Main | Friday, November 12, 2004

Departure

Setting: JFK airport. The jetBlue terminal.

I'm sitting in the crowded pre-boarding area, waiting for my plane to Florida to arrive.

Seated next to me are a man and his young son. The father is in his mid-30s, and has a long black ponytail, tied back with a colorful turquoise clasp. I judge him to be Native American, then notice he is wearing a Cleveland Indians sweatshirt. Irony? Perhaps.

His son is about ten years old, wearing a hooded sweatshirt that says "Brooklyn", and Air Jordans. He has on headphones and I can hear abrasive rap music blasting from his player. His dad nudges him.

"So, what do you think?"

The boy shakes his head, removes his headphones and barks out a sullen, "What?"

"What do you think?" his dad repeats.

The boy looks at him defiantly, "What do I think about WHAT?"

His father indicates the door to the jetway and says, "I mean, all this. What do you think about it?'"

His son looks away. After a moment he says, "I don't know. Does it matter what I think?"

"Of course it matters to me what you think."

The boy remains silent. His father stands up to go throw away his coffee cup, and I notice his son's burning eyes follow him. When his father turns around, the boy quickly shifts his gaze to the arriving plane, now pulling up to the gate.

His father sits back next to me and leans forward with his elbows on his knees. He stares at the carpet and says, "You know....you can email me."

"I know", says the boy.

"And I'll email you right back, I promise," his dad says, nodding his head to emphasize that promise.

"OK," the boy says, indifferently.

They sit there in silence until the gate agents begin announcing the rows. We all stand up, and I get in line behind them. Only when we reach the door do I realize that only the boy is flying.

"OK, this is it," says the father.

"Yeah."

The father opens his arms and hugs the boy, who endures the embrace with his arms held stiffly at his side.

"Bye son," the man says. "You'll be fine. You'll like it there. I'll call you and your mom tonight."

"OK, bye." The boy breaks away and marches resolutely down the ramp.

I follow him onto the plane. He has the window seat in my row, and I watch him clumsily latch his seatbelt. He ignores the pre-flight safety instruction, instead focusing his attention out the window, as we are pushed back from the gate.

As the plane starts to rumble down the runway, I see the boy's lower lip begin to tremble. We lift off and climb sharply, then make a steep bank. The lights of Manhattan swing up into the boy's window. He turns his back to me and puts his hands on both sides of the window.

To anybody else on that plane, they are seeing the back of a curious little boy, lost in the wonder and fascination of New York City thousands of feet below him.

The cabin lights blink off, and the boy's face is suddenly reflected back. His eyes are closed and his mouth is open, in a silent wail, as his world drops away beneath the plane.

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