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Stress, In 7 Airport Vignettes

I.

It’s my first time traveling alone, and my phone doesn’t work once I land in Montréal, which means I don’t have access to the one thing I depend on explicitly to survive in this world, Google maps. I do my best using the free internet to hand-write directions from the airport to my hotel, before picking up my rental car. Things seem to take a turn once I realize my rental has been upgraded to a Jeep SUV. An ugly brown and orange thing that I’m for some reason obsessed with. The optimism lasts only minutes before I take a wrong turn and fail to find my way back to the highway I was supposed to be on, so obviously I do the one thing any American would, and pull into the first McDonald’s I see. Not to eat my feelings, though the thought does cross my mind, but on a bet they’ll have Wifi, which they do, and, strangely enough, a payphone. I use it to call my cell provider, except I don’t know the make and model of my exe’s first car, and have to reach out to him, realizing how embarrassing it is that I have put off transferring my line for this long. Once my dilemma is finally resolved, I make my way into the city, falling in love with Montréal at first sight. This is hours after landing, however, so I retreat into the safety of the lobby bar where I drink wayyy too much red wine, talking to strangers while the guitarist plays a special rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” just for me, before going upstairs to puke in my sink, texting someone I know I definitely shouldn’t, and passing out.

I don’t realize it then, because being so totally in over my head has left me exhausted, but it might be the first time I’ve made it out of something this big completely on my own.

II. 

I’m catching a red-eye home from Vegas with my brother. It’s late, and I feel like I’m crossing a finish line of sorts. I’ve made it through 72-ish hours of over-stimulation without losing my mind, or my shit. Don’t get me wrong, Vegas is incredible, but my pupils need to recover from all of the flashing lights, and my ears just want to hear a different kind of music, a softer kind, and my nose is looking forward to walking through anywhere that’s not a casino full of little clouds that smell, not like smoke, but ass, as I’ve discovered even the fanciest hotels here reek of farts from time to time. But my celebration is premature, and I get stopped at security for a snow-globe in my backpack I’ve forgotten is full of liquid. It’s a sentimental souvenir I’m reluctant to part with, as I explain to the TSA agents, asking if there is still any way to throw it in my checked bag. They assure me it’s almost impossible, but I go back to the check-in desk anyway, sending my brother ahead, because I’m not ready to give up quite yet. As I make my way back, I realize my eyes are filling with water, which really irks me because like I said, I’ve held it together this entire trip, even though I started it on no sleep at the tail end of a z-pack, and even though I know I could call my mom and ask her to grab me another snow-globe and bring it home for me, there’s something about leaving this one at the airport that’s making me emotional. Like is it too much for a grown woman to bring home something she bought to remind her of her dead grandmother? An angel of a woman working that night finds a box for me and checks my snow-globe for $10. It makes it back to Chicago in one piece, and I display it proudly on my bookshelf.

It reminds me of the time I saw a counselor in college for anxiety, and he explained to me that we each have an emotional bucket, and sometimes it’s the tiniest drop of water that comes last and makes everything overflow. My capacity for stress has increased since then, like a well-trained muscle, but it still has a limit.

III.

I’m trapped in an angry mob of people sometime between 6 and 7 a.m. trying to get on a flight for work, the clock ticking closer and closer to take-off. I gave myself a 45-minute window for security, knowing it usually takes me about five minutes this early in the morning, but something today is different. The partitioned line was wrapped around itself more times than I could count, like a coiled snake, before opening into an unorganized mosh pit of hostile travelers. Bodies are pushing and shoving against each other, and people are starting to snap at security workers. I realize then that the tension is reaching a breaking point that will inevitably erupt in punches being thrown if no one takes control of the situation. I worry, for the first time in my life, about being trampled by grown men, even though I am by no means tiny or small. So I hold my ground and just try to keep breathing while I inch and push my way to an x-ray machine, before breaking into a sprint towards my flight.

As I catch my breath at the gate trying to slow my racing pulse, I realize the anxiety I feel isn’t just my overactive imagination concerned about missing a flight and irresponsibly wasting company money, but a different, more physical concern for my own safety. One I’m luckily not familiar with.

IV.

