The Girl at the Gate
You were the person I never should have seen. Someone whose presence, I never should have felt. Someone whose voice I never should have heard. It would have been that way if all had gone according to your plan. But it didn’t.
We were outside the strategically McDonald’s in international arrivals at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, surrounded by foreigners looking to get their first, presumably disappointing, taste of American cuisine. I had yet to see you for my sole focus was on reaching my destination. But now that I was here with nowhere to be for the better part of an hour, my mind, and eyes began to wander.
That’s when I saw you. Standing in the space between the line for payphones and for food but not apart of either. You were not perusing the menu or phone book but you were just, standing. Alone. Then I saw that you were crying — or at least you had been. The your eyes were glazed over, the skin around them red and puffy.
What was strange to me was not that you caught my attention but that held onto it. You commanded it. It wasn’t your looks, though that’s not to say you weren’t pretty. And it wasn’t as if you were doing anything out of the ordinary. No, it was because you didn’t belong.
Everyone around us had a role. There were people holding signs and flowers beneath a giant sign that read “Welcome to Chicago” as they embraced their loved ones exiting customs. Airport employees gathered around a trash can habitually checking their phones for notifications to distract them from their mundane work day. There’s the lady working the currency exchange counter doing her best impression of someone not fighting the urge to sleep. Even I had a role as the youthful traveler with earbuds in, trying to avoid all social interaction. But, like dancers colliding during a musical number, you were a glaring flaw in this otherwise-perfect charade.
Then you saw me. I had been staring for too long and something in your mind told you to look back at me. I glanced away as if you only caught my attention briefly as I was sweeping the room. You were not fooled and, with great shame, my eyes returned to yours. You were not angered or annoyed but entirely unmoved by my rudeness. Your look wasn’t one that said, “what are you looking at?” but something to the effect of “seen what you’ve wanted to see?”
I hadn’t. I hadn’t quite solved the puzzle that is you. Why were you here? You didn’t have any bags so you weren’t a passenger. You obviously weren’t an employee, given your current attire. And you weren’t waiting for someone because if you were, you’d be with them or by the other sign-wielding families waiting eagerly. There wasn’t any excitement in you. Just, fatigue and sadness.
Then you did something unexpected. You starting walking towards me.
“You got any quarters? I gotta make a call,” you said.
“What?” I heard you clearly. I was just unsure how to respond.
“I said, you got any quarters? I gotta make a call,” you repeated. Your voice just as monotone and disinterested as before, if not a slight bit slower.
There was no please, or preemptive thank you. You didn’t even really ask for me to give you said quarters if I had any. I could’ve easily have said no and ended this entirely uncomfortable affair. But, I didn’t.
“Uh yeah” I said, pulling my wallet out from my back pocket. From it, I collected six quarters and placed them into your outstretched hand. You gave a slight nod of acknowledgement or possibly a thank you and turned to the payphones. Before you could reach them, a police officer appeared in front of you.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I’m gonna make a call” you replied, spoken with the same degree of indifference as you had with me. “I get one phone call right?” The officer’s expressionless face tightened, unamused.. He then gave me a questioning look, to which I gave a slight shrug to show that I wasn’t a victim of thievery or extortion. Apparently satisfied, he turned his attention back to you.
“Go ahead” he gestured to the phone with his head. You slid past him and began feeding my quarters into the phone before punching the number into the keys. I took this opportunity to turn away from you and the police officer, to re-enter my blissful state of isolation and ignorance. This attempt was short lived as the sound of the phone slamming onto the receiver caused me to whirl back around.
“What?” Asked the cop, who had turned away to answer questions about the city from an old couple who appeared to be from India.
“They didn’t answer” you replied following a deep, frustrated sigh.
“Ah well, you got anyone else you can call?” He asked. You shook your head. “Anyone you can go to?” Your eyes darted back and forth, evaluating potential answers as if they were spelled out on the floor beneath you.
“I got an aunt who lives on the South Side, but she don’t have no car.”
“I can see if I can get an officer to take you there. Does that work?”
You were hesitant to answer, but eventually, you gave a slight nod and the officer began speaking into his radio.
I don’t know what compelled me to do this, if I let my curiosity get the best of me or if I was inspired by your initial forwardness, but I then approached you. You glanced up and a quick look of confusion flashed across your face before it returned to its original, somber state. The same mysterious force that made me walk up to you also made me ask, “you alright?”
“Yeah,” you mumbled. I had every reason to simply say “okay” and move along with my day but I didn’t.
“Rough day?” You gave an incredulous look in response and I felt my ears begin to burn.
“Uh, yeah, you could say that.” The cop, still speaking to whomever was on the other side of the radio, saw me next to you and gave me a curious once-over before returning to his conversation.
“You waiting for someone?” You asked me, after a brief silence.
“Nah, just waiting for the bus.”
“Where you fly in from?”
“Uh, Nepal. Well, technically Abu Dhabi but that was just a layover.”
“Nepal?” You said, with a slightly mocking tone “Whadya do over there?”
“Volunteering. Teaching English.”
“That must’ve been cool” your gaze shifted back to the ground before you.
“What about you? You waiting for someone?”I asked, after a time.
“Nope, didn’t fly in from anywhere either.” I paused, trying to think of the best way to ask this next question. The question I’ve been asking myself the entire time. “So, why are you in arrivals for then?”
