An expatriate mother and her toddler are stranded in a London airport where she confronts the issue of Home
11:00 a.m., Central Standard Time, Chicago Suburbs Clare sat on her heels and looked at the mess around her. She hated packing, and felt she’d done more than her share over the last few years. These days, not only did she have to pack for herself, but for a husband and young son as well. This time, however, it was just Clare and Max. Tabb was waiting for them in Munich. That was something to be grateful for, at least.
Even travel itself had become a burden for her. Normal travel, travel within a reasonable distance, was challenging enough. But international travel? Forget it. Long tedious hours on planes, changing from one to another at unfamiliar airports; swollen feet; filthy, cramped, aluminum toilets; smelly, unwashed bodies… Clare remembered the young French woman that she was once forced to sit next to, and how she positively reeked with b.o. Did anyone outside the United States believe in regular showering? Teeth brushing? Deodorant that works? How about simple washing up before a long flight?
She pushed her hair out of her eyes and began cramming the last of her belongings into any available space she could find. Silly things. Things of sentimental value. Things she couldn’t get in Germany. Tooth-whitening kit, Cheetos Puffs (for her husband), Oreos (for herself), Quaker-brand flavored oatmeal (for Max), Breath Assure (oh dear, mustn’t forget that!), carefully bound copies of recorder music from her Ren Faire years, old pictures drawn and framed herself, plastic ice cubes (what novelty!), giant-sized ice cube trays, favorite hair products, new jeans… and yes, five or six sticks of Secret deodorant. Add to that the multitude of nesting supplies she’d gathered during her single days in anticipation of her first apartment: whisky tumblers, pint glasses, Williams Sonoma transparent plastic cereal bowls, office supplies stolen from her last job… ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Were all these things necessary? Did she really need to bring these things back home?
Home. She considered the word. Where was home, really? Was it here, in a small town in the northern reaches of Illinois, just beyond the outskirts of Chicago? The place where she’d grown into adulthood and imagined she’d remain for many years to come? Or was it in Munich, with her husband, where she gave birth to their son, and where they had, as yet, failed to put down roots? A question, an important one, she’d been struggling with since she left behind her single life to begin a new one with her German husband three years ago.
“Max! Get down from there!”
Max looked at her from his perch atop one of the suitcases… the half-packed one with the whisky tumblers.
“C’mon. Get down, you silly kid.” She reached for his hand and he grabbed it, his strong pudgy fingers curling around her own. He slid down the slope of the closed lid to the floor. “Come here, booger. Give me a hug.”
Max pursed his lips and kissed her before wrapping his arms around her neck. “Ah wuv wu,” he said.
Clare smiled and hugged him closer. “I love you too, stinker. Can you let me finish packing?”
Max pulled away from her and nodded solemnly. Then, he pointed to his travel bed where a pile of comfort toys and a blankie lay. “Ow-toe!”
“Okay. You play with your Autos, then. Maybe Grandma would like to see them…?”
Max smiled and gathered up his four favorite cars, then left the room. “Ba! Ba!” he called in search of Clare’s mother. “Ba?”
Clare felt the familiar warmth of absolute love for Max fill her, radiating from her chest into her shoulders and arms. Sighing, she leaned into her task, determined to continue until everything had a place, and the cases were closed and locked. Would she make the seventy-two-pound limit for each case? She hoped so.
She knew her bódhran would have to go as carry-on, though she hated the idea of lugging it around in addition to her backpack and Max’s things. She refused to leave it behind this time, though, the old Irish drum having sentimental value to her.
She hoped Max would go down for a nap before they left that afternoon for the airport. They’d both been up since 8:00 a.m.
7:00 p.m., CST, O’Hare Airport, Chicago Clare waited at the gate with Max, standing at the big window and differentiating between Autos and Flugzeuge. “No, sweetie. That’s a plane. Flugzeug. See the wings? It flies in the air. Autos drive on the ground. Airplanes are much bigger than cars.”
Max nodded. “Auto, Auto, Auto!”
Clare smiled and kissed her son on the head. “Love you, kid. You’re a sweetie.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
Clare caught snippets of conversation in German from the trio behind her. The younger man was German, about thirty, and good-looking in the classic south-German sense: Dark hair; tall strong body; high cheekbones; deep-set brown eyes, crinkled at the corners. His hair had been lightened by the sun, his skin was tan, and his body was slim and lithe. At his feet rested a battered backpack.
Predictably, he sported brand-new Levi’s, a crisp black T-shirt from Flagstaff, and a pair of cowboy boots, the soles barely scuffed. Jeans, especially American jeans, were expensive in Europe; cowboy boots difficult to find, and twice as pricey. Clare wondered what other American contraband was stashed in his suitcases in the cargo hold?
The couple was older—in their sixties, perhaps—retired, and also German. But they were visiting home, not returning. They had moved to Fort Worth, Texas, three decades earlier, they told the young man. They were excited about going home again. Visiting old friends. Seeing their old home town. They hadn’t been back for nearly twenty years. Their excitement showed, and Clare could see their glowing youth behind the lines on their faces.
The young man turned his head to glance at Clare, and she lowered her gaze, returned her attention to her son. He really was very good looking. And she… well, she wasn’t what she might have been when she’d gotten married three years ago. Already plump then, she had filled out considerably during motherhood: face rounder; hips broader; and breasts heavier, her shoulders slumped forward from the weight of them. Her favorite rings were left in a box on the dresser she shared with her husband, her fingers too plump to fit them. Only her wedding ring decorated her hand, now.
