It took me 46 hours to get back to Knoxville from Malaysia. My last month on the Race. Over, done. My squad landed as a unit in NYC, and like glass hitting ground, we scattered. Connecting flights had to be made. These people, the ones I’d spent the last year of my life with, dispersed across the airport. Hours later, across the country.
I walked out of the terminal in Knoxville and straight into my family. Mom crying. Dad laughing at my outfit. “Vagabond,” I believe he called me. Grandparents hugging. One sister videoing. The other smiling at her sheepish boy son. He was 10 months old when I’d left. Now, a few winter months shy of two years.
We picked up my pack at baggage claim. “Is this all you have?” dad asked. “Yes.” And he laughed... again. He seemed surprised, still, that I’d lived on so little for so long. Surprised, impressed and in agreement. My father is the ultimate minimalist. Less is most definitely always more, he’d say.
I rode with him to my grandparents’ house. He’s the least emotional of my family members, so I was thankful to be in his truck. Little emotion is what I needed, or at least I thought so at the time. Looking back, some tears probably would’ve done me some good. Some deep questions from people, and some honesty from myself.
But given the situation, how was I supposed to know what I wanted? What I needed? I had no bearings. No orientation. I didn’t know how to be the new me in this old place.
We went straight to the dinner table. It was my mother’s 55th birthday. I missed her 50th five years earlier. A work trip. Nose-to-the-grindstone, you know? The realization of self-consumption hit me like a ton of bricks. Grace, remember grace.
We sat, and we ate. Outside, everything the same (minus my vagabond clothes). Inside, everything different. Two worlds of mine, colliding. It was the strangest feeling, really.
I spent the next 11 days sleeping, drinking lots of almond milk, doing lots of yoga and having the occasional coffee date with friends. And on the 12th day, Tony arrived in Knoxville.
“An airport reunion,” I thought. Airport reunions always go one of three ways: super awkward, super dramatic, or completely calm and normal. I was hoping for completely calm and normal.
I remember seeing Tony walk out of that spinning door thing—the one that separates the terminal from the rest of the airport. The crowd was oddly thick, but I spotted him. He spotted me too. Me, in my gray hoodie and brown leather jacket. Him with a blue scarf twisted around his neck, the collar of his black coat keeping it in perfect position. Here was this man, looking all European, all Capetonian, in my southern American hometown. Unbelievable.
He was smiling as he walked towards me, and he looked relaxed. That helped me to stay relaxed too. “Howzit,” he said, and we hugged. “You look good, Julz.” I slipped my arm through his, and we filed into the crowd bound for baggage claim.
Completely calm and normal. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I stood to the side, trying to maintain a slow pulse, while Tony grabbed his bags off of the carousel. I live in my head... a lot. So if I was interacting with Tony, I was fine. If I was left to my own devices, I faced the temptation to conjure up some dumb idea or notion—to question my appearance or words, or to calculate my next move.
Why do we do that? Why do I do that? Calculations always propel us out of the moment and into a pool of invulnerability. People want real interactions with real people—not calculated interactions with calculated people.
To be present and to hold true. In a culture of comparison, those are probably two of the most prevalent challenges faced by adults and teens.
But amidst the temptation to premeditate my behavior, I soothed my soul with these two words, “Be normal.” Over and over I told myself. I’d spent too much of my early 20’s trying to be attractive, to be the kind of woman I thought a man would want, the kind of woman the world admired. And all along, I was missing it. I was getting it completely wrong.
God made me to be me. It really was and is that simple. Be myself. Be normal.
In my relationship with Tony, that’s something I’ve always fought for. Normalcy. Vulnerability. Real interaction with a real person. And there, at the baggage carousel, I wasn’t about to lose the fight.
I went to war with the temptation to worry about my hair. To think of something impressive to say. To give into the notion that I wasn’t good enough for this amazing man, or that he wouldn’t love me in “plain life.”
Bags in tow, we walked into Tennessee, together, and towards the parking lot. “I forgot how big the cars are here,” he said. "Here" meaning America. I laughed, content, not feeling pressured to respond. We loaded Tony’s next five months into the trunk of my sister’s car and went for coffee. My best friend and her husband were landing in Knoxville from Germany in an hour, and I had to be there to greet her. We’re always there to greet each other.
I couldn’t believe it. All of my favorite people, gathered in one city. Any looming nervousness, subsided, because this coffee date was going exceptionally well, and the best friend kind of airport reunions are never awkward... but always (and expectedly) slightly dramatic.
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