6. Escapism

“Could Miss Kimberley Livorno please return to the security check area, that’s a Miss Kimberley Livorno” came the tinny voice over the airport tannoy at Presque Isle Airport.

It was New Year’s Day, and I was on my was back to work for 2nd January. This return flight always seemed to mark one of the most miserable times of the year. The same airport which had seemed bursting with Christmas goods and people in festive mood on the way in, now seemed cold and practical. Gone were the staff in Christmas hats and permasmiles; in their place were sort of semi-human grouches. It was never easy going back to work anyway, after spending so much time relaxing and dreaming in the comfort of my parent’s place. At home, with no chores to do, I could truly relax. I would help my mum of course, or offer to help, but offering voluntary assistance (which was habitually declined) was something quite different to having to do something as a matter of necessity. And doing anything in pleasant company is a different task to doing it alone. But this year, the return was more brutal than others. I was returning to New York as a now 30 something single. Just another one of the masses, whose career and love life were not headed in the direction they had hoped. In a way, the beginning of a New Year was like a giant version of every Sunday night; after all your lofty, unbridled behaviour at the weekend an ominous feeling came over you that you were about to come crashing down to reality and you began to take stock of where you were in life.

The return to New York might have been more unbearable were it not for the commitment I had made to make this year the best of my life. Every day would be a day to try to change things and achieve something new. Of course I had made such commitments before. Oh boy had I. Every year I had a list of New Year’s Resolutions so long that I had to literally write them down, just to remember them. That in itself probably tells you all you need to know about how I got on with them. One or two weeks in, I nearly always had broken each and every one. Mainly because they essentially consisted of about six or seven commitments through which I would live a life of perfection; I would exercise every day, I would eat no sugar, no gluten, I would drink only water, I would only have clothes in my wardrobe that I wore regularly, I would be minimalist etc. The other problem with such a list is that once you break one commitment, the others kind of lose their importance. And so, on agreeing to my first glass of chilled white wine, I would have to convince myself that the remaining resolutions were still relevant, more as general themes than strict rules. And vague general themes soon became entirely forgotten.

So what was going to be different this year? Well, for a start, I had told everyone. I might break every promise I ever made to myself, but I would not let others know that I had. Sometimes, for instance, when asked about my resolutions, I might have mentioned that I was going to try to go to the gym more. But, when asked about my progress I would just say, ‘I am going more often, but not as often as I’d like to’. Nobody was going to the gym as often as they’d like to, so this sort of  admission could never be viewed as a failure. Gym attendance was a popular topic in the office and amongst my friends in New York. A few people I had met claimed to go everyday, but I always viewed such people with suspicion. Either they were lying, or they were doing it to run away from something; keeping themselves occupied in case they might have time to think.

My stock response in any conversation about the gym was that I would like to regularly go 3 times a week. People would often agree and concede ‘I know, it’s so difficult with a busy job’. It gave the impression that I sometimes went three times a week and sometimes did not. Of course, in reality, I would sometimes go months without going to the gym at all! Like a lot of exec’s in the city, we had a corporate deal with 24 Hour fitness. As usual, I paid a bit of the membership fee and the company paid the rest. I should, with hindsight, have never paid anything, and just gone jogging, because based on my poor attendance record it probably cost the company and I about a hundred bucks a visit. But however poor my attendance, there was always within me a girl who was about to have a ‘normal’ week, a quiet few days at work, a new energy; and I would attend Monday, Wednesday, Friday without fail. So, handing back the membership card, in a sense committing to never return, that symbolic act of giving up on my health and fitness, would have been impossible. It would have been akin to buying a bucket of Ben & Jerry’s and just plonking myself down in front of the TV. No good would come of it.

So this year I had, consciously or unconsciously at the time, made it clear to everyone that I was going to do things differently; take risks, snap up opportunities, seek adventure. I had told them that this was the year when it would happen, and I had to make it so. We had recently featured an article on the homes of NYC Entrepreneurs and what struck me talking to one of the most successful men in business was how, when I asked him how he spotted an idea that would make so much money, he said he never did. He said he looked for something he liked, and something he felt his skills could support. His most successful projects had been supported purely as a hobby. So it seemed like the people who go to happiness workshops, where they are told they can neuro-linguistically program themselves to be happy by saying “I am a happy person”. Of course, it doesn’t make you happy. It might make you clinically insane, but it won’t make you happy. To really be happy, it seems to me, you need to first stop worrying about and analysing whether you are happy, and how happy you are and, well, just live your life. Everyone I knew who was happy or rich or successful had not actually gone out searching for happiness, wealth or success; it just seems to have come naturally to them as they were doing what they wanted to do. Or so I figured anyway.

And the same rule, I thought, must apply to finding Mr Right. You can’t go around seeking. Guys can tell you’re doing it, and it turns them off. I just needed to relax, take a step back, smell the coffee and find the right path, and guy, for me. Or that was the plan at least. And on New Years’ Day, in the sleepy Departure Lounge at Presque Isle Airport, my newfound bohemian attitude had already begun to show results … I had lost my passport somewhere in airport security.

