up in the air

“You got Big Green?” my dad used to ask me every time I’d come home for a stretch—first those monthlong winter breaks in college, later a week’s vacation from the office. I’d nod yes, sheepishly, well aware that I didn’t need to bring a suitcase large enough to stash a body in for a weeklong vacation. (Especially given my utter lack of fashion sense. What was I packing, anyway?)

Big Green was a gift from my mother, handed down when I left for college: the largest in a set of pea-green suitcases with lovely quilted paneling that the designer surely chose without considering the indignity of baggage handling. I lugged Big Green back and forth from Las Vegas to Poughkeepsie for four years and when I started hopscotching around the world on business travel a few years later, it came along.

I flew many times before I left for college and was always quite indifferent to it. Flying was the way I got to Grandma’s house, or to Astro Camp, and sometimes I got stuck facing backwards in the lounge seats on Southwest but other than that it wasn’t much of an ordeal. I was going somewhere and I’d be back soon and in the meantime, I’d get to build a bottle rocket.

I packed Big Green for our first trip to Poughkeepsie with confidence. I was going to be the glamorous girl from the West Coast who took Vassar by storm. “Just don’t let me die in a plane crash before I lose my virginity,” I thought to myself as the plane rumbled over the Midwest, Big Green below me in cargo carrying my most precious earthly possessions (ballet slippers, my diary, and a bunch of low-cut tank tops I wouldn’t have dared wear out of the house until I left it).

I returned home several weeks later, unsure of who I was in the way that only an eighteen-year-old can be and wishing that I’d said, perhaps, “Don’t let me die in a plane crash before I get elected senator.” I made my grand entrance into college life with a resounding thump, sweating indelicately on strangers at parties and failing psychology quizzes and tripping all over myself in ballet class.

I trundled back home, Big Green in tow, feeling stupid, untalented, and sweaty. On the return flight, I stared out the window and cried noisily and probably a little more dramatically than was necessary.

Nobody noticed. I decided, then, that the airplane was the only place where I could be my true self. (It was hard, being eighteen.)

The act of travel was stressful. For one, the trek was one that I probably wouldn’t have signed up for if I’d realized what it entailed: a ride in an unmetered, cigar-smelling cab, an hour and a half on the Metro-North to Grand Central, a rattling bus from Grand Central to JFK, a flight to Philadelphia, and then at last to Las Vegas (never does the sound of slot machines sound as comforting as to the prodigal daughter returning home to McCarran Airport). There were always several flights of stairs to drag the suitcase up and down and a gate agent looking down their nose at my 51-pound suitcase (“Can you fit that hairdryer in your purse, miss?”).

More stressful, though, was the knowledge of what lay ahead. At home, there were unspoken questions about my grades, my career plans, my love life. At school, there were my grades, my career plans, my love life. But on the plane, there were pretzels and free soda, and for twelve solid hours I could exist in a space where nobody would look at me or think about me or, if I was lucky, talk to me.

In Las Vegas, I was one girl; at Vassar, I was another. In between, I was an unoccupied vessel. Unoccupied but for pretzels and free soda and “Three Days in Guadalajara” in the United in-flight magazine.

It was blissful to be alone. To be a student at Vassar today—probably, to be a student anywhere today—is to be constantly scrutinized. I felt powerless to throw off the identity that had been assigned to me when I arrived in Poughkeepsie. (The contents of my suitcase, it seemed, were not enough to keep me me.) On the plane, nobody knew who I kissed last weekend or what play I didn’t get cast in. They didn’t ask me what I was planning to do with that English degree or what classes I’d take next year.

I began to wonder whether I could engineer a situation for myself like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal,” only with meal vouchers and a 24-hour Hudson News nearby. I envisioned myself aging into oblivion in one of the Adirondack chairs in the Philadelphia airport, eating peach rings and reading Entertainment Weekly with my earbuds in.

Reentry, of course, was never quite so unpleasant as I’d worry. In Las Vegas, my father would greet me with outstretched arms and a groan at the sight of my overstuffed suitcase. In Poughkeepsie, I’d drag Big Green up four flights of stairs to my dorm room and wake the next morning, arms sore, reacquainting myself with the radiator’s alien rattle.

(I convinced myself repeatedly over ten years that Big Green was smaller than it actually was. Once, memorably, I brought Big Green home with me from Poughkeepsie via Washington, D.C. for my sister’s graduation from law school, down four flights of stairs out of my dorm and down to more to the train in Poughkeepsie and up one at Penn Station and then, lost in the rabbit warren of Penn Station, up and down again, then, finally, to Union Station, where bless the good people of Washington, D.C., there are escalators.)

Big Green grew up with me as I moved to New York City for the first time, when I booked my one-way flight for New Year’s Eve as both a symbolic gesture and an excuse to avoid my second-least favorite holiday, and then again four months later when I absconded to California.

Today, I fly many times a year for work. Business travel is delicious in a whole new way: I fly from New York to San Francisco or Los Angeles, toting my laptop and feeling chic for about five minutes until I realize that nobody on the plane is peeing as often as I am. (This is true on the ground, as well, but it’s more obvious when you’re all waiting for the same closet in the same metal tube.)

I spend most of my time in the air flailing around with my neck pillow and my Kindle and my laptop and my several bottles of water—hence the peeing—and the blankets and pillows that United hands out, pointedly avoiding thinking about their provenance. (Are they washed between uses? Are they disposable? What’s better, getting Ebola from an airplane blanket or being single-handedly responsible for climate change?)

We talk at work about “protecting” our time. “Do you think you’ll be able to protect your winter break?” my manager asks me, like I’m the Olympic flame and time off is the guy sitting next to it looking bored at three in the morning. My favorite way to protect my time is to fly, where even if the plane does have WiFi I can say it was broken and spend a blissful six hours reading something trashy on my Kindle instead. (If anyone who pays me is reading this, don’t worry. I’m just protecting my time.)

I no longer feel that I’m flying back and forth between selves. Instead, I feel that I’ve strewn bits of identity around the world and through time: here, on a kitchen countertop in San Francisco where I sat, giggling, while my boyfriend fed slices of pear into my open mouth; there, in a café on rue de Gambetta in Toulouse where I watched two policemen in bulletproof vests trade air kisses. In a puddle-jumper over the Palouse where the woman next to me put her hand on mine to stop it shaking; on a Dreamliner over the Pacific where I curled up on the open seat next to mine and woke up with my head practically in the lap of the teenager two seats away.

I bought a new suitcase recently. Big Green was falling apart and besides, a business traveler like myself needs suitcases as chic as her image. (Note for posterity that on my new suitcase’s second trip, the TSA agent manning the body scanner dove in the machine to tell me that if I’m under twelve, I’m not allowed in there.)

I put Big Green out on the curb next to the trash cans and was struck by way more nostalgia than anyone should feel for a suitcase, like I had packed up all my past selves and sent them out to pasture instead of just a suitcase with a giant hole in the side. It’s only appropriate, since I’m no longer the kid coming home from college with an enormous suitcase and an inferiority complex. I’m letting go of my baggage (you see what I did there?!) and traveling lighter. I don’t need to pack myself anymore, I guess—I’ll decide who I am when I get there.

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