Departure

The line at the airport Starbucks is a serpentine beast thirsting for consumer gratification. The Sierra Leonean immigrants slinging foam try to keep up, the espresso machines far more complicated than the AK-47s and machetes of their forebears. The woman in front of me flicks back her dark hair. She smells like watermelon. I see she’s Indian, subcontinental maybe, South Asian at least. She’s tall, in a long lavender skirt and denim jacket, her fine-boned features the kind you see on billboards for perfume or Asian airlines. She orders a cinnamon dolce. I keep an eye on her as I place my drink order. She’s gone before I pick it up.

The concourse is quiet, at least at this end. As I make my way to Gate 16 and freedom, I pass the TGI Fridays they put in last spring. It’s sparsely populated by businessmen and busboys, the dawn light slashing through the windows in broad orange bands. I have a moment where I regret hitting Starbucks, my stomach now hungering for something more substantial, but the sensation soon passes. The bar at the end of the Fridays is full already – or perhaps it never emptied.

I find my gate and take a seat in an empty row. This is America in microcosm; everybody is on their way to somewhere else. People are phantoms here, except when they’re filling a seat or losing a wallet. Somebody has left the detritus of their brief respite on the chairs opposite me. My face stares out from the folded D Section of the New York Times. It’s a bad photo, unflattering, in the washed out tone that passes for black and white at the Times. I grab the remnants of that august periodical and deep-six it in the nearby trashcan. My heart races. I’m actually scared. By 10am, the whole country (or at least that part that reads the Times) will see that blank expression in the Times Book Review.

A couple sits down opposite me, where the paper was. They’re young and old, big and small. The older one, a man, sucks on his coffee while the girl pecks away on her phone, an opening salvo of a constant barrage of text messages interrupted only by the dead air armistice of intercontinental flight. I get a dead-eyed stare from the man and I shift my gaze, casting around for something, anything to which I can switch my attention.

I settle on an elderly woman fighting to open a bottle of pills. There’s a man next to her on his cell phone; faced with the internecine battle between senior citizen and pharmaceuticals, he turns away. There’s a crack, a sound of maracas, and a shower of COX-2 inhibitors. The man on the cell phone, in an apparent mix of surprise and annoyance, kills the call and helps the octogenarian gather her pills. It’s then that I realize that this man is with her, in body if not in gentle attentions.

A woman’s voice echoes from the tannoy paging my flight. As one, the throng of people safely ensconced in their 2’ x 2’ comfort zones rise as one, as if an impassioned call for national service had gone out. Then there’s the slow shuffle to the gate as everybody realizes that no, they won’t get to go first, and that little slice of the American Dream dies inside. People forget this, like they forget how to drive in the first snow. One at a time, we shuffle past the gate attendant, blank stares and averted glances as we press our boarding passes into her hand and she reciprocates with regurgitated platitudes. There’s that momentary feeling of liberation, and then as you go around the bend in the skybridge there’s the plane and the sinking disappointment of voluntary captivity, and one by one, we file on board like human cargo.

The End

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