The airport hums with excitement, aglow with the magic of beginnings and endings. The golden-haired girl enters in a rush, scarf and beige trench coat flapping behind her as she hurries to the arrivals display. Flight 371 from London has just arrived.
Heart skipping a beat, she thinks, Whew, not too late after all.
Easing her way past the waves of humanity anxiously awaiting their loved ones arrival, she positions herself in her favorite spot and breathes in the scene. To the left of her two little boys, one of them clenching flowers tightly in a chubby fist, hang onto their father’s knees as he carefully shifts a sleepy toddler in his arms. He has an air of anticipation or perhaps that’s just exhaustion. Either way, he eagerly looks up each time the customs door opens, only to deflate upon seeing an official uniform. To her right, an elderly couple, the woman, bundled up in a wheelchair with her husband by her side, hand resting lightly on her shoulder; they appear dazzled by all the activity around them. Eventually the couple is joined by a middle-aged man and woman who hover protectively around them.
A large, noisy, red-haired family holds balloons and signs that say, “Welcome Home!” Like her there are plenty of people waiting by themselves, tapping on their cell phones or nervously checking their watches. She wipes her eyes and sighs, “Oh, I wonder what it would be like to have someone waiting for me.” There’s a commotion by the doors and then, BAM, the doors open up and people start filing out, first, by ones and twos but eventually building up to a steady stream.
The girl holds her breath. All around her people are hugging, screaming and crying. Which way should she look first?
The young family is reunited with their mother; she’s besieged by children and tries to hug them all at once. One of the boys, overcome with emotion, puckers up and begins to wail. Before you know it, they’re all crying and hugging each other. Finally laughing, the Dad picks up the mother’s bags and they make their way to the exit.
Next, a man in full military regalia heads towards the elderly couple. She swallows nervously. What’s going to happen now? The man salutes his elders and they all break out into cheers. Their brave young man has made it back home to safety. The crowd goes wild and spontaneously begins to applaud. After much back slapping, hugging and kissing, the young man takes the wheelchair and they head out into the evening.
The red-haired family falls silent as they spot a young couple awkwardly carrying a small child. Shyly they hover around them and tenderly greet the newest member of their family, all the way from China.
Old friends are reunited, families regain equilibrium and lovers sigh with relief that the long wait is over. All that and more happens at International arrivals. The girl soaks it in, skin flushed with emotion, and then heads home herself
Elaine looks up from the kitchen island where she’s chopping onions and wipes at her eyes.
“Lisa”, she sighs, “Have you been at that damn airport again? You look drugged?”
Lisa exhales her words in a rush, “Oh, Lainie, I love going to the airport! At arrivals, you see life at its most pure. No matter what’s going on in their lives, whether they’re sick, have money troubles or relationship issues, at that moment of arrival, all is forgiven; all is well with the world. For that one precious moment, time stands still and people let their joy in each other shine through. So yes” she pauses, eyes shining with joy, “you’re right, I am drugged.” She her arms out and spins like a ballerina, “It’s intoxicating, Lainie, you should come with me next time.”
Waving the knife in the air for emphasis, “Are you crazy, go all the way out to JFK so I can watch people I don’t know come home from a place I’ve never been?” Seeing her friend’s face crumble, she continues more gently, “Lisa, honey, when are you going to have a life of your own? Why don’t you travel somewhere? If you do, I promise to be waiting at arrivals when you come back!”
“With all my heart.”
Smiling, Lisa pops a meatball in her mouth….”Mmm, what’re these for?” “Tony and I are gonna watch the game at Vinny’s house, you wanna come with? A whole crowd’s gonna be there, not just couples.” Elaine bats her eyes like a puppy dog, “Please come, the only time you ever leave the house is to go to work…or to the airport.”
“No thanks, I’m going to videotape the next installment of my cooking show. The last cake video I posted got 2000 views.”
“That Humpty Dumpty cake was a pretty sweet cake. What’s this one gonna be?”