Max turned his attention away from the Flugzeuge to her bódhran. He whined, wanted to play with it. Clare dipped her fingers into the pocket of the drum case and withdrew a tipper, one of her less favored ones, and gave it to Max. He banged it on the floor, against the column they rested against. But he wanted more. He wanted the drum, too.
Patiently, Clare explained. “We’re going on the plane soon, Schatz. You can’t play with the drum here. It’s too loud and people won’t like it.”
Max started crying. Then screaming. People looked at them, making Clare squirm under their scrutiny. She talked to her son in a soothing voice, refusing to yell or hit. A British mother with a young girl and baby in tow held out a bag of Starburst. “Would he like one of these?”
Clare reached into the bag thinking of the package of Studentenfutter tucked into her backpack, and wondering why she hadn’t thought to pack something more appealing than trail mix. At such times, bribery with sweets seemed the wiser, more effective choice over nutrition. “Thank you,” she breathed gratefully, unwrapping the candy and handing it to Max. “Thanks a lot.”
Max stopped crying and popped the candy into his mouth.
“Take another, just in case,” the mother said.
“I appreciate it.” She grabbed four.
Clare looked at her watch as she rose and ushered Max toward the gate for early boarding. It was eight o’clock. Max’s bedtime. Hopefully, he would sleep after their eight-thirty takeoff. He’d missed his nap, after all.
8:30 p.m., CST The plane was filled, and when it took off, Max was too excited for sleep. An hour later, he was still alert, playing with his cars, jumping up and down, whining, complaining, unable to settle down. Clare’s round shoulder overlapped the arm of the broad-shouldered Scot next to her, so she juggled Max onto her lap and slid into her son’s seat, putting him in her own chair. She wondered what the man thought about sharing his space with a rambunctious, friendly toddler, but decided she didn’t really care. It was either that, or rub shoulders with the mom. She didn’t feel like sitting canted to the left to avoid physical contact with a stranger for the next seven hours. He would just have to deal with it.
12:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, Canada airspace During Clare’s second viewing of Kate and Leopold, Max finally fell asleep. They’d both been awake for fourteen hours, an extraordinary length of time for Max. Overtired as he had been, he seemed down for the count now. Clare tried to sleep, too, but couldn’t. While staring into the video screen in the seat in front of her, she reviewed her visit home.
It had been wonderful to be home again. Familiar sights, sounds, even the smell in the parking lot of the Jewel stirred nostalgia and longing to return to her hometown permanently. What had she been thinking to leave everything behind to live in a foreign country, however civilized and technologically advanced?
Granted, Germany was a gorgeous country, with enough castles and palaces to satisfy even the most rapacious of romantic appetites. There were also mountains, plains, hills and valleys, and all four seasons… Except for deserts, the entire geological macrocosm of the United States was contained in the mighty European country smaller than the state of Texas.
In Munich, the weather was quite nice, too. Clement most days, though often cloudy and even rainy, the temperatures rarely reached extremes, and even then only for a short span. How could she ask for more?
The people, while friendly in most situations, were often rude and impatient on the street. Always in a hurry, much more so than in Chicago, people squeezed to get around and past and in front of you at every opportunity. A weekday at the grocery store in their neighborhood was worse than a Saturday morning at the Jewel in Chicago. Her husband joked that before visiting New York City, he’d been warned of the general rudeness he would encounter. But when he arrived, he’d noticed no difference from his native Germany!
And the language. Clare knew enough to get around, read labels and instructions, to understand the blinking letters on the control panel when the elevator was out of order, ask and comprehend directions. She’d long ago given up formally learning the language, content to get by on what she already knew and to absorb the rest. If her lack of language skills didn’t bother her husband, it didn’t bother her. However, and she was the first to admit it, this limited her quite a bit, socially. She often became homesick, longing for the companionship and easy conversation of friends who came from the same social and cultural context, and easily understood her points of view. People with whom she didn’t have to speak on a second-grade level.
Still, it always remained in the back of her mind that they would all return to the States as a family, some not-too-distant day. What need for comprehensive language skills when they were destined to return home?
And there was the word again. Home. She had chosen to make her life in Germany. She had a family of her own, a husband and child whom she loved dearly. But where was her home, really? They, as a family, still had not found a place they wanted to stay; they were, in fact, considering yet another move within the city. Was that the reason she remained so emotionally bound to the place she grew into adulthood, the place she longed to return? Was it out of simple displacement that she felt so, well, displaced? Or was she merely being stubborn, refusing to let go?
These were questions too complicated to sort through, and she forced them from her mind. Gradually, she focused on Kate and Leopold again, marveling at the romance of the movie, and wondered if such a thing really existed. She suspected it as elusive as one’s sense of home—there, but not quite within reach.
9:00 a.m., Greenwich Mean Time, England airspace As the plane closed in over London, Clare looked through the window, content to let the Scot entertain Max for a few minutes. Down below, but not so very far, the landscape passed beneath them. Patchwork fields, little clusters of towns, a river or two, and two-lane roads, the cars driving disconcertingly on the wrong side of each other. They flew over large plots of land. Spying something familiar, Clare’s heart skipped a beat. Was that…? Could it truly be…? Why yes, she thought. That must be Windsor Castle. There, oh look at it! And then it was gone.
