Chapter 1: Airport Bars are the Loneliest Bars CHAPTER 1 AIRPORT BARS ARE THE LONELIEST BARS
There’s no real time of day in airports, only morning and drinking time.
I’m sitting in an airport bar. They’re sad places, I’ve found, full of people who are waiting out flight delays or long layovers—whatever excuse they want to use to drink in the daytime.
The bar I’m sitting at looks like an Apple store, all white, glossy surfaces and molded plastic. You even have to order off an iPad, instead of from a person, though people still deliver the food. It’s in Terminal One at Newark, one of those massive terminals where you can hit your daily step goal transferring from one gate to another. Across from me are a Lacoste store and a fancy candy shop, neither of which I can see any need for in an airport. I Forgot to Pack Any Underwear—now that would be a useful store.
My flight to Puerto Vallarta doesn’t leave for three hours. I’m one of those people who arrives way too early for flights and stresses until they’re through the security line. Laugh at me if you want; I’ve never missed a plane. I might also have nothing better to do these days than to day drink.
I stare at the iPad, trying to decide if I need a food cushion for the alcohol I’m definitely having. The menu is a weird collection of dishes. Imagining eating most of the choices makes me vaguely queasy (airport sushi?), but the charcuterie plate seems safe. Cured meat and pickled vegetables are items meant to withstand shoddy hygiene. I order it with the eight-ounce glass of wine, then swipe my credit card to pay. I scroll through my Twitter feed while I wait. My notifications have calmed down. There are only four or five hundred people @-ing me today and imagining the crimes they’d commit if they could get their hands on me. Charming assault-and-dismemberment scenario you’ve described, @TotalMan. Your mom would be so proud.
I should delete my account, but I take perverted pleasure in how mad I’ve made so many people. As if their lives are the ones that were turned upside down, not mine.
A woman sits down next to me and starts to tap on the iPad in front of her. I glance her way—she’s thin, with thick black hair in a precision blunt cut that ends at her chin—and turn away. Women like this make me feel frumpier than I am. I’m wearing yoga pants and an oversize sweater, and my hair is in a messy top bun. I completed my “look” with a single coat of mascara. I like to travel comfortably, but still.
I turn back to my phone.
“Jessica?” the server asks.
“Yes?” my seatmate and I say together.
We turn to each other and laugh. This other Jessica has bright-red lips and small, even teeth.
The server’s confused. She’s twenty-one, if that, with a rash of acne on her chin. Her name tag says Tammy. She looks down at the ticket in her hand.
“Yes,” we both say again, then turn and stare at each other.
“Oh, wow,” the other Jessica says. I’m already thinking of her as Jessica Two.
“Does this order belong to one of you?” Tammy’s holding my charcuterie plate in one palm and a large glass of white wine in the other.
“That’s mine.” I reach for the plate as she puts down the glass of wine.
“Definitely yours,” Jessica Two says. “I don’t do sulfites.”
“Bring the other order as well,” I say as Tammy turns to leave.
“When you get the other ticket for Jessica Williams,” Jessica Two says slowly, “do not throw it out.”
Tammy backs away until she disappears through a swinging door.
“You think she’ll figure it out?” I ask.
“I’m guessing no.”
I swivel my stool. Jessica Two’s tucked her sheet of hair behind her ear. A discreet diamond stud winks at me. “How did this happen?” I ask.
“Our parents weren’t original in their name choices?”
“You have no idea.”
I look at her more carefully. She’s not my doppelg?nger—more like the opposite of me. Light-blue eyes, where mine are hazel. That thick black hair compared to my finer light-brown strands that curl in the heat. Clear china-doll skin where I’m freckled and tan easily.
She’s checking me out also, and grins as our eyes meet. “You’re really Jessica Williams?”
“Yep,” I say. “You?”
I reach for my wine. “Do you mind?”
“Please, go ahead.”
I take a large sip. It’s fruity and not what I was expecting, but how picky can I be? It’s midday, and the airport feels desolate on this Sunday afternoon in early June. We’re the only people at the bar.
“So,” she says. “I have this thing I do whenever I meet another Jessica Williams.”
I sit up straighter. “Whenever? This happens often?”
“I’ve only ever known one.”
“I travel a lot. Maybe that explains it.”
“Could be. What is it?”
“I call it Jessica Williams Twenty Questions.”
“That’s not a thing.”
“Sure it is.”
I take another sip of wine, then pop a rolled-up piece of charcuterie into my mouth. Yum. Bring on the sulfites.
“What’s the purpose of it?”
“It’s a way of seeing how similar we are.”
“You mean, besides the name?”
I admit, I’m curious to see where this will go. “Okay, hit me.”
She puts her phone on the counter between us, screen down. “Where were you born?”
“New York State. You?”
“Ohio. What street did you live on growing up?”
“Rural Route One.”
“How original,” she says.
“More so than you’d think. How about you?”
I take a large sip of wine. “Are there actually twenty of these questions?”
She raises a finger to her lips as the intercom blares with a flight announcement. Her nails are covered in bright-red lacquer. Another thing we don’t have in common.
I drink again. I’m going to need another glass soon. “Go.”
“What’s your mother’s maiden name?”
“Gardner for me. High school?”
I shake my head. “I was homeschooled.”
And “school” is a bit of an exaggeration. I was brought up in a cult, and reading, writing, and arithmetic weren’t high on the list of Todd’s priorities.
“Best friend growing up?” she asks.
“Did you go to college?”
“Columbia,” I say. “J-school.”
She rests a finger under her chin. “Impressive.”