“Well, I’m doing a whole story book series. This one is Alice in Wonderland; it’s my sister Beth’s favorite story. I’m going to make a fondant white rabbit, March Hare, mushroom and a caterpillar.”
“Nice, when are you going to see them?”
“Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate Beth’s birthday after mass. I’ve a lot to do to tonight if I’m going to be ready in time. I don’t want to be late for a very important date.”
Lainie groans as Lisa goes to answer the doorbell.
“Hey Lisa girl, are you coming with us or what?” Before Lisa can answer he’s swiping meatballs and being chased out of the kitchen. “Hey” he says as he playfully dodges smacks, “You should know better than to leave those where I can get them.”
Finally Lainie and Tony are at the door, “Wish you were coming with us.”
“Next time guys, I promise.”
“Lock up behind us, Lisa.”
“Yeah, yeah” and as they exit Lisa firmly shuts the door and turns the deadbolt.
As soon as they’re gone, Lisa gets her ingredients lined up and sets up the video camera.
“Hi everybody, and thanks for joining me for another episode of ‘Let Them Eat Cake’. Tonight we’re going to create the fabulous edible world of Alice in Wonderland.”
It’s well after 2AM when Tony and Elaine exit the subway and start walking home, hand in hand as fat snowflakes hit them in the face. Turning the corner onto her block, they’re assaulted by the flashing lights of police cars and an ambulance. Lainie moans, “Oh no, I hope it isn’t Mrs. Ramirez’s heart again.” As they get closer to the duplex the girls share with the Cardones, they realize the police are at Lainie’s house. In a panic, they start to run, but the area around the house is taped off and a policeman stops them.
Holding out his hand, “Sorry folks, you can’t come in here.”
Lainie gasps, “But I, but I live here. Did something happen at the Cardones?”
The young officer says, “A girl was murdered on the second floor tonight.”
Lainie collapses into Tony’s arms as the medics wheel Lisa out on the gurney. They’ve covered her up, but Lainie can still see the sheet, red with Lisa’s blood.
Two days later the police finally let Lainie and Tony back into the apartment. The kitchen is a mess. Blood and flour are caked everywhere and the video camera lies smashed on the floor. Under the kitchen island, Lainie glimpses the figure of a little girl. Falling to the floor, she picks it up and cradles the tiny Alice.
Death isn’t painful, I think as I float in the air. Oh, don’t get me wrong, getting to this point was scary, messy and very, very painful. However, once you reach a certain threshold, the pain stops and you see everything with beautiful clarity. At the moment of death, I saw myself lying huddled on the floor, my hand held up as to say, “STOP, do you really want to do this?” I don’t waste a moment thinking about my killer, he’s a confused drug addict who’s had a terrible life, and it won’t get any better for him. Instead, I think about my foster family and how grateful I am for their love and how sorry I am that I won’t be there for Beth’s birthday. Later I see Lainie and Tony; she looks so lost, huddled in the snow with Tony hanging on to her. Lainie’s been my best friend since grammar school and I love her so much. It hurts to see her in pain. The light calls to me and my grasp on my surroundings grows weaker. Finally, there’s nothing left to do, but let my soul float gently away.
Jennifer Louise Campanaro was born at home during one of the worst snowstorms New York City has ever had. Her parents, Eddie and Lori hadn’t planned on a home birth, but there was no stopping the arrival of this child. The contractions came hard and fast and with Eddie coaching her, Lori worked with the pain and after several protracted pushes, their little girl entered the world.
Blue-eyed with hair the color of corn, Jennifer resembles her mother’s side of the family, Sicilians. From birth, little Jenny dazzles all with her radiant smile. Lori glares at anyone who dares to say its gas.
Jennifer is a kind-hearted girl, very tender and compassionate with everyone she meets. Her teachers and grandparents say she has an old soul.
In high school, her science club wins a contest and the prize is a trip to California for the award’s ceremony. After her first flight, Jenny is hooked on travel.
Unlike her brother, Jennifer doesn’t choose a school in New York City. She’s offered a scholarship to Penn State and so, to the dismay and pride of her parents, she packs her clothes and her ancient teddy bear and is off to University Park.
