Two Note Samba

Novel (unpublished)

   On the blue pleather chairs of the departure lounge, Olivia Strathouse sat as though leaning out of a vase, contorting away from her husband to better hear her daughter on the phone.

   “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you, hon. Tell me again?”

   The overhead speakers blared: “Last call for American Airlines flight 272 to Quito, gate B4.”

   Cole, her husband, sat a few seats away eating a chicken sandwich. He was trying not to stare at her, because she didn’t like it when he did that, and he was always doing it. The problem was, as he told her, that she was always the loveliest thing to look at. She was wearing this flouncy pink dress that made her look like an overturned ice cream cone. She had a bunch of little jasmines pinned in her big, blonde, done-up hair. She was a vision, wherever she went. So he guessed he could understand how she might get tired of being ogled. Of course, he had shades on: he could plausibly claim that he was looking at something else. But he’d learned to pick his battles.

   Instead, he was staring down this other woman and her little girl, both of whom struck Cole as extremely dumb, like two leftover chunks of brie, and who couldn’t wait till Olivia got off the phone so they could bumrush her for an autograph.

   Olivia and Cole were in music. She was a singer—#9 on Billboard Magazine’s Top Female Artists of the Decade. She was embarking on a double-act tour with Noah Jaxon, and this redeye to Brazil would be the first leg. Cole, a record producer (he’d once been pegged by a Nashville gossip columnist as “of the private, down-home variety of Southern”), was tagging along.

   He’d conceived of it as a kind of second honeymoon. The past six months had been a strain on their family, what with Olivia trying to rebrand and record new material. She’d spent painfully little time at home with him and their daughter, and Cole had resented the upcoming tour for separating them even further. He’d insisted that she postpone it so that they could have a romantic getaway, restart a relationship that had come to feel dry as brush before a fire. In the end, they’d compromised: he would come with her. Well, at least it started somewhere attractive.

   The first image of Rio that had come to mind was stumbling on a private beach and making love in the sand. He’d immediately pulled all the strings he could and found replacement producers for his projects. In two weeks he’d come home and make up for the missed work by picking up a few mixing gigs.

   Meanwhile, their twelve-year-old daughter, Sam, was in the trusted hands of her long-time babysitter who lived next door.

   “That’s okay, hon,” Olivia cooed to Sam on the phone. “You don’t remember if Uncle Martin won any award? Or if it was Helen Richardson? Remember we drove out to her house in Franklin a few weeks ago? Helen Richardson?”

   The Music City Honors were on, and Sam was watching them back home. Though it was past her bedtime, there was always an exception made when one of her parents might win an award.

   “That’s okay, Sam,” Olivia said. “I’ll just look it up. You should really get to bed. Yes, right after I win—which, probably, you know, dear, I won’t. Then you go to bed.”

   Doug sat across the aisle from Cole, watching a livestream of the show on his phone. He was Olivia’s manager and Cole’s de facto best friend since he was always around. Doug was mild-mannered—skittish, even—and more organized than anyone Cole had ever met. Clean-shaven, with nothing to distinguish a plain face and a plain haircut, his clear eyes stared out from deep sockets like a flashlight that remains glowing a few moments after turning it off. Maybe because he had no social graces, he enjoyed being around those who did and he harbored a profound gratitude to Cole for making him feel like one of the boys.

   Cole, in turn, valued him most in times like these: high-anxiety situations like starting off a tour, waiting to find out if she won an award, or, in this case, both at once. Doug had a talent for defusing the atmosphere, which would be vital if Cole and Olivia got into it. If there was nothing around to calm their storm winds down, they would only become more vicious.

   Doug cursed under his breath and looked at Olivia with a sort of panicked-hamster expression and tapped his watch. They’d missed the priority boarding because Olivia was on the phone, and now the economy line was almost through.

   “You want these fries, Dougie?” asked Cole.

   Olivia stood up. “I’m just saying bye,” she said to Doug, and walked away from them.

   Cole shook his head as he chewed the last of his sandwich. She was making a big show of saying good night to Sam, of being a loving parent.

   “Hello?” asked Olivia, out of earshot. “Before you know it, hon. I’ll be back before you know it.”

   In their bedroom in Belle Meade, Sam was struggling to keep her eyes open. The windows were cracked open to let in some cool air, but there were no streetlamps or passing cars to disturb her descent into sleep. Talking to her mother had even distracted her from the dread of having to spend the next two weeks under the tyranny of Susie. Susie had been her babysitter for as long as she could remember, but since she’d started dating boys she was barely recognizable as the sweet older girl who’d taken Sam trick-or-treating and looked after her at school.

   “Do you want anything from Rio?” asked Olivia.

   “The vuvu thingy,” Sam mumbled, as though it were the hundredth time. Because it was.

   “Oh, that’s right. A vuvuzela, darling. And you’re gonna—“

   “‘Drive us up the wall with it.’ I know, you said already.”

   “I’ll get you a really nice one, honey.”

   “Love you, mama.”

   “I love you, sweetheart. Rest yourself. Mama’ll be back soon.”

   “Bye.”

   “Bye-bye. Oh, do you want me to hand the phone back to your father?”

   But Sam had hung up.

