I’ve always loved airports. Airports are where emotions peak. There’s the euphoria of coming home– to a country or a someone-and there’s the grief of leaving home–a country or a someone. I guess this makes the arrivals area my favourite place at any airport no matter how big or small or fancy.
Arrivals are promises. Promises of coming back, meeting again, fulfilled. Promises of new beginnings, life changes, new energies born from the collision of two or more souls reuniting… or simply uniting, meeting for the first time.
Arrivals are big bouquets and bountiful beams. Arrivals are long, tight hugs and hot, relieved kisses. Even the business pick-up signs and cordial handshakes have something welcoming and assuring about them.
I arrive at Munich International Airport, prepared that there will be no one waiting for me and that is OK. This is only a stopover. I am meeting you! But your plane isn’t due for another fifty minutes, so I take the time to observe fellow passengers arriving into the arms of their loved ones. A father with a big duty-free plastic bag with lego sets and teddy bears peeking out runs to scoop up his two squealing children, abandoning his luggage but still holding on to the promised tokens of love. An old lady in a wheelchair is wheeled out of the gate by airport staff. She looks around with anticipating eyes, probably wondering if her family will forget about her like the rest of our society does older folk. A young woman in high heels and high hopes pushes a trolley of stacked luggage through the automatic gate, visibly nervous until a young man sheepishly dashes towards her smothering her with kisses, forgetting to hand her the red roses he’d gotten in lieu of a red carpet.
I wonder if I would ever live this euphoric kind of love again, where you forget where you are and who’s around, and see only one person: your love. I thought I’d found it. Perhaps I really did but the circumstances were not right. Or perhaps I was in love with the idea of being in love, waking up next to someone who thought the world of me, someone I admired and enjoyed spending time and concocting promises with. Whatever it was, I was in it…deep. Too deep to notice the light above dissipating and leaving me in the dark. For years I was in the dark, until one day I woke up in an empty bed, if you don’t count the laden tissues and the empty vacuum that threatened to swallow me whole.
I wonder as I watch people rushing in all directions on the gleaming floor, did Miranda leaving also leave you empty and broken? That’s how I felt…for months!
But one day, in a public bathroom of all places, written in purple lipstick, I read, “Don’t say it broke my heart... say it broke me open!” All the way home that day, I thought about that sentence. It was true; heartbreak had made me softer, more able to hold space for those who are hurting, attempting to hide their suffering; tear up when I watched the reunited lovers' farewell scene in Cast Away with different, knowing eyes; smile big when I went to weddings, rejoicing in people’s love. In a way, that heartbreak taught me how to let go of want and desire for things to be a certain way and welcome in whatever good comes into my life.
I will not wait for you, the renewed subject of my dreams, here and make a big deal out of it. I’ll wait at Starbucks as we already agreed. When you haven’t seen someone for sixteen years, you should first dip a toe in the waters lest you throw yourself into the cold waters of disappointment, or, worse still, the tepid waters of indifference.
I look at my watch and decide to allow myself ten more minutes of basking in some strangers’ bliss before I wheel my lone suitcase upstairs to check that my carefully styled hair is still in place and my skin is luminous yet not shiny. I look at myself in the mirror and wonder if you will recognize me. I mean, you’ve seen photos of me on various social media platforms over the past sixteen years, but of course those are my best photos, the few select photos with good lighting, angle and pose. What if you are disappointed when you see me in the flesh? What if you don’t like the ring of my laugh, the curve of my neck, the way I fiddle with sugar packets? I’ve definitely changed since we graduated from medical school and went our separate ways, making me more of the person I’ve always wanted to be, but what if you don’t like the new me?
Over the past few months, our conversations have intensified. We talked about our careers, good hospitals, bad hospitals, successes and failures. We glossed over our failed marriages; no heavy conversations in the ether.
