July 2012, a Sunday night.
I slump in a blue chair near Gate 23 in the JFK International Airport, waiting for a delayed flight to Salt Lake City, Utah. My carry-on is a black backpack stuffed with leftover fruit snacks, a lanyard with Hill Cumorah stage maps, and books that I’ll sacrifice reading on-flight for the sake of my motion sickness.
There are women in Parisian hats with pencil skirts clicking by, their eyebrows on point above masking sunglasses. Maybe they’re going to Europe, coming back, walking toward the main entrance where they’ll wait for a cab or be swept away by some David Larrabee or Paul Varjak in a suit and tie. Maybe they’ll slip inside a limousine that will slink its way through the famous traffic jams I’ve only seen on TV. At any rate, it doesn’t matter. They drift by with their stories, and I resign myself to never knowing.
Stereotypical tourists take halting steps in front of me — they’re from Asia and Europe and everywhere, skin pale, cameras slung like holsters around various limbs. They carry bags filled with matching “I <3 NY” pajamas and shirts and snow globes. Some pretend they’ve earned them when they’ve only seen the skyline through the window and have no time to venture in before their next flight. Just like me. No time. There are dark-eyed women who hide beneath gauzy hijabs, dark-skinned men with wide chests and heavy stares and young families. Some meander like falling leaves, others like crashing waves into cafes and souvenir shops, buying cups of coffee and clutching copies of the Times that scream out “Aurora victims’ families left with questions” or “Is no place safe?” Feeling as small as I ever have, I wonder what kind of lives slip in, through, and around this terminal and the dozens of other terminals linking us all together.
A beep, a PA. The attendant with the blue bow noosed around her neck explains that our flight will be further delayed due to post-flight cleaning. Our plane has come straight from Jamaica and they want to make sure nothing was carried over.
In that moment, lost in the haze of coffee and busyness and lives being lived, my heart throbs in my chest. What would it be like to have just come from Jamaica? I look at the names ticking down the television screens: Chicago O’Hare, London Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle International, Dubai International. What would it be like to grab my bags and just jump on one of those flights? Fly to someplace somewhere, not knowing a soul on that side of the world? What it would it be like to sail through the clouds above the Atlantic Ocean? How would it feel to touchdown in London or France? What would I do, who would I meet, who would I become? I sit in that chair until the attendant invites us to line up, wondering and aching, wishing that my ticket said something different.
Sliding into my seat near the window, clawing the armrests from the pain of turbulent takeoff, I realize that I’m a different person. From the air, New York City is a labyrinth of light, a monstrous heart of gold with arteries stretching into the invisible distance. What I could have seen had I had the time to slip away! My heart breaks a little.
Instead of painfully dreaming, I close my eyes.
Over Colorado and Utah, they flutter open, nudged by something. I find myself completely alone in a sea of sleeping businessmen and businesswomen and families and people. I turn for one moment, and my breath hitches. Pressing my hand against the cool glass window, I gaze out upon heaven as close as I’ve ever seen it. There are star clusters as thick as ocean waves out there, the Milky Way breaching like a massive humpback whale. It stretches so long, I can’t see where it ends or where it begins. It goes on forever and makes me feel so incredibly small. And yet, in that moment, I catch an overwhelming glimpse of my divinity.
It occurs to me afterward that no Sabrina, no Holly Golightly has ever seen the stars the way I saw them. How could they in a city whose 9 to 5 is to recreate the sun with billions of streetlights, lamps, neon signs, skyscraper windows, scrolling marquees, taxis, and penthouses with night lives? They know the world and light pollution, but now, just for a moment, I know heaven, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Today, I’m 21, and I sit at work, not airports. School, not airplanes. One day, though, I’m going to see the world, get out of JFK and hop into a taxi that will take me to streets I’ve never seen. One day, I’m going to see heaven the way I saw it last July. Except this time, I’ll be one day and one month and one year closer to understanding where I fit in all of it.