You can never step into the same airport twice. At its fundamental level, an airport is in constant flux with a different batch of travelers passing through every hour. This is why airports are fun places to people-watch, providing fascinating glimpses into a diverse mix of psyches.
- How do we prepare to be jettisoned through the air while crammed into a metal tube?
- What possessions do we deem important enough to carry with us?
- Can we love someone at take-off and hate them by the time we land?
Most airports have terminals offering lounges, bars, and restaurants to while away the hours. For the traveler on a long layover, these purgatories are at first a welcome respite, a spot to stop and relax. But as the hours' trickle by, these oases can turn into torture chambers of indefinite waiting alongside fellow passengers.
Hell is not other people. Hell is other people in an airport.
It’s 2016 and I’m sitting in a café in FCO Rome, waiting on a connecting flight to Spain. I’m sipping a prosecco and reading a book when the couple walks in. They’ve been together for a long time but they do not like each other. I watch them along with some of my fellow airport voyeurs and imagine their backstory while I wait for my flight.
Claudia had always wanted to be rich. When she realized, mostly due to her mother’s incessant reminders, she wasn’t going to achieve this on her own, she began contemplating a beneficial marriage. It was the 1970s and women were changing the world, but Claudia wasn’t ready for the world to change. She was going to marry a millionaire. She dyed her hair, maintained perfectly manicured fingers and toes, straightened her teeth, dieted as religion, and read articles on how to be charming. She practised her smile in the mirror and took elocutionary lessons to mitigate the nasal tones of her Minnesota childhood. She was fashionable but not trendy, and always elegant. Looking in the mirror the night she would meet her future husband at a dinner party, she approved of her appearance.
“Mother was right, I will never be gorgeous but I can pass the muster for a rich man’s wife.”
With that thought, she turned from her mirror and turned off the light in her bedroom.
The man who was to be her beau, fiancé and eventual husband is Harold White. His surname fits him — plain and pale. For over 100 years, the Whites had been known for their impressive affluence and their weak chins. The White family photos in his parents’ Weston, Massachusetts estate display a long line of people with necks that became faces with only subtle hints of a jaw.
Harold looked decidedly average with Crayola brown hair that was thin and wispy and had been threatening to fall out since the first day it sprouted on his head. His eyes were close together and also Crayola brown. He was the exact same width from his shoulders to just above his knees, before his legs descended precariously into spindles with shoes. He was, however, born rich.
His mother, another paragon of matronly advice, told her only son, “Go to university and then take respectable employment before you consider marriage. By the time you are 25 the prettiest and most vapid girls will have married, but you will find a good wife by trading on our family currency.”
He liked the phrase ‘family currency’ and would use it, at times, when trying to impress an attractive woman. He’d throw out the phrase, hoping the woman would pick up on the fact that the currency was there to be inherited, shared, and spent both socially and monetarily.
So, when Harold met Claudia at a friend’s dinner party, he was 29 and she was 25. He had taken his mother’s advice and boasted wealth and clout, both of which were appreciating. For those two commodities, Claudia was willing to trade desire. Their courtship was vanilla but amiable, and they were married within 16 months, on June 2, 1979.
It should be noted the only people who thought Claudia wasn’t pretty were her mother, Harold, and Claudia herself.
It is now 2016 and the years treated Claudia well. Her graceful mature figure catches the eyes of several men when she walks by. The wrinkles of time gave her a sophisticated guise. She looks worldly. But, her closeness to Harold has been less kind. Bitterness crept into the sugar of her voice, and her eyes are wide and active like a person frantically scanning the room for any sign of a trap.
Harold has gone from an unshapely boy to a lumpy man, although his voice developed the gravitas of a person used to having others listen to him. His brown hair is gone, except for a brush on each temple, and his potato body now looks more mashed than boiled.
They had two sons, both in their early thirties and both more imposing than their father. Claudia had wanted to try again for a daughter, but Harold deemed their efforts sufficient.
This couple, doomed since the night Claudia allowed Harold’s hand to slide up her skirt while she fantasized about a suburban mansion, plays out their sad vignette during a layover in Rome.
They enter the airport café bickering about where to sit. The early hour leaves almost every possible seat available but this only brings out festering contempt. The mutual disdain they’ve cultivated over 37 years is impressive even to the dapper Italian businessmen in tailored suits.
This trip was supposed to be enjoyable, a break from the monotony of their country club New England life. However, the isolation away from the distractions with which they normally filled their schedules only highlighted the fissures in their coupledom. Harold had never really loved Claudia as much as he appreciated having a wife who wouldn’t embarrass him. Claudia had never really loved Harold as much as she adored the commas in his bank account. They each benefited from their transaction, and to Claudia, these lavish trips were part of the deal. He owed her these for tolerating his malignant indifference to her.
Harold had decided during their honeymoon in Malaga, Spain there were many more attractive women he should have pursued. He regretted never spending time abroad and perhaps marrying a beautiful Spanish woman. Each time they traveled, he would note all the pretty ladies who were obligated to be nice to him due to their employment at hotels, airports, and bars. To make matters worse, Harold didn’t possess the decency to hide such thoughts from Claudia.
She has been waiting for him to ask for divorce since the day they first walked on the beach together in Malaga. She resented him for making her feel expendable and that resentment fostered a self-loathing for her inability to demand a divorce. She reconciled herself to a marriage without love but at least she had the house, the Mercedes, and the breath-taking walk-in closets.
