Stranded

14/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Even when I was young, I wanted to get away from my family and get out on my own.  I wanted freedom.

The first step in this journey seemed quite natural to me:  go to college as far away from Portland, Maine as possible.  As such, I decided to accept the University of Houston’s scholarship offer.  Being 1800 miles away from home seemed like a good idea until it was time to begin my first semester.  Once mom and dad dropped my off at the airport and we exchanged teary goodbyes, it struck that I wouldn’t see them for a while.  I hadn’t counted on being alone.

As I sat down on a hard plastic chair, waiting to board my plane, I did some quick math.  It was the middle of August and I wouldn’t be able to go home again until the middle of December.  It would be four months until I would see my family again.

I had no way to fathom this, for the most time I had ever spent away from my family was an annual two week science camp and, when I was considerably younger, the occasional week at grandma’s.  Four months was a time frame beyond my comprehension.  I had been so caught up in being independent that I had never counted on being alone.

***

The first two weeks of college were easy for me.  It was like being at science camp all over again, except that I was meeting students instead of campers and had professors instead of counselors.  But even with that, the dynamic was similar.  Until week three

Unlike science camp, I didn’t get to go home after two weeks, and this simple fact was felt keenly beginning in week three.  I actually began to miss my parents and brothers.

Part of this may have simply been due to the absence of family meals. Eating fast food by myself was incredibly depressing, and switching fast food for Ramen didn’t improve things. The absence of home cooked food coupled with my absence from home made me more depressed than I had initially anticipated.

After a while, the depression lifted somewhat, and I found that I didn’t miss my family all that much.  This feeling lasted until Thanksgiving.  I wasn’t able to make it home for Thanksgiving because I didn’t have the money for a plane ticket or gas.  My parents could only afford for me to come home for one holiday that year, and it was either Thanksgiving or Christmas.  The latter being the longer break, I decided to come home for Christmas.

At any rate, by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was becoming quite anxious to get home.  All of my friends were going home for the holiday, and it looked like I would be stuck alone in my dorm, eating ramen noodles all by myself.  That was not how I wanted to spend Thanksgiving.  I wanted to be in Portland, at my Grandma’s house, stuffing myself until I couldn’t walk, and then going outside to play touch football with my brothers and cousins until it got dark.  I wanted to enjoy my mom’s stuffing, my grandma’s pecan pie, Aunt Louise’s peach cobbler, and Uncle Brad’s famous deep-fried turkey. I just wanted to be home.

While Corrine ended up inviting me to have Thanksgiving with her family, thus mercifully sparing me from spending the day alone with my inevitable depression, it wasn’t quite the same as being home.  And, for the rest of the semester, most of my energy was spent thinking about going home.  I knew I didn’t want to be alone for Christmas.

***

I have a strange relationship with airports.  When in them, I am simultaneously filled with excitement and dread.  I get excited because I like going to new places, and I also like going to familiar places as well, so I always get excited at the prospect of travel.  On the other hand, I always get worried that something will happen that prevents me from reaching my destination.

As I sat in the airport in Houston, preparing to go home for Christmas after my first semester away, I was definitely feeling more dread than fear.  I had been watching the weather reports to ensure that the weather would cooperate with my now intense desire to make it home. The weather for Maine was clear, which was encouraging, but the weather for Buffalo, New York—where my second layover was scheduled—was less encouraging.  Still, I had no choice but to embark on the plane; I didn’t want to be alone for the holidays.

***

The first leg went well:  clear skies and smooth flying.  The first layover was mercifully brief, and I boarded the plane for Buffalo feeling more hopeful than I had felt when sitting in the airport in Houston.  Boarding was quick and painless, and takeoff was not delayed.  I leaned my seat back, turned my iPod on, and began to relax to the sounds of Burl Ives and Bing Crosby.

***

“This is your captain speaking.  We are getting ready to approach Buffalo.  Please fasten your seatbelts, as we are going to hit some rough weather as we prepare to touch down.  It is twenty degrees in Buffalo, and they’re calling for snow.  All flights out of Buffalo are delayed, as they’re prioritizing the landing of planes currently in the air, in anticipation of a blizzard.”

This is not what I wanted to hear.  I still had to get to Portland.

When we landed, snow was just starting to fall.  Deboarding was rushed so that other planes would have a chance to land.  I grabbed my backpack and went into the airport lounge, checked the flight schedule, and saw that all flights were indefinitely postponed.  Naturally, I called my dad, who was supposed to pick me up in Maine, and told him that my flight was delayed and I didn’t know when I’d be home.

It was nearly 5:00 PM, and I was just starting to feel hungry  so I went to the A&W restaurant to grab something to eat. I was feeling lonely and miserable, missing my family.  Why did I ever decide to go to a college so far away from home?

