The Trip from Hell

November 7, 2004. I stayed in the U.S. an extra month, just long enough to vote in the presidential election.

Now, at last, after thirty years of longing, I was moving back to France, my true home. And my beloved dog, companion for the last ten years, was at my side. It was a miracle!

I thought we’d never make it.

My cousin Judy dropped us off at Denver International Airport—me, my three suitcases, a dog crate as big as a small car, and Serafina. It was a typical Colorado winter day, bright sun, blue sky, crisp cold air. I gave Judy a big hug; she patted my dog and wished us the best. At the check-in counter I was confident; we’d traveled before, Serafina and I. But that was inside the U.S. and before September 11. This time everyone was nervous, especially me, more than I realized.

I was flying off to start a new life, in a new land, and I had no idea what was ahead of me. First we would fly to New York and spend a few days with a friend, so Serafina could rest. Then we would cross the Atlantic on Air France to Paris, and from there fly to Bordeaux.

I checked my baggage early, intending to walk Serafina in and around the airport for as long as I could, the way we did when we flew home for Christmas from Seattle a few years ago. First I took Serafina and the dog crate over to the new baggage X-ray area.

“Can I leave my dog crate here while I go walk my dog?”

The frazzled woman operating the machine scowled at me. A young African man tried to take the crate away from me.

“No, no, I just want to leave it here for a little while.”

He looked at me blankly. Clearly he hadn’t understood a word I said. The woman shouted, “You can’t leave that here!” She motioned to the young man and he placed the crate on the x-ray machine. The woman ran it through, gave it back to him. I was confused. “Now put the dog in!” she said.

“No, I wanted to…”

“You can’t take the crate back once it’s been x-rayed! The dog has to go.”

The next thing I knew, Serafina was being ushered into her crate and whisked away.

Flustered and disgusted with myself for not taking charge of the situation I slunk off to the gate. I remembered a conversation I had had with my mother just a few days ago. It was one of those mild November days in Colorado, the trees nearly bare, the light soft. We were sitting on her back porch. My mom, a towering force my whole life, was seventy-nine, slowly losing her short-term memory, relying more and more on her two daughters. And here the elder one was running off again into the wild blue yonder.

With tears in her eyes she asked, “What are you looking for?”

I didn’t know what to say. I took her old hand in mine, its skin papery soft, the bones light as a bird’s. “I know I’ve moved a lot, but each move has been a good one. Every time I’ve started my life over it’s been a better life than the one before.” She looked away, not wanting to show her exasperation, her inability to understand her restless daughter. I took a deep breath, squeezed her hand, trying to convince myself even more than her. “I know that this is the right thing for me to do.”

She tried to smile, shook her head, sad to see me leave. Again.

Here in the airport, with Serafina carted off to God knows where, fear and doubt sent out their dark tentacles. I felt more and more despondent.

The flight wasn’t for another hour so I half-heartedly opened a book. When a large Arab-looking man in a smart business suit dropped into the seat across from me, I eyed him curiously. He fidgeted, wrung his hands, responded not at all to my attempt at a smile. He seemed unwell, leaned over, and put his head in his hands. Why did he appear so nervous? Why did he look around as if expecting some disaster to befall him? Could he be… a hijacker? Thus my mind, bored and anxious and exhausted after several fitful nights, took off into fantasy land.

I must confess that I am ashamed of what happened next. I come from two liberal parents who trundled us kids all over Europe for years, inculcating a deep respect for others, trying to teach us tolerance and understanding. I hated the anti-Muslim sentiment that was poisoning my country and I did not believe the U.S. government story that Arab hijackers had flown planes into the World Trade Center on September 11.

So how was it that I—liberal American, Buddhist practitioner, radical peace activist—could fall into such fantastical paranoia? I boarded the plane. With each Arab-looking man who boarded the plane after me my mind embroidered the plot until I had fabricated an intrigue worthy of John LeCarré. This tall man, his furtive eyes darting around the cabin, must be one of “them.” And this one, short and cocky in his Dockers and polo shirt, surely he is the ring leader.

What about poor Serafina in the cargo hold? Every time I thought of her down there in the dark, deafened by the roar of the jet engines, alone and afraid… my paranoia increased. When another man in a frumpled suit, with a sweaty swarthy brow, locked himself in the bathroom so long that the flight attendant had to check on him, I just about lost it completely. My mind was going wild.

Enough!

No one else on the plane seemed perturbed. I forced myself to breathe deeply. In, out, in, out. There was no one sitting next to me, thank God, so I lay down on the three seats, breathed slowly, and reasoned my way out of this self-induced terror. I reminded myself that in three days I would be in Montaillac, in the gîte on the farm near Plum Village. I would walk again on the grounds of the monastery, through plum orchard and oak forest, around lotus ponds and meadows. I would sit over tea with my close friends among the nuns and monks and the laypeople, dear already after only two months. And I would listen to my beloved teacher talk about happiness, about overcoming strong emotion, about using the breath to return to the body and quiet the mind…

I woke up an hour later, calm and embarrassed. When the plane touched down I burst into shameful tears of gratitude. I silently apologized to all these men I had maligned in my frightened fantasy, all the while cursing the American media for manufacturing fear. I shook off the whole shameful incident and collected my luggage.

We were in New York! I went in search of my dog.

It was not over yet. For a full hour I sat in the airline’s dingy baggage office. People came and went in the small crowded space as they retrieved boxes and golf clubs and small dogs. No sign of Serafina. Several times I went to the desk where the harried clerks would shake their heads and tell me to wait. Having learned my lesson on the plane, I sat patiently, mentally slapping myself each time my mind tripped into another paranoid fantasy—they put my dog on the wrong flight in Denver; my dog has died and they don’t want to tell me. Finally I demanded that they produce my dog. Very soon someone wheeled out her crate and I freed her. Serafina gave me a big smile, wagged and waved her pompom tail, squirmed with joy in my arms. We have arrived!

I piled the crate and all my bags on a cart and trundled off, dog in tow, for the baggage consignment. Dodging cars and taxis and buses we walked to another terminal. I found a triangle of grass where Serafina squatted for a long pee. Feeling very proud of myself, competent and in control once more, I consigned the dog crate and two large suitcases for forty-eight hours.

Then I confidently hired a cab to take us, Serafina and me, to my friend Jim’s apartment in Queens. Another fear I have? Being ripped off by cabbies in strange cities. The driver, speaking with a thick Indian accent, scowled at the sight of the dog and mumbled something about his leather seats.

“She can ride on the floor,” I cheerfully assured him. But once I climbed into the Checkered Cab there was barely room between the seat and the partition for my skinny knees. So I hoisted Serafina onto the seat next to me and proceeded for the next twenty minutes to hold on to her for dear life. Because I had just had another brilliant inspiration: to keep the driver from parading us all over the borough, I told him to hurry because my dog needed to go to the bathroom.

We embarked on a ride from The French Connection, careening around corners, flying between lanes of cars, bump-bump-bumping down the dirty pot-holed streets of Queens. Finally we arrived. Rattled nearly out of my skin, I paid the still scowling driver and Serafina exploded from the car.

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