I slipped off my shoes and sensed the tough airport rug beneath my feet. Behind me, hundreds of people were waiting in line for security. I slammed my bag into a gray plastic container.
“Welcome to San Francisco International Airport. Please do not leave any baggage unattended at any time. We are not responsible for any stolen items. Thank you.”
I stepped behind a broad-shouldered man, who immediately marched through the metal detector. It began beeping furiously; he still had his belt on.
Then it was my turn. I checked my watch and quickly walked through. It was 10:45 in the morning, and my flight had just begun boarding. So, tugging my high-heeled shoes on and grabbing my bag, I raced across the terminal.
B-98, I chanted in my mind. B-98, B-98. As I glanced at a sign indicating that my gate was to the right, the corner of my eye caught something. A slender man in a suit with a green tie was waving frantically at me, trying to get my attention.
I don’t have time for this. Come on, Jeanette. You do not have time for this.
He looked desperate, and for a second, I thought that I had met him before. I raced over to him, my feet clacking over the din. What does he want?
Now, about three feet away from him, I noticed that he was trying to speak to me, but that he was apparently deaf, so the words came jumbled, stuttering, and mumbling at high speed out of his mouth. Then, he took out a cardboard package discreetly and showed it to me with wide, chocolaty eyes. He fumbled for something in his jacket pocket and then displayed a paper and pencil. He was using the package as a backing, and he was scribbling a message onto the slip of paper. He held it out for me to read.
“Please,” it said, and I imagined the voice of a desperate child somehow. “I promise, it is not illegal. It got through security. I need you. Deliver to my daughter in New York. Do not open. Please.”
The man was tapping against the cardboard box now, and I looked up. He was pointing at an address. Will he follow me if I don’t take it? How does he even know I’m going to New York? His eyes were searching mine, pleading desperately. I hesitated.
I must know this man.
I bowed my head quickly as the result of some unidentified force I would never comprehend. I snatched the package and spoke to him for the first and only time. “Yes. I will.” I tried to show him that I understood. Then I fled from him towards my gate and did not look back. However, I did not need to. His deep brown eyes were still fresh in my mind.
By the time I arrived at Gate B-98, my wristwatch read 11:01. The chairs were empty, save for a few travelers engrossed in their laptops or preoccupied with their earbuds and books. I walked up alongside the counter, where an attendant took the boarding pass from my hands.
“Ma’am, is that your carry-on item?” She raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the cardboard box I wielded in my left hand.
The last thing I need is a reminder of that stupid brown box!
“Um, uh… yes. It is… my carry-on.” Now I was the stupid one, not the box.
The attendant seemed hesitant, but she scanned my boarding pass and waved me down the corridor. I tried to take my mind off the man’s message, which was still stored inside my pocket. I fixed my gaze ahead and then turned the corner and stepped into the cabin, where two uniformed United Airlines flight attendants welcomed me aboard with practiced toothy smiles. I nodded to them and continued deeper into the plane, and sidestepped out of the aisle when I found my seat in business class. Finally, I sat down and pushed my bag and box under the seat in front of me with a sense of relief that the man didn’t cause me to miss my flight.
I need to stop thinking about him.
I shifted in the fabric-covered frame and got comfortable as the safety presentation began and the engines roared to life. I then began thinking about my trip as I looked out the smudged plastic window. I was just thinking about the fog, and San Francisco, and my house, and my husband, and the reasons for this trip, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
I turned to see the tall flight attendant who had welcomed me onto the plane. Her hair was in an exceptionally neat bun. “I’m sorry, but your carry-on must be either entirely under the seat or in the overhead luggage bins.”
I looked down, and I half expected the troublemaking box to smirk up at me. I managed an “Oh, OK” before unbuckling my seat belt and pushing the box with my hands the few critical centimeters it needed to move forward.
The flight attendant, thankfully, was off on her way to pester someone else.
Where was I? Oh yes, the reasons for this trip. At least GovMail paid for a seat in business class for me. I was bored to death, though, over the subject of Environmentally Friendly Packaging Policies that I had to attend a conference all the way in New York for. GovMail already kills the earth with their transportation methods, and people don’t care. The main purpose of developing “eco-packaging” was probably to advertise my company’s commitment “to saving the planet.” I really wished I didn’t have to leave my daughter for four days over that mess. I watched the wing of the aircraft as we took off, and it sliced through the airport at high speed before my stomach lurched when we levitated off the ground.