   In front of Olivia hung a big poster for some airline, showing LBJ and Lady Bird walking out of a plane together, waving at the crowd like they were friends with every one of them. Absently, Olivia popped her lips. They made it look so easy, she thought.

   “Fucking vultures,” Cole spat out.

   Doug looked at him, hurt. With a mouth full of fries, he said, “You offered!”

   “No, I mean them.” Cole gestured to the mother and daughter. “They’ve been waiting to get to her the whole phone call.”

   The pair had started to make moves toward Olivia. Doug wiped his hands on a napkin and got up.

   “Pardon me,” said the mother to Olivia. She gave her daughter a nudge.

   “Excuse me, Ms. Strathouse. I love your music.”

   Cole found this sort of thing disgusting. Did people just forget that she was a mother and a wife and had things on her mind, just like they had? He took out his phone to try to distract himself, and let it run its course.

   “Thanks so much!” said Olivia. “What’s your name, darlin’?”

   “Cynthia,” the little girl said.

   “Well, I appreciate you listening to my music, Cynthia.”

   The mother piped in. “We saw your show last night, you sure brought the house down.”

   “Well, thanks so much. You picked the right night, too. Tonight I was just so tired.”

   Doug hovered nearby, like an EMT at a boxing match.

   “I’m sure you did great,” said the mother. “You and Noah Jaxon, what chemistry the two of you have. We bought your new album for a bunch of our Christmas presents this year, didn’t we, Cindy?”

   “And I got one for my birthday,” Cindy said.

   Olivia twisted her body a quarter-turn away from them, trying to signal the end of the conversation. “Are you coming to see us play in Brazil as well?”

   “No, no, we’re going on vacation to Paris. We just saw you from our gate, it’s over there.”

   “Well,” said Olivia, approaching the safety of Doug. “Have a safe flight to wherever you’re going. It’s a pleasure to meet y’all, truly.”

   “Bye, Ms. Strathouse!” said the girl.

   “Would you ladies like a picture with Olivia?” asked Doug. “For her Instagram?”

   Cole sighed so that everyone heard him, and kept scrolling through slides of New Year deals on guitar mics.

   The mother and daughter, in a fit of giggles, huddled together with Olivia. Doug took a few shots, then they all said their goodbyes like old friends.

   “Best day of their miserable lives,” said Cole to Doug when he came back.

   Holding Olivia’s bags and his own, Cole came up close to Olivia.

   “Are you ready, Ms. Strathouse?” he asked.

   She took her big, ornate duffle bag from him, and gave him a halfhearted peck.

   “Mrs. Strathouse,” she corrected.

   As she passed him, leading the way to their gate, and the last trace of her cotton-candy scent receded, he tried to get the last word in.

   “Guess it wasn’t worth attending the awards show after all.”

   Olivia slowed down.

   “Looks like Helen Richardson won,” said Cole.

   Without looking back, she asked, “Artist?”

   “And, uh…Country Album,” said Doug.

   She turned back to Cole and stared a hole into him for several moments. Even in the brutal light of the departure lounge, she was wonderful, he thought.

   The speakers blared: “Last call, Avianca flight 1331 to Rio de Janeiro, gate B5.” Doug glanced at the desk and saw the attendants were looking straight at them.

   Olivia forced her lips into a smile as she turned to Doug.

   “Don’t let’s forget to give Helen a call when we land, and congratulate her.” She spun back around and continued toward the gate.

   Doug muttered to Cole, “Sucker for punishment, aren’t you?”

   When they’d settled into business class, Cole made a lame attempt to get Olivia back on the same team.

   “You’ll have plenty more chances, babe,” he said, putting his shades in his blazer’s inside pocket.

   She had the window seat, as always, and she was staring out of it so hard she could’ve been looking for hairline fractures in the glass.

   After some silence, he changed tack.

   “Aren’t you gonna ask about Album of the Year?” One of the nominees was a country rock album he’d co-produced with the band. He’d only stepped in at the end to shore things up, but they’d given him credit.

   “Was it the new Emmylou album Rick produced?” she asked in an apathetic drawl.

   “Yeah,” he said. “How’d you know?”

   “Just guessed.” She didn’t budge her gaze from the window. “Sorry, darlin’. I’m sure you’ll have plenty more chances.”

   “Well, thanks, darlin’,” said Cole, putting his seatbelt on. “For the support. I know you mean it.”

   Now she swung fully to face him. Behind those tired, sophisticated eyes, what a rage there was within her, and when she turned it on him, it was something Cole still feared. He braced for a battle, but she said nothing. She just stared, and when she knew he felt cornered and desperate, she somehow intensified for a moment, and then turned back toward the window.

   That’s about all the talking we’re gonna do on this plane, thought Cole.

   The door closed and they taxied away from the gate. Slowly it approached the runway, light raindrops tapping on the shell of the fuselage.

   The engines fired up, the whole plane coming strategically close to exploding. The wheels gathered speed, and they took off.

   By now, Cole was a few pages into the airline magazine and his breathing was back under control. But as they ascended, he glanced at the window and he could see Olivia’s face in it, crinkled by the rain, double-exposed onto a vast and diminishing Nashville that looked as though it were burning. 

   He had to bite his lip to keep from saying it out loud: “This might'a been a real bad idea.”