I have a history of meeting men at airports.
Last week I was waiting in the hot beverage line during a break at a community program when another attendee I had never before seen powerwalked in the direction of the back exit before veering off course and coming to stand in front of me to provide a monologue about options he considered for hand surgery after a work accident, a subject that had only a sliver of relevance to the program. I was prepared; this kind of thing has happened many times before.
I refer to them as my special people. A friend says I must have a sign on my forehead proclaiming, “I CARE.” My wife finds trips to the grocery store with me to be too time-consuming. She will leave me alone for a moment to get canned beans from the next aisle and when she returns someone will be with me, telling me a story, usually a long one.
Women I have never met have told me their secrets in public bathrooms as I emerge from a stall and attempt to wash my hands. (One woman wanted to share her enthusiasm for the salads at a national restaurant chain, rhapsodizing about the ratio of ingredients and the inclusion of pitted black olives, the same amount each time, something she could rely on in a world of chaos. I surreptitiously checked for other feet in stalls, but I was the only other occupant of the ladies room that day. Another told me, in agonizing detail, about the hatred she has felt for her breasts since they first erupted on her chest as a young teen.) Two people at a training session where I presented as a guest speaker came up afterwards to tell me about the devastating losses in their lives (completely unrelated to the topic) and hug me while the other presenters looked on in askance. Women in dressing rooms have told me about husbands who have left them, mothers who have died, and babies who have slipped away. One day at work, a man strode past the front desk and directly into my office, completely bypassing the receptionist, to share his story of returning to Earth. I was not clear on his meaning, but he was certainly energized by his tale and I hope I listened in a compassionate way. He seemed satisfied with our interaction, walking out confidently with a reflective smile and a friendly wave.
As for the men in airports, I am fairly certain these individuals do not seek me out due to any conventional ideas they may have about physical attractiveness. I am short and round (or “fluffy” as my young niece once called me) with a nearly perpetual rosacea flare. My clothing leans toward serviceable, my haircut has been selected for ease of maintenance, and you will not find me in stilettos, or eye liner. I do, however, care about being clean and being kind, qualities that perhaps make their own sort of attraction.
Making a solo flight as a girl several decades ago, I sat down next to the window on a less-than-full flight with my teddy bear riding beside me in the middle seat. A man wearing a business suit and a turban soon arrived, ticketed for the aisle seat in my row. I was a Caucasian child living in a small town inhabited by people who looked much like me, and this flier was the most exotic person I had ever met. He gallantly introduced himself and spoke kindly to me during the flight while I pondered what magic he might know. Years later it finally dawned on me that the person I remembered as Genie-Man-at-the-Airport was probably Sikh.
I encountered both Collapsing-Man-at-the-Airport and Testifying-Man-at-the-Airport during the same work trip. It was the best conference I had ever attended, if judged solely in terms of geography. And pastries. The breakout sessions were forgettable, the attendees were quirkily memorable, and the “excursions” were dreadful. (A lake dinner cruise sounded lovely until we learned that the entertainment for the evening was a local humorist who did not wish to have her stories heard by non-paying customers on other decks so we were enclosed in a rapidly overheating room on a boat that was pitching more than I thought possible on a seemingly calm body of water.) The location, however, was blissful.
Set on the shores of a lovely lake, we were housed in a cooking school where the beds were heavenly and each meal (other than the ill-fated dinner cruise) was prepared by chefs-in-training. One morning I snagged what I felt was a delightful looking croissant only to find an instructor angrily (and vocally) removing the remainder as they were not perfectly formed. I retreated to a corner table and tried not to laugh. This was a chocolate croissant, made with lots of butter, and it was easily my favorite thing about the whole trip. I made it a point to get up uncharacteristically early on each subsequent morning in order to acquire these delicious items before they were pilfered by other conference goers or returned to the kitchen for failing what seemed to me to be overzealous conformity standards.
After several days of stuffing myself, enduring various excursions, and listening to presenters who varied rather considerably in their presentation skills, I was ready to return home. My colleague, Fran, and I arrived at the small regional airport in plenty of time for our flight. As we waited by the gate, a buoyant man with a white cloud of hair headed our way with his traveling companion, a considerably younger woman who got him settled before efficiently heading off to the food service area to get coffee for them both.
Our fellow traveler was beaming with energy and in a companionable mood. He spoke of the lovely weather, how much he had enjoyed this visit with his grandchildren, and his hopes for a smooth flight back home. We shared a few details about our conference trip and wished each other safe travels. He then took a short stroll to gaze out the window, taking in some last sights on a beautiful, sunny day. “What a happy man,” I thought to myself before rummaging for the magazine I knew I had somewhere in my carry-on.
