My friend said, as she pauses over the first sip of wine: It’s ok, I guess. I just feel completely disillusioned. I thought we were trying to achieve something, but now… I think it’s all just for show. None of it really means anything.
My friend said, with the distant smile of someone who has made a good decision: After we’d been speaking for just an hour… I really felt like I had known them, like, forever.
I said, it turned out it was just a block away from me, so….
My friend interrupts: You’re even talking differently! We’d normally say ‘around the corner’.
Really? But it’s in a straight line. There’s no corner. It’s just…a block! Right?
My friend said… she wants kids. And I know I don’t want them. So… I love her, but I know she’d never forgive me if I did that. (His cigarette ash falls on his knee, into a pool of fluorescent light.)
My friend said, of course, I remember that. It was such a beautiful camping trip.
-and you were so sick on the way home!
-and we swam in the river! Man, that was the best. I went back there a few weeks ago, but it was too crowded. Not like when we went.
-and you got so sunburnt!
-Do you still see her any more?
-No. She was supposed to come to my Christmas party, and she didn’t. I haven’t really seen her since. We kind of lost touch.
Conversations buzz round in your head when you wait at check-in desks.
There probably was a time when it was true that the journey was more important than the destination. Now, journeys are just background noise to an enforced period of time with your own thoughts. Think about all the hours you’ve wasted in transit, in waiting rooms, roaming your eyes over vast expanses of carpet. Journeys are cool, and smooth. They are sanitised. You could be anywhere: anywhere with tiny plastic-wrapped packets of biscuits, and jazz muzak, and large lobbies that don’t smell of anything. Everything becomes very brightly lit. Suddenly you are called ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ when people do something for you (or sometimes, ‘Ma’am’, which always makes me want to reply “Then jump to it, my good man.”) There are too many things in your hands. There are disposable pens. There are dead-eyed girls behind tills.
You spend time in the queue making sure your boarding pass is stuck into the correct page of your passport. It seems important to be the best passenger, and impress the airline staff by your skills at quiet, adult queuing and trouble-free, slick boarding (all the better if there is a large family with troublesome kids that you can stand behind, waiting with smug patience, lost in a little reverie of good behaviour). Then somehow, when you step up to the counter, the pass has made its way between different pages- as if you’ve been doing close-hand magic without noticing it yourself- and you have to ruffle through all of them again.
You stare at walls, searchingly, then look back down and tap screens, unlocking codes at least once a minute, looking up every thirty seconds to catch the eye of the person sitting opposite you who is tapping and swiping and unlocking, but then you quickly look away because you can’t imagine voluntarily talking to anyone else right now. You drink milky, tepid coffee, and stare past elderly people, not meeting their eye for fear you might scream at them “Oh for God’s sake, leave it alone”; they manoeuvre suitcases inch by inch into a precise 90% angle to the plastic, lurid turquoise seats, murmuring to each other, patting breast pockets.
The views are desolate and concrete. Wheels down. Tail lights flash. Advertising in primary colours. (Always, in airport lounges, I picture Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulging eyeballs in Total Recall, for some reason- imagining stepping outside into a harsh, poisonous wasteland. Probably sheer boredom). You buy little consumable items, and accumulate little receipts. You put coins from different countries into different compartments of your bag, and then lose them. You queue for vast, labyrinthine toilets and listen to the echoing farts of elderly ladies. There are men sitting alone and staring into space, drinking; and exhausted, fractious mothers who don’t care any more that their child is kicking your ankles.
In transit, we end up reflecting not on the journeys taken, but on opportunities missed. All the times you didn’t go to the party. The language classes you stopped taking. The argument you lost. The time you didn’t take the high ground, but drove the point home, watching the pain and anger seep slowly into someone’s eyes, and saw their eyes and mouth and jaw harden; an expression that was as unfamiliar to you as the first prickles of Ebola virus gripping your innards, and which hurt just as much. The time you missed the point. That icing-sugar sweet, glittering sunny day, where you laughed, and felt warm, and didn’t notice the mud under your feet. The time you were too scared, and let someone else go first, and they went first, biting their lip, and were on the receiving end of delighted laughter, and you stood and watched, feeling your face shift into a forced smile.
In transit, you also hear conversations that make you want to close your ears tight afterwards, so that you can preserve it exactly. The snippets are so perfect, they are all you need- then the moment has run past you, sliced past: not a weapon but a comet, a breathing supernova. Other people’s words are little windows into the possibilities of other lives and the potential of things that haven’t met yet, suddenly colliding and transforming. Other people’s words make sparks in your head like a knife in a toaster. Listening and dreaming, the clouds in the early morning sky seem to ripple with pearled light. You smile at your own reflection in the window, for the expression you catch on your face. Mooning. Wondering.
On the way to the airport, the clouds float closer and closer until it looks like they could fall on you, alight with the day that’s coming next. But they won’t stop. They silently furl away, march on over your head, and burst over someone else, someone far away from you who will pause – looking upwards- with one foot hovering, shivering in shock at the cold. Maybe they have an umbrella, and they fumble it from a bag, cursing quietly. Maybe it’s yours, the one you lost that time.
The small boy next to me burbles his every thought as it occurs to him, in little bursts of excitement as he can’t get the words out fast enough: breaking from French into English and back again as his parents comb his hair. His grubby orange socked feet are bouncing above his head on the seat in front of him. Combing done, he lies back, frowning, and concentrates:
Daddy, I know what I want for my birthday.
Do you, darling? What?
I want three things…that I can make into three… bigger, better things.