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.