Martha hobbled five steps before she realized Arnold was still wheezing along, several steps behind her. The entrance to the airplane was only a few paces away. She stopped and snapped at her husband.
“Arnold! Hurry up!”
“I’m coming Marth.” He inched. His oxygen tank swayed gently in the bag slung over his shoulder.
A flight attendant came to question the hold-up and offered to escort Martha and Arnold onto the plane, as though her presence could motivate them to move any faster.
“We’re fine,” Martha said, waving a veiny hand at the pretty, young flight attendant. She wished Arnold had taken the airline’s wheelchair offer, but he was stubborn. Almost as stubborn as she was.
“You sure?” asked the flight attendant, sandwiching each word with a loud snap of gum. She pursed lips coated in a careless swipe of drying red lipstick.
“Very sure,” Martha said.
“Alright.” The flight attendant trotted back up the gangway, flicking her stringy blonde hair over her shoulder as she went. Martha glared at her swishing skirt as she disappeared and thought the girl could do with a haircut, though a trim couldn’t fix the chemical damage. Or an entitled millennial attitude. Arnold wheezed in her ear, Martha’s signal to keep walking.
“Arnold, let’s sit here.” She had to say it loudly because his hearing was in-and-out, and the breathing machine was all he ever seemed to hear. He just nodded, the tubes up his nose nodding with him.
“You first,” he said scratchily.
Martha eased herself into her row of choice, clutching her tote and her cane to her chest. She lowered herself into the window seat as Arnold shuffled to the seat next to her. They situated themselves and watched as other priority boarders trickled in. Martha felt her blood pressure rise when a family scooted in, the wife trying to calm a wailing baby. Martha opened her tote, sifting through used tissues and lipstick tubes and pens to make sure she had earplugs in there. Her search turned up nothing. She scanned for a flight attendant and spied the gum-smacking one delivering fake smiles to various passengers as they entered the plane.
“Miss?” Martha said, waving. “Miss.”
The flight attendant saw her and maneuvered through the passengers to assist Martha.
“Can I help you?” she asked. Her tone carried a hint of impatience.
“Uh, yes,” Martha said. “Ear plugs. Can I get some ear plugs?”
“Certainly,” the flight attendant said. “As soon as everyone is seated.” And, as though that response were sufficient, she returned to her station at the front of the plane.
Martha could hear the baby screaming and tried practicing some of the breathing exercises the yoga class at the senior center had taught her. “In through the nose, out through the mouth!” was the peppy instructor’s chant. With her rubber band flexibility, she seemed to forget that all the senior citizens’ wrinkles and flab didn’t bend so easily when she guided them through the stretches.
Martha twisted her cane around and around her fingers.
“Oh, my cane,” she said as the thought hit her. “I forgot to put it up.”
Arnold extended a shaky hand. “I’ll put it up for you,” he said. “Give it here, Marth.”
“Are you sure you should –”
But he stood – stemming the flow of traffic again – and attempted to stow the cane in the overhead bin. Martha fidgeted with her gray-brown perm as she watched Arnold struggle to reach the compartments.
“Now, Arnold –” She chewed her lip.
Juggling a cane and a breathing machine made things slightly complicated. A kind-faced flight attendant with long and sandy curly hair put the cane up for Arnold, and he sat back down next to his wife.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” he said, slightly out of breath.
She continued to watch the stream of passengers and grit her teeth against the sound of the baby’s cries. To distract herself, she dug through her tote again and pulled out her weathered crossword puzzle book and a mechanical pencil. She lowered the tray and flipped through the old book, trying to find a puzzle that hadn’t been completed yet. She could easily work one again –
“Excuse me – ma’am?”
Martha looked up; the flight attendant with the gum was looking at her.
“Yes?” Martha said.
“Ma’am, you’re going to have to restore that tray to its upright position. The flight will be taking off soon.”
“I’m very aware, thank you,” Martha said, even though she wasn’t. Well, she sort of was. But she hadn’t flown in ages, so how was she supposed to know about the tray’s proper position? The flight attendant rolled her eyes and walked away.
“We’ve had absolutely the worst service today,” Martha said to Arnold. “I’m going to write to the airline.”
When Arnold made no response, she said, “Arnold, did you hear? I said we’ve had the worst –”
“Woman, I heard you,” Arnold said.
She glared out the foggy window and watched as tiny airport workers below shunted luggage in the rain.
Once all of the passengers had boarded, the plane shivered and backed away from the airport. Martha pulled out the catalog from the pilled seat pocket in front of her. She skimmed over garden gnomes, LED light-up pens, and luxury dog beds. She pulled her velvet jacket tighter over her shoulder, tapped the little air vents in the ceiling. Already it was too damn cold. She shivered. She just wished the flight would get off the ground and on its way already.
