I’d done a lot of traveling in my life, but I’d never liked traveling by air. Airports made me nervous. I’d been born and raised out west, my closest neighbors half a mile down the road and a mountain as my backyard. Everyone seemed to press in on me as I sat at the terminal, hours until my flight left. It didn’t help that I had my little girl with me. She was four months old, and her mother had left us.
She wanted to give her up for adoption. I said no. She signed rights over to me and I hadn’t seen or heard from her since. A middle-age woman across the aisle looked at me like I was diseased, not-so-discreetly pointing at me to her fat, austere husband, muttering something that looked like “no wedding ring.” She wasn’t the only one. I tried not to care, hugged my daughter closer and kissed the top of her head.
“Grandma and grandpa will be happy to see you again,” I said to her, bouncing her a little. Tears threatened as reality came rushing back to me. My mother was the reason for us going home. They said she had months still, that she was fighting off the cancer. They were wrong. It happened fast. “Grandpa anyway,” I said, taking a deep breath that shook in my chest. That was a lie. She grinned, reaching up to grab my chin. “We’re gonna’ be okay, sweetheart. We’re gonna’ be fine.”
Hours later, when the sun had finally come up and the airport was busy, I had exhausted myself of feelings. I looked around us, trying to decide who was going where and what for. The businessmen were easy to spot, always in black suits or khaki pants and collared shirts, cell phones glued to their ears if they didn’t have a Bluetooth. One of them sat where the judging couple had earlier and he looked as exhausted and beaten down as I felt, sagging as he sat in the chair, briefcase all but forgotten on the ground.
He looked mid-sixties, should be retired already, like he should be home with his family, if he had one. I couldn’t see his ring finger, not that that meant anything, I reminded myself. I hoped whatever he was going through would be over soon. I hoped his business trip was over and he was going home.
Then there were the college-age kids. The girls always put on extra makeup and dressed a little sexier, on their way to meet boyfriends if they weren’t already with them. I caught an interested look now and then which quickly disappeared when they spotted my little girl. I thought back to college, to those short years chasing sex and a degree and myself. They say it’s the time to find yourself. I guess I went to the wrong school or took the wrong classes. Still, I’d had fun. I couldn’t say I’d been happy though. I wondered if those girls were, if the guys with them treated them right. Probably not, I thought. Don’t be that way, don’t judge. You don’t know. Still, it was true.
The hardest to look at for me were the families. The mothers and fathers with their children always looked haggard and annoyed and impatient. I wanted to walk up to them and take them by the shoulders. I wanted to shake them and tell the father to stop checking his email and the mother to stop talking to her friend, to pay attention to their children. I wanted to tell the children to listen to their parents, to be good to them.
One family had three little girls, triplets but not identical, I couldn’t think of the word. Paternal? Fraternal? It didn’t matter. All three wore a different pink dress and the father was chasing them around a bench, laughing.
The girls squealed and giggled and shouted and some people shot them dirty looks for being loud. The dad paid no attention and the mother watched from a distance, smiling like the sun was shining just for her. God, I wanted to hug them and ask them both how in the hell to do all this. I wanted to know how you made a family work. I wanted to ask them what their lives were like and where they were going and how the hell to be happy. Looking around at all these people, I wanted to live anyone’s life but mine just then. I didn’t want to hate my daughter’s mother for leaving. I didn’t want to be going to bury my own. I didn’t want to have to face my father, who fought with me, told me I should give my daughter up, that I was a fool. I wanted to be anyone but me and I closed my eyes hard, kissing her head again.
“We’ll be fine, sweetheart. I promise. I’ll take care of us. I promise.”