After a harrowing ride from the quiet (civilized) community I live, through nightmare traffic (uncivilized) and kamikaze drivers trying to bully me out of their way, we finally arrived at the Atlanta airport. My daughter and I searched and searched for a parking spot but one that would fit my over-sized tank was not to be found. (Once again I cursed my impulsive decision to buy the SUV and wished I had gone with what I had always wanted—a smaller Honda Accord with a sunroof and spoiler on the back) Short on time and patience, I carefully eased through the too-close metal dividers and drove to the highest level of the parking deck and maneuvered into the first space I found. Finally on foot, we made our way to the filthy elevator and went down a level, played Frogger as we dodged cars to get to the terminal, and then asked directions from an airport employee who was hanging about outside with a cigarette in one hand and a vampire novel in the other.
An escalator ride, a few more direction-asking-moments and we finally (miraculously) stood in the Arrival Lobby to wait for the moment when Amanda would be reunited with her best friend from China. Since leaving the expat life in China, the girls have gotten together numerous times in various states—Michigan, Texas, South Carolina and now Georgia. Their bond is one I know will never be broken, as they share many memories from all over the map. Amanda was so excited that I could not persuade her to go for a bathroom detour, and her eyes remained fixed on the hallway the new arrivals were streaming through. Knowing the first thing she would notice was Madi’s naturally platinum hair, she relentlessly searched the crowds for each blonde and scrutinized her face before moving on to the next stranger.
As we waited and I tried to ignore the traffic-induced back spasms, I struck up a conversation with the tattooed man beside me. I saw him give directions to a lost passenger and he was obviously very familiar with the airport layout so I asked if he could direct me to where to pick up Delta luggage. I knew that as soon as the girls were together, they wouldn’t be much help and I wanted to get a head start on getting the heck out of there. We began a conversation and he told me he was picking up two young men who had been exchange students at his home a few years back. Both boys were from Austria but he really tweaked my interest when he told me that his latest student was a girl from China. He said, “Jessica came over and was very quiet and timid but when she left she was a riot—I ruined her.” At this confession, he let out a boisterous laugh and I could tell he was a fun person who genuinely cared about each student. When the two boys saw him, they both high-fived him and the joy on their faces was proof that the affection was reciprocated. I realized as they walked away that I still need to work on my judging-a-book-by-the-cover-skills because this man at first was not someone I would usually approach because of his tattoos and overall appearance, but just a few minutes with him and I would bet that he is an amazing person with a collection of interesting tales that I would be honored to hear him spin.
Behind me, I suddenly heard a “Wo yao….blah blah blah” and turned to find a group of Chinese businessmen. Watching them rock back and forth on their heels, I was suddenly taken back to memories of China and the many airport trips we survived as we scuttled to and fro on home visits and rest trips to various places. Being in the midst of all the chaos of travelers, luggage and reunions, I desperately missed my expat life and the feeling of ‘doing something different’ it constantly brought us. Now back home in the states, I’ll admit that American life feels boring and monotonous, at least compared to the five years we spent overseas. While we were told that repatriation was very difficult, no one explained that years after returning home, these feelings would remain. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that once our Amanda is out of school, we are sure we will once again become travelers and I will be able to do more to feed my passion of working with underprivileged children.
The next person to catch my eye was a fascinating woman who was slowly weaving her way to the front of the waiting crowd to compete for the best look-out spot. She appeared to be approximately mid-forties and had ash-colored dreadlocks bundled with a hair tie and falling down her back. Uncaring about the out-dated clothes she wore, she was perfectly at ease in her Jesus sandals and long shorts, covered by a scalloped-collared simple sleeve-less shirt. She wore no jewelry or make-up, but her face was so interesting that that she didn’t need it. For a fleeting moment, I wished that I could borrow her confidence and walk about without make-up and leave behind all the effort it takes to do my hair and choose my clothes each day—but at this age, I know that gift will never come. If anything, I’ll try to do more to disguise the effects of age on my quickly fading youth, as that is just who I am.
Judging by the concentrated expression that Gypsy Woman wore, and the intent way she was searching for a familiar face to come through, I expected to soon see her throw herself into the arms of her lover—and I was curious to see what sort of man he would be. Would he have dreadlocks and be wearing sandals and a shirt with a big marijuana leaf over the chest? Perhaps carrying a tattered army duffel bag that contained all of his worldly possessions? Or would he be a shined-up businessman, stopping in to see his mistress who represents the opposite of all that he is and has in his other life? As we watched for our Madi, I also kept one eye on Gypsy Woman so that I wouldn’t miss the passionate reunion.
