Airports. Muffled footsteps, tears of joy, the sadness of parting. Places where anticipation lives. They deceive us with a blind promise for freedom and adventure. There is something in them that resonates with me. I am a habitue. I have traveled so much and gone so far that I’m no longer anxious before a journey. Traveling is life.
I ignore the shuffling and the noise. Just yawn. Paris is too far from New York. The nine-hour flight has taken its toll. Gate 39 swells with people. They are moving in no direction, doing nothing. The tiny screen above Gate 39 states Delta Airlines. States Atlanta. I sit across the hall. Here, an entire row of empty seats is at my disposal. Behind me is a couple of sex-crazed teenagers. They kiss, mumble something into each other's mouths, then kiss again. I open my book, feeling awkward for them. It’s my third attempt to read through one paragraph. My eyes register the words. My brain fails to interpret their meaning. I give up when my gaze crashes into one random word and remains there. It’s a lethal crash. I am neither looking nor seeing anything.
“Is it Russian?” asks a voice. Too close, too sudden, too disturbing. A wave of frustration wakes me up a little.
To my left sits a man, short hair, dark eyes, liquid smile. Attractive in some intense, brooding sort of way. He’s referring to the language of the book, I realize. Absolutely hate it when people notice.
I nod and return to the page in an attempt to reread the damn paragraph.
“Are you Russian?” he asks.
I nod again.
“One of my friends dated a Russian girl several years ago, but she dumped him for an Austrian guy.”
I have heard that before. All versions of it. “One of my friends married a Russian girl,” or “We had a Russian guy back in high school,” or “My uncle has a good Russian friend.” Everyone has a story to tell when they learn I am Russian. And I honestly don't care which Russian they met, or dated, or even married. Not sure if any other nation feels this way, but hardly any other Russian would give a damn if he learns I ever knew, or dated, or married anyone. Well, apart from my friends and family.
I make a mistake by looking at him. Still smiling. My conscience prompts me to make an effort. People make small talk here. Well, everywhere. It is not his fault chatting with strangers is my wildest nightmare.
I lift the corners of my mouth to fake a smile. “Good to know.”
“Phew. I was afraid you didn't speak English.”
A pause when I regret opening my mouth and when his look becomes indicative. Some mix of hunger and curiosity. We are somewhat alone with those passersby hurrying toward their gates. Noise is there, the crowd is there, but attention to my persona is absent. My eyes jump to G39.
“So, where are you from?” he asks.
I contemplate whether I am as fluent in English as I think I am.
“From Russia,” I reply.
He shakes his head in frustration. “No. I meant the city. Which city do you live in?”
“Do you know any other city apart from Moscow?”
People ask the question to be polite. What they don't realize is that this is a dead end. They get their reply in the form of an unknown city, and then they are stuck. Because even if they start asking where it is, there is no way to explain. The majority of the world thinks Russia and Siberia are synonyms anyway. There are many large cities on roughly seventeen million one hundred twenty-five thousand square kilometers, God bless the metric system. Mind-blowing for a foreigner, but an undeniable fact. We don't live in one city. Though, in Moscow, it seems like it.
He rips through my contemplations with a “no.” His smile is back. Together with white teeth this time. Straight white teeth that make me a little more annoyed.
Two chatty girls take a seat across from us. They don't stop their loud bubbling for a second. The discussion is way more important than manners. Something about going on vacation. To Honolulu. Keenly, they check out the man next to me, who is half-turned my way now, his arm resting on the top of my seat. On the gray carpeting, his boots, massive and clean, are planted far away from each other. I'd better move. Better to be in the crowd at Gate 39 than here.
“So you are not from Moscow?” He is still waiting for the answer, I realize.
“I am from Moscow.” I give it a thought, then add, “Could have been from Vladivostok, though.”
“Is that the one closer to Beijing?”
“Beijing is in China. Russia is bounded on the east with Japan. Tokyo. Across the sea.”
He blinks. Once. Innocently. Probably has no idea where Tokyo or Beijing is. My gaze lands on the planes outside the window, their paunchy forms disturbingly more familiar than any other kind of transport. My lazy brain tells me I am being unfair.
“Well, yeah. With Beijing too.”
He grins and offers his hand. “I am Aaron, by the way.”
It's shocking how his eyes grab my stare. Though he is handsome, the last thing I want is to meet anyone now. Travel discreetly, return unnoticed. That's the plan. And now the bubbly girls are watching us. Way too entertained by our awkward encounter. The man and I have just become a hot topic.
Social conventions suck. And my watch tells me it's twenty minutes before boarding. I don't need to use the bathroom, but I do need to flee.
I throw the book into my backpack. “Excuse me.”
Aaron, the friendly guy, doesn’t look so friendly anymore. Something iron seeps through the way he holds himself. From me, he gets only a noncommittal shrugging in reply. And then I hurry to the restroom.
I find it several gates away. What I also find is that they added a “no gender” variant of it too. Too curious, I opt for the genderless one.
The place is empty. Everything gray. Two bright lights on the ceiling, two sinks opposite two cubicles. And a mirror showing how disturbingly worn out I am. I take care of my needs, and when I leave the cubicle, Aaron is in the bathroom with me.
Panic punches me hard in the pit of my stomach. My brain is all too happy to provide scenes of violence and rape. I am paranoid, yes. But this is no gender-specific bathroom. He is allowed to be here.
He smirks. “You never said what your name was.”
Screaming is an option. We are at the airport. I can scream, right? But will I be able to get out of here? He doesn't look like a rapist. But yet again, whack jobs seem very much normal on photos and TV screens.
He is allowed to be here. In this no-gender-specific place.
I stare at him. He is dressed to blend in. Blue jeans, a white tee with some whimsical drawing, a black jacket. Taller than me, larger than me, lean, but muscular. Must be strong. I am around fifty-five kilos. Maybe more. Hopefully more. And he is what? Ninety or around that? No, this is of no use. This is a guessing game.
“So you are genderless too,” I say.
My reply amuses him. “Really? That's the response I get?”
He takes a step forward, heavy boots disturbingly quiet. I stay put.
“Call me Bob.”
He barks out a laugh, then cranes his neck as if for a better look. His reflection in the mirror looks as good as the real him, and I wonder if a mirror is sexist. It's not supposed to be, right?
“Fine. Bob, why don't you tell me about your extracurricular activities?”
He shakes his head. “Like stealing.”
“I didn't steal anything,” I lie.
“You'd be surprised how often I hear that.”
“Are you an agent or something?”
He nods. “Something, yes.”
He neither steps away from the exit nor tries to draw nearer.
The noise from within is a new sound of hope to me.
He chuckles, swiftly reading my reactions. “You are not going anywhere, Bob.”
“I am no thief. You already got your answer.” I make a step toward a cubicle. He thinks I am about to lock myself in and moves to block me.
Through the small opening, I bolt to the exit. My shoulder slams into the door. I press the handle, only to find it's blocked. From the outside. The same moment I feel his body terrifyingly close to mine. Suddenly, his scent is everywhere. Raw, bitter. Suddenly, there is not much air to breathe. Tight confinement, thick with no escape. Whatever he will do to me, I will not back down. I rotate to face him in the space between us, making every effort to avoid any contact.
He inhales a lungful, studying my face, sizing me up. There is still that hunger, that interest in his gaze. Yet there is something other. Some anticipation, some thrill. Something so powerful I want to look elsewhere.
“You are Ekaterina Vorontsova-Lehrner. You are a thief. And it is very nice to finally meet you.”