by Heather Johnson
Michelle pulled into the vast parking lot and found a space between two oversized pick-up trucks. She could feel a flush creeping up her neck into her face, a glow that too often betrayed her. She hadn’t been to this bar in probably fifteen years and had not liked it even then. Okay, she thought, woman up, let’s go. She pulled a small mirror from her handbag and checked her make-up. Michelle hesitated as she replaced the mirror in the designer bag she had bought with her first bonus. She didn’t want to stroll in with her fancy-schmancy handbag and her expensive boots and have people think she was putting on airs. She laughed. In her Marshalls’ top and outlet jeans no one would think she was lording it over them. She grabbed her hangbag and got out of the car.
Damnit, but this place was big. Three separate entrances were in view from the parking lot. She chose the most official looking set of doors and walked in without hesitation; fake it until you make it was her motto. It was dark inside and she paused, scoping out the various bars. Just pick one, get a drink, then figure it out. She spotted a man in a blue shirt, the color of the airline uniforms, and headed toward him. Nope, just a blue shirt. Michelle kept scanning the floor, catching the eyes of random men as she searched for any faces she recognized. Awkward. She leaned against the bar, and the edge of her white camisole glowed where it peeped out from beneath her ruched top. It wasn’t even 5:30 yet and the black lights were in full effect. She remembered the last time she had been here, back in her 20s, when the black lights had made the cat hairs on her sweater glow and gleam.
She ordered a Miller Lite and wandered around some more. Was that guy- nope, she didn’t know him. This place was even more massive than she had remembered. She pushed through a set of glass doors into the warm summer evening. The courtyard was decorated like a beach complete with potted palm trees dotting mounds of sand.
There he was, Zahir. He was sitting at the far end of the beach, talking to a few other people. She could make her way across the sandy ground and sneak under the canopy. She would plop down on the bench next to him and feign shock at his surprise when he recognized her.
Zahir looked up and his eyes widened as he did a cartoony double take. There went the surprise. She should’ve known that Zahir wouldn’t miss any woman walking alone in his field of vision. She smiled, he hadn’t changed. He jumped up and held out his arms so she could walk into them.
“Michelle! Michelle! I can’t believe this, where did you come from? Oh my God, I’m so happy you came!” He hugged and rocked her and kissed her cheeks. He looked just the same, not as much hair on his head, but still a charming and handsome man.
“I ran into Adam at the gym the other day and he told me about your going away party,” she said. “I haven’t seen anyone from the airport for years, what a great random chance that was.” They sat down on the wicker bench. “I’m so glad I was able to come and see you before you left. You’re transferring to a Florida station, right?”
“Yeah, Tampa. I got to get out of this place,” he said, his light accent music to her ears.
They chatted about his kids (his oldest was graduating high school, how was that possible) and family and caught up a bit.
She looked up. A trio of men were staring at her with big smiles. She walked over to them a bit shyly, it had been so long. “Hi guys,” she said.
“What the fuck? Where did you come from?” asked the closest guy. Aaron, that’s Aaron. My God, he hadn’t changed at all. A few crinkles around his eyes, but he looked fantastic.
“Hi, Aaron. Hi, Ron. Hi, Lancaster,” she smiled.
“Girl, come here,” Ron ordered as he pulled her in and hugged her.
A warmth crept through her as the men pushed and pulled so they could all get their hugs in.
As more people came into the bar, the pattern repeated. Recognition, shock, hugs. She fell back into the habit that only union members understand. Whenever she spotted another old friend, a tiny bit of her mind calculated her seniority against his. Seniority meant everything in that world and everyone knew exactly where they stood in comparison to everyone else. Seniority decided what days off you had, what your start time was, the job you would be performing, your break time, your vacation, whether you could get overtime when you wanted and whether you would be forced to do overtime if you didn’t want it.
She asked Kelvin (senior to her by a few weeks) how many people worked on the ramp now.
“Around five hundred,” he said. “You don’t know anyone anymore, new people coming and going all the time. It’s not like it used to be. All these people coming out for Zahir’s going away party, they’re about all that’s left of the old guard.”
“Wow, I think it was only around two hundred when I left.” Her seniority then had been pretty good, 19 out of that 200. She’d probably be at least a few notches higher now, maybe twelve or thirteen, and out of five hundred she could have picked any shift and job she wanted.
Don’t be stupid. She had a job now where she made twice as much and one that was physically far easier- nothing much easier than sitting at a desk. She had moved from working class to middle class almost as soon as the ink had dried on her college diploma. Blue collar to white collar, union worker to corporate drone. She had worked for the airline to engineer that shift. The job on the ramp, with its flexibility and ease in trading shifts and days off, had allowed her to complete her degree while still working full time and paying her rent, tuition, and other bills. The physical toll it took on her body was just part of the price she had to pay to claw her way up and into the American dream.