The captain’s voice broke through her awe.
“We are sorry for the inconvenience, but there is trouble with the Control Tower computers. We will circle London for a span of time, and expect to be given clearance in approximately forty-five minutes. Our estimated landing time will be ten-fifteen. Weather is clear, and the forecast is mild, high temperature of about seventeen degrees Celsius.”
Forty-five minutes later, the captain’s voice came again. More trouble at the control tower. Another fifteen minutes’ delay.
When permission to land had finally been granted, they were forced to remain on the plane thirty minutes longer, just waiting for a place to park. Clare grew impatient, almost desperately so. She began to feel claustrophobic. The space she shared with her son and a strange man, already small, seemed quite smaller. She was sure her legs and butt had atrophied. Max kept stepping over her feet, and Clare put her hands over her face to shut out the anxiety that threatened to overtake her senses. People stood in the aisles, reaching for their bags, crushing together, in a hurry to get out. Mustering the last scrap of patience she possessed, Clare waited for her fellow passengers to carry themselves forward before she gathered Max and their bags and followed—the last to disembark.
11:00 a.m., GMT, London-Heathrow Airport Burdened by the heavy backpack, her bódhran clutched in one hand, Max’s bunny and backpack (stuffed with blankie and cars) in the other, Clare led her son to the departures terminal, stopping once to change his poopy diapers.
When they’d flown to Chicago, Max had felt too insecure to let go of Clare’s hand. Now, however, three weeks outside the protective and dominating stretch of his daddy’s influence, Max felt confident, brazen, even, to explore at will. Disregarding Clare’s insistence that he “Stay by Mommy”, Max lagged behind, climbed atop abandoned golf carts, ran far ahead of her on the horizontal people movers. Clare entertained horrific visions of him tripping, the hem of his t-shirt getting caught between the teeth, trying to pull the small child through them and into its gears. She called after him loudly.
At the security check, the lines were long. Max grew bored and dashed under the ropes, headed for an empty luggage trolley. He grabbed the handle and pushed it around the empty floor at the back of the room, crashing it into the walls, other trolleys, and even a person looking the other direction.
Clare, mortified, ran after him, calling out, “Max, no! Max, come back here. Stop that immediately!” When that didn’t work, she caught up to him and grabbed him by the back of his shirt, hauling him away. At that moment, a somber woman in green led them past the double lines and to the security check.
Hot, sweaty and red-faced, Clare placed their belongings on the belt of the x-ray machine. When he saw his bunny move away from him, Max let out a piercing wail. “Hase! Hase!”
A guard looked at Clare. “What is he saying?”
“He wants his bunny.”
The guard nodded pleasantly, directing Max to the monitor. “Look,” he said pointing to the x-ray pictures. “You can see your bunny here… Look! Watch for it. Here it comes!”
Max’s cries grew louder. Turning red, the guard bustled them quickly through the control gate. Max grabbed his bunny at the end of the belt and buried his face in its fur.
Wending their way down the escalators, and through the waiting areas, Clare and Max found a place to relax. Shrugging the backpack from her shoulder, Clare hunkered down and squatted on the low stoop of a cellular phone seller’s display, currently empty of prospective buyers and littered with snoozing travelers. Max dutifully sat next to her.
“Are you thirsty? Would you like something to drink?”
Clare dug into her bag and pulled out two juice boxes and the pack of Studentenfutter. She poured some into a small container and handed it to her son. He took it and began carefully pushing the pretzels, nuts, and yogurt-covered raisins into his mouth.
“Is that good?”
He nodded again, now sipping from his juice box.
Clare looked at her watch. “Only two hours to go, and we’ll be on the plane to Daddy.”
Max looked at her, his eyes brightening. He hadn’t seen his daddy in three weeks.
Twenty minutes later, there was an announcement. A long list of canceled flights was read, and among them, at the very end, “BA925 to Munich, has also been canceled. Please collect your baggage at the baggage claim. The computers are down and Air Traffic Control apologizes for this inconvenience.”
Clare swore softly and a few travelers around her stopped what they were doing to groan, their shoulders slumping. They were so tired. They were almost home. How could this happen? Her mind raced. What should she do?
She pulled out her credit card and hauled a complaining Max and their things to the nearest phone.
He answered immediately.
“Tabb, it’s me.” Her voice quavered slightly, not even bothering to say hello.
“What’s wrong? Where are you?”
“Our flight has been canceled. We’re in London, and our flight has been canceled.”
“No, I just checked online. It’s only been delayed.”
Clare paused. Could she have misunderstood? “No, it was definitely canceled. I just heard it on the loudspeaker.”
“Mm-hmm. Okay. Did you get another flight?”
“No! I only heard it just now. They said to go pick up our luggage.”
“No, no. Go to the desk and reschedule your flight. And call me back right away. Don’t worry. They’ll redirect your luggage.”
“Okay.” She hung up, reassured by Tabb’s logical direction then realizing she’d forgotten to say, “goodbye.” Clare considered calling him back a moment before admitting the silliness of the idea. She re-shouldered her backpack, grabbed their things and led Max back through the lounges and upstairs to the desk.
11:30 a.m., GMT Less than five minutes after the cancellations announcement, the line at the desk was already snaking through the long roped pathway and into the main part of the lobby. Clare claimed her place at the end of the line. More people filed in, and Clare eavesdropped on the American couple behind her.
