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strawberries

Andrea knew it was a bad idea. That wasn’t the question. Sometimes you had to go through with an idea, not to confirm whether it was good or bad but to see what happened. That’s how you knew you were alive, she decided, watching the suitcases spit out of the wall and onto the conveyor belt.

Why had she checked her suitcase? She never checked her suitcase, preferring to haul it through the whole miserable process, so as to avoid the step she’d arrived at now. Maybe she was punishing herself. That made sense, given the circumstance. The circumstance was this: she was going to visit her ex-boyfriend Nick. They weren’t having an affair—she didn’t think so, not yet—but they weren’t exactly friends either. They hadn’t seen each other since high school.

“Excuse me,” a man said. “I just need to get my bag.”

Andrea looked at the man and then the conveyor belt, which was pushing a series of evenly spaced suitcases in her direction. She stepped aside, and he rushed into the space she vacated.

She checked her phone. Nick had offered to pick her up, but she declined, thinking the setting would lead to theatrics they would regret: a messy hug, hands left too long on shoulder blades, all the unfamiliar smells they’d acquired or learned to disguise. Better to rent a car, to be in charge of when she arrived and departed. That car felt a long way away now, which was okay. She wasn’t ready for whatever happened next.

Her suitcase was among the first to appear. She scooped it off the conveyor with one arm. With her other arm she cut through the air, not realizing everyone had gotten out of her way. Was there something frightening about her here?

She’d taken out her phone to call her husband. It was an instinct. But also she wanted to talk to him. As always, he picked up right away.

“How’s Florida?” he asked.

“Is that where I am?”

“That’s what you said.”

She winced, not because it was an accusation but because it wasn’t. She heard at least one of her boys crying in the background. Or, if not crying, then asking for something in a way that was indistinguishable from crying.

“I’m in the airport,” she said. “I might just stay here.”

“Airports have bars.”

“How are the boys?”

He paused as he debated what to tell her. The longer he paused, the worse the boys’ crimes became in her mind. How much trouble could they have caused since she left? She knew the answer: a lot.

Plus, her husband was permissive. He permitted any number of things she wouldn’t, which made her the bad guy, which she resented. She tried to focus on her resentment as she made her way to the rental car counter.

“The boys are fine,” her husband decided.

“I’ll bring them back something stupid.”

“Bring me back something stupid too.”

Andrea nodded into the empty air. She hung up the phone and placed both hands on the empty rental car counter.

“Is anyone here,” she asked loudly.

Why was nobody else in line? She might have loudly asked that too.

She rubbed the handle of her suitcase and felt suddenly sheepish over its contents, including—humiliatingly—the bra she’d bought. She left on the tags. And there was—it was so stupid—the plastic bag of strawberries, already swimming in their own tawdry juices. She would throw out that bag before she got in the car, provided she got a car.

She unzipped her suitcase, and it was worse than she remembered. Not one but two bathing suits. Three floppy hats. Did she think that by flying back to Florida she would transform into a wearer of floppy hats? The sandals she didn’t regret. She was momentarily overcome with a desire to plunge both feet into hot sand. Then she allowed herself to imagine—just for one moment—the ocean washing over her feet. She felt the sudden cold, the scratch of salt. Already the sun was restoring something. Her skin? That would be good. She reached for the skin beneath her eyes, which was the skin she worried about most. She worried about a lot of skin.

“Sorry,” a woman said, rushing behind the counter.

“I have a reservation.”

“Of course.”

The woman got to work on a computer. Andrea took comfort in the speed of the woman’s typing. It felt good to be taken seriously. Few things bothered her more than being ignored. She consulted her phone to see if her husband had written. He hadn’t. Neither had Nick. Increasingly, she thought of them together, not as competitors but as different aspects of the same life. She shared some things with one and some things with the other. There were few things she shared with both.

Hideously, they had the same name.

“Okay,” the woman said, “I see the problem.”

“There’s a problem?”

The woman produced a look of professional pity. “When your flight is more than an hour late—”

“That wasn’t my fault.”

“No, but when a flight is more than one hour late, the computer—”

So the computer was going to take the heat. Andrea was familiar with—strangely comforted by—this strategy.

“When is the soonest I can get a car?” she asked.

“I might be able to help,” a man said.

The woman looked at him. So did Andrea. She thought she recognized him. Did they sit next to each other on the plane? Did they go to high school together twenty—God, more—years ago?

“You let me get my bag,” the man clarified. “From the thing. What’s it called?”

“Carousel,” the woman said.

Carousel! The whimsy was incongruous. Andrea thought, unwillingly, of her boys at home.

“I don’t need my reservation,” the man said.

“What’s your name?” The woman was already typing.

Good news: it was no problem to transfer the reservation.

“How come his car wasn’t given away?” Andrea asked.

The woman gestured toward the computer.

“Glad I could help,” the man said before disappearing forever.