It’s noon on a January day in West Virginia, and it’s finally snowing the way I wished it would for the past months. Moving slowly in a coat, scarf, fleece leggings, and winter boots, I finish checking in my two perfectly weighed bags at my hometown airport. The woman at the counter hands me back my passport and the paper ticket for my first flight. I tuck them into my pocket, so I don’t have to think about whether I want to go through with this trip or not.
It’s been two and a half months since I last saw my partner of three and a half years. He is an engineer from Portugal, and I love him even though the only country that will let us live together long term without getting married yet is Australia. We don’t dislike Australia. We even met there in a small town in the outback, but it never seems like home. It’s far from both of our families, and it’s always difficult to stare at the page of flight dates, trying to balance how long I wish to see my parents and brothers with how soon I’d like to return to touching distance of my partner.
I say goodbye to my parents with brief hugs. I don’t say much, too happy to be leaving and too sad that I can’t stay to find the right words. I don’t know when I’ll have another 30-plus hours I can dedicate to travelling back to see them. Instead, I head through security, shedding layers and electronics as I go only to gather them back up on the other side.
Now I am alone, between one family and the other.
At the gate, I pull out a book, ignoring the other people waiting with me. Then I tuck myself into the back corner of the plane once the flight attendant tells the dozen of us to sit wherever we’d like for the 45-minute flight to an airport with airlines that leave the country. There, I cross most of the airport to get to baggage claim, claim my luggage with the only items I’m taking on this move to another continent, and wait five hours in an uncomfortable chair before I can trust these bags with another airline.
At this check in counter, so similar to the last despite the new airline, I’m surrounded by people hastily repacking their bags to redistribute the weight. I know my bags are just at the limit, but letting them go this time is even more difficult. I have to believe I’ll see them much later and much further from here.
I shed layers and let myself be scanned again, and soon I’m tucked against a window seat, chosen as a place to prop my head rather than the expectation of a view. I watch the plane fill with dozens and dozens of people, shoving bags and clambering into chairs. The plane isn’t full but there are enough people for a small town inside this metal tube, and I briefly wonder if we have enough occupations to fill all the needs of our little town. These are my companions for the next fourteen hours as we head for Abu Dhabi at mind-boggling speeds.
I plug into the entertainment system, so I can avoid thinking such things.
It’s still dark fourteen hours later, so the city looks like a cluster of stars as we approach and not a real city at all. As people gather their bags, I hear a woman complain that she has another three-hour flight to Mumbai after this one, and others sympathize. I don’t mention that I have another fourteen-hour flight starting in three hours. I wouldn’t mind a conversation at this point, but I’m not going to minimize her pain by showing my own.
I chose these flights. I chose to enter a relationship that requires flying halfway around the world on a near-annual basis, and I continue to choose to stay in this relationship. I could complain that it isn’t fair for nations to pressure relationships by demanding proof or raising the question of marriage too often and too early, but nothing would come of it. This is what I do, and blaming policies and regulations won’t help me now.
I shoulder my backpack and head off the plane, leaving behind the people that traveled with me for more than a full workday but still people I never actually knew. They disperse until I cannot distinguish their faces from the crowds of people streaming from other gates, other cities elsewhere in the world.
I head through security for a third time and wander through the terminal, past the ads written in a language I do not know, past the clear box in the hallway full of men smoking, and to another gate that has not opened yet, leaving me sitting on the floor of the hallway as others slowly and silently join me over the hours.
Later, I file onto the airplane and drop into an aisle seat in a plane that looks identical to the last to my untrained eyes, but the demographics have changed with the new destination. A young woman has the window seat, but an empty seat still looms between us, large enough to stall any conversation but too small to add much comfort as we settle in for a voyage through a sky that has finally lightened as I caught up with the sun rushing the opposite way around the world from me.
I barely notice the take off, the lift and the rush of my stomach trying to stay closer to the Earth no longer interesting the third time in less than 24 hours. Instead, I reenact the second flight surrounded by a new group of travelers as my silent companions. Together, we hope our aluminum casing keeps us safe and we don’t “disappear” before our wheels meet concrete once again.
As soon as the plane does touch down, I can pretend that my partner and I are sharing air once again. The line for immigration is long and my passport is too old to have the electronic chip. I spend the time hoping that the faith the Australian government has forced me to have in electronic visas is not misplaced, because as much as I hope the line would move faster, I hope even more than I’m not sent back to my parents because of a mistake tying my visa to my passport.
My faith is not misplaced as I finally make it beyond the desks and collect both of my bags, untouched and in better shape than I am at this point in the journey.
As I exit the terminal, I scan the crowd for a familiar face, hoping he has been waiting since my phone does not work here. I lock onto the one face that starts moving toward me, a large smile splitting the features. For a moment, that face seems as unfamiliar as all the others, another face in the anonymous crowds that have surrounded me for dozens of hours. Even though logically I know this is he, it’s as if I’m seeing someone from a photo I saw long ago. My mind cannot place him here, my body doesn’t remember how to make us fit together when we embrace, and my lips don’t remember the touch of another.
Later, he will lead me to the van I’ve never seen waiting in the 100-degree parking lot, and he will drive us to the house I ‘ve never seen as I shed my outer layers one last time, so we can start living our lives together again. But for now, we cling to each other, surrounded by people neither of us know.