My driver lightly called my name as I woke up from my brief ride.
“Here you are, sir!” he said gleefully. I tried to appreciate his glee, but I was sad.
I expected another five months or so in London, so staring down the entryway of Terminal 3 wasn’t where I wanted to be. If I was going to be in a Heathrow in March, I imagined it would be to a weekend in Western Europe, not a trip to Detroit with a potty break in Atlanta.
I stumbled out the car a bit and retrieved my bags from the trunk. I thought I had done quite well of parting ways with some items that were not essential for my return home—couple pairs of shoes to friends here, many items in the donation bin in the lobby there. I had not. The bag was heavy.
Heaviness was the theme of that morning, and the preceding few days. The impact of Coronavirus was becoming clear and coming home became inevitable. Airports were inevitable.
I rolled my two large checked pieces to the Virgin Atlantic window and let the smaller carry on lay flat on its belly after it tipped over from being overpacked. The woman working the check-in counter was nice, and her smile brought a change to my face. A couple years ago I realized I have separation issues. Leaving things, programs, trips is an exhausting emotional process for me; I took two weeks just to pack my car and finally leave college for good.
In that respect, airports bring me a lot of joy as a physical representation of new places and the mobility of life. In this moment though, the airport represented a premature return to a complex place, sudden strain on fledgling friendships, and a forced participation in the unknown.
I finished up at the counter. Even with life as I presently knew it was stuffed in them, the bags were heavier than I imagined. Usually £150 in bag fees would get a pretty visceral internal reaction from me, but my spirit was even heavier and I couldn’t muster up frustration.
“Ooh, headphones” I thought.
I put them in and then immediately pulled them out; security stood between me and Boyz II Men. Approaching the security line was anxiety-inducing, though not because of the usual security measures. Actually, the line itself wasn’t responsible for the anxiety. It was in line that I realized everyone was wearing a mask, and many people gloves. I didn’t have a mask.
Feeling isolated and exposed, I distracted myself thinking of the tasty breakfast I would have after getting through to the other side. Hastily grabbing my belt and shoes, I shuffled out of the way and put my clothes back on. I didn’t have a mask and that continued to make me nervous, so I wrapped a scarf around my face. Was it actually effective in preventing transmission of the ‘rona? Probably not. Did it make my face uncomfortably hot? Yes. Did I still wear it until boarding? Of course.
I made my way to the gate, I was early so I sat in one of the main terminal seating areas. Careful not to make contact with anyone, I found a seat with plenty of space to social distance. Food was on my mind, but I ultimately decided against it. I was worried about transmission and wanted to reduce my need for bathroom breaks on the plane, so I settled for a delicious, savory, moist bottle of sparkling water. The gassy water reminded me of “European life,” so I considered it a bit of a monument to my moments across the pond.
Eventually my phone indicated there was one hour before my scheduled departure time, which meant that I could look at the overhead screen and proceed to my gate. The processional began and eventually I made the trek through Heathrow, weaving in and out of the army of travel pillows on the moving walkway.
My arrival at the gate was greeted beyond the usual class-based boarding. I was welcomed by a man wearing a vest with a U.S. flag on it, with a stack of papers in his hand that read “CDC QUESTIONAIRRE.” Another reminder that shit was serious. Eventually I was able to board, though I learned being hyperfixated on being physically distant while boarding a plane is not a recipe for an easy meal.
The doors finally closed and I breathed, finally ready to cry one last time. Home was on the horizon. My new friends and the way of life I’d grown comfortable with was in the background. Life, beyond the circumstances that brought me home early, felt like too much to bear.
I remembered that I could put in my headphones.
“Hey Siri, play Boyz II Men.”
“Ok, now playing ‘It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday.”
Kameron Dunbar is an avid tweeter who sometimes writes pieces longer than 280 characters. He is currently a graduate student at The London School of Economics.