When Jessica Darling blindly collides into Marcus Flutie on this crisp, unclouded January morning, she can’t remember the last time she had imagined where she would be—and who he would be—at the moment of their inevitable collision.
For him, however, it’s a very different story.
Regrets. Jessica has so many regrets. She should have stopped pouring after that first glass of wine last night. Shouldn’t have watched the ceiling swirl for hours. Should have resorted to a narcotic sleep aid sooner. Shouldn’t have hit the snooze button one, two, three times before rocketing (I’m late!”) out of bed this morning. Should have skipped the shower, not breakfast. Shouldn’t have turned down her dad’s offer to drive her to the airport instead of proving her mother right about the unpunctual local car service. Should have chosen the security screening line to the right, not the left, not the one that put her directly behind the starving and savage middle-?aged trafficker of more than three ounces of the liquid weight-?loss supplement with the funny name, a name Jessica keeps repeating in her head in rhythm with her sneakered feet sprinting across Concourse C.
Hoodia. Hoodia. Hoodia.
So many split decisions and judgment calls and incorrect esti?mations have led to this. To being late. She’s late late late late for Gate C-?88. She likes the rhyme, especially when timed with the beat of her feet, and chooses this staccato incantation over the silly-? sounding appetite suppressant.
I’m late late late late for Gate C-?88.
She recalls how she used to silently mouth spur-?of-?the-?moment mantras back in her competitive high school running days. Hand-? slapping rhymes from her youth: Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack?.?.?.?All dressed in black, black, black. Boy-?band lyrics she would never say out loud: You might hate me but it ain’t no lie?.?.?.?Baby, bye, bye, bye. Even her own name: Jessica Darling?.?.?.?Darling?.?.?.? Darling?.?.?.?Jessica Darling?.?.?.?Darling?.?.?.?Darling. These invocations lacked deep meaning—even the song of herself—and were meant only to distract her from how much she hated having to pretend she cared about the outcome of the race.
Today she cares. And no matter how fast she sprints through this airport, there are too many people standing still. Standing in her way. Or stretched across the floor in carefree repose, smudgy fingertips plucking chips and curls and twists out of the bags of overpriced snacks in their laps. Seemingly in no hurry to get anywhere, which is funny if you think about it (but Jessica ?doesn’t have time to think about it), because this is the place where passengers pass time until they can be jet-?propelled across states and nations, oceans and continents, at six hundred miles per hour. Why are they standing still, standing in the way of where she needs to be? Surrounded on all sides by the drone of wheeled luggage buzzing across the concourse, she speeds up, slows down, stutter-? steps, and shimmies her way through the hive. Onward, onward, onward. She was wide-awake, wild-?eyed with worry, for most of the night, and this adrenalized marathon sprint is already taking its toll. She can feel fatigue settling into her muscles, her bones, her brain, her spirit. But no. No! She can’t slow down now. She can’t miss this flight. I can’t miss this flight. The concourse splits down the middle, and she must quickly consider yet another option. Should she hop on the human conveyor belt or just keep running?
There is pure goodness awaiting her in the Virgin Islands. Her best friends are all together to “celebrate the rarest love between two people, the flawed yet fearless union that everyone hopes to find but almost always turns out to be illusive if not elusive.” (Quotations needed because it comes directly from the speech Jessica has prepared for the occasion.) Jessica knows her friends will forgive her if she misses this flight—as they have forgiven so many of her unintentional slights and oversights—but she won’t forgive herself.
I can’t miss this flight, she silently says once more before choosing to trust her own two feet over technology, the last in a series of synchronistic decisions that contribute to everything that happens afterward.
“This is a final boarding call for passenger Jessica Darling.”
After Marcus hears it the first time, he makes sure to listen extra carefully the second time, just to confirm it is her name being called over the public address system and not a phantom echo in his mind.
“This is a final boarding call for Clear Sky Flight 1884 with nonstop service to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Final boarding call for passenger Jessica Darling.”
Jessica Darling. It’s been years since he’s heard her full name spoken out loud. Not that Jessica Darling hasn’t been analyzed, assailed, or alluded to in conversations with family, friends, and near strangers from their shared past. As a subject of discussion, Jessica Darling has been elevated by—not reduced to—pronoun status. Have you seen her? What’s she up to these days? Whenever anyone asks these questions, there’s never any doubt as to whom the “her” or “she” refers. But those questions haven’t been asked lately, not since Marcus has—by all actions and outward appearances—finally gotten over her.
