Grounded by Mechanical Problems

A fuel leak in one of the engines.
Strangers become familiar, 
united in a common obstacle, 
the bittersweetness of unrealized dreams
never getting off the ground.

We are steered with smiles,
from the cramped seats we’d settled into,
friendships of compromise,
and abandoned into stagnant lines where
we can’t find a single uniformed person
who will look us in our eyes.

A membrane forms around our transitory clan, 
bound by the surprising sting of being culled by chance. 
Our coat of arms could feature a suitcase consumed by clouds.

Fingers fly madly over keyboards, 
then hand us back-up plans typed out in secret code
on green paper that seems to have traveled from the past.

How could we have been so naïve
to trust the fickle seductions of flight?

Our rooms have been shunned
by people who are going places
and some of us have to ask for toothbrushes 
designed specifically for
travelers who fail to expect the worst.

Our meal vouchers have no value
in this place with no restaurant
so we walk, where there are no sidewalks, 
in clusters to nearby chains,
exactly like the ones from where we tried to leave
earlier in the day.

I enter the McDonald’s with a young man from China
who uses a name manufactured to make things easier on me,
but after a couple tries,
I still can’t quite make it out.

Back home, he says, most guys his age prefer KFC.
I feel embarrassed,
as if I am personally accountable
for the economies of scale that have
brought us to this hollowness of unlimited choices.

He studies computer science (materials) in East Lansing.
He tries to pay for his combo meal with the vouchers.

He tells me Shanghai is like New York City,
but Beijing is a better place to visit
because it has both the traditional and modern
at the same time.

The next morning,
they carefully search the grandma from Michigan among us
who is so nervous that she reacts to the metal detector
as if it were a trick question akin to a hole of miniature golf.

I chat over breakfast with a woman whose two daughters
are both single mothers living in California.
The one who is an oncology nurse is doing better
than the one whose husband passed away,
even though she,
the one who is doing better, 
has been divorced twice.

Nurses Syndrome, she tells me, 
means being attracted to men
who have a lot of needs.
Her daughter helped her find a good doctor to treat her cancer.
So far so good.

Back home, she and her husband run a furniture store.
They used to travel out west to buy merchandise,
but shipping rates have increased so much.
Now they just go to Chicago.

Soon they will be selling the business.
It doesn’t make as much money now
with so much competition from the bigger places.

And as we separate for our different gates,
there is a small ache braided into the comfort
of being back on course.