“It Didn’t Use to Be This Way” by Natalie Tsay

It Didn’t Use to Be This Way

For fuck’s sake.

Jeff waits behind the line on the ground, the black plastic flap on the stanchion that reads “Do Not Enter.” It’s as if the TSA takes it upon themselves to move as slowly as possible, he thinks, inspecting each letter on an ID, glancing up at the person in front of them to verify that they are, in fact, who they claim to be, and back down at the ID. It’s maddening.

The girl in front of him bobs her head to whatever racket streams through her bubble gum pink headphones to match her bubble gum pink hair. Kids, Jeff thinks.

Now the girl is saying, “Sorry,” to the TSA agent. She digs through her—ugh—bubble gum pink duffel bag. In her free hand she crumples her boarding pass. She doesn’t seem to notice.

Jesus Christ. She can’t find her ID! Didn’t she hear them telling everyone to have them ready? No, Jeff thinks, her giant noise-canceling headphones must have done their job. He checks his watch. Though he still has nearly an hour before his flight takes off, he doesn’t think he can bear another minute in line.

Finally the girl pulls out a thin wallet with a wrist strap. She reaches in for her ID and of course it’s stuck for a moment. Of course. But then she hands it over to the man behind the podium, who studies it carefully. Satisfied, he scribbles something on her boarding pass and hands it to her, waves her through.

Jeff is prepared. He lunges forward, hands over his boarding pass and ID in a neat stack. Stands to be scrutinized. It didn’t use to be this way, he thinks. He used to be able to walk right up to the plane. Not that Jeff doesn’t understand why security had become much more, well, secure since 2001. Of course he understands, and yet he yearns for the days when it didn’t take an eternity to catch a flight.

Just then, he sees his ex-wife waving at him as he turns back before the jet bridge. They used to be allowed to do that, go to the gate without a ticket. He was off to some conference—couldn’t remember the specifics. And there holding one hand, no taller than her knees, their daughter waving too, her smile as wide as her tiny, round face.

Something sharp pricks the back of Jeff’s neck. He brings his palm to it even though he knows nothing is there and kneads the spot anyway. When the man hands his documents back, he bolts toward the conveyer belt.

Laptop. Liquids. Jacket. Shoes. Keys.

Grabbing the gray plastic bins, Jeff goes through his mental checklist. He slips off his loafers and jacket, empties his pockets. Lays his Ziploc bag full of tiny toiletries next to his computer. His things are ready in no time, but the conveyer belt isn’t moving.

The pink-haired girl taps away at her phone, oblivious to the TSA agent hunched over her duffel bag, poking through it. She slips the phone into her pocket just as the woman brings over the item that set off the machine, a half-empty plastic water bottle.

“Can’t take this, miss,” she says, her voice void of apology. “No liquids over three ounces.”

“Oh,” the girl says. It sounds like this is news to her. Hasn’t she ever flown before? Jeff hasn’t felt the urge to roll his eyes since he was a teenager, but he does now.

As the agent walks back and the girl turns to the metal detector, Jeff remembers something. He doesn’t really want to talk to her, but he’s sick of being held up by her obliviousness.

“Excuse me,” he says. She doesn’t move, so he tries again, a little louder. “Excuse me.”

When the girl looks at him, surprised, Jeff sees that she’s much younger than he thought. Her face is smooth, her cheeks haven’t quite lost the roundness of childhood. She can’t be older than fourteen or fifteen, Jeff realizes.

“Your phone,” he says. “It’ll set off the machine.”

The girl nods, though Jeff can tell she didn’t know this either. “Right,” she says, pulling it out. Jeff grabs one of the bins next to the screening conveyor and hands it to her.

“Thanks,” she says. “I’ve, uh—it’s my first time flying alone.”

Jeff could’ve guessed this. He doesn’t feel fed up anymore, though.

The girl makes it through the detector, in the clear, and waits for her bag. The agent waves Jeff through and he, too, passes without setting it off. He reaches the end of the conveyer belt just as the girl slips on her shoes.

“Thanks again,” she says. When she smiles, her mouth stretches as wide as her round face and Jeff freezes. The girl looks nothing like her, he thinks: the pink hair, the set of her features, her complexion. But the girl’s smile transforms her face and suddenly Jeff can think of only one thing. He can see her as if no time has passed at all, as if he was the man he used to be. The man who believed he could protect his child.


He feels the familiar prick on the back of his neck and an ache spreads through his whole body. “You’re welcome,” Jeff says, but the girl has already moved on, her pink head growing smaller and smaller as she disappears into the terminal.

Natalie Tsay received her BA from Cornell University. She began her career doing publicity for romance books with punny titles. She currently lives in Pittsburgh and works at a tech company. Her work has appeared in Zone 3 and The Carolina Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter: @nat_tsay.