Leaving on a Jet Plane: On Life in Airports and Coming Home
The temporary thrill of flying around the world without consequence.
I spent most of my twenties in airports. I had a job that meant I lived for a number of years without a permanent address, traveling to and staying with clients whose children I tutored in countries around the world. Rather than being an interruption, as they are in a normal context, airports and airplanes were the sameness to which I could return, the continued presence by which I could be comforted. When I was at my job I was always at work; I lived in the homes of the families whose children I tutored, which meant that I never could stop watching myself. When the work I was doing had technically finished, I still lived in the family’s house, and was required at all times to be my professional, official self—decorous, careful, exemplary—the person for whose time this family had paid a great deal of money.
Airports were the place where I could take the mask off, where I could be no one and feel invisible, where I could at last become a blank. Airports became stage sets, clicking and wheeling apparatuses of logistics and plastic; their clean and anonymous interiors felt like the inside of my own mind. I loved the blankness of their in-between-spaces, the certainty that I couldn’t be reached while I was on a plane, that as long I was up here, no one could ask anything of me.
The best moment in an airport, perhaps the whole point of a vacation, the impulse to go away somewhere longs toward, exists between security and boarding the plane—past one danger but before the next—in this liminal space between one tangible world and another. The fake malls that populate airports in the spaces between terminals offer an imitation, an efficient version of high-end chain stores and mammoth coffee-shops. My favorite thing was an airport sandwich, which remains one of my favorite foods. Airport sandwiches are always, invariably bad. I would sit in a chair way before my flight was scheduled to depart, draped in whatever carry-on suitcase I had, and spread out a bad sandwich like a feast—my whole existence encapsulated in a few square feet of objects: self-sufficient, invisible, and blameless.
Back then, I was never scared of flying. I was more interested in the world below. The unfolding living map—the country that passed from mountains to oceans, from roads to towns and back out to green swaths of nowhere—seemed coherent, as though it could be told with a single story contained in a sentence without commas, a long phrase without a pause for breath. From an airplane window, the world seemed accessible, and it seemed that way precisely because it wasn’t, because it was so far away. The best possible flight is one that swoops low to landing just after the sun sets, when underneath my window I could watch the landscape turn into a constellations of lights, chiming on one after another as though the populous world were a gigantic Christmas tree, warm and inviting as long as it couldn’t be reached.
I remember leaving the Geneva airport right at this moment before the light slowly left the sky, walking to a tiny plane on the tarmac in an embrace of soft pastel cloud-sprays and darkened rolling green country just beyond the runways, feeling like a tabloid celebrity out of another century. Geneva is perhaps the most clinically spotless of any airport I’ve ever passed through, its whole collection of cavernous spaces like the fanciest store in a suburban mall, the kind of store designed to make customers afraid to touch anything. Alone in that airport I could convince myself I was included in all this privileged cleanliness, could make up a story in which I was as perfectly blank as marble-plastic stores selling chocolate, their windows framing the long slow advance of the sunset over the bodies of planes moving like elegant whales. That night I flew from Geneva to Vienna, one city where I know no one to another city where I knew no one, and the hushed anonymity of each place, where no one dropped me off and no one greeted me, felt possible rather than lonely. When there was no chance I could get close to it, everything seemed easy to love.
During that time when I lived in airports, I was bright and irresponsible, fun to be around, terrible to get close to. I made grand, stupid, impulsive decisions and never worried that I would have to account for them because I knew I could leave. Without an address, a routine, a set return of the day to the same places and people—the growing familiarity that accumulates when one makes a home—I never had to stay to watch my choices drop into consequences. I skimmed over the surface of love and permanence, connection and loyalty. I knew I had an escape hatch, that I had not just the ability but the obligation to run away—it was quite literally my job. I left projects unfinished and ghosted people as I allowed the narcotic rush of another plane’s takeoff to drown out the nagging voices that might have pulled me back to the things I had promised and then forgotten.
I replaced the locked-together and stacking-block-on-block of building a life with the perfect clean repetition of airports, each one a new beginning, like the expectant, open face of a person who doesn’t know you at all, believing anything you say because they have as yet no reason not to. Changing planes in Johannesburg one summer, I ate a blissfully terrible airport sandwich in a bar with a large-window view of the runway, and talked to a stranger who was also changing planes. We told each other stories about ourselves, and I assume theirs were as made-up as mine were; there was no incentive for anyone I met in an airport to tell the truth, nothing compelled us in those minutes toward the real facts of our real lives but a lack of imagination. Making up a story I would forget a few minutes later felt like the same buoyancy as an airplane taking off, that first forgiven moment of flight.
