Last night, I was awoken at eleven by the shrieking of my phone telling me that there was a tornado imminent and that we needed to take shelter immediately. THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS SITUATION!!!!! the phone screamed at me. My husband didn’t want to pester the landlord to let us into the basement but my hysterics persuaded him otherwise, so, down with our shaggy dog Winston we went. So powerful was the storm that even the trip down the two flights of exterior stairs took on a harrowing, slow-motion quality. It seemed as though the whole world was heaving and spasming, shaking itself free of anything frivolous, the violence of it blurred by the darkness, illuminated solely by lightning and the smeary light from aging streetlamps. I searched and waited for the green sky and freight-train like sound promised to me in drills as a child, but the sky was black and the freight train never came. A day before I leave for the Tour de France, there’s a fucking tornado, I kept thinking, trying not to laugh at the dramatic irony of it, at the audacity life has to make itself more extraordinary than it already is.
A few minutes later, the storm subsided and we wandered up back to our apartment, spared by mother nature but no less scarred by her. I’m from North Carolina originally, and we get hurricanes. You can prepare for those. For a tornado, the fear is amplified by the compressed and urgent timespan of destruction. In it, I grabbed my purse, because my passport and phone were in there. If I had them, all other things were trivial. I could still go, if only with the clothes on my back. This was a dramatic fantasy, albeit one in which things become abundantly clear. Nothing was more important to me than going to France save for my own small family.
I am at the airport five hours early. I take no chances, I make no mistakes.
I’m a neurotic flyer. I want to go get a sandwich at the cafe but that would mean relinquishing my spot at a table with an outlet to someone else which is unthinkable. Everyone at the airport is made ugly by it. Their faces are tired and they wear their stress in their shoulders. I’m no different. I sit at a counter and watch strangers check into a flight that isn’t mine. My gate opens at three-thirty. It is two now but I’m patient. I’ve got nothing to do other than dwell. Babies cry in strollers, children squawk and dawdle. It’s surprisingly busy for a pandemic and everyone’s small dramas unfold in bursts of stressful activity. I don’t miss this. I try not to be glad that I’m leaving America. A surprising number of men still fly in suits even with the current situation, when we’re all accustomed to wearing sweatpants under our desks. In our small ways, every one of us finds a way to perform normalcy. I write because I don’t know what else to do.
I’m the first in line to check my bag - I present my COVID documentation (stressful) and it doesn’t take as long as I anticipate. Security is brisk, and after I’m through it, I make a bee-line for the bar. I’m a nervous flyer, and today is no exception. I order two Blue Moons and the worst chicken sandwich I’ve ever had in my life. Both are satisfying. And then, waiting. The waiting is the worst part. Planes take off and land, and I rank their livery from best to worst and try not to think of all the episodes of Air Disasters I’ve watched in my lifetime.
Finally we board. In an act of fate’s occasional generosity, I get a whole row by the emergency exit to myself, which shows you just how many people are flying internationally these days. As the plane lifts into the air, I peer down into the suburbs of Chicago below, am taken by how the altitude renders gas stations and cars and bungalows doll-like and fragile, ironic considering one is in a tin can in the sky and the gas stations and cars and bungalows are safely tethered to the Earth. Once we reach 10,000 feet, I lay myself across all three seats like a sofa, luxuriating in the rarity of such a thing, and try to let the whirring envelop me.
The rest, honestly, is a blur. The layover in Iceland is unproblematic - Keflavik airport is eerily empty, as empty as a travel hub like that can be, the tourism shops closed, its food stalls dark. Nobody dwells, nobody lingers. The flight to Paris is spent drifting in and out of sleep, trying not to bolt upright at every spot of turbulence. Charles de Gaulle, my eternal transportation enemy, is surprisingly also devoid of people. I get a cab. I fall asleep. I wake up on the Champs-Élysées. It’s raining, but I smile anyway, because at least one sense of arrival has been accomplished. Then, its Montparnasse train station for two hours during which I buy a notebook and write nothing in it. In my exhaustion, all thoughts have a tangible weight, feel as though they’re sucking the energy out of whatever kind of wattage the body runs on. My form no longer perceives time save for the deadline of when the train leaves.
On the train, in its efficient quietude, I pass out, wake up, pass out. Sometimes I look at the scenery on the way to Brest, all precious and rural, chateaus and a central steeple, rinse with a stretch of farmland, repeat. I’ve been traveling for a day that is really two days, and when I step out into the station, my duffel bag heavy as hell on my shoulders, but at least it’ll be easier to shove in someone’s trunk than a hard suitcase. Idling outside, waiting, is a BikeExchange team car. That’s when it hits me. Where I am. What I’m doing. As soon as it does, my face is split by a moron’s grin. I walk north, and when I come across the site of the Grande Depart, I stop. I look. It’s nearly ten at night but the sun is still up, setting slowly, slowly, the sky not yet pink but getting there. There’s a gentle breeze and it’s cool outside.
I’m here. I’ve arrived.
Some moments in life make every struggle worth it.
This is one of them.