by J. R. Thompson
My connecting flight from Detroit to Pittsburgh was canceled and while I stood in line for hours to arrange a replacement flight, the day withdrew to the other side of the world. Without an alternative means of getting to my destination, I yielded to being stuck in the airport overnight. I had little appetite for solid food as late as it was, so I filled up on a few last-minute beers at an airport bar. The rejected passengers walking by the bar dwindled in number and the airport itself seemed to yawn in preparation for a rest. Eventually a security guard walked into the bar and asked the few lingering drinkers to go back out through security until morning so a cleaning crew could come through and polish the facade. I abided, removing my tie and unbuttoning my shirt while I walked.
Most of the good spots were taken, but I found a cushioned ottoman, pushed it against a wall, and leaned. The airport was too public a place to allow me any sleep. A few times I dozed, and eventually accumulated something close to an hour of rest, but the nodding-off irritated me, so I vacated my ottoman home and spent most of the night walking around. Stranded travelers were strewn about like discarded marionettes. They reclined behind garbage cans, on benches, and against walls. A few even slept atop one another in heaps.
After exploring almost every corner of the airport accessible to the public, I tried to create a more enriching lifestyle for myself. I read security notices and studied airport maps until it bored me. Then I went outside to the nearby parking garage to get some fresh air and see what I could of the landscape. When the winter breeze became too chilling, I went back into the airport to seek some new details of the environment. I repeated this a few times until I grew somewhat tired of being on my feet. I’d reached the zombie stage of the night when 30-year-old joints become sore and a carry-on bag becomes a burden. I spent longer and longer stretches sitting indoors and staring at things. I watched sleeping people to see how often they moved. I stared at ice on the outside of a window and tried to reason how long it had been there.
When staring became tedious and un-stimulating, I made a paper airplane out of a frequent-flyer membership brochure. I tested its flight performance a few times indoors. After a few modifications it flew exceptionally well, so I made a special trip to the top of the parking garage around three o’clock in the morning and set it free from the uppermost level. The breeze had stopped completely and the paper airplane glided an impressive distance, but landed in one of the dark patches among the landscape. After I lost sight of it, I leaned on the concrete wall, looking down and wishing I’d written a message on the wings, something pseudo-philosophical and ambiguous.
Time blurred for a while and then fresh passengers were being dropped off and lining up at the check-in counters, which stirred the sleepers to a wakeful crankiness. By that time, I was sitting on a wooden bench, feeling like there was a layer of plastic between me and the world around me. The security checkpoint opened up, but for a while I ignored it because I didn’t want to take off my shoes – I’d been wearing my soiled clothes too long to take anything off and put it back on. I focused my attention instead upon the pictures in the newspaper, mentally incapable of reading the stories at the time. But by five o’clock the line was growing, and my replacement flight was at 6:30 a.m., so I buttoned my shirt, retied my necktie, and took off my shoes where I sat. With only socks on my feet, I headed to the security station.
The walk from security to my distant gate was taxing. Much like driving a car on a crowded freeway, this activity required vigilance. There were those who knew neither where they were nor where they were going. The tourists were the greatest pitfall. A family of five or six would be walking quickly through the terminal at pace with everyone else, and would suddenly stop in the middle of traffic, oblivious to the hundreds of people they delayed or the harmony they disrupted.
“Should we get a bagel or a plate of nachos,” a husband asked, out of breath.
“Look at these prices!” the wife responded, also out of breath.
“Maybe next time we’ll just bring some jerky and granola bars from home,” he said.
“Oh, that’ll never satisfy the kids,” she said.
“Maybe they’ll just have to learn to adapt then!” he said.
“Easy on your tone, honey!”
The hour felt too early for breakfast, let alone nachos, yet this conversation took place over and over, among different people and with slight variations. They would pause without warning to stare at some spectacle – a dinosaur skeleton, a novelty store, or a kiosk selling two DVDs for $20. Humans were built to walk rather than stand, I’m convinced, just as we’re wired to roam rather than to put up a picket fence, and it required some effort on my part to remember the value of human life under those circumstances.
When I got to the gate, I was overheated from the aggravation, but too tired and lazy to take off my jacket, so I just sat there sweating. My flight was on time for some reason and boarding began 30 minutes after I reached the gate. I still retained some heat from the trek when I walked downstairs and outside toward the small commuter jet, and the cold and biting wind of the Midwestern winter was a relief. So refreshing was this chill that it seemed to steal the confusion of a night spent awake and delivered to me a calm I’d not felt for days. In such a state, I stood on the stairs of the craft while the people in front of me were each greeted in turn. I was practically meditating in the snowy gusts, when something pried my tired eyelids back open.
“Good morning,” said a confident alto voice.
“Welcome aboard,” she said to the next.
“Good morning,” again to the next.
“Do you need help with that bag?” the voice asked an elderly man in front of me.
“No? Okay, well if you change your mind, I’m right here,” she said.
The old man cleared out of my view, and the figure of a woman wrapped itself around the voice. She had wide eyes and cheeks so round that she must have been born with a marshmallow just below the skin on each cheek. She did not greet me as she had the other passengers, so I smiled as calmly as I could and nodded my head just enough for her to notice. She answered in kind, closing her eyes, sharpening the edges of her smile, and bowing her own head very slightly. I had just enough time to absorb the moment, to memorize the clumped texture of her pixie-styled black hair and the smooth skin of her elegant neck.
