Picture Perfect

Two years ago, I was driving through the Scottish countryside with my family. We pulled over onto a little offshoot of the one-lane two-way-traffic road that poked out into a narrow valley. Spectacularly green slopes rose all around us, and though they were tall and probably far away, their height made them feel close to us, like we were in the middle of a misty green hug.

We had stopped because my dad wanted pictures. So naturally, everyone jumped out of the rental car, and my brothers and I started jumping on the rocks that served as stepping stones through the wild grass and shrubs.

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The scene was beyond words. The rocks, the grass dotted with thistles and Queen Anne’s lace, the huge hills, the moisture in the air that filled my lungs with life all worked together to create a moment in time that was too good to be true. The hills called me, and I longed to run through them, singing like Princess Belle, or spreading my arms wide like Julie Andrews, or on a mission like Katniss Everdeen. I was so close to something real. Something more than hiking trails and playgrounds. Something like… true freedom.

Ah, what a feeling. If only, I thought, I had no air-conditioned car to carry me away, and no carefully paved road to guide me. It would just be me and beautiful nature, and I would be free to truly, authentically experience this mossy wonderland.

There in that bright, narrow valley, my thoughts were interrupted because my foot missed a rock and instead dipped into marshy mud.

What? Mud?

I had thought I was in a midst of a long, sweeping meadow that rolled over the hills and stretched on until the horizon. But upon further inspection, I realized that I was indeed standing in the midst of a giant marsh; the rocks peeking through the grass were the only sturdy ground until I made it back to the road.

For a second there, I thought I had arrived. I was so close to fulfilling that dream of running carefree over hill and plain. But then came the mud, and then came the tick that I found on my leg later that night.

I’ve noticed that people my age care a lot about authentic experiences. The topic comes up everywhere—in the commercials that try to push unwanted and unneeded products down our throats, in the carefully edited Instagram posts that we scroll past without ever really seeing, in the cheesy lines and lyrics of makeup-laden celebrities.

Our desire to find authentic experiences is so deep that it makes us overlook simple questions like, what are they? And why do we want them? And can we tell what is authentic from what is fake?

In psychology, authenticity is a term that measures how much a person’s inner self is expressed day-to-day. In existentialist philosophy, authenticity has a similar meaning: it is a measure of how closely a person’s inner desires match their outward actions. This concept has somehow broadened, and it can now also refer to experiences. But how can an experience be authentic? While this question seems baffling, we are exceptionally skilled in deeming certain experiences “fake” and “inauthentic.”

I’ve been a tourist multiple times. And something about the experience never feels truly authentic.

When I first saw the Colosseum in Rome four years ago, it was under construction for repairs. Scaffolding hid a substantial portion of the monument behind metal poles and tarps. And for the part not being worked on, the insane number of other tourists choked out its vast architectural magnificence. It felt small, like a walk-through museum. It did not feel like a real arena where real humans fought to the death and real spectators watched.

IMG_0864I did all sorts of things to try to minimize this inauthentic experience. I tried to dress like the locals of Rome, hoping that if I could conceal that I was an outsider, I would be treated like I genuinely belonged there. I tried to angle my camera in such a way that the scaffolding was cropped. I waited until the tour guide had led most of the group on to the next stopping point so that my pictures captured as few heads and shoulders as possible.

But of course these measures did not accomplish much other than leaving me walking around on 10 miles of Rome’s concrete sidewalks in uncomfortable, business-casual tops and fashionable—but paper-thin—flats. They left me with awkwardly angled pictures of the Colosseum where much of the photograph is sky and only the bottom is ancient Roman monument. They left me missing the tour guide’s most engaging stories and interesting facts because I was always the last in the group.

And what about this experience was “unreal” or “inauthentic,” anyways? It did, of course, really happen. Why do we hate being reminded that we are tourists, and that we do not belong in these places?

Maybe it’s because what we see as tourists does not match what we expect to see.

