“YOU” a short story by Pepper O’Brien

HIM

I first see you as you hop out of an Uber. You look so casual, so relaxed, so far from the panic I feel radiating through my veins. You smile as the driver pulls your bag out of the trunk and you practically float through the sliding glass doors toward the check-in desk.

I’m at the kiosk next to yours. I nearly type in the wrong retrieval number because I’m too busy watching your long fingers fly deftly across your screen. Oh, to be that lucky screen.

I am suddenly aware of how conspicuous I must seem to you with my many tattoos and affinity for black. Not a single thing about me suggests subtlety, and I have never minded that before this very second as I take in your soft, sweet features.

Your hair is red. Browner than mine, more muted, but still red.

Your eyes are a watery blue, not bright and not piercing, but calm and soothing, almost gray and almost green at once.

You have a smattering of freckles on your neck and a few on your forehead, but none across your nose and cheeks. I can tell you aren’t wearing any makeup. You don’t seem to mind your freckles, and I feel strangely proud of you.

I notice the colorful case on your iPhone, your pink Nikes, and your well-worn blue jeans. I notice the Starbucks coffee cup in your hand and the red polish on your fingernails. I think to myself immediately that I must seem like riffraff to you, and that bothers me more than I like. The opinion of the girls you remind me of has never mattered to me. I don’t understand why it does now.

After a moment, though, you shift the sleeve of your sweater and I catch a glimpse of ink on your arm. You’re so quick, so casual, that I can’t make out what it is, but I do know a tattoo when I see one. For reasons I can hardly fathom, a glimmer of hope sparks in my chest. We could be more alike than I’d thought.

Your oversized sweater that drapes off your shoulder is black, like mine. You yawn into the crook of your elbow, like I do. You bounce a bit on your toes, refusing to put all of your weight on one foot, and I wonder if you, too, took Mr. Spurlock’s stage movement class.

As you slowly pull your fingers through your hair and it shifts off your neck, I catch a peek at yet another tattoo just behind your ear. This one, I can make out. It’s the tiny outline of a ginkgo leaf. It’s not a lotus flower, it’s not a butterfly, it’s not a star or a rose, and it’s not a fucking infinity sign. A ginkgo leaf has meaning that the typical white girl would not appreciate. A ginkgo leaf must be important to you. You thought long and hard about that leaf, and I’m glad.

You step up to the counter and check your bag, a dark purple rolling suitcase with black handles. I see the letters on the baggage tag (PHL) and silently rejoice. You’re going to Philly and this could not be more perfect.

Maybe we’ll sit near each other. Maybe I can ask you about the book I’m sure you have tucked in your carry-on, and will perhaps actually attempt to read. Maybe you will have trouble sleeping, just like I do, and I can offer you a Tylenol PM. Maybe you are a better flyer than I am and when we take off and I get nervous, you will notice and you will care and you will reassure me somehow. Maybe you will hold my hand and tell me to close my eyes and distract me by telling me about yourself. Maybe I’ll learn about your life; the depth of it, and not this presumptions I’m creating in my head.

I am not a creep, so I don’t allow myself to watch you as you leave the check in desk. I check my bag and try to be as casual as possible as I look up to find your pink Nikes disappear up the escalator. The thrill in my chest remains. I’ll see you on my flight home.

*

HER

I can’t stop thinking of you. The brilliant red of your hair, more ginger than mine. The intricate lines of your tattoo sleeves. I’m jealous of you. You wear everything that’s important to you right on top of your skin. I wish I was brave enough to do the same. The life you wear on your sleeves seems beautiful to me. I’ve placed all my tattoos so carefully. I can hide them if I need to. With my hair down, with a long sleeve, with the right shoes, I can walk into a conference room and no one would know. You can’t do that, and I envy that freedom so much.

I want to know where you are going. I want to know if I will see you in Terminal B. Perhaps I’ll linger at the bookshop near security. Maybe I’ll see you there. I hope I see you somewhere. I find you fascinating and we’ve never made eye contact.

Chugging the last dregs of my Starbucks, I chuck the cup, silently disgusted at my lack of environmentalism. In my hurry to leave this morning, I forgot my travel mug, the one with the colorful sugar skulls I love so much, perhaps the only indication to guys like you that I’m not some basic bitch who subsists only on Starbucks. It’s sitting on my kitchen counter. How stupid.

You are four people behind me in the security line. I mentally add ten minutes to the time I have to race to the bathroom and throw on some perfume and a bit of mascara. I’m unaccustomed to having anyone to impress at the airport. I get to that TSA pre-check in mere moments while you peel off your motorcycle boots and shrug out of your jacket. It’s clear you don’t fly often, and it endears you to me. Are you on vacation? Will you come back to Seattle or is Philly home to you, too? I want to know these things, as well as many others. Do you actually ride a motorcycle? Why the lion on your left arm? Why the bow and arrow on your right? Do I see a dagger? I have a dagger, too! Mine is smaller and simpler than yours, but yours is beautiful, and I want to ask you about it and-

“Ma’am, step through, please.”

And God, not a thing in this world pisses me off more than being called “ma’am”, and now I despise this TSA dude with his beer belly and his stupid frizzy blond hair. Do I look like a fucking “ma’am” to you, asshole? I’m twenty-fucking-seven.

I’m done with security in a heartbeat, and I rush to the bathroom. A quick dust of powder and a swipe of mascara before I take a deep breath and beeline for the bookshop. You’re still in security getting scanned by one of the TSA dudes, and I stare for a moment.

The way you hold yourself, the flex of your arms as you spread them out at your sides. You’re tall and something tells me you definitely know how to handle yourself, but God, you look so adorably out of place. You don’t look surprised to have been pulled aside for additional screening, but you are definitely trying your best to look innocent so they’ll just leave you alone. You look up and seem to be looking for something. After a second, your gaze falls on me, and (oh crap) I’ve never blushed so hard.

I can’t look away because then you’ll know I’m embarrassed to have been caught staring, so (bravely, I think, and I mentally pat myself on the back) I keep staring at you. I could be imagining this, but you seem to soften a little. I think maybe you’re smiling at me, just a quirk of your lips pulling your mouth into a half-grin. You almost don’t hear the agent telling you that you can go, that there is nothing insidious tucked inside your socks.

*

HIM

You were looking at me. Intently, it seemed. Something trips in the middle of my chest, and I know my smirk at your attention has grown into something stupid and giddy. I don’t normally do stupid and giddy. I shrug back into my jacket and pull my boots back on, hoping that you’re still at the bookshop. I want to see your face up close again.

I pull my backpack on and find you near the Biography and Memoir section. You have a copy of Billy Crystal’s memoir in your hand, but you aren’t really paying it any attention. On the one hand, you should. That book is great and the man is a master of storytelling. On the other hand, I hope the reason you aren’t really focused on it is because your attention is subtly on me.

I calmly remind myself that I only have to be brave for the first twenty seconds. After that, the rest will come no matter how nervous I am. I only have to be brave for twenty seconds… at the moment, the book from which I picked that up escapes me. I steel myself against the possibility of rejection and decide to do the brave thing.

I reach across you toward the shelf so that my arm hovers just near your shoulder. I pick up a copy of one of Diane Keaton’s memoirs (I’ve read it already), and momentarily panic about what to say first. I’m distracted. I can catch the smell of your shampoo from here. Something like coconut and something like vanilla. I can’t focus on how to start a conversation with you. To my elation, I needn’t have worried. You speak first, and I try not to stare at your mouth as you tell me, “That one’s great.”

You point to Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, and smile up at me. You’re pretty tall, but your forehead is still only level with my chin, so you have to tilt your head to make eye contact.

“Yeah?” I ask, feeling a little slimy for acting like I don’t already agree. I point to the copy of Still Foolin’ ‘Em in your hands. “So is that one.”

You blush again, and it’s gorgeous.

“I have it, actually,” you admit with a smile. “I’ve read it twice.”

God, you sure are pretty.

“Grabbing a copy for a friend?” I tease you, and I can see that you know I’m teasing you. You smile and you look at me thoughtfully, and my skin feels funny.

“Do you want to grab a coffee with me?” you ask. You look nervous, and you’re giving me the chance to make that go away. I leap for it.

“Yeah,” I tell you quietly, like we have a secret. “I’d like that.”

*

HER

You have perfect hands. No, really. I mean perfect. Strong hands, like you know how to use them. I bet you do your own work on your motorcycle. I bet you know how to build things. I’m pretty handy with a hammer myself, but I bet it comes naturally to you. Never in my life have I asked a man to fix the garbage disposal for me or rehang my front door. I know how to do all of those things on my own, but for some reason, I like the idea of seeing how you would do it.

I like the small callouses on your fingers, and I wonder if you play an instrument. I can’t stare too closely, though, or else it would be weird. I don’t want to be weird around you. I want you to keep looking at me like I’m special.

I know that you’ve already seen me with a Starbucks cup in my hand and I can’t imagine what impression you got from that, so I purposefully steer us toward Dilettante. You, however, seem to lean toward the Starbucks. My eyes widen at you a little and you smirk. I like that we can silently tease each other. We fall into sep next to each other, and I follow you toward the Starbucks.

We stand in line for a minute and I take you in. I like the piercing in your eyebrow and the tiny scar underneath your chin. I wonder for a moment how it got there, but then I notice you studying my face as carefully as I have been studying yours.

“Can I do a medium dark roast?” you ask the guy in the green apron before turning to look down at me.

“Small vanilla blonde with room, please?”

I hand over my ten dollar bill as you are reaching into your back pocket, I assume for the purpose of pulling out the wallet security barely let you get away with.

“Hey-“ you begin to protest, but I smirk cheekily up at you.

“I believe I’m the one who asked you if you wanted to grab a coffee, and I let you pick the place. This means I get to pay.”

That gets a full blown smile out of you and I bask in it.

“That’s the last time you get away with that,” you mutter, nearly blushing as you turn your gaze toward your shoes.

“I appreciate you humoring me.”

You look back up and study me, your head tilting just slightly.

“It’s my pleasure,” you tell me, that softness coming back to your eyes.

A man in a business suit is in line behind us and he clears his throat, none too subtly. I move to the end where other travelers are waiting for their own doses of caffeine and I catch you shoot an annoyed glance at business suit. I think I love you for it.

*

HIM

An hour later, our flight boards, and I’m hoping desperately that whomever is next to you will want my aisle seat. I like the aisle seat, and so do you, but I’ll gladly give mine up to keep talking to you.

*

HER

You swapped your seat with the woman next to me. You’re closer to the window this way, and there’s no one sitting in the seat closest. I know it makes you nervous. I can tell how anxious you are to fly. I kind of like it that you don’t do it often. I’m not sure what that says about us, but I like to think it means I already embrace our differences.

*

HIM

We’re about to take off. You’ve done a really great job keeping me distracted. I like hearing your voice and I try to focus on that rather than the rumbling underneath us.

*

HER

You pinch your eyes shut and grip the armrests. Gently, I pry your left hand away and thread my fingers through yours.

*

HIM

Fuck the plane. You’re here. And you’re touching me.

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