As soon as we leveled out at our altitude, I took a panini out of my bag and bit into it hungrily over my tray table. When a flight attendant came by with drinks, I ordered a ginger ale and drank it steadily. This would be a long flight.
About halfway through the flight, I had already read a little and decided that I should have been working on my laptop. I wanted to stretch my legs some first though, so I rose up out of my seat and walked past an array of multicolored heads sticking up over the seats. As I squeezed into a vacant lavatory at the end of the plane, waves of paranoia took over, along with claustrophobia, and that did it. I started thinking about the box.
What if there is a bomb in the box? Tsunami after tsunami of fears swept over me and seeped into my brain. Why did I trust that man? What was I thinking? There is something dangerous, something deadly, in there. I felt as if I only had one choice, and that was to open the box and ward off my fears. He seemed like such a sensitive, honest man. I slid the knob at chest level to my left and stumbled out through the doorway. I looked around for any signs of damage, or danger, anything, but all that I could hear was the Darth Vader air-conditioning spraying into the cabin. I must have looked a mess, because a blue-clad attendant stepped over and asked if I was OK.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I mumbled, and walked down the aisle back to my seat. The brown box was still there, and I grabbed it before fastening my seat belt and noticing that the mother and son previously sitting beside me had left. Now was my chance, so I seized the moment and carefully tore open the packing tape with as much strength as I could muster. Inside was regular old bubble wrap that covered another smaller box, and I saw a post-it note stuck to that box, displaying the same slanted scrawl that the greentied man used to communicate his desperation. This is an invasion of his privacy. Something told me to stop, so I neatly tucked in the bubble wrap and sealed the package as best I could. I read the address on the front a few times and placed it in its lawful place just as the mother and son returned to my business-class row and sat down. The glare of the mid-afternoon sun was irritating the boy, so I shut the window and got out my laptop to work.
By the time the captain told us it was time to put our tray tables up and our seats in the upright position, my watch said that it was a quarter past three, and I adjusted it to read the local New York time. After we had landed and gotten to our gate, I stood up and my knees cracked loudly. The son had some trouble lifting his suitcase into the aisle, but then a man on the other side of the plane made a show of helping him, and it was finally my turn to get off the plane. Purse and parcel in hand, I rushed out of the stuffy aircraft, knowing I would need to allow time to drop off the box before checking into my hotel.
Once I had gathered my luggage at the baggage claim, I walked out into the cold wispy New York air and climbed into the limousine that had been waiting at the curb. I told the chauffeur to stop by the Seventh Avenue Manhattan address on the box. He looked confused but complied as he dodged the rough traffic on the busy boulevards. He pulled up in front of a red brick, three-story apartment building that looked completely ordinary from my point of view. I climbed the steps and rang the doorbell for the door farthest to the left, and someone inside could be heard thumping down the stairs.
The woman who answered the door was a young, short woman aged not more than thirty-five and dressed in dark work clothes. I assumed the package was for her, and when she said hello I tried to hand it to her.
“A man gave this to me in San Francisco to deliver to you,” I said, and felt so incredibly out of place and awkward as soon as I did. The woman looked down at the package and then broke into a grin.
“Oh, amazing! Wait right here. I’ll bring my daughter down right now.” The young woman scrambled up the stairs and returned moments later with a girl who looked to be about seven years old as I still stood, dumbfounded, on the threshold of this stranger’s house.
“Thank you,” the little girl said, and to my surprise tore open the package right then and there. So I do get to see what’s inside after all.
Inside the smallish box was a doll with short, brown hair and hazel eyes. The doll’s blue shirt had a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and the words I Love San Francisco printed in international orange. The doll resembled the little girl in many ways, and the second-grader embraced it as my chauffeur beeped down on the street.
I have to go.” I smiled and turned to go as the mother thanked me. I held back tears as I thought of my own daughter thousands of miles away and said nothing as I hurried down the stairs. In the car, I smiled to myself, thinking that I might actually get something out of my stupid business trip.
I had made a little girl happier, and how much happier I couldn’t say. But that was enough to keep me contented as I rode through the concrete jungle towards my hotel in the distance.