“Hi, excuse me, I’m Kimberly Livorno, I was called over the…”

“Just a moment mam … ” said the rather large, female guard, holding the flat palm of her hand out in front of my chest, as if I was about to jump over the desk and attack her.

“A passport was found in the changing area. Are these your glasses too?”

“Oh, wow, thank you, I need those for work actually … ” I said as I reached out both hands to take the items.

“Do you have ID mam?” came the burly guard’s response, as she pulled the items out of my reach.

I looked at the security guard. For a second I wondered how they had found a uniform big enough to fit her. Then, looking at the buttons of her black shirt, bulging like little brass bullets, I concluded they hadn’t. Despite being long out of school, when faced with one of these combative females, I instinctively veered into 13 year old girl territory; I often attributed their dislike or apparent dislike of me to jealousy, and my instinctive, visceral response was to focus on any unusual physical characteristics they had. I resisted making any comment on this occasion, given the context, but could not contain my underlying displeasure with her ridiculous, jobsworth approach.

“Well, yes … you’re holding it…. Mam.”

I immediately regretted the “Mam”. It was clear that she was one of those women who has her own way of taking revenge on life and all the shit it has thrown at her. Basically, by trying to redirect as much of it as she can in other people’s direction. If she could ruin my day, she would, and knowing she had done so would probably make hers slightly better.

“Do I detect an attitude?”

“What?” I said. Looking at her colleagues with a face of bemusement, hoping one of them might be vaguely ‘normal’ and could intervene to get me moving again.

“Drivers’ license, National Identity Card” barked the security guard.

“I don’t have those …” I said.

“How did you get here, Mam?” she barked back.

“My father drove me, I live in New York. Look I don’t have a Driver’s Licence and my flight is leaving soon.”

“Don’t have a drivers’ license?” she said, as if asking me to confirm what I’d said.

I was tempted to just do so, but then thought it was not worth going to jail for lying to a security officer, as they could probably look this up … so I tried to work my way backwards as elegantly as possible.

“Sorry, what I meant to say was that although I do have one, I don’t have it with me today.”

At this point I saw grey haired gentleman come out of a little room at the back of the area. He had the same black outfit as the others but with the addition of a blue blazer, and came and left a clipboard on the desk just beside the security officer – “Can you guys make sure the reviews are done by lunch”. He began turning to walk away again.

“Excuse me …” I said, with the biggest smile I could pull.

“I’m sorry, but I have a flight leaving in just a few minutes and this lady has my passport. It’s just it was in lost property and … ”

He gave no obvious response but did turn to look at me. I began to think ‘oh no, now I’ve got two of them to contend with’. He held his hand out to the female security guard, without saying anything. She handed him the passport and said, “she responded to the call but there is no corroborative ID to release the displaced document, as per the new procedures for …”

“Date of Birth?” he said, cutting her off, whilst holding the passport open with a single finger and scanning the faces other passers by, as if looking for someone.

“December 23rd, 1984” I said.

He closed the passport and pushed it over the desk towards me, without a word, walking back to his little room at the back.

The security guard turned to her screen and began typing, although exactly what she could have launched into typing so quickly, I was not sure. Her little game was over, and it was as if the only way she could still win was by pretending to me that she did not care.

I reached over the desk as gently as I could and dragged my glasses over the counter towards me.

“Thank you.” I said, “Sorry for the, yeah …” before making my way off.

After getting back to the waiting area, I found a free seat just within sight of a Departures screen and sat down. I zipped open my bag, touching my glasses and passport, in the way I sometimes touched things to appreciate that they we’re still there. I began reading my current novel – a wonderful, escapist fantasy, about a couple who had moved from France to begin a new life on a remote island in the pacific, with their two young children. It wasn’t War and Peace but it was exactly what I needed. I loved reading, but had what people might call an eclectic taste in books. I veered between high-brow classics, historical biography and popular modern fiction. I’d grown up in quite a quiet community and hadn’t had internet until I was in my late teens, so books were my main source of learning about the world outside my school, my family.

I must have inherited this love from my dad, who was something of a hoarder when it came to books. He had a great collection of old hardback works, some in English and some in Italian. The Italian books he had inherited from his parents. Lots of the classics were there, including a series of supplements from the New Yorker produced in the 60s entitled ‘the Greatest Novels of all Time’. I had bet my dad that I could read them all before I was 18 and I got about half way. I went on to study English Literature at college and finished the rest of the list during my studies, bar one. The only book I had not been able to finish was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was amusing because that book was Number 1 on the New Yorker’s list. I started it so many times, but always ended up giving up for something more obtainable. But it remained something on my list of things to do when I really had enough free time to get properly to grips with it; reading a few pages here and there was not going to cut it. One of our lecturers at College joked that there was a theory that no one had in fact ever finished Ulysses, and it was only for fear of admitting they didn’t understand it that they had to agree with the prevailing wisdom that it was a book of incredible other-worldly brilliance.

