The wheelchair on the jetway
They weren’t ready for us. We were a motley gathering: a tall, thin woman with a pinched face reading a faded xerox of her daily intention; a stout businessman, dapper in his blazer and pressed shirt, anxious to get moving; a slim, stalwart old gentleman with a cane and a sharp limp; a young woman with conspicuous pimples dressed in sweats and carrying a surprisingly expensive carry-all.
The plane crew called up to the top of the gangway. We waited. Being at the front of the line meant that our wait would be the shortest.
The bottom of the jetway was cluttered: a black wheelchair, a cone, a plastic container. As people piled up behind us, we gathered ourselves tightly in the small landing, turning our bags and bodies in impromptu jigsaw fittings.
We didn’t look up. That’s not the way of the first people onto the plane.
A woman in an airport outfit walked briskly down the jetway. A moment behind her were two young black men in red t-shirts. The young men were well-groomed and fit, their demeanor perplexed and anxious. We cleared a little room so they could move through without pause.
A second woman followed them. She was pushing a narrow metal chair on wheels.
They had forgotten someone on the plane.
The casual disregard that had filled the jetway tightened. We were more careful not to look at each other.
I tried to imagine the person who had been left behind, as if seeing it in my mind would lessen the discomfort and embarrassment when the men wheeled the chair out. I imagined an old woman, barely able to talk, paper thin from age, in transit from one branch of her family to another, so old that she hardly seems to exist. I readied myself. I’d seen these virtual specters before and felt sad that one had been lost. I can wait patiently a little while longer, I thought.
A woman was wheeled out onto the jetway. She was small and thick, her breadth spilling over the side of the seat. She wore a snug sweater and stretchy pants, her hair was nicely cut in a longish bob that retreated from her face and spilled onto her neck. Her hands were folded in her lap. A dainty gold bracelet stood out on her wrist.
Her body occupied the space of the metal chair in odd proportion. Her calves bulged just above slender ankles. A shoulder lifted against her jaw on one side. Her torso seemed thicker at the turn of her rib cage.
She sat steady and sure as the two men turned the chair next to the black wheelchair we had all gathered around.
We began to shift slightly, as if we were a waxen diorama that had been exposed to sudden heat.
The woman in the wheelchair did not look at any of us. She didn’t look away, either. She was in the middle of a necessary process. We could be overlooked.
The two aides stood front and back to the woman. The three murmured to each other the steps and plans. She replaced a plastic sider on her chair. The chair was streamlined and black. The wheels had wide rubber grips. The handles were not designed for pushing. This was a utilitarian chair.
One aide wrapped his arms under her knees. The second aide leaned down behind her and extended his arms, palms flat and facing sideways. He was elegant in the moment, carrying his hands forward so that he didn’t push against her breasts.
At the same moment that he closed his arms around her, she crossed her hands and clasped his wrists in a firm motion, pulling him toward her chest, shifting forward as the two men smoothly lifted her body on the fabric seat. She was weightless.
“You are good at this,” she said.
Her voice was clear. She spoke only to the two men. We all stood immobile, witnesses but separate. Her demeanor didn’t acknowledge; she may have been forgotten, but she didn’t need to explain or apologize, nor assuage our confusion and discomfort at the disrupted thread of her existence. She was a a traveler too, and was at an obstacle on her journey.
She settled in the chair, turned the wheels so she pointed straight up the jetway. We cleared a little more space. One of the attendants handed her her bag. It was a purse designed in a crescent shape, zipped at the top, clean and stylish, covered with the kind of floral design that evokes a meadow of wild flowers on a bright summer day.