Deirdre recognizes them all now as she waits behind the rope barrier at the airport: the college kids coming home for the holidays, the honeymooning lovers, the young couples bringing the new baby to meet its grandparents, the elderly widowed parent.
Behind Deirdre, people press forward, craning for a view of the passengers surging through the glass doors into Arrivals. She stands firm, determined to keep her prime position behind the rope barrier. On the digital billboard above the doors, red letters move from left to right, spelling out Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Joyful Festivities over and over again.
An announcement: “For your safety and security, do not leave your luggage unattended. You must maintain possession of…”
The glass doors part and a large family trails through, eight, nine, ten of them, children, parents, grandparents, possibly an aunt, pushing carts laden with an extraordinary amount of baggage. Deirdre and David always travelled light—in the days when they’d travelled. Deirdre rarely leaves the city now. She needs to stay near home. Just in case.
A cry of delight. A woman of about her own age ducks under the barrier. Deirdre catches the similarity of features as a young man wraps his arms around the woman and hugs her, lifting her off the floor. Mother and son. Behind them the girlfriend hesitates. She looks so forlorn and lost that Deirdre longs to break through the barrier and catch her up, tuck her into a taxi and take her home.
Another young woman, this one with baby and backpack and a long complicated tattoo down her arm, dives into a sea of sparkly balloons and Welcome Home banners. Samantha’s first tattoo was an impossibly fanged tiger, heart and 4ever on her neck. Such a beautiful girl, how could she have done that to herself? She never would have if not for those friends of hers with their strange smell and vague eyes that refused to meet Deirdre’s. How could Deirdre not have seen beyond the respectable school uniform until the afternoon she’d found them all in the mall when they should have been in school, Samantha stumbling, redeyed and blacklipped in those shorts and bodice. How Deirdre and David had pleaded with her, wept for her. Then the curfews, the locked doors, locked windows. The fatigue. And anger. Deirdre had been relieved at first—no, glad—when Samantha had left. She’d remembered then what a good night’s rest felt like.
Deirdre grips the rope and closes her eyes. If only David were here. It used to be so much easier when he’d come with her.
It’s time for a coffee at the little place near Gate A on Level Two/Departures. Leaving her post at the Arrivals barrier is a difficult decision. She’s suspicious of irony, of leaving after all this waiting, and then missing the moment of arrival, but at the same time she’s hopeful of tempting fate.
A lull. The glass doors remain closed. Behind them two airport officials lounge against their stand, one unable to stop yawning.
Deirdre’s days at the airport are random. Sometimes she decides she will go Monday one week, Tuesday the next, and so on. Or the twelfth of every month. Or every day for one month and not at all the next. That never worked. How could she go to the airport every day? Her boss at Beads and Bangles would never stand for that. And how could she not go to the airport for a whole month?
Sometimes she wakes up in the morning with a feeling, a certainty, that today is the day and she absolutely must go to the airport. Now that there’s a new airport bus—every fifteen minutes and only eight dollars each way—she often wakes with that feeling. She jumps out of bed, showers, shovels down her breakfast, calls one of her co-workers to fill in for her at Beads and Bangles (even though her boss has told her this has to stop once and for all and she’ll not warn her again) and makes her way to the bus stop.
Most of the drivers recognize her. “Nice day for plane watching,” they say jovially, and she smiles. She knows they don’t mean any unkindness, and inside she is still cradling that excitement, that sureness that, yes, today’s the day it will happen. Today is the day Samantha will come home.
The feeling is always especially strong just before Christmas. On the bus this morning she’d surreptitiously nodded back at the nodding Santa on the dashboard (Yes, he was saying, yes, you’re right, today’s the day) as she’d handed over her money, hardly daring to breathe for fear of disturbing that surety, that knowing. Only five days to Christmas. Surely, surely… And it’s snowing, too, those huge drifty flakes that Samantha had always loved to catch in her mouth when she was little.
“…do not leave your baggage unattended. You must maintain possession of your property at all times.”
