By Jasper Fu
By JASPER FU
When the calm voice of the pilot clicks out over the intercom, it is always the same; whether delivered in lilting French or clipped German it is the voice of a man self-collected, professional, and bored. There is none of the anticipation that you the traveller feel at seeing the illuminated seatbelt sign flicker and dim – he will not, in all likelihood, be disembarking alongside you.
If he does, he leaves with the determined strides of Someone with Somewhere to Be in a Hurry, with Somewhere to Be currently Concourse C, Gate 37, O’Hare International Airport, a quarter mile of thronging masses to bull through. Or maybe he trudges through the deserted, baggage terminal of some tiny, six-gate airport tucked away in the middle of the Midwest, two numb hours before daybreak, nodding in grave acknowledgement to passers by. Tired looking men in expensive leather shoes and rumpled dress shirts might warrant the solemn recognition of shared circumstance. A family of five on their first family vacation in years – two children locked in sleep and the oldest fighting a losing war with the same – deserve an exaggerated tip of his gilded cap that perks up the oldest sister and earns the exhausted smile of a mother and father all too eager to get on their redeye to New York, or Japan, or Italy. Together they share in the curious ambiance of airports the world over, that mesh of operating-room white and sterile grey that seems blindingly bright in their pre-dawn torpor. Hardly the romantic, jet-setting life of adventure and authority that he had imagined, ten years and a hundred thousand dollars of flight school ago.
For you, however, it is your first flight and the captain’s voice instills in you a thrill – you have landed, in some country you’ve only ever read about between glossy pages of a cheap travel brochure, your mother standing besides you, each exuberant exclamation (when can we go there, mom) a dull pain in her chest. You can hardly hear the captain’s carefully cultivated tone of professional detachment over the blood pumping through your ears, the staccato beat of your raging heart. And as you get up for the first time in an hour or two (or ten) you hesitate, unsure whether to crane your neck below the cramped carry-on compartment or to hold a partially crouching squat. Your paralyzing indecision leads you to adopt a bastardized compromise between the two as you wait, a self-conscious confluence of awkward angles and straining joints. Caught up in your reverie, it is not until your neighbor of several hours (a quiet and self-contained man of thirty, dressed plainly in jeans and a collared shirt if you are lucky; a whinging and weirdly sweating, uncomfortably overweight salesman waddling slowly into late middle age if you are not) taps you on the shoulder that you shuffle into a gradual procession across the IBM-grey-speckled-with-vomit-beige carpet.
Muttering a hurried thanks to the curtain call of cabin crew that assembles in the front of the plane, you shuffle out of the cramped cockpit and onto the hallway leading towards the terminal. The corrugated rubber flaps that wrap accordion-like around the entrance to the plane breathe once, shuffling open as you walk past. The shock of it – air redolent with the dustily exotic scents of sandy Morocco or the frigid chill of a Siberian winter so alien to you born and raised on sunny shores or Midwestern summers – sends you back to your childhood. You are two decades younger and dreaming dreams that your mother must quash with a casual cruelty ten times more painful for her than for you. The time your friends spend in Fiji or Prague you spend with your mother, in the public library, or the local park, or the museum manned only by a hunched-back nonagenarian with that peculiar kind of weathered face that grants him an elderly agelessness. This is time that you cannot possibly appreciate enough, until the retirement home, the sickbed, the funeral, the wake.
Slow steps dampened by grey-green carpet take you through the concourse with all the ponderous grace of a pilgrim. This is your Mecca, this two-tone airport of grey and white, and kiosks peddling duty-free chocolate and tastefully overpriced sunglasses your Kaaba. Perhaps to the traveller behind you, a high-powered businessman taking a connecting flight to Tokyo or Manila or Munich these flights are no more than a bi-weekly grind on the path to establishment, power, progression and fame, the airport a monotonous monument to tedium; perhaps to the wealthy family seven steps to the side, the vaguely cushioned seats that an overwrought mother is wrangling her children into just another step ticked off on the American dream of travel and freedom and success.
Perhaps. To you, as you wander wondering through the soaring halls of the airport, it is a dream, yes; but your dream, and hers. It is the dream you shared on warm nights for rainy days, tomorrow, always tomorrow, until tomorrow came and went. Until she, too, came and went. She would have died for you, but she would not – could not – live for you. Sometimes, when you ask yourself why, the hint of bitterness you have carried at her failure buries itself heedless in an avalanche of guilt and shame and condemnation at your own thoughts.
Sometimes you wonder if she forgives you, for waiting so long. She does.
Jasper Fu ([email protected]) travels in stories.