Baggage claim

I stared at the pre-flight health check questionnaire and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. It was my first time flying since the airline had introduced their emotional baggage policy and I hadn’t prepared for it. 

Holding a standard-issue red pencil between my fingers, I slowly filled out my name and date of birth at the top. Then I hesitantly scanned my eyes down the list of questions. Each one was designed to extract intimate details of my past that may have caused psychological trauma, the sum of which would be used to calculate my ‘personal emotional weight’, or PEW score.

The first question read: 

Describe your household growing up: 

  1. Married/de facto parents 
  2. Divorced parents
  3. Single parent (other parent deceased, unknown, estranged or incarcerated) 
  4. Other caregiver (parents incapable, unknown or deceased)

I swallowed again as I coloured in the circle for ‘Single parent’. Before I could even say the word ‘dad’, the man who was supposed to be my father had already walked out on us. It was hard on me, but even worse for Mum, who had suddenly found herself without an income, with bills and a mortgage to pay, all while balancing a crying infant on her hip. 

I had hated him for what he did to her, but even so, I remember feeling reluctantly excited when I got a card from him on my eighteenth birthday. It was blue with a smiling yellow sunflower on the front. In a scrawling script, he’d written how much he missed me, that he was sorry and wanted to reconnect. When we finally met up though, in a dingy cafe downtown, I was sorely disappointed. It turned out this man hadn’t changed his stripes; he just wanted money. Now that I was legally an adult, he wanted to ‘collect a return on investment,’ he’d told me. For all those years he’d begrudgingly paid child support, he felt he was owed something. When I got home that day, I tore up that pretty sunflower card, petal by petal, into as many little pieces as I could. I then took the ripped paper into the backyard and burnt them – watching the words of my father’s broken promises curl and blacken until only ash remained.

As I thought about him now, a suppressed fury started to roil in my stomach. My chest tightened and I had to blink several times before moving on to the next question. 

How often were you bullied in school? 

  1. Never
  2. Sometimes 
  3. Often
  4. Every day

The anger jolted from my stomach and flashed up my neck. Well of course the kid without a dad got bullied at school! And it didn’t seem to matter which school I switched to either, someone always found out, and then the teasing would start. I know Mum had been trying to send me to ‘good’ schools but when everyone in your class has the picture-perfect nuclear-postcard family, well I stuck out like a sore thumb. I pressed the pencil hard into the paper as I coloured in the number three, ‘Often’, until it was completely black.  

On and on the questions went like this – an interrogation of my human experience. One by one they made me admit my mistakes or confirm myself as some kind of statistic. With each question, a memory would flash in front of my eyes, the angry knot in my stomach grew and my hand started to shake so badly I could barely keep hold of the pencil: Have you ever been the victim of a violent crime? How many serious accidents have you been in? Have you ever had a near-death experience? Have you ever been hospitalised or treated for a serious illness? Have you lost a relative or close friend in the last six months? Have you ever lost a child? Have you ever had a miscarriage? Have you ever engaged in self-harm? 

At some point I looked up, searching for a moment’s reprieve. The man in the booth next to me had his shoulders hunched forward and was using his left hand to carefully obscure his questionnaire answers, like a smart kid doing a school test. He noticed me looking and gave me a sneer before shifting his body away from me. Heat rose to my cheeks. I must look like a nosy perve, peeking at someone else’s answers, but then I thought, it’s not like this is a test I can cheat on anyway. I turned back to my questionnaire and, as I continued to make my way through it, I started thinking about how this had all come about.

The airline had announced the policy about eighteen months ago, citing rising fuel and operational costs as the driver for the decision. Using a spurious research paper that supposedly demonstrated emotional trauma having a physical presence (i.e weight), the company had decided to put that cost back on the consumer to lessen their overheads. Naturally, a public outcry ensued. 

In the first few months, the ethics were loudly questioned: Was it OK to ask individuals to reveal their most intimate and personal details for profit? Oh wait, big tech has been doing that for decades! This was just a bit more in your face. ‘Isn’t it better to be asked up front for your data than have it sneakily collected without consent?’ the airline had argued. At least they were being transparent about it. 

A few worried about the psychological impacts. Sure it saved the company money, but what was the social cost? Like sexual assault victims having to recount their stories in court, social advocates asserted retraumatisation would occur every time someone boarded an aircraft. The flow on effects would mean more mental health issues, increased rates of depression and no chances for victims to move on. The damage caused by perpetrators would ripple in perpetuity and society would be left to pick up the pieces. However, the company argued that they weren’t responsible for the justice system or providing mental health support to the public. They pointed the finger back at the state, blaming decades of under-funding and accusing the government of making the airline pick up the slack by literally having to carry the weight of this damage each and every time one of their planes took off.