With coffee and croissant in front of her, Deirdre unzips her handbag. Then a first sip of coffee. She’s used to the lack of taste now. Her fingers slip into the bag, skim the thick envelope. Another sip before she allows herself to pull it out. A bite of croissant—the end bit, always the flakiest, tastiest part—before easing from the wad of photos, at random, just one.
She gazes at today’s photo carefully, as though for the first time. The little girl with bright hair and a big toothy grin stands feet planted widely in a sundress splashed with red poppies, brandishing a blue plastic baseball bat. David, with an older version of Samantha’s big grin, bends over her, tousled blond hair falling over his face. Such a happy time. This is the only photo Deirdre allows in the envelope from when Samantha was very young. What’s the point of old photos? Even the others are not so recent. A young woman can change in five years. Hair cut, hair color, putting on weight, losing weight, make-up, more tattoos maybe, piercings. Deirdre gazes at the photo, into the child’s eyes. Come back. Please come back.
Deirdre leaves the rest of her coffee and heads back to the barrier, dodging passengers and baggage carts. David stands on the other side of the barrier, case in hand, scanning the waiting crowd, smiling expectantly. Hope and delight carry her forward, pushing and shoving.
It’s not David. This man is too young, far too young, but he has David’s blond hair, flopping over his forehead the way it used to when they first met, with David’s old smile. She stops and a cold metal bar rams into the back of her ankle. Her legs buckle. She fights a wave of nausea. The luggage cart that ploughed into her pushes past.
Of course it’s not David. Eyes streaming, she staggers to the bench against the wall. She sits there, folded over, gripping her ankle. He’d never been one to change his mind.
“I can’t do it any more, I just can’t,” he’d said.
“We’re in this together. We’re helping each other. What about when Samantha comes back? Don’t you want to be here?” She hung on to his suitcase, trying to pull him back into the house. He yanked it away without looking at her and scrunched over the gravel path to the waiting taxi.
“Unattended property will be confiscated and…”
She releases her ankle and straightens up, pulls a Kleenex out of her pocket, blows her nose. A boy sitting further along the bench, one hand protectively on the large suitcase in front of him, looks away quickly.
“Maisie! At last! How many years has it been? My God, you haven’t changed a bit. Not a bit,” a woman’s voice shrieks from over by the doors.
The boy stands up, goes up on tiptoe, straining to see over the crowd. He sits down again and looks at his hands.
“It’s hard, waiting, isn’t it?” Deirdre says. “Sometimes you feel like they’ll never come back.”
The boy presses his lips together. Poor child, left all alone. He’s frightened, she can see that.
“Mom’s coming back. And Francine,” he says tightly, without looking at her. He gives his case a kick.
“I know, but it feels like they’ll never come back.”
“They will.” He kicks his suitcase extra hard. “They’ve just gone to the washroom.”
“For your safety and security, do not leave your luggage…”
Deirdre wishes she had a chocolate bar in her bag, or some candy or a little toy. Such a sweet boy. She can’t resist. She just has to. Her hand is about to rest on his head when a woman carrying a baby rushes up.
“Why didn’t you stay where I left you?” she asks the boy. “I told you not to move until I got back.” She yanks out the pull handle of the suitcase, tips the case onto its wheels.
“I’ve a young one of my own and know what it can be like,” Deirdre says. “It’s worrying, isn’t it? But he was a good boy, and I…” She watches them maneuver the big case through the revolving doors at the exit.
Why had the mother looked at her like that? There’s nothing wrong with comforting a frightened little boy. It wasn’t as if he’d been in any danger. She’ll find out herself what it’s like soon enough. When the boy’s older, in a few more years. Then she’ll know what it feels like to be left behind, to wait and wait and wait. What it’s like to be the one who ends up with nothing.
There are a lot of children in Arrivals. Deirdre had never noticed before. Dozens of them, running about, playing hide-and-seek behind suitcases and pillars, begging for a treat, stomping off to sulk, falling asleep in their strollers. There’s another one all by herself over there by the flower and balloon stand. Poor little thing. She’ll be frightened, all alone like that.