This is a piece in an ongoing series of artistic explorations and personal reflections on electronic cigarettes and vaping. This series will include fiction, journalism, and personal essays. Feedback is welcome. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an e-cigarette experience worth sharing.
I arrived at The Cincinnati Westin at three in the morning feeling delirious. I had come for work, and what was supposed to be an early evening flight had gotten severely delayed, turning it into an impromptu red eye. A cab that I was lucky to find took me to the downtown part of Cincinnati, which was so dead and empty in the middle of the night that it felt like an abandoned movie set.
The Cincinnati Westin is huge. It's one of those modern hotels, no character to speak of, kind of like being in a level from 007 or some other old video game with boxy graphics. I made my way through some dimly lit hallways to an empty four story atrium where the only sound was the unusually loud hum of the escalators. There wasn't a soul in sight. It was admittedly pretty creepy, but what happened next was more than I can explain.
As I rode the escalator to go find the check in desk, the humming sound somehow started getting louder. A deep and intense pain suddenly built up in my ears, the kind you feel when there's an abrupt change in air pressure. It made me dizzy and disoriented. When I got the top pf the escalator, I stumbled off, dropped my bag on the ground and collapsed onto one of the armchairs in the second-floor lobby.
After a minute of sitting there with my hand over my eyes, stretching out my jaw to clear the pressure from my ears, I started to feel a little better. Even though I knew it probably wasn't allowed, I pulled out my e-cig and took a few long puffs just to reset myself.
That's when I felt a hand grip my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a clean white cuff inside the unmistakable sleeve of a pilot's jacket.
"Are you all right son?" asked a calm and confident voice.
"Yeah I think so," I said. "Don't know what happened."
Then I'm pretty sure the voice said: "E-cigarettes and other vaping devices are prohibited by FAA regulations. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to exit the plane before takeoff."
"Huh?" I said, completely baffled and a little annoyed. I took my hand off my eyes and looked up, but there was no one there. My blood instantly ran cold. The hand on my shoulder was gone and there was no sign of the person it belonged to. I jumped out of the armchair into an instinctively defensive stance, as though someone might try to jump me. I frantically looked around for places he might be hiding, but the only person around was the girl behind the check-in desk, way on the other side of the lobby, and she was turned with her back to me.
"Did you see that guy?" I called out to her.
She didn't say anything. She didn't move. All I could see was the back of her head.
"I think he was a pilot," I yelled, hoping to get her attention. "He was just here."
She remained stock still. I started walking toward her, even though I was still pretty dizzy and with every step I could feel the pressure building in my ears again. I kept trying to get her attention.
"I'm sorry I was vaping before," I said. "It was kind of...you know...an emergency. I'm just not feeling myself."
When she turned around. I saw that she was dressed like a flight attendant. Except her uniform looked all ripped up on the left side. And despite the fact she was smiling, she was sporting a bright, fresh black eye.
"Can I help you sir?" she asked.
At that point, the pressure in my ears was making me disoriented again. I had having trouble remembering what it was I wanted to ask her.
"I need to check in," I told her.
"Of course sir," she replied cheerily. "And what is your final destination?"
"Cincinnati," I said. "I have a very important meeting in Cincinnati."
I was so tired and I just wanted her help. After typing on her keyboard for a few seconds, she looked up and asked if I wanted to check my bag.
"Oh I dropped my bag...over there," I said, pointing behind me.
"That's not your bag?" she said, pointing to the floor next to me. I looked down and there it was, right at my feet. I stammered that I preferred to carry on and she went back to typing on her keyboard. I looked around and, even though I was still delirious, I noticed that I wasn't at the hotel at all. I was in the airport, boarding my plane to Cincinnati.
"Have a good flight, sir," the flight attendant said, handing me my boarding pass. I walked through the door and it shut behind me, and all at once I realized that I had just walked past her, down the jetway and onto the place. Except the seats were all empty, and the light in the cabin was dim and red. I took my seat, hoping everything would go back to normal. The pressure in my ears was getting worse and worse.
I slowly got more and more nauseous, sitting there all alone in an empty airplane. A deep queasiness gripped me from the back of my throat to the pit of my stomach. I closed my eyes tight.
"I need to stop working so much," I thought.
And that when it dawned on me. I was never going to reach Cincinnati. I was stuck in an endless cycle of airports and soulless hotels.
Suddenly I could hear the screaming of the other passengers all around me, barely audible over the deafening hum of the engine. And then I realized something even stranger: they were screaming because of me. I was standing over the flight attendant, whose body was splayed out motionless in aisle. I took another pull on my e-cig, as I heard the captain yelling over the intercom for everyone to remain calm. I looked curiously at the faces of the other passengers, screaming in horror, frozen in fear. I wanted to explain myself but I didn't know how. I wanted to tell them that there was no salvation at Cincinnati Westin. One way or another, I needed them to understand how much of my life had been wasted traveling to business meetings, going from hotel to hotel, never doing the things that really mattered.