@

My beautiful daughter-in-law threw her arms up and yelled:  “Thank God!  Not a moment too soon!” when I told her Rodent and I would fly back to Norfolk the next morning.   We’d delayed our flight three days due to bad weather.

A winter storm tortured DC, Boston, Baltimore, NYC and a wide swath of the Louisiana Purchase, and Delta Airlines had tempted folk to reschedule three days forward by rescinding its change-fee, so we readied to leave LA on 13 February, a holiday-packed weekend.

For only the second time in 15 years, my son volunteered to drive us to LAX.  His six-year-old twin boys shrugged goodbye and turned back to their Legos.  What did we care?  It was sunny, it was noon, it was a short flight, we were racking up our frequent flyer miles, and I had a couple bananas and a baggieful of red grapes in my carry-on.

Row 33 was the last row on the plane.  Advantages:  we were Really Close to the toilets and to the stewards’ gossip.  Disadvantages:  we were Really Close to the agonied, foot-shifting toilet queue, and we overheard the steward’s intercom messages to the Captain.

Rodent and I quickly got used to pans whacking in the galley behind our heads, but we paused dramatically at a steward’s cryptic message to the Captain:  “We need someone to talk about what’s going on here.”

I’d been happily counting my grapes, not noticing that we’d been fully-planed and sitting for 15 minutes after scheduled take-off.

The Captain came on the intercom, saying:  “There’s a leak in the Business Class toilet.”

The combined brains of Coach passengers held the same thought, or worse:  “Let ’em pee in Coach.”

The Captain continued:  “Mechanics are working hard and understand the time factor.  Though it sounds like a small problem, if the leak continues it might cause the water to go below to the Black Box and electrical systems which could—with the much colder temperatures during flight—freeze and cause problems.”

Forty minutes later we launched, and a happy tailwind had us in Cincinnati just in time to board our flight to Norfolk.

Cincinnati is not LA.  It is a hellhole of chill.  Not that it’s the only place in the USA that patiently provides four months of sub-zero temps and snow.  Oh no.  But this particular evening, near the cusp of St. Valentine’s Day, we had really ached for some sign of spring—Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction notwithstanding.  Hunkering down into our winter coats, caps and gloves, we tramped up and down a byzantine (ok, Rube Goldberg) passageway, stairway and bridge to our silver bullet, and—incredibly—comfortable seats in the fourth row.

My bum generously gripped in soft leather (was this Business Class?), I smiled at Rodent who looked a bit pale but game for the rest of the ride.  For the first time ever, I gave careful attention to the Safety directions.  At last someone had printed up a leaflet with bright, simple cartoons for each Safety step.  I am now able to explain how to grip the levers of exit doors A and C at the front of the plane, though not how to actually open the doors.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Captain announced, “I might as well explain what is going on.”

Had I been counting grapes again and not noticed that we’d been sitting 20 minutes past take-off time?

He continued:  “The external air cart that starts the engine isn’t getting air.  It’s frozen.”

My brain decided to go walkabout and sit with the man behind us who, according to his female seatmate, was her husband and an airplane pilot.

He was explaining to her:  “An external air cart blows air into the engine to get it started.  It needs heating up.  Some private planes have an auxiliary power unit that bleeds off air to start the engines, to move it to the side of the engine.  It doesn’t take much to move the air.  But the unit’s expensive.”

I thus intuited that some commercial airlines choose to have external air carts, one which was being heated so that it could blow air into our lifeless engine.

I decided to worry about whether the Norfolk police would have towed my outdated-license-plate- stickered car from the driveway, as they had told my neighbour two days before.  This was a worry I could get my head around.

The plane began moving in reverse the way my now-dead 13-year old stick-shift Datsun B210 felt and sounded when going in reverse whilst the emergency brake was on.

The Pilot Behind Us was saying:  “That’s one of the pushers.  They use pushers so they don’t have to use reverse thrust.”

Right, I thought, and wondered if I’d really rather have reverse thrust, and whether the pushers themselves needed external air carts to get us down the runway at a lively speed.

As luck would have it, we were now moving forward, and the Pilot Behind Us was telling his wife about the signficance of full flights and terrorist attacks, and the comparative power of ship engines and airplane engines.

