Every time Cassie grumbled about her supervisor Miranda, she remembered the flight they shared on the way home from Las Vegas. The plane was full and Cassie squeezed between the man with a comb-over and her boss, a woman 15 years her senior with a perpetual squint, as if every interaction was an inspection of fine print.
And it was. It had been two years since Miranda took the helm of the hospital’s fundraising team and she still didn’t understand that Cassie hyphenated her last name. It didn’t matter, though, because in Miranda’s eyes, Cassie wasn’t a mother, a friend or a philanthropist; she was Communications Specialist, Classification II. A vessel for words that Miranda had to approve, one by one.
Except, perhaps, on that flight home. It was mid-afternoon and Miranda had insisted they leave the conference early. She navigated airport traffic in her rental car and spent 10 minutes on speakerphone with her administrative coordinator Janet.
“Just explain to Southwest that we need to get back for that donor dinner,” Miranda said as they weaved through the line of Ubers outside Harry Reid International Airport.
“The reservation is at 5,” said Janet through the speakers.
“Exactly.” Miranda leaned forward onto the car horn, startling Cassie. “Those assholes think they are the center of the universe.” She pointed at a sedan in front of them, where a bellhop was helping an elderly couple lift their bags from the trunk.
“Miranda?” Cassie asked. It had taken time, but she had learned to perfect her tone. Inquisitive, curious, non-threatening, with a feminine lilt. “It’s nearly 3 o’clock.”
Her boss pushed her sunglasses onto her forehead and faced Cassie. “That’s why we need the earlier plane.”
Cassie considered pointing out that the flight would take an hour, plus they’d need to budget time for security and boarding. Instead, she took a cue from Janet, whose nails they could hear clicking on her keyboard through the phone.
“Booked you on a flight at 4,” Janet said. “Emailed you the details.”
Miranda pulled forward into the spot vacated by the couple and smiled. “You are the very best, you know, Jan?”
Cassie winced. Janet, never one to mince words, had never liked that nickname. To her credit, she didn’t correct Miranda, perhaps because nobody did. “Fly safe,” she said instead.
Cassie followed Miranda through the airport, both of them dragging wheeled carry-ons. It helped that Miranda’s neon conference badge had flipped over her shoulder, making the small woman easier to find amidst a crowd of high school volleyball girls and the occasional hung-over bachelor party. Cassie held her breath when they reached the security line, which looped in a circle around the baggage claim. Unfazed, Miranda reached for Cassie’s bag and marched them to the very front of the line.
“This is why we pay extra for the security pass,” Miranda said, pulling a card out of her wallet. She either didn’t notice the men and women scowling at them from their places in line or didn’t care.
They made it to the gate with five minutes to spare. Cassie leaned over a drinking fountain, taking big gulps of water to make up for their airport sprint. Maybe Miranda learned to run in heels in her fancy MBA program. She wore a smart business suit with matching gray blazer and didn’t so much as glisten with sweat, while Cassie had already removed her sweatshirt and was fanning herself with a conference brochure that read “Tell stories that matter.”
That was why Cassie worked in fundraising: It was a way to put not one but two creative writing degrees to good use. That, and the allure of the infamous “golden handcuffs”—a solid pension plan and affordable healthcare, two qualities that she, as the mother of a kid with asthma, could not live without.
They had been at the conference two days, and despite being separated by thousands of other nonprofit fundraisers and administrators on other sides of echoey auditoriums, the whole trip had been claustrophobic. The conference had been Cassie’s idea, prompted by a discussion in their weekly one-on-one about professional development opportunities. She was surprised when Miranda approved her request, only to have her hopes dashed when she realized that her boss had bought not one but two conference passes.
“I love a good conference,” Miranda had said. “We’ll get in some good networking, chat up the keynote speaker, take advantage of the open bar…”
“And learn something?” Cassie asked.
“That’s what I was going to say!” Miranda smiled. “I knew there was a reason I hired you.”
And yet Miranda had not hired her. Had she forgotten that? Cassie pre-dated Miranda by three years—at least a decade in nonprofit time. Miranda had not hired Cassie and Cassie had most definitely not hired Miranda. Miranda had been “appointed” by a committee of executives after the previous associate vice president left under mysterious circumstances. This would have taken Cassie by surprise had she not worked in the industry long enough to understand when her opinion didn’t matter.
