Charlotte sat in her airplane seat and watched as the rest of the passengers boarded the flight. It was a skill she’d honed over her thus-far-quite-short journalism career: observing everyone else, and trying to figure out what stories they could hold. Snippets of conversation floated through the air, and she scribbled down some of the sentences into her notepad.
“Did you remember to check what the age of consent in New Zealand is?”
“If I fall asleep, I don’t want you to wake me up. Even if I end up in Chicago.”
“I haven’t laughed like that since the last time I saw Pay it Forward stoned.”
She could imagine the kinds of stories that she could write about the people attached to the phrases - the sleepy traveler was one she could imagine inadvertently creating an international incident, for one. But this trip wasn’t for work, and she’d had to promise her roommate Adrienne that she wouldn’t spend the entire time working, as she was wont to do when she was anywhere with people. She slipped her notepad back into her knapsack and settled back in her seat with a book she’d been meaning to read for a while.
Charlotte would later say that she had every intention of reading the book, and maybe taking a nap somewhere over Cleveland, but she found that every intention went away when she looked up and saw who was sitting two seats over from her, scanning over the safety procedural card and sipping out of a bottle of water.
Her former babysitter.
Her childhood idol.
“Stacey?” she asked, and she hoped she didn’t sound too earnest. After all, there had been a time when she would have probably done just about anything if Stacey thought it was cool, and there was still a small part of her that would always hope that.
The woman looked up at her. Charlotte felt the woman’s eyes passing over her, and then her face lit up in a flash of recognition. “Charlotte? Oh, my Lord, it’s been so long.” The position of the armrests did not allow for them attempt to awkwardly hug; instead, Stacey settled for reaching over and squeezing Charlotte’s hand. “What have you been up to? Last I heard, you were off at - where was it, again?”
“Florida,” she said, almost without thinking. “My parents wanted me to go to Stoneybrook U, but I refused.” She looked out the window and watched absentmindedly as the baggage handlers closed the cargo hold doors. “And then I graduated from Columbia last year, and now I’m working as a freelance journalist and as a barista on the side.” She paused. “What about you?”
“Would you believe that I’m an attorney? If you’re ever sued for libel in the state of New York...”
“Really? I always thought you’d have a corner office and talk about insurance rates all day, or at least something involving lots of money.”
“And I always thought you would be some sort of artist, so I guess that makes two of us.”
Charlotte laughed. “You obviously missed my dark, dreary days of paint-splattered black clothes and dreadful poetry.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad,” Stacey said, with an encouraging smile.
“Let me see if I can remember some of it.” She closed her eyes, and almost as if from a trance, began to recite: “Our love is no more. How could you abandon me? Angels surround us, crying; we have lost our light.” She blushed, and buried her head in her hands. “I wrote it after my ex left me for another girl. There was a whole series of them.”
“No, of poems about Sophie.”
“Yeah, my ex. Did you assume that my ex was a guy? Because Sophie - definitely not a guy.”
“Well, um,” Stacey paused, and she fidgeted with her hands in her lap. “I guess I kind of did? I seem to remember you having a crush on Bruce Cominsky.”
“I did - in the third grade! You know, he’s married to Diane, now? They’re constantly flooding my Facebook news feed with updates on their daughters Paisley and Payton.”
“Wait, the Diane he chose over you back then?”
“‘Ew, Dumschat,’ indeed.” Charlotte laughed and shrugged. “I’m over it. I’m over Sophie now too, honestly, even though the bad poetry’s still there. At least I never gave any of it to her, like I wanted.” She fell silent and pressed her nose against the window to watch as they rose to meet the clouds. Once, the two of them had been “almost sisters,” and now, they were reduced to this, whatever this was, this idle reflection on their achievements and her own love life, such as it was.
“Hey, come on, now, it’s okay,” Stacey said, putting her hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. “I have someone I want you to meet.” Charlotte turned around, and saw Stacey extend a photo out to her. She took a closer look. Two women, one blonde, one brunette, were in a close embrace, wearing matching smiles; Charlotte could tell the blonde was Stacey, but didn’t recognize the other off-hand. “That’s Laine,” Stacey explained, “and you could call her my Sophie. We reconnected, after the drama of high school was over and we’d grown up a bit.”
