Many thanks to Bingain for the comments and suggestions.
First-class airport lounges may differ from each other in their decoration and the airline logo, but they are pretty much the same in everything else. The same bunch of newspapers, the bad orange juice, the tasteless finger food that does nothing for your hunger, the big and apparently fluffy couches which get more uncomfortable after half an hour than coach seats get after a six-hour flight.
The plane is late.
My planes are always late, even more when they are night flights. I have this dreadful bad luck of always flying on the last flight of the night, the one that takes off when it's already one in the morning or later. This one was scheduled for a quarter past midnight.
It's already one in the morning.
The shops are closed, the restaurant is closed, the only thing that still seems to be open is this lounge. There's some cold coffee left, but I would only drink it if I was about to die of thirst.
And, of course, it's cold. As in the coldest day of the year. As in polar cold. As in the lowest temperature of the last fifty years. This morning I was afraid it might snow tonight, and I'd lose the plane and have to wait, wait again. At least I'd be waiting out of this damn place, in a bedroom, under hot sheets and sleeping.
"Probably another ten minutes or so." The poor ground crew girl is probably eighteen or nineteen, sleepy and tired. She's probably even more pissed than I am, because she lives a few miles away and has to stay in this room just because a handful of people are waiting for a plane to take them to another continent, one that she will probably never go to. She gives me a standard airline girl smile, probably praying for me not to complain. I just nod. I've complained enough in my life to realize that you are never complaining to the right person.
It is chilly outside the lounge. I close my overcoat and fold my arms. Everything is silent. I walk until I find the closed duty free shops: the electronic gadgets, the last chance for souvenirs, the overpriced coffee and sandwiches. They are all closed. I regret not having brought a bad detective novel with me. With the closed shops the airport is darker, and I'm not sure where are the three hundred people that will fill the plane; there are only small groups here and there, half asleep, speaking in low voices, waiting for the beginning of their trip or to be taken back to their lives. I sometimes would like to know why these people are traveling. If they are just tourists, if they are going on a business trip and what kind of business, if they are going to study abroad or to visit their families, to bury someone, to start a new life or to give up their current one. When they get into the plane it's easier to know, those who are not sure what to do and seat as quietly as possible, those who pretend to own the plane and stuff their big hand luggage anywhere, those who are trying not to show how nervous they are, the ones that are so used to planes that they feel at home.
I look outside and see the snow falling. It's almost beautiful--it would be beautiful if I didn't have a plane to catch. I curse, not aloud, but barely moving my tongue, like I learned to do at boarding school. I can't even get a pack of Swiss chocolate at this hour. I glance at the monitors: departed, departed, departed, delayed. I walk back to the lounge. It was warmer than this place.
Looking at the closed jewelry store is a blonde woman. She is wearing a very long black coat, and her light blonde hair, obviously natural, falls five inches beneath her shoulders. I saw her at the lounge, reading a fashion magazine, rising to get something to eat, covering her head with her arms to take a nap, sitting quietly alone.
I want to make a funny remark, but I'm too tired, it's too late and I don't think I could think of something interesting to say. It's funny how relative things are. Sometimes I see the sunrise and I can't believe it's already morning, and today it's barely after midnight and I can barely stay up. But I'm starving, I'm cold, I can barely follow my thoughts.
"Any news of the plane?"
She looks at me, wondering who could be asking her. "It's delayed."
"I don't know what was the last time you heard it."
I nod. I notice she was looking at a diamond bracelet that would probably look quite nice on her. She has gray eyes, delicate but hard at the same time, and slightly angular features that make her attractive. Her eyebrows are arched and high, giving her the appearance of being always surprised.
"It is snowing."
"Yes, I saw it."
I look at the bracelet again, and it reminds me of a girl I once loved. Irene. I bought her diamonds once. A thin gold necklace with a small diamond brooch. I liked that necklace. Irene didn't like me, I think; but Irene was nothing like this girl; she was shorter, with hazelnut hair, and was constantly moving in a way that I can't quite describe, restlessly I guess. Perhaps she talked too much. She was always talking.
"You won't believe what Ashley told me today," I can still hear Irene saying. Ashley was her best friend. She looked at everything with a mixture of envy and interest, as if everything had once belonged to her and she had lost them somehow. The two were often together and I wondered from time to time how much they had shared since they met each other, at their early teens. Irene tired me, but I loved her, that sort of irrational love that comes every now and then, that may be more a twisted physical attraction than love. I am glad I got over it, and yet I still miss her, even knowing that I don't miss her. It's complicated, and it's late, and it's cold.
This girl seems quiet, somehow resigned to her life--and not beaten, but elevated, as if she could not be beaten, no matter what happened.
I start to move away, but she talks again. "Do you think they will cancel the flight?"
"I don't know. They will try to avoid it, but with the snow..."
"I heard there was a problem with the landing gear of the plane."