Announcement from Captain:  “During the wait, we seem to have got a little icing on the wings, so we’ll just shoot over to the de-icing fluid.”

Pilot Behind Us:  “Smaller planes have heaters on them, but they’re expensive.”

Possibly a bit mad with his info-power, he added:  “Hope they don’t do like they did in Greensboro where they sprayed so much de-icer it cooled down the engine, so we had to wait for the engine to warm up.”

Rodent was asleep, doubtless dreaming about the pipe he hadn’t been able to smoke for the last ten hours.

And then Cosmic Birther Of All Radiance And Vibration smiled.

She had us up in the air staring down at a silent lava flow of jewels, the Cincinnati night traffic.  Then we were beyond the city and into space, contemplating a sky smatter-rich with stars.  Next we knew, the PBU was identifying a glitter of bracelets below:  “Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel……Hampton Bridge Tunnel….”

We were home to an airport of lush green potted plants all along the walkway and a sign cheerfully announcing:  “Underground Parking.  Lots.”  (I assumed that meant Norfolk Airport has lots of underground parking.)

We were about to undertake the most dangerous trip of the day:  the cab ride home.

 

We made our connecting flight to Mexico City from Guadalajara by, quite literally, one minute. This small, by-the-skins-of-our-teeth success involved our best broken Spanish, hand-holding, puppy dog eyes. Landing in Guadalajara an hour and fifteen minutes behind schedule, realizing that we late arrivals may very well have to finagle a different flight out of here in a language neither speaks fluently, I swallowed my excitement at Louisa’s studying of the landscape beyond the runway, her face filling the small window. To a girl from Johannesburg, Mexico oozes the exotic, fuels the othering nature we so shun out loud, as we wonder—how terribly wrong is it to fetishize that which we are not? We are cultural voyeurs, international peeping toms, fogging the windowglass of the world with our aroused heavy breathing.

But now, we’re nervous. Or at least I am. Louisa is the calming force in our relationship, and I do my best—sometimes purposefully, most times inadvertently, to agitate that force. This is an incredibly slow taxi to the gate and I stare down my wristwatch every ten seconds.

“We’re going to miss our fucking flight,” I grumble, amid the remainder of the infuriatingly calm passengers, “why aren’t we moving?”

“Look,” Louisa says, her finger greasing the window.

To my right, in the aisle seat, an old woman folds her fingers together in her lap. Her eyes are closed, and I bet she’s praying for something far less mundane than making a connecting flight. I’m not sure, what with all this engine noise, but I think she may be humming.

Louisa is pointing to a decrepit old AeroMexico plane, missing one wing, ditched defunct on the outskirts of this outskirt runway. The savannah desert tallgrass seems to be devouring it like some multi-legged sea creature—a giant hybrid of the millipede and the octopus—a millipus. Surely we are bearing witness to some spectral battle—nature versus machine. And the machine—this old plane that bears the brand of this younger one that transports us, ever so slowly to some still invisible harbor—is certainly losing.

Our faces come together in this tiny window as we watch the old plane. I swear I can see it rust before my eyes. I remember my countless road trips along the blue roads of the U.S., the rural towns in which I saw so many collapsed school buses, cargo vans, pick-up trucks parked on so many collapsed front lawns. This airplane seems the natural, if not operatic, extension of those lesser dead vehicles. This airplane, fighting in vain for its life against the strength of the landscape, knew once what it was like to fly.

“It’s moving even slower than we are,” I tell Louisa, and we sneak a kiss while the aisle lady’s eyes are still closed.

Soon, we’re running in the airport, the whirl of airport lights, the smell of roasting airport meats, the loudspeaker crackling its static, the music of Spanish spinning around us, running with our boarding passes in our sweating hands, our backpacks bouncing on our shoulders, to make it to the front of the customs line. Given our nearly decade-long battle for Louisa’s citizenship, anything bearing the word customs, sours in our mouths like lemon rind. And, of course, we have no idea where we’re going.

Soon, we make it to our official, an open-faced young man named Ricardo, laughing with his fellow officials about something I can’t quite understand. I make out the words pollo and estúpido. Something about a stupid chicken. I hope they’re not talking about me. Regardless, I decide to beg.