Dr. Elissa Weichbrodt is an art history professor here at Covenant, and when she lectures in the required freshmen seminar class, she talks about how the images we see effect the way we view reality. She says that everyone has a mental file where we store all of the images we encounter, whether on social media, in movies, on billboards, in illustrations, and anywhere else.

These images work together to define what we view as good, bad, and picture-worthy. Google the word “sunset,” she tells each incoming freshman class, and click on the Images tab. Every sunset that shows up has certain characteristics: highly saturated, vibrant colors; fluffy, sweeping clouds that turn golden in the fading sunlight; a natural horizon rather than urban; a breath-taking level of beauty.

Notice that these descriptions of the Google results do not match the typical sunsets that we see. A typical sunset is hidden by clouds, or it is obscured by telephone wires and buildings, or it colors the sky bland and pastel. We do not take pictures of these sunsets because they do not match the pictures of “good sunsets” that are stored in our mental files.

In the same way, I wonder if we define an “authentic experience” as one that matches the images we have collected. The images we see of famous tourist sites, despite them being tourist destinations, have a surprising absence of tourists. The images we see of the Colosseum do not depict it buried under scaffolding. And so, to match these idealized pictures that we think represent the “real” and the “authentic,” we try to cultivate pictures as close to these images as possible.

It’s ironic, isn’t it?

Last summer, my family and I fulfilled my dad’s years-long dream of traveling to France. We stayed in three different locations throughout the trip: Paris, Nice, and les Gorges dus Verdon, the Verdon Gorge.

This gorge has been described as the Grand Canyon of Europe. At its base is the winding, glowing, turquoise Verdon River. Flat sheets of white rock shoot up on either side of the river and, as they stretch upward, form into the slopes and peaks of mountains. These rocky slopes are studded with dark trees and narrow two-lane roads that nervously trace the steep edges.

We stayed a few nights in Rougon, a village—if you can call it that—with a population of 104. It lays in the fold of one of these mountains, and it encapsulates every charm imaginable: an eroded cobblestone alley winds through the twenty-odd buildings, the ruins of an ancient castle look down from a narrow point, the town’s baker bakes his bread fresh every morning and then sends the correct number of loaves to each home. A content dog lays in the threshold of the ice cream and grocery shop in the cool of the evening. The town’s only restaurant does not have hours; it remains open until the last laughter has died down and the owners are ready for bed.

Rougon only has one road leading to it, but it serves as the crossroads for a maze of hiking trails that surround the gorge and stretch through the region for miles in every direction.

My family was enchanted by these trails and the nature all around that called us in, so naturally we ventured on some meager expeditions. One took us from Rougon down to Point Sublime, a lookout which dropped down sharply on nearly every side and gave us a magnificent, sweeping view of the river, the gorge, and the surrounding mountains. Another trail led from Rougon up to the tiny, steep point where a castle used to stand guard over the town. Yet another trail led up behind Rougon to the peak that overshadowed the town.

Each of these trails proudly displayed the majesty of nature, yet none of them quite seemed to satisfy me. My brother Evan voiced my feelings well when he said that he wanted to forge his own way. He did not want a guided trail telling him where to go; he wanted to “trailblaze,” as he romantically called it.

I remember having two very conflicting reactions to this: on the one hand, I wanted to join him. I knew the desire he felt, and I had it too. But I also remember asking myself, “Why is the trail not good enough?

He later described sticking to those hiking trails as being “a tourist through nature.”

My analytic self said “What?!” to this notion. “Look around! It doesn’t get more ideal than this!” But my sentimental self whole-heartedly knew exactly what he was talking about. Like being a tourist at a famous destination, there seemed something inauthentic about hiking. I had always felt that, but never been able to express it until having this conversation with Evan.

And it reminded me of Dr. Weichbrodt and that darned file of mental images. I remembered car commercials that used to inspire my brothers and I. We started using “jeep” as an adjective to describe something really cool and skilled in kicking butt after seeing a commercial like this one, that showed Jeeps driving off roads, hurling through water, and jumping off ledges.

