"Late bag," the man behind the counter said. "It's less than 45 minutes before your flight."
"I've been in line that long," I said.
"Sorry," he said. "We can't guarantee its arrival," and he slapped a bright red sticker on my bag that said, "LATE CHECK."
When I landed, I walked to baggage claim and imagined my bag arriving on time. I watched every bag roll down the metal chute. None were mine. In line at the lost baggage office, I listened to the woman behind the counter taking people's addresses and telling them their bags would be delivered that afternoon.
When it was my turn, the woman behind the counter looked at my claim ticket and shook her head. "You were a late check," she said. "It's not our responsibility to deliver your bag. It should be on the next flight which arrives in..." she paused, checked her monitor, "Three hours."
"Thanks," I said. Three hours. I had left my husband and our son at home, which meant the refrigerator would be empty. I decided to go grocery shopping while I waited. I got directions to the closest grocery store and went to retrieve my car.
In the grocery store, a dad with three middle school kids wheeled around a full cart. The children looked like they were on spring break and the father's joyful responses seemed to confirm my guess.
"Can we get chocolate milk?" one child asked.
"Sure!" the father said.
"How 'bout pretzels?" another yelled.
"Yes!" the father said.
"Donuts?" the youngest boy tested his luck.
"Of course," the father said.
At the deli, a woman in a flowered dress and I arrived at the same time. When the woman behind the counter asked me what I wanted first, I told her to help the other woman instead.
"Thank you so much," the woman in the flowered dress said.
"No problem," I said. I had time to spare.
In the dairy aisle, a runaway cart came right towards me. I looked carefully and saw a woman in her 90s peering over the cart. She had big, curly, gray hair, lively eyes and laughed, "Look out," she said, "I'm going the wrong way." She chuckled as several of us fled with our carts to the sides.
The old woman sped past me. I turned to admire her zest, and then paused and hoped she hadn't driven herself to the store.
At the salad bar, I stopped to get lunch. A man stood there contemplating side dishes. I was doing the same. I had time and thought I might try something new.
"I eat here almost every day," he said.
"What's your favorite?" I asked, and he pointed to a cracked wheat berry, butternut squash, goat cheese combination that looked delicious.
"Thanks," I said and helped myself.
"Enjoy your lunch," he said.
"You too," I said.
I had never been in such a chatty grocery store, but I did have time to spare.
I loaded groceries in the car and then found a picnic table and set up lunch. I took a deep breath before I ate and admired the food in front of me. I must have smiled at my food because a woman walking by said, "What a happy place to have lunch."
"Yes," I said.
I watched mothers and babies stroll by me. I watched twin girls dressed in identical outfits run around a picnic table. I continued to eat. I'd never tried wheat berries before. They had a texture that was new to me. I liked the combination of dressing, squash, wheat berries and goat cheese.
And then I heard a young man with a strong, deep voice yell, "I love you!"
"This is going to be good," I thought and looked up. I saw a 20-something African American man wearing a baseball cap. He was the one who had yelled. He was walking, and a few feet behind him walked an Asian American teenage young man who had Down's syndrome.
"I love you too," the teen-something young man yelled back.
I saw the baseball cap man smile. "I love you more!" he yelled even louder.
The teen-something young man laughed. "I love YOU more!" he said definitively.
And then they walked around the corner out of my sight.
I was stunned. I took out a pen and wrote down their words exactly as I had heard them. The words were playful, simple and perfect.
"What if?" I asked myself as I sat there. I pictured my husband and I on a date, and in an open, public space, I saw myself yelling to him, "I love you!" and he yelled back to me, "I love you too!" And then I yelled even louder, playfully, "I love you more!" and he yelled back, "I love you more!" I laughed at the thought.
What if I did this with my teen-something boys? What if I did this with my best-girlfriends? With my Dad? With his new wife? My mother-in-law? My father-in-law? My twenty-something daughter? What if I let myself be bold and open and in love?
And then I started to cry, and I sat there at the picnic table with tears streaming down my cheeks. I had been asked to stop by the universe, to suspend time for three hours, and I had appreciated strangers, my food, flowers, children, old people and the weather. I had even stopped long enough to hear a pronouncement of love.
I drove slowly back to the airport. I parked and walked to the terminal. Inside the lost baggage office a disgruntled passenger shouted at two employees behind the desk.
One employee excused himself from the conversation and offered to help me. He saw my "late claim ticket" and started to tell me I'd need to come back and that they weren't responsible for delivering my bag. I interrupted and told him I'd already gone away and come back.
"Let me help you find your bag," he said and typed my baggage claim number into his computer. He invited me to follow him as he walked out of the office away from the shouting man.
I felt for this employee having to work at the lost baggage office all day, and I teased him, "You sure jumped at the opportunity to get out of that hot box."
"Yes, I did," he said and started laughing too.
"Wow, that was sure heated in there," I said. We found my bag easily.
"You want me to wheel your bag to your car?" he offered. He and I laughed together.
"Take a deep breath before going back in," I suggested. "Good luck."
He reached out and touched my arm. "Thank you for laughing," he said, "Really."
I wanted to tell him what I'd just seen while I was eating lunch -- a bold display of love and playfulness. Instead, I decided passing on the love was enough.
Kathleen Buckstaff is the author of Mother Advice To Take With You To College and The Tiffany Box: A Memoir, a USA Best Book Awards Finalist. The Tiffany Box is full of love, humor, heartache, and insight. A gathering of e-mails and letters to her closest friends comprise Kathleen Buckstaff's candid, funny, and recognizably true chronicle of a generation "in-between": nurturing its young while nursing its aged, and coming to terms with the bitter realities that temper life's sweet rewards. A wonderful motherhood memoir.