How to Sleep in an Airport by Jenny O’Connell

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empty airline gate waiting area at night, planes lined up outside window

Look for the darkest place. Behind the gate attendant’s desk there is a tall metal box. Behind that box, a window and a corner just wide enough for you to stretch out on the floor. There, you can see the sky. Someone else might tell you to search for three chairs that do not have armrests in the middle, but those chairs are directly under the halogen lights. This airport makes loud announcements through the night. No one comes to turn off the television. The news at the border is bad.

If you have a sleeping bag, you are lucky. If you don’t, make one out of a scarf and a pair of shorts and the dress you wore on the beach to your friend’s wedding in Mexico. Last Sunday in Mexico was Election Day, and nobody was allowed to drink or sell booze. Andrés Manuel López Obrador won by a landslide. Abrazos, no balazos was his slogan. “Hugs, not gunfire.” The Bernie Sanders of Mexico, you heard someone call him. People are celebrating in the streets.

You teach writing in Portland, Maine, to students who also happen to be immigrants. Free, but not safe. They teach their mothers and fathers how to read the English labels in the grocery store, how to bow their heads to the police, what it means to be black in America. They bring you the world, and together you try and put it into words. My mother’s accent is like music to me, wrote Britney from Peru.This world cannot guarantee you a damn thing, wrote Mary from Jamaica. The best description of home you’ve read was by a boy from Iraq named Ahmed: The stars I saw, I kept them in my head.

Tonight you watch the stars from the airport floor. Tomorrow you will rise and fly home. White skin, blue passport. Blood runs invisible at the border, but it runs. How long can a child keep the stars when he lives in a cage?

A good way to make a pillow is to take your jacket and wrap it around whatever clothes you have left. If you sleep on your side, you can press them together to make the mound higher. Pull your hood over your eyes. This will help you pretend that what you are doing is normal, that when you wake, airline attendants and day passengers won’t be staring at you. They wished to forget me. / And slowly, I began to forget myself, too. Iqra, Somalia.

An airport is a liminal space, a place between places. A few years ago you started hiding notes in airplane bathroom ashtrays like prayers:

Open me. I am for you.

If you are reading this, it means you are a curious person.

I wonder where you are going (and where I am, too).

Tonight you keep company with bleary-eyed strangers. They hunch in their chairs. They will not lie down. Happening on sleeping bodies in places they aren’t supposed to be sleeping is unnerving. Marco Antonio Muñoz from Honduras crossed the Rio Grande with his wife and son. When they took his family, he strangled himself in his holding cell. You fold your hands over your stomach and say his name as you fall asleep.

Outside, the moon is sinking behind a silvery veil of clouds. Your bones settle on the hard floor. The night janitor in Terminal B is whistling a tune so sweet it makes your eyes water. The sound sets off the sparrows, who resettle on the television monitors. You remember the woman you saw standing next to the piano at the arrivals gate who wept quietly while a man played a sonata.

You know something about the dark side of hope. Once, you spent several days in the hospital for an infection that almost cost you your leg. On the second day you went outside and the sight of a maple tree almost broke you. Years ago on the night train to Agra you didn’t have any money so you gave the girl with the tambourine a coloring book and crayons. After, you found her sobbing, rocking back and forth, knees clutched to her chest. In an audio recording of children at the border, a six-year-old Salvadoran girl recited her aunt’s phone number, her voice thick with hope. Treinta y cuarto, setenta y dos.

Your borders are invaded. You close your eyes and think of new notes for the ashtrays:

Keep the stars and do not let them go.

I am so sorry this is happening to you.

All you can hear are their voices:

Hay no papa.

Hay no papa.

Nur, Somalia:

I notice the stars for the first time /

So many with no names.


Jenny O'ConnellJenny O’Connell’s book project, Finding Petronella, traces her solo trek across Finland in the footsteps of a woman legendary among the gold miners of Lapland. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, SLICE Magazine, Camas, Stonecoast Review, and Wanderlust. Jenny was an Ellis-Beauregard Foundation Winter 2018 artist-in-residence in Rockland, Maine, and a 2017 resident artist and staff member at Chulitna Lodge Research Institute in remote Alaska. She received her MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/KilltheRhythm

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