Before Tray Tables Need to be in Their Upright and Locked Positions

Since I was a child, my parents have told me that I bloom where I am planted. This first referred to my habits as I learned to walk, but the phrase still applies. When faced with the prospect of air travel, I get an overwhelming feeling in my stomach, then the fact that I have no control hits hard and I jump to all of the negative conclusions I can conjure. From there it’s all downhill. As a child I first begged not to leave the house. My parents would try to ease my fears, but I usually ended up crying until I got so tired I fell asleep. I have always been a homebody and because of that, I try to create a comfortable environment around myself.

Our silver minivan pulls up to the airport and nothing is new. The white pillars are the same and the crosswalks are stubbornly faded as if to deny just how important this moment is in my life. Leaving home drags up all my worries: separation anxiety, hatred of change, and most of all the fear of flying. As I say goodbye, my stomach drops. I turn away from the comfort of my family’s silver minivan and walk toward the ticketing desk. That stress builds as I wait in line. Unengaged with the people who surround me, I notice a man to my left making a noise. When I look to see what is happening, I see him unzipping his carry on and I seem to hear my mother’s voice from another flight:

“Start moving these to that suitcase,” my mom is quickly saying to my sister and I before we get our tickets. “You know we can’t be late.”

The ticketing agent looks at our family of four on the ground doing chemistry with our luggage and shakes her head at the other agent.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I hear while transferring things from the full bag to the emptier one. I nudge my mom.

“Yes,” flustered, my mom stands up and moves to the desk.

“The flight has pulled away?!” I hear my mother in a raised voice to the ticketing agent.

“It is finished boarding, ma’am, about to pull away,” says the Delta ticket agent.

“See if you can hold the plane please,” my mother says and the ticket agent turns and waves. We sprint to security—there is no line and none of us is stopped for a random search. We run to the gate. There’s no one behind the desk, but the plane is there. The whole family beats fists on the glass window. We manage to stop the plane, but on boarding I can feel the hostility and see in our fellow passengers’ eyes.

Today, I smile at the ticketing agent after my bag has been weighed. She hands back my credit card and tells me to “have a nice flight.”

I automatically respond, “Thank you, you too…” and turn red as I walk to security.

Airport security is defined by one task, standing around in line. I think about the line lengths in airports around the world and begrudgingly count myself lucky, and then I start assessing how will I get my stuff on the conveyor belt. Efficiency is key, the fastest and most organized way is best, so it will be easy to reclaim.

I approach the stand and am hit with the memory of going through security in a wheelchair. I had to sit in the chair and was pushed through a small gate to the left of the scanner, bypassing the lines. “Miss, can you stand up?” The woman pushing me and the TSA agent both looked at my face to gauge my reaction. Looking at my crutches, two bags, and the boot on my foot.

Glancing at my crutches and the cast on my foot I replied, “I don’t think so,” smiling. They next pushed me through the Plexiglas gate, and I cringed when I thought the door would hit my foot. I was handed off to another security agent who asked me questions.

“Do you have anything in your pockets?” I shook my head. “I am now going to search the chair. Can you please lean forward?” I felt like an idiot when I noticed the group of people all trying to get around me at once, so I put my head down.

A thick-mustached Texan told me, “Feel better little lady.” Then a woman wearing teal with short brown hair stared so long that someone behind her asked if she could move forward. People-watching was interrupted by the TSA agent: “Now I’m going to swipe the chair and your boot with this.” The agent held a paper towel with a black plastic wand, smiled and placed the paper towel in a reader to make sure me and my wheelchair were not dangerous. All of these things made me anxious and looking back at them makes me realize how some things stay stagnant while I change around them.

The thought knocks the wind out of me as I put back on my shoes and zip my laptop back into my backpack. I am easily distracted because I am alone, and airports are tinder for the fire of my distraction, a place for thoughts to engulf me while other thoughts fizzle out with the low-watt institutional lighting. Walking the terminals, there is an ever-present smell of barbecue and look of constant renovations. The moving sidewalks and monitors that are too high-tech to match the beige brick and navy carpet of each gate.

Looking from side to side at the baggage claim signs and distracted by people-watching, I begin to focus on individuals and I notice that in the airport  people just carry on with their lives. They all seem unfazed by the idea of change, or what a trip can mean, or how it will affect you. Trips are always a step toward the unknown. Being in the airport reminds me of how I used to kick and scream when my parents talked about going somewhere. For me, airports cause a change that cannot be undone.

My thoughts are interrupted by the noise over the intercom and that familiar voice saying the TSA security level has been raised to orange and one should never leave their baggage unattended. Sounds and faces blur in and out of recognition as I walk down the long corridors of small blue and gray seats with little armrests, large windows showing nothing but concrete for miles, and television monitors tuned to CNN or the weather. I look again to my tickets and see how I am departing from Memphis. Departing. No matter where I am going, we are always leaving somewhere.

Trips with family or my grandparents come to mind, then trips with friends. Most recently I had to go to the airport because my boyfriend and I were in a terrible car wreck on the way home from his meeting my family. We had to fly from Memphis to Sarasota, Florida. Thankfully by the time our flight landed we had recovered, so there were no wheelchairs that trip.

When I depart for a trip by myself, as opposed to with others, I notice my insecurities much more. There is nothing but terrible lighting and stale air as you wait to board a giant piece of heavy metal. I don’t like flying, but I do have a thing for airports. I people-watch a lot in the airport, and I really like the idea of different people coming together for a brief flash in time. So much happens in airports: anticipation, love, hate, fear, decisions, offers, etc. When you travel with someone you share all that.

I pull out my ticket and look for my gate, finding it at the end of a long, somewhat deserted terminal. I sit and wait for the attendant to say it’s time to board. And then I think of all the movies that take place or have scenes in airports. In Casablanca, it’s saying good-bye to a true love; in Sleepless in Seattle, it’s where he gets the first glimpse of his love. None of those characters is alone, which might just be “movie magic,” but maybe it’s something else. My interactions with others make my airport experience significant. I remember my grandpa waiting patiently at the baggage claim for our family to get back from a long trip; we’d sent him postcards saying that we missed him and that next time he should come too. I remember before 9/11 I ran to the gate and met my parents when they came home from France. I think about how I was once dumped in an airport, Gate 4E: a hurried phone call explaining how Max thought he liked Elizabeth more then me; and eight years later just a terminal over, I was kissed by a boy who came home with me to meet my family in an airport.

Each of these flashes is seemingly insignificant in daily life, and yet I am struck now as I watch two strangers in the airport. One of them timidly approaches another and a conversation starts. I have no idea how these people live, what they are like in the real world, or why they are traveling, but for a second our lives intertwine because Delta or Air-Tran or American Airlines is taking us to the same place.

Looking around at all these people, I grab my bag from the floor and pull out my ticket, take out my headphones, put my sketchbook away, and then I hear a deep voice: “Now boarding all zones.”

I stand and line up with these similar strangers, these newly acquired acquaintances, to get from point A to point B.

Category: Airports

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