My Suitcase

Two little words around which I came unglued, and that offered me a new perspective on life. Of course, there’s a story—perhaps one you won’t even be able to relate to, if you’re lucky; or if you can relate, I’m sorry. I hope you’ve recovered.

As a good little Virgo, I began making my packing list(s) weeks in advance of traveling back to Iowa for a combination cousins reunion and the laying to rest of my parents’ (the last of their generation) ashes in the family plot of our small town cemetery. I hadn’t been back home in decades, the last visit being my aunt’s funeral. The cousins that were expected this trip, were the kids I’ve known since birth—there were a clump of us all in the same age range who grew up more or less together, and stayed in close contact over the years, as modeled by our parents, when life flung us to the far corners of the U.S. I couldn’t wait to see them again in their adult forms (knowing that just under the surface were the youngsters we all knew and remembered, along with nicknames and embarrassing stories from our youth).

Packing (and re-packing, and ironing, and re-packing again until everything I needed for four days away from home was snugly in its spot with not an inch to spare) had become a pleasant ritual of expectation and daydreaming about the return to “home base,” the place where all of our parents grew up. I chuckle at the sense of noblesse oblige I carried into my adulthood, haling from a small pond where my ancestors were the big fish—founding families actually meant something back in those days. It wasn’t until I moved to a slightly larger city as a pre-teen, where no one had ever heard of my family, did I realize the moral obligation I felt to act with honor, kindness, and generosity as a family imperative, was now a matter of choice. I’m straying from the story.

Suitcase packed, the day had come, the bus schedule that would transport me from home to airport memorized, I looked forward to a leisurely two-hour ride where I would watch the last of a vibrant sunset, followed by time to read one of the paperbacks I’d chosen earlier in the week for my trip. I would arrive with lots of time to casually check-in for my red-eye flight, through which I would sleep soundly and arrive refreshed in Chicago for my connector flight the next morning. You know where this is going, right? How apt that the novel I’m working on now is called Best Laid Plans.

Sunset was stunning, back lighting the dark clouds left over from days of stormy weather. The paperback held my attention which pleased me, because I do choose books by their cover—you never know. As the bus traveled down 19th Avenue in San Francisco, lined with Victorians and two-story railroad flats, I entertained myself by imagining how I would decorate those lovely high-ceilinged vast apartments.

The bus was fairly empty; I had a row of seats to myself. Actually, I had several rows to myself. Along with a handful of passengers, I got off the bus at San Francisco International Airport. Night had settled in and the lighting was dim overhead. The driver set the suitcases on the sidewalk. I grabbed mine and slipped him a tip and a thank you, and headed to the monitor to check for my boarding gate (having thought ahead to print out my boarding pass from home to save time). Hmm. My flight was not listed. I hadn’t counted on that. Looked like a trip to the ticket desk was in order. The line was long, and people were murmuring about cancelled flights, missed connections, etc. We stood in line for an hour like restless cattle at an empty food trough, swaying back and forth from foot to foot, throwing our heads about looking over-shoulder at the monitors hoping to see the magic flight numbers appear. The extra time I’d allowed to make my flight with time to spare, was slowly being eaten away. If I missed this flight, I’d miss the connector flight in Chicago, and arrive who-knows-when in Iowa.

I didn’t miss my flight. It was canceled. The re-booked flight left three hours later. Weather. This was a portent of things to come. I watched people who were flying north, or south, or even west on our airline move through the line and disappear to waiting gates. Those of us fated to travel east sighed heavily, tapped our feet, rolled our eyes in a non-verbal sharing of our collective exasperation.

After two hours, I figured I might as well go through Security, take care of the take-your-shoes-off thing, the put-your-liquids-in-the-baggie thing, even the pat-down thing, while I awaited my assigned gate—at least there would be chairs to sit in. I dragged my suitcase through the maze created by post-and-rope configurations that seem ridiculous when there is no crowd to control, handed the guard my ID and ticket, and was ushered through to the rolling pins on which you send your personals through x-ray to make sure you’re not concealing terrorist materials in your luggage.

I stooped down to fish out my quart-sized baggie of shampoo, toothpaste, eye drops, and other contraband. The top zipper compartment of my suitcase where I keep such things, was empty. I blinked, trying to let the impact of this hit my brain (I don’t know why I thought blinking would help). The compartment was still empty. Don’t panic, I warned myself—there’s a logical explanation, and I still have time. Lots and lots of time, as it turned out. Perhaps at the last minute I stuck the baggie in the lower compartment where I usually carry my books. Ugh. That compartment was empty, too. Where the heck were my books? Okay, you can panic a little bit, I gave myself permission. Next, I tried the main part of my suitcase, where all my clothes were neatly packed. What the heck? Black Levis, a yellow sweatshirt, a pair of huge running shoes, socks I wouldn’t be caught dead in, and a bottle of booze? This is not my suitcase. I looked around wildly, fighting an urge to burst into tears.

