BY MARY ANN THOMAS
I unload my green backpack onto the airport security’s conveyor belt and remember the knife and the mace. The weapons given by strangers while hitchhiking across the country alone as an eighteen-year-old brown girl. The six-inch boot knife from a thirty-something white trucker who knew I’d have no idea how to use it, but thought I should have some form of protection anyway. The mace gifted by a pair of twenty-something girls with tanned skin and shining jewelry. The driver handed it to me and explained she never goes anywhere without two or three canisters of mace.
In this moment, I’m damn sure she didn’t go into airports with mace. Fuck.
I step out of line, starting to sweat, and anxiety fills me. I’m on my way to India to visit relatives with my mom. She watches me and says, "Mol! What are you doing?" What am I supposed to tell her?
I silently dig through my bag and find them. The gifts. The reminders of a life I lived without my family, the reminder that I left home on my own, that in Boulder, CO, I slept in a garbage bag alongside a creek in the pouring rain, that in Colorado Springs, I stayed at a homeless shelter for a week, that I got a ride from a cop who gave me a bottle of water. I left home as soon as I hit adulthood and learned to hitchhike with a sign, to move through space alone, to make decisions and accept consequences based on my own reasoning. I journeyed through the world slowly, avoiding interstates and rednecks and drunks, seeking young women who could show me what the fuck I was doing. And those interactions? Those interactions fade to the back of my mind as I place these gifts, these memories, in the trash.
"It’s nothing, Mom. Someone gave me a knife and I forgot to take it out of my bag." I fight tears and dodge her eyes, full of questions, as I get back into line. I turn my back to her.
That’s when flying became hard. I started to associate flying with a kind of theft. I enter an airport and I feel as though I am owned by everyone around me, my body is not my own, my things are not my own. If someone says so, they can take me behind a curtain and pat me down. My items can be randomly, aggressively searched any time a stranger with power decides. My shoulders ache with the weight of backpacks, slung haphazardly over my shoulder as I go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, or grab a sandwich, without accidentally leaving my baggage unattended.
If someone says they’re suspicious, they can throw me off the plane and put me in a limbo, despite the money I paid for my ticket and time. I’m not on my own schedule, but need to rely on systems I don’t trust. Will the security guards inspecting bags pull mine? Will the x-ray show something suspicious that isn’t there? Will the departure boards be updated regularly to reflect changes, or will I arrive at the listed gate, only to find out that the gate was changed and my flight is leaving hours later?
Airports haven’t traumatized me. I’ve been patted down in Gulf countries plenty, but always by respectful women security guards. I’ve had my bags pulled and searched randomly, but never for too long, never long enough or aggressively enough for me to think I was being profiled as a brown woman. But it’s fear. The, my body is not my own, my life is not my own, and these security guards and transit officials and airport counter attendants control my life in ways that I didn’t mean to sign up for.
After my hitchhiking memories were trashed, literally placed in a trash bag, I thought of them every single day. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure out how to not repeat my mistakes. For a year, every time I flew, security confiscated something. Toothpaste, when we weren’t allowed to bring any on board. A three-inch pocketknife. A water bottle. A bike lock, which they called a blunt object with the potential to be used as a weapon. Some small piece of metal I didn’t even know was at the bottom of my backpack. Every time I was in the security line, I expected my bag to be yanked from the belt as soon as it came out of X-ray, and for it to be opened and searched. And, for a while, it was.
I started to hate flying. It took me a few years to say those words out loud, but when I did, I started to believe them. I hate flying, I thought, and I became someone who hated flying. The girl in me who always took the window seat and who gazed outwards at cloud textures and Lego cities, who loved the pull of her body against the seat back on take-off, and who always talked to the stranger next to her, was gone. In her place was a woman who said, I hate flying, and couldn’t explain why.
I said it to an older white man while taking my shoes off in a Midwestern airport once. He laughed. "Yeah, me too," he replied. "Do you get anxious?"
"No, actually. It’s not that. I don’t really know what it is," I replied as I pulled off my shoes and placed them on the table. "There’s just something about it I don’t like."
"Ah, then you’re like me. It’s a control thing. We’re control freaks. And here, you have no control." He smiled as my eyes widened.
"Yeah, actually. You’re right. You’re totally right," I said. And that’s on me. If it’s a control issue, I need to learn to relax a little. Reposition myself in the world as someone who doesn’t have to be in control. Figure out a way that I can move across oceans, across land, across the planet in a plane, without feeling like I’ve lost myself in a machine.
I spent a year flying.
After years of not being able to sleep the night before any flight, of arriving at the airport hours beforehand to not miss the flight, of packing and repacking my bags a thousand times to be sure I wouldn’t bring anything to security that I’d end up losing, I booked flights. I threw myself into the situation that made me the most uncomfortable. I don’t have a job that requires flying, so I made excuses. I’ve got friends to visit. A wedding to go to. A boyfriend to see.
I ended up on planes and in airports ten times in a single year. Which, for a lot of people, isn’t much. For me, it was a big fucking deal.
