Leaving the country for three months felt a lot like what I imagine watching your own funeral would feel like. People you didn’t even know cared about you were suddenly sending you their best wishes and talking about how they wished they’d had more time with you.
Goodbyes were something I’d become all too familiar with and something I did my best to avoid. I’d spent my last night in SLO like I’d spend any other Tuesday, eating tacos and singing karaoke at the bars. This comfortable act of routine and social drinking made avoiding emotions easy. I picked my exit carefully, hugging my sorority sisters briefly in their distracted state, and leaving quickly. I stood on a curb in cold night air contemplating my next step. There was a call I shouldn’t answer, but I thought maybe I might.
My mind was pulled away from this call by the ringing of another one, and I found myself unexpectedly in an all too familiar environment with all too familiar friends who’d seen far too much of me in the last two years. These friends were, namely, the hooligans I affectionately and adoringly referred to as the “T4 Boys.” I’d managed to keep all my goodbyes short, sweet, and emotionless, and I thought these ones would be the same.
I almost escaped unscathed.
Hugs, fist bumps, and whiskey shots were my safe route. Guy friends were easy; they didn’t do emotional goodbyes. I made my way towards the door ready to endure what I thought would be one of my harder goodbyes when I heard two voices call me back.
“Rachel, wait!” Two of the boys came running out and sandwiched me between them. “We love you. You’re always going to be family. We’re going to miss you. And don’t worry, things will work out while you’re gone.” It was one of those rare moments in life I was speechless, so I repeated choked ‘thank you’s’ and ‘I love you, too’s.’
And for a moment, even when everything else in my life was about to change (and had already), for just an instant in this drunken exchange, it felt like nothing had.
I don’t know what it was about this goodbye that got to me. Maybe it was the fact that a crucial member of this little family we had formed freshman year was missing. Maybe it was the fact that these boys had been through more of my college chaos with me than anyone else. Or, maybe it was just the whiskey. Either way, when I got in the car to say my final SLO goodbye, I was sobbing.
“I hadn’t planned on missing anyone,” I sputtered between sobs.
“I know,” he said, wiping tears from my cheek. My mascara cascaded in little black trails down my cheeks and onto his white t-shirt as I attempted to regain the composure I’d managed to fake so well up until this point. I had to return to comfortably numb, because the gut-wrenching reality of everyone I loved living without me for three months was exactly the sinking feeling I’d been trying to avoid, yet here we were.
The same subconscious thought that had tried to plague me in the many months leading up to this day whispered in my ear once more: What if they all move on without me? What if I come back and I don’t matter to them anymore?
I’d been reminded by numerous parties for numerous reasons that “a lot can happen in three months.” Some used this phrase to remind me how I might change as a person in the coming months. Others, in two separate cases, had used this to refer to romances that may or may not exist upon my return. One of them no longer existed, anyway.
Romantic intentions or naught, it was true; three months was a lot of time.
“I expected this tonight,” he whispered, stroking my hair and pulling me into a fresh t-shirt.
“I just did. I knew it was coming. You’d been holding it together too well. I know you.”
At two in the morning, I stopped crying. At four in the morning, I decided I needed to leave. Right then, at that moment. I started throwing clothes into my suitcase, trying to rebuild some emotional distance.
“You’re sure you need to leave now?” He asked.
“Yea. I just have to go. I just have to go.”
He knew not to push it.
At five in the morning, suitcases in the trunk, gas tank full, I was ready to go home. I had one more goodbye.
We live in this generation of incomplete romances. People you sleep with, but don’t love. People you love, but don’t sleep with. And then, there is some expansive spectrum of everything in between from friends with benefits to…whatever the hell was happening here.
The ambiguity made it easy to rationalize. I told myself it was just this thing between friends that had happened that may or may not exist when I got back. Simple. Temporary. Right? I convinced myself it was. A hug, a kiss, an appraisal from heavily lidded eyes equally as exhausted as mine: the last goodbye.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Just checking you out.”
And I convinced myself I would not miss him.
The next day was mostly sleeping, catching up from what had easily been a quarter’s worth of partying forced into three short weeks. My last day in the United States was filled with family, food, and goodbyes I’d already done before. My family was already used to me leaving. This part was easy.
I maintained my emotional vacancy all the way to the security checkpoint, where I hugged my mother goodbye and tried to keep it as brief and casual as possible, if not for her benefit, than for mine. I knew eventually the brick wall of apathy I’d constructed around these goodbyes would crumble and crush me, but that was tomorrow’s problem. Or maybe Wednesday’s.
By 8:45am, Friday morning, I was in the air on my way to Miami.
Now for someone as brash and forward as I am, I am obnoxiously polite to strangers. This meant a morning full of overzealous “excuse me” and “pardon me” as I made my way to my seat on the first leg of my flight. The flight itself was relatively uneventful, though I took the last open space in the overhead bins on my crowded flight and felt like an asshole.
I arrived in Miami at two in the afternoon Pacific Time, which meant five in the evening Miami time. My connecting flight was scheduled to leave at 8pm but, due to “technical difficulties” and one missing captain, did not depart until 12:30 in the morning.
So here I sat, sleep deprived, contemplative, and immensely thirsty. I didn’t have the balls to ask the flight attendant for another water bottle, nor did I have the superhuman ability to sleep on airplanes, so my head cocked mindlessly against the window watching the Boeing 777 chase the dawn.
There was something eerily reflective about racing the sun. We flew in dark indigo skies, high above the clouds, littered with nothing more than the bright lights of already dead stars. Was this what heaven looked like without humans? The looming sunrise painted a grey-blue gradient on the horizon, ending in a lighter sky blue that, I could only assume, is where day began.
To my right sat a woman that I’d barely spoken two sentences to, and yet I deem her worthy to write about because after a seven hour layover, she still had endless smiles and warmth to offer the strung out looking college student formerly known as me.
My mind attempted to swim in thoughts my body had become too tired to comprehend, so I sat in an uneasy static. My spine ached with the twists and turns of failure in trying to find a comfortable position to rest in. The clock said we had about four hours until landing. With no WiFi, a nearly dead iPod, and no hope of sleep, I allowed my mind to wander…
It wandered to stray songs that had lost their way and become stuck in my head. It wandered to thoughts of the coming day ahead. What would I do first? Sleep, the exhausted breath inside my head whispered. I brushed it aside and forced myself to think logistically: taxi to the hotel, check-in, settle, gym at some point (if for no other reason than to pretend I wasn’t about to gain 10 pounds indulging in Spanish wine and tortillas for three months)…but yes, I conceded to the voice in my head, sleep, too. Soon.
And whether my mind merely went blank or I finally succeeded in sleeping, the hustle of people around me brought me back to attention.
Hola, por favor quedarse en sus asientos hasta que el avión ha parado completamente.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Madrid.