I woke on the floor of the Philadelphia airport confident I hadn’t missed my delayed flight because it hadn’t even been rescheduled yet. The generic waiting area was filled with people curled into the chrome chairs or splayed out like they’d been murdered and deposited there. Those who were awake refreshed their makeup or blocked out their surroundings by arranging and re-arranging their belongings within the nine square-feet alloted to them. The room was yawning and stretching with the smell of perfume dissolving in human oil. We cooed like a tree of starlings, like a library of boring magazine articles about celebrity feuds. Our food and water came sealed in plastic, the air recycled, like astronauts without the view. The quiet was disrupted now and again by a baby’s scream or a teenager pretending something was funnier than it really was. In this calm, we were all keenly aware of the small encampment in the corner, the single-mother family barely keeping it all together.
She wrestled the girl, seemingly boneless and flopping like a dummy, while the younger boy twitched and bounced with the energy he wasn’t able to expel. The girl didn’t want the buttons of her shirt done up, she just didn’t want it. They were bordering on making a scene and I could see every ounce of the mother’s strength focused on keeping that from happening. She’d held it together for this long, placating them with treats and promises, but their stunted velcro shoes were off now, their socks next, their faces stained with inevitable unravelling.
I found what I needed in my bag and claimed a corner out of their sight to practice my trick. Facing the wall, I made funny faces and exaggerated my movements the way magicians do. I showed the tissue I would make disappear, looked into one hand and moved the other, waved my palms synchronously, produced a show to the best of my limited ability. When I felt I was prepared to fool the children at least, I walked over to the mess of colouring books and ninja turtles spread on the floor.
“Hello,” I said. “Do you mind if I do a magic trick for your kids?”
With the sweatsuited boy squirming on her lap, she looked up at me like I’d just asked to molest her children. She was confused and looked to her neighbours for assistance.
“I just learned a magic trick the other day and was wondering if I could perform it for them.”
“Listen, I don’t know, I don’t think so,” she said with a distrust that made it seem like no one had ever done a nice thing for her in her entire life.
“I want to see a magic trick,” said the girl, her hair blonde and screaming to get off her head.
The mother looked at her daughter then back to me, smiling and trying to look as good-natured as possible. “No, thank you,” she said.
“My name’s Chris,” I said. “You don’t have to do anything, just watch.”
The boy yelled my name with a monster voice and an arm stretched above his head like Superman. I gave him a smile to thank him for his encouragement. She looked around to make sure there were witnesses, then said, “O-ok.”
We all imagined something different than what followed. The kids sat down on their knees in front of me, their mother with her hands on their shoulders. The strangers sitting adjacent to us had turned and tuned in to the spectacle. I became excited by the idea of an audience, by turning into the airport lounge entertainer, saviour of the bored masses. Even I imagined some sort of elaborate magic routine, the poor mother’s burden relieved. But after a minute, maybe two, the show was over. The trick done well, but one trick only. No one clapped or congratulated me, no one said anything as we all slowly came to the understanding that there was nothing else.
“Oh, thank you,” the mother blurted out as her daughter rose to grab an armrest and tried to see how high in the air she could propel her bum. The boy watched as I nodded and returned to my seat on the floor beside the counter. He rubbed his grubby hands together and checked his mother’s face as if he was very concerned about what he’d just seen.
The meltdown was delayed for a little while at least, but only delayed. In the end, I put on my headphones to drown out the whining and studied the covers of nearby magazines as the snot and tears oozed from their faces.