“How is John doing?” she asked Kelvin.
“Oh, John. You know how he do,” he said.
“Oh, I remember how he do, for sure,” she laughed, falling back into ramp slang without a thought. “Still stealing checks, huh?” John had always been lazy, doing as little work as he could get away with but his sweet nature and big belly laugh had made it hard to dislike him.
“So how have you been doing, Michelle?” asked Dontay, a guy she had trained on how to load the planes and push them out more than a decade earlier.
“Still at the same job you got when you left the airline?”
“Yes. Well, sort of. Yes, I mean, the company I worked for got bought out by another company but I’m doing the same job.” Stop talking, he doesn’t really want to know, he was just being polite.
Loud laughter nearby caught her attention. Aaron was watching his wife talk to Zahir and getting a ribbing from some of the other guys.
“Oh, your mistake, Aaron,” Lancaster said. “You can’t let Zahir talk to your wife, he can’t help himself.” Aaron’s wife was only slightly less beautiful than Aaron was.
“I know it,” Aaron said. “Look at him, he just brushed some imaginary dust off her shoulder.”
The guys guffawed and she laughed with them. Zahir was legendary for his romantic conquests despite his long marriage. Lancaster was right, he really couldn’t help himself, flirting was as natural to Zahir as breathing. He had turned his charm upon her at one time but she had not been interested in a dalliance with a married man, even one as handsome and charming as him. He had taken her refusal with grace and their friendship had flourished. One couldn’t help but love Zahir; the large turnout at his going away party was testament to that.
It had been a world she couldn’t wait to leave. The constant pain in all her joints after years of throwing bags and loading freight, the bitter cold in the winter and sweltering heat in the summer, the low pay that made working overtime a necessary evil, the dirt and noise and chaos.
She grabbed a round of beers at the bar and joined a group of men leaning against a table.
“You know Reed, who transferred to Raleigh?” one asked. Andrew, his name was Andrew, she thought.
“Yeah, I remember Reed, he married that customer service agent… Diane, right?” she said.
“Yeah, that’s him. Well, they got married and transferred to Raleigh, had a couple of kids.”
“Right, I remember hearing about that.”
“Well, did you hear about how Reed was supposed to pick up a double shift one night but the overtime got cancelled so he came home eight hours early and found Diane getting it on in the living room with a pilot?” Andrew was triumphant, he knew she hadn’t heard that little nugget.
“No!” Who knew, it might even be true. Gossip raged across the airport; old ladies had nothing on rampers.
It had been a world she had been sorry to leave. A world where she knew exactly how she fit in, full of men who were good and decent and funny as hell, freedom in her schedule, and complete confidence in her ability to do her job. And the only job she’d had where she knew she was making as much as the man next to her doing the same work thanks to the transparency of the union contract.
She had to go. She’d had two beers already and didn’t want to drink more since she had to drive. She looked around the pseudo beach, her heart full of love for these men. Even J.B., a man she hadn’t liked much and sometimes had actively loathed seemed less annoying with the passage of time. She made her rounds and said her goodbyes, hugged and kissed and hugged some more.
As she pulled out of the parking lot she began to cry. What is wrong with me? She had never quite fit in at the ramp- she was a woman, she had been in college, she wanted more from life than “topping out” (gaining the highest level of seniority and pay available in the current union contract with the airline)- these were just a few reasons that the ramp had never fully been her home. But despite that she missed it. Easy to say with years gone by, easy to forget the pettiness of the supervisors, the discomfort of working in freezing rain, the smell of a box of crabs that had gone bad on a flight from New Orleans to Baltimore, the brutal pace of quick turnarounds and tight schedules. But she also remembered the color of the runway lights as they glowed in the dusk, being outside on glorious spring and fall days, the physical satisfaction in a hard job done well, and the pranks the rampers pulled on each other in their limited down time. She didn’t want to be back there, exactly. She didn’t know what she wanted.
When she got home she pulled out her laptop and checked out her Facebook page. She searched for Aaron, Zahir, Lancaster, Kelvin, and the other men she had seen at the party. She closed her laptop without sending any friend requests. She had to get up early for work tomorrow.
Heather Milne Johnson served in the U.S. Army as an Arabic linguist and intelligence analyst from 2002-2007. She writes semi-fictional pieces and dark, funny short stories. Heather lives in Baltimore, MD, a city that offers plenty of inspiration for both.