“You - you dated her?” Charlotte was taken aback. Her eyebrows furrowed together as she looked closer at the photo, zeroing in on Laine’s face. “You dated guys. I remember, you had boyfriends.”
“You’re not the only person who can change like that,” Stacey said with a wistful sigh and a shrug as she tucked the photo back into her carry-on. “Laine left six months ago to ‘find herself’ in European shopping capitals.” She flung her hands up in frustration and slumped back against the seat. “Haven’t heard from her since she apparently bought out half of Milan with her father’s trust fund, and that was four months ago.”
“Are you sure she’s okay?”
“She’s Laine,” Stacey said in exasperation, as if it was supposed to be self-evident. “She’ll be okay. She’s just putting Laine first, as she does. I might have a postcard in my mailbox when I get back explaining the joys of eating snail caviar with someone named Dominique on the Riviera, who knows? I can't wait around for her forever, though.”
“Would either of you ladies like something to drink?” the flight attendant asked, stopping her cart in the aisle next to them and interrupting their conversation.
Stacey gestured to her still mostly-full bottle of water, and Charlotte thought for a second. “I’ll take a Coke,” she said. “On second thought, make that a ginger ale.”
After taking the small plastic cup and napkin from the flight attendant and sipping at the fizz slowly, Charlotte asked, “So, you never said why you were headed out to Los Angeles in the first place.”
“Kristy found out that Dawn is coming home from the Peace Corps this weekend, and, well, you know how Kristy is with her ideas.” Charlotte smiled at the thought. Without Kristy’s penchant for ideas, the two of them would likely have never met, so she did have a fondness for them. “She’s throwing a surprise ‘Welcome Home’ party tomorrow, and under threat of serious physical harm, none of us are allowed to miss it. What about you? I didn’t think you and Kristy were still in contact.”
“Nah,” Charlotte said, flicking her finger at the edge of the cup. “I just needed a vacation, and thought that California sounded nice this time of year. Been cooped up with the pigeons too long.”
“You should come, if you don’t have plans already.” Stacey tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear and smiled. “It’d be nice to see you again, Char.”
Charlotte had left her life in Stoneybrook all behind when she went to Gainesville; she’d packed up the pictures of Carrot, and her well-loved, dog-eared copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and a small porcelain pig Stacey had given her once, among other things, and carted it all down with her. She’d never quite fit into the homogeneity of Stoneybrook, with the quaint farmhouses and small frame houses lined in perfect rows. It wasn’t that it wasn’t nice, in its own way; it was more like she lived in a Norman Rockwell or a Thomas Kinkade painting. Even as a child, it was painfully obvious that she wasn’t meant to fit into a place like Stoneybrook; she was never going to be one half of a Bruce-and-Diane. The collection of mementos, and the fact that her parents still lived in the house on Kimball Street, were all that connected her to her former life anymore.
And the thought of going to the party for Dawn - that would be a tacit recognition of everything that she had used to be, but was no longer. She was still much the same, but as Stacey had observed, she’d changed too, in more ways than she maybe realized. Maybe they both had.
“I’ll think about it,” Charlotte said finally, “but I don’t want to promise.”
“Great.” Stacey wrote down her phone number on a small sheet of notepaper and handed it to Charlotte. “This is my number, let me know if you want to go and I’ll pick you up wherever, whenever.”
“And if I don’t want to go?”
“Call anyway! We’ll paint the town red, you and I.” Stacey pulled a small travel pillow and matching blanket out of her carry-on. She positioned the pillow behind her head and wrapped the blanket around her. “I’m going to try to sleep, okay? Long airplane rides tend to make me sleepy anymore.”
“Okay,” Charlotte said, but Stacey had already closed her eyes. She tucked the slip of paper inside her purse, and took back out the book she’d brought along. Every now and then, she peeked up from the page she was reading and looked over at Stacey, sleeping contentedly, her hand folded over the top of the blanket, clasping it tightly in her grasp.
