Morgan was only going to Russia for two days, so if you weren’t quite sure which day it was, one could easily justify questioning the validity of her visa. After freaking out that she wouldn’t be allowed to board, she composed herself, warmed by the notion that being stuck in Munich and not being allowed to go to Moscow wouldn’t have been such a bad thing after all.
Once settled in her seat, Morgan sent me and my dad a text regarding her displeasure at the aircraft, a perfectly fine Boeing 737 on Aeroflot Airlines.
Morgan: Aeroflot? More like Aero-FLOP. This flight’s so ghetto haha where did u guys find this airline
Me: It’s Russia’s national airline, get with it. If you have a problem take it up with Vladdy P.
Dad: We can see you from Dusseldorf! I see you survived the 31-minute delay and made your Munich connection. Be sure to steal me a safety card and puke bag! About to take off. Meet you in Moscow!
I don’t know the details my mom and dad’s trek to Moscow with Tim. I don’t need to. They’re always the same. Flying with my parents requires every effort to not strangle yourself with the airplane seatbelt and bang your head against the your tray table in hopes of going unconscious (Tim’s too young to drink). I can only hope he wasn’t sitting between them, because you become the defacto middleman in outrageous, pointless yet heated arguments with no sibling to put the two of them in a timeout. It’s tough to do when there’s just one of us, not that Tim had any interest trying. All he really wanted to do is listen to his iPod, which only partially succeeds in tuning them out.
“Tim, do you want a Mountain Dew before we board? (No) Tim, did you take your medicine this morning? (No) Tim, pick up your feet when you walk! (No) Tim, did we let Kemba out before we left? (Yes) Tim, did you pack your homework in your carry-on?” (Yes). Not that she expected him to actually crack a book.
Having gone to the airport straight from class, Morgan actually was doing homework on the plane. Her total travel took more than 17 hours, but she made it. I was quite proud of her for making it from Columbia to Charlotte (2-hour bus) to Munich (7-hour flight) to Moscow (3-hour flight). I was so paranoid about her making her connection that I watched an amazing 8-minute self-congratulating informational video set to soft techno music about the ease of connecting at Munich Airport in just 30 minutes.
That’s right, I don’t have time to separate my whites and my darks, but I can find 8 solid minutes to watch an Englishman named Ross cheerily navigate his connection through Munich with time to stop and chat with Chinese tourists, buy his wife a gift from Swarovski and sip an espresso en route to Venice.
I should have stopped watching as soon as he bought the crystal earrings. But I digress…
When Morgan landed at Sheremetyevo, she noted that the airport lacked the usual buzz of an international hub. It was oddly quiet and almost felt closed. She made her way to baggage claim, walked down the stairs to the lower level, devoid of people aside from the passengers on her flight. A Russian woman’s voice blared through the PA system, echoing amid the silence. Everyone stood still and stoically stared at the baggage carousel, which was turning but had yet to produce a single item. She scoped out the airport. Her eyes caught sight of someone in a trenchcoat. They made eye contact.
She looked away, then tried to steal another glance. The face that was still staring at her. She couldn’t place it, but swore she’d seen it before.
It was a painfully awkward back and forth staring contest, which Morgan had certainly lost.
But then she broke into a smile of recognition. She sauntered over giddily, trying not to bring attention to herself.
“What are you doing here?!” Morgan asked, trying to temper her laughter with her accusing question.
“I quit my job, bought a plane ticket last night and decided to meet you guys here,” I said with a smirk.
“You’re joking,” Morgan said, not entirely ruling out my explanation.
“Yeah,” I gave her a stiff hug. “Surprise!” Aren’t you glad to see me?”
“Umm, sure…” she was still confused.
We spotted her bag and found a bench to sit on while we waited another hour for Kevin to land from Stockholm. I told her everything Dad and I had schemed—our secret 2 a.m. phone calls, our hidden documents with reservations with my name on it and the idea to make the whole thing a surprise. I’d gotten a few days off work at the last-minute thanks to some undisclosed groveling. Once I could come for part of the trip, we figured, why not surprise everyone?
It was only fitting that Kevin was the last to arrive and had the longest route, despite being the closest to Moscow by about 7 time zones (Remember, Moscow is our side trip to go visit Kevin. But Kevin just took 26 hours to meet us in Russia. If neither time, proximity or convenience were important to us, we may as well have sidetripped to Hong Kong). Morgan and I plotted how to surprise him. We decided she’d meet him at the bottom of the stairs to prevent him from looking beyond her. I would position myself near the exit so that they would have to walk right past me.
As soon as we saw some good-looking blonde businessmen with tight-pants and cool shoes emerge at baggage claim we knew Kevin was on his way. Morgan walked up to the foot of stairwell and waited. I watched her start to walk toward someone.
False alarm. She looked back and laughed. We didn’t know what was taking so long, and Morgan kept looking back at me as to confirm that I hadn’t seen him yet either.
Finally, we spotted Kevin emerged atop the stairwell. Morgan gave him a big wave and then a sideways hug, wrapping her arm around his neck like old pals. Not surprisingly, Kevin hadn’t checked a bag, so immediately started toward the exit.
He squinted his eyes, and a look of pissed-off bewilderment came over his face. I’d been spotted.
“What are you doing here?” Kevin said.
“Oh you know, just didn’t want to miss out on the fun.” I said with a smile. “How were your 26 hours in Stockholm?”
“Perfect, as expected. It will likely be the best part of this trip.” He told us how he walked around the city, took some pictures, and then stumbled into a pub where he made some English friends before ending his night at a movie. Only then did he pause to take in his surroundings. “From the looks of it, I should have stayed there,” he said, glancing around the barren airport.
Someone from our hotel was supposed to pick us up. We walked out into the meet and greet area and eventually found a man with a sign that had ANDERSON scribbled on it.
We signaled that we were the people of his sign, and he led us out to a dark parking lot without saying a word. We loaded into his car and hoped for the best. I texted my dad to let him know we were on our way. The plan was to meet him in the hotel lobby while Mom and Tim waited upstairs.
If I had to be in the back of a sketchy shuttle cruising through the dark outskirts of Moscow, I was glad it was with Kevin and Morgan. We laughed and recounted the bizarre lengths we had gone to in order to get to Moscow, for what reason none of us were sure. It sure was a lot of work for “just for kicks” whim. We just couldn’t accept that we were really in Moscow for a family vacation. In November. For two days.
Nevertheless, when we pulled up to the hotel I was giddy with excitement. So was Dad. He was the first thing I saw through the sliding doors as we approached the unassuming lobby, and popped right up as soon as he saw us outside.
“You made it!” He still seemed surprised even though we’d notified him hours ago. He led us to the elevator up to our room.
On the flight to Moscow, I imagined each family member’s reaction to seeing me, and so far I was spot-on. Morgan was surprised and confused, yet happy to see me. Kevin cloaked his shock with his never-failing cynicism.
I’d surprised my mom a few years ago when I came home from college during my brother’s high school football game. She freaked out. This was decidedly different, more extreme and therefore, guaranteed to be way more fun. I could hardly contain myself.
My dad led the way up the elevator to the fourth floor and through a dim hallway. I stood behind Kevin in Morgan so that Mom wouldn’t be able to see me. Dad pointed at a door on which Kevin gave a cheerful knock. Everyone waited silently.
My mom opened the door. It was late, and she was already showered and in her pajamas. From my position hiding behind him and Morgan, she sounded exhausted.
“Hey Kev,” Mom greeted him with a hug and kiss as he walked inside. “What’s goin’ on, Morgs?” she tried to pick up her voice to sound excited but still sounded a little off.
“AAAAH!!!” Mom let out a scream and then started to sob. A maid rushed to the door to see what was going on. Screams are universal.
She tried to explain to the maid that everything was ok, and that I had surprised her.
When she screamed at my arrival, Tim couldn’t be bothered to look up from my mom’s iPhone he was playing on.
“Tim, did you see? Amanda’s here!” She yelled to him in the other room.
“Ya, so?” He was sleeping, but managed to roll over and finally looked up at me. “How is that different from Morgan and Kevin coming?” Tim’s notoriously out of the loop. He once invited some friends to sleepover hours before we were heading to the airport to go to Brazil. He says no one tells him anything, my mom says he never listens. I think it’s somewhere in the middle.
“Well Tim, Amanda was never supposed to be coming at all,” my dad said, clearly disappointed that not everyone had been stunned by our prank.
“Oh,” Tim was still underwhelmed. Dad thought about explaining all the trouble it took to get me there and that I was only staying for two nights, but thought better of it. He wasn’t listening anyway. At least we had gotten Mom’s reaction.
There was more behind my mom’s tears. Her cousin Danny, our favorite, had suddenly died the day we left, and even though we would be back in time for everything, my mom had a hard time leaving.
After we settled in and were sprawled on the beds, Mom broke the news to Kevin and Morgan. It sucked. In those moments you are glad to be together, but it also felt unfair. Why were we allowed to be together in a most unlikely corner of the world while Dan’s routine days hanging out at his favorite beach had to come to an abrupt end?
Kevin says that whatever mileage or money my dad spent to get me to Moscow was the equivalent of driving a Mercedes 80 miles an hour down the highway and throwing $100 bills out the window before crashing into a wall. My mom, never one to boost up my dad or say anything positive about his travel methods, said that arranging for me to come along was the nicest thing he’d ever done for her.
It’s still a backward insult to my dad. But me, a gift? After 23 years of mostly disappointment, it was major victory for me.