And similar commercials continued filling our heads with mental pictures of what true adventure looks like. Watch this 2016 Mercedes-Benz SUV commercial, scroll through Pinterest for a few minutes, or check out some of the most-followed Instagram travel accounts and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Our brains are constantly flooded with a concept of what travel and adventure should be. It looks like this: we are alone out in the wilderness or in front of some monumental structure, the colors are all bright, there is no evidence of imperfections or difficulties.

Maybe this is where we get our idea of “authentic experiences” from. Maybe when we say we want an “authentic” experience, what we really mean is that we want an experience that allows reality to meet this idealized montage of pictures in our heads. That is certainly what travel writer Gary Arndt wrote in his Atlantic article “7 Reasons Why the Authentic Travel Experience is a Myth.” He claimed that one reason our desire to seek authentic experiences will never be filled is that we are “taking photos too literally.” In this article from Under30Experiences, author Kacey Mya lists wanting to repeat what is seen on social media as a reason that millennial travelers are seeking more authentic experiences.

I’m definitely guilty of this. I see stunning images of empty cobblestone streets, and sweeping videos of a woman running through woods and fields, and I want to take part.

I distinctly remember having a sad realization in high school: I may never get to just run through a field, or a wood, or any other stretch of wilderness. Why? Well, for one thing, I realized that I did not know of any nearby wilderness. Every place I knew of was private property, meaning I would have to trespass in order to fulfill that dream of running through the tall grass of a dandelion field with arms stretched open, Princess Belle style. Secondly, my 15-year-old brain realized with dismay, running through a field in such a manner would be miserable. Tall grass is itchy. And muddy. And full of ticks.

As Dr. Weichbrodt pointed out to me, we assume that a photograph, unlike a drawing or a painting, represents reality in accurate and objective documentation. But no single image can do this, because each is limited in its scope, its perspective, its framing, its central focus.

The “authentic” images of travel and adventure show us the beauty of natural landscapes and the charm of towns across the world, but they never show us the ticks. And real life is full of ticks.

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A Regular Day

Here I am, sitting in the chill of Panera on October 31st. I’m here with a friend, because we’re both swamped with papers, tests, and projects. So we decided to escape the mountaintop bubble, come downtown, and get some work done. I work best that way: packing up the things I need to focus on, leaving behind familiar settings, and sitting myself down somewhere for long enough to crank out lots of productivity.

And as we drove down the mountain, solely focused on our scholarly duties, it hit me: today is Halloween.

Not long after this realization, my mom sent me pictures of her and my brothers at my church’s Trunk ‘n Treat. They looked funny, dressed in homemade costumes, surrounded by the grey parking lot of the church and the grey New York sky.

“Is this what it means to become an adult?” I wondered. Maybe this is it. Suddenly holidays, the days that I used to look forward to for weeks in advance, simply join the train of mundane days that fill mundane weeks. Welcome to adulthood.

For the past 18 years, the month of October has been dedicated to brainstorming and creating an elaborate costume: hand-gluing hundreds of individual blue sequins to transform a blue maxi skirt into an Elsa dress, browsing local thrift stores for the perfect pair of long, white gloves to complete my 1920s look, helping Mom pick out fabric to make Jedi robes, buying radishes to make Luna Lovegood earrings.

And up until now, every Halloween night has been spent roaming the streets of my neighborhood with my brothers and our friends: hesitantly ringing each doorbell, watching our breath as it puffs in anticipation, bragging to each other as our bags slowly grew heavier, dumping our loot on the living room floor and sorting it into piles to trade.

Sometimes the old ladies would open the door and say, “Help yourselves.” The boys and I would walk away moments later, comparing our loot. Heeding my parent’s lessons in manners, I always took a modest two pieces of candy, sometimes three. My brothers would walk next to me snickering, and reveal their bulging handfuls once the old lady had closed the door. “Boys!” I would say, half ashamed at their manners and half envious.