I’m in an ungodly long line to check my luggage with Spirit, which has now extended at least three kiosks down from the desk I’m supposed to get to, so that I can’t even read their logo. Instead of panicking, however, I realize all these people are in the exact same boat as me and start asking around to see if anyone else is on the same flight to Vegas, and sure enough they are. We all chat about how showing up an hour early should have been fine, how this isn’t something typical, isn’t something we should have planned for, how it’s out of our control. As I mentally prepare myself for the possibility of missing my flight and having to pay for another, deciding I’m just going to close my eyes and swipe, it’s this last bit of information that frees me from any stress, because it’s not. my. fault. I stand there cool as a cucumber in that line because I’ve learned that certain things can’t be avoided, and the sooner you learn to recognize it, the sooner you can let go of worrying over what you can’t change anyway.

It’s different when things are my fault. Like the night before when I worked myself up for two hours scouring my apartment for the bathing suit I wanted to bring, before realizing I had left it at a friend’s place. I see in this moment how disproportionately hard I am on myself.

V.

It’s so early it’s still dark outside, and I’m definitely hungover. The night before a stranger offered me coke, a queue I took to make my way to a different bar, one with live jazz music my friend had recommended, before a final nightcap chatting with other hotel guests whose travel plans had been interrupted by the nor’easter. My detour to Boston had turned into an impromptu adventure, but all fun comes at a cost, and I was paying for it now between my temples and at the bottom of my stomach. No stranger to hangovers, I’m used to reaping what I sow on my own, and this isn’t anything I don’t know how to handle. So I buy a bottle of water, along with a Vitamin water, before picking up some baseball caps as souvenirs for my mom and I. I’m the kind of indecisive only a zombie can be, finally settling on two, and completing my purchase. I haven’t figured out yet which of the hats I want to keep, so I open my backpack to put them inside, and it takes me two seconds before my stomach drops, this time not due to alcohol overconsumption, but the fact that my laptop is not inside where it should be. I had definitely just put it in a bin only minutes before, so I go running as fast as I can back to security in a shear panic. I must use up my lifetime supply of luck, because the laptop is still there, sitting on the bench I had sat at to put my shoes back on. I had probably set my backpack on top of it, and forgotten to throw it inside, which I do now, before racing back to my gate just in time for boarding. Relieved to have made it buy the skin of my teeth, I’m calm enough to close my eyes on the plane, listening to music until I fall asleep.

Sure, I’m hard on myself, but sometimes things work out anyway, and once they do, there’s no point in beating yourself up over it after the fact.

VI.

There’s a baby? child? toddler? screaming in the security line in Nashville, just having a full-on tantrum over his stroller being closed, but I get waived into the TSA pre-check line, and I exhale, saying to myself, so, this is it. Now I get it.

Stress that can be avoided easily and with minimal effort always should be. Period.

VII.

I’ve had butterflies for days. But I’m also antsy in the most nervous and excited and terrified kind of way, and basically every other anticipatory feeling in existence. I ask what I’ve gotten myself into, because none of this feels like real life, but then I remind myself that the only things I’ve done that have been worth anything were the ones that terrified me, and this certainly will be no different. So I take a final pass around my apartment and call an Uber, arrive two and a half hours early for my international flight, and glide through check-in and security in a mere fifteen minutes. It’s my first time outside of North America or the Caribbean, which I feel deserves a toast, so I order some prosecco and a sandwich and take out my laptop to write. A friendly woman sitting next to me asks about my travel plans, and I tell her I’m going to the UK. She’s heading to Dubai and tells me about her family, how her husband works there, and her daughter is in college. She seems well traveled, in a way I’d like to be, but am not. I wonder if I at least look like I know what I’m doing, enough for someone like her to talk to me. Anyway, the pleasant small talk makes me less tense about traveling alone, hoping the trip is peppered with many more warm introductions of this sort. The rhythm of typing words on a page and the prosecco are bringing me back to real life in a way I’m comfortable with. A man who now occupies the seat where the woman was asks me if I’m writing a book, and when I answer, “No, just an article”, I wonder again if I look like I know what I’m doing.

It amazes me how sometimes the source of the stress is what disperses it most quickly. Like the anticipation of a roller coaster replaced by the rush of the ride, those first steps were what I was most reluctant about, but once I took them, they brought me so much relief. TC mark