I rush to my gate only to realize I have an extra 45 minutes to waste. I sit down, fidgeting nervously. Children are screaming. I hear languages I don’t know how to speak. Loud voices over the intercom are hurting my ears. I read signs I can barely understand. Flashes of college Spanish class run through my mind but nothing materializes. I smile at the little flat-faced girl next to me wearing turquoise bracelets but her mother sees me and frowns. I find a different seat.
Life is so frail here. I’ve noticed during uncertain moments in life people gather a collective look upon their faces. I gather these looks in my brain, and when I see one I recognize I realize the importance and vulnerability the moment holds. I try to give out looks of empathy with my eyes. I’m looking at them and I’m thinking: Hey, you’re okay. I feel your pain. This will all be over soon. We can get through this together. I offer a soft smile but no one makes eye contact here and the gesture goes unnoticed. I save up my empathy looks for when I land.
Today’s look is something I’ve seen before. It’s a mixture of weariness and hope. It is evident by the way they hold their hands together, dry from the lack of moisture in the air and from flipping back the pages of bargain books they bought impulsively at the airport bookstore. The look they share is the same one that crosses people’s faces in hospital waiting rooms. It is the same look my mother had when my brother ran his car into the side of a train.
I remember the way she kept pacing. Back and forth. Back and forth. Friends and family kept repeating the same lines: everything will be okay; everything will be fine. Soon the words became stale and bitter on their tongues, and when they realized they had nothing left to say they began to send fruit baskets in the absence of their words. My mother received 30 fruit baskets that month.
In the waiting room we would talk about what went wrong. We would give theories, explanations, anything to understand my brother’s actions. The doctors wouldn’t let us see him. Tell me, my mother pleaded to me. You knew him better than anyone. Her eyes were big and blue and a rose red color had formed a thick red line around the rim of her eyes. There were no windows in the waiting room. There was nowhere to look except down at my hands. He was very tired, I said.
In the airport, a man next to me with a silver cross hanging from his neck and deep lines etched into his tan face looks out through the thick glass and onto the runway.
You can never see your destination from these windows, he says to me in English.
I look out the window but I see nothing. The sky is torn and weathered, hauntingly empty.
Before I have time to respond I become distracted by two trapped birds inside. They fly from wall to wall finding perches to rest on. When a flock of birds fly past the window, they too attempt to fly to their unknown destination.
I look at the customer service agents at their computers. The birds continue to fly until they’re confused and restless. It’s hard for them to understand where they are. They are blind to the artificial elements of home that the airport provides. It’s enough to almost make me cry.
I look around. Businessmen are talking on their cell phones pacing around. Women are organizing their children. Other families are talking quietly to each other. How am I the only one who notices what’s going on? I look back. The man is sitting, still waiting for my response. I can tell this by the way he holds his breath. I see his belt buckle glisten under the fluorescent lights. We sit in silence until I’m sure he can’t hold his breath anymore and I get up and walk away. Like the hospital waiting room, the tension keeps building higher and higher here.
I find the airport bar and order a gin and tonic from the waitress. The bartender keeps looking at me from across the room. He has a big wide smile and a black mustache that seems to brush against his lips when he speaks. He’s smiling and saying something I can’t understand. Over the roar of the crowd in the airport bar I can barely even hear him. I consider the weight of his smile and I attempt to look for my Spanish dictionary, but I feel empty inside so I stop.
I let the gin slide down my throat until I feel the cool weight of the alcohol fill my stomach and vaporize into my pores. I keep doing this again and again until I’m at peace with the gnawing sensation in my nerves. The faint taste of lime hits the back of my throat. I want more but it’s nearly gone and I know I shouldn’t order more.
I hear the birds again. They’re singing louder and more urgent than before. I look up and see them flying back and forth across the window. Back and forth. Back and forth. The sound of the birds fills my head and my ears are beginning to hurt. I take off my earrings and set them on the table but it doesn’t help the constant ringing. It’s a pain I’ve felt before.
I take one last swallow of the remaining gin soaked ice and let an ice cube resonate on my tongue until it dissolves. A woman over the intercom announces my gate is boarding but all I can hear are the two birds incessantly chirping, flying in a dizzying spell of anxiousness. I sit there, listening, letting the noise wash over me in a cool wave until the pain dissipates into a dull ache but remains constant and unnerving long after I’ve reached my destination.
Koty Neelis is a writer and traveler who never knows which city to live in or what time to go to sleep.