• Caroline Hsu

The Airport Makes Me Sentimental - Caroline Hsu

I’ve always been too sentimental for my own good.

I like to collect small tokens and mementos even if they seem worthless to other people, and I always find a reason to celebrate a holiday even when there isn’t a reason to. I reminisce on events days, weeks, and months after they pass, and I’m always the first friend to send old pictures to remind others of how long it has been since they were taken. I take pictures of all my surroundings, and my friends always complain because I insist on taking pictures of every single food item before anyone can eat.

When we broke up, it took a long time for me to process that we were really over. At first, I was simply in shock and denial, and refused to move, let alone touch, all of the mementos that I had started collecting since we were together. The glass painting we painted at my house. A dried rose from the first bouquet you gave me. The photostrips from that photobooth in Cincinnati. However, by the second week, I finally mustered up the strength to finally start putting things away, like all of my friends had been urging me to do so. And doing that did relatively help speed up my healing process; by the time November rolled around, I was certain that I was in a much better place compared to the fated end of September. I was so certain that I was almost back on my feet, like you had never come and knocked me down in the first place.

However, all it took was five minutes walking through the LAX airport for all of that resolve to crumble like a Nature’s Valley granola bar. The feeling that was all too familiar to me started creeping in as soon as I got out of the Uber, and by the time I had gotten in line to TSA, I was practically holding back tears.

This was the first time in months that I was flying without you in mind. The gate my flight was assigned to was the exact same one you and I were assigned when we went to Seattle in May. I wasn’t supposed to be flying home for Thanksgiving; you and I were supposed to celebrate it together.

You see, being the sentimental person I am, I considered the airport to be our home. The plane tickets were our house keys. The lady’s voice announcing flight arrivals and departures was the doorbell. One of my favorite things about you was that I could ask you to go anywhere with me, and you’d simply ask what time we were leaving. The last handful of times I was in an airport, you were one of the main reasons as to why I was there. I was either going somewhere with you, flying to you, or waiting you in the baggage claim with my hands all clammy, my eyes scanning to spot you - no matter when I was at the airport, I was either greeting you with a “welcome back,” “see you soon,” or “nice to see you again.” The airport became a way for me to remember you by. The airport always guaranteed that I would see you again eventually.

You and I have tackled five cities together, and each adventure started out with the airport. I like to think they tell our story in a chronological order. The first was Los Angeles, the second was Seattle, the third was San Francisco, then came Las Vegas and Cincinnati. Just a week before we broke up, I was asking where our next adventure would take place. You told me we’d talk about it later; and I was actually considering Denver this time around. I had already bought us tickets, and I was going to surprise you with them when we went to dinner.

Los Angeles was the beginning of the two of us. After our school’s basketball team made it to the semifinals, I decided to fly down for the weekend for the game, and you were moving to Los Angeles for the remainder of the school year. That was when we met in person for the first time. You offered me a place to stay in your apartment because your roommates were gone for the weekend. We spent that whole day half bickering and half play fighting, and our friends kept teasing us about the “tension in the air.” That night, we got drunk off of shitty college kid vodka only after a few rounds of cards, and somehow found ourselves stumbling around your apartment with our lips locked, crashing into every object we possibly could have. The next morning, we both sat on your bed, and we finally decided to talk about what the hell we did the night before. You asked if I wanted this to be a “one time occurrence,” and I shook my head and said no. You asked if there were any strings attached. I shook my head, and you breathed a sigh of relief. That was when our little dynamic started. It was a secret that only you and I were supposed to know about - our friends and the rest of the world were forbidden to find out about us. It would just make things all complicated. However, as time went on, the lines between “friends with benefits” and “a real relationship” were more blurry than ever. You would leave parties early to come over. You started coming over every other day, spending the night each time. Sometimes, you’d come over just to do homework. We’d go on walks every night, hours on end, and your roommates started calling me if they didn’t know where you were. We were still a secret, and tried to play it off like nothing had changed between us, including the banter. Our friends would groan and text us to “get a room,” and we’d both look up from our phone screens as we lay next to each other in my bed, laughing because that is exactly what we did. Sometimes, we’d just watch movies all night. The dimensions of my room became our little world that the two of us lived in - and I found myself considering it my escape from reality. As time went on, I found myself not kicking you out, even when it was 11 A.M and I had to mouth that I was in class when you woke up. I found myself missing your presence on the rare occasions that you weren’t with me, missing talking to you for hours before falling asleep, and I found myself lighting up like a Christmas tree whenever you did reach out. I knew that what we were doing was not normal, and not what friends with benefits should be doing, but I just let it be because I didn’t want to ruin what we had going on.

