Bailey Powell

Growing Pain

I sat on top of my bed sorting through papers. My apartment would lack furniture for several more months so there was no table or couch in the living room, but I preferred to avoid that fluorescent space, anyway. The high noon sun had begun to tilt west, sunlight filling my bedroom and shining off the linoleum floor. Stacks of delinquent bills slid toward my body as my knees pressed down on the comforter, adjusting to find a comfortable seat. It was nearing 1:00 PM – I need to leave soon if I’m gonna go to this thing, I thought.

Earlier that week a friend of a friend had invited me to her graduation party at her parent’s house on Long Island. I’d lived in New York City just seven months and was still in the business of building friendships, so I accepted the invitation without much feeling. I scribbled “Paid online October 14, 2012” on the top of the last bill and filed them all away. I hoisted the basket of papers onto the abandoned retro computer desk – the only other piece of furniture I had aside from my bed and nightstand. The side of the desk was punctuated with metal racks for CD-Roms that I’d repurposed for hanging earrings. They tinkled against the rack as I slid the basket onto the desk, a sea of dust parting in its wake.

One time my flight attendant mother had come to see me on an overnight in New York and we ran errands around the neighborhood. She quietly observed as I showed her around. My building was the only one on its side of the street, flanked by an empty lot and a community garden. That night we walked up the middle of the street like I always did in order to avoid the large rats scampering along the overgrown sidewalk and shadowy characters lingering in the dark. As long as I stayed inside the dull orange bubble of streetlights, I was safe. “We’re just not going to tell your dad about this,” she’d lamented.


I stepped into black tights to guard from the fall weather, followed by a black dress, black shoes, and black coat. My final layer was a shock of white cashmere, a scarf wrapped around my neck and tucked into the top of my coat. I stepped out into the afternoon, taking full lungs of the October smell, bonfire and crisp air. My route on the subway that day was freshly mapped and unfamiliar. I lived closer to the East New York Long Island Railroad station than Penn in Manhattan, so my subway lurched east and swayed deeper into the ghetto. Stop after stop, my fellow riders disappeared. When I arrived at Atlantic Avenue, I was one of two people remaining in the car. The subway halted it’s metallic whine as we pulled into the station and the other man in the car raised his eyebrows at me as I stood to exit. He watched me carefully as the doors closed, and through the window as the train pulled away again. He appeared to be contemplating my mental stability.

Heads turned on the sparse platform, indifferent acknowledgement of my unusual presence. The subway did not deposit me directly into the LIRR station, so I had to find my way to the train through a rough neighborhood: the heart of East New York. I descended the stairs of the elevated platform and studied the map on my phone one last time before shoving it in my bag and stepping onto the black gum littered pavement. Take a right, then a right. How hard could it be? I pulled my earbuds out, figuring this was not a time to have one sense preoccupied. I turned right, pulled my shoulders back, and strode down the street. I thought as long as I feigned confidence in my route I would not draw attention to myself.

After I took the second right on a busy street of East New York, I saw a pitch black underpass looming in the distance, growing bigger with each step. Surely the station is just pushed back to the left, obscured from view by buildings. There’s no way the train is inside or by way of that black hole. I kept striding in confidence, getting the up and down from passersby – a teeth sucking here, a stop and stare there. I regretted the white cashmere scarf. I reached down into my bag, fingers closing around my mace just in case. Finally I got close enough to know there was no train station on my side of the hellacious underpass. This is where the directions lead, but they have to be wrong. Where’s the station? A man aged by time or drugs emerged from the underpass pushing a shopping cart, sucking at toothless gums, eyes darting. I halted, deciding what to do next. The cold burned my cheeks as the wind blew and a crumpled  newspaper brushed past my ballet flat, tumbling down the street.

There’s no way this is correct. Maybe the directions were right turn, left turn.  I turned on my heel and paced back down the street, following the newspaper. I’d been walking several blocks since that second right turn, so if the station was equidistant in the opposite direction from my turning point I had to book it in order to make the train I was meant to get on. I checked the time, knowing it was risky to pull out an iPhone. I had ten minutes. I can make it. There weren’t many people out, a few church goers and vagabonds. When I came upon a woman and a little girl I took advantage of the relative comfortability.

