I tried to think of an interesting way to write about airports. I thought about all the people I’ve shared a gate with: the middle-aged man in a suit engrossed by the silent children’s show in the kid’s corner; the elderly couple who haven’t traveled in two decades; the too-stern father who barked at his child for being rude when I, realizing they were also stuck with a five-hour delay, offered the boy a piece of paper to draw.
I realized it’s cliché to collect a montage of innumerable strangers to illustrate the diversity of human experience. I broke the fourth wall in labeling my writing a cliché and wondered if writing about tired ideas is acceptable if I acknowledge my lack of originality.
But I couldn’t pretend that airports have not come to represent the limbo between my lives at home and at school. I couldn’t ignore that I don’t always mind long delays, not since I spent three hours engrossed in Jane Eyre or wrote thousands of words in one sitting. I couldn’t cease wondering how many other people find it exhilarating to stand in the middle of so much humanity and be completely ignorant of where everyone has come from, or where they are going or why.
Sometimes, when I have long enough to wait, I’ll sit at another flight’s gate. I put in my headphones, but I don’t play any music because Midway doesn’t have free WiFi. I’ll listen to the conversations around me instead: a husband and wife going over their vacation plans day by day; a man arguing on the phone about a meeting; the heavily pregnant woman struggling to entertain her three young children.
I watch this flight board. And amid all the activity, I’m hyperaware of my own status as a stranger. I wonder what they think of my own disinterest in the boarding proceedings. Do they think I’m early for another flight? Do they think I'm completely unaware that my plane is about to leave without me?
I wonder if other people who walk as fast as I do appreciate my brisk pace. I wonder if other people think I look too serene, and how rude that I appear not to mind being in an airport. But I wonder too if other people even notice me, or if I fade into the background of those who don’t matter.
I wonder if the mother of that child to whom I gave a piece of paper remembers me from our brief conversation, before I retreated into my book to avoid confronting her husband. A bandana covered her bald, scarred scalp, but I didn’t dare ask what caused it.
When their son was done drawing on the paper, his father made him give it to me, as if by lending him a piece of scrap paper I was obliging him to draw a picture for me. It was a falcon, I think, but his six-year-old imagination wandered, and doodles filled the sky. I smiled and thanked him, sliding it into my backpack. After a five-hour delay, I finally left them while bad weather in the east continued to push their departure late into the night. And when I got to the other end of my flight, I threw it away with my snack trash and the little pamphlet that held my boarding pass.
I don’t even know the child’s name. Perhaps I could have delved deep into his mind from those innocent drawings, created by the hand of a child whose father lectured him not to spill his vanilla milkshake, which melted, undrunk, instead.
But instead I gave it a long glance before moving on to baggage claim. I let my small interactions with that family be one of the fleeting encounters with strangers who will not, ultimately, have any impact on my life. I will let them coexist somewhere else.
I will let them become the cliché, the anecdote from which I can draw larger conclusions. I will pack up my laptop and walk to my own gate and board my own flight and pretend that there is music playing in my headphones. I wonder if anyone will notice that they’re not plugged into anything.