A bitter and muddy aftertaste tingled on my palette. Even the smell of it burns my nostrils as I take another mouthful. I would be more relaxed and satisfied at my usual morning haunt. Instead, I settle for the ‘good enough’ imitation of my daily ritual. Familiar and friendly faces swapped with clanging luggage trollies and raised voices attempting to order through language barriers. Still, I would gladly remain hidden amongst the caffeinated chaos rather than face what awaited me at home.
I stare at the scraps of blueberries on my plate, wondering how I managed to consume the dry abomination that once imprisoned them. At least the need to moisten my mouth forced the completion of my brown sludge. If I hadn’t, I might have choked and spat the stale treat all over the United Nations of strangers surrounding me. All of whom are huddled around the only table where we can replenish the life force of the numerous devices essential to air travel.
Why do they insist on making these transient establishments seem as warm and inviting as their real-world counterparts? I say the real world because everything between the body scanners and the attendant welcoming me aboard exists in another dimension.
If only I could stay in this dimension right now. I was reluctant to step through the portal to enter it, and the thought of stepping out the other side was causing my flight or fight instincts to kick in. Would anyone notice if I stayed here forever? Forever drinking this offensive brew and devouring everything in the dilapidated pastry case. The contents of which all appeared to have been baked a year ago.
‘Mind if I sit here, mate?’ Came the voice of a talking man-bun. Given the tangled USB mess he had already scattered, he was only asking as a courtesy. The tilt of my head was all the acknowledgement I cared to give.
If there was a poster child for the experienced world traveller, this man was it. He probably used to fill out his olive-coloured clothing in a more flattering way. Although, whatever around-the-world tour he had been on had not completely deflated his flattering physique. The orgy of wristbands should have caused his hands to drop off by now from circulation loss. And the word mate organically rolled off his tongue, telling me he was a fellow Australian.
‘Coffee any good, bro?’ Now, I am his bro and his mate—the joys of talking to random straight men in an airport.
‘I’ve had worse.’ My scintillating small talk was bound to make him fall in love with me.
‘Yeah, I hear that, my man.’ My man, indeed. ‘I am jonesing for a real cup of Melbourne joe. Been out of the country for almost twelve months.’ There it is.
‘You don’t say.’ I am not sure I could sound more sarcastic.
‘You on the Melbourne flight, brother?’
‘Yep.’ I wonder if he can tell how uninterested I am.
‘Sick, where in Melbs are you from?’ Nope, he is in this for the long haul.
‘Caulfield South, how about you?’
‘Got no fixed address right now. I will probably crash with some mates in Saint Kilda until I figure out what's next. Seeing the world has made me realise I am not meant to stay in one place. Life is too short, and the world is so fucking big. You know what I mean?’
He was a walking cliche but cute with a disarming smile, so I relaxed slightly. Striking up a conversation might give me an excuse to order another coffee and use up the last of my foreign currency. There is even the chance that it might remove the anxiety about the explaining I have to do when this journey ends.
‘Where have you been travelling?’ Who knew it was possible to sound so genuine when striking up small talk? Yet here I was, proving the impossible.
‘Just been on a business trip around a few parts of Europe.’
‘Sick. You’re lucky to travel for free with work. What do you do? Excited to go home?’
An invisible shield forms in my throat, and my body is overtaken with temporary paralysis. This bright-eyed man with a face full of dimples doesn’t know me. So why should I be bothered by his question?
‘I work in sales, and to be honest, not really. This is going to be an uncomfortable homecoming.’ My tone of voice sinks an octave as I admit my judgement day awaits. Saying it out loud for the first time allows blood to reach my limbs, and I can move again. If I were my new friend, I would use this as the perfect opportunity to bow out gracefully. It's time to leave the hard luck case to wallow in self-pity.
‘Mate,’ he says with a firm slap on my back. The force of which might have saved my life if something was stuck in my throat. I would usually reject this invasion of my personal space. Man-bun here gets away with it. ‘Sounds like the sort of thing we should unpack over a beer. Airport coffee might be shit-house, but airport beer never disappoints. Trust me, I know.’
I can’t believe I am about to say this, but ‘Yeah, why the hell not.’
‘I’m Luke.’ He says with a hand extended. I accept the greeting and wince at the cracking of every joint under his strength.
‘Shaun,’ I reply.
The lighting in most airport food courts always seems like a hate crime to the thousands of jet-lagged humans passing through. Fortunately for Luke and me, the bar we find has opted for a more relaxed atmosphere or ‘vibe,’ as my new best friend called it.
We perch ourselves at the bar and order two appetising pints. Their bubbling amber matches the mood lighting that adorns the various Guinness posters on the wall. It seems to be that every airport in the world has a pub that claims to be Irish. You can also claim to be Irish by advertising their famous beer without selling it.
Luke breaks the ice further than he already has by regaling me with stories of his adventures. The man has been everywhere, and he is a good storyteller. Although, the rate at which I finished my first two pints may have helped deepen my engagement. Each rapid shift in the plot is accentuated with undulating tones of voice and flailing limbs. His animated expressions tell me he has been dying to share a beer and his stories.
By the time the third pint has gone down, I begin to lose track of his twisting plot lines and feel a hole open in my heart again. A wave of jealousy washes over me faster than my beer buzz. This handsome, carefree spirit has it figured out. Barely even thirty, minimal cash flow, no solid roots laid down anywhere and yet he seems happy. I wonder if I can absorb his zest for life just by getting drunk with him and losing myself in his epic tale.
I did not even realise that the current story had stuck on a cliffhanger and pressure had clamped around my shoulders. I followed the source of that pressure back to Luke’s blue eyes, which were now fixed firmly on me. I am worried his eyes will dry out if he does not start blinking soon.
‘Bro,’ he says softly. ‘I’ve been doing all the talking, and you’re starting to lose interest. I think it is your turn. What’s your story?”
I have enough liquid courage coursing through my veins to discuss this with a stranger.
‘Luke, you have the most amazing life.’ I say half-heartedly. ‘I am just a piece of shit sales executive who has done something really fucked up.’
‘How fucked up are we talking her bro?’
‘Fucked up enough that I am going home expecting my whole life to be turned upside down.’
The shoulder pressure has relocated to my knee. I try to look anywhere but directly at Luke to hide my surprise at this intimate act.
‘Man, it cannot be that bad. Why don’t you try me.’
‘Fine, why don’t you get us another round whilst I take a piss.’ The liquid courage had gone right through me. ‘We can talk about it when I get back.’
The pressure on my knee glides slightly up my leg, leaving a tingle in its wake. It gently lifts, and I notice Luke winking at me, or maybe it was a nervous twitch. I am so confused and drunk right now that I can’t trust anything happening.
I stumble into the men’s room at the rear of the bar. I hold onto the walls as either my intoxication or the wet floors cause me to lose my balance. I never knew remaining upright after only three pints could be so tricky.
I enter the cubicle and find I cannot attain privacy as I am not alone. The door is closed for me by Luke, who has continued subverting my expectations of how this evening will play out. He invades my personal space once again, and the smirk on his face lets me know exactly what will happen next.
When I get home, I have something else to add to my confession list. Why do I always do this?