She scoffs at the naïve, young Claudia and her love of poetry. That girl thought she would find true love. That girl then matured into a woman who decided love is nice, but it’s Oscar de la Renta and Stella McCartney that hold a marriage together. Today, she’s wearing her favorite pantsuit for the trip home, a black ODLR with a white blouse. It’s a practical choice for the flight. She has layers for warmth and her suit doesn’t wrinkle, unlike her husband’s. Harold always looks wrinkled. Even with the stylish, new suits, she buys for him, the moment he puts them on he looks as if he slept in them.
Nicco has been watching the couple since they entered the cafe’s dining area. He’s flying from Rome to Budapest today. He’s an Italian man, in his late-50s, with salt and pepper hair, olive skin, and intense green eyes. He’s impeccably dressed in a grey blazer, white shirt, and black trousers. He sizes up the couple as they stand in the middle of the room. The woman, pretty and refined, could be from anywhere, but the volume of their conversation suggests they are American. He peeks from just above the rim of his espresso at the melodrama playing out before him.
The poor woman looks tired. She needs a break from her life and perhaps a lover other than this man. Nicco listens to their bickering as his eyes fall back onto his newspaper. This couple must be finishing their holiday. So much vitriol only comes from a pressure cooker of proximity. He adjusts the white French cuff of his shirt emerging from the slate grey sleeve of his blazer while focusing on Claudia’s voice.
“For God’s sake, Harold, just pick a table!”
She’s standing with perfect posture made even more erect by her efforts to choke back a scream. Claudia clutches her breakfast tray in a white-knuckle grip and closes her eyes.
Harold meanders to one of the open tables. He doesn’t look back at Claudia. He walks to the table knowing she will fall in line. He sets his tray down and sits, immediately unfolding the napkin containing his flat wear. Claudia looks to a table closer to the window and back to Harold as she walks to him. She sighs loudly and sets down her tray. As she sits, she glances at the other table once more.
Once seated, Harold doesn’t look up from his plate. He has a couple of croissants, two sunny-side-up eggs, and a few sausages to occupy him. Claudia stares at him as the crumbs from the first bite of croissant fall into his lap. She has half a grapefruit on her plate, next to a sliced tomato, and a smattering of feta cheese. She doesn’t reach for her napkin; she only stares at Harold with a rage that dissolves into a welling of sadness along her lower lashes.
Nicco looks into Claudia’s eyes and gives a faint wince when he sees her grievances bubbling into tears. This woman doesn’t exist to the man she calls Harold. Harold drops more crumbs into his lap as Nicco’s gaze pans in his direction. ‘This Harold eats croissants as if they’ve wronged him,’ thinks Nicco. He drops his eyes back to his newspaper but cannot keep himself from stealing peeks at Claudia. She hasn’t moved since she sat down. She only stares at Harold and defiantly keeps her tears from trailing down her cheeks. She might be a statue if it weren’t for the occasional tremble that rumbles through her body, threatening her composure.
“Are we over, Harold?” Claudia’s dispassionate tone almost masks the quiver that trips over his name.
Harold doesn’t look up as his knife screeches across the plate, eliciting a nasty look from the young woman two tables over, dressed all in black with thick eyeliner who has been ignoring this scene as she sipped her coffee.
Maybe it was the scraping of Harold’s knife that dislodged one of Claudia’s tears. It slipped discretely from her right eye, trailing off into nothingness as it moved past her upper lip.
Nicco noticed Claudia made no move to wipe the tear away. Perhaps this was the price she paid to Harold? Tears. Shame washed over Nicco for the pity he felt for this woman. He didn’t approve of the public display of their domestic woes, but he also hated to see such a woman waste her life with a man like this.
Claudia continued staring at Harold as she tempered the urge to ante up another drop of emotion.
“Is this done, Harold?”
Her voice cracked when she said this. Another tear fell, not because of misery but because of anger. Her voice betrayed her vulnerability. She didn’t think she loved him but she wasn’t sure how to live without him. She watched as Harold furiously cut up one sausage and then the other, moving them in quick succession past his lips.
When all the food was gone from his plate, Harold pushed the tray forward, bumping it lightly into Claudia’s. He wiped off his mouth and tossed the napkin on the tray as well. With his tongue, he worked a bit of sausage from behind his canine and then loosed a deep, deliberate sigh, indicating he’d eaten all he could. He never once shifted his eyes up toward his wife.
Nicco muttered under his breath before rattling his paper in his hands, flexing out the wrinkle in the page with more intention than was necessary. Harold wasn’t going to say it to her here in the café, but all the people nearby suspected it was over, except for me. Harold had eaten his fill with Claudia, but I didn’t think he would push her away like a café tray. She was his possession.
A woman’s voice comes over the intercom, announcing the boarding of a flight headed to Spain. It was time for me to stop speculating about Harold and Claudia and fly away.
From my corner, I’d watched them and I’d watched Nicco watch them. I finished my glass of prosecco then placed my neglected book in the front pocket of my bag.
I stood and double-checked to make sure I had everything. My layover was complete and I’d be leaving soon. As I exited the café, I looked back with morbid curiosity. Harold was still staring down at his empty plate and Claudia was staring at Harold with a fresh assortment of tears tucked into her eyes. It didn’t matter if they were coming or going. They were locked into an interminable holding pattern.
I left them in the café, but their exchange stayed with me, a bitter aftertaste the prosecco couldn’t wash away. It’s not too late, Claudia.
Perhaps hell is simply other people after all.