By: Shauri Thacker
The plane feels like I should be in the Antarctic instead of Europe. I curl my body inward within the confines of my seat, trying to avoid the passengers shoving their way down the aisles. Suitcases bang in their wake, and they’re followed by children screaming with enough force to tear their little throats. Wheels narrowly miss the heads of people too distracted with their own flight rituals to notice how close they’d come to decapitation at the discretion of an impatient stranger. Attendants trail behind this flock of people with smiles that don’t quite bunch the corners of their eyes. English and French buzzes over the clicks of bin latches.
On my right, Syd digs her earbuds out of her bag in an effort to drown it all out. We’ve been attached at the hip most of the trip, and now that it’s over, both of us are starting to give into our introverted tendencies.
One of the attendants, a man with a weary face who looks like he’s been awake and catering to strangers for far too long, sweeps his gaze over the rows of seats with a carry-on held up, and I raise my hand with a sluggish, “It’s mine.” His shoulders sag in relief—how long had I been oblivious to his search for me?—and he drones out the number of the overhead bin he moves my luggage to above the head of a blond man settling into his seat.
I flash a thumbs-up with a tight-lipped smile before slumping back down, pushing a sigh out as I drop my head against the seat in front of me. Movement from the woman occupying it forces the seat against my forehead. Annoyance sparks, and with a grumble, I shift myself against my own seat’s back.
Homebound flights always feel like this. My bones are weighted with the kind of exhaustion that comes from one too many rushes of adrenaline, dread seeping its way into my chest cavity to fill the hole left by anticipation taking its leave. I shouldn’t be leaving, my body tells me. I should stay right here in a city I’ve just met that speaks a language I don’t understand. The thought of going back to the United States, to my small town in the middle of Utah, twists my stomach. I’m drained and overwhelmed with a rush of longing, and I don’t even have a window to watch the expansive city of Paris become nothing more than blips of buildings.
Despite the anxiety I won’t get medicated for until a year later, I somehow end up playing ringleader during our first night in London. I can’t exactly complain, though, because it’s entirely my fault for getting too antsy to explore. Jet lag has knocked most everyone besides the professors out for the night, including Syd, and while they explore Soho, I pitch to Sierra and Olivia that the key to keeping ourselves awake is to journey to the Sky Garden.
A penthouse lounge over the city, the Sky Garden, we discover, is a 360 view hovering over 500 feet above London. We arrive off the tube as dusk settles in and lights begin to waltz in the reflection of the Thames. The Sky Garden encompasses the entire floor of the building, and all of its walls and its ceiling are glass so that all I can see as we step out of the elevator is city, city, city. There’s no backdrop of mountains; that has vanished and given way to the endless visage of inked alleyways and a skyline where the only thing that touches the dark blue is the jagged horizon of buildings.
We pass by the cabanas that make up the bar and the table seating sprawled across the main floor space to take one of the two sweeping staircases along the glass walls. Lush bushes and trees frame our way up, bare only at each small landing to allow for a table and a handful of chairs. The three of us weave around couples pausing to take pictures. Some have the same markers as we do, designating us as tourists, but others blend seamlessly into the atmosphere as if they’ve always been here.
On the top deck, there’s another, thinner staircase leading to an enclosed, private bar and an empty lounge. It overlooks the entire floor, and this is where the three of us choose to sit and rest, silently taking in where we are. Olivia settles herself on one of the couches while Sierra leans over the railing, Polaroid held up to her face. Over the course of the trip, I’ll grow used to seeing it in her hands, since she’s always waiting to capture the moments in front of her. I take the couch opposite Olivia’s lithe frame.
Below us, more people have trickled in, and the fairy lines strung across the bar glow brighter in preparation for night. They’re among the only lights present, casting the Sky Garden in dim purple hues. We have a perfect view of the Thames and the bridges arching over it. The people on them and those at the bar are mere specks wandering in London’s nightlife, and I’m here, alive in the same space that they’re alive, experiencing the same thing many of them understand as just another day.
I glance toward Olivia and Sierra. Both of them are in the same sort of awe as I am, but I can’t help wondering if they’re overwhelmed by the same sense of sonder and displacement. Sierra looks at me in the same moment, and with a carefree smile that rounds her face, she raises her Polaroid.
Mind the Gap
Stop for a moment to feel the air
grow colder, chilled by the rush of passersby
milling on steps, on escalators, staying
on the right to make way for those rushing
for the platform. Take a step and listen
to the sound of footfall and the grind
of the train on the rail and the faint trill
of “Mind the gap” over the speakers.
This you do as you push your frame between
two teenagers stumbling, giggling, their way
out onto the platform for Russell Square.
There’s little room on the tubes at this hour,
so you squeeze yourself into a corner, wrapping
your hand around the bar and watching
more and more people crowd around you.
Some might have come from King’s Cross
(they keep luggage tucked protectively between
their knees as if anticipating the worst)
or perhaps they’re on the journey home tonight
(the woman next to you has mascara smudged
beneath her eyelids and a seated old man
is slumped forward onto his wrinkled palms).
You sway with the lurch of the train as it departs,
the doors having closed with a certain sense
of finality just behind you, and a young girl
holding her mother’s hand nearly loses her footing.
The train twists and turns and tilts until brakes
squeal to stop at Holborn, Covent Garden,
and finally Leicester Square. The doors open
to a white-tiled wall and here, the people move
faster, footfall urgent and heavy, and you pause
in that moment to watch the tide of humanity
swell around you from your corner. You wait here,
watching the girls coming from a concert
and the tourists taking selfies to post on their Instagram,
the men hovering next to their wives, the children
swinging their feet in their seats while their parents
shush them and apologize to those seated beside them.
