No politics on the first date (Dylan)
The woman behind the counter has hair cut about to her chin, longer at the front and shorter in the back. It’s dyed a bronze color, and I can’t tell her age or even her general appearance because the makeup she wears is thick as wood-grain veneer on cheap particleboard. Her eyelids, thick with glittery blue eyeshadow, flutter as she talks to a man behind the counter who isn’t wearing an airline uniform. Actually, he doesn’t appear to be there for any other purpose than to flirt with the woman.
“Excuse me,” I say.
She ignores me and continues to smack her gum.
I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But if this is how everyone is going to behave in New York, I’d just as soon go back to the South.
“Excuse me, Miss?” I try my best to contain my irritation. I can’t go as far as Ma’am, though my Mom wouldn’t approve. Mamma always told me to keep up my best manners even if the world was coming to an end.
“What?” The look she gives me is anything but accommodating. Is it the Southern accent? Or because I’m a teenager? Or is she just normally rude? Who knows? Impossible to tell. What I do know is that she’s making me angry.
“I was on Flight 658, along with my friends.” I gesture to the others from the Atlanta delegation. “None of our luggage has shown up at the baggage claim.”
She gives me a briefly scornful look, then picks up a phone and dials. “Yeah, Gary? This is Bethany, in Terminal 4. Yeah, that’s me. I got some teenagers here, they say their luggage didn’t come off Flight 658.”
She pauses and tilts her head. “Uh huh… uh huh …. Yeah? Well, that’s a bummer. All right.”
None of that sounds good. She hangs up the phone. It’s clear she’d rather be flirting with the guy, or doing a crossword puzzle, or just about anything else other than talking with me. “Sorry, but security diverted one load of luggage at Hartsfield.” She doesn’t pronounce the -R- in Hartsfield, instead saying it like Hahhtsfield. She continues. “It should catch up with you in the next day or so. You gotta fill out some paperwork, and give it to the TSA supervisor. I’ll call him over.” She’s already taking out the paperwork. A lot of it.
Forty minutes later—without luggage—we join up with the students from the other groups. Except for Tameka, I haven’t had a chance to get to know any of the others in my group. Tameka lives in Virginia Highlands, a neighborhood in northeast Atlanta, and goes to Grady High School. She’s a junior and heavily involved in sports and academics. They all are. The five of us had to attend a dinner where we gave short introductions a couple of weeks ago—these four girls are all high achievers at their schools. It makes me feel like I’m not up to scratch—a year ago I was a high school dropout and I still don’t understand why they let me on this trip.
As we approach the ground transportation area, next to the baggage claim, I see a woman holding a large sign: Council of Great City Schools Foreign Exchange Program. She is medium height with blonde hair, cut in a relatively short style with bangs. I’d guess she’s around thirty-five years old. She waves as she sees us approach. I wrinkle my nose—this part of the airport smells vaguely like piss and old-stale cigarette smoke.
A group of twelve or so teenagers stands in a loose semicircle around the woman. Harried and tired passengers stream by on their way to wherever they are going. One girl stands to the left of the group and a few feet away as she talks on what looks like an iPhone. I’ve never seen one before–they just came out a few months ago and no one in my circle can afford toys like that. Her bags are on the floor and she has a pained expression on her face. What catches my eyes is her long, luscious-looking brown hair, slightly olive skin, and how her sweater hugs her upper body.
“No, Mom. We haven’t even left the airport yet.” Silence, then the girl rolls her eyes, giving me a look at her deep green irises. “Of course. Yes. Yes. I will. Okay.”
A crease forms in the center of her forehead as her eyebrows draw together. “No, I don’t think I’ll have a chance to see Carrie, we’ve got a pretty full schedule before we leave for Tel Aviv. But I’ll call her if I get some free time.”
When her eyes swing toward me, I quickly look away. Then I nearly jump when someone speaks almost in my ear. “Jaysus, she’s hot, isn’t she?”
I jerk back. The speaker is a guy with brown curly hair. He looks like a caricature of a teenager. Basketball-player tall, but with arms and legs more like a stick figure than a human, all elbows and knees. I’m not really up on the latest fashion, though a lot of my classmates back home are—homelessness, even for a brief period, gives you an appreciation of having any clothes at all. But this kid clearly hasn’t ever missed a meal, and he’s decked out in an array of corporate logos and brand names.
I instantly dislike him—then I back that off. I’m here to learn, not to judge the other kids. I know better than to judge people just by their appearance.
“Yeah,” I murmur. The girl is way the hell out of my league.
“I’m Mike,” he says. “From Chicago.”
“Dylan. I’m from Atlanta.”
“Oh, yeah? Southern boy, huh?”
“Through and through,” I reply. Is he serious?
He looks at me and asks, “What’s your politics?”
“You know. Democrat? Republican?”
I snort. “I don’t talk politics on the first date.”
“Okay,” said the woman. “I’m Marie Simpson; I’ll be one of your chaperones for the next several weeks. Please let me get everybody’s names. We’ve got the Chicago and San Francisco and Atlanta groups here?”
She begins to read out names, starting with the students from Atlanta. Tameka is first, then two of the other girls, then me. A few minutes later, after she gets the names of the five students from Chicago, she moves on to the San Francisco group—five of them.
The San Francisco group has four girls–including the one I’ve been trying to not obviously stare at. The fifth kid in the group is a vaguely Asian or Pacific Island looking guy. Then she responds to her name, which I hear for the very first time.
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