The only time I’ve ever eaten McDonald’s without feeling guilt was in the Denver Airport. I was hungry. The hash browns were good. Who cares about deforestation before 6am?
My brother, parents, grandparents, and I had been laid over unexpectedly in Denver on our way back from Chicago, where we had gone for my uncle’s wedding. My ears still rang from the reception. Upon arriving in Denver, we had booked a room in Embassy Suites, but the shuttle didn’t get there until two hours after our flight. When it did, another waiting dad yelled at the driver because he had a sick child at home. I didn’t know what the rush was if his daughter wasn’t even at the hotel.
“I’m sorry folks. I’m really, really sorry folks,” the driver kept saying. We didn’t even get onto that shuttle. When we finally got to the hotel, I slept on a foldout couch and it was like I had never left the “reclining” seats of the plane. The next morning, I didn’t get to fully enjoy the best hotel breakfast I’d ever seen. For all I know, I could’ve dreamed up the eggs, the biscuits and gravy, and tiny packets of jam.
If I had been asleep, then I woke up in the waiting area for our gate with my head resting on my suitcase like a pillow, and I thought of a poem by a debater from Ferris. I was remembering his line, “Love takes the neck pain away.” I guess that explains the weird positions I read books in. The independent bookstore in the Denver Airport will always be the place I bought my last John Green book, Looking for Alaska. On the plane the day before, I kept having uncontrollable urges to curl up in a ball with my head on the armrest holding the book high over my head. I probably could’ve managed.
I was about halfway through the book that morning and it was resting against my chest since I was too tired to hold it up. I’ll admit, I have a problem with literary crushes. And I knew I loved Alaska Young, the title character. So maybe my neck still hurt because she didn’t love me back, though I was certain she would if she were real. Or maybe my neck hurt because I couldn’t really love her, because I didn’t know her favorite color or if she remembered her dreams. I couldn’t fully know her. But I thought I did, because she was beautiful, she contemplated the last words of Latin American revolutionaries, and she read Kurt Vonnegut in the grass of the soccer field late at night.
“Boarding group C. Now boarding all passengers in boarding group C.” We all lined up, handed our boarding passes to the attendant, and hefted our carry-ons. My grandparents were sitting in another part of the plane, so we said goodbye and that we’d see them in Seattle. Somehow, my dad and I were on one side of the aisle with three seats to ourselves. I laid on his shoulder until we started taxiing, then slid over to the window seat to look out the window. I put my headphones on and turned on Death Cab for Cutie.
Outside the small pane of glass, there was only one other plane on the whole tarmac, and soon after that, there was only ours. I watched the other plane take off in the opposite direction as Ben Gibbard sang “So this is the New Year. And I don’t feel any different.” The taxiing was taking longer than usual, and as I sat there listening to that song, I started to think about my old friend Sophi.
In eighth grade, she had told me things she hadn’t told anyone else, and I tried to help her. In doing so, I became closer to her than I had ever been to most people. Later, she told me I had unknowingly saved her life. That summer though, she had slowly cut me out of her life and we wouldn’t be going to the same school anymore. And on that airplane, I felt the guilt I usually feel when eating McDonald’s. Because while she wasn’t conventionally beautiful and we never read literature in the dark, she was a lot like Alaska.
She was like Alaska in the sense that while I thought loved them both (and maybe I did, but in different ways), I didn’t know them fully. I didn’t know Sophi well enough to know why she distanced herself and I didn’t realize that we were very different people brought together by necessity. But just like during that early morning take off, it was so hard to leave the ground.
We took off, leaving the empty tarmac behind, and flying towards what we knew was ahead, but was still unexpected.
Ben Read is a sophomore at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington, a member of the Speech and Debate Team. He enjoys participating in the rising art scene there, where his work has previously appeared in inroads, and he is working on organizing poetry slams at his school.