She followed Miranda down the narrow aisle to their row, where the man with the comb-over had already fallen asleep.
“I don’t do center seats,” Miranda said, gesturing for Cassie to squeeze past her.
Cassie acquiesced, bowing her head as she squeezed her tall frame into the seat. Miranda, meanwhile, waited for the man behind her to offer to lift her carry-on into the overhead compartment.
“Thank you,” she said, offering a pearly-white smile and placing one hand on her chest. Her signature move.
At long last, they were seated. Cassie was conscious of her elbows. God forbid they rub actual shoulders on this trip. Miranda scrolled through her email, oblivious to the way Cassie fidgeted in reaction to every swipe or click.
Cassie leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes with the hopeful thought that maybe if she pretended to sleep she’d be spared an hour of conversation. And then she heard it: A long, uninterrupted baby’s wail. Her eyes shot open, pulse quickening as she saw a man two rows up burping an infant in a green and blue checked onesie. Her anatomy betrayed her, a vise clamping over her heart as she took in those rosy cheeks, quivering as the little boy cried. Without meaning to, one hand fled to her breasts, suddenly tender. The baby looked to be about two months old.
Her son would have been that age.
Had things gone differently, she would be at home on leave, strolling him through the rose garden or bringing him to Mommy and Me music classes while Patrick took their daughter to soccer camp. She wouldn’t be chasing anybody through the Las Vegas airport. Yes, the miscarriage was months ago, but something about that mournful baby’s cry made her chest swell with phantom milk. Before she realized what was happening, tears were dripping down her cheeks and landing in fat drops on her clasped hands.
Without looking up, Miranda laid one hand over hers.
That was it. That was the moment.
Mortified, Cassie withdrew her hot hand from Miranda’s touch and rushed to rub the tears off her cheeks, but the floodgates had opened. The more she scrubbed, the harder they fell, especially when the baby’s cry climbed in pitch.
“Sorry,” Cassie coughed, one hand over her face. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Miranda clicked send on an email and looked at her. “I lost a child too, you know.”
Cassie was quiet. Flight attendants made their circuits of the airplane, checking to see that everyone was buckled in. The lights overhead turned off.
“I wasn’t as far along as you were,” Miranda continued. “But loss is loss. And it’s real.”
Cassie kept her eyes straight ahead. Maybe if she focused on the little boy’s face, she’d see that he was real and the one inside her was no longer. The thought made the lump in her throat larger.
“I—I thought I’d be over it by now,” she said, looking away from the baby, who seemed to have calmed down.
“You don’t get over it.” Miranda’s jaw was set. “Time passes. Other things happen. But there’s no getting over or past the loss of a child.”
Cassie took a risk and looked at her. Who was this woman?
“My daughter keeps asking where her brother went,” she said. “What am I supposed to say?”
Miranda shrugged. “He’s with her.”
Somehow, this felt right. Cassie leaned back, this time letting her eyelids close.
Cassie didn’t wake until the airplane touched down an hour later. She was startled to see Miranda attempting to extricate her Coach bag from the overhead compartment. Her thin arms wobbled for a moment before she stood on her tiptoes and pulled the bag down with a flourish, all the while her mouth didn’t stop moving.
“Now is it the Il Fornaio on North 8th or is it the one on Market?”
Cassie blinked, recognizing the blaze of the bluetooth in Miranda’s ear. She stood up in a rush, banging her forehead on the overhead light. Her boss was already striding down the aisle, calves flexing in nude pumps. Miranda didn’t notice that she’d dropped her conference badge, which lay face-up on the airplane floor, glowing chartreuse amidst a sea of arms and legs reaching for backpacks, purses and carry-ons. Cassie unearthed her messenger bag from its place beneath the seat in front of her and edged out of the row.
“This yours?” The man with the baby held the badge out to her. The boy had pink cheeks and long eyelashes that he was struggling to prop open. Cassie felt her throat catch.
“Thanks.” She reached for the badge, clutching it in her sweaty palms until the man and his son had eased their way down the aisle to the airplane cabin. She let other passengers slip in front of her as she tore the badge up into small, ragged pieces.
Julia Halprin Jackson’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Mayday Magazine, Okay Donkey Mag, Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern and elsewhere. A graduate of UC Davis’ master’s in creative writing program and alumna of Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and the Tomales Bay Writers Workshops, Julia is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer. See more of Julia’s work here.
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