Welcome Back: Part II

(Continued from Part I.)

I don’t really know where the time went. I was willing time to speed up, to take me to 06:00 when I could just drop off my case full of wine and relax in the luxury of the SkyClub, cursing myself yet again for having the kind of brain that thinks that spending €85 in fees and a priceless amount of personal comfort in order to transport inexpensive wine that was shrouded in authenticity is a satisfactory idea. Although, I thought, going back and forth to myself in the exhaustion that felt palpable on my body at this point like a second skin, people will appreciate this wine. It will be all right. These bottles are going to people who are worth it.

I spent the night watching the clock in what felt like a suspended chamber of time in an infinite measure of space, and spent the early hours of morning watching the dead airport that had been my frigid home for the past few hours illuminate with activity; transform from an abandoned expanse of nighttime vacancy to a bustling mini-city of refreshed, bright-eyed travelers ready for their next adventures against the backdrop of the serenade of the morning sun, singing loudly now across the sky in vibratos of passion and color. And I, with my fingers brittled by dehydration and eyes drooping in fatigue behind my glasses, I just sat there, watching for 06:00 to roll around.

And then, just as promised by whatever force time actually is, it did. I picked up my body, stiffened by stillness in the row of chairs where I tried to forge comfort and lumbered downstairs to the information desk, now staffed by two women: a friendly-looking blonde who appeared to have had her coffee that morning and an older woman with Bettie Page bangs whose skin was pale and wrinkled, making her face look like a crumbled up piece of paper. I made my way toward the blonde, fully aware that I was judging a book by its cover but being too wrapped up in impatient exhaustion to really care. Someone that I didn’t see in my peripheral vision (shrouded by glasses and mental lethargy) swooped in front of me and arrived at the friendly-looking woman before me, forcing me to stop where I stood and sigh, then walk to the other side of the desk to the failed memo that missed the trashcan and sat balled up instead at the information counter of FRA.

“Hallo, guten tag, Englisch ist okay?” I croaked, not having uttered a word since speaking to my new friend on the bus from HHN.

“Yes,” the woman responded, thin-lipped and brusque.

“Okay, thank you,” I said, regaining a bit of my tone with the utilization of my vocal chords. “I have a bag at the left luggage counter that I dropped off a few days ago. My flight isn’t until 13:00—“

She interrupted me with a surly, “The left luggage counter is over there,” with a sharp finger in the direction that I walked less than a week prior and dropped off my bag.

“Yes ma’am, I know,” I replied, realizing a little too late that the nuanced charm of Southern-bred vocabulary had absolutely no meaning here in the frigid air and attitude of Germany, “I am asking whether I can go through security now and re-enter this area when it’s time to drop my bag for my flight,” I continued, somehow masking the strain placed on my psyche by spending the previous night and day cooped up in airports, feeling the grease and grime of extended air travel build up in my pores and the forest of follicles on my scalp. I was pleasant. I was acting.

“Yes, you can, of course,” she said as if I had asked her if 2 + 2 = 4. I could feel myself being labeled in her mind, branded with the iron stamp of German judgment: Stupid American.

“Okay, thank you,” I said quickly, and with a start, I headed to the luggage counter to drop by newly acquired black-and-cream wine carrier.

Within a few minutes, I was walking through the golden hallways of the terminal, pulling up my Delta app to find the location of the SkyClub and feeling the sort of accomplishment that you never expect to feel; the selfish sense of pride that creeps up when you do something that’s only difficult because it’s something that you don’t want to do. I wanted to crash in some plush bed and have a relaxing run through the forests of Frankfurt one last time, after which I would wash off the sweat and the night and the energy of yesterday in a warm shower. And yet, I didn’t. I sat in an airport all night. Sure, it was of my own volition, but I really wanted to see if I could, or if my uppity nature would seep through, grasp the situation, and drag the rugged adventurer in me to some hotel in the middle of the night.

I found the SkyClub, but it was owned by Korean Air. No big deal, I thought, making my way inside and pulling up my membership card from my iPhone’s passbook, this is a partner airline. I handed my phone to the representative at the desk and grabbed my passport from my handbag, only to have her shake her head and give my phone back.

“Only First and Business Class passengers on partner airlines can come in,” she said to my face that had involuntarily twisted itself into a swirl of confusion, disbelief, and a somber sort of sadness.

