It’s not the heat that hits me first, it’s the promise of a different temperature that the pilot announces a short while before our descent into the Philadelphia airport. His voice is nasal in tone — but not nearly as filled with ennui as the flight attendant who had first caught my attention, mere hours ago, when he had begun his ritual of food/beverage/and dutyfree-related announcements by describing the MOW-hee-TOES and COZ-muh-PALL-it-unz that were available for purchase — a tone that signals, perhaps, a lifetime practicing non-alarm. How does one talk with steadiness, not necessarily aprosodic speech but certainly lacking the expected inflections of everyday speech, I wonder as I allow this uninvited intrusion into my viewing of the “Hunger Games” (yes, I finally watched it…). He lets the passengers know that the local time was blah-blah-blah, we’ll be arriving in blah-blah gate, and passengers with connections should blah-blah-blah, and the weather on the ground is 38 degrees celcius, or 99 degrees fahrenheit.
I very nearly fall out of my seat. I left this and am returning to this. It was not an altogether unexpected number — ninety-nine (because, while I had converted many of my ways of being while living in London, I was still loyal to the non-metric system and Fahrenheit temperature scale) — but having been immersed for so long in a cool, British summer, I could not even avail myself of a recent memory of such heat in preparation to re-enter the American northeast summer climes. And, as we know, mental preparation is key for transitions of this magnitude. Is it a wonder that immigrants to foreign climates go just a little bit mad when trying to settle into new environs. One hardly knows where to begin when everything is so unfamiliar. But that was not entirely my case, so I patiently wait for the airplane entertainment system to resume so I can put this latest bit of information out of my mind once again.
Plane journeys rarely bother me, and for the most part this transatlantic flight is no exception. I am asleep well before takeoff, have two empty seats next to me that allows me to use a second tray table on which to place drinks while I use my own for more important matters like completing the in-flight magazine crossword or reading more of Cutting for Stone (in preparation, I should add, for a book club conversation with some sharp reading critics and even though the book was my choice, and even though I am fully with the plight of Sister Mary and wondering about Matron’s past, I allow my eyelids to close, not out of boredom but out of sheer exhaustion: once again, on the night before an important appointment — a presentation, meeting that I have organized, or travel with a definitive departure time — I have barely slept, too consumed was I with making sure the preparations for leaving had been carried out effectively). And like this, in between nodding off, drinking ample amounts of water, viewing two and half movies — and no, I did not expect to enjoy “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” as much as I did, although I suspect it had less to do with the story, which was ok, and much more to do with the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy who I find to be utterly charming and disarming in their portrayals of whatever character whose life they have animated on screen — reading bits of C4S (not my abbreviation, but I like it so I’m stealing it; thanks, sis), and pausing to appreciate the laughter of my row mate three seats over, who must have been watching a steady stream of comedic options while also reading The Economist (although perhaps he was laughing at the absurdity of the current state of world economics?), I arrive at the final fifteen minutes of the flight journey when suddenly a young woman dressed in a faded, Florida orange colored tee shirt designed somewhat like football jersey with the number 89 embroidered in white on the front, is being ushered into my row. My row. I have my crossword and pen in hand because the entertainment system has been switched off, and if anyone knows how the second half of “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” ends, please don’t tell me because I am now committed to learning the narrative conclusion of this sweet tale, as well; the girl in the orange top and long shorts, clutching a bag and wearing a grey backpack to match the dismal expression on her face, asks if I would mind sliding over so that she could sit on the aisle. I happily slide, put down the armrest that I had moved up earlier to allow myself the illusion of greater luxury, and fasten my seatbelt. To say my new row companion is flustered would be grossly underselling the lifetime of anxiety, nervousness, and fear that she appeared to be carrying on every inch of her, even after she set her large backpack on the ground in front of us, which the flight attendant promptly put in one of the overhead bins with space.
