The problem is, the airport isn’t supposed to be nice. It’s a place between places, somewhere you go to get somewhere else. Remember that as you drag your ragged blue suitcase behind you, threading your way between coffee-chugging office drones, screaming children, and impatient travelers. Follow Mom and Dad through the terminal; maintain some distance, so that it’s plausible that you are a college student traveling on his own.
When your parents arrive at the wrong gate, make a show of pulling out your boarding pass and examining the number. Say “But doesn’t that say 27?” or “Gee, I didn’t know we were going to Denver,” or some other smart-ass thing. They’ll both check their watches even though there’s plenty of time left until the flight; planning is their forte, unlike directions.
At Gate 27, pick a seat by the window, where the sun bakes the back of your neck, but at least you aren’t stuck next to the old man who smells like eucalyptus. If your parents go to use the bathroom or get coffee, they’ll ask you to watch the bags. Cross your legs over your backpack and slide the other suitcases to form a wall around your seat. Make awkward eye contact with the fat guy in the next aisle just as he pours the powdery remnants at the bottom of his UTZ bag into his mouth. Try not to listen to all the conversations around you. Listen anyway. If the seats next to you are occupied, fold your legs up onto your seat and put in your earbuds. Flip back and forth through the pages of apps on your phone, opening and closing several games and inboxes before turning the phone off. For double points, open a random email and stare at it with your brow furrowed as if it really draws your attention.
When your parents get back, it’s your turn to get food or use the bathroom. If it’s the former, meander slowly up and down the terminal. Try not to get annoyed when those little kids on leashes almost trip you. If you get McDonalds, try to stand in line in a way that suggests you don’t eat there a lot. Take a long time to find the line or stare blankly at the menu boards as if you’ve never heard of a Big Mac in your life. If you get Panda Express, grab a pair of the chopsticks instead of a fork, so you don’t feel like you’re betraying your Asian ancestors too much. Try not to imagine a score of them scowling at you through the steam of your sesame chicken. If you get Chipotle, avoid the guacamole, because you once saw someone puke on a flight to Bermuda when you were seven, and the vomit was the same color as a ripe avocado. At any of the three aforementioned restaurants, try to pull out your money without unfolding every single bill in your pockets. Fail. End up with a crumpled handful of ones. Shove the handful back into your jacket. Take a quick look around for pickpockets and then remember that this is the airport, not Victorian London. Still, make sure the money pocket zips. Mistakes do not need to be made. When you get your food, if you’re feeling grown up, eat it quickly at one of the tables in the food area. Take off your jacket to display your UVA t-shirt, even though you only got it because your dad works there. Or if you want, take the food back to the gate.
By the time you return, Dad will have his travel brochures out again and he’ll be flipping through long exposures of the beach and glamorous pictures of the food at the hotel where you’ll be staying. Watch planes take off and land through the window with your mom. Give both of them fries even though they say they aren’t hungry; they are. One of them will bring up plans for next year; they do more frequently now. “Next year, you’ll be flying home to visit,” they might tell you. Mom will mention the time you threw a cup of apple juice on a Delta flight, when you were little. Put your jacket on over the UVA shirt and remember that you’re not quite ready to be on your own.
When the plane begins boarding, don’t rush to finish your food. You’re not little enough to be counted for pre-boarding and you’ve never been a platinum or silver member of anything besides the Marvel Comics Spiderman Kids Club. Finally, when group C is called, sling your backpack over your shoulder. Maybe stretch like you’ve been cooped up for hours, even though it’s only been forty minutes.
On the plane, try to sit next to the girl that you made eye contact with in the gate. When you fail, search for somebody who won’t spend much time talking to you. End up between the elderly man with a stomach bug and a kid who keeps screaming for his juice box. Watch the tarmac through the sliver of window that you can make out over the elderly man’s ailing stomach. Sit back, plug in your earbuds and close your eyes. Remember that your vacation is only just beginning.