I didn’t argue. I might have tried to weasel my way in had I not been blanched by the bleakness of the night I spent waiting–holding on—just to be turned away when I thought that the waiting was over. But then again, I employed the meek demeanor that always hides behind me gumption on reserve for when I leave the US: the disposition that I can’t argue with people, that I am a guest in someone else’s country, that this is not The Land of the Free and I need to sit down, shut up, and be respectful of what I’m told. And so, with deep disappointment and frustration vibrating through my body, I turned around, walked out the door and back into the hallway of the terminal, whose walls at that point looked more like cheap foil or lamé than the gilded grandiosity of a few minutes prior.

Hours later, around 08:30, I had consumed a few espressos in a café overlooking the departures hall where I spent the night, and I looked down to see not a large room, but just a constant shuffle of people and suitcases, flowing and pulsating along the floor as the sun streamed in, now totally comfortable with its position on the world’s stage, casting glares and shadows and everything in between. I let out a sigh, cupping my hands to my forehead in exhaustion and felt a disgusting sheen of oil. I needed a shower. I banked on being able to bathe in the lounge. I closed my eyes in a blink extended by how beaten-down my body felt, wishing I could just lay down in a bathtub and wash the grit of going home and all it entails off me. Then, my phone illuminated.

Delta emailed me, alerting me to proceed to the nearest ticket counter. I took a look at my itineraries within the app, and like a magic trick from the joker that is reality, I was awash in muted merriment at the fact that I was placed on a standby list for a flight directly to Atlanta–my final destination—that left in two hours. I immediately grabbed my backpack and handbag and headed out of the café, making my way toward the first Ausgang sign I could see, lumbering past the baggage claim and packs of people just standing in the way of people trying to walk with an energy that I didn’t realize I could muster.

I picked up my bags. I paid the euros, handing the man behind the counter my card in an exhaustion that stemmed not only from the physical sensations I was feeling, but the constant stream of unexpected expenses I incurred throughout this journey. It’s just money, I told myself as he swiped the card, I’d rather use it for something like this than be buried with stacks of cash. I rolled the bags beside me through the crowd, my distribution of effort uneven as my left arm lugged the suitcase that came up to my waist and was close to the weight of two toddlers and the little clandestine carrier, cream and black, rolling to my right, almost weightlessly in the midst of its neighboring luggage. I arrived at the row of counters that Delta had occupied only to be skipped in line by a couple in their early thirties who were skinny, only moderately attractive, and both wore white sweaters that matched without matching and looked as though they were ordered from a catalogue. My face was a diluted snarl, but I didn’t say anything. I just let out a deep and silent sigh (sighing had, at that point, seemed to become my main method of breathing), remembering that this is not my country and that I don’t have the rights to rip into someone (tactfully, of course) because they were rude to me.

It turned out that the couple was American. They spoke to each other in shy and subdued tones, confused and intimidated by the hustle of a busy foreign airport that won’t stop and cater to them. I shook my head in a slight regret at not venting my frustration at them, at being the bigger person and letting these two people at least ten years my senior treat me like a doormat. But then, of course, I remembered that they’re the ones shuffling around like sheep, lost in the world like children who got separated from their parents in the mall, and I’m the one who can comfortably travel internationally without relying on another person to keep me company or hold my hand.

I finally made it to an agent at the counter after about fifteen minutes of waiting behind people asking question after question in German, causing my anxiety levels to spike as the clock ticked forward toward the departure time of the flight on which I didn’t even know if I was confirmed. The agent bore an almost identical resemblance to my mother, which filled me with a sort of eerie nostalgia and, blended with my heightened nerve activity in the wake of waiting for people who apparently have never heard of Google, a slight sense of jagged apprehension rocketing down my spine. She looked nearly exactly like the woman, save for one glaring detail: instead of my mom’s green eyes, faded like moss (the eyes that blended with the shamrock glint in my father’s eyes to create the intense lime of my sister’s eyes; a little club of verde from which the dice of genetics decided to exclude me), this woman had eyes of icy turquoise, screaming for attention just a few shades lighter than mine. As she spoke, I was finding myself seeing less of my mother in her face and more of myself; realizing that this woman was literally what I would look like in 25 years. I was okay with it.

