The hot and humid air enveloped him as soon as the airport doors slid open. 'It feels just like I remember' he thought. Tom grabbed his sea bag and suitcase, carrying them outside to an awaiting cab. On the way out, Tom suddenly paused and put his luggage down on the warm concrete. The dam holding back his anxieties and fears was starting to rupture, and he knew it. Even the middle-aged East Indian man warmly beckoning towards Tom could not assuage the situation, probably because, under the circumstances, he seemed more like a ferryman on the river styx than a cab driver. "I'm headed to the Travelodge in Alexandria, VA."
At the hotel, Tom wearily checked in and made his way to the other side of the lot where his room was. Room 122 was nothing special; first floor dwelling, dull orange wallpaper, generic full size bed, faux wood television, tiled bathroom, thin grey carpet, view of the interstate, faint odor of cigarettes long ago inhaled. While he dropped his load and looked around his new surroundings, he could almost sense that the ominous feeling inside of him was growing. His hunger was the only thing that saved him from his dread and prevented him from spiraling out of control into the darker recesses of his mind, where doubt, uncertainty, helplessness, and despair resided.
The only hole-in-wall food joint available was a dingy Chinese fast food restaurant attached to the hotel. Reluctantly, Tom made his way into the restaurant and ordered the chicken and vegetables with black bean sauce, to go. As he sat there waiting for his order, he could not help but glance around at the other patrons and wonder how anyone could live in, or visit, a place that was the source of so much of his apprehension for the past several years. 'What the hell is wrong with them?' he wondered.
Back in his room, Tom ate silently, oblivious to the sounds blaring from the television program that was on. He was caught up in his own thoughts about home, family, and friends. 'What are they doing right now? Where are they? What are they thinking? Are they laughing and having fun?' It took less than five minutes, from the first steaming bite to the last lukewarm nibble, before Tom was done eating. It wasn't that the food was bad, it was just that, in his present predicament, he really couldn't find anything appetizing. Anxiety is not a pleasant dinner companion.
He decided it was time to call Abby. Truth be told, Tom wanted to call her the moment she disappeared from his sight at the airport terminal back home, but he waited to call for two reasons. First, he wanted to regain his composure before speaking to her, and second, he did not want to seem nervous or even a little bit apprehensive about the road that lie ahead. Ring, Ring! "Hi babe." The sound of her voice put him at ease. It reminded Tom that he wasn't alone and that the journey he was embarking on was not just about himself. Tom felt focused and purposeful while he was speaking to Abby, but shortly after getting off the phone, the demons of his mind raced back to center stage with newfound resilience. 'What is it going to be like? What if I get hurt? What if I fail? -- I have got to get some sleep; the fight begins tomorrow!'
Sleep does not come easily to those who yearn for it. It seems sometimes that the harder you try to fall asleep, the more awake you feel. The sound of cars whizzing by on the interstate doesn't help. Neither does the threat of tomorrow. Interestingly enough, however, the more you dread something, the faster it comes, and before you know it, the sun has burned away the dark security blanket of night.
Tom woke the next morning with a heart full of lead. Maybe he never even really slept. He couldn't remember, but it didn't matter anyway. Morning routine- brush, wash, comb, stare at the television, pack your bags! Even in the cool confines of his air-conditioned room, Tom wriggled around in his uniform. What kind of Eichmannesque individual designed these uncomfortable monkey-suits! However, the worst was still yet to come. Once he opened the door and the first thick wave of scorched humidity flowed over him, Tom instantly realized that he had just left greener pastures.
Checking out was bittersweet, for the hotel that Tom desperately dreaded checking into had become etched into his permanent memory as the calm before the storm. The prolonged wait for the taxicab was equally unpalatable, but despite his impatience, Tom knew that only a fool would hurry a stay-over in purgatory when the final destination is hell.
Heading south on the interstate, the trees and dense vegetation lining the side of the road seemed to offer their condolences. Spellbound in the rapture of this daydream, Tom couldn't help but wonder how many others had traveled down this same road, toward the same destination. In his head memories started to surface, and his mind began frantically trying to create an image of things to come. All of a sudden, PANIC! His heart literally skipped a beat as the menacing olive drab green interstate sign came into plain view, putting all those who behold it on notice that they have not yet arrived: