The combination of adrenaline and euphoria Chloe felt clearing the packed jet bridge at the Denver airport was remarkably similar how she had felt at the summit of Lone Mountain three days before, preparing to point her snowboard nose over the edge of the first bowl of the day. Zigzagging through travelers, she reached the main thoroughfare and opened up into a running pace one notch below a full-on sprint. Settling into this pace for what she estimated would be a 600-meter distance but hoped was closer to 400 meters, she steadied her work bag slung across her body while making sure her duffle bag strap didn’t jostle itself off of her left shoulder. She might have actually made the connecting flight if she hadn’t decided to look at the departures board to confirm the gate.
Just as Chloe’s eyes focused on UA418 to IAD but before seeing the gate number on the same line of the screen, the left side of her body slammed into something that felt too large and immobile to be alive. Protecting her work bag with her left hand, she caught herself with her right hand as she fell onto her knees, having crumpled at the feet of a large man who was bending to pick up the phone she had knocked out of his hands.
“Sorry,” she stammered, her country manners still coming to her more instinctually that the big city lawyer “watch where you’re going!” response that popped into her brain a millisecond later but did not escape her lips.
“Oh no ma’am, I’m so sorry, I tried to get out of the way and then you swerved, and…here let me help you up.” The man drawled as she noticed his huge, weather-worn hands and kind eyes. She was surprised to recognize the logo of the Washington Capitols hockey team on the hat he was wearing.
“Thanks!” she said, grabbing her duffle bag strap, “I gotta go make this flight!” she called over her shoulder, already back to a run.
He chuckled as he was left in her dust, having run through airports enough himself to have a deep empathy for her desperate speed. Today though he continued to saunter down to Aviator’s, where he planned to catch the rest of the football game before his flight to New York.
Panting, realizing that just as in her short-lived high school cross country career she had started out too fast and not left enough energy for the end of the race, Chloe reached B38 to see a United airlines agent closing the door to the jetbridge of the gate to her flight, B44. She used the last reserves of her energy to close the distance to the podium, where she panted “I’m… Chloe….”
“Chloe Simons?” asked the perky agent.
Chloe nodded, coughing.
“We called your name three times. I can’t open the door. I’m sorry. If you visit customer service between B35 and B33 they can get you rebooked,” the agent chirped.
Before she could respond, the agent gathered a stack of papers and briskly walked away with a sympathetic smile. Chloe resisted the urge to scream, assisted by the fact that she couldn’t take a full breath in after her sprint to the gate, unused to running at altitude now. This could not be happening. Chloe had an important deposition tomorrow at 10am, the type of assignment that was rarely given to first year associated. She had to be at work by then, and had been planning to get in by 7am to prepare. Maybe they could get her on another flight that night, it was only 5pm. The delay from Bozeman, where she had been snowboarding with her high school friends at Big Sky, had been mechanical, which meant it was the airline’s fault and not hers. They couldn’t have held the flight to DC for 5 minutes? She swore Southwest had held a flight for connections once.
Angry thoughts tumbling over each other, Chloe adjusted her bags, and trudged over to the customer service line. As she passed B33, she noticed a few patients wearing surgical masks, which struck her as a little bit strange. Was this related to the outbreak of a virus in a nursing home in Seattle? She wasn’t sure, but it did seem like it had been in the news last week before she left to completely disconnect from the real world in the mountains.
Forty-five minutes of waiting in line and twenty minutes of begging and pleading for a better option later, she had a red-eye to Philadelphia booked with plans to take the earliest possible train from Philadelphia to DC and go directly to work. It was horrible solution, but she was happy to have a new boarding pass and incredibly grateful to herself for keeping an extra suit, shirt, and shoes in her office. Now with hours to waste, she wandered around until finding a sports bar named Aviators. She had certainly earned a beer.
The host let her to the only open seat at the bar, next to a huge man in a baseball hat, who adjusted himself to allow her room to squeeze onto the chair next to him, revealing his gentle eyes and Washington Capitols hat. Chloe could not believe it – of the thousands of people in this airport, she had to sit next to the guy she had barreled into two hours ago?
Her cheeks burned with embarrassment, which she dealt with by blurting out the one thing she was thinking and didn’t want to say, which was “You’re the reason I missed might flight!”
Her hands flew to cover her mouth as soon as she said it. “Oh my god I’m so sorry. I’m just kidding. It’s been…erm… a long day.” She had been praised on the efficiency of her spoken arguments in her last semester of law school, but that Chloe was nowhere to be found at the bar.
“Yeah I was going to say, looks like you didn’t make it after all. I guess I owe you a drink,” the man said, continuing after an awkward pause, “I mean as a consolation for the flight. I’m happily married, don’t mean nothing like that by it.” He held up his left hand, with a flat gold band on his ring finger. She was surprised by his southern drawl, it clashed with the DC sports hat.
Smiling, she said, “Yes I guess you do. I’m Chloe.”
“Jake,” he replied.
Chloe ordered a beer, and they breezed through the usual superficial conversations of where they were traveling to and from before getting to meandering, personal topics, like how they both missed the wide-open spaces that had taken for granted growing up. After Chloe grew starry-eyed remembering the vastness of the sky in southern Wyoming, Jake talked about the rolling hills of farmland in Virginia, and how he dealt with the claustrophobia of New York by running over to the East River just to have a bit of open sky without buildings in front of him.
“Why did you leave?” Chloe asked, wondering that herself. Was the prestige and salary of the DC law firm worth giving up the way she felt in the wide open spaces of the west, as if she was a tiny speck in a huge powerful universe?
Jake’s whole face softened. “My wife,” he replied. “She grew up in Alabama, but we met when she was an internal medicine resident. She did a fellowship in infectious disease in DC, then got offered her dream job in New York City. She is the classic small town girl who dreamed of the big city – New York skyline poster on her bedroom wall, non-stop Broadway showtunes in the car, the whole cheesy deal of it. I knew I would hate the city because even DC was too busy for me, but I love her, I couldn’t say no, and I sure couldn’t let her go without me. I got a maintenance job at Lenox Hill, the same hospital where she works. We’ve been talking about having kids in a few years, so I can’t imagine we’ll stay forever.”
She nodded sagely, even though children were the last thing she was thinking about, she understood the feeling of temporariness he described. Taking only a few breaks to check the score on the game, Chloe and Jake chatted for almost two hours through two more beers. When he had to leave to “not miss his flight too”, he paid their bill despite her protests, and she wished him a safe flight home.
The next morning when she took her phone off airplane mode, she was shocked to find a text from work that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the office was closing for two weeks, and everyone was expected to work from home. In the nearly two years she had been there, she had battled snow, ice, flooding, presential motorcades (one of the things she hated the most about living in DC), and two terrorist threats to get to work. If this virus was closing the office, it must be a much bigger deal than she realized.
In the weeks that followed, like most of the country, she watched the news of the outbreak in New York City with horror and got surreal updates in text messages and virtual group happy hours from her friends who had moved there after college. The second week of April, she was sipping coffee and skimming a New York Times article about the dire situation when a quote from a Jacob Sadler caught her eye. “My wife Claudine had wanted to live in New York City her whole life. I’m grateful she had six months here and know that she died because of the care she gave her patients.” Chloe gasped, reading the sentences before the quote about Dr. Claudine Sadler, the Chief of Infectious Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital who had died three days before the article was published, one week after testing positive. She pictured Jake at the bar in Denver, beaming with pride when talked about his wife, and decided to close her laptop and go for a walk outside, maybe as far as the river.