Chapter 1: One in Seven Billion
The arrivals hall at O’Hare is relatively busy, particularly for a Sunday morning, but it’s a good thing. The larger the crowd, the more people I can spy on, like some twisted stalker. I can’t help but wonder what a professional would say about this questionable habit of mine.
I needed distraction. I had to get out of the house, out of the bubble of emotional and mental torture. I was going insane. I had to get away from the tense gloom that had descended unbidden over my parents’ home since we got the horrifying news about Steven, my younger brother who’s a combat medic deployed in Afghanistan. We are a fraction of a family, waiting to hear news of the segment that makes us complete, desperately hoping that we will be whole again. Each one of us in our own way dreads the thought we won’t. It’s been a nerve-wracking twenty-four hours that seem like a lifetime of waiting, waiting for any sort of news that will either shatter our lives or ensure that our Steven survived the suicide bomber that exploded next to his platoon’s convoy in Kabul.
I wade through people standing in groups and those waiting solo, making my way toward a bench just in front of the sliding doors that are continuously pouring with passengers from incoming domestic flights. Abruptly I halt, taken by my image as it reflects on the glass doors ahead. I am pale. I am disheveled, my long wavy blonde strands pulled up in a messy bun, my usually dark brown eyes without their vivid glee. Even my freckles don’t seem to add the liveliness they usually do. I guess I look as worn as I am inside.
I settle on the bench and think about how the airport is the best place to defuse some of the frustration, anxiety and pain I’ve been abiding for far too long now. It's a place that has always proved successful in seeding hope in me, like a parallel universe which brings people together, which helps cease longing. And with the thought of longing, the thought of Daniel involuntarily drifts into my mind, accompanied by the unbelievable ache I’ve been carrying inside my heart since we went our separate ways two weeks ago.
Truth be told, he never really leaves my mind. The thought of him hovers constantly, whether I like it or not.
The sound of his voice when I called him last night plays vividly in my head now. How my name sounded like a prayer of redemption coming from his lips. How my heart missed a beat at his emotionally saturated tone. How every part of me drew to it, in hope. And how reality and sense crashed down, strong and illuminating, at the faint sound of my dying phone.
It was a wakeup call in the form of a dying line. And just like that, he was gone again. Gone like my courage and the confidence that getting back together was the right thing to do. As much as I want him―with an almost irrational need―I also clearly know that I couldn’t possibly let myself be vulnerable again, as I unquestionably am when it comes to Daniel. I cannot imagine ever going through so much agony as I went through by this breakup.
I need a timeout from these voices echoing Daniel’s name through my head; I can’t do this now. It feels as though I'm about to lose it. You need a quick exorcism, that’s what you need. I can’t have him occupying my thoughts this way. I’ll deal with everything Daniel when I get back home. I can’t handle both the anguish of worrying about Steven and the ache for Daniel. There's only so much my heart and my brain can take at a time if I don't want to risk being committed.
An unpleasant numbness slowly spreads over my backside from the hard plastic surface of the bench, prompting me to shift in my seat. I watch the scene before me, of the expectant crowd as they wait for their loved ones. A sparkle reflected from a mylar red balloon floating above even the highest of heads in the herd draws my attention. A breeze from the automatic exit doors tilts the balloon hypnotically from side to side, encouraging my gaze to deeper fixate on it and the background gradually blurs away. I stare at the fine string that tethers the balloon to someone's hand. A security announcement funnels in the background, urges people to not leave their belongings unattended. I drop my stare lower, to the chubby little hand holding the balloon. It belongs to a child standing with a woman who I guess is his mother. I study the delicately freckled features that ornament the child's sweet round face. My heart flutters when my gaze pauses on his hazel eyes: a shade lighter, and they would be identical to the ones I so long to drown in. And I recycle, yet again, my memories of Daniel, of the call last night and his voice that manifested relief for us both.
Did I make the right decision not to call him back? The dying line took away my courage and any bit of assurance I had in me when I dialed his number. You did the right thing, Hales. Stop beating yourself up. Just stop!
And through my mulling a sudden spark draws my focus, the light of joy. Joy that could only be enticed from the lips of a cheerful child. The little boy holding the balloon giggles and runs to a man who waits, squatting, to receive him in his open arms. My heart swells at the sight; this is the very moment of why I love watching people at airports. As disturbing a habit as this is, these kinds of encounters are just priceless.
My gaze drifts to the herd of people coming out of the automatic doors behind the boy’s father. I gape at them, absorbed for a long while. I shake my head, take a deep breath, and check my watch.
I should go before I show up on airport security radars as a suspected sleeper cell agent. Ungluing my body from the seat, I start to walk toward the exit that leads to the parking lot.
Paid parking stub in hand, I buckle up and start the engine. Fragments of songs are blending into each other as I scan the channels, shifting the car into drive, and with nothing better to listen to, I leave the radio on a talk show. I roll my eyes at the idiocies that come out of the hosts' mouths. With a sudden urge for an iced caramel latte I start tapping my fingers nervously at the wheel. The swanky rental car in front of me doesn’t move, nor does it make any signs of moving soon. I inch forward, trying to see the driver causing this setback, and shake my head when I see a fluffy bob and a hunched shoulder that probably belongs to some older woman. C’mon! I honk once but it doesn’t seem to bother the person ahead.
Grandma, you of all people should know we live on borrowed time. Let the rest of humanity proceed with their lives. Urgh…
My impatience grows with every passing second, I step out of the car, slam the door, and, cursing under my breath, stride toward the hazard.
I thump the window in subject, looking ahead while composing a quick tirade in my head. My feet, with a mind of their own, irritably stamp the ground and I grimace, waiting for a reaction from the nursing home tenant on the run.
When she says, with the sweetest smile, “Yes sweetheart,” I just shake my head and return a sheepish grin.
I say, “Have a nice day ma’am,” then turn on my heels and take my shamed self quickly back to my car.
Okay Hales, time to get it together. You might be a total wreck inside but do not let that loose on the general public. Get a grip, and fast.
After I leave the oh-so-blessed Starbucks, gulping the much desired cold, sweet, caffeinated beverage, I head back to my parents’ house, though it's the last place I really want to be. A taxi that stops right outside their gate distracts me while I try to rear park the sedan in the narrow slot next to my mom’s hybrid. STEVEN? My heart speeds up at the thought. When I anxiously step out of the car the taxi’s passenger door opens and I gasp. Even though I'm surrounded by an infinite amount of oxygen, none of it seems to enter my lungs. I gape at the passenger as he leaves the vehicle, and for a beat I actually lose my balance. The world around me stills; I am cemented to the asphalt, unable to move or preform any action, including breathing, other than to watch him, hypnotized―as though he were a figment orchestrated by my wild imagination. What the hell is he doing here? If I weren't immobilized I would pinch myself.