Love and Stuff at the Airport

It’s always confused me, in general, how in most public settings — the bar, the gym, the coffee shop — we’re trained to treat each other as inconvenient necessitates: don’t look, don’t inquire, finish your tasks and leave. Convince yourself strangers are not there. Say excuse me if they’re in your way, apologize if you step on their toe. But don’t talk.

The airport is sort of like that, too: hordes of people rushing to their appropriate terminal, silent and anxious while going through lines, quietly analyzing one another whilst avoiding eye contact. But it’s also a little different. Because, once you actually board the plane and take a look at the person seated next to you, it seems like fair game to not only engage, but deeply befriend this person — to act as if your meeting wasn’t necessarily premeditated, but not random, either.

One time, en route to San Francisco, I sat next to a middle aged woman with brown and blond curly hair. I placed my carry-on luggage onto the overhead bin, then took the seat beside her, gave her a quick glance and nodded hello. Once the plane took off, she turned my way. “Cookie?” she asked, holding a plastic bag of chocolate chip cookies. “Made ‘em myself,” she added.

“Sure,” I said. Quite good.

There were other notable people I sat next to, with whom I formed unique, temporary relationships: an accountant who advised me to apply to his firm, a tattooed Canadian guy who I helped formulate his breakup speech to end it with his girl, a French lady who taught me basic grammar, a doctor who I lured into free back-pain advice, a dude who told me he would totally help me publish my book, and a short-haired vegetarian who told me “she would, but I’m the wrong gender,” when I told her we should get dinner when we landed.

The consistency among these relationships is that they don’t exist on earth, literally and figuratively.

Another time I remember walking down the aisle, squeezing my way through, throwing out excuse-me’s and sorry’s generously. It was on September 11th, ten or eleven years after, and the effect lingered. Flight prices had dropped significantly: roundtrip to New York for $150. Were you willing to risk your life for the sake of a cheap flight, seemed to be the message here, and my answer was absolutely. Before take off, we had a thirty second silence in homage to 9/11, and I can remember feeling extremely anxious during it.

A Southwest Airlines flight means a flight with unassigned seating. A flight that I’d typically prioritize finding a window seat, swallow some downers and lay my head against the covered airplane window undisturbed. Walking down the aisle, hunting for this ideal seat, I unexpectedly spotted beauty instead and my bags got heavier. She had brown hair parted neatly down the middle, very pale skin and wore a purple sweater. She looked at me curiously, too, and nothing about her said: don’t sit here — a reaction I automatically assume when seeing a woman that pretty.

She sat in the window seat of her row, and the other two seats were vacant. Opposite to her, an entire available row, one of the last window seats left. I found myself in a moment of vicious indecision: sit next to hot girl or sleep? Feeling the swarm of people mumble and push from behind, I had to make a decision quickly. I packed my blue suitcase into the overhead bin and nervously took the aisle seat, not the middle, in her row, unsettled that she may have overheard the back and forth in my head. As luck would have it, a minute later a woman — the type of woman that leads you to think some people should be required to purchase two seats — came to our row.

“Oh boy,” she said, looking at me, then the vacant seat in-between me and purple sweater girl.

“Hi,” I said.

“Well, how about you scoot in, and I’ll take the aisle?” she asked, excited in tone. We followed then plan and I moved a seat over, and here seemed like the incumbent moment to introduce myself. We spoke a little, and her unreasonable beauty made sense: she was a cheerleader for the Seattle Seahawks. We traded stories of being NFL fans, where we went to school and such. She told me about how she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, and I nodded enthusiastically, asked her about her interests.

“And you?” she asked.

And I said I, too, was trying to figure it out, but in the meantime I wanted wine. She laughed and said okay and we split a small bottle of white. When we landed, we walked through JFK, continued the conversation. She was in town for a friend’s wedding. She told me she would have a tough time this weekend acting happy for her friend when in reality, all she felt was anxiety over her own engagement: would she ever meet the right person?

“Just use ‘em for the booze and food,” I advised, and she said of course she would. We got our bags, and she may have even hugged me, perhaps an effect of the wine. I didn’t realize until we stood next to each other how petite she was. Barely five feet tall. We promised to “hit each other up and def meet up in the city,” but you know how that goes.

My most memorable airport interaction occurred when I missed a flight to Washington DC. It had a lot to do with pride: I was trying to prove to my mom, my ride to LAX, that you don’t need to act like a mentally disturbed person, or rush like the world is ending and show up to the airport three hours early for a domestic flight — something I had to put up with during adolescence. “Forty-five minutes will do,” I said.

“OK,” she said, smiling. “You watch and see.”

Now my eventual missing of the flight, I will state to to this day, was not due to ill judgment, so much as it was sheer unluckiness. LAX had just never been so busy. It was a madhouse, thousands of people shouting and scrambling, airport employees trying their best to shout over the hordes of people and assemble them into neat lines — attempts entirely fruitless.

I had thirty minutes to maneuver my way through this psychotic onslaught, borderline house rave, of security lines. People were vicious and suspicious of anybody trying to cut, and some nearly broke out in fight. I managed to beg one employee to allow to slice through half of the security line with profuse pleas, but even still, I wasn’t close. I hoped for a flight delay, but of course, you only get delays when you need to be somewhere early. These things rarely happen your way. I didn’t make it to my gate until 9:03, with a flight time of 8:50, and the gate was locked up. “Not a chance. Plane’s about to tip,” said the lady in response to my pleas, hair tied neatly below a sturdy American Airlines pilot cap. To this day I’ll never understand the mayhem. It wasn’t even a particularly eventful weekend — sometime in March.

