I once rode two consecutive 14 hour trans-atlantic flights from Chicago to Manchester and back, and when I arrived back in Chicago I still had roughly 150 miles to my apartment. I ended up moving all the way back to Phoenix in order to stay with my parents and work towards saving the money to do it again. What fools love lets us be, huh?
I’d been researching and planning for months. I wanted to do everything right, everything legal, and with no secrecy. My family knew what I was doing. They were unhelpful and discouraging, but I can’t hide things like “I’m in love and going to move in with him for a few months.” Way to fit into a sexist stereotype huh? Woman in her mid-twenties dropping everything to go be with her boyfriend, it’s pretty cliche really. I didn’t care, it was the focus of my life.
It had to be the focus, I had to pour my entire life into it – how else do you make a fantasy become reality? It required utter devotion. Two extremely poor lovers from across the globe, very obviously putting the cart before the horse. Or in this case the unicorn, heh.
This visit was supposed to be the first steps in the process of making our lives together legal and official. For all my research, I knew that we must have a face-to-face meeting to qualify for any kind of VISA and even better if we’d gotten to spend some actual time together. Government websites are intentionally difficult to interpret, but I was sure I understood that I would be allowed up to six months visitation before requiring VISA. He had a steady job and home; he was willing and eager to feed and house (and cuddle!) me for the three months we had intended. We wanted to be sure that we wanted to marry and live together. We’d already spent three years in constant contact with every intimacy available except for touch. We knew we were living a fantasy, and wanted to prove it real.
I bought a one-way ticket to Heathrow Airport. He was planning on paying for my ticket home when it was closer to time for me to leave; this was one of our mistakes and one of my first lessons in how being poor limits one’s freedoms.
I lived in Davenport, Iowa at the time; my reasons for being there instead of my parents’ home in Phoenix are part of another story, but suffice it to say, very quickly the point of everything I did was to finally see him. I worked, I researched, I planned, I saved. I had about $500 when I arrived at Heathrow, which I had stupidly converted to GPB while still in Chicago ; so eager I was to forge this new life. Confidence, action; I was full of it. (*rimshot*) I enjoyed a small gin & tonic on the flight and told a beautiful young stewardess my story. She was so happy for me, she cried with me.
I had my sexiest tight corduroy pants on, and a tight little zippered knit shirt, unzipped partially to show just the perfect amount of cleavage. I was smokin’. I was a size seven at the time, for fucks sake, hah. Red hair down to my ass, I pulled it out of the loose ponytail I’d kept it in for the flight and combed and preened – the look in my eyes must have been maniacal. I was only moments away from touching his face. We were landing; I saw trees and pavement and buildings outside my window, and already my eyes were scanning for sight of him. Of course he wouldn’t be on the runway, silly Rena.
When we finally de-boarded, I was in a long curved hallway waiting with the other former passengers in a que that led to a row of podiums with people stamping passports. The young backpack beleaguered fellow in front of me expressed worry that his student papers would cause trouble. I was confident in my research, I knew every aspect of the process and was already searching the door and windows at the far end, hoping to see him waiting for me.
I don’t even remember what exactly was said once I got my turn at the podium. Student-guy ahead of me got stamped and waved through in less than a minute.
She was tall and had a long face and very long black hair – if she were fatter I’d have sworn she was Anne Rice, hah. She didn’t like the fact that I’d brought my Birth Certificate with me. I said that I assumed any and all forms of identification would be a good thing to have rather than not have. She rolled her eyes. Tapped the edge of my manilla folder on the podium to punctuate her obvious decision. She asked me to show the money I brought. When I did she rolled her eyes again and said, “This isn’t enough to stay for a week, let alone three months.”
Needless to say, all air of confidence was now completely dissipated. I searched with my eyes behind her again, hoping to see him and that he would be able to say something.I told her who I was waiting for, explained where he works and that he intends on supporting me and if I could only just see him! She told me to take my bags in hand, obviously to allow the que to pass through as I was now holding it up. She brought me to a very small glass-walled room inside a series of offices. A holding cell. There were signs posted both inside and outside stating that it was definitely not okay to make a run for the gate. I waited, I sat. I saw the lady at a desk on the phone. I got permission to go back down the curved hallway to go bathroom. The women’s room was closed and locked, claiming ‘Out of Order’. I used the men’s. I remember the toilet being of a shape and depth I’d never seen before. I went back to my smelly holding cell bench. I waited, I sat. She came back and took me to another small room with a big chunky black telephone receiver hanging on a piece of thickly painted wood. She told me she had gotten ahold of him on the phone and that I may speak to him.
I don’t remember that conversation at all. I just couldn’t believe that he was in the same building as me, yet here I was hearing his voice through the wires of a telephone. I cried. I begged, “Tell them you’re here for me!” He was there, he had told him all that, he had begged and cried too. I don’t know what the point of giving me that phonecall was,as the decision had already been made; perhaps she did grant me that one mercy. She was sending me back on the very next return flight.
I asked her, “May I at least see him first?” I knew this was the one thing I needed to make our relationship legal in the eyes of either of our governments’. She knew this too. Perhaps I’m angry and prejudiced, but I got the feeling that she didn’t want a yank slag to get hands on one of her boys.
