People are desperate in airports. They will endure almost anything, including the other people, to keep their seat next to the gate or a charging station.
In SEA, I was the desperate one. My phone tethered me to a charging pillar and I was forced to listen to the woman next to me. She was talking to me, but her eyes wandered the concourse and searched the heavens outside the glass. I had no earphones, nothing to tune her out.
She said, “I told my sister she should have done something, but she told me. She said, Rose is twenty, how am I supposed to stop a twenty-year old from doing what she wants. I understand where she’s coming from, I guess. I mean she’s twenty, she’s an adult, and if you try to run their lives for them at that age they can just walk away, you know? But there’s no way I could have kept my mouth shut. I didn’t keep it shut. I told Rose she was being crazy. He’s older than me. He’s fifty-six.”
When she said that, I looked up from my phone. Surprised and disappointed by my sudden interest, I didn’t say anything and turned away again but she continued.
“I ask myself, How can a fifty-six year-old man even want to date a twenty-year old? But then I realized she has to want to date him too, and if he’s screwed up, then so is she. It has to do with her father. My sister’s ex. This is what daddy issues are, this is what they are, and I get it because he’s a real piece of work and he left them when she was young so there’s never been a father figure in her life, never had a good role model, you know. And she’s never had good relationships. Her last boyfriend, he pointed a gun at her. She came home one night, and he’d locked her out, and she was banging on the door to get in and when he opened the door, he had a gun and he stuck it in her face.
“I mean, her mother was pretty okay with the new boyfriend when he came along, even with his age. Compared to before, she thought he was okay. So he comes along, and he gives Rose the attention she wants. How that gets turned into sex is what I don’t understand. And now she’s pregnant, going to have her own baby who will have their own daddy issues and that’s how a cycle starts.
“What kind of father can a man that age be to a kid? When she’s a teenager he’ll be seventy.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her shaking her head in sadness and disbelief. “When I get to Sacramento, I’m going to hug my grandbabies so tight,” she said.
My phone still wasn’t done charging when she said that.
I want to say that it isn’t always the same. That it isn’t always so bleak, but I admit to wishing that more than actually believing it.
In BOS, a girl who was the same age as the daughter I never had sat opposite a row of chairs with her back against the glass and her knees drawn up tight. The cord of her earbuds wrapped around her ankles and trailed to her phone on the floor. She had her head turned, looking over her shoulder onto the tarmac. Her expression was striking, the kind words fail to capture because it exists mostly in the already gone.
She spoke to no one but herself. I suppose there may have been a microphone somewhere I couldn’t see on that white cord, but I prefer it the other way.
“I love watching them taxi,” she said. “The processional, I call it. Gate to runway to takeoff. The processional. I don’t know if this is the official terminology, the jargon they use in the tower.
“I always sit so I can see the end of the runway. The achievement of lift. That’s what I look for. Exhaust curling on the horizon. That’s when you know we’ve achieved flight again. It’s a miracle each time. Oh sure, engineering and physics, but I mean look at us. We’re primates and we build metal tubes to sit inside while we shoot through the air over mountains and oceans. It’s a real thing.”
She turned from her vigil and scanned the feet of those around her, not once raising her eyes. “This is one of my favorite airports. I like the way the runway ends in blue. It’s peaceful.”
“My mother died,” she said. “I was at the funeral.”
I opened my mouth, an offer of automatic and empty solace. It was a reflex that felt genuine, so moved was I by her presence, both physical and psychic, in that scene.
“Yeah, thanks. Not that you should be sorry. She was abusive. Emotionally, she was unstable. She threw a kitchen knife at me once. She went off her meds. Made me stand against the wall while she threw it. It stuck in the wall right next to me, like she was an expert. Another time at the supermarket, she pulled down a display of canned goods on my head and laughed. I had to get stitches in two places.
“I flew home for the funeral, but I didn’t stick around to find out what they did with her ashes. Honestly, I’d rather not know. Not yet, anyway.”
How could I answer her?
I tried. Honest to god, I tried.
In ATL, I didn’t say anything to the mother and son eating slices of greasy pizza out of cardboard triangles balanced on their laps. I didn’t tell the boy, whose face I couldn’t bear because it was greedy and entitled and too goddamn young, to wipe the sauce off his mouth or to put down his tablet and eat first. While I wasn’t saying these things, the PA system asked a man to return to security to reclaim some lost items and the description they gave sounded so much like me that I had to check my belongings.
Doing that, looking around me for the things that I carried with me, things that could be called, in some poor sense of the word, essential, made me stop and see the baggage we all carry.
I was waiting to board my flight out of MSP. The man in front of me looked at one of the ground crew, who was talking to the gate attendant, and said, “They let them go anywhere.”
I didn’t bother asking him to sort the different theys in his declaration. The gate attendant and the member of the ground crew were both African-American, the man who had spoken was white like me.
I raised my eyebrow, hoping like a coward that would be the end of it.