Maybe she would go to the party, after all, if only because Stacey would be there.
And to her, Stacey had always been different than everyone else.
The next morning, Charlotte sat cross-legged on the bed in her motel room and stared at the slip of paper. She punched in the ten digits, and listened as the phone rang on the other end.
“Hi!” Stacey’s voice was as chirpy as ever coming through the phone. “Are you going to the party? If not, I’ll take you out to lunch somewhere tomorrow. My treat.”
She hesitated. “I guess? I mean,” she traced circles in the comforter with her finger and tried to forget the studies she had heard about regarding hotel room cleanliness, “you’ll be there, so I’ll have someone to talk to, even if everyone else ignores me.”
“I’ll pick you up at five? It’s on the beach, so dress accordingly.”
“Sounds good.” She gave Stacey the directions to her motel, disconnected the call, and flopped back against the small stack of pillows.
Charlotte hung back away from the crowd, and nervously chewed at her vegetable kebab as she took on her position as the natural observer. It had been a long time since she’d seen anyone that was there - excluding Stacey, naturally, although they had split off from each other as soon as Stacey spotted Claudia - and some of them she had never met. Some of them were probably California friends of Dawn’s, if she had to guess.
If she could say nothing else about the night, at least she could tell Adrienne that she did make it to the beach, after all.
From across the crowd, a petite dynamo whirred Charlotte’s way. “Charlotte! Charlotte Johanssen! I didn’t know you’d be here,” Kristy said, shaking her hand. When Kristy pulled away, Charlotte saw that she had placed a business card in the palm of her hand.
Kristin A. Thomas
Owner, Kristin Incorporated
Charlotte examined it. “Uh - what does Kristin Incorporated do, exactly?”
“I’ve commercialized Kid-Kits!” Kristy said excitedly, and Charlotte could almost see her bouncing on the balls of her heels despite the sand. “Parents all across the country love them! They’re simple, effective, diverse, and they allow children to find other outlets for their boundless creativity besides channeling it through technology. Mallory just ordered two.”
“That sounds like a sales pitch.”
“Do you have any children in your life? Because if so, yes, it is, but you’d get the former client discount. If you don’t, keep the card for when you do.”
“Um, not right now, I don’t.” She slipped the card into her purse. “Nice seeing you, Kristy.”
“Hey, how did you find out about this anyway? I didn’t see you on the list of people who RSVPed on Facebook.”
“I heard about it from Stacey.”
“Of course it was Stacey. I should have known,” Kristy said with a grin. “You always were her favorite, after all. Bonus points for her! After all these years, she’s still thinking of the client. Oh!” She looked in the distance, where two women were walking away from each other. “It looks like Mallory’s finally done talking to Amalia. I need to talk to her. Sorry! Have to run!”
They were in the rental car going back to Charlotte’s motel room, after the party; Stacey gripped at the steering wheel with stark white knuckles as Charlotte looked out the window at the backlog of cars on every side. “Did you enjoy it?” Stacey asked.
“‘Twas alright,” Charlotte said, curling a lock of her hair around her finger and uncurling it. “You seemed to enjoy yourself.”
“Yeah. We’re all so busy - and Dawn was in Senegal for two years, after all - that it was nice to catch up. Claudia’s suggesting that I go halfsies on running her Etsy shop for her, so she can focus on actually making the jewelry.” Stacey gestured to the brooch pinned to her cardigan. “Do you think that this is worth $14? I told her I’d consider.”
Charlotte glanced over at the brooch, and had to choke back a laugh. “It’s very -” She paused. How could she diplomatically describe what appeared to be tiny dyed peacock feathers pasted haphazardly onto a pin back? “It’s very vibrant,” she finished. “Definitely unique.”
“That’s Claud for you!”
The lights of the city passed by as Charlotte worked up the courage to bring up the reason she couldn’t find the enthusiasm to talk about vegetarian kebabs and Dawn’s Senegal stories. She wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and exhaled, as she said, “Kristy said something about you getting bonus points for bringing a former client? Is that all I am? Someone you used to babysit a long time ago?” She hated feeling so self-conscious, but Stacey’s acceptance had always been something she sought subconsciously, and the Baby-Sitters Club was something that was so far in her past that she hated the thought of it defining her.