“You don’t have permission to cross the customs gate, and he can’t cross without a ticket for a flight.” Then she promptly had me gather my things and then escorted me across customs gate. She flashed a badge a few times, explained I was a special case and that she was taking me to be searched. She kept calling me “The Girl” with that high-falootin’ posh “gehhhhllllll”. We walked through what looked like some sort of food court or mall. There were loads of people, bustling and relaxing and oblivious to the frantic desperation roiling inside me. I couldn’t see in enough directions fast enough. With every ounce of “Where’s Waldo” practice I could squeeze into my eyes, I hunted the scene for sight of him. He’s still in the building, there’s still chance I could break free and hug him! I’m not getting arrested for fighting with this biddy old broad but by god I’ll take a night in the poke if I could just touch him!
We were joined by a uniformed officer of some type (police? airport security? customs? friggin Interpol?) who led us into a seemingly abandoned luggage search room. I remember folding tables. The officer stood by the door staring off into wonderland as the woman opened all my bags and went through each item. I don’t know what she was looking for – I assume it was a matter of protocol regarding luggage checks before re-boarding a new flight. Cuz that’s where I was going, straight back onto another plane.
She huffed when she found the two cartons of cigarettes I had packed. I still don’t know why that’s a bad idea to bring with you, if you’re a smoker of course. Again, I think it had to do with me being poor enough to consider bringing a supply – see, already this yank is avoiding taxes!
She rolled her eyes again when she got to the box of condoms. I shrugged. Way to attempt to shame me for doing the responsible thing. It’s like being ashamed of having a box of band-aids; “Well surely you must be planning to get cut if you brought these bandages along.” That kind of attitude; fuck your slut-shaming lady, I’m glad you enjoy the patriarchy. In retrospect, ten bucks says she was a Catholic.
So she went through all my stuff, and I had to repack it. None of the items were taken, removed or denied. Gathered it all up and carried it back through that foodcourt area to the ticket purchasing booths. A silly parade with me following behind her, duffel and luggage and purse straps hanging at all angles from my neck and my wrists in some kind of futuristic parody of a slave being led off the boat for the first time. Following their roles in this scene, the hordes around me chattered on, understandably oblivious to the tiny whirlwind of trapped rage that walked amongst them.
I kept looking around, still searching, still knowing that I was at least on the same fucking continent as him and maybe he hadn’t left yet and we were definitely far enough into the airport that he might have been there too…
We stopped finally at a counter behind which a fair and fat man sat on a stool. I don’t remember the name of the airline. I was still whipping my head back and forth looking for him. The woman slapped the papers in her hand down on the counter and explained to the man that she was with Customs/Immigration and that I was to be sent on the next flight to O’Hare. The man told her that there was not another one for twenty-four hours. She said that today’s flight had not yet left and that I should be put on that one. The man resisted, explaining that it had already boarded and they were no longer able to sell seats on it, but she stopped him cold with a direct order that if I am not put on this flight his airline will be charged by Customs for the room and board I will require for the night (for a split second I welcomed this idea, as it retained the possibility of still getting to see him).
He very quickly found a seat to sell me. He asked me how much money I had. I don’t remember how much it was that was left after conversion, but it was something like £300. It also wasn’t nearly enough to pay for the ticket. I just shrugged and stared at the Customs Lady, cuz hey wtf else could I do, hah. The Ticket Guy surely saw no other option, and just accepted what I did have. So they took all my money. I still had around $5 in USD and change in a pocket. That was it.
I don’t remember being led all the way back through the gates and past the podiums and through that curved hallway. I remember the lady stuffing papers in my hand and saying “If you ever come back, be sure to show these!” I remember thinking “Yeah right, my ‘don’t come here’ papers.” Approaching the portal walkway and passing through the door hatch into the cabin, that part is burned into my vision; with the breathless horror of one who is shoved through a space station airlock, sealed in and ejected into space.
A faceless stewardess led me to a seat which was at the very front of the cabin section, which had no seats in front of it and thus lots of room. Everyone had already boarded, I was the last one. I’m sure they had been holding the plane for me.
Everyone was faceless. I couldn’t see. I was sitting in between a family with some small children. They weren’t american or british; I didn’t try to identify their language. The children were climbing everywhere, loud and annoying. I stared forward in blank horror. The stewardess might have noticed the poor placement of a woman who looked like she just witnessed the death of a loved one between a big rambunctious family, or perhaps another passenger (or even one of the rambunctious family) mentioned something to her, because I was told I may take another seat in a quieter place. Gratefully I moved to the seat she offered me, which was between an older woman and another person I don’t remember. I continued to stare in mute horror. If ever a face fell, mine was in my lap that day.
I felt the planes’ engines as they gripped the fuselage and pushed it down the tarmac into position. I felt gravity sink my guts as the wheels let go of the pavement and I was off, headed the wrong direction. Away, my back to him without ever having seen his face in front of mine.
When it was permitted, I pulled down the little lap table and passed out on it. I don’t remember the person to my right, but I felt sorry for the older lady to my left, who had to spend the whole time with her nose in the air turned away from my pain. I don’t blame her, who wants to sit next to that? I don’t remember if my sobs were audible; surely she noticed none the less. If she ever sees this – I apologize for the shitty flight you very probably had sitting next to me.
I slept mostly. I don’t remember the flight back, I passed out a lot. I missed being served food at one point (perhaps the stewardess thought I’d rather not be woken?), but it’s not like I could have stood to eat anything anyway.
I really needed the sleep. What the hell was I gonna do when I landed anyway? I had given my cellphone to the woman who drove me to the airport in the first place – I didn’t think I was going to need it anymore. From the airport to my apartment (and thus anybody I knew who could help me) was around 150 miles!
How was I even going to get out of the airport?