This is something I scratched into my notebook in the middle of a red-eye shift at the airport, sometime pre-911.
I’m sitting cross-legged on a small chair in the airport smoking room, wisps of tobacco smoke swirling up around my blonde hair. It’s about 2 am. I cough and sip my Diet Coke. A man opens the glass door, steps in. The door slams on his rolling suitcase. I hear him grumble as he frees it. Dragging it now, like it weighs two tons, he turns his head, meets my eyes and mutters, “Evening.” I nod. He sits across the room, facing me, and pulls out a pack of Player’s Light cigarettes from his suit jacket pocket. I watch as he pops a smoke between his lips and feels around for a lighter. He places it, lights his cigarette, and leans back in the chair. His tanned face seems to release, as the wrinkles on his forehead loosen. I hear him sigh.
These are the night shifts, cleaning strangers’ garbage from planes and wandering the halls of gates and ticket desks and lost midnight souls caught in the purgatory of waiting for flights. I study their faces and wonder where they’re going and where had they been?
I make up their stories.
That man grew up in Texas. His father, who owned a lot of guns, went to prison for manslaughter when he shot his friend by accident. Pained by the memories of visiting his father in prison as a child, this man before me began an anti-gun crusade and was travelling to Canada now to study our gun registration laws. His children are warned daily about the danger of guns. Two girls and a boy. They like to play capture the flag in the backyard as dusk sets in Texas two doors down from a now-free Grandaddy who still owns a lot of guns. My smoking buddy is heading home now, bags packed, ticket in hand ready for tiny peanuts and plastic wine glasses and in-flight shopping. He’ll leave his car keys on the plane and the groomers in Texas will find them as they clean up his stray peanuts from his seat. They’ll page him over the loudspeaker just before the man exits the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport and he’ll hear it and thank God they found his keys.
A woman in slippers pops into our little midnight club with a smoke already in her mouth. She’s got caramel skin and shiny black hair. She flops down in a chair three down from mine and strikes a match, lighting her cigarette. She’s flying to Manila to visit her sister who is undergoing chemotherapy for stomach cancer. She’s headed there to try and convince her sister not to try psychic surgery… you know, the sort that Andy Kaufman attempted; the type that people go to the Philippines for. Her son, engaged to a good Catholic girl, will join her in two weeks as he cannot get time off from his job at a bakery. She wishes he could have joined her tonight. She is nervous about flying. Chain-smoking from fright. Planes are not her thing. She’ll do fine though, and she’ll land and wait for her brother-in-law to pick her up at the airport and take her back to the street she grew up on. They’ll celebrate their reunion that evening with ginger tea before she falls into a deep slumber, still feeling the motion of the plane.
I look down at my watch. 2:13 am. Seven minutes left in my “lunch” break. I forgot to pack food, again, forgetting, again, that all the snack bars in the airport are closed at this time of night. My tummy rumbles and I scan the gate area for another story to keep my mind off my hunger. I see a man about my age. Twenty-one or twenty-two. He has a book in his hands. The Tommyknockers by Stephen King. He’s headed to Montreal to see his girlfriend. She’s living there for three months in an attempt to better her French. It’s all part of a program with host families and classes and field trips. Lately, her emails have felt… gushy… about one of the guys in the program from Calgary. He’s worried he might be losing her. To a Flames fan, no less. That’s why he booked the flight. That’s why he wants to visit her. He’s scanning the black on white words by Stephen King, but he’s not reading it. He’s trying to stop his mind from wandering to places that make his fists clench and his teeth grind. He hasn’t absorbed one word of The Tommyknockers, only sat in silence and reassured himself countless times that he’s just reading too much into this. Of course, he’s not. Two nights into his visit, they’ll all go out to a bar for drinks and have a few too many. He’ll notice the other man getting too close to his girlfriend and later when he is alone with her, he’ll come straight out and ask her if she would rather be with him. She’ll say yes. He’ll take it like an adult, and change his flight home to the next day. Waiting for his flight home, he’ll sit in the gate alone, scanning the pages of The Tommyknockers again, this time trying to keep his mind off his broken heart.
2:18am. I stand up, straighten out my navy blue, polyester uniform pants and walk towards the door. I grin at the woman as I pass her and slip out into the sprawling terminal. There’s a guy behind a security desk a few meters down the hall, reading the Vancouver Sun and eating an apple. A mom and two kids roll their carry-ons sleepily to the washroom. A man in a sharp suit marches in my direction with a briefcase. Each one of them with their own stories. Each one of them likely just as interesting as the next.
I watch them with fascination. I watch them in stasis in a nowhere place between cities. I watch them in their sweats and their business attire and their best dresses. I watch them curl up on benches and stare listlessly out the windows. I watch them check the time, double-check their boarding passes and triple check the gate number. I watch people pour in and out coming home, just visiting, passing through.
It's the middle of the night. I come to clean up after you. But most of the time, I just watch.