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Stephanie Austin


Bottles by Andrew Pavlovsky

This woman and her fly-over vodka binge going on next to me is ridiculous. Unnecessary. Disgusting. Hashtag trigger.

The captain speaks. The weather in Phoenix is 62 degrees. The flight attendant stands next to the aisle again. The woman needs to pay for the vodka. She rummages for her wallet, finds her debit card, and passes it over me to the flight attendant.

Excuse me, she says.

Her debit card is a Chase card like my card, and her card is blue like my card. The flight attendant runs the blue card then passes it back over me.

Excuse me again, she says.

You’re fine, I say.

The woman’s boozy breath follows her because vodka isn’t odorless. Vodka smells like vodka, and like exalt and erasure and release and destruction. The woman–the vodka drinker–is polite and smiles and wants to engage.

The vodka drinker asks if Phoenix is home.


Vodka Drinker is in her middle-age. Hair is dyed blonde, styled yesterday and slept on. Plane seating makes eye contact difficult anyway, and I attempt to further indicate my lack of interest by angling my body away from her, but Vodka carries on because Vodka breaks barriers. Phoenix is home for her, too.

Are you from Illinois? Vodka wants to know.

Yes. Moved out here when I was 10.

Terrible time in Illinois, Vodka says. Terrible time to travel. Cold back there. Summers in Phoenix are dusty now. Wind and dust. Getting unlivable. Unmanageable. But can’t come to terms with moving back home. Not ready to take that step.

I nod but offer nothing further because I’m exhausted.

The flight attendant returns for last minute trash. She wears plastic gloves and holds out the plastic trash bag. Vodka crumples napkins and stuffs them into her empty cups. The napkins suck up bits of juice caught in the crevices. Vodka folds her tray table and locks it. She sweeps the seat pocket in front of her and extracts the bottles.

Vodka’s cheeks are full but age lines crisscross around her eyes and mouth. Laugh lines. Vodka holds the empties in her hand. She tosses the bottles in the trash bag, and the flight attendant closes the bag and takes the bag away. Vodka wants to know why I’d travel to Illinois this time of year.

Jesus. Well, I went to a funeral. My cousin died from drinking. He joined the 27 Club for Non-Famous People. He drank and he drank and we put him to rest and now I am sitting next to you, who is boozing on an airplane on a Sunday night in February like a sad, awful poem.

Vodka says to tell her everything.

Vodka is faux compassion.

Vodka is sorry, so sorry.

Vodka’s sorry is a pause between sober and drunk. Vodka calms and soothes and weeps with you and whispers to you, you will be ok, come back, you will be ok. Vodka’s illusion, clarity. Vodka’s agenda, realized.

The woman idles. She has found connection. She is coming home from sudden loss, too.

The captain speaks. We’ll be on the ground soon. The ears adjust to the pressure of the descent. The stomach drops. The body knows it’s going down. Remember to say thank you. People need to say sorry when they hear of death, and they need to hear thank you. People need connection.

The woman says her brother lived in a high rise in the city. Hoarder. He was six days dead before he was found. The neighbors noticed a smell. HazMat had to go in first because he’d leaked. Autopsy pending. She had to sort out the apartment and the financial affairs and everything else because is the only responsible party among her other siblings. She accepts this responsibility with resentment and bitterness and a love born of defeat. She tried her whole life. She is the only one with kids. Her siblings didn’t have kids. They didn’t want kids. But she has kids. She chose to have kids. Her family in Illinois needed to let her leave so she could tend to her family in Arizona even though her kids are older now. She says she hadn’t talked to her brother in awhile, and then looks up at the fasten seatbelt sign, and looks over her shoulder at the lavatory.

The plane’s wheels hit the ground. The crowd lurches forward. The captain returns to the intercom. He makes a joke about how big the plane is, and how the plane has to stop somehow. The crowd titters. The woman eases forward, hand on seatbelt, eyes dart back and forth between the back of the seat in front of her and the fasten seatbelt sign. She has to use the bathroom on the plane because she has reached capacity.  The seatbelt sign dings off but she’s already in the aisle. She is dressed in a smart black, casual turtleneck and dark jeans.

She speaks to the flight attendants about her loss. They’re sorry, so sorry. Their voices are salve. She absorbs all the sorry. The passengers move. We have to move. Have to get off the plane.


About the writer:
Stephanie Austin’s short stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, Washington Square Review, fwriction: review, Necessary Fiction, Eclectica, and most recently, Emrys Journal, Carve Magazine, and The Sonder Review. Her essays have been featured at The Nervous Breakdown and in the New England Review’s Web Series Secret Americas.

Image: Bottles by Andrew Pavlovsky (1962- ). Oil on canvas. 100 x 80 cm. 1999. By free license.

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