Sitting in his seat, the plane scheduled to leave JFK for Moscow, Lev noticed how nonchalantly the passengers browsed their computers and iPads, their papers, and magazines. The doors had just closed, the flight attendants were giving their safety speeches, and Lev felt himself falling into a wild panic. It was March 2015, and he had been in the US seeking asylum for nearly two years when he felt he couldn’t take it anymore—his lover, the only person he had become close to during his time in New York, had just left the US for good; he desperately missed his friends and family; and his asylum proceedings were plodding along with no end in sight. He decided to go home, where at least he could see his mother, but now, with the plane doors closed, he couldn’t breathe.
He grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, and told her he had to get off.
She didn’t understand, so he jumped out of his seat and ran to the front of the plane, where he approached the pilot as he entered the cabin.
“I am not going to fly,” he said.
The pilot looked around. “It’s not going to be easy to get you off.”
Scared of causing a commotion, Lev told him to forget it and rushed back to his seat.
Minutes later, both pilots found him.
“Will you fly or not?” the head pilot asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you have to decide.”
Though Lev spent his first nights in New York City sleeping on a bus-stop bench near city hall and brushing his teeth at Starbucks, he maintains the experience wasn’t traumatizing. As soon as his flight from Moscow landed at Kennedy Airport in May 2013, he felt so free that nothing could have brought him down—not the fact that he spoke almost no English, nor that his living arrangements had dissolved, nor that he didn’t know a single person in the entire city. When he emerged from the A train on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, he was in awe.
For three days Lev wandered the streets, gazing at the throngs of people and savoring his newfound happiness—even the sky seemed iridescent. On the fourth day, unable to bear the possibility of never seeing his mother again, he went back to the airport and, with his meager savings, bought a ticket home for the following evening. But when it came time to leave, he lost his nerve and stayed.