The girl taking my order was named Helena; she had kind brown eyes.  Her long hair matched her eyes, falling around her shoulders, giving her pale face an earthy frame.  She was pretty, but I didn’t feel like talking.

“Where you headed?”

“Home.”

“Where’s that?”

“Portland.”

“Maine?”

I nodded.

Undeterred, she pressed further.  “You got a name?”

“Yep.”

She left me alone after that.  I think she was hurt.  I still didn’t feel like talking to her.

The burger tasted bland, like all other fast food burgers.  The fries were kind of cold and soggy, and the pop was going flat.  The meal did nothing for my spirits, and as I watched the snow come down I became increasingly depressed, wondering if I would make it home in time for Christmas.  It was three days away, but there was no telling when the snow would let up, or how long it would take to clear it away.

I walked over to a waiting area and tried to get comfortable.  Hard plastic seats weren’t conducive to this effort, so I gave up and sat on the floor.  That wasn’t much better.  I put my headphones in, turned up the volume, and tried to tune out my surroundings and my coming depression.

***

I don’t remember going to sleep, but I do remember being woken up by Helena.

“Did you sleep off your grouchiness yet?”  She said this with the faintest hint of a smile.  Why did she insist on annoying me?

I nodded, mumbled something incoherent about still being sleepy, and tried to roll on my side to go back to sleep.  Unfortunately, I was awake, and the cold, hard floor was not conducive to taking another trip to the land of nod.

“So, are you ready to tell me your name yet?”  Damn, she was persistent.

“Not if you keep nagging me about it.”  My tone was perhaps overly harsh, but I was not in the mood to be charming yet.

“Well, let’s talk about something else.  What are you listening to?”

***

Despite my initial reluctance, our conversation had been enjoyable, wandering from music to movies to sports to celebrities to politicians to politics to hair styles to off-beat restaurants in New York City.  She was easy to talk to, and was tenacious in her attempt to pull me into conversation.  My melancholic mood had begun to dissipate, and I didn’t even notice that it was nearly midnight.

“So, are you on break or what?”  I was curious why she hadn’t left me yet.

“No, silly, my shift is over.  There’s too much snow on the ground for me to try to drive home right now.  It’s not safe.”

“And you thought it would be better to come over and annoy me?”

“Well how about I leave if I’m so annoying?”

“Well, why don’t you?”

***

It was 3:00 AM, and she still hadn’t left.  I can’t say that I wanted her to.

I was starting to feel tired, and she was starting to yawn, so I put my arm around her and pulled her up against me.  She didn’t resist.

We were sprawled out on the floor.  I was on my back, looking up the ceiling; she was curled up next to me, her head on my chest.  Our conversation had now devolved into sleepy whispers about meaningless things.  The snow coming down outside wasn’t menacing anymore.  In fact, it seemed downright friendly.  Everything felt at peace.

***

It was a little after 7:00 AM when I was jarred awake by my cell phone.  It was my dad.

I answered it groggily, the sleep still readily apparent in my voice.  “Hey dad.  What’s going on?”

“I’m in front of the airport.”

“Now?  I’m not even on a plane.  I don’t even know when I’ll get in.”

“Son, I’m at the Buffalo airport.”

“What? Why?”

“To pick you up.”  He said this matter-of-factly, as if I was still his two-year-old son who had just asked how clouds are made.

“You’re here?  Now?”

“That’s what I said.”

“All right.  I’ll be right out.”

“Okay son.  I love you.”

“Love you too, dad.  See you in a minute.”

Helena had been woken up by my phone call, and was looking at me, sleep still etched across her face.  “Are you leaving now?”

“Yeah, my dad’s here.  I guess he drove all night to pick me up.”

“That’s awfully brave of him, seeing as how the snow is still coming down.”

I looked out and saw that snow was still falling, though not as furiously as the night before.

“How about I make you and your dad something for the road?”

“Can you do that?  That’d be great.”

***

I walked out of the airport, into the snowy cold.  There was my dad, in his giant F250, looking quite proud of himself.  We hugged, and I handed him the bag of food.

“Is this what took you so long?”

“It’s good to see you too, dad.”

“Your mom will be glad to see you.”

“I can’t believe you drove all night in this weather.”

“We all missed you.  Your mom’ll be pretty worried right about now, though.  I’m going to call her and then we’ll start heading home.  Once we hit Utica, you’re driving.”

He pulled out his cell phone and put it up to his ear. I climbed in the cab, opened up the bag of food to get some fries, and saw a note of paper on the top.

Dear I-still-don’t-know-your-name,

I had a wonderful time with you last night.  If you ever want to do it again when you pass through, let me know.  I’ll be there.

-Helena

PS: my number is XXX-XXX-XXXX

Dad pulled his door shut, startling me out of my brief reverie.  “So,” he asked, “Did you have a good trip?”

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