Seattle was where things got messy. We weren’t even dating, but we decided to book a weekend trip there for the hell of it after joking about theoretically going for a few weeks. I still remember being in disbelief that we were even going as we boarded the plane. Seattle was where we joked about getting a room with only one bed, but did it anyway. We spent the first day exploring downtown, and I was tempted to grab your hand, but didn’t do so. We got lost after getting off at the wrong bus stop, and you offered me both of your jackets because I foolishly decided to only wear a sundress that day. At 1:00 A.M, when we finally got off at the right train station stop, our Uber driver bailed on us and we cursed about how cold it was in the beginning of May as we walked on the side of the freeway. I wasn’t convinced that you had the strength to pick me up - my ex-boyfriend used to tell me that I was too heavy for him to do so - and just to prove me wrong, you gave me a piggyback the whole mile back to our hotel. We ended up oversleeping our flight back, and while I was freaking out about it, you calmly handed me a warm coffee.

San Francisco was a month later, and things between us were falling apart. For starters, I was no longer satisfied with being a secret, but you were more intent on me being one than ever. The weeks leading up to San Francisco, you and I got into our first fight. Though it only lasted twenty three hours, you hooked up with my friend; the same one I introduced to you while we were in Seattle. You made me promise to no longer post any pictures with you to not give anyone the wrong idea about us. Our friend group had decided to all finally get together, and go to Yosemite National Park and San Francisco at the beginning of summer. Though we weren’t on the best terms, you and I didn’t want to affect our friends, so we tried to suck it up and pretend like everything was okay. However, when I learned that you and her were going on a little weekend getaway in Los Angeles right before you’d join us in San Francisco, I finally broke down and came clean with them and told them what had been going on for the past few months. Our friends were shocked that you - the nice guy - were able to play two girls at once, and they were shocked that me - the stubborn and strong one - was giving out second chances to you like I had an infinite amount of them.

The first day of our trip in San Francisco, we spent the whole night in the hotel room screaming at each other. Our friends had to separate us, but we kept going at each other's throats. I found out that you lied to her about how we were just friends, even though you were sleeping in my bed every single night, telling me she was only temporary compared to what we were. We were drinking our own guilt away, and I still remember the second night of that trip when you drunkenly got on your knees and begged me to give you another chance, and I started crying because I really, really wanted to. Somehow, we made up, and you snuck into my room every night instead of sleeping downstairs like you were supposed to. By the end of that trip, you and I were outside the cabin, staring at this huge sky of stars, and you told me I was the “right person, wrong time,” and how maybe in a few years, we could try again. You dubbed those seven weeks in Los Angeles our “trial run.”

“Right person, wrong time” - that phrase stung and left a bitter aftertaste on my tongue. I think it was because I poured so much of myself and us into being the right person for you; I was willing to do whatever it took for you to acknowledge me. I wasn’t satisfied with being a secret fling anymore, I wanted to be standing by your side. I got selfish with whatever scraps of attention you were willing to give me, and I wanted more and more of it. I didn’t understand why I had to fight so hard to be treated the way I wanted to be treated, and you were so quick to give someone else more than I ever asked of you.

San Francisco was where you and I truly were our worst selves; all of the ugly sides of our personas bubbled to the surface. At the beginning of this all, we found comfort in each other because we weren’t inherently good people, and we accepted that about each other. However, I was screaming at you for lying to me and her, but still agreed to continue hooking up with you even though we both knew we should stop - because what worse of damage could we do? You told me that the other girl was simply temporary compared to what we had.

