This is the story of a layover. Who tells that story? I’m telling it to you now. One January evening, my flight got delayed out of Louisiana, where I’d been talking to people about their past lives, and I missed my connection in Houston. I had a night there. Trying to have a travel experience near the Houston airport is like trying to write a poem from the words on a yeast packet. Don’t try to make it beautiful. Just let it rise. Let the freeways run like unspooled thread into the night. Blink against the neon signs of chain stores. Take shelter where you can.
I take shelter at the salmon-pink hotel where I am sent. On our shuttle from the airport, I hear the voice of a difficult woman coming from the front row. She can’t believe the bus will run only on the hour the next morning. She can’t believe her dinner voucher is for so little money. She needs someone to take her bag into the lobby. She’ll also need someone to fetch it tomorrow. Later, at the hotel restaurant, her voice is there again at the table behind me: She wants her bag placed where she can see it. She wants her water without ice. She doesn’t want to be a pain but she really needs to know if the veggie wrap is absolutely 100 percent vegetarian. She wants to know about the other stranded people sitting around us, especially Martin the German and the Penn State math major. The math major loves Pi Day. The woman with the voice wants to know whether she bakes pie for Pi Day? No, she just eats pie for Pi Day. What kind of pie does she like? All kinds. What kind of math does she like? All kinds. Well, okay. She especially likes patterns and sequences. The woman with the voice wants to know how she feels about i to the i? The undergrad doesn’t know about i to the i. “Oh, girlfriend,” says the woman with the voice. “Go look up i to the i.”
When she finally turns to me, the woman with the voice asks what I do for a living. She loves that I’m a writer. Turns out she’s coming from a vacation in Mexico. Turns out she’s on my flight back to Newark. She suggests we protest the hourly shuttles together. The 4:00 a.m. departure is too early for our flight, but the 5:00 a.m. is too late. We should campaign for a 4:40, or a 4:45. She is a difficult woman from New York trying to convince me that we should be difficult women from New York together. But I’m not a difficult woman from New York. I’m not any kind of person from New York. I just happen to live there. I just want to take the 4:00 a.m. shuttle and stop talking about it. It embarrasses me to be associated with her request, with her sense of entitlement, with these justifications—I hurt more, I need more—perhaps because I recognize myself in them.
It’s only when the woman and I walk to the front desk to check on the shuttle that I notice how she walks. The woman with the voice is also a woman with a body. She’s limping. Once I notice her limp, I feel guilty about leaving her to make the shuttle request alone—as if it would be an act of abandonment, in her hour of need, to refuse her my company. She tells the clerk she needs help with her bags, and in the morning she will need help again. She explains that she was in a wheelchair at the airport. I bet she has one of those nebulous pain conditions where the pain is always moving somewhere else. I bet she felt like a victim before she ever started hurting. I am actually thinking these things, and I am someone who has written indignantly about the world’s tendency to minimize the pain of women in precisely these ways, for precisely these reasons.
We don’t get our 4:40 shuttle. She’s going to speak to a manager, she tells me. She’ll call me when she gets this sorted out. She takes my number. We trade our names.