The plane landed. I fetched my bags from the overhead compartment and followed the crowd as it slithered through the narrow aisles inside the plane, through the tarmac and onto the terminal.
I followed the crowd up the conveyor belts, looking around for indications on how to find the exit. After walking for a while and failing to notice any signs informing me how to leave the terminal building, I kept walking for a couple of minutes until I found a man that appeared to be working for the airport’s security team. “Follow the crowd” he said when I asked where to find the nearest exit “A couple of halls down you must turn left. You’ll see it when you get there.”
I walked past a bookstore, a food hall and a luggage shop. A bustling crowd of travelers passed by me heading to different unspecified somewheres. I reached what I concluded had to be the exit; a glass door with two dark semicircular motion sensors in the middle and a pair of electric staircases, their steps perpetually appearing and disappearing coming from and leading to a floor below.
I stood right in the middle of the door. The crack between the two glass sheets barely open. Nothing happened. I waved up to the sensors perched above me and as I reached out with my hands to inspect the place where the door should have opened, I heard a female voice say, “this exit is closed”.
Her demeanor was rather brusque, so I stepped away without asking if there was an alternative exit door. As I walked away, I turned my head and saw her walk under the motion sensors and touch the glass panes with both hands. After a couple of seconds, the door opened, and I saw her disappear down the escalator.
I stood there confused and mildly infuriated. I checked my watch and calculated I had spent close to an hour wandering about the terminal building without being able to find a way out onto the street. The signs on the walls were confusing; they showed the way to different gates, the A gates, the B gates, but there was none indicating where to find baggage claim or the nearest access to the street or the public transport network.
At the start of this trip, I read up a bit about X. The city is built on a vast plain bordered by mountains. When the plane was landing, and the land grew nearer I peeked out of the window and saw the landscape come into sharper view. A vast tapestry of fields covered the ground occasionally traversed by a long road gently following the curve of the fields and reaching the mountains on both sides. The text I read was slightly outdated for it had been compiled more than a decade before.
Despite its age, the guide was mostly accurate. Being a small city located in the middle of the country means that change, although always present is not a whirlpool that sweeps by with the same unrelenting force as it does in cities near the coast. Change comes about as a steady force that bit by bit tears down old brick houses and turns beauty salons into coffee shops and vice versa.
Among the descriptions of X’s architecture, its parks, government buildings and commercial real estate, the text discussing X’s airport was considerably longer.
The main terminal building is a donut. It was designed by a famous architect whose name I can’t recall. The construction took seven years and was met with a couple of delays. Early on it had to be halted because the ground did not meet the assumptions used when the building was designed. The old lakebed was mushier than expected. The construction was also thrown off schedule when an Indian tribe occupied the site in protest for what they claimed was the desecration of one of their ancient sites of worship. They showed up one day machetes and rifles in hand. The large cranes stopped, and the bulldozers froze, still holding the soft humid soil they had excavated earlier that day. Federal and local forces were called in to deal with this incident. After several rounds of negotiations, aided by the continual swelling of the national guardsmen contingent, a substantial land deal was arranged, and the protestors swiftly evacuated the site. The construction continued without any further delays. The only noteworthy event was a small accident where a worker was knocked down by a crane but miraculously survived the fall.
As I drifted away, I noticed everyone seemed uncharacteristically hurried, strolling briskly through the terminal building going somewhere. I spotted a young woman pulling a blue bag. I tried making eye contact as she approached where I stood. Her eyes fixed forward did not blink or change course as she walked past me. I thought of asking her if she knew where the closest exit was, but I couldn’t bring myself to.
When the sound of her steps faded, I headed to the nearest restroom. When I reached the stall, I closed the door behind me and sat there considering my options while the water below reflected my butt.
Behind me the wall was covered by a mosaic of large and small squares forming an irregular tapestry pattern. If the terminal building lacked an exit door, as I was starting to believe, I would have to figure a reasonable strategy to survive within the confines of the airport. I could for example, roam around during the day, fetch foodstuffs from the food court and entertain myself reading books and magazines from the bookshop located on the aisle connecting the A and B gates.
I would have to sleep somewhere and with the objective of finding a spot, my butt still dangling on top of the still water I figured I should find somewhere hidden enough I wouldn’t be disturbed. I put my pants on and with my hands tapped the wall behind me. The sound came back with a cavernous ring that seemed to indicate there was a hollow spot behind. I thought of kicking the wall or thrusting myself at it in the hope it would yield and reveal a space where I could curl up at night. I would crawl in, find a spot among the sweaty pipes and block the entrance with four large square tiles placed in a circular array surrounding a small black square.
A bout of diarrhea started to form in my bowels. I sat again. The water under me reverberated as the rotten contents of my interior poured over it. The flushing mechanism made a loud noise as it let go a vigorous swirl of liquid down the drain.
When the sound quieted, I sat there, my mind blank and listening to the rumors of water flowing and hurried steps on the bathroom floor.
I could escape, I thought, hoping surreptitiously on a flight to somewhere. I imagined the scene for a moment. Me walking past the check-in desk, through the tarmac and into the plane. We would take off and through the window I would see the shape of the terminal building shrink, and the large plain appear, with its long roads and the distant shape of snowy peaks shining in the distance under a bright sun.
It was not to be. Someone knocked and took me out of my stupor. “Are you done?” he yelled. I opened the door and left. The man and I exchanged glances for a second. He walked into the bathroom stall and closed the door behind.
I left the restroom and walked up the aisle for a few minutes. I had passed by the same luggage shop a couple of times before. This time when I turned my head around, I saw it. A few doors down a bright red sign blinked with the word “exit”.
Behind the glass door an electric staircase circled infinitely up and down. When I stepped under the motion sensor the doors opened and I left.