It was a Friday morning in July. I drank long past midnight the night before. After helping a coworker to his room at the Airbnb in which we were staying, I crashed in bed knowing I had an early flight. I set multiple alarms on the phone hoping one would be the one to get me out of bed on time.
Somehow, it worked. I managed to get up on time. I took a cold shower, got dressed, and got a ride to the airport. The plane rose out of Music City and after a few hours in the air, I deplaned in Dallas, where I had two hours to kill. Or so I thought.
I sat in the waiting area listening to the television just above my head. The news were on, as it’s so often the case in airports. This particular segment mentioned the weekend would bring record-breaking heat to much of the country, including Los Angeles. It was then my phone vibrated with a text message notification. It was the airline alerting me the plane I was waiting for would be delayed. And just like that, my 2-hour layover became a 4-hour layover.
A day spent in an airport is akin to being in a state of suspended animation. Time simply does not exist while you’re there except when it’s relative to when your flight will board. You grab a bit to eat to start. Being in Dallas, I went for Whataburger. I’m certain having it in an airport is not the same as having it in the city but it was as close as I was going to get. I found a seat to enjoy my meal and then it was time to do the only real thing one can do in a layover: people-watch.
You look up and around and spot many faces living in the same dimension as you. This dimension is simply a limbo, a temporary stop. Each person is waiting to be somewhere, and the airport is not it. Some faces droop with exhaustion, others are puzzled wondering which direction to go. You can always spot a few angry faces who recently received news of a delayed or canceled flight.
You start to believe every person exists in this airport. There are newlywed couples, couples on the verge of their breaking point, men proud of their work on their way to close a major deal, and dejected reps returning from a failed sales trip. You’ll spot kids, toddlers only now letting themselves go and walking for the first time, well-dressed men, and gorgeous women.
Spend enough time in airports and the faces start to repeat. You begin to wonder if this is a real life or only a strange Truman Show experiment. “I know I’ve seen her before. I’ve seen him, too.” Dallas Love Field, Chicago O’Hare, Nashville, Orlando, La Guardia, Burbank; you see the same faces at all of them.
She passed in front of me for the third time. She had a cocoa complexion, tall and fit frame with white jeans, and a beige, soft blouse. Her hair was done in cornrows that ran up and back from her left side and fell down her right side just past the shoulder. I watched as she walked away and onto a boarding tunnel. She didn’t come back, that day.
Beside me stood a woman in her thirties. She set her luggage down and looked at her phone. She was clearly irritated. From my right, a man approached and walked behind me to meet her.
“Why were you not where you said you’d be?” the woman exclaimed. That was certainly a great way to start a conversation in such a public place. I continued dipping fries into Whataburger’s spicy ketchup while their conversation continued directly next to me.
“I changed my mind on the food and now I’m here,” he replied curtly. This of course only made her more upset.
“I called you and you didn’t pick up.”
He had lost his cool by this point and exclaimed, “I’m carrying my bag, the food, and my phone. I couldn’t just drop everything, could I?”
The conversation ended as abruptly as it began. The two ate in silence and shuffled away after about ten minutes.
After my meal, I paced around the terminal for what felt like an eternity. As I walked, I could hear music in the distance. It was clearly not recorded. I got excited. I figured live music could potentially make the remaining time pass by a bit faster. I found them in the center of the terminal. The band played hit songs in a soft, soulful jazz style for dollar bills. Some people stopped to look as I did. An older couple stopped and began to dance. They both had big smiles on their faces seemingly having just as much fun as when they were dating. The music helped for a bit but I knew it was time to leave when the feedback issues began. Thankfully, I didn’t have much time to go this point.
I eventually boarded the flight. I spotted a few faces from the plane that had left Nashville all those hours ago. There was a set of toddler twins I spotted before as I waited. They were loud when I first noticed them and were loud now. I prayed they were not sitting in the row behind me. I did not spot the fighting couple waiting to board this flight.
The plane headed for Long Beach Airport. I walked out of Long Beach that afternoon happy to be back in the real world. It felt as if I had been in oblivion for a lot longer than one day. It was 94 degrees outside. I guess the news of the upcoming heat wave was true.