It’s early morning September 1st. I’m leaving for 25 days in Italy and Greece. My small silver suitcase is packed, ready to be stowed in an overhead bin, assuring my outfit for one wedding in Verona and another near Sounion won’t get misplaced in the multiverse of lost transatlantic luggage.
The text message on my phone drops the news that Lufthansa has cancelled my flight. What??? I’ve got to be in Milan by Friday morning for a train to Verona to make the first wedding. Google Flights tells me Emirates offers the cheapest alternative at $936—Boston to Milan via JFK. I slip on my lucky socks (“Whatever it is, I could probably do it”), needing all the luck I can get. I hope that luck will extend to AmEx travel insurance kicking in to cover the new flight.
Early to the airport, I enjoy a Caesar salad and Sauvignon Blanc at a restaurant and snap a photo for Instagram with the caption “The First Day of the Rest of My Life.” Going to Italy and to Greece. Yes!
The Boston outside the expansive plate glass window is crisp in detail. Blue water. Colorful, triple decker houses across the way that could be no place but here. I love Boston. Later, we glide high in the sky above Fenway Park blazing brightly below. On my way. Away.
Landing at JFK, my ticket indicates an hour and a half at JFK which should be enough time for an Air Train ride to Terminal 4, since we’ve landed in Terminal 5. But still, I ride the anxiety that boosts me along the linoleum walkways and walking sidewalks and green signs.
But wait. Why are there kiosks and baggage claim? Oh. I am now OUTSIDE of the airport system. Security again? Oh my.
Just to be sure, I ask for assurance I’m at the right place. A woman in an official-looking uniform gives me the news: “You have to go through security again. You won’t make it on the Air Train. Get a taxi.”
“Taxi.” Her answer is solid.
Back down linoleum walkways and past walking sidewalks and flights of stairs, my small silver suitcase runs along behind me. Elevator. Out to awaiting taxis. Oh no! A taxi is not waiting just for me. There’s a line of New Yorkers waiting turns for their own taxis. An incredibly long line.
I hail a man walking with a group. “Where are you going?”
Of course he is. “I’m trying to get to Terminal 4,” hoping he can help.
“Look, you can walk to Terminal 4. Stay on the sidewalk. Past the hotel. See where the road curves?”
I start out. I can do this. I tug my small silver suitcase along the sidewalk. Its wheels bump along in a steady rhythm. Until there is no longer a sidewalk. I am shifted inside a yellow line to the left of the oncoming traffic. Friday night at JFK Airport. Everyone is going somewhere. I am trying to go somewhere.
Suddenly, there is no more painted yellow line to protect me from oncoming traffic. Friday night JFK oncoming traffic. My small silver suitcase follows with the pink ribbon and the neon yellow baggage tag from the Shelter Park Airport in Lubbock, Texas, where I’d often leave my mother’s car in the terror years when I was being chased by her dementia. Now, it is the clock that is chasing me. And the creeping terror of what I’ll do if I miss the flight to Milan to the train to Verona to the wedding on Saturday afternoon. I’ll miss the wedding if I miss this flight.
Even though it’s ten o’clock at night, the airport lights and headlights make it seem almost like day. Like a burgeoning shade of nightmare. Trudging against the traffic. A building is ahead. A building clearly marked with the number 7. Not 4. Not even close.
Defeat is sliding down my body, making my small silver suitcase even heavier. My only option is to follow the Air Train sign and load onto the elevator. I’m not going to make it. I call my partner Tom. My voice is reminiscent of the crushed voice that called him after my appendectomy when the serious complication of my surgery was explained by a nice resident. To me alone. Just as I was alone now. Lost in an airport instead of a medical labyrinth.
Aboard the Air Train, awash with passengers, I’m mixed in with all sorts of people with all sorts of luggage. My phone rings. The screen indicates “New York.”
“Kathryn Crawley?” the voice with a hint of Middle Eastern accent.
“Where are you?”
“Quickly. Come to Terminal 4.”
Now three stops away.
“Go to Row 7.”
Somehow I arrive at Terminal 4, Row 7. The Emirate desks are deserted with the exception of a few uniformed agents. I rush to one of them and wave my print-out wildly. “I’m on the flight to Milan!”
“But they called me!”
“Who called you?”
I dial the most recent number on my phone. “This is Kathryn Crawley. You just called me about my flight.”
“It’s gone.” The operator hangs up.
The nearby agent tells me I must rebook, directing me to another desk.
I show my paper to a man in a white shirt and black tie. He grabs his walkie-talkie and comes from behind the plexiglass window. He gives no explanation, but rather a gesture to follow him. He instructs an agent to find my booking on her computer. Since I booked directly with Emirates, there seems to be a shift.
A young woman from another desk approaches. “Come with me.” We head to security, where with a wave of her badge we’re inside another security level.
“Does this mean I’m making my flight?” The enormity of this goal has totally enveloped my entire world. She nods. “I’ve got to get to a wedding in Verona.” My voice breaks.
My accomplice tries to wave her way past the man checking passports. It doesn’t work.
“No one gets through without my say so.” The passport in my hand is shaking as though a mighty wind is blowing through the enormous room at JFK. But first he needs to put on his blue plastic gloves. One at a time. Sliding his fingers through and popping the elastic at each wrist. With very, very slow motions he checks my face and slides the passport through his machine.
After loading and unloading the plastic bins, I don’t even retie the laces on my sneakers. The young woman agent has taken control of my small silver suitcase with the pink ribbon and the neon yellow tag advertising Lubbock.
“Put on your shoes and run!”
“There. S-7.” S-7 is at the very end of the long hallway. Somehow I dig deep enough to make myself run past Gates 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. On the way a woman eyes me curiously. I catch her stare and keep going.
To my surprise, there is still a line of about thirty people waiting to board. Why had they told me the plane had left? My hands shake uncontrollably as I hand my passport to the agent at Gate 7. “Calm down.” She mimics taking a deep breath. As my boarding pass prints, I reach out to the woman who has brought me this far, give her a hug, and take back my small silver suitcase.
Inside the plane, the evening lighting adds a bit of wonderment to the scene as I find my seat and an empty overhead compartment. The Emirate stewardesses seem to float by, their hats tilted fashionably to one side and a thin gauzy scarf beneath their chins.
My seatmate arrives and turns out to be a 24 year old interior designer named Tony, heading for Milan for work at his firm’s main office. We chat.
“My mother called this morning and said she was glad I wasn’t traveling with Lufthansa because of the one-day strike.”
Oh. A strike. So that’s why my flight was cancelled. My usual sympathy for union workers has unfortunately dried up.
I tell Tony my saga, including the phone call from the Emirates.
He stops. “So YOU’RE Kathryn Crawley?”
I am dumbfounded by his question.
“They announced your name about 100 times. I had texted my boyfriend and said, ‘This poor girl. She’s not gonna make it.’ What fun that I’m getting to meet you!”
I am amazed and embarrassed by my newfound notoriety.
The first day of the rest of my life, indeed. The first day of 25 days which, I deeply hope will be less exciting than day number one.