I get up at 5 in the morning every Saturday. It's January so the sky is pitch black and the air is freezing, but I scrub my face with harsh soap and cold water, brush my teeth and shave. Strong coffee scents flood my apartment and I swallow some of the disgusting stuff before pouring it into a canteen for the weekly, hour-long drive. Wrapping a thick scarf around my neck, I inhale and then shove my way through dirty snow to the car. I started it about 10 minutes ago so inside isn't as bone-chillingly cold as the morning air. Rubbing my tired eyes, I drink more coffee, pat my gloved hands together and wonder why I had to be an author.
Stories never leave me alone. Or at least, I've never been able to control tugging on the possibilities of people who I cross paths with everyday. Seeing kids at the park, their mothers and sometimes fathers, makes me wonder what's going on behind the smiles and laughter. Seeing teenagers holding hands makes me wonder whether they'll cling to first loves and get married and be happy. Seeing old people just sets me off on all sorts of tangents - their families, their pets, their everyday lives, the skeletons in their closets.
What must it be like, to be omniscient? I want to know. So I create stories for them all.
I back slowly out of my short driveway and head away from the city, towards the airport expressway.
The airport is always full of potential characters for the book I'm working on. It's about time travel and romance and war. Can't go wrong with that stuff. Men and women of all ages have been waiting on it since my last book was published. It was about romance and war. I've stepped my game up, obviously, but my characters haven't been working with me. They're lacking. They're not real people. So I've been driving to the airport every weekend for the last 2 months, observing, sometimes chatting, and creating the imperfect personalities that I need to make my book breathe. It's hard work, going around and asking random strangers in a cold, busy airport for their stories, but someone has to do it.
The sunrise is pretty. I always think that I've seen all the shades of greys and yellows and blues that it can possibly offer, but there are new ones every morning and I don't have the words to do them justice. How ironic is that?
I park and walk into the departures lounge. It's a few minutes after 6 and humans buzz around. I nod at the familiar staff and they nod back. Some of them don't trust me and I can't blame them. I'm six and a half feet tall with too much dark, floppy hair, dressed in a black trench coat, drinking coffee and without luggage. And I'm there every weekend. The ones who do trust me are always willing to share, though. They either know my work or read me as weird and harmless. They tell me about their children, their family members, their neighbours. The stories are interesting but there's nothing like watching emotions flash in the eyes of someone telling their own tale.
I stroll around the cold, buzzing terminal. It's loud and busy. People are hugging and laughing and talking and crying and it makes me feel alive.
There's a family saying a tearful goodbye and they make me stop in my tracks. The two sisters are embracing and then one of them, beautiful, I notice, with caramel skin, sad eyes and thick curly hair, hugs her parents. She squeezes them hard and her mother breaks down. I can hear the sobbing from where I stand and I look away, feeling like an intruder. A spy on a moment that should be in private. But I have to look back, because I know that she'll be my character. The father tells her something and she nods. Her fists close and she's shivering. I think it's from her effort to avoid bawling and not from the winter chill in the terminal.
Finally, the family turns to walk away. The young woman follows them as far as she can, waving until they disappear fully into security. She stands there looking lost. Her shoulders shake and I know I have to do something, but I don't know what.
You don't even know her, I chide the Superman inside, but it's no use. I buy a cup of black coffee and grab some cream and sugar packets and walk over to the lost-looking woman. I stand about a foot behind her and watch trembles run through her frame. Her fists open and close and even though she wipes her face and glances from side to side, she doesn't move. Sadness radiates off her in waves.
"Here you go."
She jumps and looks around, eyes wet. Her pupils are big and dark. "I'm sorry?" She sniffles.
I hold the coffee out to her. She glances down at it, then up at me and I wonder if I should have sought out my usual security guard with tales of her cousin. But I'm sure my story needs this girl more. "You look like you could use this."
She sniffles again. "Do I know you?" She looks so... so vulnerable. She wants to take the coffee but good sense stops her. I'm glad. I could be anybody.
"No... I just... I just thought you'd like some coffee."
She swallows and whispers thanks, her voice shaking the way it probably was when her parents and sister were standing in front of her.
The terminal is huge and we end up sitting together in a waiting area. The table is round with two chairs. She looks unsure of the world around her and I'm just one more unfamiliar object. "Thank you," she murmurs again and she even cracks a small smile. My heart skips its next couple beats in the cheesiest way ever. My Superman complex will be the death of me. A crying girl is all it takes.
"My family was visiting for winter vacation." The words tap on the silence between us. "They've been... They were here for two weeks."
Her self-correction alerts me to the fact that she's smart. "You look really close."
