MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The Los Angeles International Airport was the worst place to lose your mind in post-9/11 America. Especially if you were a person of color. Especially if you perspired like Kobe Bryant in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Especially if you popped Valium twice a day to combat anxiety. And there I was, standing in the TSA security clearance line at LAX, a sweaty, anxious black woman wearing sweaty green silk, sipping air and blinking away tears.
Miriam, keep it together. They’re gonna pull you out of line if you keep on. Calm down. But “calm” was slipping further away, an iceberg on a quick current being pushed by a pod of enthusiastic killer whales.
And so I closed my eyes and I prayed again. God, don’t let them kick me out of LAX today. Please help me stay calm.
In my mind, I said, “Amen,” then opened my eyes. I forced myself to smile at the gray-eyed TSA agent seated behind the little podium, and hoped that she thought I was a slow blinker and not a terrorist praying one last time before setting one off.
The agent flicked her hand at me and said, “ID and boarding pass, please.”
I handed her both without saying a word.
She glanced at me, glanced at my passport—Miriam Macy, Los Angeles, forty-five years old—then she stamped, scribbled, and handed me back each document. “Have a nice trip.”
I croaked, “Thanks,” just as a teardrop bubbled to the rim of my right eye. I swiped it away, dropped my bag, shoes, and phone into a gray bucket, then sat the bucket onto the conveyor belt. With panic punching at my gut, I stepped into the full-body scanner. Clamped my lips together as imaging beams searched my body for weapons.
“Step through, please.” Another TSA agent, this one male and bearded, flicked his hand at me. He waited for the all-clear from the agent at the monitor, then said to me, “Thanks.”
I snatched my bag, shoes, and phone from the gray bucket and hurried away from the security clearance area. I’d kept it together. But my prayer had met its expiration date and that calm I’d prayed for was now wearing away like sandcastles at high tide.
You have to respond to her.
You can’t get on a plane and leave it like this.
Breathless, I tottered to the nearest bathroom, thisclose to 405 freeway levels of hysteria. I hid in the farthest stall, then shoved my hand deep into my bag. Shaking, I popped off the Valium’s cap, then slipped a tablet beneath my tongue, not caring if enough time had passed between this and my last dose just two hours before. I closed my eyes and waited for the drug to untangle the bundles of nerves along my shoulders and neck. Didn’t have to pretend for cameramen capturing B-roll here. I could be a loser in the privacy offered only in a bathroom stall.
Outside my cubby, women washed their hands at the sinks, then convinced children to wash their hands, too. They pulled paper towels from dispensers and made the air blowers roar.
So I wept and rocked on the toilet and waited for the drug to work, for the drug to make the world softer.
How long would it take?
How long would I have to wait?
* * *
Valium became a part of my life on the afternoon I lost it on the westbound 10 freeway. It had been last New Year’s Eve, and I’d had enough, and I’d stopped the car to wail in the far-left lane. Traffic had built around me, but I didn’t care. I’d called my husband Billy, he’d called 911, and I rode in an ambulance for the second time in two months (the first time after I’d confronted Billy about his affair but left his girlfriend’s apartment without killing him). Dr. Sandoval, a kind man and Cesar Romero look-alike, diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder and wrote me a prescription for Valium.
A week later, I took a leave of absence from my job as the marketing and communications director for Hidden Treasures, a luxury goods consignment store. I’d loved my job—spinning stories about a secondhand Gucci satchel (Indy stowed that simple cup here without worry…) or a Chanel brooch (She always said you had Coco’s overactive imagination…) or Louboutin stilettos (At the stroke of midnight, you chose the shoe over the prince…). Sartorial creativity made me swoon.
But I hadn’t been able to create, not with all the drama swirling around me. My boss, Lola, lost all patience and told me that it was best that I left. No more creating something out of nothing for a living. After my departure, the copy read flat, like a bad first draft of an M.F.A. novel set in Nebraska. There were rumors that Hidden Treasures would file for bankruptcy—no one was inspired enough to buy other people’s crap (or, as I’d called it, “luxury shared between friends”) and no one ordered the catalogs just to read my product descriptions. Their loss—the company and its customers.
* * *
Five minutes of hiding in the bathroom stall had passed—but the world still hurt.
So tired. Last night, after fleeing from my ex-husband’s house, after popping ibuprofen to banish the pain in my head, I hadn’t slept. There had been cracking and snapping twigs outside my bedroom windows. Slowing cars rumbling too close to my driveway. Shadows lurking up and down my street, some stopping to lean against the palm tree in front of my house. In a state between dozing and awake, I had crept to my living room and perched in the armchair, eyes burning, iPad and cell phone on my lap. Flinching. Tight.
My heartbeat had ticked in my head and I’d tasted sour milk and I’d tried to swallow it but my throat and stomach were too tight, and so whatever it was pooled in my mouth.
A tub of Valium sat on the dining room table.
Drugs would smooth me out, but I didn’t want to be smooth then. I had a game to win.
And so, I sat there in the living room, forcing down bile and fighting back dizziness, until a shaft of copper light broke past the wooden shutters.
This morning, the show’s producer had sent a Town Car to drive me to the airport, and as I strode to the sedan, I ignored the state of my raggedy house and watched a flock of green parrots circle the glossy blue sky. Airplanes glinted like silver bullets en route to someplace better.
That will be me, I’d thought. In Someplace Better. Soon …
A half hour later, though, here I was, hiding in an airport bathroom.
In Someplace Better.
* * *
It had taken ten minutes for the Valium to work.
And now I felt nothing.
Smoothed out. Empty. Void of emotion.
And that hollowness lived solidly next to my heart and my lungs, that hollowness as useful as my appendix.
I took a deep breath, then found my phone in my purse. I took another breath, then reread my daughter Morgan’s text message, the same message that had sent me flying into a toilet stall.
It was a short message.
Just three words.
I hate you.
Copyright © 2019 by Rachel Howzell Hall