“Kristy actually said that?” Stacey tightened her grip on the wheel and gritted her teeth. “Char, listen to me. Thirteen year old me would have definitely said that you were my favorite client, and a pretty damn awesome kid in general.”
“And you were my favorite sitter,” she whispered. “You helped me - so much - but -”
“But, what? You’re a pretty damn awesome adult now too, and a four, five year difference between friends is nothing now that we’re older. It’s one thing for Kristy to still think of you as being caught in a time warp where you’re forever eight years old and I never leave that damn middle school - but I don’t. Never have. Never will.”
“We haven’t seen each other since you graduated and left Stoneybrook behind.”
“Doesn’t mean I stopped thinking about you,” Stacey said, changing lanes as the exit approached. “I thought about looking you up sometimes, maybe inviting you for a coffee if you lived in the city.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say to you, about everything with Laine and the law firm and so on, but apparently ten minutes with you on an airplane will take care of a lot of that now.”
“But not everything.”
“But not everything,” Stacey repeated in an echo. “You’ve changed.” Charlotte couldn’t tell if her declaration was a condemnation or a pointed statement of fact. “Of course, you’ve changed. You’re no longer a child.” At the red light, Stacey put the brakes on and reached her hand over to clasp Charlotte’s. “Of course, you’re no longer a child, because you’re an adult now, and you’re beautiful - and there was no way I could have known any of this before.”
“What are you saying?” It was a stupid question; she realized that as soon as the words left her mouth, but it was some sort of a plea. They were sitting in the parking lot of the motel by now, and her motel room was fifty feet away, if even. She could get out of the car now, make a run for her room, never contact Stacey again, and there would be a million unresolved issues and questions. Or she could stay and let the other shoe drop.
“I’m saying,” Stacey said, and then there was an awkward silence, and Charlotte reassessed the dynamics of how fast she could run. And then she felt Stacey’s hand move from its place around her own, to where it was now cradling the side of her face. “I’m saying,” she repeated, but this time she was leaned in closer, her lips lingering against Charlotte’s cheek. She was so close, Charlotte could smell faint traces of her flowery body wash.
Charlotte turned her head ever-so-slightly toward Stacey, and their lips brushed against each other for the first time; at first, tentatively, and then she felt Stacey’s mouth open against hers, and she matched her movements in reverse. She drew her arm around Stacey’s shoulder and brought them closer together, and when they stopped kissing long enough to look at each other, foreheads touching, Stacey whispered, “that’s what I’m saying.”
“My room’s right over there,” Charlotte motioned without looking; she wasn’t even sure if she was motioning in the right direction. They weren‘t horny teenagers anymore, where the car would be their only possible form of privacy. “If you - um, I mean, if we -”
“I hear you,” Stacey said, reaching for the latch on the door, “and I’m listening.” She tugged on Charlotte’s hand. “C’mon, you said something about a room?”
In the morning, she looked over and saw a familiar form next to her in bed, although she was a little hazy on the precise details; the blonde hair splayed across the pillowcase was a telltale sign that it wasn’t Adrienne with her flaming red hair, though, and she’d never been one for the whole bar scene. An unfamiliar bra laid on top of the bedside lamp, and as she kicked her one foot, she felt the shirt she’d worn the night before above it. And then the form turned over and let out a low moan, and she realized - it was Stacey. Her Stacey. One of Stacey’s hands was warm against her thigh, and the other was resting on Charlotte’s pillow; at one time, it had probably been entangled in her hair. She smiled a self-satisfied smile and scooted down in the covers next to Stacey, pushing off the fine-tuned nuances of waking up until a later, more appropriate time.
Later, as Stacey got dressed in the clothes she’d worn the night before, so they could go somewhere and discuss things over a warm breakfast, Charlotte made a phone call home. “Hey, Ree? It’s Char. I don’t think you have to worry anymore about that whole ‘no working while on vacation’ idea you were pushing...”