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Fall 2011

Airport Story

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Sigrid Nunez

The woman had not taken a plane in years, not because she was afraid to fly (she wasn’t), but because she’d had no reason to fly, nor had she had any desire to; it seemed she was forever hearing what a bother air travel was today, and she felt sorry for those who couldn’t avoid it. But then her brother’s company transferred him to a state two thousand miles away. A few months later, his wife gave birth to their first child, and the woman absolutely had to meet her new niece.

Except for a two-hour delay for her connecting flight (which she gathered was now more or less the norm), the trip out was painless. The visit itself could not have been nicer; she had always adored her brother, she got on well with her sister-in-law, and the baby was, of course, a joy, though it pinched the woman’s heart to recall her own two girls at that age and to think how fast they were growing.

In no time at all the weekend was over and the woman had to go home. Her brother drove her to the airport, making sure she arrived well ahead of her departure time, and after passing through security she found herself with more than an hour to kill before boarding. It was the kind of small airport you find in small cities, with only a few kiosks open for business and nothing so grand as a restaurant. She bought some coffee, which she drank while eating the cream cheese sandwich her sister-in-law had thoughtfully packed for her. Her sister-in-law had packed a banana as well, which the woman decided to save for later.

When she had finished eating she bought a magazine and passed the rest of the wait leafing through it. Besides her purse, she had a suitcase small enough to be permitted as carry-on luggage but too large to fit into one of the overhead bins of this particular type of plane, and so, when it was time to board, she handed it over to an attendant to be stored in the plane’s hold. Inside the plane, she found her seat and had just fastened her seatbelt when the same attendant who had taken her suitcase appeared at the front of the plane to say that, due to storms in the city of their destination, their flight was delayed, he couldn’t say for how long, but for now passengers must return to the waiting area. As she exited the plane, the attendant handed her suitcase back to her.

Worried about missing her connecting flight, the woman approached another attendant at the gate’s desk, a young man who, she could not help noticing, had missed a few places while shaving that morning, and who told her that the same storm delaying their arrival was delaying all departures as well, which the woman took to mean she needn’t be too concerned.

Several times over the next three hours, while the woman read her magazine, dozed, and thought about, but decided against, eating her banana, a new departure time would be announced only to be postponed at the last minute. But finally passengers were “invited” (the word provoked snickers) to reboard, and, after another half-hour wait in the runway queue, the plane lifted smoothly into the air.

The woman spent most of the flight napping, once dreaming that she was standing in a cold stream trying to catch fish with her bare hands. Waking, she found that her hands and feet were freezing.

When they landed she could find no sign of her connecting flight on the departure board. She went up to the nearest gate, where a ticket agent was talking on the phone, but before the woman could even reach the desk the agent shooed her back with an impatient gesture. Startled, the woman stood looking around her for a moment until someone she recognized as one of her fellow passengers, a man ironically conspicuous in Army camouflage fatigues, paused to direct her to the airline’s customer service desk, which, he explained, was in a different terminal. It must have been because he was a frequent flier, thought the woman, watching him stride away, that he knew just what to do.

The woman began walking, following the signs, which she found somewhat confusing. Every few yards she noticed on the wall a customer service phone, and it occurred to her she might be able to get help without having to walk all the way to the other terminal. But each time she picked up one of the phones she got a message saying her call could not be connected. After she had walked about fifteen minutes, she worried that she might be going the wrong way. She had always had a bad sense of direction and sometimes got lost even in her own town. She stopped a man walking toward her whose uniform identified him as an airport employee, but though he listened to her with a keen expression on his face he could not help because he did not speak English.

The woman had never been to this airport before (on the trip out she had changed planes in a different city), and she could only marvel at its size. And when she finally reached the terminal she was looking for, she marveled as well at the size of the crowds, which made her think of swarms of disturbed insects: darting, buzzing, angry. Thousands of passengers appeared to be in the same predicament she was.

When she saw the line for the customer service desk, which stretched as far as the eye could see, a sense of helplessness swept over her, and something bordering on fear. She had heard about this kind of airport chaos but she had never experienced anything like it herself, and there was something in the atmosphere—a vibration, a smell—that made her blood race, as if she had entered territory that was not just unfamiliar but somehow unsafe.