The gate attendant, a female with thin, round features went back to scanning boarding passes as several other ground crew came and went via the secured door that connected them to the tarmac. The airport worker who had been talking to the attendant was built like a granite boulder, with a shaved head and a beard heavy enough to be grabbed by the fistful. His ID badge hung on a lanyard against his chest. I couldn’t read the name, but I could hear the cadence of his soft voice. It was as flat as the midwestern horizon.
“Muslims,” the man in front of me said and jerked his head toward the door where the grounds crew had exited.
I shifted my shoulder bag around so that I could hold it against me with my right hand, preventing it from catching on seats or heads as I prepared to walk down the aisle. “You’re sure of that,” I said to the man. “That he’s Muslim.”
The man opened his eyes wide in the common manner. “Look at him,” he said. “Look at that beard.”
I looked at the line of passengers behind us instead. The presence of my wife, had she been there, would have stopped me from saying anything else. But we were not together just then. “If he was white he could be on Duck Dynasty,” I told him.
“Oh, you’re one of them,” the man said. He was large in the manner only working-class Americans on a chain-restaurant diet can become. Layers of fat on top of a capacity for violence. He wore blue jeans, heavy boots splashed with mud and labor, and a camouflage t-shirt with a bravura bald eagle super-imposed over crossed rifles and the stars-and-stripes. His stomach was so big the eagle looked like it had swallowed an explosion.
“Go die in a cave,” I said and handed my boarding pass to the attendant who smiled at me.
In DFW the morning after the massacre in Vegas, the televisions were strung above us like gallows and it was our souls in the noose. Everyone watched or avoided watching. I didn’t want to make room for mourning because I knew anger would follow. Other than that one week I spent in LA, I never felt such a strong urge to flee the country.
I considered the people around me. How ready they were to turn on one another, how certain we all were. We were citizens of a different country now, some flagless place where we shared nothing except our contempt.
I could go to pains to say the airport is that country, but that would minimize what I mean by trapping it inside a metaphor. What I can say, in some way, is that being an object in transit can become dissociative in a similar manner as being an exile. Exiting an airport is invariably like arriving in a foreign country. When you step outside, you get the first intimation of a place. The feel of the air, cold and brisk or warm and humid, and the smell, oceanic or dry, industrial or agrarian. When you breathe fresh air after de-boarding a flight, you know you have crossed some distance, moved on from what is behind you.
For this reason, among others, I have come to depend on the physical sensation of difference that hits when you exit the airport or, if you are someplace smaller, as you exit the plane itself, going down a moveable staircase or gangway onto the tarmac, though in these cases there is the interfering smell of aviation fuel and blasts of hot air.
It is only when I cross that boundary that I can relax again, to begin to recover from assaults endured.
I was delayed in TPA due to thunderstorms. The man next to me was practically indistinguishable from everyone around us, dressed in tan pants and light blue shirt with button-down collar. He wore no watch or jewelry of any kind and his bag was one of those middle-manager bags sized perfectly for the overhead space. He was slightly overweight with a soft face like risen dough topped by thinning brown hair the color of cinnamon. His eyes were the most remarkable thing about him. They were a dark, mountain-lake blue and exceedingly clear. Looking into them, it was easy to imagine yourself being reflected back in a literal sense, as if you were looking into deep, glacial mirrors that, with the right light, would show you perfect tiny images of yourself.
He had been talking loudly on the phone, something about a deal he closed and how the boss should be so grateful fellatio would be in order. The mention of oral sex shifted the conversation, at least on his end, and he proceeded to tell his co-worker on the other end, and everyone seated around him about his girlfriend and how they celebrated closing deals like this most recent one. It was graphic enough to be uncomfortable, vague enough to make you question if you were hearing what you thought you were hearing.
Then he said, “I’m waiting for her to get her license. She’s still a year away, so I have to drive her everywhere and when I’m out of town she has to get a taxi or Uber or ask a friend.”
He looked at me sideways because he had caught me turning my head in his peripheral vision.
“It’s not that she’s underage,” he said and grinned in a way I understood to mean my reaction was being shared with the co-worker on the phone, a way that wanted me to believe it was all good. “They took her license away for three years. Too many DUIs. The last time, she hit her neighbor’s dog and scraped a whole row of cars on her street and they took her license away. She’s sober now, though. So, it’s been good for her.”
I wondered how that could be true and, if it was, how that truth could co-exist in a world were so many who were deserving of mercy would never find it.
That same trip, not the one in Tampa but the one that ended with me flying out of DFW, I was in PHX where I met a man who sold microwave encrypters and decrypters that were installed on helicopters to scramble transmissions of live video feeds. His company, which was based in Ottawa, was one of three or four who sold more-or-less the same technology. He was leaving a trade show that had been going on for the last three days at the convention center. The clients were mostly police and military, he told me. Along with helicopter manufacturers, the trade show attracted specialized subsidiary industries. Camera makers, medical equipment manufacturers, and the like.
We were seated at the bar of a restaurant not worth naming or describing. As always, the conversation began with him talking to the air until he found that someone was listening, or at least had not removed themselves, which people mistake for interest, though of course such thinking is the same kind of self-absorption that prompts the outpouring to start.
