At 10:00 on a Saturday morning, a stout, foreign-looking woman with helmet-like hennaed hair, hurls herself out of a cab at the San Francisco International Airport as she flings a twenty at the distraught driver.
“Hey lady, what’s with you?” he yells, lifting the fare from the tarmac where it has fallen. “You owe me fifty bucks. I’m not subsidizing no illegals. Get out of this country, why don’t you?” With that, he spits on the ground, right where he’d scraped up the twenty-dollar bill.
Without turning back, the woman shoves open the door to the terminal, rushes to the closest airline ticket counter and pushes her way to the front of the line.
“Ma’am, you’re butting in line,” says the check-in agent. “These people behind you were here first.”
“I need to fly to Montreal, right away,” the woman sputters, almost unintelligibly. “Right now!”
“Ma’am, move back, please. Anyway, this is the Domestic Terminal.”
“So what? Are you going to help me or just stand there?” The woman is panting with exertion.
The agent has been trained to handle difficult passengers, and she thinks she can finesse this situation. Plus, she’d always wanted to be a social worker (until she learned the airlines paid better—plus all those perks).
“Okay, calm down, please. We’ll help you find the International Terminal.” There, this should circumvent the situation, her own anyway, the counter agent thinks.
“What is your name?” Ms. Tiffany asks, as she feels the woman’s angry eyeballs glomming onto her official name tag.
“Listen, Ms. Brittany Tiffany, I am an American citizen. I don’t have to tell you my name.”
Still trying to prove her chops as an arbiter of human emotional pain and misunderstandings, Ms. Tiffany replies pleasantly: “I am Brenda Tiffany. Now you have my name, and if I learn yours, we can address each other respectfully. And I do need to see a government-issued photo ID.” (Of course, she’s also just initiated a behind-the-counter online security check on this impossibly annoying, possibly unhinged woman.)
The other passengers in line have at first witnessed this interchange spellbound, but now they are growing restless. This woman is no joke, probably deranged, maybe even dangerous.
To appease those waiting, Ms. Tiffany feels compelled to also press the hidden button to summon an actual airport security officer, ASAP. She’s feeling sorry for herself, reflecting that she’ll have to learn a lot more before getting promoted to TSA negotiator, or whatever.
“Jesus Christ,” fumes the woman. “Do I look like a terrorist or something?” (The passengers are cringing and starting to move away.) “Here, see for yourself,” and she thrusts a heavily laminated driver’s license under Ms. Tiffany’s nose.
“Okay, Anastasia Romanov,” says Ms. Tiffany, reading from the license and stalling for time.
Indignant, Ms. Romanov snaps at Ms. Tiffany: “My name is not AnasTAsia. It is AnastaCI-a. If you must know, I am named after a very famous Russian personage.”
“Okay, Anastasia Romanov,” says the bewildered and shaken Ms. Tiffany, deciding to ignore Ms. Romanov’s bait, though she’s admittedly curious.
Ms. Romanov pounds her fist on the counter. ”Didn’t I just tell you it is AnastaCI-a?”
“Uh, sorry. You know, you could get on a flight with us, to Detroit or Buffalo, or even New York. They’re part way to Montreal.” She knows she’s stalling and that she’s got her geography screwed up, but she has to hold the woman here until her security backup arrives. Damn, where in the hell is he? Doesn’t anyone work anymore?
Ms. Romanov is seething, her hands crossed over her ample bosom. Ms. Tiffany gets an idea: “I need to check your passport.”
“What? Didn’t you hear me say I just need to get to Montreal?”
“Montreal is an international flight.”
Ms. Romanov informs Agent Tiffany that Montreal is inside the United States.
Just as Ms. Tiffany is deciding whether to say it is not, a young airport rent-a-cop struts up to the counter. He is chewing gum and holding onto his gun holster in the approved, non-hostile manner—a sort of a side rest for his right arm.
Ms. Tiffany nods at the cop, then at Ms. Romanov, and inhales a deep Yoga breath. Relief at last. The cop takes Ms. Romanov’s shoulder and moves her out to the side of the line. (The passengers who haven’t already skedaddled do so now.) The cop’s badge reads “Jerry Fielder, Officer, Security Farm, Inc.”
“What? Your firm protects chicken houses from the foxes?” quips Ms. Romanov, possibly trying to get on his good side. The joke goes over the cop’s head.
“You are touching me inappropriately,” hisses Ms. Romanov.
What’s with this old broad anyway? thinks the cop, or officer, as he insists on being addressed.
“Lady, what we have here is an incident; we need to look into this and find a common ground of understanding. First, I am not exhibiting inappropriate behavior. I’m touching your shoulder gently, just like they trained us to do.”
With Ms. Romanov in his firm but kindly grip, he talks into his short-wave, which, loaded with so many other gadgets, resembles a light-weight, electronically guided explosive. “Officer Fielder here. We have a situation at line #1 in the SW terminal, some crazy lady accosting the check-in agent. Over.”
While Officer Fielder is talking into his radio, Ms. Romanov is shouting, “I’m not crazy, you crazy son-of-a-bitch,” and trying to kick Officer Fielder’s legs. He wrestles her—very appropriately—back.
The radio reply comes: “Ten-four. We’re sending a TSA dick, STAT. Over and out.”
Officer/Cop Fielder suggests that he and Ms. Romanov repair—he actually says “repair”—to a comfortable room where he can bring her something to drink. “Only soft stuff,” he jokes. She doesn’t laugh.
While she continues fuming in the Officer/Cop’s grasp, Billy Cochran, the TSA Detective-Agent whom he has been waiting for joins the two of them. He has already debriefed Brenda Tiffany, who was breathlessly elated and depressed at the same time, and had recounted the incident with the unglued woman, who was claiming to be someone famous, maybe the author of that famous self-help book; she’s sure he knows the one she means.
