I admired Debby's neatly packed body as it wiggled toward baggage claim. I'd sent her ahead because I needed to place an important phone call I forgot to make before our flight left Atlanta for Seattle.
Marie answered on the first ring.
"Who is this?" Her voice was icy, suspicious.
"Honey, it's me." Who'd she think it was? Geez.
"Paul?" A feeble squeak.
"This better not be some sick joke."
"Yes, Marie. It's really me"
"Paul! Where ARE you?" Now she was crying and laughing. In seconds her emotions had whipsawed through a vast emotional spectrum: suspicion, meekness, sorrow, anger and now frantic elation.
I talked rapidly, trying to calm her. "Look, babe: I'm sorry I forgot to call earlier. I'm still in Atlanta," I lied. "I got bumped from my flight and can't get to Seattle 'til tomorrow."
Then she really began to cry. "Oh, Paul. I thought you were dead." Breathless sobs made her words barely decipherable.
"What are you talking about?"
"Didn't you hear the news? The plane you were supposed to be on crashed two hours ago. There were no survivors." She began wailing again.
I was too stunned to speak.
"Paul. Come home. I need you," Marie whimpered.
"I'll be there as soon as I can," I said quietly.
* * *
Four hours and three time zones earlier in Atlanta, Debby and I had watched and waved as my best friend, Curt Fields, boarded the doomed flight to Seattle. Now Curt was dead -- burned and mangled in a heap of twisted metal somewhere -- and I could have been killed, too.
Sagging against the pay phone in the Seattle airport, I rested my forehead on my arms. I could barely breathe.
A million thoughts and feelings swirled within me, but the most persistent were memories of the last time I'd seen Curt; it was also the first time I'd met Debby.
Curt and I had been late for the 3:30 flight out of Atlanta. Most of the people crowding into the gate area on this Friday were disheveled businessmen, like us. After getting our boarding passes, we found a place to lean against the wall.
A grating voice broke into the Muzak to announce that our flight to Seattle was over-booked, but ten volunteers willing to be bumped would get a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in the lower forty-eight states.
"Sounds like a great deal,” Curt said wistfully, "but I promised the kids I'd take them trick-or-treating tonight if I get home in time."
Just then a stunning brunette exuding leggy self-confidence strode past on her way to the check-in counter. She wore an elegant, thigh-high, tight-fitting Navy blue suit that accentuated her form, yet kept most things tastefully, but enticingly, out of view.
"Man, would I like to spend all night getting to know her," I remarked with a lecherous smirk. I tugged at my wedding ring, gradually easing it over my knuckle.
"Come on, Paul. Go home to your wife. Don’t do this to Marie," Curt pleaded as he watched me slip the gold band into my pocket.
I admired Curt. He was smart, funny, and had a well-developed sense of right and wrong. He'd let me know what he thought, but he'd also listen. Secretly, I wanted to be like him. I envied his sense of peace and purpose. He'd always ask questions that would make me think. Lately, the questions were prompting me to think that I needed to make some changes in my life. But knowing you need to change is not the same as wanting to change.
Ignoring Curt, I sidled over to The Brunette, ninth in line to claim her free ticket. I gauged her to be in her late twenties -- maybe five years younger than me. She was gorgeous enough to be a model, but not like those scrawny, sexless ones with the bored expressions; she was like the sensuous, full-bodied babes in the Victoria's Secret catalogues Marie gets in the mail all the time.
"So,” I said quietly, leaning close to the dainty diamond earring on her left lobe, "where in the continental United States do you plan to go?"
I caught the scent of Chanel as she turned to look at me. Her green eyes seemed to answer the playfulness I tried to convey with my raised eyebrows and puckish smile.
She brought her left hand (no ring) to her chin and pretended to weigh a momentous decision. "I just can't decide. Do you have any suggestions?" Her voice was whisky-smooth with a hint of Scarlet O'Hara.
"Well," I began, "if you like a quiet beach with dazzling white sand, warm water, and a cool breeze, I recommend the Gulf Coast of Florida in the spring. But if you like a cozy fire in a stone fireplace and the sound of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against a rocky shore, I recommend Maine in the fall."