A voice came over the intercom system and announced that the plane would begin its passage shortly. “Finally,” Martha said under her breath.
She looked down at her hands and examined her nails, running the long ovals underneath one another. Out of habit, she felt for the familiar band of her wedding ring to twist for comfort, but her thumb just met the bare flesh of her left ring finger. She stared at the vacancy.
For a moment, she could say nothing, but then she found words. “Arnold. Arnold?”
Arnold glanced up from his dog-eared crime novel.
“Arnold, look at my hand!” she said, splaying her fingers and staring at them. “Arnold, my ring – it’s gone!”
“Okay . . .” he said. “Um – I’m sure – have you checked your purse?” His calm and even tone just grated against her nerves.
“Look in your handbag. I’m sure it must be there. You probably took it off and forgot to put it back on.”
“Arnold, I never take my ring off except when I’m sleeping. It’s always on my dresser. Did you move it?”
“No – oh,” he said. “Yes . . . but I put it back.”
“You took it?” Martha asked, raising her eyebrows.
“I needed it for something, Martha, but I put it back!” he said.
“I can’t believe this!” Martha said. “Have I ever let you touch my things? Haven’t we been over this? What the hell were you using it for?”
“I swear I put it back,” he said, “I’m really sorry.”
Martha just shook her head. “This is – unbelievable. One thing after another. This is it. How can you forget? That ring belonged to my mother! You know that! How could you just take it like that? And forget to put it back?”
“You don’t believe me?” he asked. “I put it back. Like I always do.” He shook his head. “You know what? I am sick and tired of –” He coughed suddenly. His old lungs rattled, and Martha winced.
“Arnold –” Martha said, but Arnold waved her off.
“I’m not done yet,” he said, clearing his throat. “I said I am sick and tired of this ‘Arnold this, Arnold that’ business. All these accusations have got to stop.”
“Arnold, what the hell do you mean?” Martha asked, her jaw dropping.
“I mean, you’re my wife, Martha!” he said. “It’s like you don’t trust me. After almost fifty years together. Martha, what did I ever do?”
Martha’s nostrils flared, and she glared at the upright tray table.
“Preparing for take-off,” the pilot said, positioning the plane for flight.
“Where’s that damn flight attendant?” she said, looking up and around. With tremoring hands, Martha fiddled with the seatbelt until it unclasped. She gripped the seat in front of her for balance, trying to stand. Her heart hammered in her throat, and her chest constricted.
“Stop – stop the plane!” she said, swaying.
Arnold gripped her arm. “What are you doing? Sit down, Marth!”
Martha stepped over Arnold’s knobby knees and into the aisle. She would get that ring back, even if she had to comb the entire plane, the entire airport until it was found.
But she wobbled and felt dizzy. “I think I’m – I think I’m having a heart attack,” she said.
Her quaking legs gave way, and she collapsed to the floor. Her head knocked against something metal, and everything turned black.
A panic attack. That was what the airport paramedics had told Martha after she woke up. But they would need to wheel her to a hospital to check for a concussion. She had felt for her ring and had again been met with its absence.
She didn’t have a concussion, so Martha and Arnold were finally allowed to go home. So much for their vacation. They talked about nothing on the way back from the hospital. She focused on her pulsing head and watched a gray, misty Kentucky pass by outside.
At home, Martha shouldered her tote and walked around the driver’s side to help Arnold up the small garage stairs and into the house. Inside, she sifted through papers on the kitchen table, trying to find her ring, but her head throbbed, and her hands still shook. She picked up a day old water glass to move it to the counter, but it slipped out of her hands and crashed onto the floor. Arnold, who was sorting clean silverware, jumped at the noise. He looked up.
“What was that?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Martha said. Her voice wavered. She bent to pick up the glass, but her hands fumbled.
Arnold’s firm grip on her arm steadied her. He helped her up, as she had done so many times for him, and into a dining chair. Unexpected tears gathered in her eyes, so she cleared her throat to try to make them go away.
Arnold sat down across from her. “I just wanted to do something nice,” he said.
“What?” Martha asked.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen, and I’m really sorry. I just –” he sighed. “We’re old. And you complain about nearly everything. As if you had nothing better to do. I’m sick of it, and I wish you would stop, but I get it.” He put his hand on hers. “I get it. I know that ring means a lot to you. I took it to the jewelers to get it sized the other morning before you were up. I even thought about getting you another, one that fit better, since that one always pinches, you said. I don’t know what to say, except sorry, but I will look everywhere until we find it, okay?”
“Okay.” Martha nodded. She sniffled. She managed to whisper, “Thank you.” And for the first time that day, she could breathe.