“I’ll run downstairs and get something to drink. What would you like?” a man’s voice said.
“Something carbonated,” a woman answered, probably the man’s wife, “but without caffeine, and not cola. Maybe one of those fruit-flavored drinks, you know what I mean? I just can’t deal with the caffeine right now. It’ll make me pee.”
The husband was silent a moment. “Anything else?”
“No… Well, I need something to eat. If I don’t eat something I’ll just die.”
“Something substantial. I don’t care what it is, just make sure it’s substantial. A sandwich maybe. But no egg. I’m allergic, remember. And no mayonnaise.”
“Fine.” Her husband edged out of line.
Too tired to be tactful—she’d been awake for almost twenty three hours—Clare turned around and stared with frank curiosity. The woman—medium height, big blond hair curled away from her face and dark roots—could only be described as, well, substantial. She looked younger than Clare expected, close to her own age, and quite American in appearance. Polo shirt tucked into jeans that strained over her large belly and hips, white Keds, and white scrunchie sport socks.
The woman, absorbed in her own inconvenience, didn’t notice Clare staring at her. She turned to another female companion. “I have to pee, anyway. This line better move fast.”
Clare turned away, mildly embarrassed.
Max, stretched out on the floor at her feet. He was calm and appeared to be relaxing a bit. Clare hoped he would sleep soon.
As the line crept forward, Clare kept nudging Max onward. He complained loudly, but she ignored him. They had reached the gateway where the ropes began and guided the crowd into a long winding line to the desk. From that point, the digital counter estimated another 50 minutes’ wait. Shifting her weight from foot to foot, Clare worried that all flights that day would be filled by the time she made it to the desk.
It was long before she caught the eye of a young, wide-eyed student standing at the beginning of the line. She wondered why no one could see her with this small, tired, complaining little boy and offer her a better place in line. She wondered if these thoughts made her greedy and selfish. She wondered if, in different circumstances, she would have offered someone her place in line. She hoped so.
To her surprise, the young traveler waved Clare forward. “Please, stand here. Come. You would like to go before me?” she volunteered in a sweet-sounding French accent.
“Are you sure?” Clare stammered, not believing her luck.
“Of course. Please. Come forward.”
Tears sprang to Clare’s eyes as she moved into place at the front of the line. “Thank you so much. You are so kind. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”
There was an opening at once, and seconds later they were standing at the desk.
The woman who took care of them seemed new to the job, but the attendant beside her, though busy with her own customers, capably of fielded questions from Clare’s clerk. After some confusion and deliberation, the woman finally placed Clare and Max on standby for a 6:00 p.m. flight to Munich that evening. She then booked them two confirmed seats for an 8:30 a.m. flight the next day. Either way, Clare thought as she walked away, gripping their revised tickets close to her, they were on a plane home.
She found another payphone and called her husband.
“We did it!” she started without preamble. “We’re on standby for a 6:00 flight, and confirmed seats for an 8:30 one tomorrow! Thank god.”
“Good,” Tabb said. “It’ll be good to get you home.”
“And how,” Clare said. “God, I need a bath!”
“I’ll make you one as soon as you get home.”
“Sounds good to me. Hopefully we’ll be home tonight. If we don’t make the 6:00, I’ll call and let you know, but I don’t see that happening.”
“Good. See you soon,” Tabb said.
“’Kay,” Clare said smiling and hung up the phone.
Clare walked around with Max until she found a large plastic indoor jungle gym crawling with young children. In chairs posted around it sat tired mothers, and a father or two. One woman sat on the floor nursing her baby; Clare thought it rude that no one had offered her a chair. She knew now she would definitely have offered her own, had she one.
She found an empty corner near a flights monitor and dropped their things to the floor, relieved. Her shoulders ached. She was dying of thirst and knew Max must be, too. She reached into her backpack and pulled out two more juice boxes and a Nutrigrain bar for Max. He ate with disinterest, the jungle gym far more intriguing. After reading the complex set of rules posted nearby, Clare took off Max’s shoes and simply let him run free in the play area. Occasionally, she let her eyes drift shut and dozed for ten-second intervals, listening to the sound of her son’s voice as he played with the other children.
6:40 p.m., GMT Clare opened her eyes and listened carefully to the announcement. All day long flights had been canceled, and the departures terminal had filled with stranded, frustrated travelers. Oddly, most of the cancellations were en route to Germany, a fact Clare tried hard to ignore. Each time the woman’s voice sounded over the PA system, Clare was alert, hoping to not hear their stand-by flight among the list of casualties. As the six o’clock hour approached, she studied the monitors hoping to see her flight appear at the bottom. Most flights still running had been seriously delayed, and she hadn’t expected to see her own flight’s gate assignment until close to its scheduled take-off time, or even later. Although it was now well past take-off time, Clare remained confident they would get home that evening. But now the woman’s voice brought unwanted news: their 6:00 flight had finally been canceled at 6:40 p.m. Clare lowered her face to her hands and sat in disbelief. How could this happen? She had a small child with her. How would they cope overnight in an airport, for chrissake? Sighing heavily, Clare pushed herself to her feet and gathered their things. She herded Max away from the jungle gym to find food and a telephone, and to join the rest of the strandees headed for Germany.
She located an empty baggage trolley and piled their backpacks, bunny and blankie on it, settle Max on the top and slung her drum from the little hook beneath the push handle. He was unhappy to have been dragged away from the jungle gym, but warmed quickly to this new activity. He enjoyed his princely perch, observing all around him with surprising poise and dignity.
She found a Burger King and as they ate cheeseburgers and French fries, Clare marveled at her son’s ability to befriend strangers with such ease, male strangers in particular. This time, he’d singled out one of a pair of German businessmen sitting on the stools beside them.
The man was dressed in a beige-colored suit, brown wingtips, white shirt and average tie. He wasn’t extraordinary-looking—maybe 42 years old, brown thinning hair, moustache—but possessed a kindly air, a soft light in his eyes. He must have kids, Clare thought from the easy way he played with her son. She watched as the man lifted Max high in the air by his hands. Max shrieked in delight, and the man laughed. He must miss his own children, this man stuck in traveler’s limbo with the rest of us when he might also be… at home.
When Clare sensed the man’s amusement was waning, she herded Max back to the trolley.
“Tschüß,” the man called as they passed.
Clare smiled. “Tschüß,” she returned, not surprised he too was from Germany.
She sighed and looked down at her son’s fair head, which was now, she noticed, drooping alarmingly to the right. She stopped the cart just in time to catch him before he fell headfirst to the polished-granite floor. She settled him gently on her backpack again, arranging his limbs on the narrow overstuffed bag so he wouldn’t fall again, found a phone and called her husband.
“Did you make it?” he asked.
“No, the six o’clock was canceled, too.”
“Damnit. Where’s Max?” He said dam-nit, which Clare found endearing, especially so far from home. Hearing his familiar German accent comforted her, brought her closer to him.
“He’s right here. He fell asleep. I think I’ve got some time to myself now, so I’m going to buy a book. Wouldn’t you know, I packed mine, thinking I wouldn’t have time to read it watching over Max.”
Tabb laughed. “So you’re staying at the airport overnight?”
“Yes. We have definite seats on an eight-thirty tomorrow morning.”
“Okay. Be careful. Get some rest.”
Clare smiled at her husband’s mother-hen nature. “I’ll try. Maybe even sleep for a while.”
“Good.” said her husband. “Do it. See you tomorrow. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
When Clare hung up the phone, she went to the bookstore across the way, poring through the selection, enjoying a rare sense of leisure. After some deliberation, she paid for a copy of Rebecca, which she’d always meant to read never had.
She made her way slowly to a quiet place at the very end of the terminal, just beyond the jungle gym. Choosing an empty row of chairs, Clare sat down and pulled her son onto her lap, resting her head against his, enjoying the delicious sleeping smell of him. She settled Max across three chairs, spreading his blankie over him, and opened her book, but could get no further than two or three pages before her eyes closed. She put the book down and laid across four more chairs at her son’s feet and fell asleep.
But sleep did not stay with her long. Clare found that, though her body cried for rest, her mind kept forcing it awake to check her son, the bags, for strange lurking men looking to steal tickets, passports, bags… little boys. Finally, she roused herself and sat up, opening her book again, but her eyes only scanned the words.
9:00 p.m., GMT Max awoke crabby and groggy, and Clare did her best to hide her disappointment. The ease of this trip relied almost entirely on his peacefulness He needed sleep to be peaceful. And he wasn’t getting enough of it.
She heard a voice and turned to see a small, round Pacific Islander smiling down at her. Her voice was kind and well-meaning.
“You can go upstairs and ask for blankets and pillows. I will watch your things. It will help you be more comfortable.”
Clare nodded and smiled back. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”
“Just go right up to the desk. You’ll see. Don’t wait in line. Just go right up.”
A few minutes later, Clare returned with two blankets and two pillows from the airline. After a quick trip to the bathroom, she settled again on their row of seats, and prepared an ad hoc bed for her son. He lay down, but something almost immediately distracted him. He sat up again.
“What is it, sweetie?”
He only whined.
“Do you want your cars?”
“Umm… are you hungry?”
“Then what, sweetie? Show me.”
His voice rose alarmingly, his whines turned into cries, which turned into shrieks of anger, dissatisfaction. Clare glanced around the room, at the people who had discovered this peaceful nook to rest, sleep or read away the hours till morning. And her son was screaming in the middle of it.
She tried to hold him, but he wriggled out of her arms. “Quiet, sweetie. It’s okay. What is it? Show me, honey, please.”
She coddled him, but he refused to respond.
She was firm with him, but he didn’t care.
Finally, she lightly slapped his cheek, not to hurt, but to get his attention, a last-resort method that had worked wonders in the past. But not this time. His screaming grew worse.
Nearby, a man shushed them loudly. “Hör auf damit! Halt den Mund, endlich, ja? Verdammte Scheiße!”
In the back of her weary mind, beyond the growing sense of mortification, Clare wondered why, in the German language, so many of the negative nouns were feminine. She was about to pick up Max again, when another woman approached her.
“You should do something to quiet your child,” she said in a heavy German accent.
“I'm trying,” Clare answered.
“You’re not doing a good job. I think you’re a terrible mother. You are so stupid. You don’t know anything.”
Stunned, Clare turned to look at the woman. She was in her early thirties. Her dark hair, lank with oil and travel dirt, was tied back with a rubber band. She had a too-thin, wiry-athletic body, and looked like a runner or a climber. She also looked as weary and travel-worn as Clare felt.
“Never have I seen a child behave so badly. You are so stupid.” She said it, st-yoo-pid.
Clare ignored her, desperately trying to hold her son and whisper him into quieter screaming.
Perhaps regretting her harshness, the woman then reached out and touched Clare’s shoulder, bending her face toward Clare’s bowed head, and began to speak more softly.
But Clare, feeling claustrophobic again, whirled around and snarled at the woman in a frightening voice, “Get off my case, will you?! How dare you?!”
The woman, shocked and pale, walked away muttering. “Such a fat, stupid, terrible mother. I cannot believe…”
“You are so ignorant!” Clare shouted at the woman’s retreating back.
The Pacific Islander mother appeared again, offering her sleeping daughter’s toys to distract Max.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly. “That woman doesn’t understand what it is to have a child. She doesn’t know.”
Clare burst into tears, surprising herself, and the soft-spoken woman put her arm around Clare’s shoulder. Noticing his mother’s distress, Max’s cries began to lessen.
“Yes,” another, deeper voice agreed. “Just do the best you can. You’re doing a fine job, really.” The voice belonged to an older man in his fifties, gray, balding and a short beard covering a kind face. Clare had seen him earlier with three young daughters. He reached out and touched Clare’s arm. “Really, you’re doing fine.” He smiled and walked away.
When Max had calmed down completely, she piled him on the luggage cart with the rest of their carry-on, and left the lounge. At that moment, the lights went out, leaving only the security floods shining dimly at intervals. People hunkered deeper into their impromptu beds—across chairs, on the floor, against walls—huddling closer together as families, friends and couples, beneath fuchsia-and-blue airline blankets. Clare felt the corners of her mouth turn downward. She tried to stop the tears from coming but failed, and they shone in her eyes, spilling down her cheek. She walked down the darkened concourse feeling desolate and misplaced. She needed help. She wanted her husband there with her. A minute or two later, Clare heard someone calling behind her. She stopped the cart and turned to look. Another woman was trotting running after her.
“Do you have any extra diapers?” the woman asked, breathless.
Clare had packed a day’s worth of diapers, plus one or two extra, and was willing to help out. She felt shaky, and wondered if it showed. She cleared her throat. “Of course. How many do you need?” She hoped the other woman couldn’t hear the tremor in her voice, and quickly swiped a hand across her eyes to clear them.
The woman, not expecting generosity, was silent a second or two before answering, “As many as you can spare. One? Two?”
Clare dipped into her backpack and withdrew two diapers, warning herself not to be overgenerous, just in case. “Here. I hope they fit.”
The woman looked at the diapers and nodded. “They will. We have two children, and this is very hard on them. We ran out of diapers, and were told we could buy some right over there,” she said, pointing to the convenience store down the aisle, “but they don’t have any big enough.”
They spoke for a while, and her husband soon joined them.
“How awful for you,” the woman said, “to be in this situation, alone. Where is your husband?”
“He’s at home, waiting for us.” Clare paused slightly. “In Munich.”
“Oh dear. And you’re pregnant too?”
Clare reddened. “No,” she said, still smarting from the German woman’s attack, aware of her heavy hips and breasts beneath her bulky red university sweatshirt, “I guess I look pregnant, but I’m not.”
The woman, embarrassed, fell silent.
“Well,” Clare said, “I should get going.”
“Thanks for the diapers…”
“Sure. No problem.”
1:00 a.m., GMT Clare pushed her son around the departures terminal in the same endless circle for an hour before Max fell asleep again. Her heart leaped at the good fortune, and she staked out a spot under a pair of monitors.
As soon as the cart stopped moving, however, Max woke again and refused to sit still. He walked around and around, investigating everything within a fifty-foot radius. Including sleeping travelers camped across rows of chairs. When the man on the riding floor polisher made his rounds, Max squealed and clapped his hands, delighted with the odd-looking auto. Clare was grateful for the distraction.
3:00 a.m., GMT Unable to sit upright any longer, Clare stretched out across three chairs, resting her head on Max’s bunny. She could see Max’s feet beneath the seats a few feet ahead of her, but Max could not see her. When he turned and did not find his mommy, he rushed back to their campsite in a panic.
Clare sat up and held him a moment. “It’s okay, sweetie. I’m still here,” she cooed. He yawned, and Clare encouraged him to lie down. He did, and she spread his blankie over him.
A well-intentioned woman approached them from the closed Pret-à-Mange snack bar and offered Max some potato chips and orange juice. Max, not yet asleep, roused himself instantly, reaching for the goodies. Clare, thanking the woman, was grateful for the kindness, but cursed the terrible timing.
They’d been awake, more or less, for 37 hours.
Hearing sounds of wakefulness behind her, Clare turned to find a woman in her fifties sitting up, patting her short gray hair into shape. She had been sleeping behind them, and Clare hoped vaguely that Max hadn’t disturbed her. She looked friendly, though, so Clare struck up conversation with her, seeking relief from her own solitary vigil.
The woman, from Aberdeen, Scotland, explained she was on standby to Milan to be head speaker for a convention on epilepsy. Later, Clare confided that the woman’s voice reminded her very much of Fiona Ritchie, from NPR’s Thistle and Shamrock. Together, they watched the clock and remarked how slowly the minutes crept by.
4:00 a.m., GMT Max began to explore the remoter corners of the International Departures Terminal. When Clare grimly walked toward him, he shrieked gaily and ran away, thinking a game was starting. Picking him up provoked a fit of kicking and screaming. Clare felt her blood pressure rise as she physically hauled him away from forbidden areas when words did not work.
Whenever Max made noise, or Clare reprimanded him, a red-haired woman, in her late thirties, shook her head and rolled her eyes. The rude German woman’s words from before returned to Clare and she wondered why she, too, hadn’t seen anyone else’s toddler children behave so insufferably. What was she doing wrong? Was the problem her child’s? Was it her own? Was she really a terrible mother?
5:00 a.m., GMT The airport campers began to rouse themselves, stretching the stiffness out of cramped necks and backs. Max had pooped, and Clare sat him on the trolley, and steered him toward the diaper-changing room.
When she laid him on the counter, Max wiggled and squirmed, twisting around on his belly in spite of Clare’s struggles to keep him still. He turned on the water and stuck his head and hands into the filthy sink, then popped something scary-looking into his mouth.
“No!” shouted Clare in horror and exasperation. She smacked his hand and the sound of the slap echoed loudly in the small tiled room. Max began to wail. Clare rooted in his mouth to pull out the offending object. She thought of the group of people sitting at a tall table in the coffee-shop area just outside the changing room, and wondered if they could hear—their struggles, the slap, her angry voice, Max’s wail—and thought her a terrible mom, too. And hadn’t that been the red-haired woman Clare saw before, now sitting at the table with two other people? The one who had rolled her eyes and shook her head?
She changed Max’s diaper and set him down, stepping over the trolley to use the toilet.
“Stay right there. Don’t move,” she warned.
Clare hurried her business and flushed in time to catch Max sticking his hand into one of the four waste bins, each as tall as he.
“No!” she called, her voice shrill. Again, she thought of the little group outside, sipping their coffee. What must they be thinking?
Clare stepped back over the luggage trolley to wash her hands, when Max turned back to the nearest trash bin. “No,” she warned, her voice low and even, “don’t do it.”
He crept nearer to the bin, watching her.
Clare’s hands were under the water, she was half-turned away. “Max…”
Again, he thrust his little hand into the bin as deeply as his arm allowed. Truly angry, Clare yanked him away and slapped his face. It made no mark, but did make a noise, a loud one, and set him screaming.
She washed his hands, admonishing and explaining and begging all at once. “No, you don’t do that, that’s icky, there are icky things in there, sweetie. Please, listen to me… I know you’re tired…”
Clare knelt to hold him, kiss him. “I’m sorry, sweetie. This is so horrible, isn’t it!” She used a wipe to wash his face. “We’ll be home soon. I promise.”
Feeling filthy herself, she wiped at her own face, neck, arms, pits. She applied fresh deodorant (American-formula Secret—she was allergic to the German formula). Please don’t let me stink too badly, she prayed.
Satisfied she was as clean as she could get, Clare packed their things again and wheeled the trolley out of the changing room, Max following silently.
Across the walkway, Clare saw their red-headed friend. As Clare waited for Max to catch up, Red nudged her companion and nodded in their direction. He turned his head, looked at Max for a moment, then focused on Clare.
Across the short distance, Clare heard her say, “That’s her. You could practically see the steam coming out of her head!”
In spite of her anger, Clare flushed with embarrassment. She had no idea how many times she had hauled Max away from one place or object after another—he refusing to follow or listen, prostrating himself on the floor in screaming fits because he could not climb into the security cars, crawl behind booths, scamper into the first-class lounge, take the pair of sunglasses or the stuffed doggy or the pretty candy from the store, or scale the winding stairs to the closed bar above—all of which he’d done, and each time screaming in fury when Clare had thwarted his mission, leaving her angry, frustrated and embarrassed.
Clare sighed, her shoulders heaving, and gently ushered her son back to their seats. No one could know how long she or Max had been awake—nor she they—and no one here would ever know what an absolute gem of a child he normally was. All they knew were the extraordinary circumstances they were in, their own discontent, and their annoyance toward a small child gone without sleep for thirty-seven hours. An unexpected and welcome wave of calm and protective love for Max washed over her. All things considered, it could be a lot worse. But it would have been better had his father been with them.
6:00 a.m., GMT People, fresh and eager to begin their journeys, who had not spent the night in the airport, began to populate the departures terminal again. Clare looked up and noticed that the monitors were once more registering flights. So far, only one had been canceled. Max climbed on her lap, clutching a muffin charmed off the Pret-à-Mange woman. Unable to make himself comfortable, he climbed back down.
After agonizing minutes of fitfulness, impatience and general implacability, Max crawled onto the trolley and fell asleep. Clare lifted his heavy limp body and held him, enjoying the peace and loving his helpless weight. What thing as sweet as a small, sleeping child, she wondered?
The Aberdeen woman appeared and smiled down at them. “I’m going to get a coffee. Would you like something? Tea perhaps?”
Clare shook her head. “Nothing for me, thanks.” She didn’t want the caffeine to bring her to the bathroom while Max slept, or, heaven forbid, when the gate of their flight was announced.
The woman started away, but Clare called her back. “Would you like me to watch your bag for you?”
Ms. Aberdeen looked surprised. “Why yes, that would be lovely, thank you.” So, leaving her suitcase behind, she left in search of breakfast.
6:15 a.m., GMT Clare watched as a pair of young women in their twenties approached.
“We’ve been watching you,” one said, “and wanted to know if there’s anything we can get for you. Water? Coffee? We think you’ve been terribly patient, we don’t know how you can do it, traveling alone with a small child. Is this the first he’s slept?”
“Yes,” Clare said. “He’s finally asleep. I’m so relieved.”
“Well, we think you’re a good mother. Is there anything we can do for you?”
Clare thought a moment. These girls must have been sent from my guardian angels, Clare mused, feeling conflicted. She felt tears prick in the corners of her eyes. “I would love some water, actually.”
“Is that all? Anything to eat?”
“No, thanks,” Clare answered, anticipating the token breakfast on the plane. “Just water.”
The second girl pulled something from her bag and handed it to Clare. “I have water right here. You can take it.”
Clare reached for it gratefully. “Thank you so much. You’re very kind.”
“Good luck,” said the first, and they left.
7:00 a.m., GMT Her arms aching, Clare settled Max onto the two seats beside her, covering him with his blankie. She sipped from the bottled water and placed a hand on her son’s shoulder, stroked his sleeping head. He was snoring slightly.
She watched the monitors closely, waiting for Munich to appear at the bottom. There was still an hour before boarding, but she needed the visual reassurance.
7:30 a.m., GMT The Aberdeen woman had reappeared, and then bid Clare goodbye. She was on standby, she reminded Clare, and wanted to get to the gate as quickly as she could when it was announced.
“First come, first served, you know,” Aberdeen quipped.
Clare looked at the people around her, openly staring. To her right sat a young woman with dark hair, wearing black leather. She carried a large art portfolio. Clare half envied the woman’s apparent singlehood and creativity.
A middle-aged man worked on his laptop. He was speaking German to someone near him.
An American couple. The woman older than the man, who looked Clare’s age. Were they mother and son? Lovers? Married? She couldn’t quite decide.
The German couple beside her: carelessly athletic, hikers by the look of them. The woman slung a square travel pillow around her neck and tried to sleep. The man looked at Clare’s brand-new Merrells then down at his own well-worn, less expensive hiking boots.
Another couple sat behind her. Clare thought they might be American, but had no way of know for sure. The young woman sat with her head bowed, her shoulders slumped. The man sat with elbows on his thighs, hands loosely clasped and dangling between his knees. Neither spoke. The woman had carefully draped a very large, dark garment bag over a chair. A wedding dress. Have they gotten married and are returning home? Or are they getting married and traveling to their wedding place? The former, Clare thought. They looked tired, and didn’t speak to one another. She guessed they were returning from Rome.
Clare glanced up at the monitors. Her flight to Munich had appeared.
8:00 a.m., GMT When their gate was announced, Clare gathered Max in one arm, and pushed their trolley with the other. A strap from her backpack trailed the floor and caught on a wheel, slowing them down. Frantic, she stopped and asked a friendly American to kindly tuck the strap up somewhere. The woman did and they were on their way again.
After some minutes, they arrived at their gate and Clare reluctantly shed the trolley. Shrugging on her backpack and holding her bódhran, and Max’s accoutrements, she stood in line. Max stood pale and groggy beside her. She glanced back to see the line stretch long behind them
At the door, Clare handed over their tickets and passports.
“Where are your boarding passes?” The woman asked.
“My flight was canceled yesterday, and we were put on this one. This is all she gave me,” Clare said, pointing to the sticker and handwritten seating notes stuck over the original ticket. “She said we were definitely on this flight.”
The flight attendant shook her head. “No. You have to go back there and talk to them.” She pointed to the little desk toward the back of the line. “Sorry.”
Feeling desolate, Clare approached the counter and presented the tickets, explaining what had happened.
“Who keeps doing this?” the woman said. “Whoever it is, she’s doing it wrong. She’s not issuing boarding passes like she’s supposed to.” She shook her head and checked her monitor. “This plane is full. You’ll have to wait on standby.”
Fat tears pushed down Clare’s cheeks, and she swiped them away. “I’m traveling with my two-year-old son, and we’re trying to get home. We’ve had to stay the night here, and neither of us has slept. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
The woman looked at the male attendant beside her. “There are two people who haven’t boarded. Ask if we can place an announcement…”
He picked up the phone and spoke to the attendants on the plane.
A minute later, the announcement was made. The passengers, unrelated to each other, did not show.
In a rush of activity, the attendants made new boarding passes for Clare and Max, conferring with the on-board attendants, switching people around to sit mother and baby together. As they handed her the passes and pointed her toward the waiting attendants at the door, a tall man with a trench coat and briefcase appeared. He placed his ticket on the counter.
“I’m on standby,” he said.
The two attendants glanced at each other, then at Clare. “We’re full up. We absolutely cannot fit you.”
He had blond hair and a thick Nordic accent. “Not at all?”
“No. We’re completely full. Very sorry.”
The man closed his eyes and shook his head, disappointed.
In normal circumstances, Clare would have felt guilty ousting this man from his seat. Alone, she probably would have given it to him. But she was traveling with a small child. They’d flown eight hours by plane to London, lost two flights to Munich and forced to overnight in the airport. She hadn’t slept in over forty hours, her son couldn’t even walk for exhaustion, and she was quite sure she was beginning to smell rather ripe. She didn’t have the energy to feel guilty.
Carrying Max in one arm, walking toward the gate door, she smiled, imagining her husband’s face as they met in Munich: They were finally going home. She wouldn’t give that up for the world.
© 2002 by Cristina Van Dyck
Word count: 8,632