I kept it at my feet before, she starts to argue, worrying that she will miss her connecting flight to Chicago. The flight attendant is undeterred and so up goes the pack in the compartment just across from the young woman. My eyes remain fixed as ever on the crossword. What is a six letter word for morsel? Without encouragement or provocation (from me, that is) she begins: they told me when we boarded that I would make my connection. I’ve taken so many flights, this is the only one that’s ever been delayed. Ever, I desperately want to ask her with a half cocked eyebrow, but something stops me and this time I half-nod in an attempt to gesture toward communication without actually having to say anything. She continues: I should’ve gotten the woman’s name at Heathrow, but they probably know her. I have less than fifteen minutes to get through immigration, get and re-check my bags, and make it to the next flight. At this point, she is facing me, making no mistake that I am her intended and targeted audience. I am not immune to suffering so I turn to her and ask how far she must walk. Just to the next gate, she says, but quickly reminds me of the steps that precede this deceptively simple task: immigration and re-checking. The young woman continues to narrate her frustration, peppered with idle threat-like declarations aimed alternatively toward the airline and its workers, assertions about her past travels with countless other airlines, appall at being told that no agent would walk her to the front of the immigration line so that she could make her connection nor would the airline hold the plane for her. I interject this time, wondering aloud, less to her specifically and rather in a manner more akin to the out loud musings of someone who is prone to doing so, what logistics would be involved to personally escort each person with a connecting flight to the head of the immigration line. She pauses, but only for a second before educating me that while others may have connections, theirs are likely a few hours from the time we will land rather than mere minutes away. I am eager to bring this tedious exchange to a close as I find myself growing increasingly frustrated with the entitlement and superiority oozing from this young woman’s every word. Perhaps your flight to Chicago will be delayed, I say optimistically and also somewhat ruefully as I note how often the windy city has delayed my connections. I try to avoid it like the — but I’ve never been delayed in Chicago, she declares with authority. And I always into and out of there on time. Always. The word carries weight. At least four times and every time my flight has been on time, she says with affirmation. Oh, I think to myself, young in age, young in flying experience. And then it becomes clear. Someone is coming to meet her Chicago. “They” — never he or she, only they, as if she has adopted Sweden’s recent penchant for gender neutral pronouns — are driving four hours to pick her up, they are driving through rush hour traffic, they aren’t going to wait; parking in O’Hare is so expensive; they’re driving fours there and then back, to Iowa.
Oh, she’s afraid. Telling her that it’s not her fault, that “they” can’t be mad at her, and that perhaps she can buy “them” a nice dinner to ease the pain of waiting does nothing to assuage her anxiety. They — this time, the airlines — better pay for a private driver to drive me home because I know they (who is picking her up) are just going to go home.
She is afraid, of disappointing, of the wrath that she fears awaits her, of having to answer to someone when the events of the day are out of her control. And so she seeks bodies on which to place blame. First the agent in Heathrow who guaranteed her connection would not be missed. Next, the attendant who noted plainly that no special considerations would be made for bringing her to the front of the immigration line nor, in his opinion based on years of experience on the job, would they hold the plane for her, even though Norwegian Airlines did so when she very nearly missed one of her European connections earlier this month. And finally, in the immigration line where she ends up behind me even though she was the first one to fly out of the plane when the cabin door was opened, she continues to narrate out loud the injustices placed upon her by airlines and all the rest, and in the very midst of attempting to hasten this stage of the process, the girl in the orange tee shirt pauses in front of a woman wearing a badge, who is directing the passengers pouring out from the longer, snaking, single line to form short lines in front of the individual immigration officers’ booths, to ask for her name. The girl from Iowa in the orange tee shirt wants to write down this woman’s name, this woman who did not allow her to cut in line so that she could make her connection to Chicago. Curiously, the agent on the ground turns her name badge around in a manner that seems to obscure her name. She gestures toward a point far off to her right and tells the girl in orange from Iowa who is trying to make her flight to Chicago that she can go talk to her superviser if she wants, but that she is trying to do her job, and by the way everyone is trying to make a connection.
I pick a line and lose track of the frightened and frustrated girl in orange from Iowa flying to Chicago. I don’t know it then, but home is still a long time away — agents leave their booths, return mysteriously a short time later, switching lines only proves futile so I stay put in the second line after heat-infused-hubris gets the better of me once, bags make their way to one of three carousels making it seem as if baggage handlers were having their fun with us — so I stand quietly, occasionally check my phone that I have finally just switched back on after a two month hiatus, and think about the girl. And then about the impulse to blame, to judge, to evaluate all in the pursuit of a bastardized notion of justice; how much of it, I wonder, fully self-aware of my own tendencies to fall victim to these actions, is based upon fear? If this young woman did indeed miss her flight, she could have easily been rebooked for a later flight, but the travel was not the issue. The pick-up ride, the “they” who was driving four hours, was the root of her anxiety. So then, while standing and waiting with my fellow passengers for the plane’s worth of luggage to materialize on the accordion-like metal panels of the baggage carousel conveyer belt, my mind wanders and wonders about the girl some more. Was this a pleasure trip taken against the will of the mysterious “they”? Did she leave on bad terms? Is she returning to bad terms? Is she arriving or returning? Is she a “half empty” sort? Or “half empty” by circumstance, under protest; that, were one small thing to be different in her life, she might be a “half full” type?
Finally, suitcase, carry-on, and computer bag in hand, I prepare to brave the real heat outside. I can handle this, I think when the steam finally reaches the most inner capillaries and saturates me hot air inside and out. The taxi driver puts my suitcase in the trunk, shuts my door, settles into the left hand side driver’s seat and starts to leave the airport. To my left, a flight of the same airlines that brought me here is taking off and I wish a quiet good luck to the girl from Iowa. I hope she can handle it.