The woman was divorced. The girls were staying with their father, as they did every weekend. As she joined the end of the line, she called her ex-husband and when he did not answer she left a message. She was in fact glad he hadn’t answered, because since they were divorced she never liked speaking with her ex-husband, not even to exchange a few words. In any case, she knew that asking him to keep the girls one more night because she had no idea how late she’d be getting home would be fine with him. And the thought that, whatever happened to her, her daughters would be in the care of someone she trusted, and who loved them as much as she did, calmed her.

The wait for customer service turned out to be only slightly shorter than the wait for her first flight had been. The woman passed the time listening to the conversations of the people around her, which were quite interesting. Like the soldier who had stopped to help her, these people appeared to be frequent fliers; they had a lot to say about air travel in general and about what was happening right then and there. Even if there had been a storm earlier, they agreed (and at least one person insisted on challenging this), it was not to blame for this mess. No, it was this damn airport, where you had to be prepared for hassles no matter what the weather. The worst airport in the country! On the planet, a passerby who’d overheard this shouted back at them. Laughter. Next came a string of horror stories, some so wild the woman did not think they could be true. About delays that had stretched from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks. About a passenger flying first class who was eaten alive by bedbugs. Well, maybe, the woman thought. She knew about bedbugs; recently they had shut down her town’s only B and B, a first-class establishment run by a meticulous Swiss couple. But a story about live scorpions in the overhead luggage bin on one plane, a story about maggots dropping onto passengers from the overhead bin of another plane—the woman could not take these seriously. Maggots and scorpions! Why, they ought to be ashamed; they were as gullible as children. Spider eggs in bubble gum—remember that one? she wanted to say. But she was much too shy a person to break into other people’s conversation, especially not to mock them. And so she only listened and smiled to herself.

She stopped smiling abruptly when she heard about the dead baby. “Turned out some kid gave birth in the lavatory,” a hushed voice explained. It too had ended up in a luggage bin, wrapped in a bloody sweatshirt. The most horrible story of all, it had the ring of truth. The woman thought of her little pink shrimp of a niece, her mouth went dry, and she swayed on her feet. No one spoke for a few moments. Then the woman realized that she too had a story she might have shared. An office colleague of her husband’s, who traveled often to see family in Argentina, liked to take with him his beloved cat. But during such a long flight, the cat would of course need to relieve itself, and so the man always brought along some cat litter. He would take the cat into the lavatory, lay a plastic bag in the sink, add litter, and when the clever cat had done its business he would clean the mess up.

By the time the woman reached the customer service desk, it was after ten o’clock. She had kissed her brother good-bye nine hours ago. When she heard she could not get onto a flight till the next morning, she was dumbfounded. Where was she supposed to sleep?

There was a hotel in the airport, a huge one, but all its many rooms were already taken. The woman was given a slip of paper with a number to call for help finding other hotels in the area, but all around her people were waving slips of paper in one fist and cell phones in the other and shouting about not getting any response. As if oblivious to this, the ticket agent kept handing out the slips of paper at the same time announcing that, for those who preferred not to go to a hotel, there were cots being set up in Terminal 3. Getting directions, the woman was warned that the walk to Terminal 3 was very long. Was there another way to get there? No.

And so she went, and despite the warning, after walking, walking, walking, the woman thought there must have been a mistake. She had entered an area that was different from the rest of the airport; there were no shops, no gates, no airline personnel, and fewer and fewer passengers, most of whom looked as baffled as she was. She passed a tearful teen-aged girl who was literally turning in circles as she cried into her phone, “I missed the wedding! I missed the wedding!” But for long stretches the woman saw no one at all. As she went she noticed that the air grew cooler and the lights grew dimmer, and she had the same feeling she would have had walking alone through strange empty streets after dark. Her heart jolted when a rat appeared, cutting across her path and followed immediately by another, bigger rat chasing it.

The woman almost turned around then but thought better of it; after all, she’d come this far. And she did not think she could go on much longer without lying down.

