Enter the Smoking Cube
If I crash, I crash, but I refuse to live in the Cube
Despite my plans to give up cigarettes once and for all, I enter the unventilated and disgusting Smoking Cube with Shea, a likewise unfiltered girl, to smoke her donated Marlboro Menthol light amongst other travelers. Dulles International Airport is filled with different kinds of travelers; some weary with the strain of thousands of miles already under their fanny packs, others disheveled and nervous to fly like me. I try to appreciate all of the interesting aspects of travel to distract my worried head. I focus on the people. I’d always heard glorious stories about airport reunions, but never experienced them. I want to see sons returning to the arms of happy parents after years of war, mothers embracing their children after week-long business trips, lovers reunited after separation of any length. These are the people I long to see, yet they are nowhere to be found. Where is the romance? Where is the relief, the utter elation that supposedly accompanies these encounters? I somehow miss these little moments as I am rushed by my class to the waiting area before our flight to Amsterdam.
To calm myself, I bum this smoke from Shea but I know I shouldn’t. Even worse than the negative effects on my deteriorating health, I am now trapped in the designated waiting area before the flight, unable to smoke outside. I have no choice but to light up in the Smoking Cube. I step into it, skeptically. It is constructed entirely of glass, making my fear all the more transparent. Compared to the people I’d noticed earlier, the smoking room holds a different breed of traveler altogether: everyone calm, serene and completely unaffected by the impending doom that I am sure is to accompany our flight. As I settle in one of the vacant plastic orange chairs that line the glass walls, I stare out at my traveling companions, who are impervious to my insistence that we will not be making it across the Atlantic today. Twenty of us signed up for a writing class which requires this trip to Holland. Nineteen of us have been beyond the borders of the United States. I have never flown.
“Steph, you’ll be flippin’ fine. Billions of cars crash every day! Dude, do you know how unlikely it is for a plane to crash?!”
This statistic did little to console me as, coincidentally, a Turkish plane happened to crash in Schiphol International Airport, the very spot of our destination, just days before our scheduled trip.
“Well, yeah,” the bolstering voices respond collectively, unaffected, “lightning never strikes the same spot twice…”
Unable to deal with my anxiety as a first time flier, I take to observing the mishmash of fellow travelers within the cube. I can’t help but notice the Dutch, easily recognizable by their flowing blonde locks and their seemingly effortless style; men and women alike are wrapped up in scarves, up to their thighs in brown leather boots and wear the same bored expression on their beautiful faces. At one point I could have sworn Morpheus from the Matrix (whose name I insisted was actually “Orpheus”…there is obviously too much British lit in my life and not enough late 90s sci-fi) walked into the room, complete with long black leather jacket and a pack of futuristic cigarettes. From across the room I try to make eye contact with him; regardless of my concern that I’ll be dead before we land, I crave adventure. I imagine him to be a man who could provide it. With my eyes, I vainly attempt to persuade him to offer me the choice that could define my life but, much to my disappointment, he was keen to ignore every attempt at human contact. I guess I’ll have to wait for my red pill/blue pill opportunity later on in life. Or later in the trip, if my premonition comes true.
I swivel around in my hard plastic chair, half listening to Shea make jokes about the weirdos that surround us, but I end up honing in on the convex guy sitting next to me. His Skelator frame and coke bottle glasses give off a forced “tortured genius” vibe: the type of man who knows his mental aptitude as well as his physical handicaps.
He introduces himself as Clay, his purpose for flying being some sort of computer expedition that he is “restricted from sharing”. He complains that he will probably be stuck working with some “dumbasses who only took a six month program”. I raise an eyebrow and almost swivel back around in my chair but he is odd, and I am intrigued. He has a sickly look that makes me pity him. Shea and I mock sympathize with his situation as I toy with the idea that his poor health must be a result of a lack of sunlight and extended lap top usage.
I tolerate his arrogance for the extent of my cigarette; every inhalation of his own unrecognizable brand is coupled with a new complaint. He brags about his broad experience with technology, hardware and software and algorithms. In a nasally, huckleberry hound voice, he tells us that our “puny” eight hour flight to Amsterdam is nothing in comparison to his twenty hour flight to Rome.
“I’ve been to Rome and it doesn’t take twenty hours,” Shea says knowingly while I nod in what I hope passes for agreement. I drag on my cigarette, praying to avoid the gaze of anyone who might expect me to contribute to this conversation, of which I know nothing of worth to contribute.
