How many breaths had he taken on this bus ride? Sometimes the air had been twinged with ashen exhaust. (Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in…) The transfer in Flushing to the Q48 had been frantic and noisy. Cars argued with trucks and buses pushed their bulk inbetween. His heart had probably beat faster than was advisable. But despite some feelings of uncertainty, Roy felt at peace. The world around him had changed, but he had not.
The bus to LaGuardia looped around the terminals, letting people off and on. Today there had been fewer people than he’d expected. With the exception of a few times his car had been in the shop or some such inconvenience, and that week of jury duty, public transportation had never been a permanent fixture in his day-to-day life. But based on who-knows-what, television or movies or something, he had expected the bus to be full of faceless bodies. But that was not the case today. Each stop had plenty of people coming and going, but they were… countable? Had Roy been keeping track? He probed his memory but the figures weren’t there.
He picked a terminal somewhere in the middle, after the one in construction. Patiently he waited to cross the street and approached the door of the terminal. Panes of darkened glass stretched in either direction secured between beams of black metal and concrete. The joining epoxy was covered with forgotten filth.
He finally saw the crowd of people he’d expected to see. They were standing in a line – what he took a moment to realize was a taxi line. Cabs in yellow or bright green lined up on the street and people curved around dividers waiting to be assigned to a carriage. Each of them carried a large yellow ticket detailed with legalese boilerplate about what it meant to be a passenger.
He was ready to enter the building when his vision drifted to the far right. In the corner, against a eroded pillar, was a designated smoking area. He was aware, without raising his hand to confirm, of the package of cigarettes crinkling in his shirt pocket.
Roy had been standing straight and still when he lit his cigarette and pushed the red lighter back into his pocket, parallel to the slick plastic rectangular prism. But he felt fatigue teasing at his thighs, just above the knee, and he stepped backward to lean against a metal barricade.
A young man in black stepped in front of him, easily giving him the arm’s length of space decency demanded. Roy continued to savor his cigarette. He tried to avoid the young man with his expelled cloud. Roy felt the man look toward his person but they did not meet eyes. He looked toward the smoking sign, which had been altered or outright replaced; likely in the past year or two. It now included a picture of a vape pen below the classic ‘smoking’ cigarette. The cylinder narrowed to imply a mouthpiece. The ‘+’ and ‘-‘ notation made it clear what this symbol was meant to imply.
As if in response, the newcomer pulls a vape from his pocket. The overwhelming impression is of a purple metal tube, although a black mouthpiece indicates the right side up. Roy thinks it is made of rubber or some other kind of soft plastic. He notes that the tube has some cuts in it, presumably to cool the unit.
Roy tries not to look but he feels compelled to watch the man. He tries to watch out of the corner of his eye, but to otherwise appear consumed in thought and incense. A moment’s glance away and he sees that his cigarette is gaudy with remains. He moves a spare finger to flick it away, but it is a clumsy maneuver and the ash falls just in front of his foot.
The vape pen’s LED glows white-blue for a few seconds while the man fills his lungs. It blinks and he breaks the seal, holding in the vapor briefly before allowing it to dissipate into the open air. He flips the pen absently in his fingers and turns away from Roy’s gaze.
Soon, Roy is alone again.
Two sliding doors spread apart to acknowledge his presence. A blast of hot air accosts him.
The decorations are spartan and color scheme non-existent. The ceiling is, numerically, high above his head, but there’s something pushy about it. Claustrophobia is irrational, he’s thought to himself many times before. ‘Phobia’ is such a strong word. He tries to reason himself out of the trepidation. The ceiling is lined with dark bars to hide heating and cooling exchanges. Perhaps the water lines, too. Young generations always looked backwards, eager to damn the ghosts of the past for their lack of ambition. ‘More bathrooms’, they cried. More bathrooms.
The pipes had to be laid somewhere, and why cut and cover when the ceiling could always afford a truncation?
Roy’s eyes glazed over magazines at a newstand without reading the words. He had been entirely saturated with thoughtless feeling when a tiny voice brought him back to awareness.
Roy craned his head around. Baggage claim chugged silently in the background, moving the queue of bags from left to right. The girl who had called out was just breaking out into a run. Shoes slap the floor and sound slices the empty air. Her trajectory aims toward a dark-haired man looking down at the moving belt. He did not turn around to face the girl. Perhaps he had not heard her?
She runs into his legs and wraps her arms around him. She is barely half as tall as he is, and based on her soprano, she must be no more than four or five years old. But despite her youth, she exerts considerable force and he is surprised; He nearly falls over, but reaches his hand out to brace himself on the edge of the baggage mover. It is a tricky catch as the belt itself will provide no such support, so he must grab only the metal edge. After he restores bodily balance, he places his hand around the girl’s crown and acknowledges her. He bends down to approximate her height and gives her a hug while squatting on one knee. They are too far away for Roy to hear them speak but they look happy. A woman with shiny black hair constrasting her ivory jacket approaches. (Mother?)
Roy suddenly feels embarrassed and turns his eyes from the scene. He looks back into the newstand. The attendant is chewing gum and using his thumb to flip through screens on his phone display.
He walks for as long as he can tolerate the fatigue. The stale smell of cigarette lingers on his person, but he can’t notice it. A new pack of cigarettes is on the left side of his overshirt. Fatigue has just overcome him and commanded him to sit on a backless bench in the center of the walkway.
Here, the ceiling is much higher up than in the entrance of the airport. Shops line the sides and signs indicate in plain language the direction and distance to various points of interest. Most people here are destined for the security inspection and beyond. But there are plenty of businesses set up in the place in-between, hoping for a last glimpse at the passenger’s pockets.
Golfballs and wooden pens he’d walked by. Fragrant lotions evangelized by themed candles had overwhelmed him. No, the business that laid fifty paces from his bent knees was one vendoring food. Some Hollywood cafe outset from the aisle displayed autographs and outdated methods of conjuring music. The smell of charred meat wafted through the air. Walls were shortened to imply windows. Glasses clinked an invisible toast.
A chalkboard sign sat on the carpet lining the hallway. A faint white dust coated the looped burgundy.
Roy is almost home when he remembers that his wife had asked him to buy coffee. He gets off the bus early to stop by a weathered grocery store. He buys a tin of coffee powder. It sloshes in the can, giving off the barest of reverberations when the grinds scratch the lining of the metal.
He is about to enter the checkout line when he looks back to the store’s reserve. The grocery store is full of food but it smells only faintly. (Bleach.)
A change of heart and he uses his empty hand to pick up a refrigerated cardboard box that promises beer cans.
Bud. Wies. Er.