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Launching Pad

Michael Rectenwald

I liked it that she’d called me Michael.

I was going to pick up my second wife’s stepdaughter of her third marriage. That was supposed to feel normal. That is, according to my second wife, my second ex. She didn’t exactly say that it was supposed to feel normal. That was just how she sounded on the telephone. Meet her at the airport, she said. It was her habit, telling people what to do. That was the best thing about our marriage. She told me what to do. Since I didn’t know what to do, somebody had to tell me. It was good that she did.

How did I get into these things? I thought, as I stood beside the bathtub, waiting for the shower to get hot. She called me up, said that her stepdaughter was coming to town. She was coming to look at a school. What did that mean, “Look at a school?” I thought about that when she said it, “Look at a school.” Maybe she was a demolition expert, sizing it up and figuring where to put the dynamite? Or a painter? But I knew what it meant. She was thinking of going there to college. When I hesitated, she said, well, you’re not working are you?  What she meant to say was that I wouldn’t be too busy, would I? But she never said things that way. She had to put some spin on the ball, “You’re not working are you?” She said Julie didn’t know anyone else in Pittsburgh, could I meet her and let her stay at my place a couple days? She said, you know, it’s Julie, Frank’s youngest. Frankly, I didn’t. But what did it matter?  As for the working, I was, and I wasn’t. But I wasn’t going to try and explain that to her. She never cared to understand before.

When I said I was “going to pick her up,” I meant I was going to drive to the airport to meet her. I agreed to do it. And now here I was getting ready to go. I took a shower, and got dressed. Then I decided I better clean up a bit. I emptied the ashtrays and threw out some newspapers. I gathered up my dirty clothes and put them on the floor of my closet. The place was as close as it was going to get to a college dormitory. My second ex had called on Thursday, and now it was Saturday. Short notice, I thought. What did she expect, fresh paint?

It was getting near time to go. I decided to have some coffee first, and went into the kitchenette. I took out the old grinds from the coffee maker, threw them in the trash, and put in a new filter. I loaded four scoops in. Then I stood holding the thing and looking at the fresh grinds a few seconds, almost absently. The dope. I’d forgotten to hide the dope. It was on top of the turntable, on the dresser in living room/bedroom. I went in and put it in the underwear drawer. I figured she wouldn’t be looking in there. I wonder if college kids still smoke the stuff? I thought. I went back and poured water into the coffee machine. I stood there watching the coffee drip into the glass pot. Then I thought, don’t just stand there; get your cup ready. I opened the cupboard where I knew the cups were, and picked up one of the bigger ones. This particular cup had writing on it. It had the word “Navy” on it, beside a figure of some kind of ram holding an anchor. I never thought about it before, but now I wondered what I was doing with this cup? I never went to Navy, nor did I know anyone who did? Oh well, I thought, it’s a coffee cup just the same. I filled the cup a little over half full, and added some powdered cream. I started drinking the coffee when I realized I didn’t have time to stand there drinking coffee; I had to get going.

Half way to the airport I started thinking about where I was going to park the car while I went in to the baggage claim area to meet the girl. I’ll just leave it outside the door on the baggage claim level, I thought. Then I realized that I’d left the little piece of paper with the airline and flight information back at the apartment. Damn it, it’s too late to go back. I know the flight arrives at 12:05, I thought, but I don’t remember which airline. I’ll have to drive around the baggage claim level, I thought. I’ll just keep circling till I find her. When she doesn’t find me inside, she’ll come outside looking. She’s tall and thin, with long jet-black hair. You can’t miss her. That’s what she said.

I got to the airport and followed the signs to the arrival area. I drove slowly around the semicircle, looking for the tall dark girl. I started worrying after five or so laps. Where the hell is she? I thought. After a couple more laps, I parked the car, and got out. I was starting to get mad. How on earth do I get into such things? Then I started worrying for the girl.  She was probably upset. Well, in case she doesn’t know it yet, the world’s not perfect. I walked back and forth outside. I looked in each door. After about ten minutes of doing this, I went inside. I looked at my watch. It was 12:45.