Last week we had our first video call. It wasn’t easy since we live on two opposite ends of the globe, but we made it work. I made sure to sit in front of the big bedroom window, placing the phone on a stack of books so I would look fresh and youthful. You looked even more handsome than the last time I saw you. You’ve kept all your hair, greying at the temples, adding new gravitas and mystery to your stubbly face. How is this fair?
Even though you're in the clouds and offline, I check my phone for the thousandth time–force of new habit– while attempting to sip my coffee without letting my shaking hands spill it all over my new dress. I never told you this, but this dress was bought in your honor–I wonder if blue is still your favorite color. I found this one at the end of a long rack of dresses promising different promises. This one winked at me, promising to make me look voluptuous and feminine without trying too hard or revealing anything. As I lined up at the cashier, I prayed that you would like it. That you would like me! The girl who always measured men by you. The girl who thought of you whenever she caught a glimpse of a tall, broad-shouldered man with a blue wool scarf.
See, when you and Miranda stumbled into the dorm room Miranda and I shared that humid August night, announcing that you were now officially together, I was genuinely happy for you both despite the thorny hand that tightened around my budding heart. I secretly wished that you’d choose me.
The next few years were spent between me trying to stay away from your flaming light and aching to be bask in it.
I don’t think I was exactly in love with you, but I found myself glued to Miranda so I’d hear more about you, see more of you, or simply be looked at by you. It was like I enjoyed your love for her, or perhaps found solace in imagining what it must feel like to be loved by you. The way you played your guitar at parties, looking at her adoringly; the way you instinctively ran your fingers down her back while she animatedly told stories about her childhood on the farm; the way you wrote her poetry.
Oh, the poetry! That delicious forbidden fruit. If I were to go to hell one day, it would be for secretly reading your poems to Miranda while she was out.
And then I see you! You’re wearing navy suit pants and a grey cardigan, and yes, a blue wool scarf. Just like when I was nineteen, my heart flutters when I see your smiling face getting closer. I watch the young woman who sizes you up without you even noticing and feel a foolish sense of pride that it’s me you’re looking at.
We do the awkward dance of how to greet each other. You’d sent me kiss emojis before, but do these translate to real-life kisses, on the cheek, perhaps? A handshake, perhaps? Surely not a handshake! We settle on a poorly choreographed hug; you almost elbow my eye as you lean down for a don’t-get-up hug, while I get up for a give-me-a-proper-one hug.
We laugh like flabby-limbed teenagers as we take our seats.
“Look at that radiant face!” you say, “Is that why you became a dermatologist, so you can look like this while we the rest of us wilt and wither?”
I blush. Gosh, why does my face do that?
“THAT, right there, is how I always remember you!” you say again, pointing at my face, leaning closer, “Blushing and sweet.”
But that’s how I remember you too, I think to myself, blushing and sweet. We used to call you Bashful Barry. Sweetly and gently masculine.
“So, are you all ready for your big surgery?” I try to sound casual as I escape your gaze.
“Yeah, well, it’s not that big, really,” you lean back in your seat and cross your arms, “It’s a routine open heart surgery.”
“ ‘A routine open heart surgery’ he says!” I chime, “look at you, Dr. Barry Adams, opening people’s hearts like it’s nobody’s business!”
My heart is already wide open, I think to myself. Please claim it!
Unbeknownst to you, back when we were naive and high on youth and the illusion that we owned the world, you were the sun in my universe. One day looking at you walked toward Miranda and me with two ice cream cones, I remembered Mrs Jackobson explaining in year 5 that the moon is a dark object that borrows its light from the sun. Back then, all I could think about was how the blinding brilliance of your invisible calm charm made people around you brilliant too. I liked Miranda, and myself, much more in your field of luminosity than when you were away. It felt like we were moons, grey and drab without your warmth.
You laugh at my remark. It’s a new laugh I don’t recognise. The bored, booming laugh of someone who’s used to delivering miracles, knowing a whole person’s life depended on the skill of his hands and steadiness of his scalpel.