“Excuse me,” I started, “Which direction is the LIRR station?” I willed her to point in my new direction. Instead she said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” She tugged at the girl’s hand and led her around me like a rock in a stream.

I kept moving down the street, no longer paying attention to the stares and detest. I had no time to care. I was a block past my original turning point on the busy street when I spotted two police officers in a cruiser. I rushed to the passenger window, relieved to see them.

“Excuse me,” I breathed, winded from my hustle. They did not stir to acknowledge me. “EXCUSE me,” I repeated, irked by their lack of urgency.

The policewoman in the passenger seat turned her head toward me, her eyes still down on her computer. Finally, her bored gaze met my frantic eyes. She scanned me as a safety precaution or out of disdain, I could not tell. She raised her eyebrows to acknowledge me in lieu of words.

“Would you please tell me where the LIRR station is? Which direction is it?”

“It’s that way,” she pointed in the direction of the black hole. Fuck, I thought.

“Please tell me it’s not past that underpass,” I plead.

The policewoman shrugged, nodded, and looked back down at the cruiser computer. “There are a lot of scary people over there,” she admitted.

“Okay. Thank you,” I said. Both my gut instinct and the time told me I wasn’t going to Long Island that day. I’d begun to sweat from the brisk walking, and when I stopped moving the cold hurt. I started to make my way back to the subway and the policewoman called after me. “This is not a good area for you to be in.”

When I got back home I texted the graduate my regrets with a brief recap of my experience and tossed my phone on the bed. I tugged off my stupid white scarf and hung it inside the closet door. My day was suddenly open, but I was shaken by the dead end and felt exhausted after being on high alert for a long period of time. I took a long, deep breath.

I went into the kitchen to cook up some lunch. I didn’t have a lot of anything, but I had enough. When I walked back into my bedroom I picked up my phone off the bed. I had three missed calls and a voicemail from my dad. This happened before on the terrible day in 2007. I was triggered and my stomach lurched. Hands shaking, I called him back.

“Hi Bailey,” he answered.

“Dad, what’s going on?”

“Alex is in the hospital again, he’s been there since last night.”

I interrupted his fake calmness. “What happened?”

“Alex shot himself,” he said, voice breaking.

“In the head? What’s going on? Tell me everything that happened,” I began pacing the room, voice shrill and uneven.

My dad began telling me the little information he knew while I hyperventilated and pulled my conspicuous weekender off the top shelf of my closet. Unaware of what I was doing, I packed nonsensical items with one hand.

“I’m coming home now,” I said, “I’m getting into a cab now and will buy a flight at the airport.”

“Okay,” my dad acquiesced out of numb defeat.

Since my neighborhood did not have yellow cabs driving about I had to call a taxi service. My voice shook as I requested a cab, shivering like I was cold and unable to swallow as if gripped by nerves. The cab pulled up in two minutes as I shoved my glasses into the weekender too big, unreasonable, and poorly packed for my purposes. I could barely think about what I needed, only that I had to be by Alex’s side as soon as possible.

“LaGuardia, please,” I requested. We jerked and swayed from Bed-Stuy to Queens in the rickety cab while I looked down at my phone. A mixture of comforting words and disbelief popped up from my oldest brother Duncan. He asked me if I was okay, but we knew neither of us were.

Three of my close friends in New York began texting me, made aware of the situation via Facebook message from my mom. “We’re about to drop a bomb on Bailey,” it had read. “We want to make sure she has friends in the area who know what’s going on.” Meredith, Becca, and Betsy offered to book me flights, to house me if I needed to spend the night, anything. I was determined to get on the next plane out of LaGuardia though, and nothing could stop me. The taxi ambled up to the departures drop off as I paid my fare. As I’d gotten closer to the airport my breath began to catch and tears poured out of my eyes. I choked out a “thank you”. I floated from the stale cigarette air in the cab, through the crisp air of autumn, and into the gush of dry recycled air as the glass doors of LaGuardia slid open. Glancing around and trying to control my spastic breath, I walked forward to the first airline counter I saw.

“Please help me,” I plead. The man at the counter looked up at me with little concern. “I need to get to Dallas as soon as possible.” He tapped at his keys for a couple of minutes while I sobbed into my arms crossed on the counter. He looked down his nose at me as if I were a strange specimen of which he wished to not to breathe the same air. He informed me his airline had no non-stop flights to Dallas remaining that day. His delivery dripped nonchalance.

