The woman in the dark blue uniform and latex gloves beckons me toward the counter. I hand her my ID, folded in my boarding pass to keep them together. She squints at me in my Red Sox cap, at my Virginia license, at me again, then hands me my documentation and tells me to have a nice flight. I flash my in-public smile- eyebrows raised, tight-lipped- and proceed forward to the stacks of plastic bins. There is a family with a stroller and some elderly women ahead of me. The mother is exhausted and frazzled, the father trying his best to keep everyone’s focus on the process ahead. The elderly women are still trying to figure out exactly what the bins are for. Clearly, I will have to speed things up for everyone coming after us.
I shimmy my feet out of slip-on loafers and stand barefoot on the cold tile like a child. When the bins are within reach, I yank three from the stack and place them in line by muscle memory. One for my laptop-slide, thump. One for my backpack- slide, thump. A third for my denim jacket and shoes- slide, thump. The whole process takes around ten seconds, and I shuffle to the right to make room for others. I imagine the TSA employees thanking me silently as they wave me through the portal, stone-faced.
I wasn’t born on an airplane, but I might as well have been raised in an airport. I feel more at home among the looming windows of a terminal than I do in any suburban foyer. When most fourth graders were having pool parties, I was having my passport picture taken so the military could relocate us overseas. I never learned what to pack for a yearly camping trip; I learned how to pack a suitcase. I pack light and fast. I know the best shoes to wear on planes, the best books to bring, which airport restaurants are the most reliable, when to pick a window seat and when to pick an aisle seat. I find a deep safety in succeeding in these rituals year after year, trip after trip. Whatever mistakes I have made in the meantime, these routines will remain unchanged. If ever I am pulled aside and tested on these invisible skills, I will always pass.
The momentum of the security checkpoint hustle shoots me out like a pinball and carries me to Gate B19. Everyone has a secret space in which they thrive; a private stage with no audience where they are entirely sure of themselves. This post-TSA stretch is mine. Smooth as glass, I glide down a hallway, as though it is I and not my suitcase that moves on tiny wheels. I make a routine pit stop at the Italian fast food chain and coast into a courtyard of attached chairs. They are mostly empty, because I’ve arrived at the airport early on purpose. The going theory is that arriving two hours before one’s flight is enough to account for lines and the most common travel hiccups. For me, it’s more than that. Getting to my gate over an hour before my boarding time means I have it all to myself, and can sit reveling in self-sufficient bliss, like a businessman who travels to Hong Kong every week for work, while I chew my baked ziti.
The first time I flew alone, I was terrified. I was convinced all my training would leave me in my moment of need. I would forget how to navigate terminals, or a freak snowstorm in July would cancel all flights and I would be stuck somewhere. I think I was actually surprised when the gate attendant scanned my boarding pass successfully. I had half expected to be detained like a teenage runaway: “Where are your parents, young lady?” After that first successful trip, I deemed myself a solo traveler, the action hero who would only work alone. I determined never to fly with my entire family again. No longer would I worry about whether my brother left his passport behind in the crevice between our seats on a flight to Shanghai. No longer would I strain my eyes rolling them into the sky as my father gathered us into a cluster to shuffle our boarding passes into the correct order, quicker travelers streaming in a current on every side, a school of superior fish. Without the logistical nightmare of four suitcases, fights over the window seat, and a thousand double-checks of our gate number, I discovered travel actually calmed me. It was less baggage, literally. I only need concern myself with one purple roller bag and a good traveling playlist, both of which I had down to a science.
It is this moment, sitting alone at my gate, when things I have run away from catch up to me. I always remember an email I didn’t send, a conversation I need to have. I write things down and laugh at jokes I forgot about. I slow down long enough for my life to catch up to me, and we both breathe a sigh of relief to be reunited with one another. When these fragments fall into place, for a moment I feel full of possibility, as though an invisible tank has been filled all the way up again and I can travel any distance. I look at the destinations of the flights boarding to my right and left. Phoenix. Tampa. New York. I argue with myself out of boarding one of them and starting a new life somewhere else. By the time I have decided to stay here and finish my lemonade, the seats around me are filling fast. When we all stand up and gather in a cluster to board, I feel an immense camaraderie with all of them. We have nothing in common but this 9:30pm flight to Washington, but it feels significant that we have all gone through the effort of planning and packing to arrive here, at this moment, huddling together and waiting to go somewhere. A new job. A backpacking expedition. A front porch. A hospital bed. Tonight, I am going home.
I am still marveling at the serendipity of all of this when my boarding pass is scanned and I am waved through into the collapsible hallway to the plane, past the point of no return. This corridor is, I believe, the only true negative space in the universe. It appears on no map and is neither Point A nor Point B of anyone’s journey. For the brief moments I pass through it, the airport WiFi goes dark on my phone, leaving only the leftover data of a rock and roll song coming through my earbuds. The air begins to smell packaged, and the sense of departure and arrival rush through me in tandem. I am both coming and going, within and without, in a limbo between eternal transit and a dramatic pause.
I reach my row and do my best to step over my neighbors with the greatest amount of courtesy one can muster when forcing one’s body past a stranger’s, both of us contorted in graceless angles over one seat. Nestled next to the window, I peer through the plexiglass at the reflective vests tossing bags onto a conveyer belt, clouding the air with their breath. Watching them throw everyone’s belongings into the same dark hole, the sense of being a runaway returns to me. I feel a glimmer of what first-time flyers must feel: the ridiculousness of the seating arrangements, the silence of turning one’s cellular service off, the impossibility of this bulky contraption lifting into the air, suitcases and all. The invisible cord that tethers me to the earth unclips itself, and after the quiet thrill of detachment passes, I feel unspeakably lost.
So must everyone around me, I realize as we all gaze out our respective windows, polite and trying not to fidget. We all have someone waiting for us, someone who has just said goodbye. For these precious hours of airspace-time, whatever we are running from cannot touch us. Whatever we are hurtling through the sky toward must wait a little longer. We and the rest of the earth cannot reach each other, and our only task is to take care of ourselves in the meantime. Some of us read a novel. Others watch an action movie. Some dip biscotti into paper coffee cups and take turns using the lavatory. A few of us watch the clouds stretching out like a heavenly carpet below us and remember the miracle that is aviation, that this strange metal bird is allowed to take flight with all of us packed inside in reclining seats. We sit in our chairs in the sky and exist and no one, not even the dog sniffing the meadow miles below our shoes, knows it.
Some of my starkest memories are inside planes taking off. I can measure the beginnings and endings in my life by what I saw dropping away from me through those plexiglass windows. I’ve left unspeakable sorrows and joys behind in runway dust clouds. Slumber party betrayals. The tingling smell of a fried rice recipe I would never be able to recreate. A thousand promises to keep in touch. An “I love you” held back. All of these epiphanies catch up to me and clamor for attention as the plane’s engine sucks in a breath to roar beneath my seat.
In this moment before the wild dash into the November sky, the sublime terror of a future both distant and immediate swells in my chest. I watch the blinking tarmac blur past me and do not fear the exploding engine at thirty thousand feet, or the crumpling of the plane into the hard, smooth ocean below. It is the innumerable fears behind me and the immeasurable unknowns ahead that cause my breath to stick in my throat and my eyes to fill with tears. In that glorious rush of motion as the plane leaps upward and the sky pulls me into itself, I am able to let go of one of them that I didn’t know I was clinging to. This takeoff, like every one that has come before it and will come after, is a small release, and I believe my life lengthens in this moment, even by just a few minutes. If a scientist or philosopher is ever able to understand why this moment catalyzes such a miracle, I don’t want to know.