Departures and Arrivals – Anthony Statham

The typhoon was in mid-flux, the wind coming in sideways like giant invisible battering rams. Walking down the glass tunnel from the plane into the terminal, I could barely hear myself think – and I had a lot to think about. In a matter of days my life had changed. The day before yesterday I was at my Hakwon with my students, and later that afternoon I was sitting with my employer and fellow teacher Cheo at the little desk in the front office. I lied through my teeth to Cheo so she could translate the news to the boss – my made up story that I used to protect myself more than anyone else from the truth. They were kind enough to organize my trip home with the knowledge I’d never see them again, though it was glaringly obvious that the boss was unhappy. I can’t blame her. She’s got a business to run.
I was going back to the United States. Only a week prior I had agreed to terms that would keep me employed in South Korea for one more year. Now I was ticking off the moments of my journey to face the music. Packing my entire life abroad took less than an hour. I shoved my belongings in a large duffel bag and piled the rest for the trash collectors. Things happened so suddenly I only said goodbye to two people. These were friends I’d made along the way, people I had come to respect and like, some of them even made me laugh. Until next time, which there wouldn’t be.
My mind had been clogged with worry and a great deal of trepidation so I hadn’t thought to check any weather reports. The rain came down in a torrent I’ve never experienced before, and in a poetic kind of way reflected how I felt, the black swirling vertigo. In Seattle I’ve seen downpours of course, even a typhoon in Korea – but nothing close to this. Looking out through the filthy windows I could see palm trees being beaten by rain, flapping wildly in the wind. I half expected them to be uprooted at any moment. Passing cars created wakes like jet skis on open water. There were a couple men huddled together in calf deep water trying desperately to smoke cigarettes. The newspapers they held above their heads dissolved under the assault of the sideways rain, like tin cans obliterated by gunfire. On the plane I thought about taking a taxi into the city to get my mind off of things for a while, but there was no way. Even if a taxi pulled up to the curb and the driver signaled me to come running, I’d probably get lost and end up pulled somewhere far away by the unnatural current.

Torrential rain cramps existence and gives the impression that there isn’t much beyond the falling walls of water; and that’s how I felt, claustrophobic. It was midday maybe two o’clock and the sky was black. The dark clouds were impenetrable to any light. A sign in English informed me the customs desks required a walk outside. A hundred or so people, myself included, all in shorts and t-shirts, ready to set off for our next destinations fought and scrabbled along for fifty meters toward the only thing in the world that mattered right then: CUSTOMS. The awning sloshed with excess water and sent buckets down all around us. An uncoordinated individual lost his balance and disappeared behind the curtain of water. The noise of the wind and the slashing rain was loud enough to drown out the aggrieved cursing and complaints of all the westerners. The more aggressive and entitled travelers had no issue using the less fortunate as human shields to protect them.

Finally I made it through the open automated doors. The ground inside was as slick as an ice rink and all the squeaking shoes sounded like a basketball game was in progress. I wiped the soaked hair from my eyes and almost stepped on a woman who had slipped and fallen in the entryway. No one helped her up. The horde fighting to get inside and away from the rain shoved me from behind. My shirt was soaked, my shorts drenched, and I could feel my water logged socks squishing about inside my shoes. The overall impression I gave was that of someone whom religious fanatics had baptized in an aboveground swimming pool.

I got in line for the customs desk. Checking my passport took quite awhile. It seems that when people are under the stress that comes along with traveling they’re more likely to defy rules, whether by accident or intentionally – and are, in turn, jumpy and sensitive to correction. Selfish, entitled monsters. I put headphones in and listened to the most relaxing music I could find in hopes of offsetting the very real friction I could sense in the air. Every minute or so I shuffled a few steps closer to the inspection desk like some prisoner in a dystopian novel’s vision of the future. I watched outraged people of all colors and creeds go mental on security staff for catching them red-handed in their greedy attempts to avoid waiting their turns. People at airports always try to justify their reasons for not going by the rules, and frankly it’s sad. My philosophy is we’re all in this together. Waiting sucks, but try and do it with a little dignity.

Eventually I got to the desk and they checked my passport, handed it back. I was pointed down a long hallway and thought I was headed back outside. The sound of the wind and the rain grew stronger. People dragged along their carry-on luggage, leaving wet streaks on the tile like a legion of slimy snakes. I stopped and walked toward the side of the aisle, feeling a bit trapped by all the people. Since quitting my job and deciding to go home I suffered from intense waves of anxiety. I knew I was doing the right thing, the only thing I could do to make things right – but at the same time I’m only human and I’m as full of self-doubt as the next chump, and I was petrified with fear of the coming days. There was someone waiting for me who was owed a serious explanation and I hoped to make things right, not only for them but for me too. I was on a quest for redemption – I just happened to be a scared, spineless weakling. Combine that with being away from home for so long and it makes returning a strange cocktail of emotions.
My knees shook a little and I could feel my jaw trying to chatter my teeth. I was soaking wet and cold and on my way toward miserable. My tablet informed me I had thirteen hours and twenty-seven minutes to go until my flight left. That was assuming there were no delays. Only time would tell what the typhoon thought of that. I continued my walk to the international flights terminal. I was doing my best to fight off the sense of dread that was creeping up my spine.

Where hope and fear meet is a mysterious place.

