The man looks at me like I’m a distinct kind of horror show. Like he can’t actually believe that I could be so oblivious to what he assumes is a hot cappuccino spilling all over the front of my dress as I hold it in my hand at an unwittingly tilted angle while trying to form words to ask a question. But what he doesn’t realize is that the beverage is nothing more than cold milk at this point, because I have been in this airport for quite some time. In fact, I’m starting to think that I have always been in this airport… the way Jack Torrance has always been at the Overlook Hotel. For all I know—for as discombobulated as I am—this could very well be the case.
I rose at five a.m., a farmer’s hour, to get here. Mind you, this was after going to sleep at approximately 1:10 a.m., my fault perhaps, and yet, how could I say “non” to those who wanted to keep spending the night celebrating my departure from Paris? Which sounds rather offensive when put like that, but surely, one “gets” the sentiment behind it. It is meant to infer a “joyously” bittersweet sendoff as opposed to a “kick the foreigner to the curb” kind of fête.
I had bought the cappuccino long ago, when the world was still full of promise. In other words, when I thought that I would be “blithely” (an overstatement of a word in the past, a time we had come to expect more of travel… but now a perfectly viable descriptor for delighting in the subpar) boarding my flight like everyone else. Something I have only recently come to realize is a luxury. Another product of luck, to boot—like winning the lottery or managing to finagle a decent circumstance of birth (essentially one and the same). Today, or maybe it was so many yesterdays ago—I honestly can’t tell anymore—has not been lucky. I have not been able to succeed at what was once, in a pre-9/11, and now, pre-COVID world, such a simple task: boarding the flight you paid for.
I arrived feeling naively confident, like what could possibly go wrong now that I had surmounted the initial and most important hurdle of waking up early? Like a fool, I hurriedly passed the cattle waiting in line for a COVID test near the area where I disembarked from the train. The freshly-opened Charles de Gaulle testing center was sadistically relishing the pain of its many desperate-for-results customers, people I would have sooner assumed were going to some Third World location over the secret Third World one that is the United States based on the intensity of the “prescreening.” As I would later learn, in answer to a fleeting two-pronged query I asked myself (“Are all these people really unvaccinated? Why do they need a test?”), I found out that so many wayward travelers were in line because a PCR test was required for reentry back into the Land of the “Free,” Home of the Imprisoned to Bureaucracy.
I couldn’t have learned about my error at a later possible moment, only understanding the gravity of my mistake at the very instant I was preparing to board, when a form was handed to me insisting that I make the attestation of having acquired a test. Mind you, it was no challenge to leave the U.S. with just a vaccination card. Apparently, it was only a challenge to get back in, even for those who were actually citizens. Sent reeling as I watched the words on the page turn into something like the melting-away abstractions of Dalí’s clocks in “The Persistence of Memory,” I went back to the attendant at the gate to explain my situation: that being, “I didn’t get a test.” Ce n’est pas bon. No shit.
Subsequently, I was told to go back through the security checkpoint, banished to none other than from whence I originally came: the train area. The only problem was, I couldn’t seem to find a way through security again, and all TSA employees render you invisible once you’ve already passed their jurisdiction. Standing there, trying to be noticed in some way, but treated as nonexistently as a homeless person, I did my best to keep from bursting into tears. But it’s an uncontrollable reaction stemming from the mental about-face of expecting to go through one extremely grueling thing and then being told you must go through another beforehand. At least my mask was on to conceal a complete reveal of my emotions. That would have been much too embarrassing—even in spite of the fact that no one actually gives a shit, least of all about another white girl crying over a “minor” inconvenience.
I didn’t have a chance, in all my infinite hours there, to contemplate much about Charles de Gaulle, the man. Who he was, what the fuck he did (or really, what the fuck didn’t he do?). It was the American assumption that if an airport was named after you, you probably weren’t actually that monumental as a figure (see: John Wayne Airport or Bob Hope Airport [at least formerly…now it’s called Hollywood Burbank Airport]—yes, admittedly, both in the LA vicinity, where a semi-famous name means everything). Barring, of course, the likes of JFK. Even though I feel Idlewild has a nicer ring to it. Anyway, it felt as though one second I was fluttering out of my body in order to cope with what was happening to me and to allow said husk to intuitively direct me toward where I needed to go, and the next, Rodolphe appeared. Like some kind of mirage… and in that sense, I’m still wondering if he was real. If anything was (/is), most of all existence inside of an airport. Something The Terminal starring Tom Hanks was unsuccessfully attempting to get at.
Rodolphe had a similar but different problem to mine. He bothered to get a test, but it was the somehow “inferior” antigen one. Not adequate enough to get him to where he was going: St. Petersburg. Better than St. Augustine, I suppose. He seemed to overhear my struggle as I went back through the border security checkpoint as well—my backpedaling an ever-mounting source of confusion to all, including the aforementioned man who watched in awe as I spilled cappuccino on myself without awareness. So it was that Rodolphe caught up to me at an off-the-beaten-path elevator and proceeded to tell me we ought to stick together, though I’m sure he regretted that later on when he discovered I was just your average dead-weight American. Serving no value to the cause. Certainly not the once-“great” clout of just being able to say you were American.
We were directed to many places together, told many different things by many different “authorities,” all of them acting, in their own way, as part of the Kafkaesque narrative God or whoever chose to write for us, especially today. They were all simply “doing their job,” just like the Nazis, n’est-ce pas? How could they be faulted for helping to sew together this intricately nonsensical quagmire of post-COVID “policy”? After following the latest counsel from an arbitrary source in uniform, we found ourselves standing in line. At a certain moment while waiting in that unmoving queue together to talk to a desk agent that might tell us more conflicting information about what we needed to do next (or worse still, simply tell us to call a 1-800 number), he started to flip through the images on his phone. Men always seem to want to show me pictures of their children, as though I give a goddamn. But I can never just outright say, “Children disgust me” or “I don’t give a shit” or “Why do people have to have so many fucking kids?” And I definitely couldn’t say it now, not after all the aide Rodolphe was giving me. In my state of total disorientation, I was only too happy to let some form of Jesus take the wheel, especially when that Jesus was a native French speaker and therefore wouldn’t be talked down to. I open my mouth and say just one word, and all at once, I lose any shred of credibility. Not just with the French either.
Alas, the time-warp feeling particularly began to take hold after we finally approached the desk where “The Wizard of Oz” was meant to grant us some aspect of our wish. One instant, Rodolphe was next to me, and the next he was corralled away by someone, some “official.” Taken, I’m told, to the PCR testing center that will enable him to carry on with his journey, and still make it to St. Petersburg by the end of the day. I never really got to say goodbye. Or thank you (for at least getting me somewhere. Even if not out of the airport).
Things have not been so fortuitous for me, I’m afraid to say. For yes, I’m still here now. Trapped in CDG. I will probably always be here until the French finally decide to extradite me. And sans Rodolphe, it’s all happening—or rather, not happening—without the benefit of a French-speaking guide to ferry me through this purgatory. Suffice it to say, I’m not going to waste money on another cappuccino with my faculties currently being what they are.