I drive home from work going east on Lawrence Ave, running a latitude from the west suburbs to my house in Chicago. After a full day, I’m eager to see my husband and cuddle my dog, to sit with them on the couch and eat dinner and watch Hulu; it is our contented family routine. As I drive, I watch a succession of airplanes approach O’Hare Airport through the top of my windshield. In the winter when the sky is dark during rush hour, the navigation lights line up like the stars in Orion’s belt. I’ve always loved watching planes.
Many years ago, I lived in Las Vegas. I was a junior-year college transfer who moved across the country to a city I hadn’t visited since was 14, chosen because it was the most affordable “west coast” option and because I was pretty sure I loved to gamble even though I had never actually done it before. I had never lived so far away from home or from anyone I knew. From my dorm room window, my view overlooked the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip and McCarran Airport. A beam of light shot straight up from the apex of the Luxor, a pyramid-shaped hotel. Next to gleamed the metallic Mandalay Bay, its windows glittering in the searing desert sunshine. It only made my new home feel even more alien and otherworldly. I’d stare out my window and lose track of time watching planes take off and land, silver winged tubes shooting up into the atmosphere taking people home after a decadent weekend in Sin City, empty wallets in their back pockets and Bloody Marys sloshing in their bellies.
Life is both short and long. My life in Vegas is so separated from the present by time and distance, it feels more like a past life than something that happened to the same me that I am today. In Las Vegas, I landed in a silver winged tube on an August night. I climbed into the shuttle bus with several suitcases, and the driver asked me if I was in a show: my first surreal ‘Vegas moment.’ It was 11 p.m. and the dashboard in the rental car read 112 degrees; it felt like being in an ashtray. I moved into my room that overlooked the airport, and each takeoff and landing reminded me that I was a 4-hour journey by plane from everyone I knew and loved. I felt like a stranger to myself. Who was I when I wasn’t defined by predefined notions of the people around me?
I met new people and learned a new city. I went to parties in suburban desert sprawl, where the houses were covered in stucco instead of vinyl siding and broke college students blacked out their windows with tinfoil to save on energy costs. I drank Keystone Light, which seemed to be the UNLV equivalent of ‘Milwaukee’s Beast’ from back home. At one party, I followed a girl to her car; she had blunt-cut bangs and glasses and looked like a kindergarten teacher except for the tattoo that said “Bad Kitty” on her lower back. Sitting in her passenger seat, I talked about the boy who was being shady to me while she smoked a joint. This was a different lifetime. I’m not a girl who sits in the passenger seat and lets a guy be shitty. But I was once.
Not long after that party, I got dumped. I flew home for a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip, then flew back to school on a red-eye flight, wearing an oversized sweatshirt as a winter coat. The plane encountered horrible turbulence, dipping so badly my stomach dropped like I was on a roller coaster. Audible gasps were heard throughout the cabin. The couple next to me clasped their hands together, leaning into each other for comfort. I felt more alone than ever.
The wind was too dangerous for us to land in Las Vegas, so our plane was diverted to Los Angeles. We landed at 3 a.m. and deboarded; I curled up on an airplane seat, tuning out the world around me with headphones. Every song reminded me of what seemed to be an unbreakable pattern of failed relationships, so I turned off my music. When you’re lonely, everywhere you look, you see people who don’t see you back.
After a few hours, we boarded a new plane and flew back to Vegas. From my window seat, I watched our approach over the Strip. My school’s campus loomed just beyond, sun-bleached as sand. It was easy to spot my dorm, the tallest building on campus, and I looked at my room from the other side of the view I knew so well. It’s a view of a past life, a different time lived by what feels like a different person.
Today, I am separated from that life by 16 years and 1,900 miles. It’s been a long time since I felt that desperately alone; my life has changed in ways I never could have predicted or imagined back in the days of being a college kid who wore sweatshirts instead of winter coats. Other past lives filled the years in between then and now, unfurling like petals, exposing new discoveries within. But when I’m driving home and see those planes approach in tidy rows, lights aligned over Lawrence Avenue, I remember that view and realize just how far I’ve come.