"What if I like both places?" The beginning of a sly smile tugged at the sides of her full mouth.
"Then you'll just have to cough up the cash and pay your way to one of them," I laughed.
She laughed, too, and held out her hand. "Debby Driscol."
Her hand was warm, her grip firm.
"Paul Davenport." I held her hand a beat longer. "Well, Debby Driscol . . . it looks like we're going to have a couple hours to kill. Mind if I buy you a drink, or two, or ten?" It was a line from an old John Wayne movie.
She giggled. "That would be grand."
After we got our free vouchers and tickets for a later flight to Seattle, I brought her over to meet Curt. As the three of us chitchatted, Curt regaled Debby with pictures of his kids.
When his flight was announced, Curt surprised me. Impulsively, he gave me a bear hug and whispered into my ear, "Don't be dumb, man."
My smile froze. I mumbled something jovial, but a shiver sliced through me.
Debby and I watched as Curt carried his battered briefcase to the gate. Before walking down the ramp, he turned and waved. I'd never seen him look so forlorn.
After Curt was out of sight, I turned to Debby. Her smile was eager. "Shall we?" I asked, offering her my arm in an exaggerated show of chivalry.
"We shall," she said, slipping her arm through mine. Her fingers gently stroked my bicep.
As we walked, she told me she was born and raised in Atlanta and was going to be in Seattle for a week attending some sort of fashion convention. I steered her to a darkened, windowless lounge where candles flickered on a few small circular tables. A man in a wrinkled suit sat at the bar watching an interview on CNN. While Debby found a tiny table in a corner, I went to the bar to get a bottle of Scotch and two glasses.
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate your offer to keep me company," she said as we got settled. She took a big gulp of her drink. "I was dreading the thought of a couple hours with nothing to do."
"Well, I'm sure you would have found someone to pass the time with. I bet guys hit on you all the time."
"Actually, I've been told that men find me . . . ah . . . intimidating,"
I laughed -- guffawed, actually. "Are you kidding? You're a knockout."
Blushing a little, she looked down. "Um, thanks.” She lifted her head. Her eyes seemed luminous, as if covered by a film of fresh tears. "You can't believe how lonely I've been."
"What happened? Boyfriend dump you?"
"Now there's a laugh," she said bitterly. She took another drink, nearly draining her glass. "It's been a long time since I've been with a man." She rolled her eyes as she stretched out the word long.
I squirmed as my motor revved.
"So, enough about me," she continued, "tell me about you. What brings you to Atlanta?"
"Curt and I were in town for a computer fair. We sell computers. Pretty boring, actually. I haven’t really decided what to do when I grow up."
"I don't know nuthin’ ‘bout usin’ no computers,” she Butterfly McQueened.
She paused to take another swig. "Funny, though."
"You don't seem like a computer geek."
"Well, now it's my turn to blush," I smiled, but my eyes held hers.
"You must be pretty good with the ladies." She eyed me coyly and fingered the lip of her now empty glass. Slowly, her bright pink tongue slicked her lips. Her gaze was a laser into my soul.
Before I could fill the smoldering silence, Debby spoke again. "So, tell me about Curt.”
I smiled. "Curt's my best friend. I really love the guy. I still remember the big grin he had on his face when we met on my first day at work. I was blown away by his friendliness and -- the more I got to know him -- his wisdom."
"Hmmm. Wisdom. What do you mean?"
"He's solid. Always seems to know the right thing to do. He's got a strong sense of ethics."
"What is he, a Jesus freak?" she laughed, contemptuously.
"Not really," I said with an edge of defensiveness. "I mean, he's religious, I guess. You know, takes his family to church and all that, but he's never been real pushy or sanctimonious about it. I can talk with him about anything and I know that he understands and accepts me, yet wants the best for me. It's a friendship like I've never had with another man." I sat back in my chair. "Geez, listen to me," I laughed self-consciously. "I sound like I'm queer, or something."
"No, it's touching, really," she said, leaning toward me. "It's not often that men talk so lovingly about other guy friends."
