Photo by Nick Taylor
It was my biggest disappointment in recent memory. I slumped in a blue plastic seat at the JFK terminal to absorb the shock while my plane to sunny St. Martin took off without me. I couldn’t believe I had let my vacation slip through my fingers.
I had remembered to pack everything—the sunscreen, the bikinis, the breezy beach read. My passport was in hand and up to date. I had waxed and pedicured and researched ground transport. I just hadn’t arrived at the airport on time.
And it wasn’t for lack of travel anxiety, either. That was what had gotten our family to the airport on time throughout my childhood, so why hadn’t it worked today? It had been a nail-biter all the way from my apartment this morning. First, I had to wait longer than usual for the B train at 81st Street. Then, the connecting E barely crawled through stations it didn’t even stop in. Finally, I arrived at Jamaica Station, and it came down to mere minutes on the air train to my terminal. I sweat bullets eyeing my watch, knowing that I had less than five minutes to get to a kiosk and print my boarding pass before entering the dead zone within thirty minutes of departure. The train doors slid open at terminal 5. I bolted out with my “personal item” over one shoulder bursting at the seams and my wheeled carry-on in tow. Shoot—an escalator. I hoisted my luggage off the floor and yelled up a frantic “EXCUSE ME!” to the one passenger who had made it onto the escalator before I had so he would move aside and let me pass. I stepped off the moving stairs. A quarter mile of corridor suspended over the street separated me from the terminal proper. I sprinted down the passage past its several moving sidewalks, wondering if this was what a panic attack felt like. A woman walking with her little girl laughed unabashedly at me as I ran past. My breath whooshed, and adrenaline pumped. I was thankful that I was in shape and had worn my running shoes. But I usually did this sort of exercise without luggage. Finally, after a downhill pass and a twist around the corner, I saw salvation just before the terminal entrance. Two kiosks where I could print my boarding pass.
I fumbled for my credit card, panting in front of the welcome screen. Every traveler who passed turned his head to see the crazed sweaty trembling passenger-hopeful. I was too focused to glare back. I swiped my card. The kiosk read 10:02, thirty-three minutes before departure time. I entered my destination city. The kiosk gave me nothing. I did it again. The computer refused to print my boarding pass but issued me an “oops” coupon to take to the check-in counter. I proceeded toward the terminal, this time at a mere brisk walk, since I had my coupon in hand as proof that I was here on time. Another escalator. At least this one went down. Once descended, I rushed straight to the first desk, where a woman was helping a middle-aged couple.
“My flight is—sorry.” I feigned politeness and flashed an apologetic smile to the couple who had gotten to the airport on time, actually stood in line, and waited to be helped. “My flight is leaving in just over 30 minutes, and the machine gave me an ‘oops’ coupon at 10:02.” Surely they could understand the supreme urgency of my plight. They seemed to. They repeated my assertion. “Ah, 10:35. It leaves at 10:35,” the husband said. The desk agent looked at me evenly and stated as a matter of fact, “That flight has closed.”
Now I was not only gasping from my boarding pass relay race, but it seemed I had somehow caught a tickle in my throat. I was wheezing and coughing between raspy words. In addition, the body heat from my mad dash was burning me up inside the layers of fleece I had donned for the blustery March morning. I was in rare form. Wiping my brow and convulsing with coughs, my words came out in guttural spurts while I unzipped and unpeeled layers of clothing. “But the ugh-bsite didn’t say! I guh! Ulways ged here thirty minutes bah-ugh! Fore.”
You might think the desk agent would feel sorry for the sickly speech-impaired stripper, but it was no use. She looked at me like the leper I appeared to be. “St. Martin? That’s an international flight. You missed it. You needed to check in one hour ahead.” Somehow, though I had remembered my passport, I had forgotten that St. Martin was part of a foreign country.
Speechless, with my hope deflated, I didn’t have the oomph to argue when she relegated me to the back of the queue for rebooking.
After twenty minutes of standing in line, I was beckoned to the desk of the same woman, who greeted me with an “oh!” of recognition and a snicker. She proceeded to inform me that the single flight that would get me to St. Martin today had closed check-in eight minutes earlier, twelve minutes after she had sent me away from her desk. I would have to repeat my journey to JFK tomorrow, preferably with certain modifications. I thanked my new worst enemy and walked away.
This is how I ended up sulking in the plastic blue chair.
I called my seven-month-pregnant sister, whom I was scheduled to meet on the island for a long girls’ weekend getaway before the arrival of her third child, to tell her that I would be there only for the last forty-eight hours of the trip. She was gracious as always. My dejection was debilitating.
When I could bear to stand, I hung my head and sulked back to the air train, wallowing in thoughts of what an idiot I was. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to print my boarding pass yesterday, when I was in my office, which happens remarkably to be equipped with internet access and high-speed printers galore. Alternatively, I could have stopped in the Kinko’s-like store across from my apartment this morning and cut five minutes from my morning workout. I could have gotten up forty minutes earlier. I could have taken a cab instead of the subway. But being me, and assuming that nothing bad would happen, I chose to get to the airport late and cut a day of vacation, leaving my pregnant sister alone in a foreign country.
I shuffled down the escalator that I wasn’t supposed to descend until I had a tan. I rode the train back from Queens to Manhattan, having no more to smile about than the tired faces on board. I trudged back up the front steps to my apartment building, hoping I wouldn’t run into any neighbors who had seen me bouncing down them with the same packed luggage this morning. I unzipped the suitcase that wasn’t supposed to be opened until I arrived in my bright tropical room where I could smell the ocean.
I was so full of self-loathing that I decided to call the one person who could rightfully say “I told you so” and wouldn’t hold back. She answered on the second ring. Though I wanted to punish myself, I pre-empted her speech. “Mom, I’m such a jerk.”
She responded more sympathetically than usual for such a foolish blunder, and I let down my guard. I told her all the details. “I’m on standby for tomorrow’s flight. I can pay to be confirmed, but the lady said there are a bunch of seats available. I’ll confirm if they start to fill up.” I should have known from thirty years of experience that this sort of information would not meet silence or approval.
She began to rant. “Please, Sabrina. I’ll pay the money! I’ll write you a check right now! Confirm the seat. Just confirm it!” Her tone verged on hysteria. I agreed that it was silly to risk the second flight and that of course it made sense for me to buy the confirmation. Then we hung up.
I thought about it a little more. How many people are going to book a trip to St. Martin between this afternoon and tomorrow morning? I’ll take my chances.
Sabrina Hassan is a lawyer. She lives and works in Manhattan.