It’s a Wednesday morning in June, and my family has just dropped me off at the airport. I walk in, pulling a small rolling bag behind me and carrying a bookbag on my back. Despite the weight, I immediately feel lighter as I enter the check-in line: I have no one but myself to look out for. I am giddy with excitement (or is it nerves?) as I walk through the airport, alone. Let me repeat that: I am ALONE.
The last time I flew across country, I was not alone. I was with my whole family, and it was December. We drove to Dulles, a nearly two-hour drive, to park in the long-term parking and take a cheap flight to California. We had to leave almost four hours before our flight time, allowing for traffic delays, the parking shuttle, security at the airport, and my own anxieties. I spent the time before the flight watchful, anxious: were my children where they should be? Would my husband still be in the men’s room when the flight was called? Would I get us from here to there safely? I rushed us through lines, skimmed the TV monitors for flight information and herded us all to the right gate, pushing ahead and snapping at the kids to keep up. Expensive objects beckoned them from various shops; I denied all requests, moving us on to our goal of a cheap, quick trip.
On this June Wednesday, things are very different. Traveling for my job means I don’t have to fly out of Dulles but can use the local airport — the flight may be a bit more expensive but the university will cover the cost, and it’s far more efficient. It’s a smaller airport, and we’re not worried about a parking shuttle, so we leave just a little over an hour before my flight and are confident of being there on time. I find the electronic check-in, swipe my credit card, pull out a boarding pass and walk easily through the terminal to my gate. I stop for coffee and magazines, dropping over ten dollars without concern. In December, I’d carried snacks and books for everyone, keeping our costs down but increasing my burden. This time, I don’t need to shepherd anyone through security; I can take my time, removing my watch and shoes, carrying my just-purchased coffee.
I am anonymous and irresponsible. For the next five days, I am no one’s mother, no one’s wife, simply a traveler and a conference attendee. I buy coffee and bottled water and magazines extravagantly; I fail to eat balanced meals; I stay up too late talking and then shower early in the morning to clear my head. I converse only with grown-ups — there are no discussions of going to the bathroom, or who won’t eat their vegetables, or what time someone has to be driven somewhere in the morning. It is heaven.
I try to express some of this to Mark on my return, how I enjoyed my irresponsibility, my lack of ties. He agrees. “I love finding my own way in the airport,” he says. “I like to figure out where my connection is, look up on the screen and find my way.”
That’s not what I mean. But I realize that’s what I do when we travel together, I check the flight times, the gates; I herd us all through; I run the show. And by taking on responsibility I am robbing him of some of his. Just the thought lightens me for a moment.
So I practice more lightening, after my return. I go out without my purse. (I put a twenty, my ID, and a credit card in my pocket, though.) I drink a second glass of wine with dinner. I leave the dishes, and Mark does them. Mariah volunteers to cook dinner, and follows through with a delicious meal of shrimp salad, bread, and peach-raspberry crisp. Remarkably, giving up a bit of responsibility seems not to change things in the least. In fact, I am a little less tense, a little less crabby by the end of the day. A month or so after my return, I dream that I am alone in my house; Mark has taken the kids to visit his mother for Christmas. It is not a nightmare. I wake up thinking I don’t quite want it to happen that way, but also realizing that it could, that he could do the shepherding, and I could have the solitude, if that’s what I want.
I’m not giving it all up. But being on my own reminded me that I’m not on my own, if that makes sense. Taking care of myself reminded me that in fact there are others who can help take care of me, that I’m not in this all alone. And that lightens the burden even more than not carrying a purse.