Take Me Apart - Sara Sligar
California revealed itself to Kate as a series of spots, like a scratch-off lottery ticket, the forested hills emerging in patches as the plane lowered through the clouds. The landscape had been split into pieces: the purple mountains, the long oval of the bay. Just as the last wisp of cloud disappeared, the plane bounced on a gust, lurching everyone against their seat belts, so when Kate first saw the whole view laid out beneath her, her throat was clogged with fear. The plane righted itself, and she was annoyed at the turbulence for tricking her, for ruining her first impression. The man beside her crossed himself.
“I hate landings,” he said as he popped a Ritz cracker into his mouth. “Seems like no one knows how to fly a plane these days.”
Kate realized she was clutching the armrest. Only the left one: the man had commandeered their shared armrest somewhere over Colorado. She forced herself to relax her grip. Her eyelashes were matted together and her mouth tasted like dishwater. The morning—the bleary, hungover wait for the delayed plane; the ill-advised airport pretzel during her first layover—already seemed distant, sopped up into the grimy sponge of cross-country travel.
“Did it used to be better?” she asked the man, not because she especially wanted to talk to him, but because it was in her nature to ask questions. In elementary school, her parents had stopped taking her to the supermarket because she would interrogate them mercilessly about how the grocery cart was manufactured or how the vegetable mister worked. In college, she had been told she had a talent for the Socratic method.
“Oh, yeah,” Ritz-cracker guy said. “I’ve been flying for business for thirty-three years. I only just started getting sick maybe, I don’t know, the last decade. You’d think new technology would have smoothed out the ride, but it’s all about the training.” He selected a new cracker. “Are you from San Francisco?”
“New York. I’m out here to start a new job.”
“Oh, yeah? What do you do?”
“I’m an archivist.” The word felt unfamiliar in her mouth; she rolled it around, like a marble. At her seatmate’s blank look, she added, “I work with old documents.”
“That’s a real job?”
“You always done that?”
“No. I used to work for a newspaper.”
His expression cooled. “You’re a journalist?”
“A copy editor.”
“Like with the semicolons?”
“Yes. And I checked facts, things like that.” The past tense was a dull hurt.
“Didn’t know anyone checked facts these days,” he said. “I get all my news from people I trust—my wife, my friends. I like to have a direct line. Straight from the source.”
Kate pressed her lips together. She already regretted encouraging the conversation, but she didn’t know how to end it politely. There were rules. Be accommodating. Pretend interest. Give them what they want. You started it. He smiled at her and drummed his fingers against the armrest, scattering crumbs.
“Anyway,” he said, “it sounds to me like you made a good choice, switching careers.”
This guy. He reminded her of Leonard Webb, although Leonard would have hated to hear that. He would have hated this guy’s rounded gut and checkered button-down and Midwestern twang. And Kate hated the guy for reminding her of Leonard at all.
The plane bounced again. Someone screamed behind them. The seat belt light blinked off overhead, which couldn’t be right. Out the window, the unfamiliar skyline tipped sideways in its oval frame, and Kate’s stomach swayed.
The guy was waiting for a follow-up, so she asked, unwillingly, “What do you do?”
“Insurance. For farmers. I make sure they’re not undervaluing their land. A lot of site visits.”
“So you’re kind of a fact-checker, too.”
He looked at her like she was crazy. “No.”
The plane dipped. They were coming in over the water now, so low and close Kate felt sure they would topple in. She imagined the water closing over her head. Would she be relieved? Before she had figured out the answer, the ground materialized beneath them, an asphalt miracle, and the wheels touched down.
* * *
Baggage claim. Kate waited with the rest of the tired passengers while the suitcases circled like alligators. The belt went on and on, the crowd thinned as others were reunited with their luggage, and still Kate’s bag did not appear. The back of her neck grew sweaty. Three months was a long time, and she had brought only the one suitcase. If her clothes vanished now, she would be truly alone. Not even an outlet-store sweater to keep her company.
When it was just her and