This Story Begins and Ends in an Airport
by Maggie Kathwaroon

The airport is empty when I arrive two hours before my 6:45 a.m. flight. The shower I took an hour earlier is already wearing off. Dressed for winter, I begin to sweat as I haul my suitcase, purse, and briefcase through the airport. My glasses slip from my nose. A man pushes a polisher over the already shiny floor. I ask him if anything's open.

"Non, madame, c'est trop tot."

There's no one to make me a latte grande. The magazine shop is closed. I'm hot. I'm thirsty.

Fighting what could become overwhelming misery, I wheel my luggage to the uncomfortable seats near the Air Canada counter. To occupy my time, I plug my laptop into the nearest electrical outlet. I try to check my email, but my wireless connection fails. To distract myself, I begin to write this story.

The story describes my husband (visual arts professor), my house (downtown neighbourhood), my garden (English). How we've all been together for ten years. No children. Four cats. Few fights. Similar sensibilities. The facts of my life don't provide a compelling narrative, however, and I don't save the first draft of this story when I get up to go to the now open check-in counter to get my boarding pass.

Waiting in the US customs and immigration line, I can smell—but can't see-the Starbucks I know is in the departure lounge. I will the lineup to go quickly. I greet another queue at the security gate. Security confiscates my miniature Swiss Army knife (pink), a wise move on their part, as the aroma of coffee is now playing havoc with my social graces. I manage a tight-lipped smile as the security officer, satisfied that my laptop isn't a weapon of mass destruction, waves me through.

At the departure gate, I see that the plane is already boarding. I look wistfully at the Starbucks. I stand at the threshold between coffee and making my flight, my body straining for a hit of caffeine. I regretfully turn towards the departure gate, cursing myself for being one of the last to embark—I'll have to hunt for space in a luggage compartment. I'm relieved that my seatmate is a small, middle-aged man and I won't have to worry about our thighs or arms touching during the flight. He rises to let me get at my window seat.

"Can I help you with that?" he says offering to place my carry-on bag in the overhead. We are eye-to-eye and his baggy chinos can't hide the fact that we weigh the same. I refuse by shaking my head, standing on his seat and deftly stuffing it in myself. The man in the seat behind smiles at me, but I slip back down and don't return it.

Unless there's a great deal of turbulence, I travel well on planes. Being small, I don't have an issue with legroom in economy class. Naturally supple, I can contort into a small space and fall asleep. I refuse the headphones the flight steward offers me, preferring the tunes I've selected and downloaded to my own MP3 player. Enclosed in my window seat, I manage to avoid a conversation with my seatmate by closing my eyes and shrinking towards the cold comfort of the plane's hull.

At the hotel, I look forward to having a bath and wrapping myself in the complimentary bathrobe. I'll order room service and raid the mini-bar. I'll stretch out on the king-sized bed. I'll ask for extra pillows from housekeeping. The television remote will be mine, and I relish sleeping all by myself, lulled by the glow of the screen. My dreams will mingle with its late-night offerings and I'll awake with vague memories of kissing a stranger who will keep on offering a cubic zirconia pendant in exchange for two easy payments of $29.95. My plans are short-circuited by some of my colleagues who have already arrived. They convince me to join them for dinner. I order my extra pillows through the front desk clerk and I follow my colleagues the short distance to the restaurant.

The restaurant is crowded and offers an odd combination of pub atmosphere with a sushi menu. I don't know many of my dinner companions well. I recognize system administrators who normally lurk on the floor below my office—they'll be responsible for ensuring that the technology we're showcasing works without a hitch. I know some of the engineers and will be vaunting the hardware and software they've been creating since the beginning of the year. I'm their mouthpiece. I'll wrap words and weave phrases around the hidden algorithms that programmatically reconstitute their understanding of the human experience.

I find it difficult to participate in the pockets of conversation going on around me. My attention turns to one discussion and then another, but the restaurant is noisy and I catch only half of what's going on at any time. My contribution to the evening is making sure that there is always wine on the table and everyone's glass is full. I drink enough to finally ease into the charm of the people to my left and right who smile at me when they think I'm listening.

I am the first to go back to the hotel. I place my naked body between the cool sheets, and lie diagonally across the bed's expanse. My skin tingles from the friction created when my limbs stretch to fill as much of the bed as possible. Housekeeping has left me four more pillows.

The next day, I wander onto the big exposition floor that will be my stage for the day. I step over huge bundles of cables that will carry power to all the booths that are still under construction. I avoid forklift trucks that transport the equipment required to turn the equivalent of three football stadiums into a garish and noisy showcase for the latest in video game technology. I catch the smiles of technicians who seem to honour any female willing to risk navigating this testosterone-laden place. I fight to keep from spilling my double latte grande as I carry my laptop and watch for bumps in the just-laid carpet. Finding my employer's booth, I watch men wrestling with the banner that announces we're here.

Behind the booth's podium, I imagine an audience of young, eager game developers. I connect my laptop into the main computer and start transferring megabytes of data, carefully chosen to appeal to the audiences' penchant for technological minutiae and simulated violence. I quietly mouth my presentation, practicing making eye contact with imaginary game engineers hanging onto every word and every image.

When the exhibition hall finally opens to the public, I am ready to demo our product, a new feedback device for video games. Every booth seems to be outfitted with concert-capable sound systems, so there is a constant bass-laden din underpinning the amplified human voices hawking technology that promises increased realism. The new real.

In the booth beside ours, there is already a crowd of males, young and not-so-young, gawking at a lithe woman dressed in spandex. There are light-sensitive markers on key points of her anatomy. As she dances and poses, a stick figure on the video screen beside her follows her every move. All eyes are not on the stick figure.

