The forty-minute flight from Washington DC had been bad enough, their eighteen-seat prop jet bucking and yawing on every stray gust, but when Cheryl stepped out onto the tarmac at the tiny Lathrop airfield and felt that first rude slap of Southern humidity, her stomach lurched again into her throat. Cheryl Crawford had been raised in Boston and lived in New York City. She knew heat, but this was unlike any heat she had ever known. This was a swamp heat, fetid and still, reeking in equal parts of jet fuel and rotting ditch weed. Every atom of her long, lean body yearned to empty itself, and if she hadn’t been so acutely aware of the dozens of eyes on her, a young, well-groomed black woman in a dove-gray suit striding toward the terminal beside her equally young, handsome white boyfriend, that’s what she would have done: bent over in front of God and everybody and puked up a morning’s worth of bile and stale coffee onto the broiling asphalt.
But that, quite simply, was not going to happen. So Cheryl called upon ten years of ballet class and another hundred years of Crawford pride to pull her back straight so that she crossed the last thirty yards as if she weren’t stuck at a tiny airfield in backwoods Virginia surrounded by gawking white people but stepping onto the back porch of her parents’ home in Brookline balancing a tray of tea things on her arm. Cheryl had run the 1500 meters in college, and three years later, she still had a miler’s physique: lithe and powerful, with a cat-like grace that drew attention to her long legs, bare under her pencil skirt. With each step, she sensed the boldness in the stares of her white audience—the stubble-faced baggage handler, the chubby crew-cut boy holding his mother’s hand—melting by degrees until they had to turn away, checking themselves.
“I don’t get it,” Frank said beside her. “Where’s my granddad?”
Cheryl took this news with mild alarm. “He’s not here?”
“No, that’s my cousin Mae,” he said, waving. “And I think she’s here by herself.”
Cheryl spotted the woman he was waving to, her arm raised halfway in the air, her jaw slack with undiluted shock. Frank, Cheryl knew, had told his grandfather he was bringing her to Virginia this weekend, but either this news had never reached Cousin Mae, or she hadn’t believed it. But it was too late to turn back now. Mae had already recovered and was waving to them, a high-wattage smile pasted on her lips.
Frank rushed ahead to hug Mae, and when he turned around, he was smiling, too. “Cheryl, I’d like you to meet my cousin Mae,” he said. “Mae, this is my girlfriend Cheryl.”
Cheryl liked that, the sheer unnecessariness of the identifier, stated just loud enough that the crowd of white onlookers couldn’t help hearing it.
“They told me Frank was bringing a friend down from New York,” Mae gushed. “But I had no idea she would be so…lovely.”
You meant so black, Cheryl thought, summoning her best Brookline-tea-party smile. “To be honest, I’m a bit hot in this suit,” she said. “But you’re looking very summery, Mae. That’s a pretty dress.”
“Why, thank you.” Mae laughed, soft and flustered. “Where are my manners? Y’all must be dying to get out of this hot sun. Let’s go in and get your bags.”
The arrival lounge was cooled by an ancient air compression system that bathed the room in waves of damp, frigid air. Anything was better than the punishing heat outside, but to Cheryl, whose gut still hadn’t recovered from that first queasy moment on the tarmac, it felt as though she was wading through a slow-moving river of melt water. There were no overhead bins on the commuter shuttle from Washington, which meant that everything, even her purse containing her stash of vitamin B6 and ginger tablets, had to be stowed in the hold, where it was now being unloaded by the same stubble-faced baggage handler who had stared at her as she came down the gangway.
“Your granddaddy’s so sorry he couldn’t be here himself,” Mae was telling Frank.
“Yeah, what happened?” he said. “I talked to him just a few days ago.”
“Your Uncle Shelby’s what happened, honey,” Mae said. “There’s some painting he’s got hold of—of your grandma, I guess. He talked Mrs. Buford into keeping it at the Old Home Place, and nothing’d do but he had to have your granddaddy come a day early to help him hang it.”
Cheryl noticed a small girl, five or six years old, gazing up at her with enormous green eyes. She was just a slip of a thing, as Cheryl’s mother would have said, rail-thin and pale, in a faded calico dress and scuffed tennis shoes. The girl gaped openly, her eyes shining with a mix of fear and wonder as if Cheryl, in her good gray suit and red-soled Louboutins, were some rare circus animal permitted, for this one day, to roam free in the Lathrop airport terminal.
“Sally, now, mind,” a woman said, tugging the girl close. Cheryl smiled at the girl’s mother, but the woman glared back, her face a closed fist. Cheryl flicked her eyes away, stung. It was only then that she noticed how quiet it had gotten in the arrival lounge. Cheryl was used to white people staring at her hair and her clothes, appearing startled when she spoke flawless English, but never in her life had she silenced a room like this. In spite of herself, she looked herself over, searching for what she could have possibly done to give offense. Was it her suit? Her straightened hair? Her makeup? Her shoes? But no, it wasn’t any of that. Or rather, it was all of it, she realized: her flagrant and unrepentant New Yorkness, and most of all, her proximity to Frank.
Across the terminal, someone opened a box of chicken nuggets and Cheryl bolted up straight, like she’d taken a bullet in her gut.
“Cher?” Frank said, eyebrows arched.
“I’m fine,” Cheryl said, tasting bile. “I might need to use the ladies, though.” His eyes met hers for a hot second, searching for the answer to a question he seemed unsure how to frame. Before he could try, she smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ll find it.”
The key, she reminded herself, was to walk slowly. Nonchalantly. All eyes were on her, and would be until they left the terminal, but the only eyes she cared about just then were Frank’s. He’d heard her in the bathroom that morning before they flagged the cab to LaGuardia, and had been visibly worried when she spent the flight from Washington to Lathrop holding her breath to keep from gagging. Feeling his eyes on her back, Cheryl dawdled before a sun-faded diorama depicting the history of aviation from the Wright Brothers to the jumbo jet. The whole world, it seemed to her, stank of fried grease and stale cigarettes, but she forced herself to stand, idly twisting her left heel, until she had finished reading the story of the first commercial flight of a Boeing 747 and allowed herself to saunter down a dimly lit hall to the restrooms.
As soon as the door shut behind her, she sprinted for the nearest stall. She had barely locked the stall door before her diaphragm flexed and she vomited loudly into the toilet. She tasted half a Starbucks latte, acrid with bile, and three bites of a bagel she’d forced down during their brief layover in Washington before her stomach flipped again and she dry-retched into the bowl.
She was alone, locked in an airport toilet, but Cheryl Crawford had been raised to be aware at all times, in all places, of how she appeared, and she knew how she must look splayed on the filthy tiled floor like a broken bird in her tailored suit and five-hundred-dollar shoes. No one she knew would recognize her now—not her mother or father, not her law professors, not the eminent federal judge who had hired her to be his chief clerk that fall. Not even Frank. But this she knew: after four years at Yale and another three at Columbia Law, she was now in precisely the position her Grandmother Crawford had always warned her that a black girl who wasn’t careful could end up.
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.