“Por favor, Señor. Uh, uh, tenemos billetes para México D.F. uh, uh, pero llegamos tarde…”

I’m trying, but he’s smiling at me like I am, indeed, that dumb-ass chicken, trying to talk his way out of the axe. I can’t quite tell whether his smile is genuine or condescending. If we were in the U.S., it would be condescending for sure. Louisa hugs my arm. Ricardo takes the boarding pass from my hand, shakes his head, clucks his tongue. This can’t be good. Surely, we’re to be decapitated and plucked, quartered and eaten—our punishment for our narrow-minded gringo othering.

“No es correcto,” he says.

“Fuck,” I whisper.

“What?” Louisa says.

“The gate’s wrong. It’s the wrong gate.”

Ricardo organizes for us an especially speedy backpack search, and tucks his electric body-wand into his hip sheath. Then, in a swell of philanthropy that’s all but gone the way of the dinosaur in the States, he leaves his post, motions for us to follow him, and walks us across the airport to the revised gate. His body-wand slaps against his hip, his small metal pieces of customs agent flair rattle like tambourines on his chest, and somehow, in our racing to keep up with him, the loudspeaker belching monotone Spanish above us, families reuniting and kissing without reservation, children scrambling with yo-yos, old men in massive straw hats groaning with their leather bags, young women in stunning woven dresses stretching themselves earthbound again, Louisa and I are struck with a sense of celebration. We’re surrounded by all kinds of music, by customs-agent smiles that actually are genuine; by a place that values humanity over procedure; where humanity is the procedure.

Ricardo delivers us to our gate and actually shakes our hands, wishes us good travels. We watch as he turns for the ten-minute walk back to his post. His gait is downright placid. Even from the back, I can tell by the way his neck tightens that he is smiling.

The woman who accepts our boarding passes is, according to her gold nametag, Luisa. That she bears my wife’s name at once quickens and calms my heart, and I mentally, and briefly, engage in some eponymous ménage à trois. Luisa explains to us in broken English, “We try to wait. You make it by one minute.”

I turn to Louisa. We are travel-drunk and delighted. We share a row with a young man with black-painted fingernails buried into his headphones. They’re so loud, I can hear the Spanish-language death metal. We’re still stationary, but the engines begin to whine. I lean in to Louisa’s window-seat and kiss her. As if to test Luisa’s proclamation, we try to hold it for sixty full seconds.

I’ve been to Japan a few times and have always enjoyed my time there. The people are friendly, the streets are clean, and everything is so different to what I’ve seen in Scotland or Korea.

On my first trip to Japan I went on my own, speaking not a word of Japanese and knowing nothing about Fukuoka – the city in which I would spend the following few days. That’s the way I like to travel. I like the adventure of rolling into a strange city and putting my faith in luck and chance that things will turn out alright.

I soared from Busan to Fukuoka on a high speed ferry, landing in the strange little city in the evening. When I stepped into the immigration hall I was met with a giant line of arriving passengers – all of them were Asian.

I thought nothing of that little racial quirk, given that I’d spent the previous seven months in Korea, surrounded by Korean people, rarely seeing anyone who wasn’t Korean. But there were hundreds of us in a room, lining up to go through immigration, and every single person except me was waved through.


“Passport?” At 3 am I jolt upright in bed. “Where’s my passport?” In 12 hours I’m to get on a plane on an international flight back to the US–to move back after living her for six years–and at that instant a something massive and visceral smacks me awake. I hadn’t seen my passport in a few days. Inés wakes up, asks what’s wrong, says she’ll always lucky at finding things and that she’ll help me look for it. From 3 to 4 am we search all three pieces of luggage and every corner, shelf and nook throughout the apartment. Nowhere. It’s gone. A numbness covers me, because as I think about when I last saw it and where it should be, I can only deduce that I most likely threw it away, inadvertently. Because this final move consisted of giving away, disposing of or recycling all the surplus, I conclude that I either tossed it in the trash, gave it to a friend in some heap of a donation, or it went in the paper recycling bin along with hundreds of other papers that didn’t make the cut.

That’s right, I threw away my passport and realize it 13 hours before my flight.

Inés falls asleep around 4:30 while I pine away with my eyes open in the dark until 6:30, futilely trying to locate my damned passport.