She nods. "We are." Another sniffle and she rubs her palms over her puffy, tear-streaked face. "God. Who are you?"
I can't help but laugh and thankfully she joins in rather than escaping. "My name's William. I'm an author. The airport inspires me."
She raises an eyebrow. "Am I gonna end up in your next book?"
"You just might," I smile back. She giggles and I record it mentally - high pitched, a little immature for her age, but endearing. "I promise to send you a free copy if you tell me your story."
"How do I even know you're any good?" she accuses playfully.
"Google me. William Taylor."
She does and her eyes pop open. She looks between me and her smart phone for a few seconds. "Wow. I actually didn't like your book."
I laugh out loud and watch as the rest of her he-could-be-a-crazy-white-guy worries fall from her shoulders. Her body relaxes totally and I get her a second coffee and we talk for another hour. Her name is Sarah James. She's a grad student, working part time, single, heart-broken and sworn off men until "the one" comes along.
"How will you know him?"
She tips her head to the left - she's done it a number of times and it always makes her curls drop over her shoulder in a distracting way. "I'll know. I think he'll know, too." She drinks coffee. "I think our eyes will meet randomly, and he'll come over and say 'where have you been?' or something."
We laugh but for some reason, her answer makes me warm. I get her a third and a fourth coffee and then I offer to drive her home. In my car, we're quiet and I figure Sarah is seriously questioning her judgement. I don't blame her.
"So do you always do this? Buy coffee for crying girls and then take them home?"
I chuckle and turn where she indicates. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't happen once or twice, but generally no." I pause. "When I saw you and your family, I didn't see anyone else."
She's quiet and after that she only gives me directions. We get to her apartment. The building is ten storeys high with snow-covered balconies jutting out everywhere. The parking lot is mostly empty, which makes sense since we're in the middle of the city. She lives in a decent area, fairly close to her university and the snowy streets are busy with young adults. I wonder what they're doing - are they drunk, hungover, depressed? Are they wondering what to do after graduation? Are they broke or spoiled or... just lost?
Aren't we all a little lost?
"Do you want to come up?" Sarah's quiet question cushions my return to the present. Her eyes are glued to the dashboard.
So I do. In her apartment - small and clean, the sofa bed that she and her sister were sharing still folded out - we stand awkwardly in the doorway.
"I don't usually invite up random men who buy me airport coffee," she says, quiet and doubting herself. "But I'm so lonely. Listen to this place. It's so quiet." Her shoulders tremble. "I'm the only one here."
"Not today." I bend down and we kiss and somehow it's perfect. I pick her up off the floor but her coat makes her slip back down and we burst out laughing. "Not my best moment," I admit.
She's still giggling like crazy and I'm not sure, but I may be falling for Sarah James. We make love and take a shower and watch terrible sitcoms while the snow whitewashes the world outside.
"There's no way these are better than my book," I fish, nudging her in the side. Sarah laughs and I don't want to go another day without hearing it.
"Not all of them, I'll give you that. But it was pretty cheesy. I think you know it too!"
"Why do you think that?"
"You're smart." She smiles up at me, frizzy ringlets bouncing around her face. "I think you know what lonely little women want to read about, and you write that."
"You don't think I write what I really want to write about?"
"I..." She trails off and thinks about it. "I think you do. But I dunno. You don't seem terribly romantic."
"My book was that romantic?"
"Terribly, and you know that!" We laugh but go quiet and thoughtful. "So what's your new book about?" I groan. "Now I have to know!"
I tell her that it's the first one, but with time travel and Sarah laughs so hard that she slides off the couch and onto my feet. I laugh too and roll her onto the carpet. She lies there, tears streaking her cheeks, hair fanned around her and I slide down and kiss her for a long time.
It's late when she walks me to my car. With just a coat on over her pajamas, she's shivering and flushed from the drop in temperature and our... well, from our day together. "I'll bring lunch tomorrow?" I feel like a teenage boy, and then realize that we don't even know each others' ages. I take some comfort in the fact that she's a grad student. It can't be that bad. Definitely same decade. Right?
Sarah smiles. We didn't actually mention tomorrow until now, and I can see her thinking about it. "Sure. Let me know what's on the menu."
"If you give me your number, I will." We exchange numbers and then stand in the cold, snowy parking lot. "Go on inside. Do your homework or something." We laugh and I lean down and we kiss again. I watch her disappear back into her building and I wonder, when she gets back upstairs, whether she'll replay the whole day and hate herself. Will she hold her shoulders and cry over how alone she feels, now that her family has left and the random author she just slept with has gone home? Is she sliding down to the floor right now, waiting for Superman? For me?
She looks down from her balcony and waves. I wave back and drive away and I wonder where the heck she's been.