The dead-end corner of Terminal 1 at RDU is always the same. Southwest Airlines flights arrive and depart from the five gates in the cluster. The area is perpetually filled with anxious people awaiting flights to larger cities, nervously checking their watches and cell phones for updates on their connecting flights. This sad little end of the terminal always smells like stale Cinnabon and sweat and soccer cleats.
I went home this weekend. Or maybe I came home this weekend. I can never decide if I am coming or going—departing from Notre Dame home and arriving at North Carolina home. Either way, I spent a few days in Cary, and now I am flying to Chicago. I’ll catch a bus (probably) and the bus will take me to Notre Dame.
Raleigh-Durham International Airport has inordinately friendly TSA agents at the security checkpoints. They are busier than usual today, but the woman who checks my ID still manages to take time to compliment me on my driver’s license picture.
Diet root beer float in hand, I make my way over to my assigned gate. A25. It’s in the cul-de-sac of desperation. My flight is delayed and I can’t find a seat, so I trudge over to the US Airways gates and read.
My flight is supposed to leave at 5:20, but it is delayed until 6:05. At 5:30, I receive a phone call from Southwest Airlines to alert me to a gate change. A26.
After checking the monitors to confirm the gate change, I amble over to A26 to see if my fellow passengers have begun lining up yet. Gate A26 has attracted a long line of people, St. Louis-bound. Their 5:05 flight has yet to board, much less depart. I notice a chubby man in a Chicago Bears sweatshirt and a young blonde guy in a green Notre Dame t-shirt. They are definitely on my flight to Chicago-Midway, and they are definitely not in line to board yet. Notre Dame guy plays with his iPhone idly.
I set my duffel bag on the ground with a thump and drape my fleece jacket on top of it. This dismal alley of the airport gets very little air circulation, and I feel my ankles growing hot inside my boots. I count one-two-three-four different groups of 14-year-old girls, all clad in Adidas soccer pants with different color combinations. Soccer teams. The navy-and-white team wears medals. A few of the red-and-black players brush and braid their hair as they recline against their Vera Bradley backpacks.
Over at the US Airways gate earlier, I saw the very-far-from-home Wyoming women’s volleyball team sitting in a circle on the floor. Here, as I stand in the abyss of delayed flights, I notice a small cluster of girls wearing Vanderbilt Tennis gear. They are tall and blonde and pretty—prettier than the Wyoming girls, I decide.
The soccer players look tired. Many of them are still in their team jerseys and shorts. The blue-and-yellow team must have come straight to the airport after their final game, since the girls have tall socks scrunched around their ankles. A few of the blue-and-yellows giggle as they rock back and forth, but most of them sit quietly, some near the feet of adults who must be their parents.
As the St. Louis flight boards, I glance up at the silent television. It is not, as I expected, CNN. Rather, the TV is tuned to a women’s volleyball match. Michigan vs. Penn State. “Didn’t some girl from Durham go to Penn State to play volleyball a few years back? But she might have graduated…she was a few years older than me,” I wonder. Then, a familiar ponytail swishes across the screen. I recognize one of the Penn State players as a girl from my class in high school.
Two of the red-and-black soccer players squeeze past me and the shorter one stops to retie a loose neon shoelace—green on the left foot, pink on the right foot. I turn to watch them and notice two bearded men wearing matching Arizona State polo shirts and baseball caps. Coaches, I figure, scouting the girls from the soccer tournament. Soccer teams recruit athletes early in high school.
The St. Louis flight has completed boarding, so I walk over to the boarding area to stake out my spot in line. I am in the first boarding group, number 43, so I find my place between the silver numbered posts. A boy about my age wearing a grey hat is sitting on the ground near my feet, whispering rapidly into his cell phone, probably talking to his mom and worrying about missing a connection. That’s what I’d be doing, anyway.
Notre Dame guy comes and stands behind me. He looks a little bit older than me—not much older, but old enough that he might be offended if I ask him if he is a student. I comment on his shirt, ask if he is an alum. He’s not. He’s a consultant working at Notre Dame, doing some sort of data crunching in the OIT building. He commutes home to Atlanta every weekend, but this weekend he was visiting his mom in Raleigh. She works for Duke.
We chat about Notre Dame for a while. He hasn’t gotten off campus much, but he got tickets for the football game this weekend and a bunch of his buddies from college are coming. None of them have ever been to a Notre Dame football game before, so I give him the rundown on tailgating spots and pre-game traditions. “You have to do some of the Domer stuff,” I tell him. The neon shoelace girls are back, sitting with their friends and sharing Carvel ice creams.
Our conversation comes in fits and spurts. We stop talking to listen to an announcement—the people on our flight who are connecting to Seattle and Los Angeles are out of luck—and I fold my boarding pass, creasing the paper. I sharpen the crease between my fingernails—zipzipzip. Notre Dame guy asks if I’m from Raleigh and did I see the snow in South Bend on Friday. Sort of and no, I got back to Raleigh on Thursday night. Zipzipzip. I unfold my boarding pass and flip the paper over, pressing my thumb into the folds as I try to flatten it again.
Finally, slowly, the line begins to move as my flight starts boarding. I hand my rumpled boarding pass to the gate agent and step towards the jetway, leaving the terminal end of the terminal.