9:30 comes, which brings alarms and open eyes after only three hours of sleep. I call Lena, the assistant director at the school where I studied here; she tells me to call the American embassy. I do and the man says I should wait until Monday to get another passport. As soon as I hang up the phone, Lena calls me back and says that normally they don’t allow people to fly without a passport but if I have a direct flight to the US and no stopover elsewhere in Europe, then there’s a chance they might let me on. She says go for it.

I print out a copy of my passport (which was scanned and saved in my laptop earlier in the year), take my driver’s license and my Spanish student ID card and off the airport go Inés and I.

We get to Iberia’s customer service desk and, after explaining to the smiling lady that my contact told me to go and see the Intermediario de inmigración y aduenas, she tells me to go to La Policia. Inés and I walk over to the young police officer and, after explaining that I have no passport, he responds (paraphrased and translated), “We’re you from? The States? And you want to go back? Well then we really don’t care about you. We’re concerned about people coming into our country, not leaving it.” So back at the Iberia check-in line, which seems languid and excessively long, the clock reads that my flight leaves in two hours.

One hour later we approach the counter and a young brunette asks to see my passport. I explain the situation with Inés sometimes joining in to aid in the communication. The lady is extremely helpful: she talks to her supervisor, she calls security to notify them that an American without a passport is coming their way. Then she hands over a printed boarding pass, explains that the flight is overbooked but since I’m the first one on the list, she’s pretty sure I’ll get on the flight.

“Phew,” I say,  incredulous, and thank her effusively.

Inés and I walk over to the smoking point. It’ll be the last time I see her for a long time, maybe ever. We don’t say this out loud, but we know it. I roll a cigarette and she pulls out a Nobel and we light up in unison. She puts on her sunglasses, and it’s not the least bit bright or squint-inducing, at least not for me with my highly sensitive eyes. It’s a quick cigarette, with few words to accompany. We crash them out and start walking, holding each others’ hands. I look over and think I see moist eyes. Her face is being pulled down by lack of sleep and the weight of the present moment. I can’t imagine what I look like at this point.

When we reach the entry point to go through security, we begin to kiss rather madly. I wrap my arms around her, hug her tightly and whisper something into her ear which causes me almost to choke with emotion. I say it on the verge of tears; she is too. We let go, I walk into the turnstiles. She’s smiling widely and waving each time I look back to see her with her sunglasses on. Behind them there are tears, I know, and I’m fighting to hold back my own. But there is hardly time for them, because my flight leaves the ground in 40 minutes and I’m 20 minutes away from the gate. I am supposed to be boarding at the present moment.

Once passed security I turn around for one last wave and a hand-to-the-mouth kiss throw and off I go to catch the plane without a passport. The train takes seven minutes to get to the satellite terminal.

After the train there is another passport control checkpoint.

“Uhm, yes, I don’t have a passport, but I have a copy of it as well as a driver’s license and some other form of–”
“Yes yes we know, they called us. Did you bring the report?” he asks me.
“Report? What report?”
“From the police?”
“No, they didn’t give me a report.”
“You have to get a report.”
“Well they didn’t offer to give me one. They said that if I was leaving the country it didn’t matter to them who the hell I was.”
“Okay, go on.”

That’s how impervious the passport control checkpoints are in Spain.

I run to gate U67. The gate looks like this (but populated with people):

On the left sign reads BOSTON2 pmFinal boarding call.

The right one reads New York CityDelayed.

There’s a short line waiting to board. Since I’m quitting smoking for good for the 20th time since I moved to Spain, I decide that there’s time to choke down one last grit. I do and return to a now line-less gate with a small group of people gathered around the adjacent desk. All of these people are on standby, I assume. We huddle around it while a fat Spaniard sitting down calls out a bunch of names, and finally mine. I raise my hand, hand him the boarding pass, he takes it and writes down a seat number. To his immediate right and directly in front of me is a female employee who’s head is cocked up and trying to speak with a someone on the second floor above who is behind a wall of glass. She says (in Spanish), “Huh? What are you saying?” then says to everyone of us in the immediate area, “I can’t hear her. I don’t think she speaks Spanish”.

(All apologies for the stick figures inserted into the picture, but I really thought they would help to visualize this crucial element to the electrifying conclusion, as well as my confusion.)

