Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Stephanie Block

I was wide awake at five a.m., but my body felt like lead. I’d been like that song, tossing and turning all night. In quiet desperation, I called United Airlines to see if I could get on a later flight. The noon non-stop to Philadelphia was wide open, they said, and I could easily fly stand-by. Armed with that knowledge, I reset my alarm for nine and drifted back to sleep.

In my defense, he never told me his mom was making Yom Kippur dinner that night.

I woke up again with sun streaming through my windows. It looked like a great day to fly. I hadn’t seen my boyfriend in weeks, and I was going across the country to spend the holidays with him and his family. I arrived at San Francisco International with a smile on my face, warm expectation between my legs, and an hour to spare before my flight. I strode up to the e-ticket area to claim my boarding pass, towing my pink paisley roll on bag and a monogrammed Jon Hart tote, smug to bypass those huge Friday morning ticket lines. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d stood in one of those.

A red-scarfed employee told me that since I was now stand-by, my e-ticket wouldn’t work, and that I’d have to go stand in one of those humongous lines. But I have an e-ticket, I told her, emphasizing the e. Not any more you don’t, the queen of pleasantness informed me.

Fine. Still forty-five minutes on the clock. With no baggage to check, I’d make it. I knew I would. I’d seen my boyfriend run into Minneapolis International one time with fifteen minutes to spare, and I got a text message twenty minutes later that he was on his flight.

I got in line. This was a monster line. There were two, count them, only two meager ticket people for a tidal wave of weekend getaway-ers. And do you know what these two ladies were doing? Chit-chatting with each other. I could see this clearly because the counters in front of them were totally empty. I was three snake-lanes back, meaning I would have to twist around three times before it was my turn. At this rate, I might actually miss my plane. I had never, in my entire life, missed a plane. Ever.

Like jailbait in lock down, we slowly limped around and around the mouse maze that the airline people had created for us. The woman behind me was loud and constantly on her cell phone. She laughed heartily. She screamed several times. The minutes ticked by. I thought I might go insane.

I saw from the upside down watch on the man in front of me that I only had about a half hour left. So I did what comes naturally—I got myself to the front of the line by asking several people in front of me (eyelashes batting) whether I could go next. My plane leaves in a half hour! They grandly acquiesced (some of them had hours before their flights, freaks!), and I was back in the game. Bending the fates my way! Oh, I would pull this off and celebrate tomorrow by fasting all day! Oh, happy Yom Kippur everyone!

I floated on hope’s soft wings up to the ticket desk, where a third woman had just gotten on her shift. She was much older than the two chitter-chatters, and she wore a red cardigan that I assumed was some sort of mark of service, like she had gotten all the way up to a beaver badge or something. I sort of collapsed on the high counter in front of her in utter relief and explained that I was flying standby on the noon flight.

She informed me that I was not. That flight was closed.

I said, Closed like full? But your people told me it was wide open!

She said, the gates close one half hour before the flights. No exceptions. And I don’t like your attitude.

I was incredulous. WHAT? They close? But I don’t have any luggage! I can make it!

You can fly stand-by on the red-eye tonight.

The red eye? Are you kidding me? It’s Yom Kippur! It’s the holiest night of the year! I can’t fly after sunset! Especially not when there’s an empty plane on the tarmac not leaving for a half hour!

She said, if you keep up with that attitude, I won’t help you.

I was incensed, stymied by the absurdity of it all and stung by my lack of power. My attitude? I blurted out. You are missing the whole point here. You’ve got to get me on that flight!

One more outburst like that, and we’re through, she warned, not even looking up at me. She was a flesh-less steel drum of a woman; she had an Eastern European accent; she was probably one of the ones who’d lost her pension (even though she was at the red cardigan level??).

Now, there was just a smidgen of rationality left in my over-heating brain whose blood vessels were tap dancing like microwave popcorn. That smidgen told me that as per the Patriot Act and all those other nonsensical and fascist, post-9-11 dictates, that if my ass pulled the all-American, customer-is-always-right scene, my ass would end up detained, possibly at Gitmo. Possibly for months. I would definitely miss Yom Kippur with my boyfriend, and by Yom Kippur I mean sex.

