I was running on zero sleep, but just standing in line waiting to go through security at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville caused hope to flicker inside of me: could I make it?
At least I was being proactive, moving in a direction. Undesirable circumstances are bad enough without the feeling helpless to change them. When God rips the ceiling off my small, egocentric world and reveals how little control I have over my life, I get cranky.
At 4:55pm the previous afternoon I opened my passport, and my stomach lurched when I saw the expiration date—May 18, 2009. I was too upset to cry, frozen with anxiety. I needed to renew my passport and fly to Turks and Caicos for a meeting with a new client, the biggest contract of my freelance career.
My flight was supposed to touch down at 10:19am at Logan in Boston, and my appointment at the Regional Passport Agency was at 10:30 in the heart of downtown. I was going for it. What other choice did I have? Shrivel up and die? Funerals are expensive, and though my parents have a life insurance policy for me for that very purpose, they’re pretty busy right now.
When I hurried up to my gate, I saw a line, and the man in front of me said that boarding was about to begin. I was able to take a deep breath. I’d made my flight.
Once we were in the air, I fell asleep and didn’t wake until the plane touched down in Atlanta. My next gate was in another terminal, so I had to take the train to get there.
When I lose sleep, I stop talking. Anyone who knows me well would tell you that is a miracle, but it’s true. When I do open my mouth, sarcasm spills out. I save my words because I need to direct my full focus toward not being a jerk.
Racing through a hectic airport at 7am with no guarantee of making my stand-by connection would have made me volatile if I hadn’t had a hinge on the back of it and someone hadn’t lifted the lid and scooped my brain out. My head felt light, and I had trouble focusing my thoughts.
The woman at the Delta desk was very nice. I explained my situation, and she said she’d do everything she could to ensure I was on that plane.
I chose one of the padded grey chairs without those blackened gum scars and pondered the variables outside of my control:
Do appointments at regional passport agencies have “hard” or “soft” start times? Were they more like going to the doctor or getting married? If I was late, would anyone care or notice, or would some sour-faced government agent escort me to the curb and say the equivalent in American English of “bugger off”?
My more immediate concern was whether or not “CHU/A” would move from the gray highlighted field on the sign to the green one. I really wanted the sign to move me to the green field, which would mean that I was an official passenger and no longer on stand-by.
Stress always causes us to fixate on trivialities, details that we otherwise would have ignored.
Hmm, my cell phone is so dirty. How did it get so dirty? It’s always in my pocket or on the table. The screen looks like someone licked it.
That man over there in the duster jacket has pigtails and snakeskin boots. Why did his wife let him leave the house looking like that. Maybe her head is shaved.
I want an Everything bagel, sliced and toasted, with regular cream cheese. I’d also like a mango smoothie please.
Why do I live so close to the Smokies, have all the necessary gear, and never go camping? That’s sad.
Transversing a metropolis in 11 minutes is improbable. My life is chaos.
Why does my head feel like it is floating? Where did my neck go? Who took my brain?
People began to coagulate in front of the desk and board the plane.
One by one, the names ahead of mine on the list moved from gray to green. I was number 7 out of 7. Nice.
Only a handful of people were left when the rectangle behind my name turned green.
I said a prayer of Thanksgiving.
I was of the last people on the plane. My eyes were following the row numbers below the overhead baggage compartment. Middle seat. Crappers. I looked down.
Both of the two men sitting on my row outweighed me by at least 100 pounds. I stared at the twenty inches of room left between them.
At least I made the flight.
“I think that’s my seat,” I said. The man on the aisle nodded without speaking or smiling and heaved himself out of his seat while I wedged my backpack into the overhead compartment.
I should have taken off my jacket, but I forgot. Though I am no engineer, I was proud of executing this difficult maneuver in such tight confines. Imagine taking off your pants inside a coffin, and you’ll understand.
I should have known I was in for an interesting flight when the man to my left in the aisle seat took out a women’s magazine. My friend Mark who got me the ticket for the flight pointed out later that he must have brought it with him because that 7:45am flight is most likely the first one leaving Atlanta for Boston in the morning.
I watched out of the corner of my eye as he thumbed through the magazine. He stopped at each one of the fold-out perfume advertisements, ripped it out, and stuffed it into the seat-back pocket. He didn’t stop there, but also tore out the ragged edges still left in the magazines. These scraps of paper he sprinkled in the same place.
And for what purpose? So he didn’t have to smell hints of perfume while reading a women’s magazine? Isn’t that kind of what you sign up for when you’re a man reading Vogue? I don’t have much experience in the area, so I don’t know for sure.
He was a stewardess’s nightmare, making a pointless mess that was difficult to clean up.
Pretty soon, we were airborne, and I was exhausted, I didn’t care anymore.
We hit cruising altitude, and as I drifted off to sleep, the man’s right knee knocked my left knee.
He must wiggling around in his seat, I thought.
After about the fourth or fifth time it happened, however, I realized he was doing it on purpose.
I opened my eyes and looked at him.
“You’re crowding me,” he said. “You’re falling asleep and stretching out your legs like this.” He moved his legs so far apart that his left knee was in the middle of the aisle.
As I mentioned before, I don’t like to talk when I’m sleep deprived. I know myself and my impatience. That being said, I was happy to make an exception this time.
“I disagree,” I responded, looking him full in the face.
Why he was failing to see the obvious puzzled me: he was twice my size. His shoulders came so far over the armrests that I had no choice but to put my elbows in front of my torso.
“You’re also bowing up your elbows like this,” he said and motioned as if he were pumping up a bike tire.
The guy had just accused me of doing the Funky Chicken in my sleep.
“I’m doing the best I can over here,” he added, shrugging and sticking out his bottom lip, as if to commend himself on his martyr-like patience and self-denial.
I should have known the OCD behavior with the magazine would find a new outlet.
“Sir,” I kept my anger on a low simmer, “neither one of us has much room, but let’s work something out so that we can both have a pleasant flight.”
“Whatever,” he spat at me and put in his ear buds.
Someone said that to get to heaven you have to pass through hell. Comforting.