Since the woman is directly in front of me and obstructing my entrance into the door behind the sign marked Boston, I decide to back out, double around and go through the door straight on. As soon as I take one step back, someone says, Dejalo pasar (”let him through”), which she does. I walk through the door to Boston, begin an ascent up a wheelchair-enabled walkway. It’s a smooth, gradual incline and I’m following a group of  about 50 people who are staggered and strolling. Along the way, I notice there’s a woman talking to a security guard walking in the opposite direction. We pass each other. At the time I don’t recognize it but it is the woman on the second floor who was trying to communicate with the female employee who was obstructing my path in the above picture.

I keep walking and texting a somewhat poetic, emotive final text message to Inés. As I get to the second floor, I begin to wonder where I’m going, because usually you descend into a plane and not ascend onto a horizontal escalator that looks like it goes on for about a mile. Before I get on the first one, I ask a woman in front of me if this is the plane to Boston. She pauses, nods her head and says, . I keep walking and walking and about halfway I wonder where the hell this airplane is, and why I’m backtracking through the airport. I ask another guy if this plane’s for Boston and, again, I get a pause and a nod.

Eventually I start jogging. Following the crowd I see the passport control that is re-entering the country.

I then realize that I’ve walked about half a kilometer following dimwitted and haggard passengers who just got off the plane from Boston. Their answers were true, they were on the plane from Boston, but not to it.

I am the jackass who hadn’t the cognizance to stop and say, “Wait a minute, maybe I walked through the wrong door.”

And sure enough, I did. I walked through the door marked Boston — which was supposed to be my flight — instead of the door under the sign that read New York City/Delayed, which is actually where the Boston flight was boarding from.

The door behind the Boston sign should have been closed, or the signs should have been switched, or some sort of obstacle should have been placed in front of it.

Or someone should have said, “Sir, that’s the wrong door.”

I should’ve realized that the woman who was confused on the second floor and trying to communicate with the employee below did the same thing I was doing, and that when I passed her walking in the opposite direction, that should’ve triggered a realization that would’ve saved me about 450€ and the most surreal subsequent 24 hours I’ve had in my adult life.

But, I didn’t. I ran back to the gate and the fat Spaniard just looked at me in disbelief and said that the plane was already gone, that the door was closed. I was huffing and sweating and explaining that that was my plane, that I was misguided, that I walked through the door marked Boston, not NYC and before I realized it, I was de-embarking. I show him the boarding pass and he shakes his head and points me to customer service.

Everything was perfectly and tenuously held together just enough for me to get on that plane. Without a passport, I got through about four security points where said documentation is required. I had the impassioned and teary goodbye with Inés. I smoked the final cigarette. They put my luggage on that plane as the very last passenger and, as I was fully ready to turn a rather symbolic and important page in my life and finally leave Madrid once and for all, I walked through the wrong door.

Sunday June 1st, 2009 was the most absent day of my life.

My mind and spirit were on a plane headed to Boston while my body lingered around a quiet neighborhood where I had just finished a large chunk of my thirties.

I was there, and I wasn’t.

Numb, vacuous and bitter.

Some people since have said, “Well, everything happens for a reason, and there must be a reason you didn’t get on that plane.”

Some have said that it means that it’s my destiny to stay in Spain and not move back to the states.

It could also just as easily mean, “Nice work, deadbeat. Lost your passport and somehow get through the airport, catch the plane in time but walk through the wrong door. I’d say that Madrid was giving you a swift kick in the sweetbreads on your way out, just so you’ll never forget her.  Maybe she’s saying: HIT THE ROAD JACK.”

I tend to think that everything just happens, and then we ascribe a reason to it.

I’ve been back in the USA for two weeks now, and I still have yet to be able to apply one to this aberration other than I was highly stressed, emotionally brimming and not thinking fluidly.  Also, arriving late, not having a passport, not seeing people board through the gate door and their lack of proper signs to point me in the right direction were certainly reasons that aided in helping me walk through the wrong door.

Regardless of the meaning or non-meaning central to the metaphysics behind my failure to get on that plane, I will never forget the day that my luggage boarded a plane and my body stayed behind, that my mind left for America and my self remained in Spain, that I somehow existed in two places at once, that I became my own ghost while alive, that I stayed in Madrid one day too long…