Before long we witnessed a soldier coming through. The USO representative greeted the young man with an arm around his shoulders and a comforting word as he guided him to some unknown area. At first I searched the crowd for the man’s family but soon realized he was probably on a service-related mission and was not flying in to his home. On his face I only saw loneliness and fatigue—and I said a quick silent prayer for our troops who are facing experiences that we can only imagine.
As the soldier and the story line I had begun to weave in my head disappeared, my attention was captured by a woman dragging along her little boy. She was obviously exhausted, but so was he and I thought she could have had a little more patience with the small chap. She tugged him along behind her with one hand while dragging their luggage with the other. In the hand that was not grasped tightly by his mother, the boy dangled a ragged teddy bear. When the mother looked down and sharply said, “Hurry up!” the boy looked up at her and softly said, “I love you, Mommy.” I could tell he was trying to break through and soften her up and my heart ached for him. I thought he must have been about four years old and that prompted a sudden memory of a little girl who was only four when I met her—and the way she looked at me as if she wanted my love but was not going to lose any pride trying to get it. She was the opposite of this boy, to his innocence and naivety she was strong and had battled tragedy, molding her into a tiny warrior with battle scars evident all over her body. Yes, I was thinking of Xiao Gou and before I knew it, I was trying to swallow past the lump in my throat and blink away the unexpected tears. I had a flashback of the times I would get Xiao Gou out of the bath and put her little rosebud pajamas on her. I would pull the shirt down and she always wanted her pants pulled high over the shirt—Chinese style that looked ridiculous to me but soon became part of a night-time ritual. Then she would get 30 more minutes of playtime with her box of blocks before we’d trudge up the stairs with her on my hip and make our way to the guest room for bedtime. My little Asian angel wasn’t interested in teddy bears to bring her comfort; instead she would go to sleep wrapping the threads from the blanket around her tiny fingers. I would lie beside her until she finally closed her eyes and I would wonder what sort of nightmares she faced in the orphanage during those long nights in the cold rooms.
Lately I have been trying to guard my heart against thoughts of Xiao Gou, because it hurts so much—much more than anyone could ever understand—but with the upturned face of a little boy trying to be affectionate to his mommy, something triggered those memories to come flooding back and I took a moment to put aside the guilt of leaving her, the fear of her current circumstances, and remember the times she filled our house with the spunk of her personality.
Finally just when I thought Amanda couldn’t take the suspense of waiting any longer, a familiar petite figure broke through the crowd and Amanda was like a wound-up jumping bean beside me. “There she is! There she is!” The girls hugged each other tightly while doing a combination of a laugh/scream that represented the joy of their friendship. My mother’s heart was soaring at the happiness my daughter was feeling to see her forever best friend and I readied myself for five days of chatting, shopping, midnight laughter and all those things that make best friends click.
I can’t end this chronicle without giving you the conclusion of Gypsy Woman and her mystery man, now can I? Right before we walked away, I looked over to see the exact moment that she found her loved one in the crowd. The happiness that spread across her face made me instantly scan the crowd to see who she was zoned in on. Surprisingly and much to my romantic side’s disappointment, it was not her prince after all—but instead a woman who could have been her sister, or maybe a friend. What did peak my curiosity was the fact that as Gypsy Woman rushed around the roped area, the emotion on the other woman’s face was not the same as on Gypsy Woman’s face. There wasn’t much excitement or joy—only a look of irritation and a fumble to half-heartedly return the embrace that was heaped upon her. I felt a surge of pity for Gypsy Woman that her friend was not as excited to see her as she might have expected and I looked away from the public rejection of affection.
As we hurried along, a light bulb moment hit and my fairy tale continued as I realized that it may have been her lover after all—coming in person to break up the long distance relationship they had shared for years. With this new twist in the story, my imagination revved back up again and we headed out the door into the heavy Georgia heat and a two-hour return trip home with two happy fifteen-year-olds chatting behind me as I day-dreamed of another life on another continent with a different culture to appease my constant purpose-seeking spirit.—Kay Bratt
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