“That’s why I have never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship. Because eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport and I never wanted anyone to say to me, ‘how come you never take me to the airport anymore?’” –Harry Burns, When Harry Met Sally
“Oh, for god’s sake, Chandler, this is a good ‘going to the airport!’” –Rachel Green, Friends
1. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Los Angeles, CA
Since moving to Los Angeles, you have endured a hard drive crash, a break up, and a car accident. Not to mention, you have suffered chronic migraines and your team did not make it to the World Series. But it is November, and you are warm. Your friends from the colder coast you still long to call home come visit so they can thaw by the pool in your apartment complex. Meet them at baggage claim, make a joke about dreams and cardigans, and smile.
When the automatic glass doors greet them with a whoosh, study them as they step into the California air. Their smiling faces turned upward towards the sun are worth the price of the half tank of gas it took to get you here.
Windows down, they will admire the jacaranda trees, the palm trees, the west coast specific fast food chains. “Everyone seems to forget about the big Jack in the Box E. coli breakout of 1993,” you say, “but I will never forget, or forgive.” This will elicit more eye rolls and a hand extended from the passenger’s seat searching out the volume knob on the radio. All of the presets, they will complain, are programmed to Top 40 stations. “Cheesy pop music,” you say, “is the very essence of living in Los Angeles.”
“Los Angeles,” they say, “has changed you.”
Drive back towards your apartment through Hollywood. The novelty of the boulevards have long worn off for you, but craning their necks up at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre will remind you of the spark that swallowed you the first time you ever walked the walk of fame as a stringy 10-year-old screeching out an off-key “Hooray For Hollywood,” and the identical feeling again the day you moved here.
They want to know about your new life.
About your job as a music journalist, say: Sean Lennon’s girlfriend called me a babe. Adele is a total doll, and she has gorgeous eyelashes.
About the weather, say: It makes it almost impossible to be sad. But then there’s the traffic to make you sad again, so it’s a wash.
About the breakup, say: Oh god, what a schmuck! (But not a word about how you may have slept next to him as recently as three nights ago.)
Your friends will breathe a sigh of relief when you roll your window down to have a cigarette and put some Clapton on the radio while navigating the hairpin turns: you are still you, even beneath the Los Angeles smog.
Before you reach the apartment, hang a left on Tujunga and pull up in front of a house they all will recognize. “Heeeere’s the story, of a lovely lady,” you chirp. They file out of the car, laughing, gazing at the Brady Bunch house, snapping smiling pictures in front of it.
The front door swings open and a woman sticks her head out, looking right at you. “Jimmy,” she calls back into the house, “it’s the blonde girl again. She’s back and she’s taking pictures.” The singular image of you panicked and scrambling back into the drivers seat, your friends will tell you, was worth the price of the airfare.
2. Logan International Airport (BOS), Boston, MA.
The man you’ve been dating for just over a season has been traveling internationally for the past month. Insatiable longing in each other’s absence and a string of inappropriate Skype conversations have resulted in the following: removal of the “single” status from his Facebook, discovery of the precise camera angle best suited for video chat masturbation, and a promise to see one another the moment his feet touch American soil.
“What should I wear for your grand return?” you ask in a breathy princess voice.
“Absolutely nothing,” he jokes.
But you’ve spent the better part of twenty years being completely over the top. So you obey.
You purchase a lightweight black trench coat. It sits neatly wrapped in its department store tissue paper in anticipation of its airport debut.
“You know, I read somewhere that Marilyn Monroe did something like this once,” a friend tells you upon hearing your plan, knowing this tidbit will appeal to you. Most girls grew up idolizing Marilyn for her beauty. You adored the fact that she married one of the Yankees. The naked trench coat trick is just bringing you one step closer to the American dream.
On the night of his arrival, you gingerly take baby steps across the Beacon Hill cobblestones, fear the rise of the coat’s hem as you raise your arm to hail a cab, and sit very still the entire taxi ride to Logan. Once inside the International Arrivals terminal, you feel the hot glare of eyes on you and fumble to dial your sister on your cell phone in a fit of paranoia.
“He isn’t due in for another 25 minutes,” you hiss into the receiver. “And I think everyone can somehow tell that I’m completely naked underneath my coat.”
“Well if they didn’t know already,” she sighs, “they certainly know now. Has anyone ever told you that whispering isn’t your forte?”
From behind the metal barrier, you spot him as he emerges from baggage claim’s enormous swinging doors like a beautiful luggage-wielding outlaw. When he spots you, he beams. When he wheels closer to you, he notices what you are wearing, how you are standing, the look on your face, and he begins to laugh.
“Are you…?” He slides his hand into the gap where the coat ties together and answers the question he is too stunned to finish asking. It is the first time you have been touched in thirty days. A kiss.
“You,” he says, his face still touching yours, “are fucking insane.” Another kiss. He doesn’t move his hand from beneath your coat.
In the cab on the way back to your apartment he tells you he’s missed everything about you. The olive loaf sandwiches. The noisy fan on your windowsill. The goofy dance you do to that Rolling Stones record.
When he lays you down, he unbelts the trench coat and loves you enough to sustain you for another thirty days.
Years later, you will wear the coat on balmy October and cool March nights. Other men will unbelt it, but they are unable to mimic the excitement of its very first wear.
3. John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), New York, NY
After an extended stay in San Francisco, your best friend is coming home to the east coast for a visit. You wade through a thick, smarmy, loveless crowd to embrace her at baggage claim.
You cry: “I’ve missed you madly! How was your flight? How is California? Do you live near the Full House house?”