There was one house that was always our favorite. Mr. Ryan’s. He was a rich man who lived by himself, and he was young enough to remember what it’s like to go trick-or-treating. He always had a basket full of King-sized candy bars: Heath bars, Reece’s, M&M’s, Almond Joys. Whatever your favorite candy was, he probably had a King-size version of it waiting for you in the basket. He was also young enough to remember children’s greed. He never just offered the basket with a smile like the old ladies; he was always careful to say, “You can take one.”

Our hands would always be frozen stiff by the time they finally knocked on our own door, and when Dad answered we would rush to the kitchen where he had made soup and heated apple cider in the crock pot.

After thawing out, me and the boys and Rachael and whoever else was with us that year would each claim a section of floor in the living room. Then we’d dump out our bags and sort the candies: M&M’s in one pile, lollipops in another, Reece’s in the prized spot in the middle, miscellaneous candies pushed to the side. And once everything was sorted, we would trade. You’d always try to get a bigger candy for a little one, but only Timothy would fall for that deal. Evan was a hard-nose, a little capitalist in the making. He’d make you give him three little candies for a big one, or two little candies for a little one that he knew was your favorite.

Almost every year, Dad would use Halloween as an opportunity to teach us an economics lesson. One year it was supply and demand, one year it was taxes. Actually, most years it was taxes. In his demonstration, he always played the role of president and we always had to be tax-payers.

This is the first year in my life that I haven’t donned a costume on October 31st. It’s been a long time since I’ve traded candy, or experienced the pain of hypertaxation, or roamed my neighborhood at night expecting free candy. Maybe this is it.

The Pub

The old inn was sagging with life. Inside its doors, wooden booths were crammed into every available space. Lanterns hung from the low ceiling. They illuminated parts of the room but left the corners flickering in shadow. In one such corner, narrow stairs led up to rooms for rent, rooms which, for the most part, remained vacant and collected dust. As the scratches on the booths and the stains on the wall told, however, customers at the pub downstairs made up for any lack of overnight guests. The floorboards had collected years of boot-dirt; Elsie never swept the around the room’s dim edges or under the table. Starting around twilight each day, the building began to fill with chatter, which steadily grew to laughter and raucous conversation, which continued to grow so that by midnight, shouting and song could be heard from the cobblestone street outside.

The same group frequented the inn night after night without fail. Men old and whiskered, young rogues, sailors with stories sparkling in their eyes, and even a few women–fierce and sturdy–filed in to end their long days with a pint.

Amoung this group, Ben Brogan was most loved. As evening turned to night, eager faces crowded around him to hear a tale. Excited eyes shone in the yellow light as Elsie took the momentary calm to wipe down the counter with a rag. Even she was intently listening for his story. No one understood how one man could have, survived so many adventures, voyaged to so many places, and met so many people.

On one such night, Connor burst through the sturdy door, hair sticking up from the wind coming off the sea. His big boots made his legs look like sticks. “Where’s Ben Brogan? I’ve been waiting all day for one of his tales.”

Ben chuckled from a dim booth.

“Elsie, bring ole Ben here another pint to loosen his tongue,” said Connor as he and several others squeezed around the table.

Old Ben Brogan smiled wryly and rubbed his stubbly chin. “One of these days, I’m going to run out of stories to tell, lad.”

“We all know that day is far in the future,” said one of the regulars. The rest agreed, chorusing with “Aye!”, and now the group of listeners had expanded to the surrounding tables as well.

“Come on, Ben!” Connor smiled with anticipation as he leaned over the table.

Ben thought for a moment as he took in a deep breath. Then, with a raise of his eyebrows and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, he said, “Have I ever told you about the time I saw the Banshee?”

Our Apartment

Sometimes I try to remember the apartment I used to live in.

It was on the second floor.