I couldn’t believe this person had not asked me what was wrong or at the very least if I were okay. The check-in line is not a therapy session, but I was shocked by the utter lack of interest in the state of someone clearly so stricken with grief. Impatient with his callousness, I told him:

“My brother shot himself. I need to get home tonight. Please help me.” He raised his eyebrows and blinked quickly, taken aback. His countenance softened. His fingers began tapping the keys again while he muttered to himself about possible flights out of JFK and Newark airports.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He sounded like he meant it. “We don’t have any more flights tonight.”

“What about other airlines?” I begged, voice rising in desperation. “Please, I have to find something. I have to get home.” I looked over my shoulder and saw friends and families grouped together, looking at me and then at each other. I wished so badly I had someone to exchange glances with, someone to share this shock and grief, anyone to help me get on a plane to my brother. I felt so alone, so undignified, so seen.

“Sorry,” the man said. “I’m unable to check availability of other airlines.” His eyebrows bunched together, troubled by his inability to help me but unsure what else he could offer.

“Thank you,” I muttered. My shoulders slumped as I made my way toward another airline counter, determined.

No airline at LaGuardia could get me out that night, and no airport or airline staff saw my state and helped me through the inquiry process. There was no adoption of urgency, no empathy. There was only “no” and staring. Counter after counter I walked, staff from the airport and previous counters following me with their eyes not out of concern but out of bored curiosity, like how subway riders might observe a strange person on the train. I hated New York that day. I felt like a subhuman spectacle, reduced to an unconventional sighting a traveler may or may not tell a friend about upon reaching their destination. In that moment I did not matter. I was peripheral. Anger rose inside of me as I realized I would have never been treated this way in Dallas. In Dallas, some merciful flight attendant would see me and expedite my need, talk on my behalf, use language I didn’t have to check flight options I didn’t know to ask for. I believe someone like my mother would never allow a woman alone and in such distress carry on unassisted. To this day the utter lack of humanity I found in that airport shocks me.

I’d been frantically updating my New York friends on text and I let them know the jig was up for LaGuardia, at least for that night.

“Can you get to Newark?” Meredith asked. “I’ve got a flight that leaves in about two hours. If you get in a cab now you can make it.”

“Book it,” I replied, “Getting in cab now.” I was so relieved to have a way out and extra eyes on flight options. Fuck you LaGuardia, I thought.

I piled into the cab and asked for Newark airport. The driver asked me questions I didn’t understand and I said I just needed to get there. I broke down again. He kept looking back at me saying “Oh my God” while he zigzagged around the road. I thought he was being melodramatic, but perhaps it would make him have mercy on me. We drove through Queens, around the southern most tip of Manhattan, and into New Jersey. An hour later we pulled up in front of Newark Airport, my fare $150. I didn’t have energy to think or care about the gouge.

I went through security, checked in, and boarded the plane. I shared a row with a Rasta man eating jerk chicken and wondered where he got it from. I was exhausted from the day but too wired and worried about Alex to relax. My phone would die soon, but I knew if I turned it off for the flight it would have enough juice to get me to my family at the airport in Dallas.

After the plane was fully boarded, a flight attendant announced over the intercom that we were delayed. “We don’t have pilots,” she explained. “We’re waiting for our pilots to come from another flight en route to Newark. That flight was delayed so they’re behind schedule.” I’d never heard of this issue before and with my last remaining piece of emotional energy I was angry again. Isn’t this very situation why airline staff has such thing as employees being on standby? I was robbed of my mother over and over when I was a child due to her being called into work, to take over flights and trips due to various issues. It was my turn to have airline staff show up for me on the other side of the coin. Hot anger coursed through me before it turned into cold anxiety. This indefinite delay could mean I will miss seeing my brother alive. My brother could die while this airline failed to properly staff this $1000, one way domestic flight. I had no one to talk to and didn’t want my phone to die. Alcohol cannot be served on the ground in an airplane, so I did all I could do. I gripped the ends of the armrest and watched Adele in concert, the consolation entertainment in lieu of takeoff, and tried not to think about Alex.

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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.

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