How they first met is unimportant.
Here, they both arrive at Kennedy Airport on different flights from Europe, barely one hour and two terminals apart. Initially the flight she had suggested taking was bound for Newark and cheaper, but he had been unable to coordinate his own travel arrangements to match hers.
After retrieving his case from the luggage delivery area and verifying her flight details, he kills time wandering through the busy, rundown hallways and alleyways of the building cluttered with passengers in various forms of transit. Idly wondering what she might actually look like. Checks out the stroke magazines in the news concession. There’s a new one he’s never come across before, called Barely Legal. He nervously glances aside as he leafs through it. Time passes slowly. A double cheeseburger and fries and a large coke take up another ten minutes.
He finally makes his way toward the terminal where the Sabena flights disembark, dragging his own case behind him on its dodgy wheels. A screen announces the arrival of her plane. She must now be queuing at passport control.
He finds a seat to the right of the luggage pick-up area, from which vantage point he will see all the passengers come out of the corridor from immigration. He holds his breath one moment. Suddenly, the whole thing doesn’t sound so wise after all. What if, what if?
The Brussels flight crowd stream through the corridor. So many of them: the plane must have been quite full. They all saunter down the short flight of stairs towards the luggage carousels.
She is among the last to emerge. A dozen times already he has convinced himself she wasn’t on the plane. Had been playing a game with him all the time. Had missed the flight by barely a minute or so back in Europe. Had been discovered by her masters and held back in captivity. Had come to her senses and realized this whole New York thing was quite pointless after all.
Finally, a slip of a girl with luminous features makes her way past the security guard posted at the top of the short flight of stairs and tiptoes her way down, concertina ’d almost by two burly six-footed businessmen in charcoal-colored suits and matching attaché-cases. Her dark blue skirt is short, swirls around her knees. Her T-shirt is white, its thin material clinging to her skin. Even from where he sits, he can see the outline of her nipples through it, or is it the rings?
Jesus, she is so young!
But he knew that already, didn’t he?
As she reaches the bottom of the stairs and her involuntary escorts scatter into different directions, she looks around the luggage enclosure, seeking him.
Her eyes alight on him. The sketch of a smile spreads across her lips.
He stands up. Smiles back at her.
His heart skips a beat or two or three.
She stands there motionless, as the arriving crowds mill all around her, a statue of perfection at the center of the hurly-burly of the airport.
She slips her rucksack from her shoulders. He moves toward her, feeling all around him freeze, like a slow motion scene in a movie with the soft rock soundtrack missing and replaced by a cacophony of disruptive languages in a cocktail of voices.
The heat from her body reaches toward him, a hint of spearmint on her breath.
She leans over, kisses him on the right cheek.
He briefly imagines she’s telling herself he’s so much older than she thought, fatter, less than handsome.
“For a moment, I thought you weren’t coming,” he says as, behind her, the luggage begins to accumulate on the conveyor belt.
“I said I would come,” she answers. “Why should I not?”
“I’m just rather insecure,” he says.
“I’m a lot of things,” she smiles. “But not that.”
“So, no regrets?” he asks her.
“Not yet,” she tells him. “You asked me to come. Here I am.”
“Good,” is all he can summon as an answer. Then, “What does your case look like? We’ll look out for it.”
“I haven’t one,” she says, pointing at the rucksack at her feet. “This is all I’ve brought. Some changes of underwear. For my first time in New York, I thought it would be nice to buy some new clothes while I’m here.”
He smiles. “We can buy them together. That would be nice.”
“They must have been surprised when you checked in back in Brussels, no? Travelling so light?”
“I just said I was a student.”
“I see,” he says.
She bends to retrieve her rucksack. “Shall we?” she asks.
“Yes.” He picks up his case. “Let’s go and find a cab.”
The driver must be from Haiti, he reckons. His radio is tuned to a station full of static, reggae and rap and French patois.
She sits close to him on the back seat. He tries to recognize the perfume she is wearing.
JFK Boulevard. Van Wick Expressway. Jamaica. Queens. Past La Guardia and the mortal remains of some long past exhibition by a dirty lake. The car is held up for fifteen minutes on the approach to the Midtown Tunnel. The driver puts a hand through the partition requesting toll money. He still has a pocketful of coins from his last trip to America.
In the darkness of the tunnel, she places her hand on his. Since meeting up at the airport, they have barely spoken. Mostly about the weather: here; back in London; back in Belgium. How their respective flights had gone. Had she managed to sleep, and how he had spent the time reading. The in-flight movies and meals.
Small talk at its most banal.
They finally drive out of the tunnel into the canyons of Manhattan and he breathes a sigh of relief. In the hotel room, he knows, he will be more eloquent, less shy and tongue-tied.
The traffic in the cross streets slows them down further as they navigate the traffic lights up to midtown.