Somehow, I manage to stay out-of-the-way while everyone gets their luggage from overhead. There are no lines or orderly presentation here.
As I watch the plane full of people slowly make their way past me, fictitious stories of their lives play out in my head.
The young boys. Have they just come back from Paris or Madrid after seeing the world beyond Algeria? Are they glad to be home or is this even their home? Visiting family perhaps and then going back to another country where they now live.
The beautiful woman with the flowered head scarf, perfectly manicured nails, and flawless makeup. The handsome young man with her that pulls down their bags. He’s trying to carry all their belongings; the shopping bags, her purse, everything. As if he has something to prove to her. I notice the simple wedding band on her left hand and smile. Maybe that will be me one day. Riad carrying our things from a plane.
An elderly lady grunts her way past me and gives me a once over, as if to ask, “What’s your story woman?”
I glance at the ground. I couldn’t fathom what a year of her life has been like, I think to myself.
Suddenly I go to finger my hair as I did in the airport in Madrid. Finger tips meet fabric. Cotton covering my skin and a heavy sweater draped over my arm. Jeans clinging to my legs and sneakers on my feet.
Hot. That’s what I am and I remember; I’m far from what I know now.
I grab my broken bag and wearily drag it to my side. I swear to myself that I will never carry these bags again if they will just cooperate a bit longer. My muscles groan back at me as if they have a voice.
You’re the worst liar.
Leaving the airplane is like leaving all the others. I look out the windows of the gangway. It’s an airport. Why do I suddenly feel a twinge of disappointment? What had I expected it to look like? Was I secretly hoping there would be balloons and signs welcoming me?
I laugh aloud for the second time today but now there are people to hear me and cast curious glances my way. Great. Algeria’s first impression of me is that I’m crazy. Best to just get that out-of-the-way now.
And suddenly it’s all different.
For a split second, I’m passing out of the hangar into the sunshine. Doors similar to a supermarket, open and close in front of me and it takes me a moment to realize I’ve stopped dead in my tracks. Travelers move around me, regarding me with looks of annoyance.
There are no smiling faces here. No cheerful ‘hello’s’ or ‘welcome’s’. Just people moving in a hurry to get where they need to go. Except there’s only one place to go at this point and a man in a military uniform is motioning me towards that destination. I want to ask him what’s happening. Where am I going and where is Riad? Where is my luggage that I parted with back in the United States? The man’s not here for questions, though.
I follow a few stragglers into a room the size of a very small store.
My long-standing motto comes to mind: “If I’m going to die it’s going to be on a plane to Africa, not in a Dollar General!”
I didn’t die on the plane though.
I’m attacked by the first rush of adrenaline since I left home. My flight or fight response has kicked in out of nowhere and I struggle to remain calm. I want to run screaming to the nearest person; tell them that I’m going to have a panic attack! I want to sit down and check my blood pressure. Grab the women in uniform who are pacing back and forth under signs written in Arabic and French. I want to seize their jackets and ask them how they can stand this heat and dress so heavily. Ask them to please find a way to get me through this line.
Oh God! The line! It’s so long and everyone is staring at me.
Literally staring at me.
For the first time, the fear that others are watching me, wondering who I am and what I’m doing is real. It’s not a frivolous thought. All eyes in the immediate vicinity are on me and it’s because I’m living a real life ‘one of these things does not belong’ games.
It’s then that I realize I’m speaking.
“Is this the line for American passports, too?”
My voice is thin and small.
A nod and a swift wave of the hand is all I get. Motioning for me to join the line in which I will be trapped until I hit the other side.
I gaze to the other side.
There are four booths. The men behind the thick glass have watchful eyes that scan the room for anything out-of-place. They sigh each time someone leaves the line and a new person takes their place. As I am pushed by an invisible force of energy from the new crowd of people behind me, I glance to my left and see the woman I had sat next to at the gate in Madrid. She’s wearing a dress now and her scarf is severely tied in place. She has two children at her legs. Where did they come from? The sign above her reads “passeport familial”. Family passports.
