Because the line for security wraps across the walkbridge like that snake game on your first phone, where you try not to eat your own tail.
Because you knew there’d be traffic on 95. Why didn’t you leave earlier?
Because you wish you had that old Nokia now, could thumb its bubble keys and have back some of that delight.
Because you gloated when you got one before him. You held it just out of his reach, sure he’d stay that puny, that cloying, forever.
Because the tail won’t stop accumulating.
Because naturally, you overpacked. You think of that hiker you met in Peru, the one with no backpack who said, Every item you bring with you represents a fear.
Because here’s what your suitcase reveals: three extra pairs of underwear, a near-empty bottle of Advil, and two pairs of black slacks that fail your thighs in different ways.
Because your fears are as shallow as you are.
Because this line isn’t moving, and your flight boards in fifteen minutes, and Mom’s texting again, scenting another failure. See you when you land. We’re all here, she writes, as if it’s true.
Because your breath in this mask stinks of rot, and sweat soaks into the underwire of your bra, and you forgot deodorant.
Because the female TSA agent whose attention you catch—Please, my flight is soon—has a mouth like granite and stares at you the way he did, last time you saw him in Chicago. Looking, not seeing.
Because she knows which mistakes can’t be undone: Now ma’am, If I help you, I’d have to help everyone, and where would that get us?
Because the screen overhead announces that Prince Philip has passed away, and though neither of you gives a shit about the royals, you think of the Queen, tottering alone around Windsor palace.
Because everyone keeps saying how sad it is, but at least they got to grow old together.
Because this group of friends in front of you in line, early twenties, are bantering in that puppy-pile way, all paws and jaws and easy company.
Because he never found friends like that. What if he had?
Because the woman behind you, whose cornice of orange foundation stands against her white neck, is edging too close, mask slipping under her nose. Doesn’t she know what six feet look like after an entire fucking year?
Because it’s just probability: some planes will crash.
Because you open your boarding pass and notice the gate, C38, another age he’ll never be.
Because this isn’t going away. This new, inverted calendar of nevers.
Because the plug you stuffed in the drain of your heart begins to quiver, and you’re not sure where all that liquid will go.
Because you slide a hand into your pocket for gum, one small thing, and find only a sticky penny.
Because this coat has the sleek texture of an orca whale, his favorite animal as a kid. Did you know they have cultures?
Because in middle school, when he went on and on about how they were hunted for their fat, how their pods were disbanded, how their songs disappeared, it irritated you: his obsession with lost things.
Because the PA system announces Now boarding at gate C38 and you’re still in the walkway over the departures road and those friends are swaying too young and happy and this line won’t stop tightening like a fist.
Because panic jets in now, spins fresh contrails through your guts. You might actually miss it.
Because you’re out of excuses after the lie you told Mom last week, that you’ll get a panic attack public speaking. What would you even say, other than idiot, asswipe, how could you do this?
Because a second TSA agent is coming towards you, a precious possibility. He invites you to join a new line.
Because you should have called him, you should have seen the signs. You never tried.
Because a girl from the group in front turns your way—Excuse me, didn’t you say your flight was soon?—and as she waves you ahead, this act of kindness accretes inside you like rain, threatening to dissolve the hardness you’ll need to get through this day, and the next, and all the ones after.
Because beyond the terminal window, birds are flying through a bright, cloudless sky, and maybe that’s all love is—emptiness waiting to happen.
Because when you show your ID and pull down your mask, no one can tell you’re thinking about how many sparrows get shredded in 747 engines each year.
Because when you pass through the magnetic scanner, hands up, the woman pats you down tenderly, as if feeling for the hidden, dangerous cause of everything.
Because all she says is, You’re free to go.
Because the voice announces Last call for boarding at Gate C38 and you forget to tuck your intestines back in as you grab your bag, shove heels into sneakers and run.
Because you’re sprinting, thumping down this interminable corridor past kids with matching sneakers and coffee cups held to lips and the salesman calling Excuse me, can I interest you in ten thousand free air miles?—and in spite of the heavy tail dragging behind you, in spite of traffic and sweat and lost orca songs and the fact that your little brother is dead, you might just make it.
Because once, you woke up together at 5am to watch infomercials, mixed Froot Loops with Frosted Flakes, and thought life would be sweet if you worked hard enough.
Because there’s the sign for C38, and maybe you’ve done it, are doing it, shouting loud enough, fast enough to beat back time.
Because the door is closed, and you have missed your flight.
Lauren Cassani Davis is an English teacher and writer based in New York. Her essays and reporting have appeared in The Atlantic, and she attended the One Story Summer Conference in 2021. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenhcd.