A reflection on my first time flying alone, and the perspective I’ve gained since.
The first time I flew alone I was broaching 18. It was a long weekend trip down to Miami – not too far a flight, not too lengthy a stay, and it wasn’t until my father blew me a kiss goodbye (our parting tradition) at the opening of the maze leading down to the TSA checkpoint that I became fully aware of my own body in motion. It was a sort of alone I’d never been before, surrounded by fellow travelers with their own tunnel-vision agendas. Families with matching embroidered sun hats and hard shell suitcases. Businessmen and women speaking into bluetooth headsets boasting leather duffels and messenger bags. A caravan of athletes in zip-up hoodies emblazoned with their names. Families and professionals and athletes and me: carting the same black JanSport I’d bring to college in the fall, all at once aware of a sort of alone to which I’d never given much thought.
There was a long moment where I stood at the roped entrance to the TSA line watching my father’s figure retreat toward the revolving doors. It telescopes that way in my mind still, distended and crystallized. That was until the little girl behind me had gone well-near stumbling into my back. The fault was mine – I was the one who’d stopped in motion. I owe her a thanks, come to think of it. It was her stumble that jarred me back toward reality, solidifying my resolve. My father would be back in the driver’s seat of his car by then, flicking off the hazard lights, pulling from the curb. The only direction I could move in that rope maze was forward.
I remember only fragments of the TSA checkpoint: my wired earbuds playing old 2000s punk, the weight of my backpack heavy between my shoulder blades, the woman at the booth instructing me to take off my sandals. It’s only strange to walk barefoot through the metal detector gate until you realize that everyone else is doing the same.
The monitor on the other side of the checkpoint confirmed the flight information I had memorized: Flight 119, JFK to Miami, running on time. Fellow flyers were moving past my either side as I stood there, looking up, and in some ways it felt like a sort of time travel, the same way being on a plane does: to be disconnected from the world around you without ceasing to exist within it. The moment I claimed a spot at gate three, setting my backpack at my feet and cracking open my book of the trip – it was The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak – that what had been apprehension turned to excitement.
To experienced travelers, the notion that an airport terminal would be so daunting seems silly. The point of this is not the kindness of the woman checking my newly issued license at the TSA booth, or my bare feet on the cool linoleum, or my checking and double checking my flight information on the screen beyond the checkpoint the way my father had told me to. The point is that my hike down to gate three at John. F. Kennedy was one of the first times I can remember beginning to feel like the adult I am now. When you’re young, airports are places you see on television. Places you go holding your parents’ hands for summer vacation. Alone, they warp: not quite a portal but something like it. Everyone is going everywhere, everyone is coming home.
The space that came with being alone there gave me time to reflect on the chapter of my life that was closing – so long, high school – to realize that this was the first taste of the way I’d spend the next four years at university: fleshing out the beginnings of my adulthood by my own guiding hand. Travel means something different to everyone. Airports do, too. The eighteen year old version of myself found solace in that. I’m twenty two now, and unafraid of being alone – a trait I credit, in part, as learned in airport corridors.