It was more than just a snow storm. It was this yucky mixture of snowy-slushy-sleety yuck significant enough to make it too dangerous to fly a 747.
"We are so sorry to inform you that your flight has been cancelled."
Not postponed. Not "hold up, let us check on a few things like de-icing concoctions and such." No. Just cancelled. It all sounded so final.
I sat on that hardish-softish chair in the Northwest Airlines terminal like a kid who'd lost her parents. Not really knowing what to do next or where to go next so just remaining still until some authority figure came along. Problem was, I wasn't a child--I was mostly grown. Twenty-five years old, to be exact. And wondering what in the hell I was supposed to do about being stranded at 9pm on a weeknight in Cleveland, Ohio.
That day had gone fairly well until that point. In fact, it was more than okay. I was in my fourth year of medical school and had just completed two days of residency interviews at two different programs in Cleveland. At the time I was doing an elective rotation at a hospital in Michigan that month. Though most people advised against it, how could I not schedule a couple of my other Midwest interviews while I was there? Lucky for me, my supervisors were super nice that month. They encouraged me to take those interviews in Ohio and didn't even flinch when I took them up on that offer.
The distance between this particular set of Ohio interviews and the temporary housing I had near that Michigan hospital that month was actually drivable. A little over three hours in good weather and maybe longer in this wintry mess, but nonetheless drivable. Unfortunately, that wasn't really an option. For starters, I didn't have a car with me that month since the hospital was in walking distance from the housing. Additionally, I needed this to be as quick a trip as possible. I felt obligated to hurry back since I'd already be missing two days of clinical duties in a row. That's what made this sudden flight cancellation even more uncool. That and the fact that I was too broke to even fathom a plan B.
But then--thank the heavens--something happened. A voice comes over the crackly loud speaker announcing that a bus would be arriving in the next hour to drive us back to Michigan. Our bags would be coming out on the baggage claim at which point we would have them loaded on to a Greyhound-esque bus. At no additional cost.
And so. One hour was really like two hours. And in that snowy-slushy-sleety mess, the drive ended up being more like 4 and a half hours. It was so nasty out there that I couldn't allow myself to sleep. I guess I just couldn't totally relax with such treacherous conditions.
Anyways. The bus was full to capacity. Shortly after I sat down, a very pleasant gentleman sat beside me. He was holding a little wrapped box and sat it on his lap. After about forty five minutes, I guess he could tell that I wasn't planning to sleep. And so the chatting began.
Of course, it always starts teeny-tiny. That's what I call the smallest of small talk. Universally vanilla observations about how sucky it is to have a flight cancelled but how quasi-good it is to at least have an outdated Greyhound as an option to get you to your destination. Next came questions about who's from where and so on and so forth. And that was all fine and well. But that part lasts for only about an hour tops. After a while, the talk gets a little deeper.
He learned that I was a medical student. I learned that he was a single father. And the more we sat, the more questions he asked. He was so very nice about it, too. Like super, syrupy Mister Rogers friendly with a laugh that sounded like a laugh track. And you know? Something about it all felt contrived. And kind of weirded me out.
I pretty much stopped at "I'm a medical student doing a rotation at Michigan." I kept my answers very nonspecific beyond that. But Mr. Pleasant just kept on chitting and chatting about any and everything you can imagine. Especially his intricate plans for his daughter that got foiled by all of this mess. And, again, he was mostly friendly so on a scale of one to ten he was only getting on my nerves about a three. But his questions kept vacillating into wanting to know more about me and my plan for getting back to the hospital. "It's going to be 3:30 AM," he said with a look of concern, "and the roads will be awful."
I quietly suggested that I'd sleep in the airport if need be. Although I was still very worried about what this would mean to my supervising attending. I guess it was obvious.
"Well. I'd be more than happy to drive you there," he offered. "I was supposed to be home early to give this gift to my daughter. I was going to drive to her mother's house first but now it's too late. I am actually in that direction so I'm happy to take you so you won't have to sleep in the airport terminal."
He smiled at me after he said that. A nearby light from a passing truck rolled over his face like a spotlight. I could see his large yellowish teeth and the gleaming shine on top of his pale balding head. All of it still pleasant, but somehow just overly so. I couldn't put my finger on it.
"That's okay. I am sure I'll manage."
And for the next two hours, he would make more over-pleasant small talk followed by yet another offer to drive me back to my destination.
"No cabs will be running, you do realize."
And then he asked the magic question. "Aren't they expecting you at the hospital?"
And when he said that, for the first time, I considered his offer. Because, yes, they were expecting me. They'd been kind enough to let me dip out for two days and returning after lunch the following day would not be holding up my end of the deal.
"Um." That was all I could say. Because I was still thinking.
"Let me swing you by there. I'll feel like I'm investing in the future of medicine." He smiled again and I noticed how the bottom row of his teeth showed, too. My eyes then darted down to the little gift wrapped box he had on his lap. I imagined his daughter staring through the window all night only to be devastated when her mother told her that he wouldn't make it there after all. This guy was a good guy. I mean, he had to be.
"You know what? Okay."
He looked a little surprised and giddy at the same time. "Okay, you'll let me drive you?"
"I need to get back. So I'd really appreciate it and would be glad to pay you for gas."
"Oh, it would be my pleasure. That isn't necessary."
