My last couple of hours on the edge of the Caribbean are being spent in Puerto Rico sipping Presidente light in the Margarittaville bar at the airport. I am surrounded by men and women sporting red faces, paler shades of white around the eyes, slugging final rum concoctions, which as we all know taste mo’ bettah down de islands. Rather like the swirling flamenco skirt or fruit trimmed sunhat bought on a whim, what my sister calls “Positano Purchases”. What’s worn in Positano should stay in Positano sort of thing, a bit like Vegas!
With this long a pause between flights I would normally hop a bus into Old Town San Juan, to wander the streets of one of my favourite places. Charm rumbles over the cobbled stones echoing up, down and around the narrow lanes, balconies and buildings stuttering towards each other like tentative young lovers leaning in to kiss. Pulsating music accompanies you on your slow passage and you are tempted to rumba along the pavements if only the cars were not quite so close. Those pleasures are however not to be taken this trip. I am laden down with hand luggage, not a common occurrence but as I said my goodbyes on St. Croix, a roll of old plans far too long to fit in my small case, was thrust into my grasp. They have been ignominiously rolled into a trash bag and tucked under my arm. So here I am, in a bar listening to Jimmy Buffett sing of heartache and heaven in the same breathe.
This enforced airport stay has though given me a chance to make wild assumptions about my fellow travellers. I get so engrossed in my story making that I have to make a concerted effort not to stare at the poor soul I have targetted, my antipathy at some imagined misdemeanour snarling my lips. It is easy to guess some destinations; parkas and puffas being stuffed into unyielding carry-ons, would seem to indicate the snow bound north. The young and lovely, I like to think, are returning from a first tryst. Older couples like the one at the table catty corner to me look married, but not to each other. Others, comfortable and happy with each other, are returning from their Caribbean idyll still enamoured. Some, often those toting children, are barely speaking, their clipped tones tell a tale of too many days in the sun playing happy families with no space to recalibrate or take a break from partners whose company might no longer appeal. Who knows if I am right? Truth is not the game.
I am reminded that airports are that space in between. Whether you are coming or going, it is a no-man’s land, both physically and metaphysically. You are neither here nor there. Maybe that’s why I like them. Limbo can be liberating. So many nationalities churning together in a cauldron of uncertainty. Is the flight going to leave on time? Will I get bumped? Did I pack my power cable?
Once we board our plane to somewhere that limbo disappears. We are all heading to the same place. A planeload of people forced to breathe recycled air as we fly either back to reality or to a brave new world. Uncertainties of a different kind surface. Will that large rump bouncing down the aisle be taking the empty seat next to me? Will I be met? Will I like my new posting? Will there be milk in the fridge for my first cup of tea in over a week?
As well as venues for warm reunions, airports can also be unutterably sad and empty places despite people milling all around. Waiting for a flight back to a passport country desperately hoping a loved parent is still alive when you land, or knowing you didn’t make it back in time, makes for a horrid flight. Or maybe sadness at leaving a much-enjoyed country, whether your sojourn has been a week or a decade. Hours and hours of waiting, when the sallow-complexioned man opposite, shirt buttoned to the throat, chinos crisply creased yet shoes scuffed, at odds with the rest of his appearance, would normally prompt evermore fanciful stories but who this time does little to ease the ache of lost chances.
Today however, I am looking forward to my return to Houston, looking forward to the next chapter both in my next book and life. In this gap between countries, between lives, I wonder if anyone is making up stories about me?