“It’s warm” I nodded as if that was an answer I’ve heard before. You continued before I could ask a follow up. “My boyfriend and I got into a fight. Didn’t have nowhere else to go so I came here”
“How long you been here?”
“Why?” I asked. You shrugged.
“Airport is open 24/7, it’s easy to blend in.”
“How did you eat?”
You nodded towards the McDonald’s counter where an employee was shouting “Number 76” repeatedly with more annoyance in her voice at each iteration. “I’d pretend the orders were mine,” you said.
“Clever.” You shrugged again. “What are you going to do now?” I asked.
“Dunno, I’m just glad I ain’t in cuffs.”
“Damn.” We shared the silence for a short time.
“Well, is there anything I can do to help?” I offered.
“You got a phone?”
“Uh yeah, here.” I pulled my phone from my pocket and handed it to you.
“Thanks.” Your fingers flew across the screen. I was expecting you to make a call but it was instead evident that you were typing a very long text message. You gave a quick inhale, tapped once more and handed me my phone back, with a nod of acknowledgement. At the same time, the police officer had finished his discussion with the station and started walking towards us.
“You got a girlfriend?” You asked suddenly.
“Yeah, a fiancée actually” I said, surprised by your question.
“Good for you.” You said as the cop stopped in front of us.
“A car’s coming and it’ll pick you up by departures. I can take you there if you want.”
“Sounds good,” you said before turning back to me.
“You take care of that fiancée and treat her right, ‘kay?”
“Good,” you glanced down then back up at me. “Thanks for the phone,” you paused, “and the change.” Then you began walking with the officer out the door — just like that, you were gone. The scene had been restored and every role resumed accordingly, as if you never existed.
The feeling of my phone buzzing in my hand brought me back and I glanced at the screen to see that I had a text message from an unsaved number. Instinctually I opened the message. All it said was:
YOU OKAY? WAS IT BAD? ARE YOU HURT? I CAN HAVE DAD COME GET YOU TOMORROW. DO YOU NEED MONEY OR FOOD? WE LOVE YOU.
Confused, I looked up at the previous message, the one you sent.
HEY MA, IT’S JEAN. SHAUN AND ME GOT INTO A FIGHT AGAIN. WE’RE DONE. GOING TO AUNTIE SUE’S TONIGHT. IM SORRY. SHOULDA LISTENED. HE’S AN ASSHOLE YOU WERE RIGHT. TELL DAD I’M SORRY TOO. IMMA COME HOME.
Jean. Not the name I would’ve guessed for you but, oddly it fits. I started typing out a message to your mom about how you used my phone and left but I was interrupted by another message, again from an unknown number. This message was simple:
I opened this conversation and saw the message you sent.
HI SHAUN, IT’S JEAN. WE’RE DONE.
Another message came through as soon as I finished reading.
BABE, DON’T DO THIS. WE CAN WORK IT OUT. I’M SORRY.
I KNOW I FUCKED UP. DONT GO I’M SORRY
I typed out a response, deleted and retyped the message several times, trying to get it just right. I took a moment to consider the morality of my actions, disregarded, and sent the message.
Short, simple, to the point. Just like you. I immediately blocked the number before he could respond. Then I opened the conversation with your mother. Should I say anything here? What would you, Jean, want? Might as well do what I did before:
I’M OKAY. IT’S NOT BAD. YES, DAD CAN COME GET ME.
I almost sent the message before I reconsidered and added another line.
I LOVE YOU GUYS.
I pushed send and locked my phone. Would you ever know that I sent Shaun and your mother messages? Probably. Will you be mad when you find out? Doubtful. We’ll never see each other again and you’ll probably never know my name. But, I hope that you will get better and whatever it was that made you cry would go away.
My phone buzzed one last time. Another text message.
WE LOVE YOU TOO.
There was nothing left to do besides block the number, an action I hesitated to execute. What if they had more questions? To be fair, it was not like I could answer them. I had only just learned your name. Then I thought about maybe calling the next week, see if you were okay. But you withheld your name for a reason. You didn’t want me to know who you were or where you were going. To you, I was nothing more than a more decent than most man at the airport. But to me, you were a force that took me by the shoulders and shook me awake from the isolated sleep I had put myself in. I was blind to those around me. Blind to their needs, their hopes and desires. I reduced my fellow humans to simply obstacles that stood between me and my destination.
“Take care of your fiancée,” you said. I have been told this many times but never have those words felt so heavy. Have I been blind to her? To my family? Have I been so wrapped up in my destination that I have developed a sort of tunnel vision? Perhaps. I took this trip halfway around the world by myself for a sense of adventure and some romanticized idea of personal growth. But in this very moment I only felt one thing. Loneliness. I missed my family more than ever in this current moment, as you likely missed yours.
“Three-forty-seven!” came a shrill voice, awakening me from my internal debate. Why did that number mean something to me?
“Three-forty-seven!” the voice bellowed again, louder and more annoyed. My food! I had completely forgotten about my order. I raised my receipt and said, “here” as I squeezed between people to get to the counter.
“Sorry about that,” I muttered, grabbing my bag. The employee gave a disgusted shake of her head before shouting the next number. I sat down on a nearby bench and begun unwrapping my breakfast. I took a bite of the lukewarm Egg McMuffin. It was overly salty, mushy and incredibly unhealthy, but it tasted better than ever because I was finally home.
And yes, Jean, I will take care of my fiancee, I promise.