“A state school.”
She nods and looks away. “Where has that girl gotten to?”
“Her brain is probably short-circuiting from the coincidence.”
“Probably. Anyway, what year were you born?”
She gives a slow smile. “Ah. Same.”
“I thought it might be the case.”
Tammy finally approaches with Jessica Two’s drink, a scotch by the looks of it, poured over a large spherical ice cube. Even her drink makes me feel inferior.
“Jessica?” Tammy says.
I answer yes with Jessica Two out of habit. Or maybe it’s spite. Tammy looks uneasy.
“Just leave the drink,” I say.
She puts it down and backs away again.
“She’s probably going to quit,” Jessica Two says as she tries her drink.
“If she can’t survive two Jessicas…” I say.
“Born in 1990.”
“Right? But how did you know?”
She shrugs. “I figured we were the same age. I’m good at guessing things like that. Also, Jessica was the most popular girl baby name that year. Well, many years, actually, but that year also.”
“I didn’t know that. When’s your birthday?”
A chill passes through me, even though it feels as if getting to this fact was the whole point of this conversation. “No. Fucking. Way.”
She puts her glass down. I watch the gooseflesh rise on my arms.
“What is happening?” I ask.
“We’re having a drink.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“About my birthday? No.” She takes another sip, then puts it down carefully. She takes out her wallet and flips her driver’s license at me. There it is. My name and birthday on an Ohio license with Jessica Two’s picture.
“What’s your middle name?” I ask.
“Don’t have one. You?”
She turns away from me so she’s facing the bar. The television above it is playing CNN, which I’ve been avoiding for weeks. It’s the media-critic show that runs on the weekends, and there’s a panel on, discussing some tweet of the president’s. But then the headline shifts—Plagiarism in Journalism—Fake News?—and my face flushes.
“I think we should stop here,” I say.
“With the game?”
“I’m feeling… kind of seasick, to tell you the truth.”
“Might be the sulfites.”
“Probably not the sulfites.”
She drums her nails on the counter. “Okay, it’s strange.”
“It’s more than that. Have you ever done the math?”
“What’s math got to do with it?”
I pick up my phone and do a quick Google search. “There were 4.16 million live births in America in 1990. If those are 50 percent girls, that makes 2.08 million girls born that year. Divide by 12 for the number of months, and that’s 173,330 girls a month, assuming all months are equal.”
“You did that in your head?”
“That long division.”
“Oh, yeah. It’s this thing I can do.”
Numbers and words: they’ve always been my forte despite my lack of formal education growing up. I should’ve applied my skills to learning how to count cards and made a killing in Vegas. Instead, my choices have led me here.
“Impressive,” she says.
“Thanks. You said Jessica was the most popular girls’ name?”
I do another search. “Williams is the third most popular last name. Five people in every thousand.”
She takes a sip of her drink. “You see, there’s probably thousands of us.”
“With the exact same birthday? Maybe ten if you include Canada too. I’d have to look at the name distributions to be sure, and July might have more births than other months, but…”
“This is weird. Us meeting.”
She drains her glass. “You think our clueless waitress will serve us another?”
“One can hope.”
Two drinks later, the world is tilting and they’re calling my flight.
“I’ve gotta go,” I say.
“Where you off to, anyway?” she asks. Her cheeks are pink. She’s had three scotches, matching me in number. We’ve let the oddness of our name-and-birthday combo sit there between us, an unseen tie, an unspoken thread.
CNN is replaying the panel from earlier—the one discussing me. My faces flashes on the screen briefly, then disappears. Soon, I’ll do the same.
“I’m going to confess something.” I lean toward her. She smells like peat and grain alcohol. “I got fired last month.”
“No, I deserved it. But I got this trip out of it, so…” My petulant tweet announcing that I’m going to Puerto Vallarta next Sunday, bitches had been met with a particular amount of vitriol from the 4Chan crowd. I kind of enjoyed that one, I must say.
She glances at the screen. “Oh, you’re that Jessica. I didn’t connect it before.”
I don’t believe her, but this isn’t the sort of conversation where you voice that kind of suspicion. “You’ve heard of me?”
“My Google Alert did.”
“You have a Google Alert for your, I mean our, name?”
“Well, of course, but…”
The corner of her mouth turns down. “But you’re famous,” she says. “I get it.”
“I was never famous.” I raise my hand and make the check symbol at our server.
“You’ve already paid.”
“What? Oh, right.”
I stand, wobble, regain my balance. The drinks were a bad idea.
“We should keep in touch,” she says.
“Sure, give me your number.” I reach for my phone on the bar, fingers at the ready.
“I have a simpler way.” She angles her phone to me.
“What do we do?”
“Just tap it with yours.”
“Like a toast?”
“What do we toast to?”
“To the Jessicas?”
“Sounds about right.”
Our phones touch.
“To the Jessicas!” we say together.
An alert flashes on my screen: Jessica Williams has been added to your contacts.
The speaker booms again. Ten minutes till the doors close.
“I’ve got to go,” I say.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Yes, it was nice, wasn’t it?”
“Maybe we’ll meet again someday?”
She smiles for an answer. I’m not sure why I’m lingering. I don’t want to miss my flight; this trip was hard-won.
“You’d better run.”
The way she emphasizes the word run snaps me out of my haze.
I turn without another word and start to jog toward my gate. I just make my flight, the gate agent tsk-ing me as I’m the last one to board.
I settle into my first-class seat and fall asleep promptly right after we take off, all thoughts of Jessica Two banished by alcohol and altitude.
But not for long.