I thought back to a talk Curt and I had during our week together in Atlanta. I'd decided to spend the evening at one of those topless places where the gyrating women are really classy. At lunch the next day he turned the conversation to our wives. It got me thinking about my habitual unfaithfulness to Marie. He told me directly that it saddened him that I was taking advantage of Marie's unconditional love for me.
Even though I was hung over, his comments didn't offend me. I began to realize that my hedonistic lifestyle was barren and, to tell the truth, unsatisfying. I confessed to Curt that my feelings of emptiness were a deepening chasm, adding: "I don't know what I can do to change, man."
"What are you thinking?" Debby's question brought me back to the dim reality of an Atlanta airport lounge. "You look like you're a million miles away."
"Sorry," I said as I took a sip. "I was just thinking about something Curt asked me earlier this week."
"Oh? What was that?"
"He asked me if I ever prayed."
Debby cackled. "I knew it. He IS a Jesus freak. So, now I'm dying to know: do you," she snickered, "pray?"
"Well, it seemed like kid stuff, but in a fumbling way I sort of did try it. I'm not sure I got through. God's pretty busy, after all," I chuckled.
"I don't think there's anything to it." Her demeanor hardened.
"I think it's mumbo jumbo. People use prayer like it's magic. It's really pathetic."
"A week ago I would have agreed with you, but now I'm not so sure," I said. "When I did pray, even in my stumbling way, I felt a calm inside me, a sense of purpose that hadn't been there before."
"If it feels good, do it, babe. That's my motto." She took out a cigarette and lit it with the flame of the candle on the table.
I did the same.
"You seem a little bitter," I observed.
"My father molested me when I was in my teens." She was matter of fact. "It went on for several years. I hated his guts . . . and mine too."
"There was this guy I knew at school -- Jim. He kept pestering me for a date, so finally I went out with him. We went to a movie. Afterwards, he took me to a lover's lane to park. I freaked.
"The idea of sex repulsed me. Even though Jim just wanted to get laid, he stopped putting the moves on me when I told him 'no'. I was hysterical, but he got me calmed down. There was a gentleness and understanding about him, so I told him the whole disgusting story about my dad.
"We became friends, dated all summer -- the summer before my senior year in high school. By the end of the summer, I trusted him enough to let him make love to me. It was wonderful."
“Did you stay friends?”
She bit her lip. Tears came to her eyes. "We began talking about getting married, but then‑‑" her voice broke. She bit her knuckle to keep from crying.
"I'm sorry, Debby,” I touched her sleeve. “I didn't mean to blunder into such painful territory for you."
"No, that's okay; I need to talk," she said, recapturing some of her composure. "It was a chilly autumn night at the beginning of our senior year. Jim and a bunch of his friends had been out drinking. They were on their way home, driving on a winding two-lane road." She plunged ahead automatically, with almost no emotion in her voice. "The driver was going too fast, they missed a curve and plowed head-on into a truck. There were five guys in the car -- Jim was in the back seat. They were all killed. The cops said the blood steamed as it flowed on the pavement." She stared blankly at the candle. “It was ten years ago today.”
I stroked her hand. "You must have been devastated."
"Yeah," she said, focusing again on me. She tossed her head, as if to clear it. "Devastated fits."
I didn't know what to say, but Debby filled the silence.
"Since then, I've never let anyone get that close. This keeps me going." She raised her glass, sloshing the liquor around the inside.
* * *
"THERE you are! Where have you been?" Debby stood next to the baggage carousel, waving at me. "I can't find my garment bag," she pouted.
I must have looked sick, because her exasperated expression changed to one of concern. She walked toward me quickly.
"What's the matter?" She peered at me and grasped me by the sleeve. "You look shell-shocked."
"They're all dead," I muttered, dazed.
"Who's all dead? What are you talking about?"
"Debby, the plane we were supposed to be on crashed," I said, looking at her sternly. "Everybody on it was killed. We should be dead right now."
She recoiled from me. "Oh my God!" she gasped. Both her hands shot to her face in horror.
"Curt's dead," my voice broke.
As the luggage carousel went round and round, Debby Driscol and I hugged and wept.
Not long after that, I dropped her off at her hotel. Although she begged me to stay, I was too restless. I drove around, thinking and crying. I couldn’t go home because I had just lied to Marie, telling her I was stranded in Atlanta.
