Airports are prime locations for many things:
Catching a domestic or – if you’re really getting after it – an international flight is exciting if not simply anxiety-inducing (an arguably beneficial thing to occasion upon).
And every airport is slightly different with what they’ll let you get away with and how much fun it’ll be to go through. Some domestic gauntlets are outrageous, like Denver directly after nine eleven – I had a friend nearly pulled into a side room over his Swiss Army knife (inch long blade, tweezers, can opener, toothpick).
Yet, some international terminals are so streamlined it’s like an intricate, unintrusive funhouse. Sydney is like this. The arrival there rivals the ease of departure, customs and immigration doing their job on both sides without being ridiculous about it and it’s straightforward, a little labyrinthine, but altogether pleasant and intuitive.
Flying is so amazingly common that we confuse it with being ordinary. But it’s not. The model-city effect when the plane rises in the air, the view of all the ants scurrying about on grids and concrete veins, and just the sheer magnitude of all that machine packed with meat making its way at hundreds of miles an hour, thousands of miles in the air, from one place on the planet to another. It’s incredible.
I love everything about airports except the last thing.
Terminals are the second thing. Really just the whole physical airport itself.
Even the smallest airports have unique character and design to them. Artwork and exhibits and smoke rooms and prayer rooms. Some terminals are connected by trams and moving walkways, escalators, elevators, food courts, duty-free parlors and a whole mess of phony things we seem to only tolerate in airports and malls.
It’s all so bright and busy. They’re circular, longways, haphazard, and sometimes symmetrical and easy to navigate. There are multiple languages on signs and every PA system has its own quirks (usually annoyingly so).
Terminals always enliven my imagination with action film and video game tropes, enclosed areas that are ripe for exploring, small little worlds really. Microcosms of the country they reside, and even the blandest design seems to me a lesson in engineering and architecture. I’d love to visit them all and just sit at a bar to soak in the vibe.
Speaking of bars!
I adore airport bars because they don’t turn their noses up if you have a beer at nine thirty, although more and more it’s hard to find airports that are so accommodating. The two terminal, six gate setup in Juarez served me four Modelos before eleven in the morning, and nobody gave me a second glance.
Everyone has their own business and have come from everywhere and it could be early evening their time so bring it. A drink is a natural thing in the face of such an unnatural phenomenon, where tubes skip into the sky and float with hundreds of people on board for hundreds of miles before flopping back onto the surface of the planet. Flying is strange, drinking helps.
There is no drinking in an Indian airport. It’s mostly… well, I didn’t really notice more than a book shop, a saree outlet, and maybe a café inside the terminal but none of it interested me because –
People-watching. A great pastime, especially at airports.
Because every airport is a people zoo, and you could stand in a terminal and take notes on the cultural idiosyncrasies of wherever you are from open to close without a dull moment. But, airports back home are mostly full of familiar performances, plays I’ve already seen and acted in. The Cochin International Airport had all new exhibits to witness and for Fay and me, the only white people there at the time, it was a lot of being people-watched as well.
Nobody else was snogging in the terminal. We didn’t lay it on thick, but there just isn’t any of that going on publicly in Kochi. LAX would be creepy with nobody hanging on each other or jumping into hugs or sucking face. It’d be clinical and cold. The airport in Kochi was plenty comfy and close without shows of affection, but it was also too small for anyone to really blend in; more like a family reunion or a school fair, maybe a really busy train station.
Many American terminals are full-on amusement parks, packed with shops and places to sit down and eat. The restaurants inside American airports are sometimes busier and louder than the ones out on the street. Cochin was pretty straightforward and quiet.
Everyone kept to themselves and the feeling of being watched didn’t last long, so we sat with each other and prepared for the last part.
Back in the day, you wouldn’t say, “see ya,” to your parents until you were actually boarding the plane. People could go into the terminal and see their loved ones get into the giant winged vehicle they’d be leaving the ground in, and people might even wave stupidly at the plane as it took off in the distance.
Not so, anymore. And for good reasons, sure, but that’s not what this is about. This is about the unique experience of saying goodbye to someone as they leave into another room and wait before they actually depart. It’s infuriating and diminishing.
My flight back to Sydney was two hours after Fay’s flight, which meant I couldn’t even check in before she was going through the security screenings and into the terminal.
