It’s not like I’ve never traveled by myself before. The first time I flew solo was September of my senior year of high school, when I met my father in Providence, Rhode Island, to take a gander at Brown University. I felt remarkably adult, even with an air time of just 45 minutes and knowing that my daddy would be waiting for me with his rental car at baggage claim. Later that year, I went to Portland, Oregon, to visit Lindsay Baltus, which was the first time I’d ever seen the West Coast. I never thought twice about flying alone after that.
On Thursday, I was all set to go to Chicago, Illinois, for work. I was pumped but anxious. Anxious like first-day-of-school anxious. What if my project failed? What if no one wanted their photo taken at Comic Con (yeah, right) What if all my social media efforts and all this money returned zero new Facebook “likes” and then I got fired?
I schlepped Zack’s NikonD60 and my co-worker, Keith’s shitty tripod and fifteen hundred TicketLeap stickers to Philadelphia International Airport by way of Septa. I boarded the plane and plopped down into 16B.
We were on the tarmac for two and a half hours, due to the sky being congested. The pilot was talking about air traffic controllers, and that started to make me a bit nervous (Zack and I finished season two of Breaking Bad last week). My phone battery had exhausted itself before we even took off and I was getting hungry. When we did finally leave, so much time had gone by that I should have already been in Chicago and having a beer with my co-workers. The airline attendants started passing out tiny tea biscuits to ease the pain.
An hour into our two-hour flight, the pilot came onto the loudspeaker with another announcement. We were trying to avoid bad weather, and the new route that he had planned for us would take another two and a half hours before we landed in Chicago. I was in the middle of heading to the bathroom when he said this, and I stopped dead in my tracks. “Did he just say what I think he said?” I asked the people around me. Heads lifted from a sea of iPads. Yes, he did.
I went to the bathroom and felt so claustrophobic that my heartbeat felt like it was trying to crawl up my throat. I exited and started pacing around the back of the plane. Then I started crying. Not, like, sobbing or anything, but my voice started cracking and tears were pooling underneath my eyes. I looked at myself in the reflection of a stainless steel food cart. I was wearing sandals, a cotton shirt with poufy sleeves, and a pair of Juicy terrycloth sweatpants. I looked like I was in 11th grade.
A group of unrelated dads approached me. Three or four men with well-worn wedding bands, men old enough to be but younger than my own my father, started asking me a bunch of questions. “Do you need help?’ “Are you okay?” “Do you travel often?”
“This is,” crack, “my first business trip.”
“Don’t worry,” they all said. “This is what it’s like to do business travel. Things like this happen all the time.”
An airline attendant with bad hair but a warm smile came into the cabin. “I was told there was a girl back here having a panic attack. Can I get you anything?”
“Do you have an Ativan?” I asked with a straight face.
“No, but I can get you some water.” She shooed away the group of dads. “You call can’t congregate back here.”
I drank a cup of water and took a few deep breaths with my head against the wall. She started telling me about her fear of elevators, how she can live on a plane for twelve hours a day, but she won’t get into an elevator alone. “I understand how you’re feeling,” she told me.
A nice girl who was waiting for the bathroom suggested I drink some wine and go to sleep. This sounded like a good idea. I meekly asked the airline attendant if I could have a mini bottle of the Cabernet, and told her I was in 16B so she could collect my money. She waved it off. Thanks for that, USAir.
I clutched the Cab with both hands and returned to my seat, which was sandwiched between an Indian man whose breath smelled like a septic tank and a 15-year-old Spanish exchange student named Julio, whom I told I would help navigate to the shuttle bus area once we arrived in Chicago. At this point, it had been almost six hours since my last meal and I drank the wine faster than you can say “alkie.” My muscles relaxed instantly. I closed my eyes and the next thing I knew, the pilot was talking about a “short cut.” We would be landing sooner than expected.
He made a joke when we touched ground. “Welcome to, uh, I have no idea where we are!” Everyone clapped and laughed. “No, welcome to Charlotte. I mean, Chicago.” Fewer laughs. He wasn’t joking then.
Julio followed me off the plane. I was walking very quickly. I followed signs to baggage claim and public transport, rolling suitcase behind me. I asked Julio if he had called his host family to let them know that he had finally arrived. He didn’t have their phone number.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “This is far as I can take you.” I waved and gave him a thumbs up. “Good luck!”
I hope he made it okay.