He kept getting lost on the way to the airport. She didn’t notice until he turned around, and then he had to admit it.
“I went the wrong way” he said.
“Haven’t you been to this airport before?” she asked.
“Yes, but they’ve changed the roads so much since the last time,” he bluffed. “They’re always fucking around with the entrance. It seems like it changes every time I come.” He regretted swearing, especially that word. She had put up with so much free cursing from spoiled American co-eds, he didn’t want her to associate him with them. She once told him to stop saying shit.
Soon he became sure he had missed the turn into short-term parking and swerved into a Marriot driveway in order to circle around again. When he discovered the road was one-way, straight to the departure terminal, he continued forward. She made no comment about his ineptitude. Instead she gazed at him with the look of a small child hypnotized by something on TV, just standing there in front of it while the rest of the viewers crane their necks around and call for her to move. The stare was so committed and immobile that it unnerved him a little, but he never wished for it to stop. Always self-conscious, he glanced at her and said, “You’re looking at me.” She answered with a quick nod, a single up and down motion of acknowledgement, turned away for a second, and jerked her head back to continue the stare.
A haggard, falsely-jolly ticket agent greeted them at the counter. There was a verbal exchange about how the automated ticket system was going to put the agent out of a job, followed by a transfer to another airline due to the cancellation of her flight. It worried him that she was getting into New York after midnight, having to find her way to Brooklyn at such a late hour, but he scolded himself for being protective. She was an adult, she had flown all the way from Tokyo, and she could handle it. Still…worry.
Filled with the needs of an entire year abroad, her suitcases teetered on tiny wheels, straining his shoulders and accenting his awkward lope. He wrestled them down to the far-end of the terminal where he was able to hand them over to equally harangued baggage-claim-attendants who spouted out travel information with detached impatience. He wouldn’t let his embarrassment for his country-men shine through at this moment, and he was thankful for her limited understanding of nuanced American griping because at least he was able to spare her that side of him.
They sat on a bench in the corner and watched as security personnel prompted passengers to remove their shoes and lap-tops for inspection. Soon her stare was back, and he tried to hold it for a moment this time, but the intensity made him look away and mumble something about calling him when she arrived in New York. She turned her face away from his, and he felt helpless to do or say anything that would relieve the gravity of that moment. He felt he knew what was coming, and he dreaded it. He wished he could reverse time and freeze it there, Tivo it: to the baseball game where she patiently sat with him swallowed up in his coat, the walk around the campus where he would attend graduate school, the library where he often hoped to see her standing there in front of his desk; there to relieve his boredom and insecurity.
She turned to him with an expression of someone who, in the split second between calamity and physical pain, is about to burst out in tears or screams. But she did neither, instead holding her expression as the corners of her eyes became wet. A tear rolled down her cheek. His existence ended then. He couldn’t bear it, and all he could supply to relieve her sadness was a cliché, “C’mon, don’t cry.”
He asked her to get out her camera. They’d taken plenty of photographs together, digital photography supplying what the old photo-booths used to for couples and friends, an immediate viewing of the shot. His bulbous blotchy head, a product of too many bad habits, always seemed a bizarre contrast to her smooth complexion and camera-friendly smile. The camera appeared to mock his poor-self image, accentuating his features and making him look older than his years. He didn’t look this way in the mirror, but something about a camera caused him to stiffen and distort, as he became phobic of the most innocent of snap-shots.
She took a few shots of him, declining when he asked her to delete them. She was smiling now though, and he took the initiative to make himself as ridiculous as possible to elevate her mood, to send her away from that place which plunged them into the act of prematurely missing each other. They took a shot together where he raised his eyebrows and puckered his lips as she stuck out her tongue. It worked beautifully, she was laughing now.
In the next shot he blew out his cheeks and crossed his eyes as she maintained her friendly smile. He couldn’t remember what this reminded him of, this clown juxtaposed next to this beauty. Was it Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft? Did Mel Brooks ever look this ridiculous? Whichever, she was doubled-over now and laughing harder than he’d ever seen her. There were still tears, but now they were from joyous hysteria. “This is better,” he thought.
They set up a shot where they both gave the most serious look they could manage. These too brought peals of laughter, but this time he was joining in, crouched over with her in blissful, ridiculous giggling. Security officers glanced their way, curious at this young woman and her red-faced…father is it? Adopted? Surely they can’t be together.
In the final shot she smiled warmly. He, meanwhile, made the most expressive face he could muster. He threw his head back, closed his eyes, and made a face that reminded him of the photographs of volunteers on their last night before going off to the trenches of WWI, shit-faced on champagne and singing a loud patriotic hymn to blast out the thoughts of the horrors they would soon be facing. She was in uncontrollable hysterics by this time and he began to worry if he hadn’t caused another problem. Which would be worse, a young woman crying tears into the shoulder of his shirt, or a young woman pissing herself before departing on a domestic flight to New York?
He then realized he needed to put change in the parking-meter. On his way back he stopped into the gift store to see if he could find anything worthy as a parting gift for a friend like this. He searched in vain, nothing was suited, so he began walking to the other end of the terminal. She was running toward him.
She told him they were boarding her flight early and she had to go. They hurried back to the security gate and hugged deeply. As they parted he noticed that the tears were back, and her frown cut through the features of her face, returning the dark spot to his heart and forming a twitch in his neck that he was only just able to conceal. He stood with his hand on the hollow aluminum rail, trying to look upright and supportive as she followed the maze to the metal-detectors and X-rays. She was in group of fellow passengers now, all being thoroughly checked for contraband and explosive devices, and as she followed the curt directions of the security officers she looked back at him continually, each time welling-up again. He stood as straight as he could and watched her, and each time she looked back at him he blinked several times.
It took a number of minutes for her to pass through security. She then entered a corridor which would lead her to her gate. She stopped before turning the corner to go and just stood there, looking down, her black hair hanging about her head like a shroud. She looked up at him, crying gently, and he didn’t know how to walk away. He passed a large barrier and saw her a final time, standing at the corner watching him. He let his eyes fall to the floor and started walking.