The captain finishes his announcement over the loudspeakers, and we all begin uprighting our seatbacks and stowing our traytables. I look out the window, the pale gray blanket over northern California thickly and softly extending to the horizon. Considering the view, I go over my mental checklist.
My layover is several hours long, and I have to collect my overstuffed suitcase and check in at the China Airlines counter. There are three or four other items on my to-do list, none of which will be difficult, but I’m looking forward to putting a crisp mental check mark next to each item.
We’re now within the grayness of the blanket. I put away my iPod and stash my backpack under the seat in front of me. Pulling out my itinerary, I check the time of my next flight: 1:05am. I land in Taiwan at 6:00am local time. Oops. I told my family the wrong arrival time. I’ll have to let them know. I have plenty of time to do so before my final flight – it’s only 6:00pm now.
Sun strikes my face, and I peer out the window. It’s beautiful. The Bay Area is awash in golden light, stray clouds are nestled in the hills, the water below is sparkling and blue. Downtown and the Golden Gate Bridge are visible up until the plane reaches South San Francisco and the scene north curves out of view.
The thought flies through my head before I can form it.
“I could live here.”
Several hours later, after rescuing my graffitied green suitcase from the carousel, visiting a bookstore, eating a large dinner, and catching up on several episodes of Modern Family, I’m standing in the large hall housing the international check-in counters. The building could be an airline hangar. It’s fairly quiet as I search out the China Airlines counter.
My backpack is, as I’ll find out later, twenty pounds of dead weight, and I’m suddenly struck by just how tired I am. Exhaustion threatens to take over, and I feel alone – not lonely, but alone. Thoughts are drifting around my mind, and without a large crowd to drown them out or music blaring from my headphones, I pay attention to them.
Just a half-day ago, I said goodbye to my grandfather for what’s likely to be the last time ever. I grin as I think about it, since the running joke in the family is that Pop Pop will outlive us all. His surprise 90th birthday party was yesterday, and he grinned like a little boy when he wheeled himself into the room.
After this flight, I’ll be back in Taiwan. That thought numbs my heart a little, and I start missing my family and friends all over again. I shove that thought to the back of my mind, where it festers.
I pass another United Airlines counter. With my credit card in my wallet, all I have to do is walk up to one of their counters, slide the card across to the agent, and ask for a one-way ticket to Dallas. It would be easy.
I don’t have to go back.
It’s my life. The twists and turns are up to me.
I don’t have to go back.
But I do. And I did.
And so now, here I am, back in Hsinchu, still sorting through my thoughts and trying to regain my footing. Life feels a little off right now, as though my center of gravity has gotten lost in the shuffle of 32 hours of travel, and I still haven’t found it. I keep stumbling around, bumping into my fears and worries, but no bruises so far.
I’ve been thinking about San Francisco and Austin, where I lived before coming to Taiwan, a lot over the past few days. I never thought I’d want to return to Texas. I don’t have to go back.
But what if I did?