6:45 am, Saturday, I am standing quietly in line at the Dunkin Donuts kiosk before I go through security at Manchester airport. I've gotten only an hour's sleep; D. and I stayed up late, in slumber party fashion, talking until 3 am.
It was a really good day.
I am looking at the donut offerings, and wondering if I really want one. There is something both delightfully nostalgic about Dunkin Donuts, the donuts of my childhood, and faintly nauseating in the idea of eating anything at this point.
Suddenly, the person who is being waited on at the counter turns to me. He is a youngish man, probably early 30s, tall and thin, with a shaved head, tiny rectangular glasses and fashionable facial hair.
"I don't do goodbyes well," he says to me, and ruefully wipes his eyes.
I smile a little, and murmur, "No, goodbye is never fun."
And I feel a certain empathy because the last two days have been for me a leave-taking, an ending, a goodbye.
Quickly, with small heaving breaths, he recounts the last week of his life to me. In under two minutes, I learn that he has just said goodbye to the woman he loves, who is flying home; that they spent the last week, "the most amazing week," riding his Harley about together; that TSA could not be persuaded to let either of them cross the security line for one last kiss, one last hug.
There is nothing I can say to this, and I sense that he doesn't need or want me to say anything. I am simply a sympathetic face, someone he'll never see again, someone with whom he can share his anguish for a brief few minutes.
The girl behind the counter drops a bag in front of him, and he takes a handful of napkins along with the bag.
"Take care," he tells me with a small, sad smile.
"You too," I reply, and mean it.
After getting through security, I walk to my gate. I wonder if the airport has been refurbished because it seems lighter and brighter than when I was here 5-1/2 years ago. I never suspected I'd be back.
Three months earlier, I'd picked up my tickets at the Coliseo in Puerto Rico. I sat on the steps to rearrange the contents of my tiny wallet on a string. While I was fiddling around, a man approached me, shaven head, fashionable facial hair. Inwardly, I sighed.
"Excuse me," he said, "I heard you speaking English. Are you here to see Rush?"
PK turned out to be a perfectly lovely individual, another traveler who'd been to all the European shows the previous autumn. We ended up talking for a couple of hours, trading road stories, tales of our travels.
"Why do you do it?" he asked.
I was quiet for a moment. "Because I never get tired of watching them play," I finally said.
He nodded, satisfied. "You're the sort of fan that I am. It's not about anything except those three hours where you get to watch them play."
D. and I go down to the hotel bar shortly before doors, and no sooner do I sit down than my cell phone rings. It is the spouse and I excuse myself to take the call outside, away from the noise and bustle of the bar.
The spouse reads me an email, and it takes me a moment to absorb what he is saying. I repeat the salient phrase, once, twice, and burst into delighted laughter. The huge, ugly case that he is working on, had been out of town for the previous week, that I'd picked up work on, is done.
In the space of a 15-minute phone call, it goes from a good day to a really good day.
The spouse held out the receiver of his office phone to me.
"Hi," I heard my recorded voice say. "I'm in Dallas. My flight for San Juan leaves in a couple of hours..."
He pushed a button.
"It's me," I heard myself say, "I'm in Moline..."
He pushed the button again.
"I've made it to St. Paul. Horrible tiny plane..."
Grinning, he pushed the button again.
"Hi, I'm in Manchester. Give me a call..."
I looked at him and asked, "I didn't leave messages for Oklahoma, Los Angeles or St. Louis?"
The sun has risen in Manchester now, and the way it flashes through the glass reminds me of sitting in Toronto's airport last September. I think again of those people moving by on the elevated walkway, their purposefulness, the beauty of their sheer existence. By the end of the day, I will have covered more than 22,000 miles in the last three months. I'm not sure why it's important to me to keep track of how many miles I've logged in airplanes. I feel a sort of guilt (uneconomical, unenvironmental), as well as a certain elation (this is me, hating the planes, but loving the concerts).
In St. Louis, I waited for the shuttle back to the hotel. An older man, also alone, asked me which hotel I was going to, and it turned out that we were headed to the same place. After quite some time, and no shuttle, a cab pulled into the parking lot.
"Shall we split a cab?" he asked.
"Yup," I responded, and we called the taxi over.
He amused me with stories his drive up from Arkansas, and his trip to the show in Chicago with his daughter. I related taking my kids to a couple of shows in Irvine.
In the lobby, he handed me his business card.
"There are stories to be told," he said.
D. and I wander over to the arena and pass through security. We have been to numerous shows together, including one in this very arena, before we even knew each other. Through the years and over the miles, I've discovered that a number of other people were at that show all those years ago, and it amuses me that somehow we find each other and trade our stories. JG, with whom I chatted in Los Angeles, and who hung out with the spouse and I at Irvine, was here then. FS, with whom I split tickets for Moline and St. Paul, was as well. Our friend DT will be here again tonight, too, with his young daughter.
My arms and legs liquefy with a satisfying excitement as I make my way down to my seat. Porcupine Tree is playing on the house PA. Last night for me. Until, hopefully, someday, another album, another tour.
Stay here, I tell myself. This is it.
My mind doesn't wander during the show, but I tend to think a lot. I am watching how they play, and correlating each chord, each note, each fill with what I've heard a thousand times or more, on cassette, on vinyl, on CD, on mp3. I'm not a musician, I'm a dancer, and watching the dance of making music fascinates me. When I hear music, I see movement in my head. Through 15 rounds of "Hope," an entire pas-de-deux has constructed itself in my brain. "Digital Man" still has me bouncing through the house, down the street, whenever I hear it.
Despite my admonition to myself to stay in the moment, I think. "...a plague that resists all science," the song goes, and I turn to D. and whisper fiercely, "My work is a plague that resists all science." She grins widely because she's heard a lot that day about my work, and the pseudoscience that often plagues it.
But today is a really good day.
In the spirit of the evening, "One Little Victory" is my theme for the night, even though I don't want to hear it because it's the first song of the encore. But tonight, it sounds better than ever. I am happy. I know the letdown will come, but I'll leave it for later.
And it all ends, and D., DT, his daughter and I make our way back to the hotel. We spend an hour in the bar, happily dissecting what we've seen, and then say our goodbyes.
At the airport, the sun has shifted fractionally, cresting a support beam, and is now shining in my eyes. I blink hard; the sudden brightness in my face is making my eyes water, and as I look down, a trick of light and damp makes it appear that I am glowing. I find this funny, and I look up, smiling. The people sitting across from me smile back.
Go listen to some music: "Shine" from the album Hints, Allegations & Things Left Unsaid by Collective Soul.