You wait here until the doors begin to close,
and you, an American in a country that isn’t your own,
step onto the platform, careful to mind the gap.
For 10 days, Europe treated me to perfectly flaky croissants and tender meat for breakfast. Souvlaki and bread bowls. Baguettes. The best damn macaron I think I’ll ever have. The flight attendants bring around our “morning” meal—I still don’t really have a concept of time this many hours in—and it’s nothing more than a hot pocket practically dripping with grease.
The woman that hands it to me in its small container smiles warmly, as if she doesn’t understand she’s giving me what I will tell my mom later is the worst possible meal to have coming back to the United States. I accept it, trying my best to be polite until she’s made her way down the aisle. When she is, I turn to Syd in horror.
She’s already dabbing at the hot pocket with the pitiful napkin the attendant had given with the food. Her lip wobbles, and I hear a soft, “There’s so much grease,” as she gives up on blotting it away. The now-damp napkin gets pushed aside.
I don’t make the same desperate attempt she does, but I do pout. Hard. The kind of pouting a petulant child might give their mother, and then I lift the hot pocket to take a bite. Whatever noise I make in the back of my throat sounds wounded to my own ears, and I drop the hot pocket back into its container. “This tastes like shit,” I respond mournfully.
Syd’s fingers reach up to push away the falling strands of brown hair that have slipped from her ponytail during her efforts to sleep. She stares down at the hot pocket, limp in her fingers. “I miss the baguettes,” she says.
Anxiety and groups of people don’t mix well. In media, the space around you at the Eiffel Tower is curated, probably either because you’re wealthy and well-known, good at Photoshop, or a mix of the two. In reality, I feel like a package peanut shoved in with all the rest of the package peanuts, moving only when others shift enough to allow me a step or two.
Syd’s earbuds are already in and her eyes are closed. She doesn’t do very well with the endless chatter, either. I’m forcing myself to not react to strangers brushing against my side, mentally talking myself down from the urge to scream.
We make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower at a snail’s pace, winding our way up staircases and across decks. When the last of the too-tiny elevators delivers us to the top, I almost heave a sigh of relief on my way to sag against an open spot on the railing.
I won’t realize that Syd’s slipped away for a while. I’m far too consumed by how much it seems like I’m in the center of a galaxy, Parisian lights like stars until they vanish into the darkness in the distance. How miniscule I am, slams into my chest then, and I scramble to free my phone from my pocket.
My mom needs to see this, my mind urges. There’s hardly any bars up here, but I try to video call her anyway. It rings, and it rings, and it keeps ringing until I’m almost sure it won’t work, and then it connects with my mom’s pixelated face.
“This won’t hold long, but I thought you’d want to see this live instead of just in pictures,” I say as I turn my camera around. I hear a hitch in her breath and smile, heart light in my chest. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
Pretty isn’t the most accurate descriptor, but it does the job. I don’t know what other word to assign what I’m seeing. Paris sprawls in the same way London had, a city of lights and noise and possibility and all of those other cheesy ideas I’d always thought about in my youth, but somehow, it glows with more intensity.
When Syd and I step off the plane, we’re back in the familiarity of the Salt Lake City airport. I force down the urge to cry until it rests heavily in my throat. We wrestle our carry-ons from the overhead bins and push them down the aisle off the plane, silent as we approach the terminal.
I’ve forgotten what Professor Corser had told us to say at customs by the time I’m funneled into one of the lines with Syd following behind me. The officer finishes with the person in front of me and I give Syd a glance before approaching his station.
“What were you doing in Europe?” he asks after I tell him that I’ve just returned from London and Paris.
“A study abroad trip,” I respond, and I immediately know it’s the wrong answer. He leans forward and his eyes seem to harden with skepticism—or maybe he’s just doing what he’s trained to do and I’m anxiously reading into it.
He grills me about study abroad, and like the mess I am, I ramble on about the programs that Southern Utah University offers because I don’t know how to shut up when I’m nervous and exhausted and really wanting to be anywhere but in front of him. I want to be back on the plane.
“Do you have anything to declare?”
I’ve never been told what to declare at customs, so I confidently tell him, “Rubber ducks.”
He blinks, long and slow, before waving me forward. Mentally, I scream at myself for giving such a ridiculous answer. Behind me, Syd tells the officer that she’s with me and that she’s declaring—much more mundanely—a baguette.
I let her lead again, trying to smother the pink in my cheeks as Syd laughs and mumbles, “Rubber ducks,” to herself.
We make our way down the stretch from Terminal A to the exit, and I pause at the doors. Outside is the United States and my parents, parked in their truck and waiting for me to leave the airport behind so that they can hug me and welcome me home. Syd catches my eye and nods us forward, pushing the doors open and holding one for me to pass through.
Her parents’ car is first, so I leave her beside them after hugging her goodbye. I won’t be seeing her for a long time after this. Instead, I’d see her face among the faces of my other friends in our pictures, preserving us in those places and those days even though I’m forced to move forward from them. I toss her a wave over my shoulder as she gets in the car, and I make the walk down to my parents’ truck, gray and towering.
My mom opens the door at my approach and scrambles to help me load my luggage in the trunk. She hugs me then, and I break inside, clinging to her in relief at the same time I grasp the thoughts of Europe tightly, pleading with them to stay as close and dear as they are now.