Why the hell had I slept through the luggage carousel announcement?
I was starving, avoiding paying for airline food by extending my nap. The carousel number was announced while I was in the bathroom, performing a routine face scan in the flat, well-lit mirror. I was probably mired in the aesthetic arithmetic – blond hair besieged by dark roots, nose poking a little too far out in space, makeup runny, apologetic, pore-clogging. While the important information was being given out, I was staring at myself in the mirror as if any moment the image would just spontaneously change.
But now I’m lost, looking up at a monitor for any clue of the whereabouts of my luggage. My flight has receded into the corners of the screen, knocked out of place by the scores of more impressive flights, or even slightly less banal ones: Miami instead of Tampa, for example. Delta instead of Spirit. The screen keeps changing. Maybe it just vanished, the screaming babies and plump seatmates too inconsequential to deserve a luggage carousel. Maybe a flight like mine has an allotted time to exist, after which the flights from LA and Honolulu shove it to the place where all good dirt cheap Sunday morning Spirit flights go.
I run off to the bathroom again, where a no-nonsense plain black all-caps announcement greets me in the stall: TO MANUALLY FLUSH PUSH BUTTON. If only all life could be like that. If you want to get B, do A. Some people believe this. If you want to be happy, or rich, successful, this is what you do, push these certain buttons.
God forbid anyone from Princeton sees me standing here, wearing the most comfortable, homeliest hoodie in the world, hair wild, an imprint of the plane seat armrest tattooing my cheek. It would feel like the moment I returned to my house. The flush in my cheeks after getting out of the plane and the familiar stifling heat hitting my face, the cacophony of loud Spanish and Creole Voices talking over each other cutting through the air. After the contended chattering on the drive home, the happy clack of my suitcase against the driveway. The strange new feeling.
I’d been home many times between the first day of freshman year and now. But it took me this long to think that my house was small. I’d never felt ashamed of the cute pink home with the familiar overgrown foliage and sloppily cut lawn. And now, in front of me, it seemed the very picture of tacky, lifeless Florida banality. A crumbling 1970s two-story hovel, gathering dust, weakening in every hurricane, the pool deck falling steadily into the canal. When I was born, my mother took a miniature screaming me back to this house. Maybe the paint was a little fresher then. And now I couldn’t stop thinking about exactly how tiny it looked.
But that is Florida. The neighborhood bar where my parents take me to stuff my face with buffalo wings swimming in sauce suddenly seems an alien habitat. Waiters and waitresses in bright cerulean T-shirts bring and take away plates piled with fried clams, sandwiches, and French fries, wiping off tables after guests have left and quickly replacing buckets of condiments. At one of the tables, two women lean back across from each other. One is about 40, with bleach-blond hair and a loose-fitting T-shirt over a cross pendant dangling in front. She listens sympathetically as the other – about the same age, with a darker complexion– tamps the ashes out of her cigarette emphatically and leans over her beat-up black cell phone. I lose track of their conversation, until the brunette interrupts my buffalo wing reverie impassionedly yelling into the phone: “I will not be fucking intimidated. I won’t be fucking intimidated by you. Fuck you.” Tank-top brunette takes out another cigarette. Just another day. We go to work, we come home, we get some beers, we meet boys, they cheat, we smoke, we pay. It’s natural.
When I went to vote early, I felt suddenly embarrassed by my neighbors, teeming groups of blonde ladies and red-faced men, who’d showed up in droves around the polling station. These were the same people who had handed candy to me by the fistful on Halloween and let me pet their dogs at block parties, now holding signs that said “LOCK HER UP” and waving American flags bigger than their bodies.
Finally, my flight shows up. It’s on the last screen, appearing once every three times it changes. As I get to the carousel, a man in uniform is loading my suitcase onto a cart, where I intercept it and smile. He doesn’t make eye-contact with me either. Why is it men find me so much more attractive south of the Mason-Dixon line? I test this hypothesis all the way to the train station, getting ignored in succession by a slightly skinnier Keanu Reeves lookalike and a man whose stubble is clearly designed to disguise the pouch of skin beneath his chin. My eyes catch longest on those of a smiling baby on an advertisement with a metallic gleam at the edge of her mouth, as if she is choking up some harmful piece of machinery.
Taking out my phone, a barrage of subtly solicitous texts from people hits – “hey, can you send out this email?” “hey, hope you had a great break! This week we’re…” I am disoriented. I have ridden this train so many times before – the airTrain, to the train station, to the Dinky, every time another chance, a contemplative re-entry. This time I sort of hope the train will go off the rails, just a little bit, not to rough anyone up, but so we don’t arrive on time, or maybe at all.
I fantasize about getting off at New Brunswick, going to a mall, getting a slice of pizza, spending 37 bucks on a motel room, maybe getting a tattoo, or at least meeting the people injecting them for a living. A tryst with a hasty tinder match in a fleabag motel would be much more intimate than any fabricated campus attempt at emotional closeness. Princetonians are the worst ignorers. They ignore you at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They time their steps a little bit quicker, a little slower, so they don’t see you, so they don’t have to make a decision whether to say hi to you. I’m one of them, or at least I’ve caught myself becoming one. Maybe a few more hours in the real world will slow the progression of social anxiety.
But the train arrives, of course. As soon as it arrives across from Wawa, everything becomes a performance again. I ignore you, you ignore me – it’s part of growing up, fitting in, blossoming. Jettisoning shoddy too-small neon hoodies in favor of sweaters and skinny jeans, smiling less, avoiding talk about where you’re from. Applying yourself, applying for things, selling yourself, dulling your emotional edges, competing, winning. Pushing button, manually flushing. And sometimes failing. Sometimes seeing everything you are become dramatically small again. Sometimes giving up.