When I was twelve I was finally allowed to fly on my own. I started going to the terminal on my own and it was such a rush of freedom. Mom gave me twenty bucks? Looks like I’m getting all the gummy worms I can hold (two bags) and nobody can tell me any different. I’d wander around looking at everything and nothing until right before I had to board the plane and then I’d bend my neck to the thrill of so much Gameboy, step, play, step, they’d take my ticket and I wouldn’t look up until take off. I’ve always loved being alone in an airport.
“Maybe I should go,” Fay said after she had checked in and we were standing about with nothing to say. “This isn’t making it any easier.”
I agreed, but held onto her a bit.
Behind us, high on the wall, there was a digital clock that said in angry red: 20:00
She had fifty minutes until her flight would start boarding and the lines at security were short. There was still no telling exactly how long it might take, however, because the scanners and x-rays disappeared around a corner and you just never know until you’ve already gotten to the other side.
“Wait until eight oh five?”
So we sat on a luggage wrap station, no chairs nearby. There were two areas with seating, but less than twenty seats to each and all full of other travelers. The terminals were a bit more spacious; there wasn’t much reason to be in the check-in area waiting. But I’d soon be doing just that, because the clock read 20:06 the next time I looked.
“Half eight?” She suggested.
“Maybe eight fifteen.”
And we kissed. Then something began welling up inside me and we stood into a hug so that we wouldn’t see each other crying. There was murmuring and all that, then she said, “I don’t want to go.” And I said, “Don’t.”
But the clock said: 20:14! I swear it was blinking.
“I should go.”
“Yes,” My eyes had all kinds of sweat in them. “Want me to walk over with you?”
“No,” she shook her head and grabbed her bags and we said the things that you say when the crowd around you is a blur and you only see each other. She began walking away and I stood there with a dusty chalkboard for a brain. She said not to walk with her and it’d be cliché to run after her for one more kiss, but I was already doing it and I actually don’t know if anybody watched us. Most of the time I know even if I pretend that I don’t, but I actually didn’t look at a single other face in that hall packed with cardboard cutouts.
She turned when she heard my floppy feet and smiled, not expecting it and yet not being surprised so much as grateful. It was the right thing to do. I put my hands on her arms.
“I ran up here because I have to pee,” I nodded to the toilets on the right.
She kissed me and we said how we felt again. She walked a short distance away and returned for one last.
“I really have to go,” she said with irritated, but still seawater bluegreen eyes.
We smiled at our own drama and because it might push it down a bit. I took a deep breath and watched her approach the immigration officers and their smart uniforms.
I’ve actually only said goodbye at an airport once before this time. And it had been with the same person, back when we’d first met.
I’d cried then, too.
Because goodbyes are tricky. When someone says goodbye at your door and maybe you watch them go to their car or you walk them, it’s a five minute ordeal at most and they aren’t going so far away.
When you say goodbye over the phone there may be some cheeky back and forth over who hangs up, who says goodbye last. Then, click. Done.
When you say goodbye at an airport you have to watch so much of the leaving and you never get to actually see them go, or have evidence that they’re arrived somewhere else. The person you love just disappears behind a corner and sits somewhere else for a bit, alone. And you’re alone, too.
I waved at her as she rounded the corner and tried to do an etch-a-sketch of her smile just for the challenge of it not for any corny reason.
I used the toilet and paced the check-in lanes. Finally, the one for my airline opened and I got it sorted, went through security, put my bags through the thing, removed my belt and laptop and threw away the paints I’d brought with me because the rules were strangely stricter compared to first world countries. The immigration officers in Kochi seemed like actual military members, not just flab stuffed into uniforms.
Once it was finished, I made for the terminal and looked at the departure screen.
Her flight had left two minutes before I got there.
I couldn’t even wave stupidly. So, I just slunk to my gate and sat for two hours probably reading or something.
The more you draw out a goodbye, the more something it gets. Sadder, duller, more awkward or boring, but in our case it really couldn’t have been drawn out enough because after multiple goodbyes and declarations I still felt as if she had been taken from me and not that we’d gotten to say our peace. But what more can you say but goodbye when someone flies away? It’s a shit deal regardless of where or when if you don’t want it to happen.
And there wasn’t even anywhere to have a drink.
I waited for my turn to leave and tried not to think.
(I didn't know at the time I wrote this how to end it, and I still don't. But, here are some words from a much better writer than myself:
"Don't be dismayed at good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends."
- from Illusions, by Richard Bach)