I looked for a moving conveyor belt. The one on the very end was still moving. There were a couple of suitcases all by themselves going around in circles. When I got to the baggage conveyor, I looked up at the lighted sign. It read: USAIR FL 325. Then I remembered. This was the flight. I rushed around looking for the girl, not really seeing anything I was looking at. Then I noticed a pair of legs of a person whose upper body was hidden by a telephone cubicle. Even in the middle of this minor panic, I couldn’t help looking at these legs. They were the legs of a woman. They were gorgeous. Moreover, they were bare – no stockings. That is something an older man likes, I thought, bare legs. What are you doing thinking about these legs right now? There’s a girl missing, I reminded myself.

I walked in a wide arc around this baggage stile, trying to see 180 degrees at a time. I retraced this semicircle a couple times. Then I stopped in my tracks at the top center of the arc and just stared without looking at anything. I was on the other side of the phones. I looked at what was attached to the legs. There were some very shapely hips, and long wavy black hair that nearly reached the waistline. It was the girl. I stood there facing her back. She held the phone to her ear, waiting. She wasn’t talking. She was in white denim shorts that fit tightly, wrapped with a very narrow belt around a diminishing waist. I couldn’t believe it! This was little Julie who was going to be staying with me for a couple days in my no bedroom apartment.

There was a nervous hesitation in my body as I approached to tap her on the back. My limbs sputtered. I felt like some jerk needlessly asking a strange woman for a light of his cigarette. But I put it in my head: you’re the elder who’s going to look after this young girl. She’s relying on your kindness and experience.

She turned around, without a hint of being startled. She stood there, looking blankly at me, not thinking about what was in front of her eyes. She was thinking about what she was hearing, or not hearing, in the phone.

“Are you Julie,” I asked.

After a few seconds she realized that I was he, the guy sent to pick her up.

“Oh … Michael!” she said.

“Yeah, I’m … Michael.” I was thinking of saying more, that I was hers or one of her stepmother’s ex-husbands. That is, of her stepmothers, I was one ex-husband of one, Glenda, in particular. Of Glenda’s three ex-husbands, I was her first, to be exact. But Glenda was my second wife. I have two ex-wives, and I’m married to a third, although, of course, we’re separated.

I skipped it. I was a bit surprised to hear this girl call me Michael, though. I didn’t know what she’d call me. I hadn’t thought about it. But now I thought she might have called me Uncle Mike. Or Mr. Becker. I liked it that she’d called me Michael. I’ve always thought that was the affectionate version of my name. I didn’t mind her being affectionate with me. But I was nervous.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said. “You were probably worried.”

She tilted her head ever so slightly to one side, and threw her hair back behind her shoulder. She laughed and said, “I didn’t think I’d be stood up.”

“Good,” I said, “Because I had the hardest time finding the right baggage area. I just couldn’t find it.

“Do you have any bags?”

“Yeah, they’re over there.” She pointed to the baggage conveyor belt. Hers were the two bags going around by themselves. I felt worse, thinking those abandoned bags were hers.

“Well let me get them. My car’s right outside. We’ll try to make this a good stay for you.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will be a good time,” she said.

I rushed over to the conveyor belt and chased the bags and grabbed them before they had a chance to turn the corner to the other side. They felt like a hundred pounds each. I hoisted them off, and scooted over beside her. I hurried along, pointed with my head and told her my car was outside over this way; let’s go out this door over here. The bags were so heavy that my arms were fully extended, and I had to hunch my shoulders. I scurried along with short, pained steps. I watched her walking beside me. She was gliding along, with just the right length of step. There was absolutely no wind resistance against her perfectly smooth, tan, supple body.

When we got through the automatic door, I said, do you mind waiting just one second? I had felt my hair sliding and was afraid my bald spaces might be showing. I sat the bags down, as if I were merely resting. I ran my hands through my hair, trying not to be noticed. I figured I might as well tuck my shirt in while I was at it. The old fitted oxford cloth was tight around my waist. I must look ridiculous, I thought. I felt awkward next to her.

I picked the bags back up. I turned my head slightly to look over at her. She smiled at me. I thought that I must have been misinterpreting things. The smile appeared seductive. She’s probably just humoring you, dummy, I thought. Young girls don’t mean anything with a smile like that. She doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing. She’s trying to make you feel better.

