One eyebrow delicately arched, the lady gazed around the airport, at the same black-and-white floor tiles, the same blue walls that had been there 20 years ago. Her chest grew tight for a moment. Thankfully, her business here was done. She had signed the final papers with the bank manager this morning. Today was the last time she would ever have to set foot in this town. Maybe I should have come back years ago. Maybe I could have seen him one last time, told him how sorry I was. But it was too late for that now. A persistent noise lifted the edge of her thoughts and crawled in, demanding its share of attention. Somewhere nearby a baby was crying. It had been crying for some time now, in fact. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead.
Looking around the room, she spotted the offender lying in its stroller, wailing like a tornado siren. It appeared to be alone, except for a young woman standing at the window about ten feet away, decidedly ignoring the child. Either that is its mother, or I am going to need to get Security; and I really do not want to deal with those Bozos today. Rising, she sighed and lifted her leather bag to her shoulder. Might as well try to talk to the girl first.
Setting her bag carefully on a chair, she took a seat beside the infant. She reached one hand into the stroller, feeling around for a bottle or a pacifier. As she cooed baby-nonsense and persuaded the squall-machine to take its pacifier, she kept one eye on the young woman at the window. As soon as the crying stopped, the woman at the window turned. She quickly crossed the distance and lifted the child from the stroller, holding him close to her body. The lady folded her hands and sat back in the chair.
“He seemed upset”
“Uh.. Yeah, he gets really fussy. Colic.”
She continued to stand there, rocking gently back and forth. Her eyes, red and swollen, roved back and forth, unable to settle in any one place. With her thumb she spun her ring round and round her finger. Yet still she stood.
“Why don’t you have a seat?” said the lady, “I have some time to kill before my flight and you look like you could use someone to talk to.” The girl stood for a moment longer, then sat down. Eyes on the floor, she sat, not saying a word, just rocking the baby in her arms. A couple of minutes passed.
The lady swung her foot. She shifted in her chair, picked some lint off her silk blouse and smoothed her hair. She looked at the girl again, leaning forward to try and catch her eye. “So how old are you…18, maybe 20? Having a baby isn’t turning out to be as wonderful as you’d imagined, is it? He’s fussy and demanding and he’s ALWAYS there. You never get a break. You probably haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since he was born. And your husband is no help at all, right?” The young woman’s head snapped up, eyes wide. Then the words came, one on top of the other, half of them incoherent and smothered beneath her sobs. A tear dripped off the end of her nose, followed by two more. The lady reached into her bag and withdrew a linen handkerchief. She dabbed at the girl’s cheeks, then pressed the handkerchief into her hand. After a moment, the lady began to tell her her story. It was a tale of travel and adventure, of palaces and kings; of Spain and Morocco, India and Peru; of despots, movie stars and Nobel laureates. It’s everything I ever imagined! the girl thought.
But the dream had a dark side. The lady told her of things she had seen— a young man castrated and eviscerated for loving another man; a 10 year old girl held as a sex slave. She recalled a narrow escape and a horrifying night on the streets of Muzzafarrabad, hiding from a half-mad prince. She shared the lonely times and the holidays and birthdays spent by herself in some strange hotel room. Her voice became husky and she gazed out the window, at something far beyond the tarmac and airplanes.
“You know….there are times now when I just sit and cry. I see a baby, like yours, and I think, what would my life be like with children? Would I be a different person?” Just then she heard the boarding call for her flight. “That’s me.” She stood and collected her bag. She patted the girl on the shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
As she reached the gate, the lady turned back for one final look. She saw the young woman take an envelope out of the stroller and throw it in a trash can. The girl paused for a moment, then squared her shoulders, and pushed the stroller out into the afternoon sun. The lady turned away and boarded the plane.
She settled herself into her seat, keeping her purse on her lap. The plane lifted off and quickly reached cruising altitude. The flight attendant brought the drink cart out and the lady accepted a double scotch. As she stared out the window, she sipped it thoughtfully. Once the glass was empty, she opened her purse. From inside she pulled a photograph and an old newspaper article. It was dated 19 years prior. She gazed for a long moment at the headline. It read “Baby Abandoned in Airport. Mother Vanishes.” Carefully re-folding the article, she placed them both back inside the bag, and closed it with a snap.