When the officer in the security line looked at my photo, she asked me to pull down my mask. Then she looked at me for a beat, and as a minister would bless a child, she smiled and said, “Thank you. Have a wonderful trip.”
Dulles airport. I haven’t been with so many people all at once since the George Floyd protests. After eddying at the banks for a year, I am joining the river again.
I’m heading to Austin, Texas to meet up with college friends. Our 30th reunion will take place online, and my friends will curl my hair and help me with my Zoom background. It will rain the whole weekend, but we’ll talk non-stop and laugh until we cry, and it will feel like I’m reuniting with a self that I haven’t seen in a long time.
I had forgotten how fun it was to go so fast. One hundred and eighty-four miles per hour when the 747’s wheels lift off the ground. My body merges with my seat.
Above the clouds, there is only light. A field of ruffled cotton. Sun glints a diamond in the curve of the tail wing.
My arm still aches from the first shot. If it weren’t for the masks covering everyone’s faces, it would feel almost normal. I remember all the people in the terminal sitting in front of iPad menus, drinking, eating, and talking, while flames blazed on large-screen TVs saying, “Mass cremations in India continue.”
To come back to earth you have to go through the clouds. When everything outside is white, you don’t know where you’re going or where you’ve been. The plane shakes up and down, left and right. Your stomach falls, bags tumble, things slide down the aisle, and when the wheels hit the ground, your bones meet.
“United was the first commercial airline to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine to the U.S.,” a short film announces on the screen in front of me. Massive pallets wrapped in dry ice are loaded into the bellies of passenger planes. Men in fluorescent vests operate forklifts, and when the hold is full and a worker waves from the door before it closes, I start crying and I don’t know why.
In the grass by the runway, pink primroses sway in the wind, and rain splatters the windows.
Emergency alerts bleat from phones in the cabin. But it’s not about a hurricane: free vaccines are now available at all pharmacies.
I may think I’ve made it because I’m healthy or careful or lucky, but really it’s because I have been saved by the goodness of strangers. Harvesting the food, driving the trucks, checking the passports. Laying the pipes, testing the samples, landing the planes. My life depends on ordinary heroes.
“Thank you for coming,” I say, the night I return to D.C. to the taxi driver who wanted to quit for the night, but who came to the airport when he heard about the long line. Thank you for bringing me home.