The media lapped it up. For months there were stories on how the emotional baggage policy would work, who would be affected and, most importantly, how much it would cost the average passenger. Reporters tracked down politicians for comment, asking if the government would step-in and regulate. The bureaucrats wrung their hands on camera and denounced it as ‘unscrupulous’ behaviour, but ultimately did nothing. The taxpayer funded their air travel anyway, so it’s not like they’d actually be affected by the policy. Not to mention that the airline was our national carrier and there was no competition for consumers to switch to. They had the monopoly, could do what they liked, and the public would have to suck it up. 

At that point, people started bargaining. If they were going to have to pay, they at least wanted options to reduce their weight. This was about the time the Wellbeing industry saw an opportunity and stepped forward with a ready-made solution. Bestselling self-help authors brokered multi-million dollar deals with the airline, so that now Marie Kondo could not only help you organise your life, but also give you an emotional baggage discount (if you bought her book that is). Gym franchises started offering physical workout regimes to ‘trim the tears as well as your waistline!’, while ‘mindfulness’ app downloads increased tenfold. 

Until now, I had refused to participate. I’d decided that if I was going to work on myself, it wouldn’t be because I wanted 20% off my baggage allowance. But now, as I stared at the ‘Wellness management’ section of the questionnaire, a niggle of self-doubt started to emerge. This section seemed to cover everything; from dietary regimes, to how often I exercised, from how many meditation apps I had on my phone, to what kind of medication I was taking. They wanted to know it all. My eyes widened as I read down the long list of the airline’s recommended self-help book titles, noting that I hadn’t read a single one. That niggle got a little harder to ignore but it was too late now. I was here and I couldn’t afford to miss my flight. I filled it out as best I could and hoped my sporadic yoga attendance and recent switch to veganism would deduct a few points from my total score. 

Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I grabbed my suitcase and headed to the nearest PEW calculator. As I weaved my way through the terminal, I passed a group of young men and women in uniform, chatting amongst themselves as they waited to check-in. Enlistment had skyrocketed a few months ago, when the Defence Minister announced active military personnel and veterans would be exempt from the policy, in recognition of their service. I shook my head and marvelled at the young troops’ naivety – ‘Get a discount now, pay with PTSD later!‘, I thought to myself, skirting passed them.

The calculator’s solid metal casing loomed over me and shone dimly under the airport’s overhead lights. It looked like a cross between a parking metre and a vending machine with a big black rubber sole wrapped around the bottom. The soles had been put in only days after the policy was enacted, after several calculators were damaged by disgruntled passengers. A wry smile spread across my lips as I noticed a considerable number of dents and scrapes along the bottom of this particular PEW calculator; a sign people were still taking out their frustrations on a regular basis.

Reaching up, I fed my questionnaire into the slot. It sucked the paper out of my hand and the screen flashed the word PROCESSING in big block letters. It was cross-checking my answers with third-party data holders; checking against my bank statements, health care records, the police database and all my social media activity, just to make sure I hadn’t told any fibs. 

While I waited, I read over the sticker next to the slot that outlined the pricing formula. Your score was converted into grams. If you scored under 1000 grams, you’d be charged a flat fee of $20. Anything over that would be charged at $25 per 1000 grams. I listened to the machine whirr as it reduced my lived experience to a series of numbers and silently waited. After a moment, the calculator stopped and my emotional weight was projected at me on screen: 

PEW SCORE: 5200

AMOUNT OWING: $125.00

I baulked, staring open-mouthed at the number on the screen. Over five kilos of baggage! How?!

Oblivious to my reaction, the machine then asked me to select my payment method. Credit cards would incur a 1.5% surcharge, it stated. I blinked several times, not sure what to do. This was a lot of money and I hadn’t prepared for this unexpected cost. As I dithered for a minute, deciding what to do, someone coughed impatiently behind me. Turning, I came face to face with the man from the booth earlier. His questionnaire card was held tightly inside the flap of his jacket and a deep scowl was still sitting on his hard-lined face.

‘You gonna pay or what, lady?’ He asked gruffly, ‘Some of us got flights to catch.’ 

