There are four wheelchairs lining the wall, and four women occupy these chairs: an Asian woman who has her hands folded neatly in her lap; a black woman dressed in purplish hues, who is filing her nails; a white woman with a butter-blonde poof of hair that’s sticking STRAIGHT UP and who is – I kid you not – stereotypically knitting away; and another white woman who is wearing a fixed, gloomy scowl and holding a paisley-patterned duffle bag on her lap.
I observe them and smile.
After knocking out three Spanish assignments at a nearby “recharge” station, I decide to relocate myself so that I’ll be closer to my flight’s terminal. I notice an empty seat beside an elderly woman (who is in a wheelchair but who is not one of the four) and, when I ask her if the seat is available, she nods.
Fifteen moments of silence pass between us before I clear my throat, turn my head, and incline towards her.
“So — is Vegas your final destination?”
“No,” she answers quickly, smiling. “California.”
“Oooooooh, California! How neat!”
“Yes,” she agrees. “I live there, actually… I was just here visiting my children.” Here, she rolls her eyes slightly and shakes her head from side to side, as though she is very, very weary.
I laugh a little. “Was it… a nice visit?”
“I mean, yes,” she assures me (and herself). “It’s just… they want to make me MOVE here, and it’s so HUMID,” she cries.
“I see,” I nod.
“Also,” she continues, “they use bad words,” she confides in a lower tone. “Like the f word. I do NOT like hearing those bad words spoken aloud,” she fusses, looking miserable and lost in the mere memory of it.
I make a mental note to watch my own language. “Huh… well… I don’t blame them for wanting you to live nearby,” I offer. “I mean, if MY mother was living by herself MULTIPLE states away, I’d feel the same way they do, and I would be VERY insistent about it,” I admit.
“Oh, they ARE being insistent about it,” she huffs. “My daughter says that she’s going to fly out to California and pack my things up THIS FEBRUARY!” she laughs. “I love them, of course… it’s just, since my husband passed back in ’09, I’ve gone to bed when I wanted, eaten when I wanted, DONE what I wanted…” her voice trails off.
“YES! And I love it.”
“I understand that,” I say. “I really value my alone time, too.”
We both sigh.
“Well, I mean — would you have to live WITH them? Or do they just want you in the state, closer by?”
“The plan is to build a little home for me, next door… they have lots of acres, you see,” she explains.
“Well there you GO!” I cheer. “You’ll still be on your own, and they’ll have peace of mind.”
She smiles, appearing a little less skeptical.
We watch together as the group of 4 roll down the terminal, and then an attendant in gray comes to collect my new friend.
“Enjoy the ride,” I smile at her.
“It was nice talking with you,” she smiles back, winking at me as the attendant takes her away.
I caught her again later on as I was exiting a terminal in Nevada, and when she saw me, she grasped my hand, firmly.
So my friend rolls away and then Letter A Passengers begin boarding the plane from Birmingham to Las Vegas. I’m still waiting. A woman pushes a stroller forward and then pauses right beside me.
“Now how are we going to do this, little Josie?” she asks her baby, grabbing bags and bottles and what looks like a dozen other things with her hands.
I want to offer my assistance, but know it’s futile; she’s an A person, and I’m a B. I’ll be boarding and finding a seat at least five minutes after her.
“Josie is a GREAT name!” I offer, and I mean it. I really love the name. I’d like to name a dog Josie, or write a book about Josie.
“Thank you!” the woman smiles proudly. She’s beaming with pride, actually.
A moment passes, and then she turns to me again.
“This is going to sound like an odd request,” she begins, and I notice, once again, the heavy bags layered across both of her arms, “but could you just… pick her up and put her in my arms?”
I pause, realizing that “her” is Josie. Josie, who looks to be maybe 6 months old and who has a blue bow strapped around her forehead and an adorable pink-and-blue owl shirt on.
I immediately feel panic-stricken; pick up a BABY? A real, LIVE baby?
Will her neck break if I do it the wrong way? Will the pressure of my hands — skin, muscles, bones — break her? Should I tell this woman I’ve never held (or picked UP) a baby before and that I’d feel more comfortable performing surgery on my own foot?
“Sure,” I heard myself saying.
SURE? Are you fucking MAD?!
But I was already standing up, already reaching down into the fashionable stroller and looking down into Josie’s wide brown eyes.
“Like… like right here?” I asked Josie’s mother, awkwardly slipping my hands underneath Josie’s arms.
“Yep! Like that.”
I slowly raised the warm and chubby baby up into the air and then rotated my body towards her mother, my arms as stiff as… I don’t know, a ruler? Something metal, I guess — unbreakable. Like, I will not drop this baby.
