I’ve always loved airports. When I was younger, I lived not too far away from one. At night I would lay in bed, my mind whirling with thoughts of the things that my days held, and I’d listen to them takeoff and land and imagine where they were going or where they were coming from, who was on board, what they’d done, what they’d seen. Every time I drove past the airport, every time I laid in bed, listening to a takeoff reminded me that the world stretched beyond my current conditions. Every time the engines roared overhead, I felt hope.
I’m extremely aware of the click of my heels on the linoleum and the burn in my thighs indicative of the consequences of their height combined with my pace. The muscles in my neck knot around each other, the familiar stress of my everyday life returning and tangling itself around each sinew, twisting. Behind me, someone says my name, low and intimate, followed by a sigh. I tense because no one knows I’m here.
I remember once, First Love and I drove out to the end of a new runway they were building as part of the expansion of the airport. We sat outside that night under the expanse of indigo sky, and talked, laughed, kissed. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. The Sasha Thumper in me replied, “Alive.”
I turn my head quickly enough for the knots in my neck to snatch. It’s not me that’s being addressed but rather a tiny girl in a red sweater a few feet away. Standing in front of her is a guy clutching a jacket to his chest, staring at her like she is the thing that’s been missing from his life. I sigh at how absurd I’m being, how foolish, my heart pounding wildly in my chest, suddenly out of breath. I’d laugh at myself but I’m tired. I’m so tired. I curl up on the bench closest to me, my feet tucked underneath my legs and lean my head back on the wall. Deep breaths. I have no choice but to have the strength to carry myself forward.
I studied world history in the fifth grade, and it was the only book I remember taking home every night whether I had homework in it or not. I’d study all the places, all the name of cities and important landmarks, the languages, the pictures, so enraptured in world different from my own. I didn’t know how, but I was going to figure out how to see every place in every picture in that book. When we moved near the airport that fall, on the heels of yet another destruction, I took it as a sign that I was moving in the right direction. The airport represented promise.
“Please,” he says, almost begging, his eyes tight at the corners with grief. “I don’t want you to go.” She folds herself into his massive arms, tears hanging close to the edges of her long lashes, threatening to fall south.
“I don’t want to go either.”
I’m reeling at how eerily similar this conversation is to one that I had not even twenty four hours ago. My heart constricts in my chest. I know I shouldn’t be watching but I can’t possibly look away.
“So don’t. Don’t leave me. Please,” he mumbles into the heavy fall of her red hair. I hear her sniffles and know her face is red just like my own even with her entire front being crushed against his broad frame.
“I have to. Please don’t do this. I have to.”
“You don’t. Stay with me. Everything else we can work out. Just stay.” His words are so forceful, so convicted that I can’t help but mentally urge her silently to stay.
“I can’t. Don’t do this.”
“You can. You don’t want to.”
“Of course I do! What are you talking about? You know why I can’t. It just isn’t that easy.”
“But it can be. And any other complications we can work out together.” At the mention of that word, I see her face change. I watch her turn inward, disentangle herself from her embrace. Her jaw clinches.
“I’m gonna miss my flight,” she says to him, her voice even and emotionless.
The first time I left the country, I cried for the first hour of the twelve hour flight. I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I couldn’t believe that despite all the curve balls that had been thrown my way, I was on a plane on my way to Paris. I’d done it. I’d taken a step. It wasn’t just a promise anymore.
He looks at her and I can see his heart breaking as he regards the change in her. He bites the inside of his jaw, and shuffles his weight back and forth before settling squarely on his two feet, trying hard to fight the tremble in his voice.
“We can’t-” he falters- “we can’t keep doing this. We can’t continue forever this way. It’s been years. And every time, every SINGLE time, it gets harder. What else do I have to do? I have faith; why don’t you?” I can see her mind clicking behind her eyes, rushing to put together a reason that can cool off the emotional heat of this moment.
“My life just isn’t-“
They are silent, his eyes wide with sorrow, the muscles in her limbs twitching and jerking at the urge to run. They stare at each other for a long moment, silently communicating the thing they both know but won’t say. He sighs first.
“If your life is the way you want it to be, if this is the way you need it to be, that’s fine. For you. But I,” he flings his arms out to his sides, surrendering to the thing he probably thought he’d never say, “I can’t keep doing this to myself. It’s too much.” He pauses for her reaction. She is perfectly still, silent.
“Ok. Ok,” the second one a studder step behind the first and barely audible above the morning travellers rushing around completely oblivious to the heartbreak unfolding in front of them. He throws the jacket on the ground and pulls her to him so suddenly, so hard, that I gasp out loud. He crushes her with a kiss that seems to charge the air swirling around him. He lets her go and steps away, his eyes sweeping her over and gathering mist in the outer corners.
“I have to go. I love you. But I have to go.” And with that he vanishes into the crowd of rushed footsteps and rolling luggage.
Being at the airport always represented a sort of freedom that I have longed for all my life. I remember the dreams of that little fifth grader and for the longest, it seemed like I was on track to achieve them. And somewhere along the way I got stuck in survival mode. And I can’t seem to quite get out of it. And the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve lived, the more things have gotten in the way. My outlook has begun to change. Maybe it isn’t promise at all. All around, people are saying goodbyes, some final goodbyes, heartbreak hanging high in the beams in the ceilings. No matter where you go in life, on some level, you’re leaving someone.
She stands there for awhile, not moving, barely breathing as far as I can tell. When the last piece of fabric from his coat vanishes on the other side of the glass doors, I hear her gasp. She breaks down suddenly, the entire weight of what just happened crashing down on her, buckling her knees. She stumbles to a seat a few away from my own where I have been a silent voyeur, her face wet with tears, wiping her cheeks as rapidly as I am wiping my own. She wraps her arms around herself, sobbing, gasping for air. She feels my eyes on her and turns to me, taking in my wet face and red eyes.
“I should have stayed,” she says, barely above a whisper and I nod. She cries harder.
In that moment, I think back over the last few days, tears streaming down my face. I want so badly to push myself up, to compartmentalize what I’m feeling and go about my day as usual, but I just can’t seem to. I push my palm into the left side of my chest, silently pleading with my heart to stop breaking. I double over. I think of seafood and candles. I think of random homeless people and feather comforters. I think of wine and embraces, of kisses on my shoulders and turkey burgers and cheese fries. I think of mid-afternoon naps and hot showers, of late night emotional eating, and laughter, of text messages from across the table, and constant plotting. I can’t help but smile through my tears.
I think of Tuscany, Jamaica, Chicago, Italy, San Francisco, Greece. I think of Dubai and Puerto Rico.
I think of Spain.
And I can’t stop crying. Because I can’t help but wonder if every first step starts with some kind of goodbye.
Laying in bed later that night, I was once again that little girl that lived near the airport, contemplating the places she would go. The difference now is that I’ve lived enough to recognize that my childhood longings weren’t about freedom; they were about escape. And really, there is no running. You can only choose where you want to be miserable if you leave. On some level, if you don’t say goodbye, you are always a slave to what you left behind.