Overhead, a female airport employee's voice urges, for the last time, a Mr Sumani to catch his departing plane.
I shift in my cold, metal seat and lean forward, “And do you still play the guitar like it’s nobody’s business?”
“The what? Oh, Sarah, I haven’t played the guitar for about….” you pause to do the math, “seven years!”
“Oh…” I stumble, “well, that makes me very sad!”
“Nah, don’t be!” you swat at the air, “who has the time for that?”
I do, I think again, I’d give up most things in the world to see you tune your guitar covered in stickers and signatures. I’d swoon all over again.
But of course I don’t tell you any of that. I just nod slowly.
“Do you still dance, Sarah?” you say with genuine interest.
I smile at the thought of you remembering me deliriously, drunkenly dancing around an open fire at the beach or at a roof party above someone’s student flat. Hair wild, slapping the air and arms reaching for the sky.
“Of couse I do!” I smile. I don’t tell you this, but I dance every single day; at the gym, in the bathroom, at parties of one and parties of many. Sometimes when I’m dancing, I feel that all I need is wings, covered in glitter, and I’d lift off.
“I’d very much like to see that one day!” your eyes smile..
“That can be easily arranged… in exchange for a poem!” I blush again.
“Poem?” you squint, genuinely perplexed.
“Those poems you used to write!” I whisper, not quite meeting your confused eyes.
“Oh! Those!” a flicker of recognition crosses your face, as if I was bringing up ancient, dust laden history.
I look up at you expectantly. Yes, those, fairy dust and dreams on rose-colored paper, wrapped around a rose. Meant for someone else but forever cherished by me.
The air of recognition fades and in its place, a cloud of resentment invades.
“Nah, those were childish attempts at wooing the girl who would eventually break my heart!” you smile ruefully.
You see the horror in my disbelieving eyes and defensively say, “She called them cute!”
“Does it matter what one person calls the nectar of your heart and soul?” I feel the agitation in my own voice, as if those were my poems. As if I was the one giving up the soft, special side of myself because it was rejected.
You laugh, entirely maliciouslessly, “You’re starting to sound like star-eyed Barry, the boy I once was!”
You reach over to touch my shoulder, but I subtly rotate my shoulder back, letting your warm hand slowly slide down my sleeve.
“Oh, look, they’re calling my flight!” I suddenly say.
You look around as if that would help you hear something that has just escaped your ears, then you look at your watch, then back at me again.
I gather my stuff avoiding your watchful eyes.
“OK, let me walk you there!” you get up, grabbing your carry-on.
“It’s fine, really!” I say, folding my coat over my forearm.
“I insist,” you mutter.
I walk with you, this new you, paces apart through a sea of travellers, searching for their own poems in new places, new faces.
We reach the departure area. I look up at your chiseled face and questioning eyes.
“Good luck with your open heart surgery!” I say. As it turns out, you can open strangers’ hearts with your skillful knife, but you’ve closed your own heart with the knife of life.
But the knife of life is more of a chalice, laced with poison. We all have to take a sip. Some of us it reduces to a husk, and some of us it purifies.
There’s no in-between.
You bend for one last embrace. It’s tight and desperate.
“‘Til next time?” you whisper.
“‘Til next time…” I say.
Behind you, outside the vast glass panes, the sun noticeably fades behind the resting planes. I would've wanted to be your sun, help you shine bright, like you used to. Give back in a way. But alas, it seems there will be no more moonlight--at least not tonight. For a moon to receive light and fill up the sky, it has to be whole. It has to be ready.
I look at the people saying their farewells and goodbyes. Some crying hysterically, some waving resignedly, some perhaps sighing a sigh of relief.
Departures are also promises. Sometimes your promises of never forgetting someone are simply naive, unaware of what surprises life has in store for you. Sometimes your promises are deliberately misleading, saying with your lips that you will come back soon or at least keep in touch, but deep in your open heart, you just know.