“Heyyyyyyy, Josie!” I said, flashing a smile at the baby and then placing her, as gently as I could, into her mother’s arms.
She isn’t broken… way to go, I congratulated myself.
The mother thanked me, sounding truly relieved, and then continued moving forward with her baby and her stroller and her million billion other things.
I suddenly felt an odd stinging in my eyes… an inexplicable tightening of my throat. Strange.
Maybe I’ll name a baby Josie someday, I thought to myself.
On the plane, I secured a window seat. Beside me, a woman gripped what appeared to be a thrilling novel between her hands, and beside her, a man streamed an Alabama football game on his Mac book. The man, I learned, was her husband.
I smelled the saltiness of her Pringles when she popped the lid off of the can, and later, I saw – out of the corner of my eye – her husband’s hand reach itself over to gently squeeze her thigh — affectionately, and reassuringly. Maybe she was afraid of flying, or maybe he just loved her. Maybe both.
Too familiar. I felt a light pang — a tiny, painful pang. Tiny.
We hovered above bodies of water and dry stretches of desert and big, industrialized cities and clouds that looked like popcorn, marshmallows, whipped cream, cottage cheese and mashed potatoes. I read my book and wrote in my journal after squarely facing the reality that the plane might crash.
I envisioned the whole thing: a horrifying and crackly announcement over the intercom from a panic-stricken flight attendant and then all of us plummeting to a quick and fiery death amid screams and beeps and explosions.
It would be an interesting way to go, for sure, and I’m braced for it, I mused, but I’d rather not die today. I’ve performed Google searches, and there are soooooooo many cafes and vegetarian restaurants in Seattle.
A flight attended with classic, brunette curls and rouge lips asked me if I wanted a snack, naming off Fritos, Oreos, peanuts, pretzels, cheese crackers and something else I couldn’t make out.
“Peanuts, please!” I smiled at her.
“Oh no, but thank you!”
She looked unconvinced and handed me three packets of peanuts, which made me smile again. I felt very special.
So I munched on peanuts, sipped on cranberry juice, and shook the left side of my leather jacket to make sure that they were still there; my two dollars in quarters. I smirked slightly, imagining playing a slot machine (for the first time EVER) during my upcoming layover and winning a hundred, a thousand, or THREE MILLION dollars.
Back when I was a kid, I played the stuffed animal machines at restaurants and flea markets so intensely that my mother swore I’d end up with a gambling habit.
As an adult, I’ve never gambled, but her worry inadvertently became my own.
“TWO DOLLARS,” I told Charlie before we left the house this morning. “I shall take two dollars in quarters and that is IT.”
“Why not four?” he asked.
“Oh… no SIR. That would be excessive,” I frowned.
But when I stepped out of the airport and saw them this afternoon — the glowing, noisy, sad-looking machines and the despairing people in front of them — I just felt gross. There’s no other word for it, really. It was a very depressing scene to behold, and I didn’t want to identify with it in any kind of way.
Never mind gambling, I thought to myself. I’ll visit the vending machine instead. But after visiting the vending machine, I realized slash remembered that vending machines offer nothing but shit and decided to just hang on to my quarters until reaching Seattle.
I can use them to tip somebody at a coffee shop, I decided, and felt peaceful about the decision.
I’ve got 49 minutes to go until flight numero dos takes off. I’ll be leaving Las Vegas as quickly as humanly possible and continuing on my way to Seattle where a hostel bed awaits me. Yep — that’ll be a story for next time.
But before I sign off…
Last night (or very early this morning), I dreamt that I was talking with someone special. I was trying to explain to them how badly it hurt when they left and began telling them about the house, the one that I live in now.
“It became a zoo,” I said. “I took in animals of all kinds — they filled the house and the yard. They overwhelmed me. I didn’t know how to care for them properly, and feared many of them. I remember walking past dark rooms that I didn’t want to look into… I couldn’t even flip the light switch on,” I said. “I didn’t want to come into contact with what filled those rooms. It was a terrible time.”
“But one day, I went walking through the house and realized that they were gone. All of them had gone.” I shook my head. “Everything had suddenly changed, and while I couldn’t remember HOW things had changed or how long it had taken them to change, I was so glad. So relieved, and so glad.”
“What I’m trying to say is, the house is home again. And I know that your home is different — it’s somewhere else now. I’m still figuring out how to live with that, but my inner turmoil is gone, and I hope you’re doing well also.”
I turned away as I said goodbye and told them what I knew they should already know, and when I woke up, I felt peaceful, but also, strangely numb.
Josie Elliott – with two t’s… that has a nice ring to it.