DULLES, VIRGINIA, USA – April 2, 1998 – They dock behind closed sliding doors at the gates at Dulles.
Long white buses, each with strange fiberglass towers protruding from the top like horns. They raise and lower themselves between gate and plane door, rolling out across the tarmac like plastic lowriders.
The pilots and gate attendants call them “mobile lounges”. They pack in about 50 people or so in uncomfortably close quarters on benches directly across from one another.
This particular sunny Saturday morning, I got on as usual. Sunglasses on, I plopped down on a long padded bench, pushing my overnight bag beneath my seat, and self-consciously looking down, studying the functions on my PCS phone.
Shortly after, someone sat down across from me. A clogged foot appeared in my field of vision, one leg crossed over the other, bouncing slightly in rhythm to an unheard song.
I could feel a pair of eyes on me. I didn’t look up.
I continued erasing numbers from my phone’s memory. After a few minutes of studied indifference while we waited for the crowded shuttle to depart from the gate, I sat back and glanced around.
As I turned my gaze forward again, I caught her eye: an attractive, freckled young woman, in her early 20’s, sitting across from me. Bookbag, Walkman, ’70’s clothes. The quintessential student.
And on her face was the strangest, most haunting look I’ve ever seen.
Eyebrows furrowed, head tilted, tearful eyes narrowed in dark circles, bottom lip doing something…I don’t know what. She held my glance with this look. She was upset and about to cry and desiring pity and curious about me and silently communicating a myriad of things that I couldn’t decipher. A strange, angst-filled, desperate look. As if to say, “please, talk to me! Can you help me? Say something to me!”
With my sunglasses on, she wasn’t sure if I was making eye contact. I averted my eyes and went back to fiddling with my phone.
I waited a few minutes and glanced up again.
Her eyes were closed this time. She was silently, slowly mouthing along with the tape she was listening to. I couldn’t tell if it was music or a language tape. But she sat there in her own world, eyes closed in pain, head tilted with heaviness. I listened to hear if she was singing… watched her lips as they moved. But I heard nothing.
Strange feelings went through me as I watched her… longing… desire to help her… desire to comfort her… empathy… sadness… and curiosity.
After a few minutes, she opened her dark brown eyes again and looked at me with that look. A glance too intense to return. Too sad to formally smile back at. I looked away, uncomfortable.
We stopped on the tarmac next to the plane. I grabbed my bag and followed behind her. That powerful glance had affected me, urging to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder as I walked out behind her.
We got off the shuttle and boarded the plane. I didn’t see her for the rest of the trip.
* * *
Monday morning, on the way to the airport, construction traffic kept me from making my return flight to Dulles. Missing my flight by one minute, I hurried from counter to counter, trying to find a return flight to some city, any city, near DC. As my options almost completely dried out, one seat opened up on the standby list to Baltimore. As they called my name, I gratefully thanked the gate attendant and walked out to the plane, relieved.
Once onboard, taking a cursory look for my seat, I saw her… the girl from the shuttle. Looking out the window, with a peaceful yet sad look. She didn’t look toward me as I found my seat, one row behind her on the opposite side of the plane. After a few minutes, we took off and headed back to the East Coast.
After we arrived, the chime sounded, and impatient travellers got up to claim their bags, I waited for the throngs in front of me to get off the plane. She hesitated in her seat and my row began to exit. As I moved into the aisle, she looked up and we briefly made eye contact again. As she saw me, a look of surprise gave way to a warm smile of familiarity.
But I made no visual acknowledgement. I offered no smile. Before I could think of a response, the formal Michigan upbringing kicked in, and I glanced away, toward the open door. In my peripheral vision, I saw the smile fall from her face.
I never saw her again.
But I remember the glance.