If someone were to ask her why she didn’t get on the plane that day, the obvious answer would be that she was afraid. What she was thinking, though, was that she just couldn’t picture herself on the plane. She was unable to board that plane because she couldn’t imagine the scene in her head before it happened. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been on a plane before, or hadn’t flown alone before, because she had, at various times, done both of those things.
She once used her savings to fly home from San Jose when her terrible boyfriend at the time decided he did not want to return home as planned but had decided to “stay and chill a bit longer,” necessitating her unplanned solo return, then took a cab ride home from the airport, which in 1998 was a large sum of money, and snuck into the house so that her parents wouldn’t be disappointed in his selfishness and her inability to pick a better mate. When she was younger, she tried to soak up each moment on short flights across the southwest, saving logo-adorned baggies of peanuts and unused barf bags, and those plastic airplane pins when they still gave those away, as souvenirs. There was a time when she enjoyed being in flight, when she felt freest when suspended between here and there. But she was tired now, and flying was no longer a novelty.
It was rather that she hadn’t done either in several years so that now, strapping into the seat with the grayed belt and hearing, even through the noise-canceling headphones, the roar of the engine and feeling her body propel forward felt like a reality she couldn’t picture, let alone live through. The fact that she couldn’t picture it kept her from living it.
Erin would also say, if asked, that it didn’t feel like it would happen from the beginning — that she knew she would never get on the plane. It was as if, since she was in total control — she bought the ticket on a whim, she was to travel alone from point A to point B — she had time to think about the existence of the trip and felt pressing indecision from this complete control. The outcome could go either way; if messed with, it jumped from its original course, and that was paralyzing to Erin. She didn’t have to go, she might not go if she pleased, and so, she didn’t. She regretted waiting so long to back out. Why had she not cancelled from home before arriving at Sea-Tac, checking her suitcase, going through security, wandering in tears to the women’s room where there was no space to wash your hands let alone to sob?
She touched the thin film of a scarf on the rack in an airport shop. This had been how she’d tried to trick her mind, back at home. She mentally offered herself gifts, like a child. A system of rewards. If you go on this trip, you can buy yourself a beautiful scarf in the shop at the airport. But her heart wasn’t in it. She didn’t want a scarf, and she realized she was wandering through the shop just to check that item off her list. She did buy a water, Cheez-Its, a salted chocolate bar for her parents, and magazines totaling nearly fifty dollars, a detail she would find annoying later, wasting all that cash on supplies for a flight she clearly had no intention of boarding. This detail would give her hope too, though, that maybe she was wrong about herself. Maybe she would’ve gone through with it. Why else would she have purchased the chocolate bar and frivolous home-decorating magazines? She thought more of herself than to think that the supplies were just accoutrements to adult functioning — look at me, buying water for my flight! — or props held to further embellish the tableau of her life as a traveler.
She avoided making eye contact with any airport shop Christmas decorations. All the glitter and sparkle made her deeply sad, and she experienced a revulsion accompanied by physical stomach pain when she spent too long in the vicinity of all that plastic and faux snow and color-coded holiday cheer, red and green; two colors that together are an optical assault to even the least artistic human. She did stare as a procession of holiday cheer paraded past the window, down the airport alleyway: a man dressed as a holiday duck of all things, plus Santa, dancing down the carpet as if humans weren’t about to be packed and unpacked from flying metal tubes which could fall from the clouds at any moment. Erin had always found the combination of Christmas and the airport to be lethal, as if celebration took place solely as a slight to her pain. Christmas music piped over a TSA agent barking that snow globes were forbidden. Airport staff handing out candy canes to passengers in various states of holiday-induced, family-related, or unidentifiable iterations of deep despair. The scene was ridiculous in a comical way that gave her an urge to share. That always made things funnier, sharing them with others. But she froze, staring, and never took a photo, and the moment would not be funny to anyone but her.
Instead, she sent a text to her mother: I’m freaking out. Can’t stop crying.
Erin sat near her gate. She wondered if she looked like a traveler about not to travel. She cried so covertly that she was uncertain if the tears ever made it out of her eyes and onto her face. She messaged her friend in Utah, to tell him she was freaking out. This was one thing she hated about herself, a deep personality flaw, a weakness — that in her moments of fear, she tried to reach out for others, as if a comforting message would serve as a balm to her, albeit temporary, despair. Her boyfriend used to call this her search for the magic word. She wanted that one word or phrase or key that would make it all okay, and she never found it. Because it didn’t exist. And yet she continued to search, to embarrass herself virtually like this via text and Slack chat. She sent a text to her brother, one of the benefactors of her completion of the planned trip. I don’t know if I can do it.