“This is not my suitcase,” I said to the x-ray machine attendant. She stooped down, picked up the bottle of Whisky, and said, “Is this your alcohol?” I smacked my head in frustration and panic.

“It’s not my alcohol. It’s not even my suitcase,” I stage-whispered, to avoid shouting at her.

The woman called two more guards over, who eyed the alcohol and then me with raised eyebrows. The woman explained that it wasn’t my suitcase.

“You brought it through Security, right?” one guard asked. I nodded. “So, it’s your responsibility. What do you want to do with it? You can’t check it through, you know.”

By now, my body was shaking. I was supposed to be sound asleep on my red-eye. Instead I was facing a wide-awake nightmare. “It’s. Not. My. Suitcase,” I said again, very slowly. “I don’t want it. I want my suitcase, but I don’t know where it is.”

What happened next, was a Keystone Cops routine of going from Security, back to the ticketing agent, to the Lost and Found, back up to Security, several times over. No one knew what to do with a tired, weepy old woman who was carrying illegal alcohol and someone else’s suitcase.

Slowly, it dawned on me what I was facing. My eyes hurt; I wanted my eye drops. Oh, right—they were in my suitcase. While I was waiting at one counter after another, I could have distracted myself with a book—oh, yeah, it was in my suitcase. I would have changed shoes to better navigate the miles I was putting on, but they were in my suitcase, too. Crap. I feebly hoped my suitcase was having a better trip than I was. Maybe it was on its way to a sunny state where people’s minds weren’t soggy from too many days of rain and gray weather.

If this was a suitcase switch when we got off the bus several hours ago, and the guy who owned the suitcase I was now responsible for discovered he was headed wherever-he-was-headed and would be faced with a week’s worth of women’s shorts, some cute little tops, a dress or two, and several pairs of sandals to wear, wouldn’t he make every effort to contact me and get this straightened out?

I’ll spare you the next hour’s worth of details and skip to the resolution. There was a name on the suitcase—the suitcase that looked just like mine, that even had the same red satin ribbon tied to the same handle (what are the chances of that?). He was a passenger on the same airlines, but flying south. His plane left an hour ago. Lost and Found would page the airport where he would land and ask him to call SFO. They would fly my bag back to SFO, and forward it to the Iowa airport which was my last stop of this adventure gone wrong. They would send his bag, for which I had somehow just been relieved of the responsibility, down south. But what if . . .

What if he didn’t have my suitcase? Where was my suitcase? Would I ever see it again? No time to wonder, my rescheduled flight was being called. I ran back to Security, flashed my ID and ticket (by now, the guard and I were on familiar basis from my many trips back and forth), sent my purse and shoes through x-ray, got patted down (do I look like a terrorist?), ran to my gate and boarded my plane to Chicago.

I couldn’t sleep. I was so wound up, my body ached, and I was squished against the side of the plane in the window seat by a massive man with elbows that poked me in the side as he snored loudly next to me. After circling and extra twenty minutes over O’Hare Airport waiting for the fog to clear enough to land, I realized why they call this the red-eye. I felt a particular kinship to those green-faced, red-eyed monsters of the horror movies who you just know have terrible breath.

Once on the ground and in the airport at O’Hare, I signed up for ten more hours of canceled and rescheduled flights. It was that, or take up residency in Chicago. With my feet on firm ground, and at least closer to Iowa than I’d been before, my mind was relieved enough to think through my suitcase dilemma. Perhaps, just perhaps, the guy headed south noticed that he was left with the wrong suitcase before the bus left. Maybe, if the gods hadn’t totally deserted me, my suitcase never left California. I suppose it could have set on the curb all night, or someone could have carried it off hoping for some salable treasures inside (their bad luck!). But what would be the harm of calling the transit office just on the outside chance the driver had returned my suitcase to their home office?

Thank goodness for cell phones. Remember those old banks of telephones that used to be in airports? Where did they go? There wasn’t a (what I refer to as) real phone in sight. I waited until the west coast would be awake, and dialed the commuter bus office. I gave them the abbreviated form of the last many hours, and asked—more like begged—if they might have had a brown suitcase with a red ribbon returned from their 8:30 pm bus.

Why, yes, they did. They’d hold it until I returned the next week and could come pick it up, right there in my town. Tears of gratitude leaked from my raw little eyes. Never mind that I’d be forced into a late night shopping excursion at the nearest Wal-Mart so I’d have clothes for my body. Never mind that everything I thought I absolutely must have to travel turned out to be a fallacy, and that what I wound up buying to get me through the week fit nicely into a small book bag I’d scored for free at the Chicago airport. Never mind any of it.

My suitcase was safe (albeit, in California). Many hours later, I was on board the last plane to my destination. My family was waiting on the other end. My resolve to never fly again would surely be broken by the time I was due to hop on my flight back to California. But that’s another story.