Even after hearing her name once, now twice, Marcus still needs a confirmation from somewhere outside his imagination. He seizes his friend Natty by the lapels and asks.
“Dude, no,” Natty insists. “I ?didn’t hear her name. And neither did you.” Natty’s sharp tone can’t burst the pop-?eyed, expectant expression on Marcus’s face. “And even if you did hear her name, there’s no way it’s her. Now let go of me, because I gotta take a piss.”
Natty strands Marcus between the entrance to the men’s restroom and the fiberglass Betty Boop sculpture boop-?boop-?be-?beckoning customers into the faux-?retro Garden State Diner for a greasy preflight meal. Marcus feels overexposed, overstimulated, as if his whole body is on extrasensory alert. Marcus’s nerves rattle and clang like the dirty silverware carelessly thrown into plastic takeaway tubs by the too-?busy busboys. He tries to calm himself with a series of deep inhalations and exhalations, but breathing cheeseburger smog only makes him more queasy and ill at ease. The alarms going off in his nervous system evoke the erratic animal behavior that precedes natural disasters: a mass exodus of elephants seeking higher ground, dogs wailing under door frames, rabbits clawing at cages, snakes shaken from hibernation slithering through the snow. His instincts, too, urge him to flee. He half jogs away from the diner and heads for the blue-?screened monitors announcing arrivals and departures.
As Marcus searches for Clear Sky Flight 1884 on the departures board, he makes an effort to accept Natty’s logic. After all, ?didn’t his Jessica Darling often joke about being confused with a porn star also named Jessica Darling? Perhaps it’s the X-?rated Jessica Darling being called over the public address system, or maybe even a third unknown Jessica Darling who shares nothing but a name with the other two. A newborn Jessica Darling. A granny Jessica Darling. An African-? American, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, or Other Jessica Darling. It must be one of these alternative Jessica Darlings flying out to St. Thomas on Clear Sky Flight 1884, not his Jessica Darling, not the one he proposed to over three years ago, not the one he hasn’t seen, spoken to, or otherwise communicated with since he quietly accepted that her answer was no.
He’s found it: Gate C-?88. Clear Sky Flight 1884 to St. Thomas is departing from Gate C-?88.
What harm could there be in wandering over to Gate C-?88 to see for himself which incarnation of Jessica Darling is being called out loud? None at all, save for the minor embarrassment of being suckered into a one in six billion long shot. But what if it turns out that the familiar name does belong to her familiar face? Marcus is incapable of calculating the risks of such an improbable outcome. Still, he knows himself well enough to understand how the powers of his masochistic imagination would make the coward’s alternative—never knowing, always wondering was it her? was it her? was it her?—a far greater punishment than any awkward small talk.
He looks away from the monitors because the orange font/blue screen makes his pupils vibrate. On the wall directly in front of him is
a changing digital screen advertisement for the Shops at Newark Liberty International Airport. Before he even realizes he’s doing it, Marcus impassively watches the images shift.
The picture: A gold-?foil box of gourmet chocolates.
The words: missing her.
The picture: A string of black South Sea pearls.
The words: missing her like crazy.
Marcus, wowed by the lack of subtlety, looks away and laughs at himself.
No. He can’t give in to narcissistic folly and read this sign as a Sign. It’s taken him three years to finally pull himself together, and he refuses to come undone by commonplace coincidence. In fact, he’s just about convinced himself that Natty is right, that there’s no way it was his Jessica Darling being summoned over the Clear Sky PA system, that there’s no need to head to Gate C-?88 to verify this impossibility for himself because it is not, it cannot be, her, not his Jessica Darling (why does his skin still prickle with premonitory anticipation?), when his Jessica Darling slams right into him and bounces onto the floor.
A body in motion. A body at rest. Forces coming together—CRASH!—in an instant. Energy spent, energy exchanged, and energy conserved. Jutting elbows, bared teeth. Elastic arms, slack mouth. To every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. This woman and this man, a living demonstration of Newton’s Third Law.
