“Are they serious,” Elisa, my girlfriend, muttered as she stuffed her passport, visa, return tickets and proof of address back into her bag, “two and a half hours queuing for immigration …they talk to you like that …and then they have the nerve …” her eyes flashed above the heads of the other travellers and I saw what she was looking at. A large sign shone down on us as it blinked red-
Welcome to Philadelphia …with love.
“Why is it that the worst thing about America is arriving and the worst thing about America is having to leave?” she continued to rant. The four a.m. start, Madrid security, flight cancellation, forgotten vegetarian meal and nine hour flight were beginning to show as she fumbled with her watch, “what day is it?”
We joined the next queue …connecting flights.
We were half way there.
“Shoes, boots, belts, laptops, cell phones, coats, watches,” a security guard rang out as if in a clothes bizarre, “all right here.” He waved a plastic tray in our direction.
“Je-s-u-s,” a tall man in a suit exclaimed from behind.
“Amen to that,” a stooped woman nodded her head, glancing our way.
Processed in security we were expelled into the narrow corridor of the departure gates. The number of travellers swelled as they swarmed around the stalls and shops that lined the passageways. Everything from fruit to phones and books to belts lay out on offer. Pulling tight at my waist buckle and pushing my heal into my shoe, I hopped after Elisa as we fought our way towards domestic- hauling behind us our carry-on baggage.
“I’m going for a look,” Elisa nodded with a mischievous smile, “coming?”
It was a rhetorical question and before I could protest she was carried away in the flow of travellers and towards the perfumery, her luggage parked next to mine. I scanned the hall for a seat but they were already filled two deep with children sitting on their parent’s knees.
Suddenly my eye caught the only option. It was one stride to my left. I stared. It beckoned.
With the cases either side I kept my eyes down as I lowered myself into the abandoned wheelchair. Exhaustion overrides shame and I sighed with relief.
Finally the air around me was filled with the scent of Elisa’s return. She eyed me with an incredulous look. “Comfy?”
With a playful air she heaved the first case up and laid it across the chair’s armrests.
“Wait,” I protested, my arms plastered to my legs below its weight. “You can’t …”
The second case landed on top and was gently slid under my chin, sealing me into the chair. She smiled at her work but before we could say another word an airport worker dressed in a luminous jacket arrived right beside us.
“Where are we going?” she said in an up beat tone, looking at the handles of our luggage and their protruding tickets, “San Francisco …that’s gate 29 …right down here …just follow me ma’am.”
“No …really …” Elisa said, her eyes growing larger with fright, “we …”
“Not at all ‘mam …we’re here to care …and we care to help,” she sang out in a southern drawl as I felt the chair wheel into action.
Like the waters of Moses the sea of pedestrians parted left and right and we crossed to the other side of the terminal. I tried to glance behind me, thinking I should confess my action but words failed me and I sat rigid, burning with shame. Once, I glanced up at Elisa but she was unable to meet my eye and some sort of invisible side current had carried her way off to the other side of the corridor.
“Now you just holler when it’s time to board and we’ll wheel you up front …ya hear?” my orderly sang out when we arrived to the bustle of gate 29.
I tried to nod, my neck stretched to its maximum above the cases. “Thank you,” I choked with embarrassment, slowly becoming aware of a strange chanting noise.
She bounded away and it was then when I saw where the noise was coming from. A small group of men and women had huddled together in a circle, some sitting on the floor, others like bookends –perched on their cases and the oldest sat on the moulded blue seats. They all had their eyes closed or their heads bowed with the exception of one, who looked directly at me. His wide eyes didn’t continue on their journey as one would expect, instead they locked themselves on mine, anchoring his penetrating gaze directly on me. I tried to move but that seemed to only make him more intense and he gripped the large leather-bound book even tighter.
I felt for the floor with my foot, left and then right falling from their short metal rests.
The man had begun to rock back and forth, his long grey plaited sideboards swinging freely. The chanting prayer rose above the murmur of the hall but to my astonishment there was no reaction from the people around us.
“We have to go,” Elisa said in a frantic voice, suddenly appearing and pulling the top case from under my chin.
“I agree,” I said, trying not to look at the praying spectacle.
“It’s a miracle,” she dragged the last case from the arm rests of the wheelchair, “they’ve changed the gate number …but we’re leaving on time.”
With my arms free I jumped up, feeling the handle extended as I hauled my luggage behind me and ran to keep up with Elisa. A sudden cry made me turn around. The praying man had leapt to his feet and with his arms extended towards the ceiling, yelled,
“Praise be to God …it’s a miracle.”