What a treat, I thought, to be audience to such beauty, however fleeting the scene. After our ceremonial hello, I gave her another smile and turned to walk toward my seat, daydreaming. Then I hit my head on the ceiling. Damn, I thought, it better not bleed.
The plane was small, but I’ve flown on many planes just as small before without hitting my head. While I walked to my row, a little girl watched me, her hand concealing a smile. She had apparently seen my collision with the overhead compartment. Embarrassed and a little dizzy, I smiled and gave her a wink. I hit my head again. I hoped the little girl thought this second act was for her entertainment. I felt like a fool and moved to my row, where I briefly evaluated the seating chart and sat down on the aisle seat.
I pretended to search my carry-on for something, and glanced to the front of the plane to see if the flight attendant had seen my clumsiness. She was nowhere to be seen, but she probably saw. Oh well. I’ve embarrassed myself worse before and still recovered, I told myself. A little wit and a good laugh can go a long way to make up for awkwardness.
Really, I didn’t care about all that. After all, I had the aisle seat on a flight with the most attractive flight attendant I would ever meet. I searched my bag then for something to read, something that would snag her attention whenever she walked by. Oh, stop, I thought. Forget the angle and just observe. Watch for her, and try to catch one of those dark brown eyes. Other passengers were still trickling in, blocking my view of the uniformed pixie. While I waited for a clear view, I conspired. How can we approach this situation?
The thumps and bumps of baggage being loaded below our feet ceased after a while, and the intake of passengers dwindled until nearly every seat was taken. Far away in the airport, some poor schmuck was probably running like mad, wearing a look of desperation in a frantic rush to get to our gate.
The flight attendant appeared again. She stepped out of the food and coffee nook across from the exit and glanced up the aisle. Maybe she was just checking on how full the plane was or maybe it was my imagination, but I could have sworn that she looked at me for a few seconds. In the bright light streaming through the cabin door, I had a chance to see her as she was, tall and slender with subdued curves. Something in her eyes seemed to be smiling, though her lips did not. Her face was lean and she appeared to be five or six years older than I was, but what’s the harm in just flirting for the sake of amusement – and who cares about five or six years, or ten for that matter? What mattered was that some day in the distant future she might remember that I flirted with her and that I was smitten from the start.
She disappeared back into the nook again, but then reappeared, rolling up her standard-issue sleeves. In my oily, disgusting physical state, I hadn’t noticed that the cabin heater was overcompensating for the cold outside and that it was unusually warm in the cabin. It was not often I saw a flight attendant roll up her sleeves.
With the aisle clear of newcomers, she strode toward the rear of the cabin, smiling at each row as she checked that carry-on baggage was properly stowed and that everything was secure. She seemed to avoid my eyes as she passed so I avoided hers as well, but then I saw it, exposed on her arm just below the rolled-up sleeve, a tattoo so unique that few would appreciate the meaning. She reached the rear of the cabin and was out of sight before I could believe what I had seen.
“Svear,” the tattoo said, in decorative Swedish. I was half-Swede myself, and knew just enough of the language and history to figure it out. Svear were the people who gave Sweden its original name, Svea Rike. Translated to English, it was the Kingdom of Svea. So, the flight attendant was what then? Swedish? Or did she just live there for a while? It occurred to me that these questions were my tools, the means to whatever would happen next.
Have you been to Uppsala recently? Yes, that is the question, I thought. That would get her attention and curiosity. Uppsala is very near the center of the old kingdom and only a little north of Stockholm, and everyone knows Stockholm. Forget all that, I thought, just ask her the question. Don’t rush it though – you have the entire flight to find the right moment.
The flight attendant returned from the rear of the plane and passed by again. A cloud of familiar perfume followed her. I hadn’t noticed it before, and hoped that she’d refreshed her perfume for a specific reason. A passenger sitting three rows in front of me stopped her to ask a question, and she switched on the smile while she listened and answered. The power of her smile surprised me. I looked away and pretended to flip through a magazine for a moment, pondering the word-choice of my question. I heard her footsteps fade toward the front of the cabin, and for a safe moment I daydreamt about touching her soft face. Then a new and foul odorous cloud introduced itself, accompanied by a coarse voice.
“I think I was supposed to have the aisle seat,” the voice said.
I looked up to find standing next to me a boney, middle-age woman with the texture and gracefulness of a baby vulture.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll check my ticket.”
While I looked at my seat assignment, I saw in the corner of my vision the woman twitching as she stood. She was a wretched abomination – or seemed so to me at the time because sure enough she was right about the seat assignments. I apologized again and shifted over to the window seat. The prune sat down on the aisle seat, on the center stage of my intended theater. I looked over at her to try to convince myself that she was a fellow human – that she deserved clemency – but when she looked at me her eyes bulged as if they would fall out.
“I didn’t think the plane would be this small,” she said, fiddling with her seatbelt and smiling at me.
With her unsolicited observation, a rotten and powerful stench escaped her sagging mouth, a smell that suggested she’d just vomited – maybe from the nerves of flight – and there was a distinct bouquet of whiskey underneath. I was fuming, yet it was I who read the seating plaque wrong. My disappointment was my own fault in some weird way.
“So, where are you headed?” the gargoyle said.
The woman chatted to me and breathed heavily all the way to the Iron City. Her stench was impossible to ignore. I spoke to the beautiful and mysterious flight attendant only once.
“Would you like something to drink?” my beauty asked.
“Are you serving beer this morning?” I said.