I met Jill in 1982. We were working the Sydney-to-LA route, and she looked exactly the way an air hostess was supposed to: like Marilyn Monroe on stilts, playing the part of a firm, friendly nurse with a naughty inner life. None of the passengers would have guessed she spent every flight half-fucked on champagne and orange juice, which she would down in the galley from takeoff to landing. By the time I rented a room from her—1986, in a remote beach town on the north coast of Western Australia—she had retired. Her hair was short and brown, she never wore makeup or shaved her armpits, and she looked better than ever. But she was nearing forty, and our airline encouraged its hostesses to make a graceful exit by the age of thirty-five.
My own retirement made less sense: I was only twenty-six, and anyway, being a man, I could have held on until at least fifty. But I had believed all those handsy husbands in business class who, assuming I was gay, liked to tell me I was good-looking enough to be on TV. So, I left—not long after Jill did—to be on TV. When that didn’t pan out and I wanted to lick my wounds for a while, the only idea I had was to head northwest: to follow Jill to her feral little township, which was, by the way, chock-full of retired flight attendants.
Well, where else were we hosties going to go when we got too old, too tired, when our voices gave out from all those smoky flights? When we’d spent years in the air, crossing the Pacific, crossing the Nullarbor, half imagining, because time seems to slow during plane travel, that the years weren’t passing below us, killing our parents, burying our friends in marriages and the wrecks of marriages, driving up the price of city real estate? So that when we retired, the single place we could afford to live was a tropical town so remote you could justify flying there only if you had an ex-employee’s airline discount. Midsize cruise ships stopped in all the time: for the sunsets, the seafood platters, the Japanese cemetery, the quaint pearling boats. But by car, the town was twenty-two hours from the nearest city.
No one stayed long. You bought a cheap house or you rented a room off someone you knew; then you either drank yourself to death or figured yourself out and moved on to your second, grounded life, the one you’d been trying to dodge by taking to the skies in the first place. Before retirement, Jill had been good at saving her airline salary and living off the allowance they gave us for stopovers; she’d also run a lucrative side business buying cigarettes in Singapore and selling them in London. She’d saved enough to buy a house in a place like this. I’d spent nearly everything on having a good time, so, when I reached town in late November of ’86, I rented her second bedroom.
Jill met me at the airport. She was wearing white shorts and a pale pink blouse, her face was bare and her hair was spiky, and the first thing she said was “Recognize me without my glad rags?” I did, of course; whatever she wore, she was unmistakable. I want to explain why, and won’t be able to, but here goes: she looked like luck. Jill had this open, mobile face, and a megawatt smile, and there was an intense vitality to her, a kind of giving-off of energy, like life was electric and she was at the very middle of it, even up there in that town on the shitty rim of nowhere. It was all irresistible. And what made it so irresistible was that while she hummed in the charged center of life she also seemed relaxed, unbothered. She walked with a kind of serene shimmy. She never moved or spoke or smiled quickly—she let it all unfold with a slight reserve that felt luxurious because it seemed so unnecessary. I couldn’t have said any of this back then, when I walked into that airport—which was basically a shed in the middle of a paddock—and saw Jill waiting for me. I just thought she was the most desirable thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to sleep with her, obviously. Who wouldn’t? But I also felt, walking toward her, that my life would be better, easier, for her proximity; that she’d always be able to tell me what to do, and she’d always be right. She had a disheveled dog with her, sitting obediently at her feet—a standard poodle the color of toast.
We drove to her place in an old Jeep Cherokee: Jill and I in the front, the dog in the back with my one measly suitcase. As we pulled into the driveway of the house—long, squat, with a sloping tin roof, huddling beneath a tropical mass of messy trees—she said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
I wanted to believe that this was something she’d say only to me, not just to any colleague with whom she’d been reasonably friendly. I had recently made the discovery that I was interchangeable with almost any other good-looking young man, so I wanted Jill to be glad that I, specifically, was there. Really, she was glad because her sister was getting married in early February. Jill would be flying to Sydney for the wedding, she’d be away for about a week, and she needed a house sitter. She’d teach me how to feed the chickens and water the garden, and, most important, how to take care of the dog, which had been sniffing without conviction at the back of my neck; now he looked across at Jill with a doubtful tilt of the head. Even then, on my first day with her, I sensed that there was something off about the sister’s wedding: that Jill didn’t approve, or didn’t want to go. Her speech was usually ample and unhurried, but her voice had been pinched when she said “my sister’s wedding.”