Moments later I heard an unusual noise and looked up to find him slumped to the ground, a security guard rushing to his aid. Somehow, from the way he fell, I knew he must be gone. “God bless the first responders,” I thought as more arrived on the scene to trade off compressions, freeing me from my anxious thoughts about whether I remembered enough CPR from a class years ago to help in any meaningful way as a backup.
The rest of the incident I remember in flashes. The ambulance arriving, the tearful traveling companion, holding two cups, who we approached to ask how we could assist. The shock, fear, and grief on her face are etched in my memory, although her features are not. I could tell this lovely woman was guilt-stricken for not having been there when he collapsed. I touched her arm as I spoke, the only comfort I could think to give.
Fran and I flew home, landed, and headed to baggage claim, a seething hive of suitcases and cranky travelers, where we soon met Testifying-Man-at-the-Airport. It was a busy time on a hectic day at an international airport. Fran and I were surrounded by people dragging, carrying, pushing, and toting innumerable suitcases, boxes, golf bags, and pet crates. As I scanned the cavernous area, I saw a man emerge from an office area before weaving his large frame though a sea of travelers to stand in front of me, make intense eye contact, and share his testimony of salvation. I smiled and thanked him. Fran said not a word during this exchange, but is the first to verify the existence of my special people when anyone seems doubtful.
The next day I looked up the number for the hospital near the conference location and called the emergency department to inquire about Collapsing-Man-at-the-Airport. (In the days before HIPPA, and in a small town, you could get this information.) I was not surprised, but deeply saddened to hear he had died. I arranged to mail a note to the hospital, in care of the nurse who answered the phone, to deliver to the man’s family. I later heard from his widow, who tracked me down to say how grateful she and her family were to know that he was happy until the end and had not suffered. His daughter-at-law was the traveling companion we saw that day. Perhaps, I consider, there was some grace in the timing, if such things are possible–her last memory of his life being a cheerful, smiling face.
Duckling-Man-at-the-Airport latched on to me before the door had even shut behind my riskily overstuffed suitcase. We were in a small, nearly barren airport and I was distracted with thoughts of upcoming weather patterns that could impact my journey as well as my nearly immoveable suitcase that predated the wheeled variety frequent fliers now sport. He was such a very, very young man, with a bristling military haircut and a new duffel bag, anxiety pouring out of him with every step. He asked if he could go with me through the check-in. He was clutching a ticket for a different airline so I gently pointed him in the right direction, assuming this must be his first airplane flight. I was not surprised to see him waiting by the security entrance line after I had checked my bag. He smiled and spoke to me, voice projecting loudly to compensate for nerves. We went through security together, I explained how to find his gate, and then he quietly asked if I would mind if he stayed with me until my flight left. His flight was not for several hours, so we ate together in front of the sole food purveyor, and then walked toward my gate as he told me in fits and starts about his life. I waved before boarding the plane, knowing I was heading toward vacation while he was heading somewhere not nearly as serene.
I met Confessing-Man-at-the-Airport outside the actual airport building. My flight had arrived on time, my baggage had not been lost, and I had remembered, when exiting my car at the start of the trip, to make note of which long-term parking lot I had used–all fine achievements. I rolled my bag outside to the curb and awaited the arrival of the appropriate long-term parking lot bus. It was an off time, so I assumed I would have a long wait and prepared myself to settle in at the curb.
A man with a walkie-talkie and a whistle who had just been directing traffic walked toward me, stood next to me, each of us facing toward the roadway, and began telling me his story. I listened carefully, nodded attentively, and watched many long-term busses pass by me, never for the right lot. “He must have a lot to tell,” I thought.
I heard about his tour of duty in Vietnam, a marriage that crumbled, the turmoil of his life as he found ever more desperate ways to ease his pain, his eventual slog out of the bedlam, the time it had taken to deal with his brokenness, and his appreciation for a job that allowed him to make order out of chaos. It seemed to tumble out of him, this memoir, to a steady but insistent cadence. When he finished, he turned to look at me and thank me for listening to his story, one, he said, he had never told another living person. I smiled, told him I was honored to have heard his story, and wished him well.
“It’s getting on time for your bus to arrive” he remarked, stepping back out into the roadway to direct more traffic, as two busses labeled with my lot number pulled up to the curb.
Sarah Bigham teaches, paints, and writes in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, and an unwieldy herb garden. Some of her work has been published. Much of it has not. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.