Then I guess he felt like some door had been opened. He became super familiar telling me all about everything from his dog to his daughter to his divorce to his hobbies. He went on and on all while smiling with those big yellow chiclet teeth and large forehead with its stray wisps of hair sprouting out. All of it periodically giving me this urge to change seats, yet simultaneously forcing me to try convincing myself that he was simply a good, albeit awkward, samaritan.
The bus arrived finally. Mr. Pleasant let me out onto the aisle first and asked if I needed help. And, again, it was weird. Not really fresh or anything. Just this strangely unnatural way that was slippery and hard to put a finger on.
He kept saying my name, too. Kimberly this. Kimberly that. Let me help you, Kimberly. Is your bag over there, Kimberly? Kimberly, Kimberly, Kimberly. And instinctively, I kept my things with me and kept mumbling "that's okay" each time he offered to assist. Because for some reason, I didn't want him to touch any of my belongings.
"I'm right over in this lot. We can walk right over or, if you'd like, I can take our bags and pick you up from here." That big smile again with top and bottom rows showing. I glanced toward those barren lots scattered with their snow covered cars. Dark. Personless. Lonely. And kind of scary.
"It's no problem." He began to reach for my bag. "I'll swing right back for you. I know my daughter is so disappointed that I wasn't able to see her. You'd like her. She's a great kid. Here, it's not to heavy. Let me just pop it in the back of my car."
But once he touched by bag handle, I kept holding it. "Uhh. . .I need to, um, go to a pay phone and call my dad to let him know I made it to Michigan safe."
"Okey dokey, Kimberly. I'll take the bag and get the car and you make your call. Okay, Kimberly?"
Kimberly, Kimberly, Kimberly.
"Um. . . . I'll just hold my bags with me, I'm fine. Thanks." I turned and began to head into the terminal toward the bank of phones. I paused for a moment when I noted each one of them was occupied by other passengers from my original flight.
"It's so late. I'm happy to stop you by another pay phone since those might be tied up for a while. I wish I had one of those cell phones! When my daughter gets older, I'm going to pay whatever it costs for her to have one of those things." I noticed his smile once more.
And right then and there, some kind of alarm sounded. Something deep inside of me told me that spending even another second with this man was not in my best interest.
Run. . run! My little voice screamed this time. And it refused to be ignored. Run! Get away! This is a bad idea. A very, very bad idea. Leave. Run. Get away. You'll get where you need to be. Trust me.
And that was all I needed to make up my mind to get the hell away.
"You know what? It's okay. I'm good on the ride, okay? Thanks again." And I turned and left without saying another word. Or allowing him to say Kimberly, Kimberly, Kimberly anything.
He didn't follow me. At least not that I know of. And I didn't even look back to see if he was even thinking about it.
That happened nearly twenty years ago. But you know? I replay that day in my head often. I wonder what would have happened to me if I had headed out with that stranger and if I'd ignored that little voice inside of me. I wonder if that walk toward that lot or that ride in his car would have been my last. Or at least the last time anyone heard from me. And every time I think back through it, I feel this deep, deep sense of relief. Yes. Relief. Like a person who jumped out of a car right before it blew up or ran out of a burning building seconds before it collapsed to the ground. Something about it has always felt like a near miss. From something really, really awful. What? I do not know.
And yes. He could have very well been a kind and balding man with big yellow teeth and a laugh-track laugh. One who intended to drive me straight to where I needed to go without stopping once. Except to let me use the pay phone to call my dad. But something deep down inside of me has always told me otherwise. I'm not sure why. Nor am I sure why it took me so long to follow my gut. But desperation can do that to us, I guess. Yeah, I guess.
I felt a little twinge that something was awry at first. But I ignored it. Then it felt like a brush on my arm. Finally it rose to a nudge on my shoulder. Subtle, but still there. And I am so, so glad I responded to that feeling.
I've said before that I believe that this innate sense of "fight or flight" is something that shouldn't be ignored. I will always believe that it saved my life that night. Honestly, I will.
I did call my dad. I didn't tell him about the man with the chiclet teeth and shiny forehead. I just told him I was okay. Then I told him that I had one of my sorority pledge sisters there in town and that I had just found her number in the phone book. And Dad said for me to call her but then call him back collect. To let him know I was okay, yes, but also to let him know that it worked out.
And I did call her. My line sister Chelsea. Cold-called her, no less. And she was home. And, even though she hadn't heard from me in a long, long time, she got out of her bed and came to get me. At O-dark thirty, she did. And she was pleasant about it, too. But normal pleasant. Not laugh-track, chiclet smiling pleasant. Which felt right.
Some part of me also believes that Chelsea being where she was at that time and even being listed in the phone book wasn't on accident. And that our connection through Delta Sigma Theta and Tuskegee University could have possibly all been just for that moment. That life-saving moment. Yes. Some part of me will always believe that, too.
I called my Dad collect, just as promised. And then, when I was safe in my dorm, I called him once more to--yet again-- alert him that I was well. Which, thank God, I was.
Hmmm. I'm not really sure why I felt the need to tell that story. Maybe someone needed to read it as much as I needed to tell it. Or maybe. . . . just maybe. . . I just needed to be reminded to pay attention.
Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite movies of all time. It gives me goosebumps and brings me to tears every single time. . . .just like the goosebumps and tears that come when I imagine what could have happened that night had I not listened to my spirit.