A PLACE TO OUTLAST
My laptop bag tugging my left shoulder out of alignment set off a litany of complaints in my mind as I stood in the baggage check line at the airport. Another trip to another grand city, where the only landmarks I’d see would be in a blur from the taxi window on my way to and from the windowless boardrooms where I’d spend my time.
I’d then return home to find my wife, understandably frazzled from wrangling our two toddlers and unfairly angry at me for having spent the last week living it up in the City of Lights.
An impossibly old woman stood in front of me, and I took notice of her only because I assumed she would add to my unpleasant time in line. On either side of her were two large bags, going nearly up to her admittedly not-too-far-from-the-ground hip. The baggage handlers would have to come help her and coddle her and get her up to the counter that everyone else was expected to make it to on their own, no matter how pinched the nerves in their shoulders were becoming with each passing moment.
So, it was much to my surprise — and chagrin — that, when the attendant hollered, “Next!” the woman picked up the two bags without so much as a grunt and carried them to the counter. I told myself they must be filled with pillows — my own wife refused to go anywhere without hers — but the attendant struggled to pull them up onto the scale.
“Business or pleasure?” the attendant asked, not bothering to look the old woman in the eye.
“Oh, a little of both, I suppose, depending on how you look at it.”
Her voice was clear over the din of airport noise, and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.
“How long do you intend to stay?”
“Well, I imagine my body will remain there so long as the earth still keeps its place in the sky.”
At this, the attendant finally looked up, confused.
“I’m going to Paris to die, young man,” she said, and then she chuckled softly at her own frankness.
The attendant grimaced and returned his gaze to the screen. “Your visa is good for six months.”
“I know how it all works,” she said. “Don’t you worry about me.”
He handed her back her documents, and she patted his arm as she took them. He looked at her again, as if seeing her for the first time.
“Have a good trip, ma’am,” he said, quieter than before.
“Thank you,” she said with a kinder smile than he deserved.
We both watched her walk away, and it wasn’t until a fellow traveler behind me muttered loudly enough for us both to hear, “Some of us have planes to catch,” that we both snapped back into action.
While this woman had worked the miracle of pulling our heads out of our asses, the miracle proved to be short-lived. By the time we lined up to board, mine was firmly back where it had started.
But, as fate would have it, as I teetered my way to my seat, my eyes landed on the old woman, sitting next to the window — where I was assigned to sit for the next 12 hours. Her previous words should have sealed my mouth shut, but by the time I reached the row, my brain had already queued up a rant to unleash.
Before my vocal cords could initiate, though, she turned and saw me, smiled, and started to get up.
“Oh, sorry, love, I was just enjoying the view for a moment.”
To my surprise, I found myself telling her it was all right, that she could stay there if she wanted, and that I didn’t really like the window seat anyway — which was a lie. I loved the window seat. It was my one solace on these long flights. I could look out and imagine everyone I didn’t want to deal with as insignificant ants, waiting to be squashed.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Against my better judgment, I nodded, and then I took my new seat beside her.
She was quiet until the plane was safely at cruising altitude, but once the seatbelt light had dinged off, she turned to me.
“You overheard me saying I was going to Paris to die,” she said.
I stared dumbly in response.
“You’d never have given up the window seat otherwise.” She turned and looked back out the window. “I wouldn’t have used that as an excuse to take it from you, but I appreciate that it worked in any case.”
She grinned at me, and I could see a young, cheeky girl with pigtails from long, long ago.
“Are you really dying?” I asked, and then I nearly clapped my hand over my mouth in horror.
She laughed out loud. “It’s quite all right. I suppose it depends on your definition of dying.”
“How long do you have left?”
“Damned if I know. Damned anyway, come to think of it.”
“So you’re not dying?”
“Well, we’re all sort of dying, aren’t we? But no, I don’t think my death is imminent, certainly not from any natural causes.”
I felt the burn of anger in my chest again. Here I’d given up my seat to a woman who wasn’t even dying. I settled into my seat and clenched the armrests.
“Have you been to Paris before?” she asked.
I made my intention not to talk clear by staring straight ahead and uttering nothing more than, “Mhm.”
“Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Ah, you’re one of those,” she said.
“One of what?” I asked before mentally upbraiding myself for inviting more conversation.
“Business traveler. Never smelling the roses.”
“How can you tell?”
“Anyone who sees Paris — truly sees it — falls in love. Plenty visit, but not everyone really looks.”
I found myself admitting I’d seen very little of it. She scolded me now and insisted I do three things: descend into the catacombs, climb the stairs of the towers of Notre Dame, and find the little ice cream shop on the Île de la Cité and get the biggest scoop of caramel de beurre salée they offer.
“You sound like you’ve been there many times,” I said.
“I’ve been to many wonderful and exciting places in my time, but I always come back to Paris,” she said. “This time, I intend to stay.”
“What about family? Won’t they miss you back home?
“Do you have children?” she asked.
I nodded and felt a pang of guilt at the thought of my wife struggling with the two ragamuffins I’d coproduced.
“I miss my son,” she said. “More than I ever thought I could miss anything.”
“Where is he?”
“Gone. For a long time now.”
“I’m sorry,” I said weakly. Does anyone ever know what to say in response to a statement of grief?
I felt the question forming on my tongue, and I knew I shouldn’t ask, but something about this woman compelled it off my lips.
“Oh, nothing. He lived a good, long life. Gave me a lovely granddaughter. I miss her, too.”
“Where does she live?” I asked, giving in to my curiosity.
“She’s gone, too. Only a few years ago, though. Also lived a good, long life. Never had any children, but that just wasn’t in the cards for her. And that’s OK. She was gem enough herself.”
I began to suspect the old woman was senile, and yet I was the one with no filter. “How old are you?”
She turned to me and smiled again. “Don’t you know you should never ask a woman her age?”
I managed to stutter out an apology, but she just chuckled and patted my arm.
“I’m only teasing, my dear,” she said. “I honestly wouldn’t mind answering, but I lost track decades ago. But rest assured, there is no one left to miss me.”
“That can’t be true.”
“Don’t worry about me, son,” she said. “It will be a relief to shower my love on something that has a shot at finally outlasting me.”
“Maybe you’ll find someone else,” I said, feeling inexplicably desperate.
“Nah, I’m done with flesh and blood, love. Stone and steel are my paramours now.”
She yawned and covered her weathered face with her hand. “Pardon me, darling. I took a dramamine right before take off, and I’m afraid it’s kicking in.”
She smiled at me and then nestled into the wall with her airplane-issue blanket and pillow. In minutes, she was out cold.
She slept the rest of the flight, through two meal services and some nerve-wracking turbulence. Only when we were making our final descent did she stir.
We walked together toward baggage claim in surprisingly comfortable silence. Her bags, in a minor miracle for any air traveler, were together and first on the conveyor belt. She grabbed them with ease, her bones suffering no apparent stiffness from the long flight.
“Remember your promises, yes?”
I smiled. “Catacombs, Notre Dame, ice cream.”
“Caramel de beurre salée. Accept no substitutes.”
“Oui, madame,” I said, giving her a faux-military salute.
She squeezed my arm, picked up her bags, and headed down the terminal. I soon lost her in the crowd.