She was lightheaded not only from exhaustion but also from hunger. Inexperienced traveler that she was, she had not realized that just because people are stuck overnight in an airport didn’t mean that airport businesses stayed open. There was no food to be had after nine. The only place she had passed that was still open was a bar, and it had been packed. She had caught a glimpse of a surprisingly raucous crowd, mostly men and a few tough-looking women. Others might be miserable, but there everyone seemed in high spirits, as if being stranded was cause for merrymaking. “I’m sleeping right here tonight,” a wench in a cowboy hat screeched, smacking the bar with her palm. “I claim this here spot!” And she pounded the back of the man sitting on the next stool.

And now this man, this red-faced man barreling out of nowhere, not even seeing her, nearly colliding with her—what could he be but drunk? The woman cringed as he brushed past. She was stunned when she saw him lurch up to a wall, unzip his pants, and start peeing.

Exhausted though she was, the woman picked up her pace. But only a little farther on she came upon another indecent sight: a man sitting on a bench, furiously spanking a sobbing child.

The woman turned her face away and rushed past. What had gotten into people? She could have sat down on the floor and sobbed too.

But at long last, up ahead, she saw a large area that had been sectioned off, and though the lights were so low that it was almost dark she could make out the rows of cots and the shapes of various people, some sitting or lying down, others moving about, zombielike. But when she had drawn closer the woman stopped, a bewildering feeling coming over her, a sadness out of all proportion, an emotional wrenching that would have been appropriate had they been not merely stranded passengers but refugees of some real catastrophe: a natural disaster, or an act of war. And though she knew it was absurd, the woman could not bring herself to join them. She hung back, her heart trembling, as if she were afraid someone would notice her, and then they would come for her, take her by the arms, and drag her in.

The woman shook herself and looked around. Nearby she saw a row of chairs, leather-upholstered and—conveniently—lacking arm rests. Maybe not as comfortable as a cot but more private, at least.

Just outside the cot area, two airport employees, women who looked related, with hair dyed the same unnatural shade of maroon, white roots, and the same deep wrinkles etched in the same hatched pattern on their foreheads, were handing out pillows and blankets. As she approached, the woman heard them speaking softly to each other in Russian. They both had the melancholy, stoic air of people resigned to human suffering.

The blankets were folded neatly inside plastic bags as if clean, but when the woman took hers out she discovered that it was all stuck together with—something. Holding it at arm’s length, she went back to the Russians to exchange it. “Take two,” one of them said, unsmiling but kind. “You will sleep better warmly.”

Before lying down, the woman texted an update to her ex-husband. She had a deep longing to hear her daughters’ voices, and even—it quite surprised her to find—her ex-husband’s, but of course they would all be in bed now. She opened her purse and took out the banana she had been saving. She ate it quickly, staring wide-eyed around her, like a lost, hungry child. After the last bite her throat suddenly constricted, and she allowed herself a brief flurry of tears. Then she blew her nose, removed her shoes and her eyeglasses, and lay down.

She doubted she would sleep a wink, but in fact she drifted right off. Only a short time later, though, she was awakened. Someone had lain down on some chairs across from her, someone who appeared to be in distress. She could hear raspy breathing (asthma attack?), and though without glasses her vision was blurred she could make out—no, it couldn’t be; but oh yes, dear Lord, it was: two bodies rocking under that blanket.

Outraged, the woman rolled over so that she was facing the back of the chair. In future, she thought, when she tried to tell people her crazy airport story no one would believe her—as she had not believed the stories about the maggots and scorpions.

After that she slept badly, troubled by dreams. She was walking along, wheeling her suitcase behind her, when it burst into flames, burning her buttocks. She had a tug-of-war with a kid who was trying to steal her purse. Don’t forget this, her brother said, handing her a nubbin wrapped in a blanket that was sticky with blood.

Sunrise came like a blessing. In the dark, the woman hadn’t realized that the terminal she was in was made almost entirely of large, slanting, transparent panes; it was like being inside an enormous crystal. Outside, the sky was a spotless blue (the color of forgiveness, she thought, for some odd reason), perfect for flying. The only sign of the couple she’d seen during the night was a blanket crumpled on the floor.

She had almost two hours before her flight: plenty of time for breakfast.

It was when she was ready to pay for her egg sandwich and coffee that the woman discovered her wallet was missing. She was sure it had been stolen from her purse while she slept, and her thoughts flew at once to that depraved couple. Lucky for her she didn’t have to pass through security again—now that she was without her driver’s license. (One of the scariest stories she’d heard yesterday had been about some doomed passenger who’d lost her ID.) But she was also without her boarding pass, which she remembered slipping into her wallet the night before.