There was a problem printing my boarding pass, but I was confirmed on the earlier flight to Atlanta, bypassing a layover at JFK and filling me with a satisfied relief as I made my way back through passport control. I was given a seat request card in lieu of a new boarding pass, but my baggage claim tags matched the flight number of the earlier, direct flight. It’s all coming together, I thought, making my way to the “All Other Passports” line, my passport closed around fingers marking the identification page as well as the page where the stamp was to go, the page where I had previously passed through security that morning in naive hopes of relaxation.

“How long have you been here?” the passport control policeman asked skeptically with a curt disposition.

Rolling through the catalogue of words and memories and coherence in my mind, I sputtered, “In this airport? Since midnight. I came from Hahn at 22:00 last night. I flew there from Portugal.”

He continued to study my stamps, trying to make sense of the zigzag of clearance that I had been granted to and from Frankfurt over the past few days. My apprehension stacked on itself as I stood there at the counter feeling like I had been beaten like a rug on a balcony and he sat in his chair slightly above me, eyes cast downward in the tense silence between us, the realization creeping in that I didn’t have a stamp from Hahn or Portugal. I could picture myself being escorted to the nearby office bathed in the garishness of high-wattage fluorescent bulbs and marked POLEZEI, my own personal Room 101.

He scoffed and tossed my passport across the counter with a flippant hand that was indicative of my clearance. I didn’t ask questions or say anything, for that matter; I grabbed my passport and made my way back through the terminal to my gate, breezing through inter-terminal security and checking in with an agent airside. I explained the situation as passengers pooled in behind me, children retaliating crabbily, adults just wanting to get this show on the road, teenagers in sweatshirts and spandex with headphones and attitude.

“Well, there is a problem getting you a boarding pass,” the airside ticket agent, a woman who looked like the quintessential German mother in a childhood fable (short and plump with blonde hair and rosy cheeks) said, clicking away at her keyboard. “I want to put you in Economy Comfort due to your medallion status, but it’s saying that as of right now, you don’t have a seat even in coach on the this flight.”

I stood there, silently steaming but publicly polite, smiling and lighthearted in the face of the most extreme exhaustion I had ever known, just trying to get out of Frankfurt. I said nothing, just waited as her eyes narrowed on her screen, darting around as her fingers whirred in clickety-clack oblivion. Finally, I was told to just wait there in the gate area. I would be called up to the ticket counter again. I would be taken care of.

And so off I shuffled, feeling deflated overall but infused with the tiniest glimmer of hope. My bags were being sent on this flight. I was (sort of) confirmed. I would be in Atlanta earlier than expected and I could snarl at people and let out my frustrations in plain sight and eat peanut butter because I would be in The United States of America again. I took a seat in an empty corner which quickly began to populate with passengers. A mother with a toddler and a baby rolled a stroller past me, accidentally snagging my backpack’s strap. I hate strollers. I have always hated strollers. They are needlessly bulky, awkward to maneuver, and a consistent cause of frustration in my life as a single, efficient-minded person on the go. Whenever I see a stroller in a public place–some worn-out mother bumping and knocking into things, lumbering behind this gargantuan tower of plastic that looks more like a grocery cart than a carrier for something that, not too long beforehand, fit inside her body–I turn on my heel and seek an alternate route. And yet, at that moment in my life, I wasn’t the same embittered wench as per usual. She apologized in English, saturated in sincerity, and dragged her toddler forward by one hand, pushing her stroller with the other. I smiled, I told her it was all right. Her baby began to cry as they made their way to a couple of seats next to me, and her toddler incessantly asked if he could walk on the roof of the airport. Rather than carrying out my usual protocol of gritting my teeth behind a tightly-sealed pair of lips when someone else’s child is near me and further reinforcing my decision to wait until 35 to spawn (if at all), I had somehow become one with the frustration. I looked over and smiled at the kid, who—entrenched in confusion as to why, exactly, he couldn’t walk on the roof of Frankfurt am Main International Airport—saw my smile and raised me a moment of silence. It was, in essence, a strange miracle of sorts.

