In Transit

Twenty minutes into the flight, you're thinking about putting on headphones and leaning the seat back so that you can get some sleep before touchdown, but the man next to you, who fell asleep so quickly and thoroughly that even takeoff didn't rouse him, suddenly comes back to life in one abrupt jolt.

He reminds you of a puppet with the strings yanked, no finesse at all. He reaches first to his face and rubs his hand fixedly over his cheek until it begins to turn pink underneath his fingers. He must feel you staring at him, because he brings his hand down to his side and flattens it out against his thigh. He gives you a strange, glittery smile that isn't quite charming. You think uneasily of what might be strapped underneath that nice double-breasted suit of his, because he looks like a man longing for a halfway decent kamikaze mission. Just one good suicide run.

But instead of blowing up the plane, instead of pulling a gun, he flags down a passing flight attendant and orders an iced tea.

Murderers don't drink iced tea, or at the very least, they don't add so much sugar, so you relax just a little. He can't blame you for being tense. He looks like hell, all lines and sharp edges, and you've never seen anyone wake up like that, as if they were jumping out of sleep as fast as they could.

He gives you the smile again. It lasts too long, like he can't remember how his muscles work, and when he stops, it's as suddenly as he started and before you can blink, his mouth is an unbroken line that might have been carved from stone.

"I'm Tony," he says, and drinks some of his iced tea. His hand is shaking, and the ice cubes knock together and spiral through, clanking against the glass.

"Kathy," you say, your best friend in middle school, and you don't know why you're lying.

He straightens and the tea sloshes over the rim of the glass and some of it splatters against his pants. "Kate?"

"No, not Kate. Kathy."

"Oh," he says. He moves the straw around, pokes absently at the slice of lemon. "I work with a woman named Kate."

"Mm," you say, not really interested.

"What I always loved about airplanes is the meaningful relationship you form with the person sitting next to you." He seems to have forgotten his tea and the glass is sweating into his hand. You watch the water droplet squirm down his wrist. "You can tell them anything. You can lie, if you want, the way you're lying to me, or you can tell the truth. Whatever." He fixes you with a sharp glance. "Your name isn't Kathy."

You find the magazine at your side. "Sure it is," you say, not looking at him.

"Right," he says, softly, patronizing you. "I was just kidding." Except he wasn't, not even a little. "But. You can say anything. So if you were lying, it wouldn't matter. Because we're never going to see each other again."

He lifts the iced tea, almost toasting you, and then drains it.

"And your name is Kathy," he says, "and I work with a woman named Kate. And you and I, Kathy, we can lie about whatever we want." He looks at you for too long then, and laughs. It sounds like breaking glass. "Don't worry, Kathy. I'm not dangerous."

You can't help but wonder why he says it like he wishes it weren't true.

You know that there are people who would like this kind of thing, but you've never been an actress. Oh, sure, you did the school plays with everyone else, liking the greasepaint smeared all over your face and the way the stage-lights lit you up for your parents in the audience, on those rickety chairs - - but you haven't played this way since you grew up. Now, though, you think it might be best to follow his lead. He may not be dangerous - - and somehow, you believe him on that point even if you believe him on nothing else - - but there's still the off-chance that if you ignore him, he could make a scene.

You just want to go home. You don't want anything to do with this Tony or his friend Kate or his fun airplane game. You don't want to be Kathy, anyway, and if you have to play along, you at least wish that you had picked a better name, something that wasn't assigned to your clumsy childhood friend with the greasy ponytail and the face covered in freckles.

It's stupid of you to do this, but you hear yourself saying, "Why were you in Indiana?"

Tony beams at you, like you're getting it. "I was there for a funeral, Kathy." He says your name like he likes it, but you know he's only tacking it there because he knows, somehow, that it doesn't belong to you.

"Whose funeral?"

"There was this girl," he said. "This woman. Sometimes I didn't even like her that much, but . . . she was family. And with family you go to the funeral."

"I'm sorry," you say, even though he's probably making it up.

"These things happen," Tony says philosophically. He pushes the iced tea glass into the holder at his side. "Why were you there? And remember, I'll never know." He bats his eyelashes at you and you think, for an instant, that he would be very charming if he weren't so creepy.

You take advantage of the lie. "I'm a photographer. I was there on a shoot."

"Cornstalks?"

"Some of the older, refurbished barns," you say. There was a magazine on display in the hospital's waiting room while your mother was dying that said something about refurbished barns. You don't even know what it means. You weren't exactly paying attention. "If I can get them published in one of those folksy magazines, I can make some money."

"You're very good at this, Kathy," he says. "Did you get the pictures you wanted?"

You close your eyes and imagine country-red barns. "I'll know when I get back to D.C. What do you do for a living, Tony?"

He hesitates. "I'm a cop."

You look him over. "You don't look like one."

"How do I look?"

You consider how he woke up, with that strange suddenness, like a light being turned on. There were days when your brother woke up that way. He was always reaching out, not clawing up to his face, but he would never tell you what was so urgent. You imagined answers to all the questions you would never ask him: you think about his friends getting cut down by the gunfire you've only seen in movies, you think about the gun that might be just out of his reach, and sometimes you watched him sleep just to be there to soothe him back. Just to be the one thing he could lay hands on, someone familiar.

"You look like military," you say.

He blinks at you for only a second before he's laughing again. To your relief, this sounds better - - it's a good laugh, warm and real this time, but he cuts it too short and looks guilty.

"No one has ever mistaken me for military before," he says quietly. "That's a once in a blue moon kind of thing. You must have known someone. Who?"

You can't tell him about Robbie waking up with his hands outstretched, and there's no wedding band on your finger for a husband to be a good excuse. Somehow you can't make up a sister on short notice, and if you talk about your mother, you don't know if your voice will shake, so you tell him some cockeyed story about a friend of a friend who came back from Iraq a month ago.