It comes as no surprise to anyone when after graduation she accepts a position with an international finance company. Fluent in Italian, her first stop is a year in Rome.
Jennifer loves Rome. The crowds and chaos remind her of New York City, but the history, oh the history. Every way you turn there’s something old and beautiful to look at. She marvels at the ruins and weeps at the beauty of the architecture. She can and does spend most evenings at a café, just people watching. In fact she’s sitting at a café after work, sipping a glass of wine, when her thoughts are interrupted by a tall, dark-haired man who is having difficulty with the menu and the waiter who seems to delight in not understanding him.
She looks up and smiles at the frustrated American.
“Excuse me miss, do you speak English?”
“Yes” she says, lips twitching in amusement.
“I seem to be having some difficulty here.”
He looks so uncomfortable that she immediately takes pity upon him. Waving her hand to indicate the free chair at her table, she exhorts him, “Please, please come and sit with me.”
Gratefully the man moves to her table. Introductions out of the way, he confesses, “My grandparents came from Italy, so I really should know how to speak the language, but I’m afraid I only know stupid stuff like, which way to the bathroom and do you speak English?” He smiles most charmingly.
Jenny laughs and asks how long he’s going to be in Rome. He’s doing a graduate study abroad program, so he’ll be in Rome for five more months.
“Hah” she laughs, that’s just about as long as I have left here. My company wants me to train at our headquarters and my year will be up in June. I totally love Rome, there’s no place like it!”
For the next five months, Jennifer and Joseph are inseparable, spending every available moment together. Joe Skypes with his family in Connecticut once a week and while they all know he’s met a girl, he cautiously guards her from them. Teasingly, he tells his mother that she’ll get to meet her soon enough.
As the time grows nearer for both Joe and Jennifer to leave Rome, they ponder their future together.
“I’ve one more year of grad school, and then I’m done” he says one night while they’re lying on her terrace looking at the ancient stars.
“I’ve done so well here that my boss wants me to spend time at all our major offices. I won’t be in the States much for the next year.”
“Do you think we can make it work?”
She kisses him gently, “I know I want to make it work.”
Two months later, Jennifer says goodbye to Joe at the airport; he goes back to Connecticut and she heads to London. They Skype, write letters and visit each other whenever they can. Meeting up in Paris or Seattle, or wherever they are when they have a couple of spare days. Distance only enhances their relationship and when May draws near and Joe’s graduation approaches, Jen plans to come to Hartford for a visit. He warns her about his large family.
“They’re a bunch of huggers.’ He teases
“I can hold my own mister, I’ve held off hordes of Italian men” she says laughing.
Finally the day arrives; she boards her flight in Rome and heads to Amsterdam where she’ll connect to a flight to Hartford. Buzzing with excitement she can barely sit still during the flight. She can’t wait to arrive at Bradley International Airport. She calls Joe from Amsterdam, it won’t be long now.
Joe and his family gather at International arrivals, holding flowers and a sign. He pleads with his Mom and Dad to please let him greet Jen first before they smother her. His parents smile, but don’t actually agree to anything. His brothers and sisters tease him mercilessly until the moment arrives; the custom doors open and people start to stream out.
Joe pushes his way to the front of the crowd, his parents’ right behind him. Suddenly, there she is, walking straight to him, smiling broadly, blonde head held high. He hears his mother gasp, but pays no attention. Sweeping Jen into his arms they reunite, the months fade away and for that one perfect moment, it’s like they’ve never been apart. Finally he releases her and turns to his mother who’s sobbing. He doesn’t understand why his mother is acting this way, what’s gotten into her? Looking helplessly at his Dad, Joe pats his mother. Elaine reaches out to Jennifer, smiles and cups the girl’s face in her hands.
“You look just like her; it’s like seeing a ghost. One of the last things I told Lisa was if she ever traveled I’d meet her at arrivals.” Hugging the girl to her chest, Lainie whispers, “Welcome home!