very daring

Foil packets open. A flurry of unwrapping as if this is the first food we’ve eaten in days. We are given two packets – honey roasted peanuts and cheese crackers. I inhale the peanuts so quickly I don’t remember tasting them. A woman in a pink sweater spills out over the armrest next to me, but I am grateful for a seat on the aisle. I was the last person on the plane.

Across the way, I notice that some people with good planning skills and forethought have brought fruit – grapes in a plastic bag or clementines, or a banana. On one woman’s tray, such an abundance of fruit that I briefly consider asking whether she’d share. She is fussing over it, her fingers hovering several inches above the display, deciding which luscious piece to enjoy first.

In the hallways, in the undergraduate days, we pass by each other on the way to the bathroom. We carry our wire baskets with shampoo and soap and our toothbrushes, nomadic. We leave baskets of our clothing – dirty, clean, folded, unfolded – in the laundry room for days. Sometimes a piece will go missing – a favorite black shirt or a pair of corduroy pants – and its owner will describe it in loving detail on an index card or a scrap of paper pinned to the lost-and-found board. It is not usually what one might expect – a pair of lacy panties or a wispy black bra. Or if those items – the intimate ones – do go missing, they are not typically mentioned on the board. Perhaps for these items, owner and thief find each other through different means. Methods undetectable to the rest of us.

Over lunch sometimes, we talk about how we came to be here, in this town of overreaching ambition and generations of disappointment. A quiet resignation settles on the freshly-painted crosswalks, the newly-paved streets. You can smell it – its slightly sour undertones – on even the sweetest of spring breezes. We grew up somewhere else – so many of us. Lured here by the proximity to other, bigger places, or by love. Or by the dream of leaving something else behind. Of beginning again. Imagining a kind of celebrity in this small and manageable place. We say this: “The city is manageable.” Hard to imagine a context in which “manageable” seems a true compliment.

The couple next to me – the pink-sweatered woman and her companion (polo-shirted, baseball-capped) order mixed drinks and they are given them free. “Because you are military,” the attendant says to the man, “and because you put up with him.” He winks at the woman as he places the plastic cups down in front of them. “It’s a little strong,” the man says as the attendant moves on to the next row. “Hardly any soda in there at all.”

At the security gate, they have run out of bins in the line that I am in. Several people behind me, a woman calls out, “We don’t have any bins!” to the uniformed agent who is pacing. He looks over at her. “We’re all out of bins,” she says again. She then sighs so loudly and deeply that it seems as though she cannot imagine a greater tragedy. The man in front of me has managed to take the last two, has them lying out on the table in front of him and is leaning down to take of his shoes when the sighing woman calls to him, “Sir, do you need both of those bins. Sir? Please, are you using them both?”

At the urging of a friend, I go to the nail salon and sit in the plastic chairs along the window to wait for the next available technician. They are called “nail technicians” and they wear cheerful badges with their first names on them against a background watermark of a stylized woman in silhouette examining her long, painted fingernails. There is the faint odor of something like carpet cleaner beneath a sweet floral aroma.

I’ve chosen a light color – a pale silvery one, and my technician asks, “Is this your color?” picking the bottle up and shaking it at me. I say yes and she says, “Oh, very daring, aren’t you?”

They are all Asian women here, the technicians. From Thailand. Korea. One woman from Laos. I am the only Asian face on this side of the table. As such I am regarded skeptically by technicians and clients alike. My technician’s nametag reads “Dolly.” Dolly takes my hands, considers them. She guides one into a glass bowl half-filled with hot water and on the other, she begins her work, trimming, filing. There is a television hanging on the far wall, with the sound off. News headlines scan across the bottom of the screen.

Occasionally, Dolly will say something to the technician sitting next to her (“Lola” if her nametag is to be believed) in a language that I don’t recognize. Lola will not respond, but instead nod her head slowly. She does not turn once to look at Dolly, her eyes cast down with unblinking focus on the nails and hands of the woman sitting next to me. Her color, by the way, is blood red.

I always look forward to traveling alone – a few days in a new place, the sense of freedom of wandering unencumbered, discovering unknown places, unfamiliar foliage – my lingering childhood romance with airports and hotels. But by the day before the trip, I become anxious, begin wishing I was not leaving home. By the time I arrive at the airport, a sense of dread has washed over me. I stand in front of rows of plastic-wrapped sandwiches, feel the exhaust fan of the refrigerated case blow on my ankles as I attempt to distinguish between smokehouse turkey, fiesta turkey, and bistro turkey. Instead, I buy water and trail mix and linger at the gate, wide-eyed and staring, while all around me, people stride past, all purpose and ambition and self-assurance.

This morning, in the pouring rain, I dragged my wheeled suitcase toward the idling airport shuttle van. I vow, every trip, to travel lighter, to pack better, but at the last minute, I panic and throw whole stacks of things in – papers, books, socks, shirts. I spend the time to do careful, thoughtful planning and then resort to rash action when it matters most. In the important, the critical moments. It is as if the action has already been determined for me, for decades. Let us watch her plan, worry over this, the capricious gods say, looking down from their lofty places. And then let us watch her do exactly as she always has, as her two-year-old self dictates: her longings, her desires, her actions – all anticipated; all engraved on her heart as they have been since before she can remember.