Many people talk about travel as a way to expand one’s mind, a path to a sort of secular enlightenment—there’s a whole genre of nonfiction, one that reinvents and reasserts itself in every generation the idea that if we travel to foreign, faraway places, we will by their unfamiliarity, by the tendency of travel to disrupt our lives, be transformed. When anyone talks about travel as a transformative benefit, I suspect what they’re really talking about is escape which, in the pure, clean center of it, can feel like transformation: Here you are in the airport, reborn, redeemed of your choices by the baptismal process of passing through security checkpoints and entering this blank, anonymous space akin to salvation. If we are the things we accumulate—our loves, our fears, our routines, our habits—then getting on a plane divests us of everything to which we are accountable, of the repetitions that bind us to a set identity and demand our continuous loyalty. Travel offers temporary freedom and propels us into an environment where we are invisible or, at most, a novelty to the people we encounter. Many of the clients I worked for were people I returned to visit for multiple years on end, and in some ways they began to feel like family—the expected warm greeting, the patterns of conversation, picking up where they had left off a year before. But it was the aiport version of family: Shallow, weightless, free of either the burdens or benefits of real family, because we exchanged no real loyalties; we didn’t actually know one another.
If by traveling one can feel like one has been remade, it is only because travel turns the things to which we owe our loyalty temporarily unreal and unable to reach us. In AA this is called “doing a geographical”—instead of facing their problems, the alcoholic takes flight, literally or figuratively, to a new location where no one else knows about their patterns yet, and where there is no external support system that will deny them the ability to live life in a constant state of avoidance. An ex of mine was a raging alcoholic, and whenever he got access to a car he would text me: “Canada or Mexico? Pick one.” I thought I was on to him, that I wasn’t complicit in his avoidance because I could name what it was. But my job was merely a version of the same avoidance in more acceptable packaging. Travel is the most privileged version of a geographical, in which one paints a noble narrative over top of the act of avoidance.
It’s no coincidence that travel is associated with and infinitely more available to the wealthy—my constant travel, after all, was always a function of someone else’s wealth. Money is a form of escape, too, and what we seek when we seek money is in truth the same kind of blankness, the same refusal of any consequence, the same permission to keep going forward, to never return to the people we have hurt or those to whom we have promised things. Money may not buy happiness but it certainly buys the avoidance of pain. Enough money functions like the buoyant rush of the plane leaving the ground, the way action movies have instilled in me the sense that whenever a plane takes off I’m escaping pursuers, getting free and getting away with something. Capitalism’s dream of endless accumulation is a dream of never being accountable to anyone, and travel that functions as a way to show off wealth is a bragging external proof of that refusal, of a life soaring above and beyond consequences.
Money was, in the end, the thing that made me stop living out of airports and come home and build a life. I may have been adjacent to the wealthy, but I wasn’t wealthy myself, and although my job paid well, the lifestyle it engendered was unsustainable, and offered no future. I came home and began slowly accumulating habit, repetition, and consequences. What I have found to be legitimately transformative is the exact opposite of airplanes—staying in one place, building a life, repeating myself, being accountable to things beyond my minute-to-minute impulses and spiking fears. These day-to-day obligations, in their unspectacular, workmanlike ongoings turn out to offer the kind of secular redemption that grand travel narratives claim can be found in the far-off unknown. For me it is has been the known, the habitual, the paperwork of life—all the things that I, like most people, find intensely uncomfortable—that have performed the small, dirt-scratching miracles that travel promises to accomplish in a single, effortless gesture.
I’m terrified of flying now. I hate every second of it. The thrill that the first lift and swoop of a plane once gave me has turned into a profound terror; the roller coaster of turbulence is now a confrontation with my own mortality. I am a profoundly embarrassing person to travel with, the person gripping the seat, making keening noises under her breath, staring at the page of her book without blinking, audibly counting to a hundred over and over, trying not to scream. This change happened around the same time I fell in love.
During a year when I didn’t once leave the city where I live and returned every day to the previous day’s choices, I met my partner, Thomas. In the first year we were together, he went to the doctor again and again, sure he was dying at every tiny thing that might have been wrong. He’d never been particularly worried about his health before, he explained, but being this happy and this much in love had made the world seem unbearably dangerous, had made him feel that something must be coming for him, the next shoe must be about to drop, there must be consequences for all of this joy, for all of this unaccountable good fortune. My version of the same reaction is that I became terrified of airplanes and everything else with the built-in possibility of tragedy. Suddenly the possibility of death seemed all too real because the accident would matter. Fear is one form of gratitude—the acknowledgement that there is something to lose that matters, that something hangs in the balance against the possible catastrophe. Flying used to be an escape from consequences; now it reeks of their potential. I’m glad about it. I’m glad to have a reason not to want to get on the plane, to be pulled back down into sickening gratitude for this small and unspectacular life, for the opposite of adventure.
Helena Fitzgerald has published essays in The New Inquiry, Vice, Brooklyn Magazine, Midnight Breakfast, Refinery29, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and Bookslut, among many others. She can be found on twitter @helfitzgerald, and writes a somewhat-weekly tinyletter at http://tinyletter.com/griefbacon. She is currently at work on a book about the 1977 blackout in New York City.