She laughs and says: “You haven’t changed.”
You stare at suitcases sliding out of a wide mouth onto the metal carousel and sigh: “Baggage claim is the 7th ring of the inferno.”
She nods towards the infinite loop of identical Sampsonites and says: “My bag’s the black one.”
You hold her at arm’s length and look at her. Her hair is lighter, her skin is darker, her collarbones are more pronounced. But the scar above her eyebrow from when she fell off the swings in first grade is still visible, and she is wearing the same perfume.
Your mothers told you both that you would have the kind of friendship where you could be apart for years at a time and pick up right where you left off. At arm’s length, she is a practical stranger, but she is the most familiar stranger.
The homeless man camped outside the sliding terminal doors is singing “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips.
“Didn’t you miss New York?” you ask her, nodding towards him. She smiles and drops three quarters into his paper cup.
Every exit down the long rope of the Belt Parkway is a different memory. Howard Beach and Park Place Pizza and all those disturbing stories on the news you were too young to comprehend. Canarsie and the Paddegats and summer afternoon barbeques when heat rose in wavy lines from the grill and the asphalt. Sheepshead Bay and the boarded up ghost of Lundy Brothers, where you were both scolded for making lobster shells dance across the table as children.
“Brooklyn is so filthy!” she says, hanging her right arm out the window, making waves in the air.
“I love it.”
“Wanna visit the old neighborhood? Want some spumoni from L&B?”
But instead you exit at Knapp Street and end up in your favorite brown booth at Roll N Roaster with matching roast beef sandwiches and lemonades, the almighty glow of the “Cheez on anything you pleez” sign shining down upon you.
“This is real Brooklyn,” you murmur into your cheese fries. “None of that unenthused Union Pool hipster shit.”
You have gone back from whence you came. Your families both left Brooklyn for greener suburban pastures by the time you hit adolescence. And yet while she felt the pull across the country, you’ve always felt a pull back here. By your twenties, you wound up right back beneath the noisy vector of airplanes taxiing into JFK.
She tells you stories about the Bay area hospital she is a nurse at. She shows you photographs of the apartment she shares with her boyfriend and the trip they took to Yosemite and Sonoma and Big Sur.
Tell her about the manuscript you’re working on and how you caught a fly ball at a Yankees game a month back. Tell her the last person you slept with made you crazy enough to want to flee the city, fly to her in San Francisco, and curl up in the curve of the bay window in her apartment.
Hours later, you amble down the long stretch of Coney Island boardwalk towards the big red parachute ride, holding hands and sucking on vanilla chip ices from Gino’s. “Time is like lightening,” you say, absently but overdramatically, shaking a tiny fist at the sky. She smiles, shakes her head, and moans: “Typical.”
When the sun sets, take her to Union Pool. Drink gin and tonics, and reminisce about boys you kissed in her basement when you were 16.
4. Newark International Airport (EWR), Newark, New Jersey
Your fears and phobias are fairly straightforward: spiders, death, germs on the subway. But here’s one you can’t quite pin properly to your character — the thought of being seen in humanity’s most vulnerable state makes you shudder: standing at a designated gate at the airport, looking around over-eagerly as you wait for your boyfriend to deplane. You have been apart all summer, but now he is flying into New Jersey for the week, meeting your parents, and staying at the house you grew up in. It’s overwhelming enough to make you shake, but you’re too busy trying to look nonchalant behind an enormous pair of sunglasses.
Another fear: once he sees you in your most natural state — the loud dinner table debates, the Kurt Cobain shrine you erected in your bedroom at 15, the way you howl “Rosalita” off key while driving down back roads, always too fast or too slow — he will somehow change his mind about you.
Throngs of characters step through the gate exit, rolling like the end credits of a film. And then he appears down the hall, and your insides lurch like the uninspected elevator in your grandmother’s apartment building. He moves towards you, a slow smile spreading across his face.
And then he is in front of you, removing your sunglasses so he can look at you before he kisses you. And then he is holding you. You stay locked, face pressed into the crook between his neck and his shoulder. He smells faintly of canned airplane air and the cologne in the green bottle. His face is clean-shaven, a fresh start.
Over and over, he whispers, “Hi, hi, hi, hi,” into your hair as he holds the back of your neck, swaying gently in the same spot. This embrace at Gate B summons the realization that what you have here may just be enough: enough to allow you to shed your doubts, enough to make you shed your fear of the airport.
He loves you. He is going to see the Cinderella creampuff prom dress hanging in your closet and the toothless 2nd grade portrait hanging on the refrigerator and he is going to love you anyway. He will look you dead in the overeager airport eye that has viciously struggled to meet his stare. He will love your past because everything that came before this has led you to him. He is not going to change his mind.
“And if you look to the left,” you say in your very best Tour Guide Barbie voice, as you navigate your station wagon onto the highway, “you’ll see the beautiful blue and yellow mecca that is, the Elizabeth IKEA. Up ahead, we are cruising into scenic Newark.”
He laughs. He grew up in Santa Monica and his ride home from the airport includes a trip to In N Out Burger and a canopy of palm trees down the 405. “It is beautiful, my love,” he says, hands pressed to the window, a smear of smokestacks in the background.
When you hit the wide mouth of the Driscoll Bridge, point out the dead molar of the Amboy Cinemas and ask him to brace himself: you are getting close to the house. He grabs your hand and squeezes it like a pumping heart. When you hit Route 9, turn “Born To Run” on at full volume on the tape deck. Welcome him to Springsteen country, welcome him home.