Dulles had something of a reputation for me. Growing up, I remember hearing all of these decadent stories about a connecting hub in our nation's capital lousy with bars and corridors full of politicians with wide-stances and burned-out lobbyists willing to do anything for their next cocktail, or at the very least a ride back to whatever hick district they called home, that wasn't getting that extra ten thousand dollars for their connecting bridge or public schools.
My first moments in D.C. were less than pleasant. Our flight attendant coming out of Yeager was an affable, middle-aged woman with a soft spot for kids -- apparent by her cordial insistence to take care of her youngest passengers first. On the flight proper, this didn't sit too ill with anyone, though a couple of the louder passengers behind me seemed a little too impatient to get where they were going, even before we had landed yet. I didn't care, shuffle putting me deep in AniDifranco's Dilate in between some Laura Marling and the Rondelles [now there would be an interesting fusion band], and drowned out all but the loudest, a big round man I was really glad to have in the aisle opposite of me instead of directly behind.
The flight wasn't long -- and the attendant, in a portent of things to come, ran along the aisles letting us know which Dulles Concourse we'd need to head towards, and whether or not we'd need the underground train. It was pleasant, and I was already sort of enjoying my trip -- until the seat belt light came on again and I had to cut the Stolen Minks short. The landing was smooth and no problem, but without waiting for any lights, everyone in the plane, save for yours truly, undid their restraints and stood. I still had four hours until my next flight, and felt no need to hurry, and our flight attendant seemed to be of the same opinion of me. After all, she had young passengers, first time flyers, kiddies who had never seen the inside of a cockpit, and whose eyes lit up at the chance to have their pictures taken with the pilots [I really didn't know this happened anymore, but was entirely charmed to find out that the airlines had at least kept one pleasant thing from the fine service they once offered in the 1970s and 80s].
A groan echoed through the cabin, and I checked my watch. Four minutes in the nation's capital, and I'd already lost all faith in humanity.
The impatient bitching continued until long after we exited the plane, and no matter where I moved, who I had in front or back of me as I walked, I had to listen to this incessant bitching about how the flight attendant's kindness had put them all so far behind. Worse, within fifteen minutes of arriving, I discovered that either the tales of the DC airport's long line of bars were greatly exaggerated, or much had changed for Dulles since last I'd heard anything about. Which was a shame, because I was now annoyed and cranky at my former passengers, and still with the longest layover I'd ever had, and sudden, desperate need for some liquor.
I walked as far as my gate before coming upon an establishment smaller than some of Dulles's bathrooms -- a long line of bottles gave me a sigh of relief. The sign that said "please seat yourself" along with the large, synchronized clock right behind the bar made what now felt like a necessary arrangement a convenient one as well, and I planted my suitcase under a stool and ordered [pausing to look at the place's theme] a shot of Jameson and Killian's.
The place was tiny and busy, the staff was mostly Chinese [?], and seemed to want to apologize constantly for the fact that the beer I had ordered wasn't on tap. Conversation with a fellow patron seemed the best way to put a stop to that [drinking more would have helped too, but I'd yet to commit to anything but 'calming my nerves'], but pickings at the bar proper were slim -- I.E., all dudes, which wasn't bad, but not what one hoped for as far as company goes with almost three hours before boarding. Closest to me was a clean cut fellow, and as targeted as possible, I made some slightly louder sarcastic statement, and met Frank.
Frank was clean-cut, quiet-looking, and wasn't traveling with much luggage. Like me, he seemed entirely unconcerned with the time, and more interested in keeping his glass full. He was about my age, but held himself in a way that made me think he was either younger [rich frat boy], or older [new family man], a phenomenon that probably says more about me than him. Talking for a minute, I found out that Frank was bouncing from flight to flight out of Afghanistan, of all places, and when I asked if he was private or military, he seemed at first impressed that I'd know to ask, and then, straightening a little, announced himself: "Marine."
The experience gap widened, and I thanked him. I was, now far from West Virginia, clearly in full Southern Gentleman mode [not that it ever turns off, but it's not a title I'd dare use at home]. Frank was on emergency leave for his sister, who had recently died, and brought forth thoughts of losing my own father. He didn't seem sentimental about it -- in fact, Frank seemed just a little cold, but remembering what was expected of this man sitting next to me, it occurred that he probably wouldn't be, or at least wouldn't seem to be, and until his next flight or mine, there would have to be some sub-textual commiserating.
That's right. For the three hours that followed, I was drinking with a Marine.
We bought our own shots. At this point, I knew he was military, and thanks mostly to gladiator movies, I was a little worried about sending the wrong signals and doing something that might be construed as Spartan. He too seemed somewhat hesitant upon learning of my art school past -- that there might be some dark secret of experimentation with some androgynous roommate clearly weighed heavily on his mind. We decided to keep it as hetero as possible. Hard, as neither of us really wanted to talk about sports. So mostly, we just drank. Which, according to Frank, was all Marines traditionally did for fun anyway. I felt, momentarily, accepted.
Eventually, Frank opted to go and check on what flight they had him on next. We said our good byes, with ominous "we'll meet again" stipulations that neither of us could have known about, nor was it likely we'd ever see through to fruition. I tipped well, feeling relatively unimpaired despite the fact that there seemed to be less drinks on my bill than I actually had. Standing was another thing entirely, and I reassured myself that the airport was not actually moving and spinning underneath me, and that if I could just make it to the gate with some semblance of sobriety they would gladly take my ticket and push me through the door. Not a heavy drinker by trade, my mind still felt sharp to me, just disconnected, like a steering wheel which just couldn't quite get its wheels to do what they were supposed to. One foot after the other, I kept thinking. My gate was, from the bar, in sight. This shouldn't at all be hard -- dammit, I was a gentleman! -- stumbling to my next seat was not an option.
I made it somehow, and don't believe I tripped or faltered [one should always be apprehensive to speak about something they did not see themselves], and was only momentarily surprised at how much faster I sat down in my chair than I expected to. I felt... good, relaxed in all honesty, and impressed with myself that my trip had already involved a such a nice companion who would actually be worth relating to someone later. But I also felt a little in a state, and as a former non-drinker, did not want to come off the plane in Boston like a lush, and found myself slightly worried about how I might appear to Julia and her family. Checking myself in the reflection of my laptop screen [how did that get out?], I tussled my hair a little, thinking I might make it all look like exhaustion from the trip. The six hour trip.
I felt embarrassed for being a lightweight. Especially as this was a wedding trip. I was going to have to learn to pace myself better.
With a little extra concentration, I boarded my plane without incident. The man I sat down next to was Isaac, and little did I know, Isaac would be the second soldier I would meet on this trip.
Over the next hour and half, Isaac would, unintentionally, help sober me up.