In this silence, my mind (coming up on its 27th hour of continued wakefulness) began to drift to the little family as people, not harbingers of irritation. How amazing it must be to be three or four years old in another country, on another continent, and have stories of “That time in 2014 when we were in Frankfurt,” told to you by your mother ten and fifteen years down the line at dinners or events. My childhood lacked that spark of adventure, that mystique of exploration. While the kid in me wished that I could have traveled often and early, the adult inside my mind couldn’t help but wonder about the mother; why? Why were they across the Atlantic by themselves? Was this just some leisure trip? Why would she lug two small children around a foreign airport if not absolutely necessary? Her hair was pulled back haphazardly into a bun and her clothes hung on her body in sloppy ways indicative of stress, of urgency, of being a mother instead of a woman. I began to feel a sort of connection to her, like she might need help as the intercom blared in unfeeling Deutsche ringing in our ears and the sun hung proudly in the sky casting shadows throughout the glassed-in terminal. And then, after a solid twelve or so minutes of studying, of watching her gesticulations and her interaction with her toddler, I desisted in making her my subject of my inevitable people-watching when she pulled a breast out of her scoop neck shirt and began to feed her baby, turning away and closing my eyes, trying to drift off to a light sleep with my bags in my lap, arms securely braced around them.

The plane began to board. I was never assigned a seat. I felt deflated and stretched out at the same time; a strange feeling of such fervent disappointment that I was too tired to even process the emotion. I walked out of the terminal area and to a noodle bar that I saw around breakfast time, enticing in its after-hours darkness. Now, it was illuminated, waiting for me. I sat at the wall corner of a long banquet table and was greeted by a smiling waitress in German with a Japanese accent. At first, I thought it was a dream, crowding through the reality by my broken brain. And yet, there she stood, grinning, waiting for me to order. “I’ll have a large bottle of Apollinaris,” I slurred in English, forgetting to throw out the disclaimer that I don’t speak German and really, hardly caring. “Please,” I added as she walked away, only vaguely aware of my rudeness.

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“Thank you,” I said with a forced enthusiasm as she returned with a 1.5L bottle of gorgeous, bubbly hydration and an empty cup with a lime wedge in the bottom. She began to pour it in front of me, for me, and it was, at that point, the highlight of my day. I ordered vegetable gyozas and some sort of noodle dish with tofu instead of chicken that tasted like I was in a trendy restaurant where I would go on a Thursday night in some city when I wanted to feel alive. It was a far cry from the pre-packaged, food-grade plastic that’s become the monster of standard in airports, and it breathed new life into me as I got out my laptop to check on all my connecting flights to my final destination: San Francisco. I was still a world away, greasy, and missing sleep more than I missed peanut butter but at least I could see how the dots all connected; I could see the routes take form in front of my eyes and I knew that as time flew, so would I. And eventually—I would be picked up at the airport by someone who loved me; a stark contrast from the shuffle of taxis and metros and busses that I had been utilizing for the past few weeks.

Later, in a little pocket of the airport known as the Leisure Zone, I reclined in a padded chair and resigned myself to the hour or so left of waiting until my flight began to board. My eyes were up to the ceiling and my mind—characterized by its constant whipping and thrashing—was beginning to fall silent. This comforted me and horrified me all at once, as Asian businessmen talked on cell phones beside me, as kids played on iPads across from me, as twenty somethings flanked out across empty chairs asleep and oblivious to the energy of the terminal, I was feeling my brain dull into something unrecognizable: my normally unquiet mind was finally shutting down as my body remained awake. It was a surreal feeling, almost like the worst hangover of your life blended with losing a significant amount of IQ points. I felt terrified that this was it, that I would never regain my brainpower. It was, in hindsight, the final plea from my brain to get some sleep, but in the moment, I thought that everything I had ever learned was melting away into grey goop inside my skull.

I checked the time of my boarding in the Delta app for the fourteenth time that hour to discover that something was different about the image I saw pixelated on my screen. I sat there, bloated from my meal and covered in grime from the day before, just blinking profusely. What I saw on the screen simply HAD to be some swirl of sweet dreaming, and I would jolt up from the chair in the Leisure Zone at any second with a genuine concern about where on the globe I was located. And yet, as many times as I blinked, as many times as I willed myself to wake up, I was not roused from my dream. This was reality. On my boarding pass, my seat was no longer in the bowels of the plane. I was reseated squarely in 8D, in the nestling comfort of the plush Business Elite cabin. My head hit the back of the chair in a satisfaction that was so intense that I felt like crying. It felt like the greatest miracle I had ever known at that point, and I spent twenty minutes dreaming of the flatbed seating and actual pillow and duvet that awaited me on board.

