Feb 17, 2006

I lurch straight from a nightmare to the window. The airport shuttle rumbles on my quiet street. No!

Two alarms, two door-buzzes and one phone call failed to rouse me; ironic, really, after my January piety. Luckily, my suitcase is packed, my clothes prepped. I slop kitty kibble in bowl and race out the door.

"You're pretty quick for an oversleeper," the driver notes.

Why is this an odd point of pride?

We swing by Queen Anne Hill, gathering an older Brazilian woman and her two daughters: all Americanized, but still svelte and sexy in a South American way. La mamma is a translator and language instructor. This gracious cosmopolite chats to me in Italian. At 4am. Gentile signora, per favore, no!

I zombie through Seattle's airport, strangely empty except for its bored and hostile employees. One security expert does nothing but accelerate laptops along the x-ray conveyor belt. As each fragile machine rattles along – stripped of its cushioning case and relegated to a gray plastic bin – she gives it a mighty shove. There. That'll teach you to sneak out early, avoiding the rush.

My flight to Dallas, however, is far from empty. Dozens of prepubescent cheerleaders – en route to some competition – bounce and squeal. That phrasing, I promise, is not the sour grapes of an unpopular nerd. These darling children really writhe with enthusiasm. In fact, one writhes directly into my kidneys for almost four hours.

But I forgive them much, including the purple and mallard-green jumpsuits (like, hello, who dressed you like an 1980s mall? Let's pull their hair!). Because the pilot booms some platitudes over the intercom: "We have some celebrities on board, a [Seattle- suburb] cheerleading team. Good luck, girls!"

At least five piping voices correct el capitan: "girls and boys."


I ride the mosquito fleet from Dallas to Shreveport, Louisiana. "What's it like to live here?" I ask a middle-aged black woman, as we stroll through the tiny terminal.

"Big crime problem," she comments. "Those casinos..."

I hadn't realized gambling's sway in Arklatex (the corner of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, for the uninitiated). But I'm staying at Sam's Town, a big, bland mirrored-skyscraper temple to lady luck. No wonder she covers her eyes...

The clerk is brisk: "your room's not ready yet. It's being cleaned."

"Maybe I could just ... freshen up? Please?" Inside I'm screaming: "one hour of sleep, a bolt from the house, damn you: let me shower before interviewing!"

"Ma'am, we couldn't let you into a dirty room!"

Really, I wouldn't mind one bit. Probably wouldn't even notice the difference ... And I'd be more charmed by the concession than any amount of fresh linen or furniture polish.

But I'm in fake-glitz la-la land. So I smile, check my bags, slap water on my dark eye-circles in the marbled, mirrored toilet. My game face is more or less intact: bring it on, Arklatex.

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