I notice several women with children in the line and even the young married woman from the plane. There were no kids with her and her husband, I think to myself. I search frantically behind me for a kiosk selling children. Are they giving away babies somewhere? Where can I get one? I want to be in that short line.
Secretly I’m still not sure that I’m where I need to be. The sign above me hangs awkwardly to the right and reads “passeport Algerie”. Algerian Passports.
I glance at the woman in uniform again and it’s like she’s read my mind. She nods her head to let me know that I’m in the correct line and for a brief second I feel more at ease. It’s OK that there is a massive language barrier between us. She knows what I’m thinking and I’m OK with her being inside of my head.
I scoot forward slowly, pushing my bags with my foot. For a minute I wonder what it will be like when I pass out from exhaustion. Will someone help me or will they gladly step over my body, happy to have moved up further? I won’t care. Maybe I’ll die. I don’t want to die but the self-fulfilling prophecy of not dying in a Dollar General has passed and I feel like I’m on borrowed time now. Any moment would be fine with fate to see fit to dispatch me from this earth.
I’ve been watching the others once they get to the windows of the booths. A quick glance of the passport, a rapid stamp in the book and the person is on their way to what I expect is the “real” airport.
There are a few people being handed a piece of paper and pencil and directed to the back of the line. Silently I congratulate myself on having all my paperwork in order.
Behind me I hear a groan and turn around. There’s a man wearing a kamisse bending at the waist and clutching his stomach. His face is contorted in agony. The nurse in me wants to ask if he is OK but I don’t. How would I? I turn back around so I don’t stare at him. Despite feeling bad for not helping, I’m reminded that this is a different culture, I don’t know the language, and I’m a woman. I have no idea what the protocol is here and to stop the sudden rush of thoughts through my head I pick up the bags at my feet, causing my arm to throb in pain. It brings me back to reality.
It’s my turn at the booth.
“Asalam Alaykum,” I say softly to the man.
I hand him my passport and nervously fan myself with my hand.
Stomach dropping, I follow his fingers with my eyes as he takes a slip of paper from a stack on his desk and hands me a pencil. With a languid motion of his right hand he points me to the back of the line.
No! No, no no, I scream in the back of my mind!
“What is this?” I ask him, not caring if he understands English or not. He points again.
“Why? What is this?” “Ma Hethe,” I ask him in Arabic. The only Arabic I can remember now. (Thank you Eman. I am so grateful at this moment for you tutoring me all those months. I’m sorry I can only remember these two words at the moment.)
I’m hoping that hearing me speak Arabic might spark some compassion in him. Every single word is in Arabic. I have no idea what it says. I flip it over, hoping that the other side is in French but I’m out of luck. At least in French I might be able to decipher what it says.
I look behind me and see that the room is full now. Other flights have undoubtedly arrived and I see an endless sea of faces staring back at me.
“Please,” I beg him quietly, “I can’t go back to the end of the line. Please sir. What does this say?” I ask him. I have no idea what my face looks like but I am sure that fear is radiating off of me like the sun off a metal playground slide.
Right before I give up and just sit down where I am, he speaks.
“Where staying?” he asks.
“What?” I answer back with a question.
“Where staying here? Hotel.”
“No! Le! I’m staying with family,” I hurriedly explain as I begin to rummage through my purse for the extra invitation Riad sent many months ago. Secretly I thank God and then I swear I will shower Riad with kisses as soon as I can, for sending two invitations with his family’s address and information on it.
Handing the notarized form to the man through the window, he takes back the slip of paper and quickly begins to scribble on the lines.
I still might die, although this time from relief.
And just like that he slams the stamp down on the visa in my passport and hands it back.
“That’s it?” I ask.
Just GO I yell at myself. Part of me is still wanting to know what just happened. What was written on the paper but the survival part of my brain is urging me forward, chastising me for wasting time on stupid thoughts. Who cares!
I throw my bags for the last time in the x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector. No beeps, no fuss, just a waving of arms again from personnel and suddenly I’m standing in the middle of other travelers looking at screens for baggage rack numbers.
This part of the airport is small as well and the air is stifling.
Surprisingly, my bag is one of the first ones off. A pang of homesickness hits me when I recognize the bright yellow tag with my son’s name on it. I remember when I had written his information on it before his big trip with The Boy Scouts. I hadn’t removed it because it made my luggage easily identifiable and a part of me felt closer to my son by leaving it.
Struggling to get the bag off the belt I almost lose my balance. Realizing Riad could be anywhere, watching me from the corners, I straighten up for a moment. Heart pounding, I cast curious glances at those around me. Scanning face after face I don’t see him and my heart starts to pound harder.
Where is he? Did he not come? Oh my God what if he doesn’t come? What if he got scared?
Knowing where this will lead me, I tell myself to STOP loudly in my head. Taking a few deep breaths, I hook my carry on, on top of my larger suitcase and re-adjust my personal bag. My arm tingles toward numbness and for that I’m thankful. At least the shooting pain down my shoulder is gone for now.
I notice a bearded man in skinny jeans and a purple shirt smirking at me from a bench against the wall. It’s almost as if he’s been laughing at me.
“What?” I ask him as I walk closer. This time I throw caution to the wind about talking to a man. I need answers.
He doesn’t respond and I continue walking towards him. I’m tired, thirsty, and hot. I need answers and unfortunately for him he’s made himself the most approachable person here.
“Is it that funny? What?” I ask again. I’m not being confrontational, I genuinely want to know what’s so funny.
“You look for someone yes?” He asks.
“Yes! Where do I find the people?” The question a bit louder than intended. The people? Now look who doesn’t speak English well!
“The cars. I mean, where do I find the cars?”
He points behind me, towards the direction I first came when leaving customs. “Cars are that way. You will find your person,” he says smiling again.
“Shukran. Merci. Thank you,” I tell him in three different languages. He laughs.
Four times while walking towards the two double doors, I lose my bag off the top of my luggage. The last time threatens to take me down with it. I do a sort of pirouette to keep myself from falling though and I’ve stopped looking around. Now that I know Riad isn’t watching me from in here, I don’t care what these other people think. I can feel a slight breeze blowing past the throng of other people leading the way out.
A loud murmur begins as we near the doors and as I cross from the dimly lit baggage area to the “real” airport, it’s as if the Red Sea has risen and parted to greet me.
There are hundreds of people behind a red velvet rope, waiting for their friends and loved ones. The sound is deafening. I imagine them spilling over the rope and engulfing all of us in a stampede of eagerness. This is nothing compared to American’s at an airport! At once I’m appalled at the animalistic qualities the mass of bodies possess and then again, I feel like a movie star! In a matter of seconds, I feel such a wide range of emotions that I find myself blinking back tears. How will I ever find him in all these people I think to myself as I begin to walk parallel with the crowd.
And then I hear it. His voice. Faintly, I hear him talking. Could it have been my imagination, I will wonder later that night once I’m settled into bed? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
I walk quickly to where the throng of people I’ve been following begins to thin out.
My legs have a new energy to them. A renewed sense of purpose flows through me and it’s as if I’ve downed a double shot of espresso.
Suddenly there he is.
Just as I glance to my left, I catch his eye and see him smile. The same smile I’ve been looking at for hours each night for the past several months on Skype.
I silently thank God for “skinny jeans man” for guiding me the right way and I watch as Riad hugs the man he’s been talking to and comes towards me; maneuvering around bodies and I doing the same. There’s an urgency in both of us.
And then we’re face to face.
“Ohmygod-,” we both begin.
“You are really-,” he starts to say.
“-here,” I finish.
A double kiss to each cheek and a longer than necessary hug and that’s the moment I knew that all the effort, hard work and waiting has been worth it.
Having to listen to those back home make silly comments about my decision. How crazy or stupid I was for taking my life and my heart, by the hand and guiding it to where it needed to go, wanted to be – none of that mattered now.
The moment I looked into his eyes and saw my own face, my smile, the smile I thought I’d lost forever – that image will forever be ingrained in my mind.
I realized I’d been waiting in the longest line of my life all these years. I just didn’t know it.