Airports: Finding the Way Back to Me

I wasn't used to traveling alone. Not anymore. Not in planes or cars or anywhere really. I had vague memories of how I existed in public spaces when I was single, and what my personality resembled before relationships, and before I'd become a caregiver for a partner with depression. I remembered being free and open, fearless in a way because I saw myself and the world so differently back then—but those days had become like the echo of a dream I kept exiting too quickly to recall with clarity, and the picture of myself before all these endings felt unfamiliar.

My mom loves to tell about how when I was a child, I loved to strike up conversations and friendships with whomever I was sitting next to, stranger or not. The world felt welcoming and people were friends waiting to be discovered—that was how I saw it for the next decade and a half, before I began choosing men who made me a shadow of myself. 

When I was twenty-years-old, still single and unhindered, I went to Africa for a six-week stay as part of my medical missions minor. It was a fantastic experience. At the end of the summer I prepared to fly back to the States alone, which made my parents wild with worry. They were sure I would be kidnapped, but I was confident that everything would turn out fine. 

And I was right. I made so many connections and friends while at the Kenya airport during my three hour wait—the customs agent who took my ID and cut the line to bring my luggage to me; the crew who teasingly held my passport hostage until I came into the office and played and sang for them; the Nigerian gentleman in the pub who watched the Michael Jackson memorial service with me while we waited for our planes; the steward who bumped me up to first class...

It was easy, and true to my theory that people and the world have kind and lovely sides that they are eager to show. We all crave connection, after all, and forging kinship with strangers is what hooked me on travel in the first place. Sounds strange to say, but I'd forgotten I used to be like that. My ex didn't enjoy interacting with people in the best of circumstances, so traveling had become just another isolating experience. 

But that was over. Life had come full-circle, and here I was yet again in an airport, passport in hand, flying to San Francisco. As I passed through security, I automatically looked behind me for him and was flooded yet again with the overwhelming realization that there was no one behind me, and my life was my own—I could be me again, and move through the world unhindered.

As I was ordering an Americano, the intercom informed us that there was a storm in Dallas and my flight was delayed. The rain pelted against the window outside, and I settled contentedly into the pages of my book. One hour turned to two, and then an apologetic four, though they assured us we would all get home eventually. Instead of the usual irritation such delays normally illicit, spirits stayed high, and there was a pleasant atmosphere of camaraderie and relief, as if we were all wearied from the break-neck pace of holiday-prep and needed an excuse to unwind and relax together with nothing to do or accomplish.

People milled around the flashing blue screens, toting large bags stuffed with bright foil-wrapped packages that peeked their square edges above the brim, causing the bundled-up children to squirm with longing. Everywhere was the energy of Christmas, and the anticipation of warm memories ahead, sugar-hazed with a fire burning in the hearth. 

I put my book away and got in the boarding line with my fellow passengers and was pulled into conversation by a tall man with white hair, who was making it his mission to learn the name and destination of every person within hearing distance. His name was Jones, and he was "born in Oklahoma, and steeped in Texas." As the line shortened, he and I, and a smiling women he kept calling "Shirley," stayed in conversation, and found happily that we were all sitting in the same row. The plane took off, and Jones ordered us a round of drinks, and soon we were having the best time of anyone on the plane. 

Our new friend, Shirley, was a warm woman of about sixty, with slightly frizzy, shoulder-length blonde hair pulled into a loose bun. Her face was sun-kissed and mapped with smile wrinkles and laugh lines. I liked her immediately, and she liked my hat. Whenever Jones would turn, she would flash me a mischievous grin as if she and I were on the inside of a joke. I learned she'd been everywhere (Turkey, Israel, Thailand, Ireland…) and that she was months away from getting married for the third time to a handsome surfer whom she'd almost succeeded in converting to veganism.

Jones was a successful businessman, charming, assertive, and loud, with a story for every occasion and topic, who attributed his financial success to his ability to make the people around him feel good about themselves, which was easily believable. He was in his own transition, trying to figure out what to make of his life now that he was middle-aged and newly divorced. 

We were genuinely enjoying our time together, and when the plane landed, Jones suggested the three of us find food and more drinks before going our separate ways. We settled on a Mexican restaurant in the Dallas airport called Cantina, and soon the margaritas and conversation were flowing, and often overflowing to include the tables next to ours, as we laughed, shared stories, and fully embraced these strange, unpredictable hours of life, knowing we would never cross paths again. The waitress and those around us asked how we all knew each other from, or if we were family, and we'd laugh at the wonder in their expression when we'd tell them we'd just met in the boarding line. 

As time went on, some of the stories grew surprisingly raw—reflections on why a cousin of Jones' had overdosed, why our marriages had ended, the strangeness of transition—yet, this time the pain was lessened in the retelling. Our faces reflected the empathy of shared experience back to each other. I suppose it was odd, in a way, to feel such strong connections with virtual strangers…or perhaps it is more odd that we don't feel this kind of connection to our fellow humans always.  

Five tacos, two chip bowls, six drinks, and two hours later, Jones was late for his flight. He paid the bill and we said hurried goodbyes and waved as he rushed off for his flight in a different terminal, towering above all the other heads. 

Shirley turned to me when he was gone, and grinned, "Life is just wild, isn't it? Can't always tell what's gonna happen—but, you know, that's half the fun." She squeezed my shoulder and her smile radiated through me. "You're gonna be just fine, hunny. Good luck. With everything."

I hugged her tight, and wished her Merry Christmas, and watched her trudge off cheerily towards the escalator, until she was accepted back into the sea of our fellow travelers.

She left a glow with me—the blessing of a stranger, now a friend.

I felt more like myself than I had in years.