"What branch?"

"Marines," you say. You would like to fudge again, say Air Force or Army, but you don't know how well you could spin a story from them. Even your Marine-lore is secondhand. You have nothing on the others.

He leans closer to you and for the first time, he becomes something other than a stranger. This close, his grief seems to radiate from his skin. He did not lie about the funeral, you're sure of that now. It explains the nice suit and the stilted words, the way he forgot the cold glass in his hand. You aren't reassured by the truth, as you should be, instead you feel betrayed, as if he's broken some vital rule of this game you didn't want to play in the first place. He's telling the truth when he should be lying. You bitterly think that his name probably is Tony, that he is a cop, that his kicks from this come from telling you the truth, and too much of it.

He does not smile now, but says confidentially, "I know a Marine, too. We could probably swap stories, but we'd only end up telling the truth."

"You would," you say, but now you feel sorry for him.

He falls back into his seat and closes his eyes, and for a moment, you think that he started sleeping again the same way he woke up, with utter intent, but then he says, without looking at you or anything else, "Did I tell you I work with someone named Kate?"

"Yes."

"Your name isn't Kate, isn't Kathy. Don't tell me what it is."

"I won't." You don't think you want to.

"Kate - - she's one of those people you just can't get along with, you know? She always has something to say about everything, and I don't even mean talkative here, Kathy, I mean she passes some kind of judgment on everything you do, everything you say. Until you think that you could go crazy and then you turn around one day and if she doesn't say something, you wait for it. You do stupid things you wouldn't do, things you shouldn't do, just to get her attention. Because you've gotten used to her voice.

"She's one of those genuinely annoying people. I never meant to like her, see?"

You think you do, but say nothing, afraid of breaking the spell that's come over him. He reminds you of a fairy-tale, of a ghost story.

"And then one day I did," he says. "I liked her and I was really pissed about that, Kathy, because like I said, she's the most infuriating person I've ever met. And I liked her. Sometimes I'm pretty sure she likes me, too."

"Are you in love with her?" you ask, because this sounds romantic, and none of your boyfriends ever talked about you that way, so deep and so frustrated, said your name so tenderly, like it might crack on their tongues.

He looks surprised at your question. Maybe he forgot you were there.

"I don't know," he says. "I might have been, a little, once. But mostly she's my friend. And sometimes I want to sleep with her, but - - she's Kate, you know? And she has my back and I know it, so I never have to turn around to check. And when you know that someone's holding your life like that, watching you - - it's more important than that. It's life, not just skin, and I trust her. With all of that. Everything."

He breathes harder now, like he might cry, but his eyes are clear. You think it might be better for him some other way, that this story he's telling you is to messy to be conveyed without tears, but Robbie never cried and neither does Tony, not now.

"She's Kate," he says, like it's holy. And you know that no matter what he says, he loves her somehow, because it's all there and then - -

You jump when you see the man standing at Tony's side now. He's younger than Tony and in the same kind of suit, but his is made cheaply. You know he's from the funeral, and not because of the suit but because his eyes are red-rimmed and slightly puffy. He has cried, has let some of his pain out and let it get away from him for a little while, but Tony has everything inside of him and all he gives away are words to a stranger.

"Tony," the younger man says anxiously, "are you all right?"

Tony lolls his head over. "Did Gibbs send you to check up on me?"

The man blinks, confused. "No. He's - - he's looking at a book." He holds up his hands and pantomimes holding a book, as if no one could have understood him. "I just - - I wanted to see if you were okay. Because I couldn't see you."

"You're a good man, McGee," Tony says. "Don't let me tell you differently."

The man - - McGee - - stands a little straighter at the compliment. "You're okay?"

This stranger, this Tony, leans back in his seat and closes his eyes again. You look him over as you did before the game, before you could lie to each other, and see him differently now: this is not a man who would ever take anyone with him in a suicide run. This is someone who would go it alone. He's pain and anger held together by skin and a nice suit, and you don't know how Kate plays into this, don't know who has died, but there must be love inside of him somewhere, for the way he spoke about her, the way he's talking to McGee now, the way he leaned closer to you when you mentioned the Marines.

You do not need to ask McGee's question: you know he isn't okay.

Tony answers anyway, though, rolling his shoulders back into the cushion and settling in.

"I'm alive," he says, and after that, the silence is so long and meaningless that you know his sleep isn't faked this time. You look at him for a minute and then take out the headphones you had thought you would need, and when you've gotten them from your bag and look up again, McGee has gone back to his own seat.

There are fifteen minutes left in the flight and you ride it out with the Goldberg Variations in your ears. You'll have to make the funeral arrangements, Robbie won't want anything to do with it. Someone is going to have to call a florist, someone is going to have to pick out a headstone. That someone is going to be you. Not today, not when you get back, because if you have learned one thing from your mother, it's that death can be very slow and very patient. This is not the first flight you have taken back to D.C. after waiting by her hospital bed. It won't be the last one.

If you ignore the music, for a moment, you can hear the hiss of the ventilator and the pulse of the heart monitor. Death should be faster than that, more merciful.

At touchdown, you fumble with your overhead bag and mean to tell Tony goodbye, but somehow he disappears into the crowd, his own luggage effortlessly removed. You see him further back, with McGee and someone else, and they are touching, subtly, as if holding each other together. You look for a woman who might be Kate, but all of your possibilities brush by Tony without comment.

You wonder what it is Tony lied about, if he told you his name and his job. You wonder what he changed and made real for this one short flight.

You don't look at him as you walk through the terminal, even though you can hear him keeping pace behind you, keeping you safe until the both of you can disappear.