I first found Filip, a 22-year-old Slovakian medical student, in a dazed state at London Heathrow Airport, where he sat with his knees pulled up to his chest and his bags scattered around him at the departures security check entrance. He made the same mistake that I did, booking a flight too early to be accommodated by the Tube schedule. It was midnight at Heathrow, now, five hours before the terminals would open.
I decided a bit of company would help me stay awake during my long night ahead and plopped next to him. We gingerly began with an uncertain exchange of icebreaker questions. But two cups of coffee (and a lot of chocolate) later, we rejoiced in our chance encounter and laughed drunkenly from our collective sleep deprivation high.
“Imagine a writer sitting at his typewriter,” Filip said. “He finishes a page and places it at the top of the stack. Suddenly, the windows fly open, and a strong wind blows away all the paper. He has two options: close the window or grab as many pages in front of him as he can.”
Filip paused and gazed into the distance.
“Right now, at this precise moment in my life, I am that man. Except I am frozen, watching everything fly in front of me. I can’t close the window or reach for the paper. I am just watching my life, letting it happen.”
We proceeded to swap life stories — as well as the books and notebooks in our backpacks and the photos on our DSLRs. He showed me a psychology book he was reading, neatly tagged with colorful sticky notes. He showed me a bag of coffee beans he purchased from one of the many coffee shops he visited all over London.
“Smell it,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”
Accidentally holding it upside-down, I smelled only cologne from the paper bag. (Quirky, I thought, even for flavored coffee.) Filip gestured toward the hole at the top, and upon turning the bag, I detected hints of mint and something akin to crisp apple. Later, he showed me his diary — only a few days old, though the third installment of his two-year collection. It was a black hard-cover Moleskine with an illustration from “The Little Prince” on the front cover and his name neatly printed in small white text.
In contrast, I found the objects I had to offer insufficient. I had only brought a beat-up paperback, “The Cider House Rules,” and a barely begun sketchbook that contained one drawing of the magnificent Bath Abbey from my trip in London. The three additional notebooks in my backpack were a hodgepodge of Leuchtturm hard-covers: one bright-pink medium size for journaling, one pale-gray pocket size for miscellaneous notes and one teal mini 2015 planner that was as small as a credit card. When they were stacked together, the color scheme looked atrocious. These were not things I would have brought to Show and Tell.
Much later, when we finally made our way to security, I was randomly chosen for a screening. The officer asked me to open up the backpack zipper and proceeded to extract its messy contents: bundles of receipts, 30 pens and markers, a phone charger, tangled earphones, my wallet, compostable spoons, pills, the books and notebooks, packages of unfinished chocolate, sanitary napkins and a wireless Bluetooth keyboard. Despite the fact that the objects were so ordinary, I felt mortified as he rifled through my belongings before proceeding to dump them all into a scanning tray. He swabbed everything for traces of explosives with a bright blue plastic rod while Filip and I stood and watched. What bothered me was the mess of it all. I feared that, subliminally, this was who I really who I was — a careless hoarder, unkempt and uncultivated.
I wanted instead to show Filip my cramped IKEA bookshelf with its thin, bent panels that struggled under the weight of sketchbooks, novels and biographies I had curated over many years. Yet I know that despite its hefty display of material, that shelf is missing a majority of the books that have informed my thinking and filled with me with wonder all my life. “Crime and Punishment,” “Fight Club” and “The Outsider” were all borrowed copies, as were all my favorites from high school English classes. Still, they are under my possession in a certain manner. I love talking about books as much as I love reading them, and when I share a literary memory, I could just as well be holding a copy in my hands. There is no demand for the physicality of these objects to serve as proof of my identity, for they are simply the sources of my own stories to tell.
Five excruciatingly long minutes passed before the security officer gave me the all clear. I hastily packed up my things and felt relieved when we finally walked away from the scanners, giggling about my threat to national security.
Inside the terminal, I sit alone waiting for my gate to be posted. It’s 6 in the morning, and when I look up to see a brilliant orange-pink sky, I realize that the sunrise will bookend this all-nighter. In my mind’s eye I flip through my conversation with my new friend, its breadth already enough to fill another volume for my bookshelf.
Sharon Liu is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]