Travel Anxiety


I wake up slightly before my alarm because my body is tingling with tired energy. Everything feels porous because inside I have enough energy to be flooding but outside I don’t have enough to reel it in through my pores. It pours out over the side of my bed and for just a minute I’d fiddle with my phone and turn off the alarm. Assuming I am not fully up would be silly given the experience I have of myself. My Dad is in the bathroom. I can hear him but not how long he will take. How long will he take? I don’t need much time but he could still take too much of it. How long will he take? Probably not long, right? How long does he usually take?

Everything’s ready and lined up but surely I am forgetting something. I won’t think about whatever it is because it isn’t super significant. I have what I need. I don’t need breakfast and there is not much of it that’s quick. My Dad offers to make bacon and toast. What’s the time? 6:15 it reads. 6:15 and we should leave at 6:30. How quickly can it be made? I must have asked that. It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s okay and it’s fine to give up a bit of that time for breakfast. Especially because my parents make it. It is the last meal from my father I’ll have in a while. There’s only Canadian bacon in China and I’d like a last taste of real bacon. It would not be worth it if it made me miss the plane, but it couldn’t. It surely couldn’t because my plane is 9:30 and that’s so many minutes away. I have counted them so many times. Three sets of sixties from when I set out. 2 and one half set when I get to the airport and it should take just 1 set of sixty to wind up at the gate. That leaves one and a half set just to in case of disasters. I have never had more than one disaster at an aiport but it cost two hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars is a quarter of my paycheck. This time a disaster would be the whole of my paycheck. I can afford a disaster but it would be half of what I’ve saved over months of work. But there won’t be a disaster and if there was I’d be ready.

It’s 7 and I am saying goodbye. It is just 7:30 and I am at the gate. There was a longer line than I expected but at the Indianapolis airport this is still next to nothing. You know I was only home for two weeks? Why was I driving to leave so early? If I stayed an extra hour to talk with my parents I’d have been fine. We’d not have much to say but the company’s appreciated on each end. Should I have rushed off? I am bowing again to fearful impulses. At the same time, my Dad couldn’t have seen me off if I left later. Was it a bad decision? It would have been definitively a good one if there was a disaster.

Get this: my layover at O’Hare is only 50 minutes. 50 minutes and O’Hare is very big. If they land me at the wrong terminal I should still be able to get to my right gate in time. Knowing O’Hare there could be a technical difficulty and that could just screw me but truly there’s nothing I could do about that. I’d might as well put it out of my mind because it’s out of my hands. It is absolutely out of my hands. If I had to recheck my bag that’d very likely doom me but I asked the woman at the check in station and she said I didn’t. It is possible she’s wrong because one point in the process has been wrong about the next one before. When I went to Beijing I nearly missed a flight because of rechecking bags. Another time I was actually fortunate because one person said I’d have to recheck bags and the other prevented me having to do this. I am not sure how my luck would be here and maybe I would only know if I saw my bags at that final claim.

Remember when I said the layover was 50 minutes? Kidding, it is 7 hours and 50 minutes. Mechanical delay notifications buzz over the speakers and you should hear the Chinese chatter all around me. Wudian wudian wudian delayed delayed delayed. Rosetta stone just taught me what that meant. I tell my parents and my Mom already knows that I won’t want to visit Chicago relatives for fear of having to return to O’Hare from the outside. I’ve been burned by O’Hare’s abysmal systems before and really I’d have hardly any time with my relatives. But if I’d hopped on the opportunity as soon as the delay came in I could have had maybe 3 hours. Is that so little time to not be worth it? What worries me more than all these missed connections is that now I get into Shanghai at 10 PM. It takes around 2 hours to get in from the airport to the central railway station and get tickets, and by this time the train station will certainly be closed. I’ll have to spend a night won’t I? Will they pay for me? Do I select my own hotel in that case or just a voucher for something near? In the case that I do get my own hotel or just have to find one I really need to have a name an address on hand. Since I often don’t get wifi in China I’ll need to do this now and screencap the results on my phone so I could give them to a cab driver. Actually, if I can’t find an outlet – which at O’Hare is entirely likely – than I really ought to turn on my Chinese phone and take a photo of my American phone’s screencaps because my American phone powers down faster once I am in China and it may not last long enough. If that eventuality happens than I’ll need to ask about a hotel and they’ll point me somewhere expensive and if I pay 500 RMB for a night that is 1/10th of my monthly salary because of a poor phone battery! Heaven and a half, I am really tired.

I could nap here at O’Hare. Thing is, I should nap right before the plane because this would allay my jetlag the best. Though, if the delay shortens and no one wakes me up at the gate I could miss the plane. It might be better to just sleep at the very beginning of the flight, though this would not be as good for my jetlag. I could sort that out when I land but I’d like to have energy for getting to the train station. The thoughts don’t actually matter because I get caught up watching Lynch’s Elephant Man, which is really very beautiful. The movie is long though. It is thirty minutes from over but maybe I should stop it and return to the gate. It is an hour til’ departure but they may have bumped it up. The cafeteria I am in never plays announcements. I wonder why this is, but it is because it is O’Hare. O’Hare is a model of a mini modern hell. I have seven hours and fifty minutes to waste with you, O’Hare. Do your worst. Actually, don’t. Don’t bump up my flight and not tell me and make me miss it, please. Please don’t do that because I am so curious what happens to the elephant man. I really want to know about the movie but I also want to know what happens with my plane. Has anything happened? It is only fifteen minutes until the show ends. Okay, I can wait for the show to end. They wouldn’t bump it up on me. This fear is not so big. Okay, 14 minutes. Alright I’ll pack up everything around me so I can zip out at the end of the movie. First I’ve got the power cord pulled out of the defunct outlet and in my bag. 13 minutes. Then I have my phone and my mouse and my keyboard all back in my bag. 12 minutes. It is me the movie and the laptop. 11. 10. 9. 8. The plane should still be there. 7. 6. 5. It should really still be there. 4. 3. I really hope it’s still there. 2. 1. Why wouldn’t it be there, though? Okay, done! I’ll check. I’ll check on my plane right now. I go through a crowd of teenagers on some trip together with their school. It’s all been managed. Their smiles have no weights on either end. There are still lots of Chinese people here so my flight should be around, but what if it just left them too? It didn’t, it is there.

I buy some books and food before the flight. Is it funny I got Kafka’s short stories for the flight? I adore him as much as every English teacher I had told me I would. Damn you, you insightful souls! Am I really that predictable?…

On the plane there’s really nothing at all I can do so you know I am almost relaxed. I don’t quite sleep properly but the plane’s got loads of caffeine and I am fine. What would I do if I turned into a big roach? I think I’d handle it better than this guy in the Kafka story. He never tried to write a message in his sticky cockroach juice. Damn skippy, I’d write my family a fine I ❤ U in my sticky cockroach juice. I’d like to think my Dad would know to exhibit me sideshow style too so I could at least cover my cockroach costs. Can’t blame poor Gregor for too much though, he’s got a calmer handle than I’d have. Although, his mind is too much on things past his control.

 

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 3: Airplane People


Hey, just so you know, these don’t run in sequence. You can read whichever little piece you want without having to know the other. Anyways, isn’t it oddly intimate and strangely contained sitting next to strangers for over ten hours?

On the Airplane I sat next to an old Chinese man from Wuxi and a woman from the Sichuan province. The old man was with his old miss who sat next to the lady from the Sichuan province. When they got to talking the Sichuan woman asked where they were from, because she couldn’t understand them. It was strange because I could catch most of what they said, but Wuxi is very close to Changzhou. Somehow I started talking with them and they were all very pleasant and as we small talked in that official Mandarin common tongue. The old man wore a Purdue shirt and I told him I was from Indiana and he told me he had a kid in university there. I wanted to show him the tickets I had from when I went on a day trip to Wuxi but for some reason I didn’t. The Sichuan lady talked to me on and off about things I can’t remember. It felt swell to be able to swap simple sentences though.

Once she even asked me what the dessert dish was – it was a chocolate mousse. I translated the word mousse to tell her but apparently it does not have a food meaning in Chinese so she first asked if it was edible and then corrected me to say jelly. Though I then felt this was incorrect, because as far as I am concerned if it is chocolate it can’t be jelly or jell-o. It had to be a pudding or a mousse or something else. Languages have so many gaps between them you are bound to fall in at some point so I did not press the issue any further after she corrected me.

In front of me there was a little mischievous boy with a perfectly circular face and big sideways poking ears making trouble masquerading as some small simian – maybe a little lemur – and pestering for attention. He had shot up from his chair a few times to give me ubiquitous stares which I met with waves and all sorts of faces. It didn’t faze him. When I let my long legs loose and pushed up poke toes out underneath his chair he smacked the edges of my feet. It didn’t faze me.

Little lemur child and I naturally developed a storied airplane history. He was stretching up at the reading light above him and his parents were too tired to stretch arms up for him. On his behalf I hailed a stewardess and pointed her toward him. She’d had enough of his monkey machinations and row running explorations already and curtly pointed to the little remotes in the seats that managed the lights. Guess I should have known that well enough. The little lemur child would not acknowledge the help of either of us anyways and as the polite Americans we were it of course made us both a little sore.

Children are tough entities to strike reason into or extract reason from. They do and you deal with it because they were compelled by some wrenching invisible force to do whatever they just did. I am not sure this one ever actually slept and I am not sure his parents were ever awake more than an hour. The boredom for him must have been a bit rigid so he popped up at me a few times and made perfectly neutral expressions pretty much no matter what I did so gradually I became mostly neutral to him.

I got up to the bathroom a lot that flight because I could not get much sleep either – an unpleasant surprise – and they kept refilling my jasmine tea – a pleasant surprise. Finally the old man whose slumber I kept disturbing arranged a seat swap with me and his wife. Once I settled into the aisle I saw the boy’s round head and satellite ears crop up. His eyes shot to me and for a second the neutrality had faded for a bit of disappointment. Some of my neutrality faded though I don’t know in favor of what. At the end of the flight I’d accidentally scuffle him with the edge of my backpack. He protested for a second and I apologized for a second and no one seemed to notice either way so we both stopped and set our eyes forward. When we landed it was like everyone felt too weary to do anything but get out quickly with eyes downward.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 2: Airport People


In the Chicago airport I got very lucky. The pit stop in Chicago was unplanned to the point were we all had to recheck our bags. I was supposed to go straight to LaGuardia where I’d spend ten hours – basically the night – on layover before I got home. I had gone to the gate and mostly accepted my fate when I let my parents know I was in Chicago. We had lots of family and plenty of options to get home from here so I thought I’d see if they wanted to manage something else. My Dad urged me to take it up with American Airlines, since the unexpected stop put me so much closer to home.

I am not sure what American Airlines looks like or how I’d describe it. In my head it is probably some fusion of cramped seats and crowded check in lines with those pleasantly dim fluorescent lights hanging over the counters. It is kind of a distant thing – not really a stark image at all. But when I am there at the counter American Airlines is the man standing behind it, speaking with a slight Eastern European accent. That accent is an O’Hare familiarity I enjoy after coming back from China. The man is only half into my conflict, which is only fair because I am just two thirds there myself. He has a kind of neat and slightly too tight image like everything else in the airport. In conversation it comes undone some and he calls me “buddy.”

When he directs me back to the counter of my own flight I am despairing slightly because the line in front of it is full of patiently waiting people trying to nudge into any empty spaces the flight has. Like me they stand tight by their bags, fidgeting slightly. At that moment maybe AA looked like anyone in uniform so I clambered over my own baggage toward an unoccupied attendant standing at a kind of podium with an odd, antiquated looking computer in it. She clicked and clacked at it with some inquiring looks, like she wasn’t urgent about it or was even figuring it out herself. She was a middle aged woman a few inches smaller than me despite curly hair that rose up two or three inches. I explained my situation quickly and without expecting much because I was so last minute that my flight to LaGuardia would board in twenty minutes.

She calculated for a second in a quiet kind of concentration, but it did not actually take her long to decide to reroute me. “It makes no sense to go to New York when you are this close.” I agreed but felt pleasantly surprised to hear her completely take my side. It did not seem her hands were tied up in anything and she quickly began to bounce between a computer in the desk and the one at the podium. The time ticked down and with each minute I was worried my luck would run short and I’d go to LaGuardia. I’d half expected it even though she had told me straight that her work at the computers was to switch my ticket around and print me a new boarding pass. I’d expected some little administrative thing to trip it all up.

To be fair, it ran right down to the wire. The attendant next to the one helping me started to announce the boarding just before my passes to another flight printed. I thanked the attendant heftily and she deflected them mostly, saying it made sense and it was no problem. In truth it looked like a bit of a task for her, tabbing between two computers for a solid fifteen minutes right up to the start of the boarding process. It was hard to tell because of how steady she was and the quiet tone that she spoke in. She had just a small flicker in a voice as slight and resolute as the airport lighting. For a second I stood at the gate as though I still had something left to do there or like I’d left something behind.

Only two hours away from home I was smiling like the bright Midwestern sun while I sat by a wall charger to give my phone enough life to make contact with my parents. All the folks around passed with rhythmic steps and some looked down to better understand my squatting. I smiled at a few and the last hour felt filled with slight motions of politeness as efficient and measured as the low light flood of white airport light that felt pure to the point of sterility. But you know there are often moments – completely random and very small – that always break like a ray of real sun through the slick veneer of things. When that happens I never know how to react and sometimes I slide right back into the slickness of the veneer.

~Austin R Ryan

Stray Observations between Two Homes: Night Skies


Travel isn’t a contiguous experience in my memory. It starts out that way but as the memory of it gets rusty only abnormal images in the transit stick out and the rest of the connecting bits between them disappear. I won’t tell you how I boarded my flights. I don’t really remember anything but stray observations so that’s the best either of us will get – what a generous person might call vignettes. It is not chronological either. Don’t get on my case about that – think of it is an artsy thing concerning time’s potential shape as line or a circle or an exotic fruit. And I know I have been keeping you waiting too, but I am still technically on vacation. Sorry, that is an unfair excuse for me. I’ve lauded this too often as a passion to pretend it is pure work now.

There were two clear skies in my travelling. The first one came before I had left physically but well into the time my mind was too eager to linger in Changzhou. I had come back from my normal dinner walk out to a strip with some chain restaurants. Since I’d return to American food I went to a western place to accustom my stomach to big meat proportions. I’d made a mediocre effort to meet a friend there but the cold was biting so we’d both stayed close to our homes instead. When I went back outside I made my normal walk back but I stopped twice because the night sky was clearer than I had ever seen it in Changzhou.

The first time I stopped inside a small circular plaza with streets that shoot out of it like tendrils penetrating into pertinent parts of the city nearby me. It was incredibly cold and incredibly quiet to the point where both things felt biting. Thin and dry equally, the silence and the cold had similar sets of teeth and I liked the feeling in a short measure. Then the cold started to seep in through the thin threads of my gloves so I kept on.

Second was when I slid into the tendril that spits me out closest to home and had walked a little bit down the road to my school. Out there I felt I had to stop. It was strange because I felt like I was settling a debt to the city. Maybe I was just acknowledging the clear sky it gave me before I was leaving – that is a kind thing. It probably sounds pitiful to you but it was stark to me that in the vastly dim sea above I saw a few speckles of light sailing around. It was stark and very kind the way they shined like they knew my metaphor hungry mind was chomping at bits for that kind of business. There were just a few sparkles but that kind of clearness was rare and I could even feel it in the way the air was only laced with coldness as I breathed it. Then my hands got cold again and I went in sniffling and numb at the ends.

When the second clear sky came I only looked once. The second clear sky was in Indianapolis. Mom had just grabbed me from the airport and we were making the familiar drive into the city lights toward home. It was kind of a meager skyline and I recognized every building. The little lights of still illuminated windows and blinking signals stuck out in the dark and helped shape out the skyscrapers. Above the sky blinked with at least twice the speckles I’d seen in Changzhou and for a moment I lost sense of my context. I looked out the window and said, “what a clear night! I can see a few stars.” My mind was still in China and my eyes were still smog spotting.

~Austin R Ryan