The wicked witch of United started tippity tappety tapping on her computer as I stood there fuming and the cruel minutes ticked by. Tippity toppity tappety. Was she writing the great American novel? Was she emailing Condoleezza Rice?

I simply asked, what is taking so long?

She said, I am done with you. Go to the back of the line. Then she gave me a little wave.

I explained to her that I thought that she was the biggest f-ing b-word in the entire world and that I hoped wild locusts would plague her and her family for many years to come.

Then I went over to the many empty, as in, not-in-use, gleaming United ticket counters, sat down where you weigh luggage, and started to cry. The plane, my plane, was leaving in ten minutes with barely a soul on it. The injustice of it all was acid in my mouth.

I first called my man, that pillar of strength who everyone said looked like Richard Gere, like American Gigolo Richard Gere. By right of tears, I should have been coddled, verbally fondled, the works. But it was a cold, dark voice on the other end of that cell phone. You missed two planes? You’re getting in when? But my mom made Yom Kippur dinner. I was in no mood. We hung up on each other. Those hiccupping sobs on the phone to my boyfriend had only been the warm-up. When my mom answered, the show really started. She said I should do whatever it took to get to Philadelphia that night, even if that meant buying another ticket. We had to fight for love! She was in front of a computer and found that America West had a cheap one-stop leaving in an hour. I paid a taxi driver five dollars to take me posthaste to their terminal and bounded up to their festive green and orange counter.

They were a cute little airline, and the merciless mice-mazes of the major carriers were totally non-existent, replaced by an almost shocking one employee to one customer ratio. Had I died and gone to airline heaven? I had forty minutes until my new plane left. The America West woman said, this flight is oversold, but I’ll sell you the ticket anyways. I blessed her and successive generations of her family.

And I ran to the gate. And then I stopped. At security. And I realized my fatal error. I had just waltzed up to a ticket counter and paid cash for a one-way ticket. Oy veh. I might still get detained and sent to Gitmo. Sure enough, the security staff was on me like bitch on that United Airlines woman. I would have her puffy, gray head. I would claw through that red cardigan. Oh, the things I would do to her. I sat without my shoes as an electric wand passed over my feet. And did you know that now even breasts are suspects in this war on terror? The female security agent passed her hands under the graceful curves of my plump breasts. Hey, it was more action than I’d seen in over a month, and the most action I’d see the rest of the month if I didn’t make my plane, which was leaving in fifteen minutes. I told the molester that.

Meanwhile, other security folks were swabbing down my monogrammed Jon Hart bag looking for explosives residue. Sure enough, my bag went off. Beeps and blings and soon those security people were calling for more security people. I was dumbfounded. I stared at my bag, wondering what it had done. I mean, I didn’t have so much as a lighter. In fact, I had deigned to leave my nail scissors home since I was carrying everything on. Obviously I was a model citizen, but this remarkably shabby treatment was going a long way towards tipping my allegiances.

I said, is there a problem with my bag? And they, folding my items back into my bag in totally the wrong order, zipping it up, said, no. Sometimes hand lotion sets this thing off.

I was going to moisturize the pilot to death.

I was the last person to get on the plane. The overheads were full, so they made me check my big bag. I sat down in a middle seat in the back row. The petite, tanned woman on the aisle next to me was taking deep breaths and sucking on a water bottle. Want some? She asked. No, I did not want her backwashy water. It’s not water, she said. I peered at the clear liquid. She exhaled slowly and said, they almost threw me off this flight. She pointed at a flight attendant. That bitch almost threw me off.

‘Tis the season for bitches, I thought. They should make a repellent or something. I asked her what had happened.

She said, “They put me in a window seat a few rows up, and I don’t know, I mean, this wave of panic came over me and I kept saying ‘I have to get out, I have to get out.’ So she comes over to me and tells me that if I don’t settle down, I am going to pose a security threat and she’ll have to ground the flight. She told me not to make any trouble for her.”

I told the nice panicked woman about my experiences that day, marvelling that she and I were terror’s bastard children in a high alert world. Taking another swig of her water bottle, I said, if these are the friendly skies, I’d hate to see the mean ones.

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