Anticipating getting to know Detective-Agent Cochran better, Ms. Romanov allows him and the Officer/Cop Fielder to escort her down a locked corridor to a small, cell-like room. Cochran points her to the sole chair, a brownish molded plastic number with lurid cigarette burns. The burns remind Ms. Romanov of distant, unpleasant memories. Cop Fielder crouches against the opposite wall, his bulging thighs level with the hem of her skirt. Agent Cochran stands leaning against the opposite wall, legs widespread.
Ms. Romanov, noticing Agent Cochran’s sad eyes and long eyelashes, sits up straight and puffs out her chest. “Do you know who I am? I’m AnastaCI-a Romanov, named after a very important person.”
The agent, who has heard that name somewhere, seizes this entree to further talk Ms. Romanov down. “So, yeh, remind me what movies she was in?”
Ms. Romanov scowls, but a bit coyly. “Not a movie star. She was the daughter of the last Tsar of Russia!”
Speaking pleasantly, Agent Cochran resumes: “I see. Okay, tell us where you were born.”
“Where do you think, with a name like ‘Romanov’?” Maybe sarcasm is the way to go with these folks; but then, no, the cop at least, looks too dumb, which he goes on to prove.
“Somewhere foreign I bet—like Syria or that ISIS thing-a-maj-igger,” says Cop Fielder (as though he’d consulted with her cabdriver). TSA Agent Cochran, whose knowledge of international affairs is more nuanced, points out that she can’t be from Syria, because her hair’s not covered. Ms. Romanov nods approvingly at his command of logic and geography.
“So,” asks Agent Cochran, “is Romanov your husband’s name or your maiden name?” He’s noticed her wedding ring.
“It’s the name I was born with.” She takes a sip of her hot tea. He’s even brought her a sugar cube. What an urbane gentleman, this agent, she thinks. All three of them are silent for a minute, Ms. Romanov taking tiny sips of tea through the sugar cube resting between her lips.
Then, very quietly, she starts to whimper. “I woke up this morning and found my husband and my neighbor in bed together, in the guest room. He wants me to move into the guest room so he and she can have our—our—bedroom. He’s planning to move her in! How can I ever go back there? You tell me. I have to go to my sister’s in Montreal!”
Shocked and embarrassed as well, Agent Cochran mumbles that he is sorry. “Are you okay? Do you need to see a doctor?” He has to ask, even it upsets her. But she just stares back at him, hiccupping from her sobs.
“But you do need a passport to fly out of the country. You know that, right?”
“I didn’t bring it. I’m only going to Montreal.”
“And what about luggage? You didn’t bring any?”
For the hundredth time, the P.A. system squawks, interrupting them.
DON’T LEAVE BAGGAGE UNATTENDED
Ms. Romanov begs the two men to turn the damn thing off already. “How can I leave my baggage unintended when I didn’t bring any?” She tries to laugh at herself, but can’t.
The proverbial light bulb goes off in TSA Agent Cochran’s head. “Did your husband threaten you this morning?” he asks.
“No, not this time,” she mumbles. “But look, my arm, from last year. It healed really bad.” The gash in her right arm is bulbous, luminous and misshapen, with a purplish jagged line down the middle. “The police told me I must have provoked him. But I was only angry because he didn’t want to sleep with me.”
Worrying that she may have over-shared, Ms. Romanov slumps further in the chair, and starts to cry again—tears, humid ones, shake her entire body.
At this point, the rent-a-cop, Officer Fielder—perhaps imagining that her husband could come storming in any minute—moves his right hand to the butt of his gun. And this woman…deranged…you never knew when and if she might pull a knife or a small Kalashnikov out of her purse.
Agent Cochran just wants this entire situation to go away. He’s miserably divorced, and it’s his night to spend with his two boys. He suspects their mother will be going out with some guy—could it be a neighbor, he wonders, with a slight shudder.
His walkie-talkie beeps. “Ten-four.” He listens, then says, “Okay, thanks. Out.” He’s relieved; the woman isn’t on a no-fly list; she’s a naturalized citizen from the former U.S.S.R. without priors, police complaints, shelter stays or anything else suspicious. He wonders: Could she be making all this stuff up?
“Okay,” he tells her. ”You'll be allowed to fly to Montreal when you bring your passport. But I suggest you make reservations beforehand, and bring luggage. It’s very suspicious if you don’t have baggage.” Baggage, an appropriate word, he thinks, for her and for himself.
Ms. Romanov spills out further sorrow to Agent Cochran. “I can’t go home, and my daughter, she lives a mile away, won’t let me stay with her. She says I should have known my husband was having an affair. I want to be with my sister in Montreal. She at least understands me. And, no, you didn’t ask, but I don’t want to make a formal complaint. He’d find out and kill me.”
“Well, how about you stay here with us for a bit, relax, call your sister if you’d like, and then a woman officer will take you to a safe police shelter.” He is taking no chances; she may need further evaluation. (Of course, they will have to investigate her husband, too, assuming there is one, though he’s pretty convinced there is.)
An hour later and much calmer, Ms. Romanov tells TSA Agent Cochran “You are a nice man. I hope your family appreciates you,” which, unintentionally, stabs him in the heart. She rises slowly, picks up her handbag, and reluctantly lets Officer Fielder—she’d have preferred it were TSA Agent Cochran—walk her to a city patrol car driven by a woman officer.
Agent Cochran asks himself if Ms. Romanov could have been making this all up. But, no, he decides: that scar wasn’t made up. She’s just a sad, rejected woman. I believe her, he tells himself, and I hope someone can help her out.
And, maybe, he thinks, he should take that Psych 101 class at the local J.C.. It might help him as well.
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