She is uneasy, however. I can only tell she is not a tourist, and that she is no stranger to airports, but nothing else. She has her hand luggage with her, a beaten but resistant bag, while I have left mine at the lounge, hoping to be too late for it to be stolen. Then I remember that I have seen her before, as I arrived to the check-in counter and she passed by me, the blonde that I could not see the face as she walked way.
"Any seat preferences?"
Yes, I almost answered, I'd like to seat with quiet people, people used to traveling. They barely nod their heads when they seat, share a few words during the meal, and a short conversation during the breakfast and the interminable time before landing. But the airline girl couldn't get that to me.
"Left side, window seat."
"Superstition?" the airline girl asked me, more flirtatious than I expected. Maybe I didn't look as shitty as I felt. I grinned. "No, I like to watch the sunrise." She nodded, and I decided to play her game and break her monotony of checking plane tickets and passports, labeling suitcases and hearing complaints.
"It's so pretty. Have you ever watched a sunrise in a plane?"
"No. I never flew."
"Well, it's almost as pretty as you." She looked at me again, a smile with a mixture of pleasure and weariness, probably of hearing pick up lines from lonely male passengers.
"Thanks," she said. "Here's your ticket. Have a nice flight."
"Thank you. I'll think of you when the sun rises." She just smiled. She was young, eighteen perhaps. I thought for a moment that I could easily have taken her out, just because I'm wearing expensive clothes and traveling first-class with a worn out passport. I now wish I had somehow asked to sit with the blonde.
I once flew a transcontinental flight sitting by a model. I didn't recognize her face then, which soon afterwards became world famous, but it was obvious from her slender body, pretty face and contempt for the first-class gift bag ("no thanks, I have more of those than I know what to do with") that she was no stranger to the life of a traveler. She drank the bad airline-champagne flute with a gulp, making me wonder if I'd have a drunken companion for the fourteen-hour flight. Thinking back, she was probably wondering when I'd start hitting on her.
I glanced at the menu, with its three choices. As usual, one of them was unedible; this time, however, the other two were just as bad. I was glad I had eaten before, and contemplated eating just the dessert, a chocolate cake. I probably grunted, because as I folded the menu she muttered something.
"Dieting is easy if you live on planes."
Patty, as I found her name was, had a light-brownish hair and looks that were somehow disappointing, at least for a top-model that makes more money in one day than many people make in an year, but very alluring, nevertheless. I think it was her unusual face, which was pretty but different. Her charm and the way she moved made her more attractive than just her face.
"Is that your secret?" I asked.
"One of them."
"My secret is having dinner before going to the airport."
"That won't do much for my diet."
"Well, then you probably should eat the disgusting fish. You'll probably spend the next three days without eating."
"So, I'll have the chocolate cake, in the hope that it is edible. Given the flight in, though, I very much doubt so."
The talk soon moved to a discussion of the best and worst airlines. We started ranking them. Best airline food. Plane takes off. Worst airline food. Flight attendant picks up the dinner and breakfast orders. Best seats, worst seats. Best gift bags, our collection of gift bags, our contempt for gift bags. Dinner. The attendant insisted on bringing me food, which I barely touched. Patty did the same. "I'm on a diet," she said to the attendant. "I wish I were as thin as you are," she replied. A short talk about what it was like to be a model. "I hate talking about my career," she whispered to me, half as a warning. Worst topics for a flight (airplane accidents, dead relatives; she picked career and bad pick up lines too, and I went for bad jokes and "how I made millions in my business and you should be my associate"), then best topics for a flight (silence and travels by unanimity). Chocolate cake, surprisingly good.
"You should eat this. It is good."
"It is chocolate."
"I don't eat chocolate."
"One bite won't kill you."
"I never said it would kill me."
She didn't eat the cake, and I felt guilty for eating it in front of her. I mentioned it, and it lead to worst things the passenger sitting next to you can do (snore, talk too much, block the corridor when you need to go to the bathroom, but then smell bad won). Worst flight ever (she named a turbulent flight which she thought would be her last, I mentioned one with bad food, really bad chairs in coach class, terribly loud kids running and crying, air conditioner too cold, a guy terrified of flying who would not stop chattering sitting at my right and an old lady terrified of flying who would not stop chattering sitting at my left. She said I won, although she mentioned one flight in which she sat between two guys who spent the flight fighting with each other to see who would get to take her out, and she hated both).
Dinner was over. People started to sleep or watch something on their TVs. We reclined our chairs, but continued to talk, half whispering.
Best flights ever. She picked her first one, when she was a kid. I picked my first one in business class. Her first work trip. My second first-class flight ("what about the first one?" "Horrible trip, horrible job. The first-class ticket was a compensation for it."). Her first New York-Paris flight.
Lights went off. Now we just whispered. It was my turn. "A flight with a girlfriend."
"Did you join the Mile High club?"