You and I would drink every night, and every night I found myself stubbornly holding onto the physical side of you if I could never get anything else. You ended up lying to me by saying you were flying back home, but flew back to Los Angeles to go back to see her. Everyone around us could not understand why I kept letting you back into my life and giving out chances like I had endless ones for you - back then, I was just trying to hold onto you even though I knew you were slipping from my fingers. I tried to rationalize with myself that I was okay with only having the physical aspect of you, even if it was the only part of you I would ever get to know. But, I finally lost it after San Francisco. I was done. I was finally accepting that you and I were officially over.

A lot had happened in between San Francisco and Las Vegas. For starters, that was the first time in months where I finally had no contact with you; you were no longer sleeping in the same bed as me, living with me, texting me to ask what I was doing - and the separation admittedly made me miserable. I was moping around for days, until one of my friends urged me to put those feelings into words by writing. And so I sat down and did just that; and ended up producing a seventeen page novella about our story and all of the feelings that coursed through my veins and went with it. It somehow got back to you when you heard that it was getting published, and as soon as you read it, you said that something clicked in you. Maybe it was because we had enrolled in the same summer class together, or maybe it was because our friends finally shredded you apart, but you came crawling back.

You realized how badly you messed up, and how this time, you were really going to lose me. You told me I was the one you wanted; you didn’t have any emotional attachment to the other girl, and you dropped her in a heartbeat for me. You told me that in all of your past relationships, you felt like you had to instinctively protect and take care of your girlfriends, but I was different. You told me that I knew you better and understood you better than anyone you had ever met. You said you liked how much I always cared. You said that you didn’t feel the urge to shield me from all things bad in the world, because you knew I didn’t need it. You saw me as an equal to you; nothing more, nothing less. And this time, you were the one chasing me; you were adding all of my favorite songs to your playlists, you were calling me every night, you were staying up until 4:00 A.M to help me with my summer classes, and everyone, including me, was shocked at the complete transformation.

Las Vegas was where we were (in your words) no longer pushing feelings away or suppressing them from happening. At this point in time, we were now dating. We worked out all the kinks and knots we had before, and we considered this a fresh start; a leap of faith. You came down to see me, and nervously played with your hands as you attempted to appease my extremely hard to please parents. I took you around the city to show you where I grew up. We never finished watching Graveyard of the Fireflies. You met my best friend. That one specific weekend you came, it rained for the first time in seven months, and we laughed and danced in it as we got completely soaked. I joked that you brought the rain from the Midwest with you to the dry desert. You sent me a bouquet of flowers (much to my surprise), and you sheepishly smiled and asked what I thought of them. Las Vegas was where I realized I truly loved you.

Cincinnati was where things started falling into place. Cincinnati was where we were in a routine already; holding your hand came naturally to me now. Cincinnati was where we were play fighting on your bed, and I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes. Cincinnati was where you surprised me five hours before my flight home by driving us to go stargazing (you’d been trying to keep it a surprise, and you did a pretty good job at it too). Cincinnati was where we drove to a small run down city to find a drive through movie, because you knew I’m a sucker for them. Cincinnati was where I got stranded in Kentucky, called you terrified out of my mind, and you drove all the way to come get me across state lines in the middle of the night in pouring rain. Cincinnati was where I finally met your parents - your mom called me pretty - and they offered me the opportunity to stay the night and to eat dinner with you guys. Cincinnati was where I met your best friend, and she told me that I was different from any of the girls you had brought to her before. I left Cincinnati counting the days down until I could see you again once the school year started.

I used to tell you that I felt like I was always swimming oceans for you, and you would barely jump puddles for me. However, you proved me wrong in Cincinnati - as soon as I landed, you had a huge grin on your face (even though it was 6:30 A.M, and we were both not morning people), welcoming me to where you’re from. Cincinnati was where you were the thoughtful one; all of the things you had planned for us were things you took lots of time to think about. When you took me to go stargazing, you told me you’d been researching this specific location for the past few days, and you even brought a blanket and telescope for us to look through.

You were excited to show me your life before I came into it - your large high school (which, as Student Government President, was your kingdom), where you used to work as a local barista, the gym you’d go to, your neighborhood where you used to go trick or treating in - the things you used to always tell me about, I finally got to see for myself now. I finally saw all the good sides of you I had been dying to see for so long.

And somehow, a few weeks later, we found ourselves back in Los Angeles - but this time, I was your girlfriend. And things seemed to be going well - at least on my end. You came down to see me and all my friends were gushing over how the two of us looked together - and your friends finally acknowledged me as someone now worth remembering. People would see us on campus, tell us about how we looked like such an iconic duo side by side - and I was finally happy that the dust was finally settling. We were where I wanted us to be. But everything we built came crashing down on one singular night where you told me you realized you don’t think that you will ever be in a space to love me. Things were going really great, you said, but after one week of thinking about it, you made your decision. You said that life wasn’t a movie, and that you probably made me a lot happier than I ever made you. If I was less guarded, things might have ended differently.

And a few weeks after that, I walked alone back to my dorm, just to bump into you with someone new, stumbling and giggling into your building together. And I think what was the most heartbreaking part of it all was that I saw you look at her the way you looked at me; and that was when I realized that it truly is over.

Though you share tickets, seats, and adventures with someone new now, your ghost is always accompanying me on every flight I board. Your ghost is there to haunt me with the time we missed our flight back to Los Angeles from Seattle, the time we got off at the wrong bus stop and ended up walking miles back to our hotel, the time we checked into the shittiest 3 star hotel which later had spiders - because even though they seemed like small memories at the time, they’re all I have left of you now. There’s a list of songs I can’t get myself to listen to now. Even months later, I find myself desperately trying to go back to the person I was before I met you. Your ghost is there to haunt me when I bump into you and I’m forced to compare it to the person you are now - and these memories still linger when I visit these cities on my own.

You are no longer there waiting for me when I land, but I still find my eyes scanning for you in a sea of faces when I look for a ride. Before, going to the airport always gave me a boost of adrenaline and excitement because I always knew that you would be on the other end. Now, my stomach churns as I look down at the marble tiles while walking out because all of these memories come flooding back. It’s ironic; I used to count the days when the miles between us were no longer there, and here we are now - not even a half mile away from each other, but you’ve never felt more distant from me. And it’s painful to say the least; I felt like not only did I lose my significant other, but my best friend at that. A month ago, if you showed up at my doorstep begging for another chance, I wouldn’t have hesitated. But, as time goes on, I realize that there is too much damage and mess for us to ever get back to the way we were.

You were the first to make the airport - a place that I associated with escaping - a place that I found comfort in. You were the first to teach me that some people simply enter your life not to stay, but to teach you a lesson before leaving. You were the love that taught me all of the good, bad, and ugly of being in love, and you were the love that left just as quickly as you came rushing in. You may not have been my first love, but you were the love that makes all of the others dampen in comparison.

There is a lot more that I could write about (including what has happened since we broke up), but it wouldn’t do anyone justice in knowing how far we have spiraled into enemies compared to before. And, to be honest, it breaks my heart having to look back at it.

That first flight I took without you was the hardest, but it made me realize that this is something I need to get used to. I need to get used to being satisfied being alone again. As time goes on, it’s inevitable that I will go on many flights without you, and eventually, the feeling of regret that hits me every time I enter the airport will fade, too. Maybe, I’ll find someone who takes your spot; I’ll have someone who also waits for me when I land, I’ll have someone who welcomes me back, and I’ll be waiting for them, too. That time hasn’t come yet, but I have to continue walking knowing that it will eventually.

Even after everything, I still think I would not have done this differently. I’m a different person walking out. Though I walk out with scars, though I walk with my heart a little more weary, my eyes a little more cloudy, and I walk out without you by my side, I learned from this. The airport makes me sentimental, but that does not mean I have to keep on waiting and lingering in the past; I have to keep moving forward. And I’m starting to do that.

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