gulped the last of my drink. “I really need to get to my gate, Martin. That last thing I need today is to miss my plane.”

I hopped from my stool, having completely forgotten that my boot was sans one heel and I toppled into the bar’s railing.

“Easy there,” Martin caught my arm. “Maybe you need some help getting there?”

I shook my head. “It isn’t the booze – I broke the heel off my boot getting here.” I lifted my foot to corroborate my story.

“I’ll be fine. I limped here and I’ll limp back.”

The man elegantly stood to bid me adieu, towering over me as he turned to face me and he held out his hand.

“Fair enough. Be well, okay? I’ve enjoyed talking to you, Fiona. You strike me as deserving of so much better.”

His words served only to remind me of what I’ve always known, and the observation rekindled in me the lamentation of every worthlessly expended emotion that brought me to where I stood before him at that very moment.

Before the tears would fall again, I would need to leave Martin. I was fine with finding my seat and bawling on the plane; no one there was likely to notice let alone care that some passenger was suffering through a miserable trip somewhere.

“Thank you, Martin. It was very nice to meet you. You take care.”

And with that I turned on my one remaining heel, rifling through my purse for the ticket purchased by the wretched Montrose to take me as far away from him as possible.

Why me? Those were the two words that plagued my down the gangplank, through the aisle of the plane, into my seat and out the window staring at 30,000 feet that evening.

My flight was a blur. So was the animal print on my lovely luggage as I grabbed the handle in significantly less anticipatory glee than I had much earlier in that day. At that precise moment it had dawned on me that I had been unnecessarily dragging around my damaged boot for the entire day.

In my bag were three additional pairs of shoes that I had packed for my trip, any one of which I could have swapped out for a considerably more comfortable, and even, walk.

Of course. Perfect ending to a perfect day and proof positive that I am an idiot in more than one arena.

Despondent, exhausted and in dire need of a hot shower, I plopped my numbed behind on the stiff plastic chair and dropped my suitcase in front of me. I yanked at the zipper and angrily flipped back the top flap. It was blocked from its fall by a pair of shins dressed in fine gray linen.

That someone was standing over me and so closely was, at best, alarming; I shot up in defense and the back of my head met violently with the petals of the flowers this mysterious intruder held.

Unfazed by his unintended clumsiness, Martin seemed more adamant to make sure I understood why he was standing in front of me again.

“Hi there,” he chirped unceremoniously and thrust out the bouquet in a stiffened arm. “These are for you.” He knelt before me, the tilt of his head a sweet direction for me to accept his token of affection.

“What are you doing here?” I grew rigid and leery and scoped out the landscape behind him for the nearest security guard. “Are you stalking me or something?”

His beautiful smile broadened and he took the seat beside me.

“Sweetheart, you and I were on the same plane. You didn’t see me because I flew first class and you were in coach seating toward the rear of the plane. You wouldn’t have known I was there.”

Martin removed his suitcoat. “I live here, too, Fiona. Considerably fortuitous, wouldn’t you say?”

Still bouncing off his words and what glory they had the potential to bring, I shook my head.

“But, Martin, why the flowers?”

His broad shoulders heaved a shrug and he lowered his gaze. Employing his dashing brand of chivalry, he reached up and brushed my cheek every so delicately with his flawless finger.

“I swear that I am real.”