Man at His Best

What a Stranger Taught Me About Love at an Airport Restaurant

I almost didn't go home for Christmas. But then I did, because of Susan.

BY JUSTIN KIRKLAND | Jan 2, 2019 | Sex & Relationships

There is a Vanilla Ice Cream Waffle Sundae at the American Tap Room at the Ronald Reagan National Airport across from gate 35X. The sundae is not offered at either of American Tap Room’s other locations, and it typically has two scoops of ice cream, even though my waitress gave me three. It also comes with candied pecans and little pieces of bacon you can put on top—real bacon, not fake bacon bits. It is $7.65, the price of most beers on the menu. It is $4.80 less than the wings I considered and about 6 dollars cheaper than the fried chicken sandwich I didn’t think I had time to order. The Vanilla Ice Cream Waffle Sundae is the second best deal at American Tap Room.

I only found it because I had spent so much time at the airport before going home for Christmas this year. Six hours one day and around two hours the next. When you spend that much time at the airport you start noticing everything: the five charging stations, two bathrooms, four different restaurant options, and one Hudson News where a Diet Coke costs over three dollars. You spend a lot of time counting delays that are pushing back your arrival to a place you’re not even sure you want to go anymore. The minutes you spend on the phone with your family arguing the same old points and counterpoints about coming out and not being able to bring your partner home for Christmas. You count the dollars an airline offers you to get bumped from your flight, and when you've done your counting and you decide that the year has been long, you give up and you take it. I counted a lot on day one, but in all that counting, I didn’t notice the great deal at the American Tap Room.

I spent the whole next day with a rescheduled flight wondering what it might look like to not go home. I remember reading stories about when people would come out and I’d see either triumph or tragedy: parents who loved their kids more than they did before or who kicked them out of their homes. But no one told me about the intricate mess that is neither of those things. No one ever explained that coming home could come with a stipulation, and, after a few years of those arguments, across from gate 35X I folded and left the airport.

"I REMEMBER READING STORIES ABOUT WHEN PEOPLE WOULD COME OUT AND I’D SEE EITHER TRIUMPH OR TRAGEDY... BUT NO ONE TOLD ME ABOUT THE INTRICATE MESS THAT IS NEITHER OF THOSE THINGS."

On the subway back to the airport the next day, I couldn’t quite figure out if I’d made my mind up about what to do next. You know when you’re so tired that you just let your body make decisions for you? That’s kind of where I was at. Physically, I was headed to the airport, but my head was elsewhere, piecing together parts of old arguments that had happened since I came out to my family. Not going home wasn’t some big political Left versus Right stance to spice up the holiday season. Our close relationship had afforded them a lot of authority over how I saw myself and not going would be a concession that I just couldn’t handle not being enough.

Those thoughts are what led me from the subway and back through security, where I finally saw what I’d missed for six hours the day before. In bright red letters, AMERICAN TAP ROOM shined over a restaurant packed with people. A waitress came up and said that she had a table available, but considering how busy the restaurant was, she wanted to ask if I minded sitting with someone else. I looked behind me in line and shifted my eyes down. Standing with a big backpack and a Patagonia hoodie was a woman that looked to be in her late 50s. She said, “I don’t mind if you don’t.” So tucked at a small table in the back of the restaurant, the woman extended her hand and introduced herself before we sat down.

There was something funny about the two of us sitting together. She was barely five feet tall, and I’m well over six foot, but her handshake was so firm my fingers crumpled a bit in her grasp. She explained to me that she was going to Maine to see her family before asking where I was headed. Looking at our menus, my table mate—let's call her Susan—ordered a Coke while I ordered a beer and that Vanilla Ice Cream Waffle Sundae. For a moment we sat in silence before she brought up the hockey game on television.

I learned that Susan is a woman who doesn't believe in sitting in silence, and after a few more minutes, it became clear that she didn’t believe in boundaries either. New York stranger etiquette had become so ingrained in me over the past couple years. But Susan was no New Yorker; Susan pried. She asked me about my family and my life, and then she’d reveal a little about herself: the home she owned on a lake and pictures of her two rescue dogs and her partner’s concussion last year. I asked, “So are you meeting your partner in Maine?” and she took a sip of Coke and said, “No, I spend the holiday with my mother one-on-one.”

The waitress brought out my waffle sundae, and without thinking, I said, “Do you mind if I ask why?” The answer was none of my business, but after a while of not having anyone share too much of their life with you, the curiosity comes back pretty quickly. She took her hand and ran it through her short grey hair, took a sip of Coke, and looked at the hockey game again before saying, “Sometimes, life is complicated for us in ways not everybody gets.” She turned back toward me and smiled.

"OUR LOVE IS SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN SOMEONE ELSE’S TRADITIONS."

I understood where she was coming from, but it was equally frustrating. Living away from Tennessee where I grew up, I’ve come to expect immediacy. If you don’t accept people, then screw you. So I asked her, “Doesn’t that bother you?” Susan put her hands in either side of her hoodie pocket and leaned back a little bit, saying, “Sometimes, it’s a process. And for us, this works. Sometimes traditions are only important because we make them important. But our love is so much more important than someone else’s traditions.”

Susan explained that while her partner stays home with their rescue dogs, she goes to Maine and does her thing with her family—how these days are so important to her mom, and it’s the one time of year they get time together. She explained, “Why do these days that matter so much to everyone else have to define our relationship?” So I told her about my boyfriend and my family and the day before, and she said, “We don’t let someone else’s traditions dictate our love. If they can’t handle that, fine. We won’t share it with them.”

It was the difference between an idea and an ideal. Of course the ideal is always perfect. Everyone should be able to go home with the person they love and eat turkey and mashed potatoes. There shouldn’t be any stipulations on that, and I do like to believe we’re getting closer to that ideal every day. But maybe the bigger notion is that those ideals are the one-size-fit-all plans forced upon each of us. 

"IT WAS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN IDEA AND AN IDEAL."

With a quarter of my waffle left, I noticed that there was about five minutes before I was supposed to board. Before I left the restaurant, she asked, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?” And she reached around the table and gave me a real, genuine hug from one stranger to another before whispering, “If this weren’t such a bad match up, your boyfriend might have something to worry about.” And finally, after two days of travel, I crossed over to gate 35X again, and I went home alone.

Source: Esquire US


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