Unwilling to admit that I have never been out of the United States before this particular excursion, I check out the room a bit more. I quickly find myself noticing the similarities between the glass encasement and a fish tank in the dentist’s office. There are fat fish, their bared teeth yellow, and boney little blonde fish with taut gray skin- dozens of fish of all shapes and sizes swimming together, sucking down water, their gills pumping them full of sustenance. But this is the smoke room. Without the comfort of their Camel lights, surely the fish will float to the top of the bowl. It’s funny how the opposite occurs outside of the metaphor. Swimming about the bowl, there are several whiskered men, unshaven (I assume) from the absence of the comforts of home. The airport is limbo. Being not quite here and not quite there, the men simply don’t care to impress the strangers they talk to and will never see again. All that matters is the destination.
I’ll never be able to explain it, but for some reason I smoke cigarettes slower than other smokers. Shea had snuffed out her ashes months ago, it feels like, yet I am still nursing almost half of my original cigarette. Taking advantage of my snail pace, Clay decides to grab my attention with a conversation starter: major in college? he asks.
“Why, English! English with a writing concentration!” I respond jovially, as all merry writers are prone to do. He asked me about my future plans and I make the same tired joke that I always do: I want to be a writer- an idea that my dad considers a complete waste of time, an opinion that I am quickly beginning to agree with- the punch line being the prediction that I will probably be living in my parent’s basement for the rest of my life. I’ve used this “joke” so many times it pains me now to write about it. The pain comes from a very real fear and understanding that the joke is only funny because it’s true. The most depressing part is that I’m supposed to be a writer, for God’s sake: a brand of people who should be quick witted and observant enough to come up with fresh material instantaneously. I find myself falling more into the category of “recycler”. I think my freshness has left me at the ripe old age of twenty.
To extend our conversation past the burn to the butt, Clay begins to help me to come up with ideas for a bestselling novel so I can buy my own apartment or at least afford to rent out the second floor of my parents’ garage. His winning suggestion is, appropriately, a detailed story of a plane crash…
Really, Clay? Fuck. As if I am not shitting my pants enough before the peril that accompanies boarding the airplane, he has the balls to concoct an unfinished (though marginally possible) story about a flock of confused birds flying into the main engines (an idea I had not yet considered, but quickly add to my list of “things to be afraid of on the flight”). The story truly begins with the tale of the only three survivors: Shea, Clay and I. This is supposed to be my consolation prize- the plane crashes, scarring me for life (emotionally and physically) and I get stranded on an island with a pompous computer technician with a mysterious physical handicap, two chain-smoking blonde women (one of which being myself) and a half smoked pack of Marlboro’s. This does not strike me as a dream vacation, but I can tell Clay is enjoying our company. His interest in talking to us appears to stem from plain enjoyment of actual human interaction; a welcome escape from the impersonal nature of instant messaging.
“I bet I can guess why you’re going to Amsterdam”, he says, an all-knowing grin spreading across his face. He laughs in disturbing and rapid, animatronic “Hah…hah…hah”s, taking long drags from what seems to be, by my count, his thousandth cigarette. I know what is coming, of course. If I hadn’t been slammed with similar assumptions for months prior to my trip from my parents, friends, and anyone else who knew where I planned to spend the week of my spring break I would have answered with my true intentions: “yes, to experience the world, for Van Gogh, for spring break in Europe,”...but I know what he’s thinking: Red Light District, legal pot and any other immoral activity that one is able to participate in while in Amsterdam.
“Yes,” I respond. “I do plan to see the Red Light District and possibly partake in illegal activities, but no. That is not the only reason I’m going.”
“Why then?” He smugly demands, and it occurs to me that all of that crap I just said in my head is filler. The irritation I experienced from the assumption that I just want to get high and have sex was unwarranted on my part. I do want to see Van Gogh and Europe, but I also want prostitutes and weed. I want that which transcends my monotonous existence, transcends my life between four walls. I want everything. This is why I never once think about staying in the airport and bypassing the trip because of what I think might happen. If I crash, I crash, but I refuse to live in the Cube. I will push past the glass doors, pick up my carry-on, sit in my seat by the window and live until I don’t. I will regret nothing and do everything I can. Maybe then I’ll have something to write about.
I smash the butt of my cigarette and wonder if Clay is satisfied with staring at a screen while I explore the promise of the world I have yet to conquer.