"No, not then."
"On the flight back?"
"Flights back are too depressing when your are traveling for leisure. I liked her, and she liked me, and we were going for a week off at a very pretty island. The flight was good, the week was promising and we had each other."
"Are you still with her?"
"No." I must have sounded sad.
"It's all right."
"Was it recent?"
No, it hadn't been. Nadja was a cute redhead with dark green eyes, freckles all over her body, a contagious laugh, and real mean when she wanted to be. She was either lovely or hateful.
We had a real bad break up.
"But she must have hurt you."
She could have taught Spanish Inquisitors a couple things. I shudder when I think of her; but I somehow lost the bitterness I felt for her along the way, and now I feel only a sad feeling of pity, both for her and for me.
"A little. It's over. Your turn."
"I don't think I have another great flight to mention."
"Do you always travel alone?"
"Often. Only when I have to go somewhere exotic for a shooting, then I usually go with a crew."
"Do you hate your job?"
She was silent for a moment.
"If you don't want to talk about it..."
"It's just... not as easy as everybody thinks."
"Everything is easy when someone else is doing it."
"People think it's just walking a few steps and that's it. They don't know that you have waked at 5 am, spent the day starving, waited and waited and then waited some more, and that you may be tired because you just traveled three thousand miles the day before."
She talked a bit more, in whispers, phrases that were not always properly connected, more a trickle of thoughts and complaints than anything else. She fell asleep and I fell asleep.
I woke up and it was still dark. I don't like waking up in planes, with my legs swollen, the strange atmosphere that is formed, and the many people sleeping around me. I always thought that very odd, three hundred people sleeping together in a place that is barely large enough for all of them to sit. I saw she was not at her seat, and I looked around. She arrived shortly after, and saw that I was awake.
"Did I wake you?"
I could not see her well under the faint light, but I could imagine her features filling the silhouette I disguised. "No," I whispered back. She reclined on her seat, as close to me as she could.
"I hate to sleep in planes," she whispered, almost to my ear. I felt her hand moving and finding my arm in the dark. "I hate the jet lag, wanting a drink and a bed at ten in the morning, not being sleepy until the sun rises."
"And not be with the people I like, because I'm never where they are." I held my hand over hers, and started to caress her arm, slowly moving up, to her shoulder, neck, cheek.
"Do you get escorts when you travel?"
"No," I said, surprised with the question.
"It's all right. But you wouldn't tell me. One man once asked me how much I wanted to spend the night with him. I could have used the money back then, but I just couldn't sell my body. Funny, because in a way that's what I live of."
"Please. Do you think that sleeping with people doesn't help my career?"
She paused, while I still touched her cheek with the tip of my fingers.
"This is a very complicated question to be answered in a transcontinental flight, when we are somewhat drunk of sleep."
I hear a noise and look back; a janitor is driving a very large cleaning machine around. The blonde girl is still by my side, and watches the slow machine passing by. "Let's go upstairs," she says.
She walks with me, pulling the case behind her, the characteristic squeaking of the small wheels following us. I'd like to help her with the bag, but in this wacky world she'd be surprised and refuse my suggestion.
"I hate airports."
She nods, silently. I sense she doesn't want to talk, and I shut my mouth up. The lounge breathes out a warm gulf of air when I open its door, letting the blonde in. We sit close by this time.
"I'm starving," I say.
I can't sit still, and ten seconds later I'm up again. I approach the girl at the counter. She has a sweet face, and I wonder if she is a sweet as she looks. People often are exactly what they look. Judging books by their covers. I hate these blue uniforms, like the one she is wearing.
"I'm sorry, I don't have any news yet."
"It's okay. Is there any place to eat still open? I'm starving."
"Sorry. Shops close at midnight."
I nod. Now I think she resembles a girl I met in high school. What was her name? I don't remember.
"Is there a coffee machine somewhere?"
"No. But there's coffee there."
I nod again. I should sleep. Maybe I could nap for a few minutes. "If I fall asleep, would you call me when the plane is ready?"
"Sure," she says.
I get back to the couch. The blonde girl is quiet, eyes almost shut. I wish I knew her better, to lie my head on her lap. I wish she were Patty. Or Laura. Oh, shit, Laura.
"I have another category," Patty added. "Best person you ever flew with."
"I don't even have to think this one," I replied, naming a famous basketball player. I couldn't know if she had understood it was a joke; it was too dark. "Unless you are counting this flight too."
She kissed me. A slow, tender kiss. I kissed her back. She had soft but firm lips, and such a delicate tongue.
I'm in an alley. Where am I? It's dark. I can't see Patty. No, I wasn't with Patty. I was with somebody else, but I can't remember who. I lost her, I have to find her. There's nobody around. I see some people far away, but I'm afraid of them. They might be just bumps, or a gang. Where's Patty? The gang starts to come in my direction. I can't run. I wake up.