Chapter 12 - Alex
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Boston Logan International Airport. The seatbelt sign has been turned back on. Please return your seatbacks and tray tables to the upright and locked position. On behalf of the flight crew, I would like to thank you for flying with us today and hope you enjoy your visit Boston. Please come fly with us again.”
My seatback and tray table were already in their upright and locked position. I’d never moved them. My bag was stowed beneath the seat in front of me, where it had been for the entire four hour flight. I had an empty, coffee-stained paper cup in my hand but I didn’t need the caffeine. I had plenty of energy.
Raw, furious, murderous energy.
“Ma’am, can I take that for you?” The stewardess reached out a gloved hand and I passed her my coffee cup. My own hands were shaking, so I clasped them in my lap and stared out the window as we banked, giving me a full view of the city sprawled out below me.
What if I’d never left?
The second the plane landed, I pushed my way through the crowd in the gateway and strode into the terminal. It was mid-January, and the holiday rush was over. At 11 am the airport was crowded, but not manic.
I was manic, though. Manic and single-minded. Hefting my carry-on tote bag over my shoulder, I bypassed baggage claim because I had no baggage. I bypassed the tourist kiosk with the city maps because I knew exactly where I was going and exactly how to get there.
Jamming a knit cap up on my head and buttoning up my coat, I stepped out into the brisk winter air and hailed a taxi.
“Georgina’s on sixth, please,” I told the driver. Georgina’s was Parker’s favorite brunch spot. He was adventurous in all things except his Sunday brunch. He’d go to Georgina’s at 11, get sloshed on mimosas, and stay there till well after 3, chatting and networking with the other regulars.
I used to think it was cute.
I used to think a lot of things about Parker were cute.
The restaurant was crowded, but my fiance was easy to find at his usual, back corner booth. The table before him was littered with empty mimosa flutes and a man in a suit and tie sat across from him, his arm around an older woman with stiff blonde hair and a plastic smile.
Parker’s face lit up into a sloppy grin when he saw me, and he shot to his feet, correcting his wobble with a hand on the back of the booth.
“Aly!” He exclaimed, pulling me to him, tote bag and all, and planting a wet kiss on my closed lips. “Sweetheart, what the hell are you doing here?” Before I had a chance to answer, he was turning me toward his companions, one arm still wrapped around my shoulders.
“Mr. and Mrs. Freeman, this is Alexandra Winger, my fiance. Aly, these are the Freemans. Mr. Freeman is an old business school friend of my father’s.”
I managed a polite smile and shook their hands before turning to Parker. “I was actually wondering if I could talk to you alone,” I said, unwilling to stay in that restaurant any longer than strictly necessary.
Parker frowned. “Is everything okay?” His eyes flicked from me to his guests, as if worried I was on the verge of embarrassing him.
“Everything’s fine,” I liked, because I wasn’t there to humiliate him. I wasn’t vindictive. Just done. “I just need five minutes.”
“Okay,” he nodded, grabbing his coat from the booth and pulling it on. “We’ll be right back. I don’t suppose you’d mind ordering another round, Peter?”
The older man grinned. “One for the young lady?” he asked, but I shook my head.
“Thank you, but I’m not drinking today.” Or eating. Or staying.
Parker rounded on me the second the door closed behind us, leaving us shivering on the sidewalk. Cars sped by on the street beside us, and car horns and revving engines provided a frantic backdrop for what I knew would be a fraught conversation.
“I can’t do this,” I said without preamble, pulling my left glove off and prying his ro from my finger. “I’m sorry to spring this on you, but I have to call it off, Parker.”
His eyes widened in shock and he stared at the ring I was holding out.
“What are you talking about? Where is this coming from?” He didn’t sound sad or confused. More... angry. Indignant.
“I’m just not happy,” I said truthfully. “I thought I was, or that I could be. I’m not, though. You’re a wonderful guy, and I enjoyed being with you, but I can’t marry you. It wouldn’t last.”
Parker’s face darkened and he reached out and plucked the ring from my hand, shoving it into his pocket.
“This is about that ex of yours, isn’t it?” He asked. “You fucking... how long have you been sleeping with him?”
I balked. “I’m not!” I bit out.
“What did he say to you?” Parker demanded, his voice growing louder. I was suddenly very glad I’d decided to do this in public. Anger is a terrifying force to behold in a man not built to wield it.
"He didn’t say anything,” I said, backing away a step. “Tom overheard you two. What the fuck were you thinking, Parker?” I chose my next words very carefully. “How could you think that’s okay? You threatened to lie to the cops about Nate threatening you if he didn’t take the money and leave. That’s blackmail, and if you’d gone through with it, perjury. It was not only cruel, it was incredibly stupid. You could go to jail for that.”
Parker scoffed. “Nobody would have believed him,” he said, rolling his eyes. “He’s a violent criminal, Aly. My word is worth more than his. Trust me. And I was trying to protect you.”
“I didn’t ask you to protect me, Parker. And they weren’t a threat. All you did was push a traumatized kid out of a home and into a hotel room.”
“Okay, okay,” Parker sighed, flapping a hand. “I’m sorry. Is that what you wanna hear? I’m sorry I tried to protect you from a convicted killer, Alexandra. I’m such an asshole.”
“You’re not an asshole,” I said, shaking my head. “But I’m not in love with you. Even before what you did on Christmas. I came here to return your things.” I shrugged the tote bag off my shoulder and held it out. “You can just throw out the stuff I left at your place.”
Parker stared at me.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” He asked, and I lowered my arm to my side, still holding the tote. “You are sleeping with him aren’t you?”
“No. I haven’t even spoke to him since Christmas.”
“You’re a lying bitch,” he snarled, reaching out and ripping the bag from my hand. “If you think you’re getting away with this you have another thing coming. That asshole is going back to prison. I’ll see to it.”
“How?” I asked, once again carefully choosing my words. “He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Parker spat. “It’s my word against his.”
“And mine. And Tom’s,” I corrected.
“The courts won’t listen to you, and they definitely won’t listen to your retard brother, Alexandra” Parker laughed bitterly.
How did I come so close to marrying this man?
“Maybe not,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even and calm. I wanted to leap at him and start throwing punches, but that wouldn’t help my case. Instead, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the tape recorder that had been running since I entered the restaurant. “But it’ll be hard to discredit this.”
Parker’s eyes went wide and I smiled. “Have a nice life, Parker. I’m sorry it had to end like this. There’s a check in that bag for $5,000 so don’t think about trying to collect your loan from Nate.”
With that, I tucked the recorder back in my pocket, turned, and hailed a cab. By the time Parker shook himself loose slunk back into the restaurant I was halfway around the corner.
* * *
My breakup with Parker was a long time coming. If I was honest with myself, things hadn’t felt right in months, and Christmas had only served to drive home the sense of wrongness.
I wasn’t happy to see him when he showed up. I was distracted and confused by Nate and Matt’s sudden departure the following day. I’d been off kilter and agitated by a growing unease until finally, two days ago, Tom had offered me the final piece of the puzzle.
“Aly can I ask you a question?” He had pushed open my bedroom door, a look of anguish on his face.
“Of course, bro!” I said brightly, patting my bed. He hopped up onto it next to me and leaned back against the headboard.
“I think I heard something bad,” he’d told me, picking at his fingernails. “It’s about Nate.”
When he told me what he’d heard, I didn’t feel sad or shocked or confused. I just felt resigned, and strangely at peace. Finally, the awful conflict inside me was resolved. Finally, I had a reason not to marry a man I didn’t really love.
I bought a roundrip plane ticket that day. I packed up all of Parker’s things, and told my father what I was going to do.
To my surprise, he didn’t argue. He just nodded and smiled and patted my hand.
“Do you want to talk about why?” he asked.
“He’s just not the man I thought he was,” I said.
That seemed to be enough.
After breaking up with Parker, I rode straight back to the airport, checked in for my evening flight home, and then planted myself at a bar for the three hour wait.
I tried so damn hard to be sad about the end of my relationship. It was unhealthy not to be upset. I rubbed my naked ring finger and tried to mourn the loss of my bright and happy future. No matter how drunk I got, or how hard I tried to make myself feel something, I couldn’t shed a tear.
By the time my flight boarded I was well on my way to sloshed-- just the right state for the next step.
I had planned this entire day out from start to finish. I had planned to spend the entire flight out just as I had-- running over my plan. The words I would say to Parker, the exact moment I would hand him back his ring, and hand him the bag of clothes. How I would respond, depending on how he reacted to the news. I’d turned the entire break-up into a choose-your-own-adventure storybook, with Parker playing the reader.
Your fiance has revealed she knows about your attempt to blackmail her friend. Would you like to:
(a) Apologize sincerely?
(b) Threaten her ?
(c) Insult her brother?
Not my fault he’d decided against option a.
Getting drunk was part of the plan, too. I knew I’d have a few hours to kill at the airport and I had every intention of spending those hours inhaling liquid courage. Because, I figured, as long as I was burning bridges and turning over new leaves and tying up loose ends and whatever other idioms applied, I had one more unpleasant task to which to attend.
They sat at the bottom of my purse, bundled together with a rubber band. They didn’t have much mass, but the strap on my purse had felt heavy all day. Laden with all the possibilities. It was time to par down those possibilities and learn what he actually had to say. I would read whatever excuses / apologies / curses young Nate had to offer. Then I would go see him, apologize for Parker’s behavior, and say goodbye.
It was time to move on.
My flight boarded just before six, and I took my seat by the window, removed the stack of letters from my purse, and shoved my bag under the seat in front of me. As we taxied out to the runway, I removed the rubber band and flipped through the letters, putting them into chronological order.
Finally, the plane took off. G-forces made my already booze-thick head feel heavy, and I pressed my forehead to the wall beside me and watched Boston shrink beneath me. Evening sunlight reflected brightly off the white metal of the wing. I’ve always loved flying. I’ve always loved all forms of travel. There’s something comforting about the liminality. Between the alcohol in my system and the warm cocoon of my transitional state, I finally found the courage to do what I should have done years before.
The first envelope was more battered than the rest-- charred at one corner and partially opened on the other. I turned it over a couple times in my hands, took a deep breath, and tore a narrow strip from the end, removing the folded paper inside.
The first letter was written on lined yellow legal pad paper. Nate’s already-sloppy handwriting was damn near illegible, scrawled across the page as if he’d written it in a hurry. My eyes grew wide, and my hand came up to cover my mouth as I struggled to interpret Nate’s godawful handwriting.
Maybe it was the booze. Maybe it was the swiftly-banking plane. Maybe it was the sudden knowledge that the past six years of my life had been built around a false assumption. Whatever the reason, my stomach churned and my mouth watered, and the second I finished reading the first letter, I set them all aside, smiled imploringly at the man seated beside me until he let me out, and dashed down the narrow aisle to the bathroom.
Seatbelt sign be damned.
I barely made it in time. Without locking the door behind me, I slammed to my knees, shoved the plastic seat up, and vomited into the stainless steel bowl as the plane dipped and swayed beneath me. Wine and half-digested french fries made a sickening goop in the waterless bowl, and the sight made me even sicker. I threw up again and again and again, barely maintaining the presence of mind to flush between bouts.
Five minutes later, I slumped onto my ass on the floor, completely spent, forced by the confined space to pull my knees close to my chest.
Tim raped Deb. Matt wasn’t Nate’s kid. He never cheated on me. Tim raped Deb.
Shakily, I climbed to my feet, flushed the toilet one more time, and washed my hands and face. The woman looking back at me in the foggy, spotted mirror was a stranger. Her eyes were sunken and haunted, dark with guilt.
There was no use in hating myself, though. That could come later. In that moment, I knew I needed to square my shoulders, pick myself up, and finished what I started.
I felt like I was marching to my execution as I shuffled back down the aisle and retook my seat. A stewardess came and inquired after my well-being, and I asked her for a ginger ale. My seatmate shifted away from me, and I knew what he was thinking.
“I’m not sick, I promise,” I assured him, offering a wobbly smile. “Honestly, I drank way too much. That’s all.”
His smile was thin and unfriendly, and he craned around in his seat, no doubt looking for empty seats so he could request a move.
Too bad for him there were none. He was stuck with me.
The stewardess brought my ginger ale, and I pulled down my tray table and took a deep breath, pulling my letters back out and finding the next one. I knew before I even opened the envelope what I was in for. I didn’t know what form it would take, but I knew the general gist of what I was about to read.
Heartache. Desperation. Loneliness. Disappointment.
Pain, pain, and more pain in all its nuanced variations.
You know the worst thing in the world isn’t pain? Seeing those you love in agony is much more difficult. Knowing you are the cause of their suffering is even harder, still. The very worst, though, is seeing their pain, knowing you caused it, and having to watch from afar as it kills them.
As I sipped my ginger ale and read those letters, I felt like I was with Nate as he wrote. I sat beside him in his cot in solitary while the loneliness drove him insane. I stood behind him in the corner of the cafeteria while he got himself into brawl after brawl. I read with him, fought with him, and laid awake with him at night, staring at whitewashed walls and dreaming of the stars.
But I wasn’t really there. I couldn’t touch to him or speak to him. I was muted by time, rendered invisible by my own cowardice. So, silent and impotent, I read and watched, waiting for his tone to turn sour. Waiting for him to curse me. With each new letter I prayed that I would finally read some condemnation.
Instead, all I got was unfailing faith. Every letter was written as if someone was on the receiving end. Even the ones that came at points of intense friction-- the days before his trail, his time in solitary-- were lighthearted and sweet and unbearably hopeful.
Some people had faith in god. Some had faith in themselves. Nate Reynolds, it seemed, had limitless faith in Alex Winger.
Watching him suffer was awful, but watching him hope was far worse because, unlike the young man writing the letters, I knew how the story ended.
Guilt was an iron band around my chest, tightening with each word I read until I could barely breathe. In hindsight, I feel pretty bad for the man sitting next to me. He must arrived at home that night, exhausted and cranky, ranting to his wife about the hot mess of a drunk girl who sat next to him on the plane and cried for the entire flight.
It wasn’t a nice, poetic breakdown, either. I didn’t sniff into a handkerchief and weep soft tears that dripped off my cheeks and landed on the paper, adding a cutesy heartbreak aesthetic to Nate’s words.
No, it wasn’t pretty. It was gross. I cried in gasping sobs and wiped my splotchy face and snotty nose on my sleeve until a sympathetic stewardess brought me a box of tissues. I put my head down between each letter and let the grief and guilt roll over me in waves until the hysteria passed and I was numb enough to continue. Then I’d repeat the process all over again.
By the time I got to the last letter, the seatbelt sign was back on and the cabin crew was collecting trash as we prepared for landing. I gathered up my used tissues and threw them away, but hung onto the box. I had a feeling I wasn’t finished crying.
There was something different about that last letter. It was written on different paper. Not pages torn out of a composition notebook, but vellum parchment paper. And it was written in pen instead of pencil, the handwriting neat and uniform like he’d put effort into making it legible. I thought, dumbly, that perhaps it was some kind of symbolic gesture. It was, after all, the last letter. Perhaps he wanted to commemorate that occasion with real ink and fancy paper.
That didn’t make sense, though, my still-semi-drunk mind finally reasoned. Nate hadn’t known at the time it would be his last. He hadn’t known when he wrote it that I would answer him with a letter of my own. My heart strained as I thought about the blunt cruelty of my message, and I pressed a hand to my chest as fresh tears burned in my eyes.
I didn’t want to read that last letter. As much as the journey hurt, I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing it finish. Because I knew what came after--
Six years of empty space between us while I went on with my life and Nate survived his.
I didn’t want to read the last letter, because I knew that when I did the liminal period would be over. Our plane would touch down and the unknown of the letters would forever be replaced by concrete, undeniable fact. I prayed as I smoothed the letter out that the words it contained would somehow offer me comfort. That he’d finally be cruel. That he’d curse my name and tell me he hated me and didn’t need me.
When I’d broken things off with Parker, I got that seed of loathing to tell me I’d done the right thing. He’d been mean and angry. He’d called my brother an ugly word and questioned my fidelity. He’d let me walk away with a clean conscience, knowing that I was better off without him.
Nate wasn’t nearly so kind.