I checked an all-news radio station and, as I expected, the coverage of the crash was wall-to-wall, but I turned it off when the reporter on the scene said there were “158 souls on board.”
Soon, I found myself in the lobby of Debby’s hotel. I called her on the house phone.
“It’s me,” I said. “I just need to talk.”
“I’m in 310.”
She answered the door wearing a white terrycloth robe with the light green arabesque logo of the hotel over her generous left breast. Her luxurious dark brown hair was no longer swept back into a tight bun. Parted in the center, it cascaded onto her shoulders, framing her oval face in the shape of a heart.
She looked lovely.
My stomach turned to Jell-o.
Debby took my hand and pulled me into the room's narrow entryway. Kicking the door shut, she put her arms around me and rested her head against my chest.
"Oh, Paul," she began to weep, "I'm so glad you came."
She’s drunk, I thought. I felt a light-headed realization that I could do anything to her I wanted.
"Buy you a drink?" Taking me by the hand, she led me, unsteadily, deeper into the spacious room.
The covers of the king-size bed were turned down invitingly. The only light in the room came from a small candle on the bedside table. Next to it, a tiny clock radio played soft jazz.
"Have a seat," she said, gesturing haphazardly toward one of two easy chairs flanking a round wooden table.
"All I've got to offer are the remains of our Shcotch." She nodded at the third-full bottle on the table.
"That's fine," I croaked.
"What should we drink to?" She poured the amber liquid into our glasses.
"To life?" I asked.
"Ha HAH! That's a good one," she bellowed, "to LIFE!" She took a gulp.
The whiskey warmed and relaxed me. Letting out a long sigh, I stretched my legs, crossing them at the ankles.
"How are you doing?" she asked gently.
"I can understand," she nodded.
"Can you?" I glared at her. "You don't know the half of it."
"I don't?" She cocked her head, confused.
"I told my wife I'm still in Atlanta."
"Your wife?" She sat up, alarmed, but quickly recovered. "That's not so bad."
"What do you mean?"
"Paul, don't you see? We've been given the gift of our lives." Debby leaned toward me. "We should make the most of it while we have the time."
Reaching across the table, she stroked my arm.
"It seems to me that the gift I've been given is the opportunity to get things right this time." I got to my feet. "I think I'd better be going."
I strode across the room, but before I could open the door I felt Debby tugging at my arm. I turned to face her.
She was intense, insistent. "I really need you, Paul."
"I'm sorry, Debby. I have to go." But I didn't leave; I just stood there, my back against the door.
"Why are you becoming such a prude all of a sudden?" she asked angrily. "I want you, Paul. I'm begging you."
I hesitated. The familiar urges came rushing back. I considered sweeping her into my arms like Rhett Butler and carrying her to the bed. Then, unbidden, I thought of Marie -- loyal, trusting Marie. My wife needed me, too. But what would I tell her if I arrived home hours before she expected me?
Curt’s voice echoed in my head. Don't be dumb, man.
"I'm sorry, Debby," I breathed. "I can't." I groped for the doorknob.
Her face became wild. "Jim! You can't leave me!" she shrieked. "I NEED you!"
She tore open her robe and stood exposed before me. Her melon-breasts swayed. Her nostrils flared. Her breath came in fierce bursts.
I froze -- afraid to stay. Afraid to go.
She sank to her knees, sobbing, her face in her hands.
Kneeling in front of her, I held her shaking body firmly in my arms, rocked her, and caressed her hair with my fingers.
"I'm sorry," I whispered, "I'm so sorry."
After awhile, Debby stopped shaking.
With my right hand I brushed damp hair away from her cheek. I leaned closer, searching for her face.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
She nodded curtly, biting her lip.
"I'm sorry," I repeated. "I'm such a selfish fool."
"I know," she said, the beginning of a smile on her mouth. "I am, too. I think I lost it there for a sec."
"I have to go," I whispered.
"Go," Debby said softly. "She needs you." Retying the cloth belt of the robe, she added, "I'll be alright."
As I slipped out the door, closing it quietly behind me, I resolved that my next lie to Marie would be my last.