FLIGHT PATH TO MY HEART by Anna Stothard
I fell madly in love at Los Angeles International Airport once, during an afternoon of cocktails and family-sized bags of M&Ms. We’d been introduced at a bar the day before and on discovering our flights were leaving from LAX around the same time, he’d offered me a lift. ‘It’s a date,’ he said. I didn’t think he was serious.
Yet there we were, making awkward small talk over margaritas at a retro bar called The Encounter in the heart of LAX, watching planes coasting by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Under the phosphorescent lighting of the terminal after stumbling through security, we played I Spy in the departure lounge and discussed our favourite airports: the vast skylights and crisscrossing concrete lines of Charles de Gaulle in Paris, where it’s almost a requirement to overdose on espresso and buy expensive lingerie; and Changi Airport in Singapore, where there’s a rooftop pool and a four-storey slide connecting two of the terminals.
Without any of these pleasures available to us in LAX, we played cards on the floor and bought ‘I heart LA’ T-shirts. When his plane to Sydney was delayed we drank a bottle of wine at the Sam Adams Bar and when we kissed in a sunglasses shop he tasted of booze and chocolate. Two hours later we said tearful goodbyes at gate 102 and spent the next month writing each other long, overly personal emails.
It didn’t last. Back in LA after our respective trips home, we went on a few ‘normal’ dates. No longer out of time and place in an airport, the magic had gone. It had been airport love, heightened by the imminent goodbye.
Airports are story machines. I always arrive early, looking forward to the people watching and eerily malleable time zones almost as much as I anticipate my final destinations. I enjoy the limbo, being caught in some unanchored pseudo city where it’s OK to drink martinis at 6am (it’s cocktail hour somewhere). It feels naughty, abnormal. I used to live in Beijing and would regularly get the train to the airport for no good reason other than to eat chicken noodle soup and watch people say goodbye at security. I filled notebooks with descriptions of different types of airport goodbyes: analysing the smiles of relieved lovers rushing through security, the white knuckles of teenagers clinging to their parents, the declarations of love and the dead-eyed break-ups. There’s something about the potential available in airports that makes my heart beat fast, the sense that if you choose, you could go anywhere. Once inside an airport, it would only take a moment to buy a one-way ticket and leave your old life forever.
When I moved back to London, I picked up again with my old habit of writing at the departure gates of airports, visiting a coffee shop at Heathrow’s Terminal Five to watch the theatre of goodbyes play out. I began to map out a novel about the daughter of a pilot who becomes addicted to the adrenalin of saying goodbye. She likes airports as much as destinations, leaving cities more than living in them, break-ups rather than beginnings, and doesn’t remember the first kisses and smiles of any of her relationships, just the hyped-up last moment and sudden freedom when lovers say goodbye to each other. And over the course of the story, she has to learn that there’s more to a love story than its ending.
Anna Stothard’s latest book, The Art of Leaving, is out now (£7.99, Alma Books).
THE FIRST DAY by Russell Arendt
We were a full planeload of ‘Greenies’, new guys with fresh olive drab jungle fatigues, on our way to Viet Nam February 19, 1969. It was a long flight with no booze and the oldest stewardesses I have ever seen. Every seat was filled, and the atmosphere was noisy, nervous, but strangely subdued.
The thing I remember most was the moment they opened the door. The wet, hot smell of The Republic of Viet Nam at Bien Hoa hit me in the face like a slap. On the tarmac were aircraft of all kinds as well as trucks and jeeps. In the air choppers, Chinooks to Cayuse fixed wing props, and jets were all going some place in a hurry. Every other square inch was filled by troops and soldiers queuing up to fill the seats we had just occupied. I felt like an ant. As we got off, they got on. We passed by each other silently in long snaking lines, no one speaking. The only noticeable human activity was the furtive glances that we, the F.N.G.s (fucking new guys) threw at the departing ‘old guys’ in their bleached, almost white, camouflage and bush hats seasoned by their year ‘in the country’.
The line stopped for a moment and a young, thin and darkly tanned sergeant looked toward me, sunglasses propped over a very large Fu Manchu moustache, bush hat flipped down. On one side was stitched ‘CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’’. The other had a ‘TROPIC LIGHTENING’ 25th Infantry Division combat patch in soft black. As he stared out from under the brim of his hat and into my eyes he said quietly, “Keep your head and your ass down”. The line moved. He turned and walked away without another word. The advice as it turned out, was prophetic and useful. I often thought of it during my tour and even more so when I returned home without a single wound.