She usually regarded the weeks prior to travel as a march toward certain death, but this was worse and different. She wasn’t only scared. She was lost, adrift in the airport even though she had a set place to be at a set time. She felt like she was almost out of time. She felt forced, though no one forced her to go on the trip. It had been her idea to schedule it, but now she wasn’t sure she had ever felt like going.
This part seemed dreamlike in recollection, but she dragged her heavy magazines and crackers to the boarding agent and said in what, she was confident, was a calm and rational tone, “If someone wanted to cancel getting on a flight, how would they do that?”
She was often surprised at the kindness of strangers when in her most pathetic state. The agent gave a sympathetic smile. Erin felt a need to explain. “I’m afraid of flying.”
“Ohh, you don’t even want to try it?” asked the agent. Later, Erin would feel as if she personally let down this gentle woman. She should’ve done it for her, if for no other reason. She felt a twinge of guilt over disappointing this agent whom she would never see again.
“I don’t think so,” said Erin. No, she didn’t want to just give it a try. The woman directed her to the ticket counter, where she re-started the narrative.
Here, too, they were gentle. A minute of keyboard tapping had passed, and she felt the need to fill the silence. Erin asked, “Does anyone ever do this?”
The agent shrugged. “It happens.”
The agent typed the sequence which would effectively cancel Erin’s planned trip and explained the solo round-trip flight her suitcase was now taking. The suitcase, before it returned to her at 10 pm that night, had gone on one more trip than she had. She let that sink in, that her luggage was more well-travelled than she was now. She was numb with the sense of relief which grew out from her stomach and flooded her limbs and sucked the elasticity from her face so that she was without expression or feeling. She could have lain down on the floor for a nap, as she was suddenly tired.
Erin walked back through the arrival doors, past the waiting, expectant families, having not completed any journey. She sent her brother a text, apologizing, and the same to her mother. Her mother sent a text back right away; she understood. Her brother called.
“Where are you?” her brother said.
“I’m so sorry. I know I let you down.”
“I don’t understand. Are you at the airport?”
“Yes — ”
“Did you take the pills?”
“Yes, I did, but they didn’t help enough,” Erin said. “I’m sorry.”
“Well, I don’t get it,” her brother said. And that was fair. Erin could only think of one person upon whom inflicting disappointment would be worse, and that was their father.
“I’m sorry,” Erin said, but she was resigned to the fact that this wasn’t something her apologies would smooth over, a disappointment that would require the patient passage of time to distill.
“I don’t get it,” her brother said. “But, fine.”
Erin sat outside at the arrival curb for longer than was necessary. It was raining, and she could feel the cold cement of the bench through her jeans. She let her carry-on bag slouch companionably at her side as she watched cars pull in and away, in and away. Now that she knew she wasn’t about to fall from the sky, and the alerting of her family to her lack of follow-through and tarnishing of any future visits she planned from then on out had passed and she’d survived that. She felt fine just sitting there, watching others arrive and depart. She had days off work, which she requested in addition to the holidays for this anticipated trip, and now had nothing to fill the time. She was in no rush to return to her life.
After some time, Erin felt a vibration from her pocket, bringing her back to the reality she’d molded with her action or inaction. A text from a friend: Thinking of you today! You’re going to have an amazing trip! Expectations were set too high, which touched her for a moment. What faith they had in her, though what else could they say — hey, you fail yet?
She started to type a response (funny thing, actually, I didn’t go…) but stopped and stared back out at the travelers rushing to chuck suitcases into waiting cars before the police shooed the cars away from the curb. She didn’t have to tell everyone right now. Her first instinct was always to share in real-time, to message back right away. It occurred to Erin that no one in her current locale knew that she had not left. They wouldn’t know otherwise.
Maybe she was still on vacation.
The freedom of this thought, and the lie of it, was intoxicating. She could go anywhere. Except, she realized, back into the airport, or anywhere requiring flight. This was fine because she didn’t need to go far. She would look up hotels downtown, where she could sleep in a sterile room and drink coffee brought on a tray with creamer added from a little ceramic white pitcher and read the newspaper and go to the art museum and pretend she was on a business trip, if asked at the hotel what brings you to Seattle. She remembered a friend who once complained about their mutually uncomfortable residency in another state. Her friend had said, I feel like I’m here on business. Being here on business brought with it an air of sophisticated detachment mixed with purpose that could explain away her now-pretend vacation. She would just have to be swing back by the airport that night to meet her suitcase after its round trip. Gather her comrade after its full day. She remembered stories of bags being brought to your home after they were lost or delayed, but perhaps that died with the times or was a service reserved for passengers who actually went somewhere.