The line at airport security snakes back and forth like a mountain switchback. I figure the wait will consume at least fifteen minutes. I haven’t flown in a while and I don’t realize these days you have to strip naked and stand spread-eagled in front of the Star Trek transporter. To fight the boredom I look around at my fellow travelers, a varied lot that has conspired to be in this place at this time, bound together by our common desire to fly out of Tulsa on a Thursday morning in July.
There are the obligatory business travelers, a few men and women in suits, but they are vastly outnumbered by the more casually dressed. For example men wearing shiny golf shirts of odd colors and styles, like electric orange, shirts that sport bizarrely-spaced stripes or the logo of a famous country club or resort. Shirts that are uniformly too large. There is a guy in a blue button-down shirt and khaki cargo shorts. A heavyset kid wearing a crimson Oklahoma University jersey. A woman wearing a giant shirt that Betsy Ross might have stitched. A girl in a white summer dress.
A cute girl in a white summer dress.
My eyes continue to work the crowd, but increasingly they return to the cute girl. She’s probably 25 or 30. Her tan is lovely and she’s wearing a bit too much makeup, but I don’t mind it heavy around the eyes. She glances over occasionally. We’re both trying to check out each other without getting caught. Or maybe wanting to get caught. Her mannerisms and general demeanor suggest we probably wouldn’t have anything in common, but that doesn’t stop me from looking.
In Houston the smell of food is delightful. Pizza, hamburgers, mouthwatering, buttery cinnamon rolls. The Pappas family of restaurants is heavily featured, with separate seafood, Mexican, and burger installments within feet of each other. I choose Pappadeaux, order the Catfish Po Boy to go, and sit down to wait. A blonde girl sits at the corner of the bar. After about twenty seconds, I watch a baldish man of about forty amble over to the bar and sit caddy corner to her. She pretends not to notice him. He picks up a menu and pretends not to notice her. In the ten minutes while I wait for my sandwich, the baldish man glances at her no less than thirty times. She doesn’t appear to look at him once, though it’s obvious she’s chosen not to acknowledge his presence.
On the beach everyone is preening. At least those proud of their physical selves are. Men suck in their stomachs as they walk to and from the surf. Women wear bikinis that are nothing more than brightly-colored underwear. Everyone looks at everyone else while pretending they aren’t. It’s difficult to ascertain the age of a female in a bikini. At a distance of seventy yards she could be 15 or 50.
Later, at the pool, seven or eight women are clustered at the deep end. Their ages vary from perhaps 28 to 45. I’m reading The Time Traveler’s Wife and pretending not to notice them. They drink beer and pour frozen cocktails from a cooler. They grow louder as the sun descends toward the horizon. The youngest one is the curviest and comeliest. Her voice is the pitch of a small bird’s. I can’t make out much of what anyone says but when I do they’re talking about men they like and don’t like. Men who are hot and men who are creepy. At the other end of the pool are two couples with children. An overweight father playfully splashes his young son with one hand and drinks a Coors Light with the other. Eventually a college-aged blonde in a yellow bikini walks to the pool with a radio and soft cooler full of beer. All eyes follow her, men and women alike. A college-aged dude soon joins her and they crank up the music. The sun is setting and people begin to leave.
On the trip home I’m back at Houston Hobby, sitting at a table near the food court. It’s a central location and good for people watching. With so many humans gathered in one place, trends call immediate attention to themselves. Women wear brighter colors than men. Some women dress more provocatively than others. It’s summer so there is a lot of bright pink and a lot of strappy sandals and golden tans. There are also shy women reading books. These women don’t show off much skin. They wear muted colors.
There are men who stride with confidence. Men who slink around trying not to be noticed. A couple of Italian guys sit near me. They have thick wrists and hairy arms and have nothing to read. They brazenly ogle every girl that walks by. But I look at the girls, too. I’m reading about Henry and Clare and their strange, timeless love for each other, but if I see a pink blur I look up. I can’t help it.
It occurs to me that in an airport, on a beach, at the resort pool, there isn’t much to do but eat and drink and look around. Which might be why we are reduced so easily to our base natures. Why our DNA is on such obvious display.
If there were airports for dogs, there would be bowls of food and water and rampant sex. Human airports aren’t like this because we’re different than dogs and probably every other animal species on earth. We are sentient. We’re conscious of our biological imperatives, and even though they drive our behavior to a very large degree—more than we often want to admit—we can also reason our way through them. Sure, dogs may also be able to make choices like these, but they don’t do so with the same level of sophistication.
Does this make us better than dogs? Happier? Do our high-powered brains, our awareness of ourselves, really matter in the larger picture? Perhaps humans possess souls that are observed and judged by a God and his arbitrary set of morality rules. Perhaps we’re all connected by some unknown medium to a conscious universe we can only barely glimpse. Perhaps these spiritual journeys are what separate us and make us unique among all living creatures on Earth.
But what if there is no great purpose? What if we have stumbled across eighty or so years on this planet and nothing more? You could make the argument that without spirituality we are just biological machines procreating and surviving until we die. Anything else is frivolous activity that occupies our prodigious intellect while said intellect isn’t fulfilling the primary imperatives. In that case, would ignorance truly be bliss?
I don’t suppose there’s any way to know. It’s both a blessing and a curse to be able to ask questions like these.
But even if there is no destination, doesn’t the journey override the knowledge of mortality? For all its warts, isn’t the sheer beauty of humanity, of the universe, where the magic lies?
Like our ability to gaze at and appreciate and make sense of the enormous cosmos. The linked photo is the farthest look into space humans have ever made. It’s a snapshot of one of the emptiest, darkest spots in the night sky. There are approximately 10,000 entire galaxies in this photo, and the rest of the sky is 12.7 million times larger than this tiny spot.
Like inspiration, creation, art. To be able to produce and consume ideas. Sprawling cities. Epic novels. The Internet. Decoding the human genome.
And most importantly, the gift of love. To know a person’s heart, to see into them by way of glances and touches and smirks and laughs; through tears and joy, through anger, silence; through twinkling eyes and furrowed brow; in hesitation, refusal, denial; the luxurious rush of intimate contact, gusts of humid breath, beads of sweat, whispered requests;in hellos and goodbyes, first kisses, introductions, and even final farewells. For someone to know you in a way you may not even know yourself…there is nothing more rare or precious, is there?
Being human is sometimes tragic.
Being human is sometimes magic.
But at least being human is always to be.