Walking back through the airport’s main terminals, the woman saw that the only difference between last night and this morning was the light. It was still a state of emergency. There were still swarms of vexed-looking people, and long lines snaking every which way and sometimes braiding into one another. At many gates she saw sleeping passengers hunched in chairs or sprawled on the floor, their heads propped on their luggage. And once again, the line for customer service stretched as far as she could see. But this time it made no sense for her to get on it; she would only miss her flight.

The woman walked up to the desk, where three agents were busy with other passengers and ignored her. She didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to wait, though. She was having attacks of nausea and dizziness, and her poor head throbbed. She desperately needed some caffeine and nourishment. Earlier, unable to pay for the sandwich and coffee she’d ordered, she had watched the counterman snatch them back with a dirty look, as if he thought she’d been hoping to con him. What had gotten into people?

“Excuse me, but there’s a line.”

The woman heard but did not turn around. She was chagrined that anyone would think she’d meant to cut ahead of everyone else. Then another voice said, “That’s right, lady, how about it?”

The woman was debating what she should do when she felt a tap on her shoulder and, turning, saw a broad, flabby, whiskered face that brought back the ancient nun who’d been her third-grade teacher. Familiar, too, was the stern schoolteacher’s voice. “You’ve got a nerve, miss. What makes you think you’re so special? I think you had better wait your turn, just like everybody else.”

It was maddening, but in a way it was also funny. The idea that people would take her for someone who thought she was special, someone with nerve, when the truth was she was just the opposite.

“But I have been waiting,” she explained. “I mean, I already waited in line for hours last night because I missed my flight, and now someone stole—”

“We’ve all missed our flights!” The well-dressed man who roared this at her also had the audacity to add, only a little less loudly, “Dumb bitch.”

The woman looked at the floor. She held her tongue, fully expecting someone else to admonish the man for this unseemly outburst. Instead, the agent to whom she was standing nearest rounded on her. “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you please to step away from this desk. We cannot help you out of turn. If we do, it will cause a riot.”

How everyone who knew her would have laughed. She, who always made a point of holding the door for other people, who gave up her seat to anyone who looked older than she was, or even just tired; she, who’d always been so timid and self-effacing (hadn’t her ex once accused her of behaving like a doormat? hadn’t her friends accused her of letting her ex walk all over her?); she, who had been taught never to put herself first, always to do unto others kindly and thoughtfully, who had lived all her life by the rules. But that was the lesson, wasn’t it; the lesson that was now sinking in, filling the woman with dismay, shaking her to her core. It didn’t matter who she was. It didn’t matter at all how she had lived up till this moment.

She wanted to run away but somehow she couldn’t move, as if all those hostile stares had been poison darts that had found her flesh and paralyzed her. She thought of the soldier who had come to her aid yesterday (just yesterday!), and wished that by some miracle he might reappear.

It happened then that all three ticket agents finished helping their customers at the very same time, and, before those people could move completely away from the desk, the three people waiting in line behind them rushed up to take their places. There was a little stampede, a crush, a tangle of luggage and legs. No one pushed the woman, exactly, but, being smack in the way, she was rather roughly jostled and elbowed so that (inevitably, probably, given her weakened state) she lost her balance, falling harder than she would have because her suitcase was right there to trip her, and bouncing her head off a corner of the desk as she went down.

She sat on the floor, winded, aware of atrocious pains shooting through various parts of her body and the seep of moisture on her scalp. Eyeglasses askew, she searched the host of seasick-making faces bobbing and swaying above her, but the one face she was looking for was not there. Her mother, who had raised her, and who would have known better than anyone how mistaken all these people were about her. The woman blinked rapidly to keep the blackness from filling her eyes. Two competing forces tugged her. One pulling her down, urging her to sleep, sleep, sleep. The other shouting that if she ever wanted to get home, if she wanted to see her dear daughters again, she must get back up on her feet, and fight.

Sigrid Nunez's sixth novel, Salvation, is out in paperback this fall. Her most recent book is Sempre Susan.

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