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Airports and Their Incessant Strangeness

Walking through liminal spaces is always unnerving. Airports, especially, and the accompanying airplanes, feel like incomplete experiences. To walk in one door in one place and time and to walk out the next door in another seems unreasonable and impossible. Leaving my home for the first time in this manner felt fitting in that a transitive experience warrants a transitive space, but the strangeness of the classical airport is uncomfortably apparent even to those who need it.

In the very early hours of the day I flew to New York. I first stepped out of my house lugging behind me a heap of bags. My parents helped me load them into the car, and then we drove through the dark to the airport, navigating the twisted roads and overlapping signage to finally make it to the building. Entering the airport was like entering daytime; the lights were bright and the airline attendant chipper. This space was huge and gleaming and seemed to me the last stop before some kind of new beginning.

Here was where the first part of my transition took place. I shed my parents and my bags, becoming a free agent in the vast and seemingly unending terminal. The space and time there were very much in-between, and I seemed to match. The airport was between real places and the sky, and I was between two distinct versions of myself. The chasm between them was only exacerbated by the long and gleaming atriums and the tentative silence of waiting at one’s gate. It was the moment to let go of who I had been, a nervous and isolated girl in Texas, and embrace the newness that would come with attending college in arguably the center of the world, a place so different from my hometown. But before I could really do that, I had to sit and wait for hours in a terminal in Nashville, Tennessee. And there, I existed in total uncertainty.

Encountering places of such transition and connection has become a rarity in the COVID era, and liminal spaces have instead sometimes encroached into our homes and the busy digital sphere. But to actually occupy that weird in-between, physically ambiguous space, is to invite a sort of questioning of the self. And for me, a member of a seemingly new lost generation, who has already existed dubiously between digital and physical representations of myself throughout a global tragedy, taking an airplane to college for the spring semester of my freshman year felt monumental, rife with meaning. Normally, the transition from high school to college is just that, but I and so many of my peers have apparently already made it. Our first semester took place on laptop screens across the world, and we existed to each other only in little pixelated boxes. Colleges exist so solely online that the occupancy of physical space has become moot. When that changed, and I found myself actively making that transition in an airport, then in the air, then in an airport again, I had to reconsider what I was actually doing, who I was actually becoming, and if that person is even any different from who I already am.

Now, this is a lot to get out of a couple of airports. Even more to get out of a simple trip. These kinds of liminal spaces exist so passively within our world, and it is easy to forget them until one’s internal crisis runs in parallel with their whole concept. Change, and the uncomfortable space between the before and after, are inevitable. But I got out of the plane, took a taxi, and now I exist in a new place. I’m not sure that I’m an entirely new person, but rest assured there is still plenty of time to find out.

Clarissa Melendez

Columbia Barnard '24

Clarissa Melendez is a freshman at Barnard College, where she studies Art History. She loves books and movies and spends her time in Austin, Texas making collages and driving her 2003 Toyota 4Runner to the video store.
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