This is my cue. I take my place on the stage in our booth. I put on a fetching microphone like the ones Madonna and Janet wear on tour and do a sound check to make sure my words will overwhelm the simulated sex show beside me. I strap myself into the sophisticated simulation environment. The bucket seat hugs my torso perfectly. My right foot reaches the accelerator and brake comfortably. The gearshift is pliant, but stays in gear solidly. I start playing the racing game the audience can see on the large monitor above me. I select a red Fiat convertible and a pixelated flag girl appears.

"Start your engines." She begins her countdown at 10. When she reaches 1, I shift gears from neutral to first and gun the accelerator. The car above me makes a convincing screeching sound, which catches the attention of the crowd watching the girl and the stick figure. I deftly guide the car through Monte Carlo, narrowly missing pedestrians and making the tricky turn that could land me in the ocean. I share the high I'm getting from the environment with the growing crowd of onlookers.

"Through the seat and the steering wheel, I can feel every bump and curve in the road. When the car turns, I turn. When I accelerate, I can feel the g-forces. I can run over pedestrians and feel their bones break under the weight of the car." The flag girl suddenly reappears in the game. She gingerly crosses in front of me. I manage to catch her hip and she goes flying over the virtual car. I back up to reveal the realistic bone crunching sounds that emanate from the environment. From the feel of things, I think I break her back.

"I can take corners at 200 miles an hour. I can defy gravity and never die."

To prove this, I increase my speed and steer towards a high wall. First four wheels, then two follow its contour as I round a curve. I jerk the steering wheel. My seat rotates rapidly 360 degrees, following the virtual car perfectly. I brake hard and spin out for added effect. My body slams against the seat belt. People applaud. Our salespeople approach onlookers. I unstrap myself and adjust my T-shirt, which has not defied gravity.

An older woman with dry blonde hair approaches me. Reading her nametag, I realize she represents a magazine devoted to word puzzles and crosswords, a far cry from video games. "That's interesting," she says in an American drawl. "How does it work?"

My mind flips through its inventory of possible answers, pausing at the ones that are non-technical. Instead, I choose one that exposes the years of research behind the sensors that yield and resist as they should in an artificial environment. She nods at regular intervals and I see her concentrating on maintaining eye contact as she stifles a yawn. I glance at the open bar at the far end of the conference hall. It's only 11:00 in the morning and I have many more performances to go. I rotate 12 more times and wonder about a career in the quiet of space.

At the end of the day, I make my way to the hotel's bar, which is designed like a big living room, with couches and large pillows scattered in intimate groupings. The lighting is dim and flattering, and everyone, including me, looks healthy, privileged, and smart. I scan for familiar faces and see some seated around a long table. I'm introduced to a guy who I know only through some quirky email correspondence. A tester for an early prototype of the device I had demoed today, he and I had exchanged emails in which he was highly skeptical of our claims that the device could accurately mimic any physical sensation in any virtual environment. I tried to convince him through a series of what I thought were jovial but technically accurate answers. Our exchanges quickly devolved, and ended when he asked facetiously, "Any sensation? " he wrote. "Really? Then tell me how to hook this up to my girlfriend."

As we're introduced I notice his devastating sneer, which attractively complements the cynicism of our electronic exchanges. We talk. I say things that he thinks are profound but probably aren't, just well articulated. We really like each other. We think we're marvelous. In fact, he repeats the phrase "I think you're marvelous!" over and over again. I think we're drunk. But, yes, we're marvelous. He places his head on my shoulder and I stroke his hair and I call him my little buddy. I give his arm a squeeze and I feel his nicely developed bicep. I notice how well his black T-shirt fits his small muscular torso.

On the recommendation of the concierge, we head out towards a very expensive steak house. My cynic orders blackened filet mignon, but, when it arrives, he doesn't like the blackened part so he eats only its interior. He makes a puppet out of his unfinished steak and makes it talk and say rude things. I love puppets. I love meat. Protein that entertains while it nourishes. It occurs to me that under other circumstances, I may have found this act completely boorish. But it isn't. It's amazing what you're actually allowed to do to a $35 steak.

My right hand lightly strokes his leg. I focus on my hand on his thigh. My manicured nails. His black jeans. The texture of the gabardine makes my fingertips vibrate very slightly, and I play with the pressure I apply to modulate the sensation. Holding his hand, caressing the pulse point that I know is sensitive, I tell my cynic that I want to lay his head among the many pillows on my bed.

In the elevator ride to my room, my cynic pins me against the elevator wall and kisses me. The ride is short and I can barely acknowledge the kiss. Inside my room, he kisses me again. My cynic is a good kisser. Deep, soulful controlled kisses with very little saliva. My still open eyes focus on the bright bathroom light behind him. I steady myself by reaching for the cool marble of the wet bar. I'm trying to remember the last time someone kissed me like this. I gain my balance fully when I close my eyes and feel his tongue pull a switch inside me. Is that me singing the body electric? Later, I grab his ass as he lies on top of me. My finger lightly traces the contour of his back. He's my size. He fits me perfectly. Little cynic. Little me.

On the return flight, I begin to write this story again. Instead of tapping it out on my laptop keyboard, I write in longhand on some paper I purchase at the airport. The curves and loops of my handwriting fascinate me. My hand cramps from holding the pen for so long, but it feels good when I splay my fingers apart to stretch them. I write quickly, trying to get to the ending of this story, but the plane's wheels hit the tarmac before I reach it.

My husband is waiting for me at the arrival gate. I make brisk, bright conversation as we walk to the car.

"Do you want to drive?" he asks.

My body is still electric when I snatch the keys from his hand. Suddenly I know how to end my story.