The end came as a surprise, though perhaps it should not have. It was kind of like learning about breathing from a book. You can read pages and pages but not until you’ve lingered under the water for a moment too long will you understand, in a way that is meaningful, the human need for air.
Of course, I knew there would be an afternoon spent putting all of my possessions back into the two bags they came out of. I knew I would have fewer things than I started with. I always do. I trade objects for memories and move on with suitcases full of potential energy.
I avoid goodbyes.
Our last night together was one to remember. And it was one to forget. I tried to be a coward. I lay there with my eyes closed and hoped she would do the same. I thought that if I let everything fade away it might not materialize again until the worst was over.
In the dark I felt her hand on my chest. “This can’t be how it ends.”
I felt a weight that was too heavy, too final.
I wrapped her in my arms and sighed as the world began to spin too quickly. I closed my eyes and kissed a memory.
12 hours later, and approximately one-fifth of the way through the human equivalent of pushing the reset button, I woke up from my fitful sleep. I did not wake up because of the noise of the engine, the considerable turbulence, or the wailing of a child who must have thought we were headed for hell. I woke up because I thought she put her hand on my chest the way she always does when she’s half asleep and trying to get comfortable. I woke up because I missed her.
I tried to go back to sleep. I tried to drift back to the two of us sitting on the porch in the half-light of dawn, eating scrambled eggs and sipping tea like a couple who had been married for longer than they could remember.
The sky was colorful and cloudless as the first rays of sunlight began to shine through. I grinned at her and told a lie.
“You’re the only person who could keep me from chasing a sunrise as beautiful as this one.”
She laughed softly, green eyes shining, and we waited for the day.
A flight attendant came by, offering peanuts and alcohol. She must have noticed my grip on the side of my seat as the plane was buffeted by turbulence.
“Don’t worry sweetheart, I’ve been through this a whole lot of times and I can guarantee you it’ll be just fine.” I nodded and squeezed my eyes shut.
In the afternoon, we headed to the cliffs. Our shoes were discarded; they were not as adept at gripping the wet rocks as our bare toes. A false step would send us tumbling twenty feet towards the waves that were crashing into the cliff’s sheer face. We went slowly, pausing to rest our feet, and to look out at a body of water big enough that small problems could be swallowed up.
The early evening light began to dim and a crispness developed in the air. Maybe we thought we could climb all the way around the cliffs back to the safety of the beach. Maybe we were being naïve. An hour ago it hadn’t seemed to matter. A distant problem, hardly worth mentioning. To press on or to turn around. We paused for a moment, unsure whether to trust the optimism that was fading as quickly as the last rays of the sun. It was the hesitation that did us in.
I picked up my notebook and took the pen out of the binding, but I didn’t write anything. A plane is too small a space for feelings to become coherent. There’s no wiggle room, no perspective. On an airplane everything is too measured. It’s a place where your food is rationed out in pre-made packages and served with starched smiles that always seem to cost more than they’re worth. A place where the air is processed until breathing becomes a chore and time becomes less linear and more academic.
I still miss her.
I can see her mouthing “I love you” through the car window as I dragged my bags into the airport. I cannot remember if I mouthed anything back.
Does it matter?
There’s something about getting to an airport that is not your final destination. Something about not knowing what time it is, what day it is, and seeing that your flight no longer has a departure time. There’s something about missing a person so much that you have trouble caring, and realizing that somehow, in an error that’s too painful to think about, you let yourself stop caring too soon.
I spent the night sleeping in the A wing of the San Francisco international airport. It felt as much like home as anyplace else.