San Francisco to Denver. Denver to New Orleans. New Orleans to New York. New York to San Francisco. Alaska to Minneapolis. Minneapolis to New York. New York to Alaska. Alaska to New York. New York to Kuwait. Kuwait to Kochi.
By the time I got to Minneapolis, airports almost seemed normal to me. My shoes and belt were off by the time I hit the security bins. I barely even noticed as my backpack slid out of the X-ray box, and I no longer watched for a TSA agent to come over and take it before I could. I figured out a routine I liked—hit the water fountain and fill my water bottle as soon as I’m out of security, go to the bathroom, find something to eat, maybe get a drink if I have time, wander around the Hudson News Stand and browse bestsellers, contemplate the price of bottled iced tea and decide I can’t afford that shit in an airport. Find my gate and wait. Get up and pee, charge my phone, talk to my boyfriend and sometimes my mom and my best friends on the phone, just in case, before we board.
Once we board, I throw my shit in my seat and go straight to the back. To pee, again. Sit down at my window seat. Pull up the head rests that most people ignore—the ones that sit on either side of your face—and fall asleep before takeoff. Sleep the whole flight, because still, I don’t sleep well the night before I fly.
In Minneapolis, I sat in the most inconvenient corner of the airport bar to avoid people. The bar was near empty, but I wanted to binge on buffalo wings and didn’t want anyone to judge my sauce-soaked hands and face. I sipped a beer when a faint, calm voice overhead announced a flight to Seattle. After a moment, I looked up and smiled.
I didn’t cringe automatically.
My face didn’t seize in fear.
Instead, it felt normal. People are here at the airport. From here, they go places. I am here at the airport. I am going places. Seattle is a place I could go one day. On a plane. Through an airport. Seattle is one of many places a plane could take me. And I don’t have to be fearful.
I took another drink of beer and laughed.
An internal shift had begun.
For my last trip of the year, my dad called me to prime me. "You have a one hour layover in Kuwait," he said. "The gate that you leave from will be almost right next to the gate you arrive at. Just walk over."
"And follow the Malayalis," I remembered. It had been three years since I’d last flown to India. I was going alone. Things had changed, I knew. Kuwait’s airport was a lot fancier than it had been, per my brother’s reports. There was a Shake Shack! A Potbelly! I worried how I’d navigate it now that it was bigger, fancier. But as my dad explained the ease of the transition, it came back to me. Follow language. Always follow language.
There is a protocol. A protocol on how to find home, when you’re searching from thousands of miles away, when you haven’t been back in many years. Every time I’ve been in Kuwait, searching for the gate to lead me to Kerala, I’ve looked for signs of home. Pink churidhars, old wrinkly Ammachi’s with their long white skirts dragging against the tile floor and their low hanging breasts unburdened by a bra. A quick snippet of Malayalam mumbled under their breath, or spoken loudly at the phone, like it’s still hard to transmit words across distance.
I look for Malayali Dad facial hair on round-faced uncles. It’s simple: a clean-shaven chin, sideburns cut off just below the glasses line, but a thick mustache that hasn’t left their face since the ‘80s. These are dads who grin full-toothed smiles as they laugh at their own jokes. Their wives barely acknowledge them, decades of polite laughter over. These uncles wear khaki with long-sleeved button-down shirts or polo shirts; they are men who refuse prolonged eye contact with other women and who exist for their family, nobody else.
But these are the uncles who, if I admit that I am traveling alone, will make me a part of their family. It is their voices I listen for—is it Malayalam? Are they going to Thiruvananthapuram, a city whose name is murmured quickly like no one knows how to pronounce all its syllables? And from language, I follow. I look at the same sign boards they look at. I talk to the same airport people they talk to. I’ll find my way by moving with the language.
When I admit my social anxiety, my flying anxiety, to my mom, she tells me: "You can do this. You are well traveled. It will be taken care of." In these words is the reassurance of a woman who can’t worry about me. I am only one of her five children, the one child who promises to never get married and who tells her I know how to take care of myself, the child who assures her I will always know how to take care of myself. In these words, my mother reminds me of her own journey, leaving her firstborn at home to immigrate to Minnesota in the winter with no coat. She did that so I don’t have to.
"You can do this. You are well traveled. It will be taken care of."
We take off from Kuwait on December 31st, 2016, after 24 hours of waiting at an airport hotel. I watch the light sandy city buildings yield to an unending sea, to infinite water. I lean my forehead against the cool window and watch the earth disappear.
Today, I am not, I hate flying. Today, I fly.
Mary Ann Thomas is a New Jersey-born-and-raised queer South Asian traveler. She has been published in The Rumpus, Brown Girl Magazine, Word Riot, Superstition Review, Matador Network, and Alaska Women Speak. Her travels have been featured on The Dirtbag Diaries podcast. She is two-time alumna of the VONA/Voices Workshop in Travel Writing and writes about her work as a travel professional and her travels by bicycle.