Startled, I mumbled an apology and quickly rummaged through my purse. Trying not to think about the extra shift I’d need to work to pay this off, I reached up and swiped my visa card. The machine whirred again and with a loud thunk, four small metal weights fell into the collection slot. Leaning down, I slid my hand under the flap, as if getting a can of soda, and retrieved my emotional weights. Tucking them into my hand, I grabbed my suitcase and hastily moved to the side. The man gave me another sneer as he stepped forward after me and slid his own questionnaire into the slot. 

Choosing to ignore him, I looked down to examine the weights in my hand. The two bigger black ones were two and a half kilos each, while the two smaller grey ones combined to make up the remaining two hundred grams. They were round, smooth and cool to touch – like bullets. I turned them over slowly in my palm, knocking them together and feeling their heft drag my arm down from the elbow. This was my trauma, I suddenly thought to myself. It felt strange to be holding this manifestation of my own turmoil. My fingers curled around the weights and I had an immediate urge to throw them up into the air, to toss them away and simply free myself from my past. A derisive snort blew out my nose – imagine that! For just $125.00, I’m cured of the chronic human condition! I can just pop these in the nearest bin and go merrily on my way, happy as Larry! It was ridiculous of course. The weights were nothing but a mean gimmick, a trick by the airline to rip off passengers and profit from their misery. I clasped the weights into a closed fist, my knuckles turning white, and moved towards the neon sign that said ‘Baggage drop’. 

As I approached, now hauling both my suitcase and my emotional weight, an airline employee flashed me a bright smile and motioned me forward. His uniform was pristine. The navy blue pants with matching jacket were pressed to perfection and the gold buttons fastened neatly down his front gleamed up at me. I stopped, caught unexpectedly by the lovely buttons nestled softly against the dark blue fabric of his jacket. Tilting my head to stare at them, I could see their edging was itched with a string of delicate semi-circles. An angry heat sprouted in my stomach and my jaw clenched; they reminded me of sunflowers.

The man, noticing my odd expression, raised his hand to the squarely knotted tie at his neck and coughed. 

‘Hello there,’ he said in cherry falsetto, ‘Place your bag on the carousel please.’ 

I looked at him with a muted stare, the weights in my hand getting slippery from my sweating palm. Without a word, I heaved my suitcase up onto the ramp, so it too could now be weighed against me. The man leaned over to check the bag was properly on the conveyor belt, his polished buttons flashed jauntily at me again. As we waited for the scales to declare I was within the allowed number of kilos, the man smiled at me with uncertainty. I didn’t return the gesture. Instead I kept gazing, mesmerised, at the shining orbs on his jacket. My stomach churned as I noticed they were sewn in with a dark green thread. 

Next the young employee asked me to produce my emotional weight so it could be attached to my bag before sending it through to the luggage loading area. Without it, the airline would refuse to place my bag in the aeroplane’s hold. I blinked, pulling my eyes momentarily away from his jacket, and held out the weights towards him. Unfurling my fingers, I let him see, in metal form, my trauma. 

The man quickly took stock of the contents in my hand, mentally calculating their combined weight. For a split second, his expression slipped. The mask of his friendly demeanour was replaced with one of disdain. It was only for an instant but I saw it. The slight recoil. The stiffening of his smile. He thought I was damaged, I realised. He didn’t want to be near me. He felt sorry for me. 

The anger brewing in my stomach spoiled over and turned to a sudden resentment. This man was part of the problem. A representative of the airline’s greed and callousness. Forcing us all to bear our humanity for a few extra corporate dollars. And for what? So we could be sneered at and looked down on by young men in freshly pressed suits?

Heat raced up my body, making my skin tingle and burn. My vision grew red and blotchy as the employee’s body started to morph out of shape. His face contorting, twisting and bulging until his young smooth features were suddenly replaced with the jeering visage of my own father. The buttons on his blue jacket shone mockingly in my face, blinding me. 

With more disdain sitting fat on his lips, I heard a taunting laugh echo inside my head. It was my father’s voice, full of scorn and glee.

‘Finally getting a return on my investment!’ he shouted.

Engulfed in rage, I felt my fingers coil around the metal bullets in my palm. Without thinking, I drew my arm back and unleashed my emotional weight right into my father’s smirking face. A relief shuddered through me as the metal left my grasp. I watched the bullets fly towards their maker and then make contact.

A scream pierced the air, breaking my hallucination. My father’s face vanished, replaced with a mess of blood and snot. The young employee was on his knees, dark blood staining his perfect uniform. Rough hands seized me, forcing me down onto the airport floor. I heard the cool click of handcuffs and I saw a golden button fall. Its dark green thread hung limp like weed as it rolled slowly along the floor. I smiled and thought of torn sunflowers burning in the backyard.


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