My suitcase has seen better days. Its wheels are stiff and coarse; the handle pulls out only with considerable effort. There’s a large dent on its bottom, from the time when a Transportation Security Administration officer tossed it ungraciously off an airport conveyor belt. Stickers in varying states of disrepair adorn it: there’s a cat I found at a Bangkok night market; a torn orange doodle I bought from a thrift store in Rome; and a logo sticker from my old school that reads, a little too patriotically for my taste, “GO CHOATE!”
This suitcase now sits awkwardly in a remote corner of my room, staring at me sadly. It’s never stayed at home for so long. It feels dormant; it wants action.
I used to use my suitcase quite a lot. Having grown up attending various boarding schools in the New England area, I traveled constantly, darting back and forth between my life in Hong Kong and my lives in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
As such, airports have always felt like something of a home for me. Though traveling alone felt strange at first, I gradually grew fond of the process. Once I got over my inevitable apprehension of it all—I was 12 when I first started traveling alone—the routine became second nature. It was a performance of sorts: proceeding silently through Customs, eating lonely meals at airport diners, meandering through those large, fluorescently-lit halls while waiting to board my flight, always a red-eye.
There’s some truth in that old cliche, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” If my life throughout high school was deadlines, expectations, and repetition, then the journeying in between was the magic: little tastes of freedom that momentarily made me forget it all. There is no greater feeling, I believe, than having absolutely nothing to do except wait for your flight. Who knew the most profound happiness could come from listening to a little Kodaline or Vance Joy while mindlessly wandering through empty terminals, browsing 24-hour Hudson News and duty-free stores without much else to worry about?
Being lonely in airports fueled my imagination. Because everyone was a stranger in airports, there were no rules—I could be anyone. While traveling, I was not Derek. I was Viktor Navorski in The Terminal; Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians; Samuel Tong in Triumph in the Skies. I was a divorcee escaping to Venice to find herself; an entrepreneur going to Sydney on business; a spy heading to Mykonos on his latest mission. The independence, the anonymity, the novelty—I loved it all.
These last few months, I have not flown, of course. I’ve been in Hong Kong, working the night shift. My classes stretch until 3, sometimes 4 a.m., and there’s nothing I can do to change it. Forcing myself to stay awake, my imagination sometimes drifts. I daydream, often about my first year—what didn’t happen, what should’ve happened. I stroll down College Walk. Pull an all-nighter in Butler. Go to one of those legendarily mediocre Carman parties I’ve heard so much about.
To cope with those sudden pangs of longing, I turn to a particular moment from two years ago. It’s late at night, and I’m seated in a comfy chair in the Newark airport, waiting for my flight. I gaze out a nearby window, my trusted suitcase beside me. The airplane parking lot is dotted with traffic cones, and someone in a neon jacket strolls across the stage, talking into a walkie-talkie. There’s a wide landing strip, edged by flickering lights. Where the runway vanishes into the horizon, I can almost see Manhattan. From where I sit, the city is faintly aglow—it looks breathtaking, almost holy.
Now, on long nights spent staring cloudy-eyed at my Zoom window, the mere thought is enough to remind me that there are better days ahead. They may not come soon—not within the next few months, at the very least. But, one day, there’ll come a time when I will finally buy that ticket, board that plane, and make that flight. And I will finally get to see New York City up close, in all its promise.
Enjoy leafing through the eighth issue!