So, I started wandering. Let me tell you: walking around terminals aimlessly on a lack of sleep is hard on the nerves. When you miss a flight, it’s a free for all. Nobody cares about you. Your live ticket is like a gold way ticket to customer service almost giving a shit. Without a ticket, you’re basically a beggar.

“Shoulda come earlier,” customer service said.

I knew that if I called my mom I’d be met with schadenfreude, which I had too much pride to bear. I’d suck it up and figure this out on my own. Customer service informed me that I’d be on stand-by, and the next flight to DC would take off in six hours. Six hours to do what?

At first I was afraid. And petrified. But then I started enjoying the experience: the uncertainty, intrigue! Would I ever make it to DC? Would I become Tom Hanks in the terminal? I had a Bukowski novel with me, and rummaging through the small pockets of my backpack, half a pill of 20 mg adderall, which I promptly swallowed with bathroom water. I read half the Bukowski novel, and then, five hours later, when I got hungry, I ate Wendy’s.

At 4 o’clock came the long awaited stand-by flight, and my name was seventh on stand-by. They announced the four names before mine, one by one, to board. My heart pounding, I nervously asked the attendants, “Do you think I’m going to make it?” but they ignored me. Eventually, one of them shook their head at me, and the grim news became clear. Then they made the announcement that they’d offer $400 to whoever chose to hand over their seat, and get the next flight out. There were two girls about to board, twenty-somethings, and they entertained the idea in unison. The two hugged, then one of them boarded the plane, and the other retreated to the terminal. They called the next person on stand-by and that was it.

The reps told me the next flight to DC would be in four more hours, and that one wasn’t “oversold” so I’d have a better chance. I went back to my seat and started reading. The girl who’d surrendered her seat then took the seat next to mine. I let some time pass to not make it so obvious that I’d observed the entire dynamic. Then, succumbing to ennui, I had no choice but to speak up.

“Is your friend going to be mad at you?” I asked.

She turned and smiled.

“No, we were just on a trip together for two weeks. We got sick of each other. She’s probably happy.”

“I see.” And, for whatever reason, talking to her felt very easy. I told her my story about missing my flight, the shame that comes with walking around terminals for seven hours, but also how I’ve been trying to use my time to be adventurous and read Bukowski.

“If you missed your flight, why are you so giddy?” she asked.

“Well, I’m on adderall. Forgot to tell you that. But more than that, I don’t know, it’s just exciting. Like, what’s going to happen? I’m basically stranded here. It’s sad, but this is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to me — my grandparents escaped the middle east on camels, my dad lived in Houston without knowing English, but me? I grew up in Los Angeles.”

She giggled and told me the point was a little far-fetched, but still made sense. She told me she reminded me of her boyfriend, which excited me at first, but then thrown off, when she showed me a picture of his acne-ridden face. Things weren’t going too well with him, anyway. She said he was too nervous and anxious all the time, and often became clingy — and I said yeah, maybe the resemblance made sense. In any event, she didn’t know how long it was going to last.

Her name was Shauna and she was from Jersey. We spent the next four hours until the next flight hanging out, trading stories. We watched two episodes of Californication, one headphone bud into her ear, the other into mine, our legs pushed into each others over the dirty terminal carpet. It was the BlackBerry age, and we took turns sharing the charger, which was hers. My charger was in DC; I had checked it in before missing the first flight. Hopefully I’d get it back one day.

If she was attracted to me she didn’t show it, and I didn’t particularly like her that way, either. But she had a simple, unassuming quality to her.

Some airports have all right food, but LAX doesn’t. I forced myself to eat Wendy’s again, and after that, it was time to board the 10 PM to DC. I did some math, nodding to myself that I’d been at the airport for fifteen hours.

Before boarding, they called up Shauna, and she got a boarding pass. Plain and simple. Then they put up the stand-by list, and I was second on it. I asked them about my odds of getting on the plane, but they acted like they didn’t hear it. Not surprising, airport people are like robots who are manufactured to not being allowed to give you any positive news. If I didn’t make this flight, I told myself, screw pride: I’d go home.

“I’ll stay here until they call you. I have faith,” Shauna said.


To my fortune, and without much drama now, they called my name, and I boarded, elated, side by side with Shauna. A certain gratefulness overcame me, too, realizing that in five hours I’d be across the United States of America. How do these planes even fly?

She boarded the plane walking in front of me. Our seats weren’t next to each others’; hers was in the middle of the 747, and mine was farther in the back. I helped her place her luggage up top. I thought about asking the person sitting next to her to switch seats with me — a question that requires just the right amount of begging and manipulation, which I’m somehow good at. But something told me this was a wrap. This day of adventure, unrest, disappointment, adderall, a new friend, and eventual triumph, ended here. “We made it,” I told her, and she smiled. We gave each other a nice hug, a great hug, one that culminated this whole set of weird, random airport events into something warm and lasting; then I sat, and we were off, up in the air.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Jeremy Ely’s story.