The truth as best I remember it, is that the restaurant was full, with people waiting by the entrance for a table or seat at the bar. I had just ordered a drink when he started talking about his business. I took no interest at first. No, that’s not true. I took some interest, enough to think that I had never considered that the equipment he described at the trade show did not come standard with the order of a helicopter.
When everyone else avoided giving any response, I made the mistake of looking up from my book and meeting his eyes. They were watery and red. I thought he was hungover, but then he proceeded to tell me in a Canadian accent that he had barely slept the night before.
“I kept having the same dream,” he said. “I would wake up from it and fall back asleep and it would pick up right where it had left off. Or not exactly where, but it was still the same dream. There was a town at war with itself. There were battles and fires. Wild dogs roamed the streets attacking people. And there was something over the horizon that explained how we got there. That’s how it felt in the dream, that’s the only way to express it. There was something over the horizon, a feeling like an approaching storm but not natural and even more dangerous for being just a feeling, an intuition. Undefined.
“I had always lived in the town, in the dream. I was a citizen, you see. And yet I was part of the terror too. Worse. I was its author, responsible somehow.”
I felt like he was pleading with me, like some part of my expression had convinced him I would understand. I didn’t know what to offer him. What can we do but blame ourselves for these things, these desperate thoughts and measures.
One time at LGA, I was sitting at the far end of the terminal where small regional commuter planes were boarding via mobile staircases. I opened the book I had with me, one I’d read before, and found an unused voucher for a tour company in Costa Rica, a remnant from a beach trip I took with my wife. The memory of the hotel, of the whole trip, comes down to the voucher and a photograph of her lounging in the hammock next to the surf. Years later, I was re-reading that same book while sitting at an outdoor café in Santiago de Chile and a gust of wind took the bookmark away from me. I watched it float into the street and wondered why my past seemed to be fleeing the man I now was.
I had always taken pride in my marriage, in the achievements and resilience of our team, and I never thought of myself as someone who would have an ex-wife. Just the same, in that moment as the white gateway of the voucher danced through the air, I heard the announcement of our final destination and that, even if there was a delay, we were scheduled for departure.
That day in New York, seeing the slip almost presaged that feeling, as if the future and past of that paper were as easy to trace as the line of planes. I stared at it in my hands and wanted to crush the life out of something but there was nothing convenient nearby.
The last time I was in IAH, I crossed paths with a young couple. They had just returned to the country and I was on my way out. They couldn’t have been thirty. They were both wearing travel shorts, the kind bought at outdoor stores and rolled up for packing along in backpacks like the ones on the floor next to them.
The air around them was brighter than the surrounding air and I could tell that it had almost always been so with them, that they had gone through life to this point together and not faced any challenges to their alliance. I looked at them and wondered how that could be but then I remembered that all of us have at least a few times in our life when we could say the same thing about ourselves. My wife and I had benefited from the same phenomenon at different periods but it hadn’t lasted and was now so distant that it might have been wishful thinking.
I don’t really believe that, but it still feels necessary to say.
The contrast between their giddy attitude toward each other and the somber topic of the book I was reading, a history of medieval monastic orders, is part of what made me certain of my insight. That and the contrast between them and myself.
I was preparing to spend months away from my wife, from the life I had built to this point. They were preparing for the next phase of life together and I somehow knew that soon they would begin trying to have children. It was an intuition I had, one of those where no matter what else happens you remain convinced was true because it is your own certainty that you maintain faith in and the actual truth of it is beside the point. I know that I was right in this case, regardless.
I didn’t talk to the couple. This memory isn’t like that. But this was the only time in all of this when I almost became the kind of person I’ve been telling you about, the one who decides that the stranger is there for their benefit and proceeds to speak to them as if they had known each other their whole lives, had corresponded, evolved an understanding that permitted admissions of the kind reserved for close acquaintances. I wanted to wish them luck and to warn them that the lack of children can be a terrible thing in a young marriage. That when you don’t have children of your own you spend much time defending it while also wondering if you are not making the right choice. I wanted to tell them to keep going, that even if their efforts were fruitless that they would one day regret giving up. That one day they would find themselves watching people in airports as they worked to understand where it had all gone sideways.
When that happens, I imagined telling them, you find all manner of things that you can point to, but really what it is about is that moment when you knew how you felt but couldn’t bring yourself to say it for fear of the pain and relief and all the other consequences. You’ll find that you retreat from it, I said to them in this conversation that never happened, and that you rely on stories that of strangers, stories that seem like they are about someone else as you hear them but that, once heard and absorbed, become part of your story, elements incorporated as second- and third-hand events that somehow illuminate your own existence. That is part of their release, the sensation that you are dissociating yourself from the things that are happening in your life, that these stories are more believable and less traumatic if they come from the mouths of strangers but which are always, inevitably and irrevocably, about yourself.
Jason Hill holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut. His fictions have appeared in The Timberline Review, Tulane Review, and The Louisville Review among others. His most recent honor was being named a finalist for the 2018 William van Dyke Prize at Ruminate Magazine for his short story “Monumental.” His story “Alex Gehry Changed His Status to Single” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has lived in Providence, Boston, Jersey City, and Louisville. His current whereabouts are unknown.