Bailey Powell

This was my semester, I thought. All focus, all work ethic. The School of Visual Arts was notorious for shaking down first year students for every bit of self discipline, time management, and work quality consistency a novice could muster. Failure to succeed in any one of those areas and you’re out, and sometimes you’re out either way. The required art kit was awkward in shape, like a lumpy, oversized door mat hanging against your body from two short handles you hoist onto the shoulder, and was accompanied by a container crossed between a respectable looking toolkit and a Caboodle. Walking to art lab was more of a waddle, and of course I lived in the dorm furthest away from campus. Step-clunk-clunk. Step-clunk-clunk.

When I arrived I cut across the classroom to a friendly looking easel just my height, one that wouldn’t mind spending the next three hours with me. I unloaded my art kit and tilted my head and shoulders back to stretch as I took a deep, relieved breath. I bent over my bag, fishing for India ink when I felt my phone vibrating somewhere in the art supply abyss. My fingers found the smooth, round flip phone and the display screen read “Dad”. I tossed it back into my bag, slightly annoyed because he knew I was in class. Why was he calling? Whatever. Where’s my India ink? Class was starting.

Three hours later I thoughtfully repacked the art kit to transport everything back to the dorm and slung it over my arm. I pushed my cheap, ironic sunglasses on as I walked out to the dorm shuttle. Air gushed from the shuttle’s pneumatic door closers as I took the perpendicular seat behind the driver and we jolted forward.

I felt my phone vibrate again, my brother Duncan calling this time. Flipping the phone open to answer, I saw I’d missed three calls from my dad during the course of class. A wave of heat coursed down my back and limbs when I heard Duncan say my name.

“Bailey,” he panted.

“Yeah?”

“Alex got in a car wreck.”

“Is he okay?”

My voice was unnaturally high with panic and my breath became choppy and inconsistent. I heard shuffling around in the background, muffled voices.

“HELLO?” I called.

“No,” he said.

More shuffling, and the call disconnected.

I met Holden two weeks after my 21st birthday. “Like Caulfield,” he smirked. He must have thought I was too dumb or drunk to notice the faux nonchalance he dripped while he played his ace, clearly impressed with his own literary reference. “Okay,” I acknowledged. He wasn’t particularly handsome, but he received full marks for height – 6’5″. He told me he was from Connecticut and I wondered how he found himself in Any College Town, Texas. My skintight black and white cotton dress had gotten his attention, and he leaned his arm behind me against a high-top table as he gazed at my profile. I could feel him considering whether my short, shiny brown hair and high cheekbones were adequate to warrant his attention as I looked up at the boxing ring, lights reflecting in my eyes. Two 150 pound undergrads were throwing unskilled punches at each other: Swing, block. Swing, miss, swing, miss. Swing, lightly brush opponent’s face. Boring. Drunk trash talk came from the unlit crowd as my lips closed around the straw of my third double well vodka soda with lime. It was Sigma Chi Fight Night.

I remember the decision for me to tag along with my mother to the parent teacher night feeling arbitrary, and I suppose there was no reason for my mother to expect it to be more than a brief stop at J.B. Little Elementary School. Second grade was going well. Mrs. Cremer had placed me in a small, gifted group inside of her bigger class of students on the regular learning course. She gave us extra work, more complex instructions, and one time asked students to gather around my desk to watch me color an elephant with a grey crayon.

“Do you see how Bailey stays within the lines? Do you see how Bailey’s coloring all goes in one smooth direction?” She advised the students.

Parents trickled out of the classroom until only my mother and my friend Kiira’s mother remained. Mrs. Cremer had requested a private audience with them and it upset me. I cried outside of the classroom when another classmate’s sweet mother, desperate to distract me, asked me to race her down the hallway. Who could walk backwards faster? “Shh! Bailey, will you race me?”

I kicked her ass.

Soon after this night I was invited into the office of Mrs. Dean, the elementary school counselor. She presented me with the biggest, most serious looking test I’d ever taken. Mid-test I clutched the hefty stack of papers as I tip-toed up to her in my clean white sneakers. “What does this mean?” I asked, pointing to the “x” in a multiplication problem. She simply advised me to do my best and told me it was okay to skip anything I didn’t understand.

