The recently landed passengers of the red-eye from Calgary to London make their way from customs to the baggage claim. All eyes are on the LED sign indicating which carousel is designated for which flight. The businessmen with small carry-on suitcases bustle past them, too well acquainted with travelling and in too much of a hurry to bother with checking a bag. I move with the flow of the crowd, letting the overeager dads who hurried to the front guide me to my destination.
My fellow passengers locate our carousel and all claim their own little spaces in the surrounding areas. I do the same, setting my overstuffed backpack onto the ground next to me, and my shoulders thank me for the gesture. As I settle in I pull my phone out of my pocket and check again for a text from my sister. Nothing. I look at our messages and verify that I got the arrival time for my flight correct when I texted it to her. I did. I put my phone away and turn my head to the passage where our bags are set to come out, the plastic blinds hanging stationary.
I raise a hand to my mouth and yawn, my eyes watering from the force of it. In my periphery, I spot several people doing just the same after me, and I smile. Even the muscles in my face feel tired. I’ve tried every trick in the book to be able to sleep on airplanes, and I’m convinced that I’ll never be able to do it. It must’ve been a full 24 hours since I last slept. Thinking about it only makes my eyes droop closed faster.
The observation that airports are more of a non-place, an in-between, than most other interior environments is one that has been made before and is popularly agreed upon in the post-9/11 world. This one feels more and more true every time I find myself in an airport.
Someone taps on my shoulder, pulling me from my stupor. I look over my shoulder at a man that looks as tired as I feel, gesturing at the tarnished silver watch on his wrist.
“Do you have the time?” He asks.
I pull out my phone. “7:45,” I say, checking the screen. No messages.
“Thanks.” He turns to walk away, then, “Oh, Merry Christmas.”
I verify the date on my phone, but he’s gone before I can say anything when I realize he’s right. I’d forgotten about the time difference. I’d been awake for an entire day and still had a full day ahead of me. The aches of sitting in a chair for eight hours and carrying an overweight backpack on my shoulders all through the customs line hit me all at once, muscles and joints screaming from the neck to my ankles. I put my phone in the back pocket of my jeans instead of in my jacket, figuring I’m more likely to feel a text come in that way.
Every Christmas my sister and I would curl up on the couch in the basement together and marathon all our favourite Christmas movies, while my parent’s watched the classics that we couldn’t stand upstairs. We would pause every couple of minutes just so we could debate who the most attractive love interest in Love Actually was, even though we had already had the debate last year, just to make sure we hadn’t changed our minds.
The baggage belt chugs to life and begins its slow rotation. Several people in the crowd around me perk up, some groups of travellers sending out a scout to keep an eye out for the bags. More frequent flyers barely react, staring into space or their phones, barely able to keep their eyes open. When bags don’t immediately start pouring through the plastic blinds, a few people get impatient, tapping their toes and letting out huffs and sighs.
Nearby me, a dad attempts to entertain his kid, who is practically bursting with energy from being required to sit for so long.
“Where are we going first?” The boy asks, trying to balance on his dad’s toes. To the dad’s credit, he’s barely wincing.
“Grandma’s first, then the party at Aunty Deb’s.”
“Will we open presents at Grandma’s?”
“But we just ate breakfast on the plane!” The boy’s voice reaches that register which is exclusive to young bratty children, so I try to tune myself into the Christmas music playing quietly over the speakers, so unobtrusive that you can barely make out the lyrics even though you know them by heart.
Several people around me start making phone calls, notifying their loved ones waiting at the arrivals gate that yes, they had landed, and yes, they’ll be out any minute now, they’re just waiting for their bags. I check my phone again, unsurprised to see nothing but my festive lock screen background.
The first of the many, many black suitcases burst forth from behind the plastic blinds, and several people rush forward, all vying for a good spot to pluck up their bags before anyone else. I lag behind, instead pulling my phone out and drafting a text to my sister. Just grabbing my bag, be out in a few minutes. I hit send and keep an eye out for my dark purple suitcase, wishing I’d chosen a more distinct colour.
My phone starts ringing before I manage to get it back in my pocket. My sister. I swipe my finger across the screen.
“Hey,” I answer, my voice scratchy from lack of sleep and probably lack of water.
“You know I can’t pick you up, right?” My sister says, voice too quiet.
“Mom said she doesn’t want you here,” she explains, “I can’t just leave, she’d be pissed.”
“You said you wanted to see me,” I reply, focusing on the spinning of the carousel, the sea of black bags, one after the other.
“I do, I do, obviously, just… I can spot you for the cab to the hotel.”
“I didn’t get a hotel.”
“There’s like, seven around the airport, the driver can take you to one. I can — Sorry, they’re starting breakfast, I gotta —“ She hangs up before the sentence is out of her mouth.
Travellers pluck their black cases off the belt one by one, steadily thinning out the sea, and at the other end of the carousel, I spot my case making its way towards me. I haul it off the belt when it gets to me, swearing it’s heavier than it was when I packed it.
I turn to look at the sliding doors heading towards the arrivals gate. Many people have already grabbed their bags and are making their way out, ready to meet their loved ones on the other side. The flood of emotion that’s only supposed to hit me on the other side hits me then, tears stinging my unrested eyes. I recall a memory I have several of, the annual memory of sitting with my sister as Hugh Grant tells us that “love actually is all around”, and mark this as the first Christmas I don’t believe him.