I’m in the “zone” again. That transitional state of mind just before I leave London for New York. It usually starts a couple of days before I’m due to fly, and doesn’t end till I’m spat out rudely onto the tarmac at JFK Airport, about to get into my cab.
I sink into a sort of detached langour, somewhere in between melancholy and wakefulness. At lunch with friends, I’m vaguely aware of what is happening around me but I’m not really sure what I’m doing with these people, in this spot, at this particular moment in time. I slip in and out of conversations, and have to overcompensate in tone and volume so I still seem like I’m there. When I say goodbye, I pretend that I’m only going away for a short time, in a nearby city, when in actual fact, I’m crossing an ocean, a hemisphere. It’s a strange thought.
As I walk the streets, I feel somewhat disoriented – I know and acutely feel that I don’t want to be here; that I’m ready to leave, but somehow that moment of becoming has not yet come to pass, and in the meantime I find myself scrutinising trivial details in the landscape that I would not normally notice – the overwhelming redness of a brick wall, for example; or the reflection of the sky in a window – as though I’m seeing these for the first time.
Time passes extremely slowly. Occasionally, I’m overwhelmed by longing for London, even though I haven’t actually left yet. I stare out the window of the bus at parts of the city that are familiar to me but are now rendered immaterial, unreal, since within a day or two, these scenes would dissolve completely and be replaced by other familiar-alien scenes (in New York or Singapore). London might as well not have existed at all. That thought gives me goosebumps.
This uneasy lethargy eases into a kind of resigned waiting on the day of my flight. I get up in the morning, shower and prepare myself mechanically for the inevitable four to six hour wait till takeoff. I wait patiently till the time comes to leave the flat and take my one and a half hour journey by Tube to Heathrow Airport. The last fifteen minutes of the wait are agonising, because I can’t really do anything else but wait, most self-consciously, for the minutes to pass. The journey to the airport is easy, because I’m going somewhere, doing something – there are people to see, conversations to overhear.
But then, at the airport, once the process of checking-in and security screening is over – there’s nothing else between me and time. I kill some of it browsing for magazines, but eventually, I must settle down to the hour-long wait, in the airport lounge, on my own, attempting to read my magazine, but distracted by all the thoughts that are running through my mind, wondering if I would be able to sleep on this flight; what movies would be screening; how long the line would be at immigrations once I arrive. Occasionally, I attempt to write, like I’m doing now.
A couple of drinks later, it’s time to board the plane. I gather up my things and follow the predetermined route to my gate and my aircraft. I occupy my seat like everybody else does and attempt to make myself comfortable even though I know I could never be. While I’m waiting, the person next to me asks me about the entertainment system and I explain it to them cos I’ve been on this flight so many times. Sometimes they don’t stop talking to me and I wish they would because I’m tired. Sometimes, they don’t even acknowledge my existence and I wish they would because I’m lonely and haven’t spoken to anyone all day.
Finally, the plane takes off and everything then falls into place. I know what to expect for the next 7 hours at least. I lapse into my routine – movie, meal, nap, snack. Time passes quickly enough. Before I know it, the plane has landed and I’m preparing myself for the mad dash to immigrations, to get ahead of the line before it even forms. I’ve already won one battle by choosing the correct flight into New York, when there are less people to jostle with.
The wait at Immigrations could take up to an hour. I have a book ready and try to read it, even though again, I’m distracted by the people and conversations all around me, and distracted by the wait itself. At the desk, I explain why I’m here to the friendly Immigrations Officer and brandish my return ticket, indicating a date within the month I arrive. I’ve done that before. Then it’s waiting for my suitcase, which always takes longer than you expect it to.
It arrives and I walk briskly past the rest of the people out to Arrivals and to the taxi stand where there is always a line. But at least there, I can call a friend while waiting, and prepare myself for the scenes of New York that would unfurl over the next few weeks; for that sense of elation at being in New York again, which remains unabated until the next time I leave New York for somewhere else (London, or Singapore) and I slip back into that “zone” again; that surreal “zone” between leaving one city and arriving at another.