I walk through it in my mind,

holding onto the layout because somehow

it seems important that I never forget.

At the top of the concrete stairs is a big door

with a metal knocker on the front

that I used to clack against the door

over and over

until Momma said I had to stop.

 

Inside is the living room, with the two sofas

and the squashed brown pillows

that Momma taught me how to fluff.

There is the box TV where I watched

Beauty and the Best every day for months,

wearing my pink Power Rangers costume.

And over here is the door to the patio,

where Momma helped me and Ellie make corn husk dolls.

They looked so pretty, wrapped in her arms,

with their closed eyes and their corn husk dresses.

 

Turn left into the dining room,

with the round wooden table.

I used to hide under that table, and my knees

would get carpet burn from crawling in and out too fast.

The cat scratched me under there once.

He didn’t like when I pet his tummy,

but it was so soft.

 

Turn left again into the kitchen.

It’s a narrow strip of a room

with a wallpaper that Momma hated:

a cream background with fruits on it.

In the kitchen is the pantry,

where I used to sneak in

and grab a handful of the Hershey’s kisses.

I would hide them in my pocket

and eat them all day long.

I always thought I was clever,

but I think Momma knew.

 

Run back to the living room and straight through.

At the end of the hallway, turn left.

Momma and Daddy’s room.

There is the Big Bed, right in the middle.

On Saturday mornings me and Evan

would climb out of our beds,

help Timothy out of his crib, and all

together crawl under the blankets with Momma and Daddy.

One time, Momma mumbled, mostly asleep,

that I couldn’t get in her bed

until the clock said five zero zero.

I remember the red flashing numbers read: 4:13.

I stood there, beside the bed, sometimes spinning in circles,

sometimes watching through the window

as the sky’s midnight blue went away.

I waited until the clock said five zero one.

I didn’t want her to think I was impatient.

 

Back through the hallway and into our bedroom,

the room I know best.

Against one wall is the crib.

That’s where me and Aubrey crawled under

when Daddy burned the popcorn

at my first ever sleepover.

We were in our princess dresses, but when smoke

started filling the house and Momma told us to duck beneath it,

we became firefighters.

To the left of the door are the bunk beds.

I always got the top because

I’m the oldest and Evan might fall out.

One night, I was reading about Felicity, an American Girl.

She was reunited with her lost pony, Penny, and suddenly

the words on the page were making me cry.

Daddy walked in to turn off the lights and he saw my tears.

I was embarrassed

but he did not laugh at me.

He kissed my forehead and told me it was okay.

And another day, he climbed up onto the top bunk and sat with me.

Our backs were leaned against the wall.

My arm was stretched up, and my fingers were tracing the bumpy

texture of the ceiling. I did that when I needed

something to do with my hands.

He told me about his Momma.

The grandma I had never met.

I had never seen him cry before, but now, as

he took off his glasses to wipe away tears,

I was scared,

because I thought nothing could be bad enough to make Daddy cry.

At the Beach

We tried to run across the sand, but our heels kept sinking and slipping beneath us. It smelled like sunscreen and dead fish, and the sun was baking me like a cake: cooking the outside first and slowly, steadily warming the inside. I could feel the future sunburn tingling on my shoulders where the skin was hot and stiff. Later I would regret it. For now, I didn’t care.

Our calf muscles thanked us when we finally escaped the long stretch of dry sand that, despite our efforts, was impossible to run across. Next was only the thin band of wet sand separating us and the water. The moisture had packed this sand down, and running was finally possible. We shot off like the Bullet Bill power-up in Mario Kart. The water licked at our heels as we splashed into its shallows, toes disappearing into the sandy waves and arms flailing for balance. As we moved deeper into the water, the cool tingle spread up our legs. My fingertips skimmed the surface. The swirly feeling rushing beneath and between and all around them made me smile. I paused to feel the sand dancing around my toes. I wiggled them deeper into the choreography of swishing, swaying, and twirling that reached into infinity. Here in the shallows, I would be able to see if a horseshoe crab was nearby, but as my feet gradually sunk deeper, all I saw under the sparkling surface of the water was thousands of grains of sand leaping across the top of my feet, their dance uninterrupted.

I stood there watching the sand move with the rhythm of the water until I realized everyone else had kept moving. They were pushing onward as if they had an end goal, as if there was somewhere out there to go other than the vast abyss of water. Suddenly the water’s cool tingle felt more like goosebumps. I followed hesitantly. Never before had I ventured into the ocean deeper than my hips, but if I stopped there, they would call me a baby.

I pushed against the water and started moving once again. The waves tried to hold me back as they shoved past, but I pressed on, determined to catch up to my friends. I inched my feet across the sand—Mom said that would scare away horseshoe crabs. I did not want to step on one of those. Or on a stingray. Now I was on my tippy-toes, and the water lapped around my neck. Higher and higher the water rose until suddenly, a big wave lifted my toes off the sand. My heart lurched, and my throat seized up. I smiled as I spit out a glob of salty saliva.

By now, my friends were only a few yards away. I half bounced, half floated over to them. Every time my toes left the sand, I worried that when they landed, it would not be on the sand but on the back of a horseshoe crab or the spikes of a sea urchin. Sputtering, grinning, and panting, I caught up to the rest, who were treading water to stay afloat. My feet joined theirs, beating against the water that held us up above the crabs. We all smiled. Our bravery at venturing out this far was unacknowledged yet agreed upon. I splashed someone, and she splashed me. It was the start of a victory celebration that did not end until our hair was plastered flat to our heads and our stomachs hurt from laughing.

But accompanied by all of my smiles was the full awareness that I was subject to the water’s will and that thousands of crabs crawled in the dancing sand beneath me.

Airport Misadentures

I hastily grabbed my two bags, slipped my shoes back on, and stepped out into the sea of people. Whereas the TSA security checkpoint felt quiet and cold like a hospital, the flood of movement lying just past it felt urgent and alive. I heard voices, ranging from quiet conversation to loud calling to laughter; I heard the scuffle and squeak of suit case wheels frantically trying to keep pace with their owners; I heard a loud, clear voice making announcements that no one listened to. In the rush of life and movement, I stopped to breathe it all in, forgetting myself temporarily. But I had places to go, so with a quick glance at the myriad of overhanging signs directing me to Terminal C, off I went.

I was tired, so tired, after a long evening of travel and a weekend full of late nights and laughter, but I wanted to blend in. Mom said I’d be safer that way. I tried to do what everyone else did: walk confidently, listen to music through one earbud, and avoid eye contact. It’s funny how people do that. When a fellow human walks by, they must pause from taking in the surrounding scenery. They feel they must lower their gaze to the ground in front of them, or look at their phone, or avert their eyes to something else, all to avoid the dreaded evils, Awkwardness and Interaction. Since I wanted to blend in, I refrained from both of these. I ignored the clean, vaulted ceilings that soared over the terminal and allowed white sunlight to flood in. I resisted studying the thousands of bodies rushing past me, even those adorned in unique style and bright colors. Until, that is, I reached gate C14, at which point I got a candy bar after a brief scuffle with a vending machine, plopped down into a thinly-cushioned seat, and breathed. The fact that I hadn’t looked at my ticket to confirm I was in the right place flitted through my head, but it was soon gone. I took a deep breath. It was nice to breathe. I wanted to focus on that for now. Keeping up with the crowd was as exhausting as it was exciting. I finally allowed myself to watch this never-ending crowd. As face after face rushed by, I was struck by the overwhelming revelation that I was not just looking into a sea of colorful, lively movement, but rather into lives—thousands of lives—that all happened to intersect in this moment.