I was surprised to find the terminal was full of birds. They took up a lot of the seats and crowded together up in the rafters near the ceiling. Water trickled down the walls. An elderly woman ran off a group of birds that had almost snatched her lunch. Through deeply fogged windows at the opposite end of the terminal I could make out a café. Everyone inside was smoking cigarettes and drinking from Styrofoam cups.
I sat down on a wet seat and took out my book. It was almost impossible to tell that I wasn’t outside in a park. There was strong cool breeze that lifted soiled paper of the ground. After a few minutes of hopelessly trying to read I realized I was still completely soaked from the rain and shivering from the cold. I had some pesos, but not a lot. I bought a steamed bun from the only concessions stand. It was so hot I had to wait ten minutes before I dared attempt a bite. It warmed me, though only temporarily. Time was crawling by, and in a fit of restlessness I put a cigarette between my lips and headed to the café. The more time I spent alone the more scenarios of the future played out in my feeble mind. Inside the cafe smelled awful – wet dogs and melted plastic. I lit my cigarette and hoped I’d warm up in the stinky crowded room. Unfortunately all the chairs were taken and I noticed other standing patrons with darting eyes like mine monitoring the room for anyone about to vacate a seat. No one seemed friendly and I didn’t see any casual conversation. Most faces were nothing more than glazed eyes locked in the same waiting hell I was in. The only two people who seemed to know each other were a cute Chinese girl and her sort of sleazy looking boyfriend. I assumed they were Chinese due to their sweatshirts use of wildly illogical and nonsensical English. I suppose they could have been from somewhere else. They occupied the only vinyl booth and gave no impression of leaving anytime soon. The waitress poked me in the shoulder and handed me a sticky laminated menu. I shook my head and she poked me again, a little harder. I had to buy something or leave. The options were Coke, Sprite and coffee. I pointed at the coffee. I leaned against a glass wall that was sticky with perspiration and committed myself to reading my book and chain smoking until either my bladder exploded or I ran out of cigarettes (I had three packs… Priorities, right?), or I finished the book, which I thought unless induced a skull crushing migraine would take approximately five hours to read. I tried to put that into perspective and found the notion daunting. If I read the book front to back without pause I would still have a typical workday length of time to wait for my departing flight.

It mattered not. I could only think about going home and what that meant. I wasn’t sure. Time, I guess would inform me of my decisions. I tried to stay optimistic, and it wasn’t really working. It’s hard to keep positive in the wake of a shit storm of your own making. Anyway, I had to push those ideas from my mind so as to not go insane, and then the waitress handed me a coffee in a Styrofoam cup with no lid. A little of the sludgy liquid splashed onto my hand and burnt a little. I couldn’t gauge if it was intentional. I paid her and she walked around the tiny counter and out of sight. If I was due change I never received it.

I put another cigarette in my mouth and reflected on the last year and several months of my life, a life spent living abroad, meeting new people from all over the world and even finding inner resolve in the face of the adversity that comes along with living in a foreign land. Then in the blink of an eye everything changed.

Now I was headed home.
It was surreal. It wasn’t a feeling of déjà vu – though I think the general emotional reaction arranged itself in a similar fashion. And that was a depressing realization, knowing I’d been here before – an asshole trying to climb out of the well of poor decisions and the lack of sympathy and empathy and respect for people internally I knew I loved. Obviously to be in the predicament in which I found myself was an immediate indication of past failures.

I could remember arriving in South Korea and I could even clearly visit the memory of my last day in the states all that time ago. It was both a lifetime ago and yesterday. Besides my mother, who was always emailing and wondering what I was up to, I had stayed in contact with a limited number of people, and that was only for a short while until the simple act of caring enough to open a new email document to say hello seemed strenuous. I assumed life for my friends back home was more or less the same, and I had to assume because of that that they genuinely didn’t think about me much or what I was doing. You can point fingers in judgment, but really it adds up to very little, and it’s usually a defense mechanism to placate any narcissistic tendencies hidden under a blanket of disinterested self-loathing.

There was only one person who knew I was returning home.
I forced myself to read, using every ounce of resolve in my being to turn each page. When I could take no more I put the book inside my backpack, the last while spent turning pages without actually reading anything, staring as my mind wandered and then turned off. I took out my tablet and checked the time. Still an eternity until my flight.
I chain smoked and wondered if I’d be able to find good kimchi at home – and then I thought about that word – home – and what it meant. I wasn’t sure anymore. In all honesty the prospect of life at home with the people who knew me and who I grew up with – it seemed stressful. I was trapped between horror and excitement (at the horror) in the face of going home. I was freezing and hungry and I had to pee and I was afraid to leave my little spot against the wall in the café for risk of losing it, or worse, having to buy another cup of coffee as the price of entry upon my return. It was the repeating cycle of these thoughts that gave me a distinct realization right then and there, that I was an idiot and I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I was no longer in Korea, and here I was in an airport that seemed to be drowning, where inside and outside were indistinguishable, where birds occupied most of the waiting area…

“Hey. Sorry.”
I came out of my thoughts and noticed the person talking to me. His accent made me think he was Scandinavian. He looked older than me but for all I knew he could have been younger. I noticed his wedding ring, which was weird because that isn’t something I ever pay attention to.

“My lighter died. Can I borrow yours?”
I handed the lighter to him. He lit his smoke and inhaled deeply, a satisfied expression on his face.

He said, “You don’t look like you’re from here,” and smiled at his own joke.

“No.”

“Are you on vacation?”

“No. Long layover.”
We both stood in silence, thinking of something further to say, maybe not. I stubbed out my cigarette butt, and a moment later he did the same. He said, “Safe travels,” and walked out of the café and into the cold wet waiting area. I thought about following him and asking where he was from or where he was going, gripped by a sudden and strange loneliness. I wanted to ask him what he did on a daily basis that made his wife continue to love him. Instead I just stood there and listened to the smokers inhale and exhale smoke, sip on their Styrofoam coffee cups. My foot was shaking and I had a powerful desire to check the time again. I knew it would do no good, so decided against it and continued to stand there rooted to the ground.

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