Jessica curses herself as she scrambles across the marble tiles. Clad in head-?to-?toe black, she resembles a desperate beetle stuck on its back, arms and legs flailing for her flung-?to-?the-?ground carry-?on bag. She finds it, scrapes herself off the floor, and decides that a curt give-?and-?take of apologies is the path of least resistance, the quickest way to get past this stranger, this nuisance, this object of interference with feet stuffed into scuffed Vans. There are already too many eyes on them, watching, wondering what will happen next. A combative confrontation will only attract more rubberneckers, and she ?doesn’t want anyone else slowing her down.
Marcus waits until she stands up before he takes a chance. “Jessica?”
It’s the voice that reaches her first, not the correct first name uttered by the voice. Her head bolts up, and when her eyes corroborate with her ears, her breath catches and her hands fly up to her face. She breathes in and out through her palms, once, twice, before taking them away. Miraculously, he’s still there. She is perfectly still for the first time since vaulting out of bed this morning.
He nods to confirm what should be obvious but is still too unbelievable.
“Marcus,” she repeats, softer.
He nods again.
“I?.?.?.” she begins. “I’m?.?.?.”
They are standing inches apart, not touching. Jessica clutches her ergonomic teardrop-?shaped carry-?on bag to her chest, sensing that the moment to embrace has passed. A spontaneous show of emotion now would be too conspicuous, too much, too late.
“Late!” Jessica blurts. “I’m too late.”
Hundreds of passengers swirl around and away from them, like so many snowflakes in a blizzard.
“Oh,” Marcus says. He’s contemplating whether he could get away with playfully swatting her arm in what he hopes is a neutral zone, between her shoulder and elbow. Behind her flashes the sign. The
gold-?foil box of gourmet chocolates. missing her. The string of black South Sea pearls. missing her like crazy. The sign. The Sign. He wants to make contact when he makes his confession, that he’d heard her name, and how he had hoped for the illogical, the impossible, to be true: that it was really her. And today of all days. He’s about to touch her, then deliver the befitting wishes, when she casts a nervous sidelong glance at his turned-?out palm, the part of him that dares to come too close. He drops the offending hand and stuffs it deep into the front pocket of his corduroys, knowing there’s no time for such intimacies.
He says nothing.
“We should—” Jessica starts. She’s rocking from side to side now, an anxious, joyless dance. “You should—” The pronoun change ?doesn’t go unnoticed by either of them. “E-?mail. Or, I don’t know. Text. Something?.?.?.”
“Something,” he says simply.
Marcus musters the courage to look Jessica right in the face. She still wears her hair like an afterthought, pulled back with a few quick twists of a rubber band. If she removed the elastic and shook it out, he would breathe in the fruity scent of shampoo, certain that the chestnut tresses resting against her neck are still damp from her morning shower. He finds some comfort in this knowledge, as well as the overall familiarity of her features, which haven’t changed that much since he last saw her. But he must admit to himself—only to himself, never to her, even if she’d had the time or the temerity to ask—that her casual loveliness is more than a little washed out. Her eyes are tired, tinged pink, and buffered by puffy purple undereye circles. Her lips are crackled dry, her nostrils chapped and flaking around the corners, perhaps from too many rubs with a paper towel, a wool coat sleeve, or some other rough tissue substitute. He hopes that her careworn appearance is an aberration, that her immune system is down but she’s not. He wants her to be sick or tired, but not sick and tired, or just plain sad.
“I’d catch up if?.?.?.” Her cheeks glow an embarrassed red, and her pale complexion is better for it.
“If you had time,” Marcus finishes for her, trying to determine from her voice whether she’s suffering from a cold or something worse.
“If—” she starts again, but ?doesn’t finish.
She can’t look up at him. If she looks up at him, she will see him. And if she sees him, she’ll be compelled to ask questions she ? doesn’t have time for. Instead, she concentrates on her own familiar Converses, but even that fails to bring her relief. That they both still wear their same favorite brands of sneakers after all these years is only a minor revelation, and yet even this tiny glimpse of his world going on without her—and hers without him—is almost too much for Jessica to bear. What else hasn’t changed? Does he still meditate for hours on the floor of his closet? Jessica braces herself with a deep breath. Would he still smell like smoldering leaves if she leaned in close enough? Does he still compose elliptical, poetic songs on his acoustic guitar?
Excerpted from Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty. Copyright © 2009 by Megan McCafferty. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.