Every now and then, through the fog of sleepiness and in-flight movies, I remember what I’m doing. It catches me off guard and I can suddenly hear my heart pounding loudly, feel a thin sheen of sweat coat my hands.
“Holy fuck”, I think, “I’m going to England.”
I’m not really nervous about meeting these people, because I already know them. But knowing someone and living up close and personal with them are two totally different things. I’ve never technically been anyone’s “houseguest” before and I feel slightly overwhelmed over all the trouble they’re going to for me.
I’m not really nervous about flying, because I’ve flown a dozen times before. But sitting in a terminal alone, and sober I might add, is a slight shock to the system. I’ve always had my sister there to watch my bag while I go to the bathroom or to exchange raised eyebrows with over some crazy looking passenger. I missed her terribly, just for a moment, when I saw an Asian man that looked exactly like Wayne Newton. Until, of course, I realized she probably has no idea who Wayne Newton is.
I’m not really nervous about going to a foreign country, because seeing the world is one of the few things I’m truly passionate about. But having only been to Europe once, with a tour group, at the age of 15...I’m slightly anxious about going through customs alone. It looks rather intimidating in the movies and, try as I might, I can’t remember much about what it was like all those years ago.
When the captain announces our descent into London, I very nearly press my nose to the window. But I needn’t bother, there’s nothing to see but fog and my first glimpse of England consists of tarmac whizzing by under the plane as we land.
I already have my cell phone out, ready just as they announce I can use it again. I text my family and tell them I’ve landed safely and then I text Nathan. It’s a new method of communication for us and it surprises me how much I enjoy it. It seems silly, but it makes me feel less like the internet friend.
He’s picking me up from the airport alone and I’m glad. Not just because having everyone meet me all at once might be a bit overwhelming, but also because it feels like that’s the way it’s supposed to be. He was the first of the four that I connected with and has remained the one I relate to most, which often amuses me because you couldn’t find two paths more different than ours.
The queue for customs is long, winding and full of Americans traveling in groups. I’m still texting Nathan so it isn’t until I’m almost to the front of the line that I notice they’re all holding an important looking piece of paper that I don’t have.
“Excuse me”, I say to the couple behind me. “Everyone seems to have that little slip of paper and I’m wondering if I missed something.”
They explain that I’m supposed to have it filled out and ready to hand to the customs agent in the booth, along with my passport. There is, apparently, a stack of them on a table...way in the back of the line. Everyone in the row adjacent to ours, separated only by the rope barrier, has been listening to our exchange and I feel a stab of embarrassment mixed with panic. I shuffle my feet and wonder what to do.
“Stay right there”, says a smartly dressed blonde woman with an English accent. She starts dipping under the ropes, heading toward the table full of papers, but is apparently given one before she’s halfway there. It seems everyone, down to the last in line, is aware of my blunder. I thank her profusely when she returns and hands it over.
“It’s no problem”, she replies. “Wouldn’t want to hold up the queue.”
I quickly fill out the form and manage to have everything together just as I’m called up to a booth. The agent glances at my information and begins asking me a rapid series of questions, first about myself and then about the people I’m visiting.
“How long are you staying?”
“Whose address is this?”
“Nathan and Kelly’s.”
“How do you know them?”
“...Through a writing forum.”
She glances up from the papers and gives me an odd look. “You mean the internet? Have you ever met them before?”
“Not in person, no.” I feel dozens of eyes on my back and I’m beginning to panic again. I want to lie about it all, just so she stops looking at me like I’m a complete lunatic, but I’m too terrified of what might happen if I do.
“Are they meeting you here at the airport?”
“He is, yes.”
“What happens if you decide you don’t want to stay with them? What will you do?”
“Um, get a hotel?”
“What do you do for a living? How much money did you bring with you? When is your return flight? I’d like to see your bank account information and your itinerary.”
I’m completely flustered as I try to comply with all her requests. I’m prepared for all sorts of scenarios, but this isn’t one of them. I tell her what’s in my bank account, which, for me, is the equivalent to dropping my pants and pressing my bare ass to her little window. It’s absolutely unseemly.
I show her my itinerary and finally, finally, she stamps my passport and waves me on.
I gratefully follow the signs to baggage claim, walking quickly and texting Nathan that I’m nearly there. My giant suitcase is already sitting on the floor, to the left of the carousel, dwarfing all the others around it. I feel another wave of gratitude – one of my biggest fears was that they would lose it and I’d be without makeup for the entire trip. I wrestle the difficult handle up and begin dragging my belongings toward the exit.
As I walk through the open double doors, I immediately spot him standing behind a white rail to my right. He’s grinning and holding a small white sign that says “#bannisterfest”, which is a play on my last name and what the four of them have decided to call this holiday. I can’t stop the laugh that bursts out as I make my way past the rail; I hadn’t expected the sign.
We meet at the end of the barrier and hug. It’s lovely and surreal and I’m afraid my face may crack. He’s so tall and so exuberant that from the moment I walked through the doors, I didn’t notice anyone else. From his writing, you would think that Nathan blends in with a crowd, sitting amongst them and recording their movements, but that isn’t the case. He’s the sort of person people notice, the sort I think they’d want to write about.
I walk alongside him through the terminal, grinning and chatting as though it were continuation instead of first. He tells me Kelly was late to work this morning because she insisted I must have the sign. I feel a tiny burning behind my eyes and I have to will myself to keep the tears at bay.
It’s a bit embarrassing; being so happy you might cry, but it’s certainly better than the sort of embarrassment the customs agent stirred up. Which, I’m happy to say, disappeared the moment I finally hugged my friend and realized that, now, it definitely doesn’t matter what any of them think.