As quiet as an airport

Chicago O'Hare International Terminal

Chicago O’Hare International Terminal (4:00pm, Saturday 28th November 2020)

I hadn’t seen you for a long time.

I suspect we both knew that this first encounter after such a long break was going to be a little awkward. Looking back on it now, and even though we’ve known each other for decades, it was naïve to think we would just be able to slip easily back into those old, familiar routines.

Over the years, as is so often the way with long-term friends, we had taken each other for granted; we knew what to expect each time we met; we had tolerated the other’s character quirks while complaining about them to our mutual acquaintances. Yes, we could annoy each other to extremes that would break any other relationship – I know for a fact that you’ve seen the worst of me – but the bond has survived through each bout of irrational anger and each trivial inconvenience.

And then I was back, expecting nothing to have changed between us.

I don’t know if it was complacency. That doesn’t feel like the right word. Complacency suggests an acknowledgement that there was something to think about and, then, an active choice made to not think about it. In reality, it didn’t occur to me that there was something to think about. I just assumed everything would be as it was; no beat would be missed; what we were to each other, we would be still.

Yet, as soon as I arrived, I instantly knew things were different. Why had I not considered the possibility until that moment? The hive of activity; the barely organized chaos that made you unique, no matter the time of day, was gone. Not merely less than before. Gone.

Where there was once a crowd, now there was virtually empty space. Where there was a perpetual, indistinct hubbub of activity, now a single conversation, even though muffled by face covering, echoed off of the walls. Where queues of frustrated patrons had once snaked through your halls, your few visitors were now outnumbered by those greeting them.

This new reality was disconcerting. And I soon realized, for all of our familiarity, I had forgotten how to act around you.

Through years of experience, through the constant evolution of our relationship, I thought I instinctively knew what you expected. However, actions that had been second nature to me – knowing you expect me to take off my shoes only to put them back on two minutes later; complying with your specific standards about how I organize my belongings; accepting your random assessment of what constitutes a coat – now required actual, concentrated thought.

The fact that I had to think about what I was doing was both surprising and refreshing. In that moment, I realized that enforced absence had made me appreciate you more. I realized that I was actually enjoying the rituals I had previously only seen as petty frustrations.

I had missed them. I had missed you.

And, more surprisingly – shockingly, in fact – I had missed the unruly, meandering mass of people that were once your most persistent feature.

Previously, the mere presence of that impatient crowd, with the offensive, wafting smells of their fried food (my fried food, of course, did not smell), with their intentional getting in my way, with their general insistence on being here, made me long for a time when I would be able to wander, practically alone, along your empty hallways.

Now that they were gone, I felt the strangest wish that they were all here once more – standing in line in front of me, ordering their annoyingly complex coffee drinks.

Eventually they will return, as will, inevitably, some of my old frustrations. But, this time, I won’t wish those crowds away. Their absence showed me they are integral to our shared experience. However annoying they can be, I missed the vibrancy they brought with them. Like so many things in our lives, we only see their value when they are no longer there.

Dublin Airport

Dublin Airport (10:00am, Saturday 12th December 2020)

We will all be back.

When we see you again, although we will all be going in different directions and will all have different reasons for doing so, you will help – however fleetingly – to bring us together; serving as that rare point of connection in a world where there are so few.

I know that there have been fewer of us coming to see you in recent months, but please rest assured that we haven’t forgotten about you. You will always be a part of our lives.

And we will make sure that no one ever thinks to use the simile, “as quiet as an airport”.

Nick Orchard
2nd January 2021

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