By Yunya Yang
I started reading The Catcher in the Rye at Atlanta Airport, waiting on my delayed red-eye flight to Chicago. I’d picked it up at random from a bookstore on my way to the gate.
The airport was still bustling at eleven o’clock at night. I kept to one side of the path, making way for rushing travelers. My unhurried pace was a stark contrast to those around me, walking briskly to their destinations. I couldn’t move faster even if I wanted to. The nylon fabric of my cheap dress pants was chafing my thighs, and every step I took, it burned my legs.
I finally got to my gate, found an empty seat, and collapsed on it. The pair of heels I stuffed in my handbag poked at my rib cage as I sat down. I leaned back on the chair and closed my eyes.
A cacophony of sounds: the yelling from parents for their kids to keep up, the screeching of the metal store gates closing down for the night, and the broadcast announcements read by a flat, emotionless female voice.
Another three hours before takeoff.
I took out the book and started reading.
I was on my way back from a job interview in Jersey City. I’d got an email from the company a week before, and it was as if a voice had come from the void and told me that I won the lottery. Before this voice, I had no prospect. Finding a job as an international student was not hard—hardship implied that you’d got into the door and had a chance to fight. I couldn’t get into the door most of the time. Only a handful of companies sponsored a working visa, which was a prerequisite for me to work in the US. When I talked to recruiters at job fairs, their faces fell as soon as they found out I needed a visa.
“We love your resume,” they said apologetically. “But we don’t sponsor visas.”
The first couple of times, I was frustrated. After a while, I could laugh about it—nothing so exhilarating as a healthy dose of rejection. I’d moved on. It was not personal, nor was it unfair. I was looking for work in a foreign country, and naturally, it would be tougher for me to get into the door—I didn’t belong here, and it was only fair that I had to jump through some extra hoops to prove that I was worthy. I had to keep that attitude, or else it would be too easy to fall into the deep end of bitterness, jealousy, and despair.
When I got the email for the job interview, I almost burst into tears. I called my mom right away.
“They’ll fly me to Jersey City for it,” I told her.
“Really? That’s great! But you’re sure this is not a scam?”
It was too good to be true. My mom had already given up hope. “You could just come back home,” she had said on the phone when I had called her a week earlier, breaking down in tears. I could just go back home, but I wanted to stay and see if I could make it. America is the Promised Land—anyone can make it as long as they work hard. The story of rags to riches is a beloved tale of the American Dream.
Before I booked my flights, I asked the recruiter if I could stay a night in Jersey City. She told me they only reimburse hotel expenses if the interview was in the afternoon. Mine was at eleven in the morning.
“Do you still want to book a hotel?” she asked on the phone.
“No,” I replied. “It’s okay. I’ll come back on the same day.”
I took the 4 a.m. flight from Bloomington, Illinois, my college town, to Chicago, had a layover in Chicago and another in Atlanta, and finally flew from Atlanta to Jersey City.
The company I was interviewing with was one of the biggest banks on Wall Street. To save money on real estate, they built their headquarters in New Jersey. What it lacked in the prestige of location, it made up for in size. It was a colossal glass building that sat on the waterfront overlooking the Hudson. Across the water, Manhattan was just visible through the mist that hung above the river.
I’d never been to New York City. Leaning against the railing at the harbor, squinting my eyes, I could see the shadows of skyscrapers in the distance like a mirage. Maybe I could visit one day, I thought. Or even live there.
When I walked into the glass building, I did my best to appear calm and confident, as if I belonged there. I’d worn my only formal outfit—a white dress shirt under a black blazer, paired with black pants. I had hung them in the bathroom the night before, hoping that the steam would smooth out the creases. They fit me, but wearing them was like slipping into my mom’s heels when I was a little girl: you could only do it in secret, while no one was watching, for you knew they were not meant for you.
The guy who interviewed me was tall, handsome, and impeccably dressed. I didn’t know much about suits, but the one he wore looked expensive. His face was smooth, his hair combed back for a sleek look, and his eyes piercing. He smiled in a way that only somebody who was experienced in putting a smile would, flashing just enough teeth and extending just enough warmth.
The interview itself had long faded into my memory. The only thing I remembered was a comment the guy made at the end of our conversation.
I’d asked him what he liked to do in his spare time. The career center people told me to make small talk to “build a good rapport” with the interviewer.
“I like looking at kids’ drawings from my wife’s class—she’s an art teacher at a kindergarten,” he said. “They’re cute. It relaxes me, you know? After I get home from a stressful job, it’s good to see her working on something cute.”
I was still thinking about how he said “cute” as I stepped outside of the building. A gust of wind blew from the river, hitting me right on the face. I suddenly felt all the weariness from getting up before sunrise, flying across half the country, and getting bombarded by all the interview questions.
I sat down at a bench by the harbor, changed out of my heels, and stared at the Manhattan skyline across the water. The early afternoon sun had peered out of the clouds, and I could make out the buildings on the other side more clearly. The skinny skyscrapers stacked next to each other, with tiny windows like the holes on a harmonica.
If I had read The Catcher in the Rye at any other time, I wouldn’t have finished the book. Nothing much happened in it, no dramatic climax, no twist at the end. I was always more attracted to exciting plots when I was younger—the story, the adventure, the monsters, and the heroes. I wanted, in a sense, a fairy tale.
At that moment, however, Holden’s voice spoke to me like no other. After I finally boarded the plane at the small hours of the night, leaning against the window overlooking millions of city lights below, an overwhelming loneliness came over me. I clutched the book in my hands, and Holden spoke to me. He talked in that drifting voice as he roamed in New York City. He told me his worries about the ducks, and I worried with him. He raved about his dream of running away, and I dreamed with him. In the monologue of this teenage boy, I found a kind of solace that could only be granted by the pleasant surprise that what I feel was not particular only to me, but shared with another, even though we couldn’t be more different and further apart.
I wept silently in the darkness of the airplane cabin, under a flickering yellow light above my seat, and next to a snoring passenger deep in slumber.
It was almost five o’clock in the morning when I sat on my last flight back to Bloomington. The sun was rising at the end of cornfields, the morning light tumbling across blankets of soft clouds, blinding me.
I took a deep breath as if coming up from a long dive underwater. Holden and I were both at a journey’s end.
I’d always had a penchant for happy endings, but this book offered me something more. A made-up character from a story written decades before I was born, by an author already gone from the world, Holden Caulfield took my hand on the long flights across this strange country and offered me—comfort.
We were both misfits of the world we lived in, and the knowledge that I was not alone was more important than a happy ending.
Yunya Yang was born and raised in Central China and moved to the US when she was eighteen. She is an accountant by day and a writer by night. Her work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine. Find her on Twitter at @YangYunya.
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