I went with Eileen, my best friend’s mom, down to Detroit Metro Airport to pick her up. The crowded areas, umpteen escalators, and stainless-steel everything freaked me out. I thought it was rather fitting that I—who had never left the country, never heard Japanese over a PA, and never seen a real-life turban before—was here to welcome my cultured friend back onto home soil. It was obvious I’d never been to an airport that large before. The thought of two terminals blew my mind, and Eileen laughed at my astonishment as a Delta plane flew over our heads with an earsplitting roar. Once inside, we twisted and turned, sailing along on an unpopulated giant conveyor belt to our destination. And when I envisioned Maggie’s arrival, my insides twisted just as much as the escalators and paths to her terminal.
She had been gone six months studying in Lancaster, population 46,000, along the west coast of England. When we’d Skype or talk on the phone, she’d tell me about football matches and Friday nights at the pubs, cobblestone streets and cruising across Europe. She visited Germany and Scotland, and even spent some time in Paris. I was so happy that she’d been able to visit some of the places she’d always wanted to see, but as I sat down in the middle of the terminal by myself while Eileen used the restroom, I had to admit that I was nervous to see how she’d changed.
Would she come back thinking America was lame? Would she think Michigan was lame? Would she think I was lame? I furrowed my brows, trying to connect to the airport’s wireless internet and waiting for her flight number to appear on the baggage claim screen. Each passing second made me more and more anxious. I knew that she’d miss her friends there, but I hoped that things wouldn’t be different between us. While I surely was sheltered, plain and commonplace in comparison to her company in England, I hoped that my friendship would still be good enough. I thought back to the times we’d talked, searching for hints of my own inadequacy, and my stomach dropped when I remembered I only wrote to her once. I could count on one hand the number of times we’d talked while she was overseas. Maybe coming to pick her up might compensate for all the contact I lost while she was away, I hoped. My laptop clicked shut as I deemed that red X over the tower symbol a lost cause. Resolving to focus on something else besides peeking guilt and nervousness, I watched the luggage roll in. I wondered how everything around me worked and how everyone knew how everything worked.
Eileen came back and sat down next to me, watching for Maggie’s flight number as much as I was. It didn’t appear for what felt like hours, so we decided to walk around by the other baggage claim belts. And then I heard her before I saw her. Maggie’s voice echoed through the terminal, “Mom, Mom! I’m over here!” I turned and saw my best friend tearing around a corner, dragging half her belongings with her, waving her arms to keep her balance. It was the longest we’d ever been apart in the decade we’d known each other. When she saw me and snatched me into a hug, the first inkling of my worry dissipated, leaving me like air from a balloon. She nearly cried when she saw us, and radiated with gratitude at returning to the States. And then she stepped back, and I was astonished to see nothing different. The same striped American Eagle button-down with a coral scarf. Big Audrey Hepburn sunglasses perched atop a messy bun. Tan Sperry topsiders, and a slouchy brown purse to match. The same smile, same laugh. And when we demanded she display the accent she’d picked up, she admitted that it really wasn’t that good, even when she tried.
I was still frozen in the daze of her return as we walked to the car, still searching for a clue that things were different. Pushing the luggage cart ahead of her and Eileen, I remained caught in my own tangled web of thought while they chatted merrily in the background. We wound back down the escalators and along the human-size conveyor belt. And I continued to wonder: how could she possibly be this excited to re-assimilate into the Midwest, where the air is frequently heavy and always stagnant? Where you know everything about everyone, even the things you don’t want to know. Where we drive on the normal side of the road and have normal food restocking the supermarket shelves. Do they even have supermarkets in England? I wondered, climbing into the backseat after we loaded her luggage into the trunk.
As we made our way north to our hometown, population 780, she told us all about her experiences. Every once in a while her words would come out a touch slanted. She listed her ten favorite things about Lancaster (“The shops are so quaint!”) and threw in a bit of British slang. Maggie explained that “knackered” meant “exhausted,” and “taking the piss” out of something meant ridiculing it. She displayed pictures of an American-themed party her dorm threw—and we saw just how accurate it was, with the straw hats, Old Glory t-shirts and laid-back smiles. She gave me as much of a tour of her experience as she could through voice and a camera screen, and I gave her a recap of all that had happened in good old Michigan while she was away, hoping she wouldn’t find the stories tedious. After a few hours of catching up on six months’ worth of stories, we both fell asleep to Adele’s crooning voice. I woke up with a disoriented “where the hell are we?” as we turned on to her road at midnight.
“Already?” I said as we entered her warm house which smelled of delicious cooking, as always. The second we crossed the threshold to her home, I could feel the layers of doubt falling from my shoulders.
We petted her dog that wagged the entire back half of its body when it recognized Maggie. Like a snake I shed another layer, becoming lighter, newer.
We hauled bags in, to be unpacked in a few days when the wonder wore off. Another peel of doubt fell to the floor, sinking into the carpet.
We floated upstairs to brush our teeth and climb into bed, and I spat another worry down the sink with my toothpaste.