On the way back to the apartment I felt a tense silence in the car. I didn’t know what on earth to say or do. What was I supposed to do? I thought maybe I should show her around the city. But then I thought, she’s not here for you to show her around. You’re just giving her a place to stay. It’s not your place to do anything more. I couldn’t help sneaking looks at her legs. They were so young and fresh. They were naked. I wonder if she knows this, I thought? Could she know the madness this put in a man’s mind? At such an age? Does she have to be so damn friendly? What’s she doing being so friendly? I looked at her; she smiled. I looked back to the road. I looked back to her; she smiled again. It was too much. I felt myself starting to get mean. I had to be mean. It was the only way I could feel. If I felt anything else I’d have been a fool. But now I was feeling like a mean fool. How else could you act in such a situation, when a girl’s too friendly and attractive for her own good?

Finally she spoke, as if to break the ice. “What do you think of Chatham College?”

I didn’t think anything of Chatham College. I couldn’t think of anything to say, never having had a single thought about it. I tried hard to think of something. Nothing was on the top of my mind. I grew tense trying to think. It was an all-women’s school. That’s good, I thought.

“It’s an all-women’s school,” I said, “That’s good.” I took another look at her legs. That’s good, I thought. It’s an all-women’s school.

I never thought of myself as a failure. But here was this beautiful girl, Frank’s youngest, asking me what I thought about schools. And just now I thought that might not be such a good idea. I mean, with three wives, and ten times that many jobs behind me, and four kids living away, two in a step home, and two in a double step home … When Glenda and I split, our two kids, Michelle and John went with her. They lived for a while with her, and eventually with her and her second husband, Tom. Then she met Frank. When she divorced Tom for Frank, the kids, Michelle and John, ended up going to Tom. That’s the double step home. My first two kids, Michael and Elizabeth, live with their mother, Rita, my first wife, and her second husband, Pete.

“Well, I just thought, you know. I heard you were a professor, so I thought you knew about schools and stuff.”

Julie said this as if sensing what I’d been thinking. Glenda must have told her that. That I was a professor. I was never a professor. I happened to have taught Art in a few universities. That hardly made me a professor. That was like Glenda. She enhanced the positions of people that she knew. That made some kind of difference to her.

I thought about explaining that the quality of the schools I taught at didn’t matter to me, that I took teaching jobs just to earn money, and what I cared about was my work. Then I thought, don’t tell her that. The kid hasn’t even started college yet. I was more nervous now. This went beyond the shape of my apartment. It was about being more than a place for Julie to stay. I hoped she wasn’t looking to me to show her the school.  I didn’t say anything for now. I didn’t want to shatter any hopes. About school, or anything else.

I told her, Yeah, I’m sure Chatham’s a good school.

We arrived at my apartment.

We’re here, I said, and got out to get her bags out of the trunk. By the time I had the bags in hand, Julie was at the door waiting for me to let her in. I carried the bags to the door and looked at her. I sat the bags down and pulled the keys from my pants pocket. I inserted the key, and turned. I pushed the door open. Julie walked in. She seemed to be very comfortable, like she wasn’t a guest, but someone who’d been in my apartment before.

“It smells like something’s burning,” she said. She was already in the kitchenette. “Michael, you left the coffee on!”

Julie went over to the coffee maker and pulled the plug. A black sludge sizzled on the bottom of the glass pot.

“I’m going have to clean this out,” she said, holding up the pot to show me.

I hauled the bags into the living-room/bedroom. Julie took to cleaning out the pot with a scrub brush. I felt bad that she had just arrived and was already cleaning my pot.

And that my opinion about things counted to her. And that this place was perhaps the launching pad for her future.

When she was done, I apologized for the condition of the apartment. She said there was nothing to he sorry for. I told her there was only the couch bed, so I’d sleep on the floor. She said there was no reason for me to sleep on the floor. She said we could share the bed. I trust you, she said, laughing.

I wondered what the woman had in mind. Glenda, that is. Did she think she owed me something? Or, that I owed her? Was she trying to set me up? Or, was Frank looking for a good reason to kill me? Glenda had no reason to set me up. I didn’t have anything. And Frank couldn’t care much less if I lived or died. I think I only saw him once. No, the thing was, Julie was to look at a school. And I was supposed to be a professor.

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Johanna says on June 19th, 2013 at 2:11 pm:

I like the Woody Allen meets Twilight vibe, good stuff, I hope the fuck in the next installment. I was reading it, and the whole time, I was saying to myself, ‘shit, this is some good sexual tension, I hope they fuck’. You’ll be the next E. L. James at this rate. Keep up the good work!