I knew what this meant. My brain only had such existential thoughts when it was near exhaustion. Leaning back in the seat, I propped my feet up on my backpack and tore into the crinkling candy bar wrapper. A short man with a cowboy hat and a grey, gravity-defying mustache strolled by, toting a blue suitcase behind him. I wondered what his story was as I bit into the king-size Snickers bar. Instantly I could feel the sugar coating my teeth. At least it would keep me awake until I was on the plane, I thought as I opened the Netflix app on my phone.

Blending in meant resisting the urge to continue staring at the steady stream of people walking by, which meant doing something else to distract me from them all, which meant watching Marvel shows on Netflix. I popped my earbuds in. With that one simple action, all the sounds of the airport faded. No more chatter, sound steps, announcements over the speaker. Nothing except my show’s theme song.

I watched for thirty minutes, completely oblivious to my surroundings. Until, that is, my tired, ever-self-doubting brain started questioning its choice to sit here. I noticed that only one other person was sitting at my gate. Hmm, that seemed strange. The flight was supposed to be leaving pretty soon, I thought. But in my dazed exhaustion, I ignored these thoughts and continued watching the show.

The show ended and still no one was at the gate. Not even a flight attendant. Finally, I decide to check my ticket. That can’t be right, I thought, checking the current time and seeing that the ticket said boarding started half an hour ago. According to the ticket…my flight is scheduled to leave in nine minutes. I sat there, in my slow stupidity, staring at the ticket. I spent several valuable seconds going back and forth from the current time on my phone to the flight time on my ticket. My phone switched from 8:44 to 8:45, and it finally clicked. The gate on the ticket was C24.

I was at the wrong gate.

Eight minutes.

Never in my life has adrenaline pumped into my body so quickly. I jumped out of the chair, banging my knee on the metal arm rest in the process. In one motion, my backpack was on and I was speed walking further into the terminal. Eight minutes. No time to speed walk.

I started running, realizing that I had finally become an airport runner. In the past, I’d always wondered about airport runners. What sort of person found themselves running through the middle of a crowded airport? Was the running really going to help them make their flight? Why did they have to run? What made them late? Now I knew.

I found myself trapped between suitcases and slow-moving tourists, and in the brief moment when I slowed down to maneuver my way out, I noticed my hand was shaking. Thoughts of missing my flight, being in the airport alone all night, and having to confess my stupidity all rushed through my head as I ran past gates.

I saw C24 ahead, and it was empty except for one flight attendant. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t too late. Flustered and out of breath, I jogged up to the lady, who was looking at me expectantly. She held out her hand as I fumbled through my pockets for my ticket. She scanned it, handed it back to me, and I walked in. Seven minutes.

As I walked away, I heard her voice. “Closing the gate now.”

I wanted to cry, shout, and laugh all at once. I’d made it. How was that possible? As I shoved my backpack under the seat in front of me, uncontrollable grin covering my face, I vowed to never watch Netflix in an airport again.

The Lady in the Window (part 2)

She sat in her window every morning, watching. Her frail frame was wrapped in a shawl, and she looked down upon the world wistfully, like she was only an observer, not a participant.

Her stare made me uncomfortable. It was an old stare; who knew how long she had been sitting there, watching the same cars stop at the same light on their way to the same gloomy jobs? It was an informed stare. She knew things. I could feel it. She never looked directly at me; at least, I never caught her at it. But she did. I’m sure she saw me every morning and soon realized I was a new part of the morning routine.

Even more unsettling than her constant gaze was the gaze of everyone else stopped at the intersection. No one noticed her. Not the kids weighted down with backpacks on their way to school, not the guy in the hat waiting to turn left, not the lady in the silver SUV who was brushing her teeth using water in a tin mug. The lady at the window was invisible to these people.

Had they ever noticed her? I wondered as I tapped my foot to match the clicking of my turn signal. Maybe they noticed her long ago, when they were new to this place like me, and by now her presence has become a background regularity that the brain takes for granted and stops noticing. Or maybe they had never seen her.

My brows furrowed slightly at this thought, but the long-awaited light turned green. I thought about it no more.