Kim marched through the airport, followed by us, a train of mourners, who trudged, eyes downcast, peeking up to see where she was going. Her expression, as far as we could tell behind her mascara, was not so much hopeful as it was aggressive. She dared anyone to tell her that her husband was dead and she was determined to prove wrong those that had.
She directed an ambush set up right where the arrivals emerge from their secure area. The TSA employee guarding the hallway eyed us, saw the welcome home sign and balloons, and concluded that most of us posed no threat. His eyes lingered upon Kim; not because she in her mini skirt, makeup, and high heels was appealing, but because she was dangerous.
I took up a position with the rest behind the sign, hidden as best I could by the balloons. If Paul was coming home, and I did not believe he was, I didn’t want mine to be the first face he sees. If he did, he might turn around and go back to Afghanistan.
I could see the rest trying to work their faces into hopeful expressions. People studied us as they passed by. A group with a welcome home sign in an airport was no unusual thing, not worth more than a slight regard; but a group combining a welcome sign and dour expressions arouses curiosity. Add an aggressively sexy blond with an axe to grind and passersby pick up their pace.
Across from our position, a large window gave us a view of planes coming in, tumbleweeds somersaulting across the tarmac and, in the distance, the mountains of Colorado Springs towering a mile and a half above the city. One bald old mountain, Pike’s Peak, stood higher than the rest while smaller mountains gathered at his feet and under its outstretched arms, as if they were having a family photograph taken. One stood aloof, over to the side: Cheyenne Mountain, its head bristling with antenna and its heart hollowed out and replaced by the Strategic Air Command.
I thought: that’s the choice that I have. I can be like Pike’s Peak with my family around me, or I can be Cheyenne Mountain, alone and prepared for war.
I decided to resemble a mountain. It was to be Pike’s Peak or bust.
The arrival board had declared that Paul’s fight was on time and, when the time arrived, our scuffling emotions settled into straight-up worry. A few more minutes passed and the reality of Paul’s death became all that much clearer. First Natalie began to cry on my shoulder, and then Sam abandoned whatever macho pretense a young man might have and joined in on the other one.
For an instant I was happy, for I had acquired my family. They surrounded me in my arms, just like Pike’s Peak. They needed me and my soft shoulder to cry on. Unfortunately, I was not supposed to be happy at a time like this. I was supposed to be sad, so the instant vanished in a cloud of guilt.
Kim stood alone, tears rolling down her cheeks, carrying her mascara in streaks, like a hideous war paint.
“That fucking Paul, where is he?” She shouted, “Doesn’t he know we’re out here waiting?”
She began to step into the secure area, tottering a bit on her heels, for she had drunk many beers. The TSA employee stepped up to block her way.
“Ma’am, this area is for ticketed passengers only.”
“Fuck your security. I want my husband.”
With this, they were off. You would not expect that an intoxicated woman in a miniskirt and high heels could move so fast, eluding so many TSA employees for so long. Moreover, she still carried the welcome home sign, with the balloons attached. On a couple of occasions, TSA would get close and she would turn suddenly, whomping them with the sign. She darted in and out of rest rooms, shops, and restaurants, once even going behind the counter of Taco Bell to look for Paul there.
Paul was not hiding in the packets of Chipotle sauce, nor was he jiggling the last few drops at a urinal, nor was he selecting designer ear buds; he was in a hundred pieces, spread over an Afghan runway.
Most of TSA had abandoned their posts at the x-ray machines and scanners help run her down, regarding her as an imminent terrorist threat. We could see they boxed her in at gate 118. A whole planeload of waiting passengers fled the area as she climbed on a seat. She used her welcome sign as a shield, fending her pursuers away. The balloons became detached, retreated to the ceiling, and turned back to watch the scene. Kim could not hold out for long and soon TSA had her tackled, facedown, on the floor, and handcuffed.
A posse of TSA employees accompanied Kim through the arrival passageway where we had remained, obediently. Her panty hose had more runs than hose and her skirt was riding up. One heel was broken and she still wore the other, hobbling down the hallway. Her hair was akimbo and her mascara, gone from streak to smudge, painted her face grey.
I did my best to explain that she was bereft and distraught, but they had forms to fill out and an interrogation to complete. We waited, seated by our window, watching planes coming in and tumbleweeds somersaulting across the tarmac. In the distance, one bald old mountain with his family all around him matched me and mine.
For the second time in one day, for the second time in twenty years, against all rules, I was happy.