I loved reading for its transportive qualities. I loved being able to open a book and find myself in another world, another time, with fascinating, rich, characters. Perhaps doing things and going to places you would never dream of in real life. It was a sort of vicarious risk taking, experimenting. Movies were ok, but not the same. When your brain is forced to create the pictures yourself, you work harder, in a sense directing the movie in your own head.

And so, in my present book the couple who had wanted to escape the city were currently engaged in an ironic war with mother nature herself. Their tropical small holding had enough rain and blazing sunshine to grow anything but, as a result, anything and everything did grow; especially weeds! They had spent the last month weeding their vegetable garden from one end to the other, only to find that, similar to an old joke my English tutor used to tell us about painting the Forth Road Bridge in Scotland, by the last day of work they had to go back and start all over again at the other end. There were stories of weeds growing so quickly that if you sat and concentrated, you could actually watch them grow.

They worried that it was’t going to be sustainable, their dream was slipping into years of hard labour in intolerable heat. A sentence rather than an escape. But then there was the weekly sailing trip, by yacht, to the mainland. There was returning in the warm early evening, when the temperature was just right. Opening a case of white wine from Sancerre, kept in the cold room below deck, stuffing fish caught earlier in the day with their own mint, tarragon and slices of lemon and grilling them on the stone fire at the beach. They watched the huge blue sky dissolve to orange before them as the night drew in. This was just the book I needed at the moment. Next week would be something different, but this week, I was on a tropical island smallholding. If I closed my eyes I could almost feel the sun on my face and smell the lemon juice and herbs wafting from the beach fire.

Before diving back in, I took one last look at the Departure’s Board, and on doing so I saw snowflakes being to fall in its reflection.

“Snow!” I said out loud by accident, turning around to check out the window.

A young man sitting just in front of me laughed, turning backwards and making eye contact with me.

“I wouldn’t worry, it ain’t nearly heavy enough to delay your flight. Not yet anyway.”

I smiled on autopilot and immediately turned my eyes back down to my book. I had developed a real suspicion of any contact by strangers as a self-preservation mechanism, since moving to New York.

“Which flight are you on anyway?” the man said, ignoring my ignoring him.

“Emm … I’m on the next one, the nine fourty five to JFK.”

“Ah! Me too” he said, grinning ever more keenly.

“Oh we’ll be fine, I reckon well be in the air in no more than…”, he looked at what seemed to me an obscenely large, military style watch, with a green canvas strap and leather trim, “… fifteen.”

Remembering my new approach to life, I decided to shoot a very small smile back and said gamely, “ok, I’ll hold you to that”.

It meant nothing. He could do me no harm and if it gave him a bit of a thrill that he had coached me through my distress, then good. More happiness in the world can only be a good thing, I figured.

I happened to be looking at my phone a bit later and saw the time creep to 9.15pm. I leant forward, only very slightly, saying “What happened to this fifteen …”, before being interrupted by the airport tannoy again.

“Boarding will now commence for Flight A153 to JFK at Gate 56”

The man flung his head back and held his mouth open, laughing out loud. Then he flung around, and began cupping his hand around his left ear “What’s that … sorry you were just about to say something … please continue”.

“Ok, fair play, well done” I said, and began walking towards the gate. Although strangely, he sat motionless.

“I thought you were on my flight?” I said.

“Yeah”, he said, taking the earphone back out of his left ear, and staring at his phone, “I always wait until everyone else has boarded. It’s preallocated seats, so what’s the point of rushing just to spend more time in the queue?”

“Well, you’ll still get on the plane first” I responded.

“Oh, I’ve got more space right here, thanks” he said, as he smiled and put his headphones back in.

I had always wanted to get on the plane first. I had to get on at some point, so I may as well get it over with, and then I could relax. And that’s what I did, taking my window seat a few rows from the front, without having to ask anyone to get up and let me in. And right at the end of boarding, sure enough, there was the guy, coming on last, headphones in, not a care in the world. I watched him hover at the front of the plane. He was tall and not unattractive. A husky look I suppose, probably a Marine I thought, as there was a US Marine Base in Northern Maine, and most of the guys from there would have to fly back to NY, to get a connecting flight on to wherever was home. And his accent definitely wasn’t from Maine. At one point he glanced up directly at me and I immediately looked away. One thing I had always observed was that whilst men seem quite happy to stare at strangers they find attractive, I, like many women, had the opposite habit; of trying to avoid all eye contact with strangers I found attractive.

“Hey” he said raising his eyebrows, whilst walking past my row.

“Oh, Hi” I responded, pretending not to have seen him board, and flicking through the in-flight magazine to look busy.

Soon enough the aircraft was buzzing up into the night sky, with just the gentle hum of the engines and the fleeting individual snowflakes dragging across the window. Initially the city lights could be seen, and then the dimmer lights of nearby towns; but eventually we rose into pure darkness, and with the renewed heat of the plane, I began to drift off to sleep.

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