Later, presumably after discussing with my dad and receiving the mystery test results, my mom and I stood leaning against her bed. She asked me how I would feel about skipping the second grade to move into third. She explained how it was my choice, but I don’t remember ever considering staying in second grade. “Apparently this is incredibly rare,” my mother gloated, clearly impressed with the intelligence of the creature she created.

On my first day of third grade I wore a denim mini skirt, those same clean white sneakers, and a baby pink, short sleeve turtleneck top with a silver zipper that ran from the middle of my chest to the chin. As soon as I walked up, the door of Mrs. Stanley’s classroom swung open. While the aero door closer gushed out air a red-headed boy made eye contact with me, pointed, and said “Hey! Are you the new girl?” The door slammed in front of me. I must have looked like I was going to hurl because my mother soothed me with affirmations and encouragement before ushering me into the classroom.

As I settled into the routine of third grade, my mind was often occupied by a complex evaluation of the bathroom situation. Not including group bathroom breaks, I had one time to ask to go to the bathroom per day without receiving negative attention from classmates or Mrs. Stanley. Knowing I had that option felt safe, but I knew as soon as I caved and used that escape I would be out for the rest of the day. What if I had to pee again?! Inside of the classroom I was gripped by the feeling of inability to leave at will. It was not due to a lack of discipline or disinterest in learning. In third grade an acute anxiety had set in, except I didn’t yet have a name for what I felt. I began seeing my beloved child psychologist Dr. Anderson.

In 4th grade, I tried out for cheerleader, made the squad, and found my friend niche. Anytime someone felt sick to their stomach or threw up, though, I got as far away as possible. Fourth grade was defined by terror of contracting an illness. In fifth grade, my mind was consumed with appearing to have normal bathroom habits, an overwhelming fear of puke, all exacerbated by the new concern of what boys will think about me. I was so scared of school that every morning my parents battled me to go. I spent several days in Mrs. Dean’s office as she evaluated my behavior, but unfortunately the level of my anxiety was inversely correlated to the calming effect of Mrs. Dean. Mrs. Dean was like the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz, minus the falling asleep part. This created a puzzling situation for my parents, resulting in their decision that my behavior was simply defiant and nothing else. In hindsight, I was hard up for some anti-anxiety meds. Fifth grade was a daily nightmare, but I loved my homeroom teacher Mrs. Johnson so much I cried when I left her on the last day of school. Most kids skip out the door, thrilled with the prospects of summer break. I was crushed to leave a woman who’d become such a comfort.

Sixth grade added crying fits, seventh and eighth grades added navigating the secrecy and shame surrounding menstruation – a definitively junior high problem. My sophomore year of high school I transferred to another school across town when my pre-pubescent anxiety met it’s soulmate, crippling depression. By my junior year I’d transferred back to my usual high school and I sat in the front row of AP Chemistry, motioning for my teacher to come over to my desk. I’d interrupted her mid-lecture and was socially humiliated, but my anxiety attack was so bad I had to leave the classroom immediately. Thanks a lot, linoleum floors, fluorescent light tubes, and the existence of hydrochloric acid in the room. In college I’d get dressed, drink coffee, eat breakfast, walk to campus, get to the doors of my classroom and do a U-turn. I withdrew seconds before flunking out one semester, unable to approach a classroom and unable to keep up. I filled my time with collegiate peculiarities: sleeping atop a bunk bed with a desk underneath; wandering the dusty, forgotten rows of books on a lonely library floor.

Anxiety is as much a part of me as my dark eyebrows, my dark sense of humor, or my dark wardrobe. It’s a consideration in my every day, conscious or not. I’ve morphed into a self-talk pro and probably do not fully fathom the severity of my brain chemistry as every day is an exercise in anxiety and life integration. Must do normal things, must find a way to get through them. Breathing, check. Acupuncture, check. Bikram yoga, check. Plant-based diet, check. Multiple inaccurate yet well-intended medical prescriptions? Check, check, check, check, check.