The agent that scanned my boarding pass was the same agent as before, the agent who said she would take care of me. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you on the direct flight earlier,” she said, checking my passport with a knowing smile and a glint of discreet giddiness in her eye, “but you see, it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it did,” I said, taking back my items and looking at her, taking in her face and programming it into my mind as my literal favorite person in the world at that point, “I can’t thank you enough,” I said in a hushed tone, trying to continue our volley of discretion while also hinting to her that I know what she did, and I hope she wins the lottery for it.

I boarded and was immediately offered champagne by a flight attendant who, while perky, didn’t seem to hate her job. I was gracious, overflowing with appreciation as only a disgusting woman socked by over a full day of air travel can be. We took off, and I listened to “Recycled Air” by the Postal Service as Germany became brown and green squares of farms and fields, fulfilling a prophecy I made up when I was a lonely, lovestruck teenager daydreaming about departing this country back to my own for the first time. It seemed right, even all these years and variables later. I’m older than I thought I would be, visiting Germany for the first time, hearing “Recycled Air” piped through my ears and feeling the numbness of saying goodbye again. And yet, the hours prior to boarding this plane weren’t dampened with heart-wrenching goodbyes, as I always pictured. And I wasn’t in some cramped economy seat. And I hadn’t listen to the Postal Service in years. I paid my respects to the girl I used to be, listening to the song in its full duration, and allowed her to take over for a minute and feel the things that she always thought would be felt when this event took place in her life.

As the song played and my emotions drifted backward, and I looked out the window to see a lake so blue that it looked manmade in the shape of a heart. I didn’t know how to feel about it.

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New York was a blur of baggage and crowds and yelling and a migraine. I slept through the flight, which only seemed to drain my internal battery further, as I needed calibration. I waited in security line after security line, my entire life at that point being a cattle-herded animal through a zoo when all I wanted to do was graze the grasses of a farm. The US Border Patrol agent studied my passport up and down, he glared at my face, his own face betraying any emotion. I was too tired and bloated and grimy to care. Finally, with a jolt, he stamped my passport, handed it to me, and said in a rich baritone that still rings through my ears and made me feel ethereal like Natalie Portman in Closer, “Welcome back.”

I was flying to my next connection from Terminal C, but I already knew that the SkyClub there was under renovation, so I popped into the Terminal B SkyClub to regain a little bit of my dignity. “You realize this is not your terminal,” said the Delta agent as he scanned my membership card and checked my ID.

“Yes, but I need a shower, and this club location is nicer,” I sighed.

“Okay, as long as you’re aware,” he strained, judging me. “Your flight boards in an hour.”

I popped around the corner to the hallway of showers to find two people waiting in line with no one at the desk. We all waited in silence for eight minutes until a fourth person moseyed in behind me. Two more minutes and still no attendant. We were suspended in our confusion of the situation and what to do, and I decided that it was not my place to worry about such things. I was too busy standing in my own filth to have the brain capacity to do anything. Finally, a man sauntered to the desk from the back and let us into shower rooms, shuffling on his own schedule and answering questions in a thick Southern accent that were posed to him by a Chinese man, their rapport built on confusion and clashing of cultures. I grew more and more antsy as the man kept asking questions; questions that could be easily answered with common sense or perhaps just looking behind the door rather than pestering the man that held the key.

Finally, I was underneath a steady stream of hot water, and I never felt more grateful for a shower in my life. I don’t know how long I stood there, just letting the water breathe into me, revitalizing me, but it was the most in-tune I have felt with the universe in years, possibly ever. There was more zen in that shower as I lathered away the dirt and the grease and the agitation of the day before than any time I’ve ever made a human pretzel of myself on some rubber mat on the floor.

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I was upgraded to first class again on my next flight and I immediately relaxed with a gin and tonic, declining the in-flight dinner as my only options were a pastrami and cheese baguette or two enormous fried chicken patties. I sipped my drink and felt, for the first time, a sense of comfort in being back in the United States. I knew I had been transformed, and I knew that I would never be the same after the events that unfolded in Europe. But sitting there, sipping gin and tonic in clean clothes jetting over the country that raised me, the country I served, and the country that will now serve me for the rest of my life…there was something so apropos about the picture.

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The words of the Border Patrol agent rang in my head, bouncing off the walls of my brain.

Welcome Back.