I can’t be sure whether I’ll carry the exhausting weight of anxiety with me for the rest of my life. Perhaps the switch off will be as unexpected as the switch on, stepping into a third grade classroom.

Involuntary Staring Contest

I squeaked into the courtroom in my rainboots and found my way to an arbitrary seat in the jury box as instructed. After settling my bags around my feet I looked up at the fluorescently lit, well-worn shoebox of a room, everything the unsightly color of dehydrated urine save for a patch of dark wood paneling inscribed with “In God We Trust” that was flanked by two sad looking flags. My eyes scanned over the buggy-eyed cop who’d escorted us into the courtroom. He’d seated himself next to the bailiff, who blinked for so long that each time I thought surely he’d fallen asleep. Watching his eyes open and close was like staring at the “don’t walk” hand flashing on busy street corners, the kind that give you the particular anxiety that each flash you see is going to stick and signify your lost chance to cross.

The rest of my panoramic visual digestion included 1) a Pacific Islander looking woman with chin length hair who’s only job seemed to be to call out juror’s names unclearly, 2) a dark, balding man who looked like an extra from House of Cards and sat on a platform six inches lower than the judge, essentially his back up dancer, and 3) His Honor himself, an older man who managed to be equally approachable and intimidating, chatty without being verbose, and comfortable while maintaining respect. The defendant was black, the lawyer was Hispanic, and the DA was Jewish. America.

The last pre-existing court occupant I laid eyes on was, by far, the most interesting. The recording secretary’s fingers flitted silently above what appeared to be a toddler’s toy, a rubberized typewriter with few keys. Her straw colored hair was styled with bangs that I imagine she had not changed since 1990, a style she must have decided worked for her in early adulthood and never cared to venture from since. Her wardrobe was put together yet seasonally inappropriate, like her hair a reflection of her value on good enough utility versus on-trend aesthetic.

As soon as the judge began to speak her fingers flew, but instead of focusing on the orator or her device she slowly turned her head while her fingers moved, giving dead eyed stares of uncomfortable lengths to unsuspecting recipients. Her hands seemed to be the sole body part at work while her head revolved like an owl’s and her creepy, beady eyed gaze seemed to trap various sets of eyes around the courtroom. After watching her for several minutes I decided the pace that her fingers were moving did not match the speaker’s gait and concluded she was blind and collecting some sort of notes via Braille keyboard. I shamelessly continued to stare.

The next day when we re-entered the courtroom I took a new seat ensuring I had a view of the R.S. I was so fascinated with. Her eyes darted up to the left and down to the right how a curious dog might follow an insect. I watched her mindfully as the judge began to speak the instructions we were to follow.

“Can you slow down?” The R.S. interrupted.

Shocked to hear her speak, my head snapped up from studying my lap to witness the exchange.

“What?” Asked the judge, cut off.

“Can you. Slow. DOWN?” The R.S. demanded, swiveling her head around on its owl neck axel to face the judge.

“Sure,” he said, before he continued on at the same rate of speaking.

Her eyebrows were furrowed and her frustration was clear as the R.S. turned back around to face her body to the toy keyboard, but it all seemed to melt away as her fingers began poking at the soundless keys again. It was the first time anyone had heard her speak, as if she’d been holding that card close to the chest waiting for the perfect time to play it. Her eyes began to scan the room again, locking innocent jurors into involuntary staring contests and relishing their surprise with a self-satisfied smile playing at her lips.

The Striped 9 Ball

When my fingers grip around the cool, smooth surface of the flaxen striped 9 ball, the night comes flooding back.

He stood before me with an elongated stare, sparkling sweat forming at his hairline in the August heat while I leaned back against the pool table in my safe, all black outfit. “Dare.” He stated, unflinchingly. My eyes scanned the dimly lit bar, it’s emptiness and lush, high-backed red leather upholstery leaving me uninspired. The closest wall was constructed entirely of glass doors, all of which had been flung open with their rich tapestried curtains gathered to the sides to let any teasing bout of wind find it’s way inside to where we stood. All the other patrons were dining outside where we had just been, softly lit by the sea of paper lanterns strung above them swaying gently in the balmy breeze. Their voices had become a calming white noise to me.

Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: