It’s scary to think about it. To stare at the plain white ceiling in my room and think about what happened. Scarier to try to recollect memories you don’t want to remember but try to anyway so they don’t get buried inside your thoughts and haunt you. So I try. I try to remember so I can forget.
“Welcome to New Orleans, Louisiana! For your safety, please remain seated with your seat belts fastened until the fasten seatbelt sign has been switched off. Please do not remove your carry-on baggage until the aircraft has come to a full stop.”
The six of us got off the plane, rushed to the baggage claim area, and got our bags to leave the airport so we could head to our hotel. As soon as we stepped out of the airport terminal, I could see the cloudless sky as I took a deep breath of the fresh, cool air that filled my lungs. I noticed a young, hefty woman at the curb of the street as she signaled to us and we dragged our bags over to her taxi.
“Where ya’ll heading to?” Her voice seemed to be filled with bitter exhaustion as she chucked our bags to the back of the cabbie. Ugh. This was just like New York. People are almost always pissed and always in a rush.
As I saw my friends get in the back of the taxi, I opened the passenger door to sit next to her and turned to my friends. “You guys don’t mind if I sit here, right? I get car sick easily.” We practically live together. Of course they don’t mind.
Our taxi set off down the highway past the Mercedes-Benz Superdome stadium, our taxi driver began to lighten up. I could feel my body relax as the tension and anxiety eased. “Where ya’ll from? What brought you guys down to Nawlins?” the cabbie asked us enthusiastically in her southern accent.
All of us must have been fascinated by the way she pronounced “New Orleans” because we remained silent for the next five seconds. I could see my friend smirk as he replied, “We’re here from New York for NOLA’s national college media convention. They hold the national conference in different states every year, and usually the senior editors attend.”
I didn’t listen much to the rest of the conversation about why we came and their brief discussion about what Hurricane Katrina did to the city because my eyes were set on the sights of the slender-stemmed palm trees clustered on every street. “Oh, My god! There are palm trees here!” I exclaimed in sheer excitement. I must’ve interrupted my friend’s conversation with the cab driver because I heard them laugh at my random exclamation. The trees looked like they belonged in a part of heaven because they stood so beautifully elegant, and I began to wish that they grew in New York.
I continued to look ahead from the passenger window at the tropical trees. After what felt like a short ride, our cab stopped at the corner of a lively street to unload our bags. We tipped her and walked two steps ahead and into our hotel lobby. There was a mix-up in our payment process for the room, and I grew frustrated that we couldn’t quickly settle in. We were cranky and jet-lagged from the long transit flight. I finally managed to book two rooms almost adjacent to each other on the fourth floor. One room for us girls: Taja, Navita, and me. The other room was for the guys: AJ, Ben, and Chris.
Sharing rooms wasn’t a problem for any of us, though, because we all worked together. We spent endless hours in our newsroom training intro and intermediate reporters to write good stories. We spent hours past midnight working on layout and copy edits before sending out our monthly issue for publication. We were together in classes, together when we went for coffee breaks, together for yoga, together when we screamed in utter frustration that the load was over-bearing, and together when we walked out of the newsroom in relief to head home.
We hated and loved each other. Like family.
“Hold the doors, Ben,” Navita said as we walked over to the elevator and hit four. Our rooms were replicas of each other. When we settled into the room, none of us unpacked because we couldn’t wait to roam the festive and energetic streets of this town. Besides, we had so little time tomorrow after our workshops and sessions we needed to attend. We left our rooms eager to tour the infamous two-way Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and eat at any open local restaurant. Holy god, we were starving, and it was past midnight. We were tired from traveling, but none of that seemed to matter because whatever energy we had left over was ready to explore this place. When we walked a few feet from our hotel, the six of us stared in surprise at the sight of the Halloween town. Watching this place was like living the Disney movie Halloweentown. Bourbon Street was packed corner-to-corner with people adorned in Mardi Gras costumes and masks.
Purple, green, and gold beads were being thrown from balconies as the crowds surged below in an attempt to catch the beads from above. They all wanted to hang the colorful beads around their necks. Maybe it was their symbol of being sexy. The techno beats and hip-hop music soared from bars and clubs, and we could barely hear the sound of our voices. I could feel my heart rate pounding as fast as the beat of the music, and it was hard to tell if I was getting too anxious or too excited. I couldn’t stop staring ahead of me at the fortunetellers and other mystic offerings ranked on every street claiming to be the best in town.
Instead of New York’s food carts filling the fast-paced city, New Orleans’s streets exploded with booze stands on every corner. New Orleanians were buying beer like New Yorkers buy Starbucks. I was shocked to see people drinking on the public street as smiles dressed their faces. They were lost in a wave of happiness. Like if the wave suddenly turned into a tsunami, they would never notice until it drowned them.
“Holy shit, the bar scene here is so different than anything else,” Chris said. I’ve never seen a bar scene anywhere I’ve traveled, so I had no idea what he was talking about.
My mind went blank as I glared at the large crowds. It’s not like I wasn’t accustomed to the mélange of people everywhere, but this place was pulsating with too much. Too much noise. Too much drinking. Too much excitement.
I’ve seen diversity in New York, and I’ve seen tourists in Egypt, but I’ve never felt such a rush of contagious excitement from any town I’ve visited. “We can’t walk as a group because of the massive crowds,” AJ mouthed the words while trying to use his hands to explain what we should do. We split in partners as we sidestepped and maneuvered through the lively Bourbon Street. We hunted for food until we finally found a place to eat. At the restaurant we got seated on a table long enough for the six of us, and we ordered the waitress’ recommended Jambalaya, Gumbo, and Po-boys.
When all of us made it back to our hotel rooms, we spoke about what we would do for the following day. We changed into our PJ’s and laid back on the stretched out sofa to talk about which workshops to attend for tomorrow’s conference. I circled the sessions in the conference book that I wanted to attend for copy-editing, writing, reporting, and leadership. I finished circling the leadership session when it attacked me. I was struggling to breathe. A sudden wave of panic rushed through my body, and my face became numb as it moved to my hands and down to my spine and legs and feet. My heart soared with fluttering beats so fast that I was almost sure that I wouldn’t survive it this time. I looked over at Taja, and before I could say a word, she saw my hands and body start to shake as it exploded with anxiety. This was Chicago all over again.
I trembled and shook until I felt an overbearing tingliness all over my body, and that’s when I lost sensation in my hands, legs, and face. I looked down at my hands, and I could tell they were paralyzed. I could see the session book in my hand, but I could feel nothing. I couldn’t make sense of anything. My mind was running frantic, and I couldn’t understand why.
I knew I had no control over my body attacking me, so I sat disabled on the sofa staring at my fingers as the muscles in them contracted and they appeared immobilized. Like cerebral palsy consumed my hands and writhed my body.
My friends knew what was happening to me. Taja’s brows furrowed and her eyes stared at me with concern as she quickly got up from the couch and reached for my hands to get me up.
“Come with me,” she said, trying to remain calm. I could barely feel her hands grab my arms because I was too numb to feel. I started to cry out in fear, “I. Can’t. I can’t feel my hands. I can’t feel anything.” I didn’t recognize my voice as I struggled to breathe. She continued to support me with her arms as I began to walk baby steps. I felt like I was separated from my body as I watched someone else control me.
When I entered the empty bedroom, she helped me sit on the bed. “C’mmon, Aya, breathe with me. Pretend we’re in yoga class—take a deep breath in.” She paused for five seconds. “Aaannnnddd exhale out.” She extended the words as she breathed in and exhaled out slowly so I could follow her breathing technique, but I was too worried about not being able to feel my face.
“I can’t do this, Taja. I can’t breathe,” I cried out as I could see but could not feel the tears falling down my face and onto my hands like waterfalls. “Don’t worry,” Taja said. “We’ll get through this, I promise. We’ve been through this before, and we’ll get through this again. Just breathe with me.” She repeated the triangle breathing as I tried to mimic her.
The anxiety lasted for hours. It haunted me at the end of every following night, and attacked me every time I tried to close my eyes to fall asleep.
Each night I had to stay awake because I was afraid that I wouldn’t wake up because of the paralysis. That I’d lose myself and helplessly watch something take over me. That I’d let the waves drown me without fighting the water from filling up my lungs. I had to keep awake. I had to breathe. These episodes lasted for three restless nights, and until I got on the second transit flight back to New York.
As I sunk into the airplane seat, I could clearly hear the airline attendant’s announcement before we took off. “If there is a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall down automatically, just place the mask over your nose and tighten the strap, oxygen will flow automatically. We thank you for choosing our airline and if there is anything we can do to make your flight more enjoyable, please don’t hesitate to ask!”
I inhaled in and exhaled out.
About the Author,
Aya Abdelmoamen migrated to the U.S 13 years ago. Then she did not speak, read, or write English, but she learned and has come a long way. She is a tutor at the Writing Center at John Jay College, and she hopes in her coming years to teach and inspire other college students the way she was taught and inspired. Aya loves to write behind walls to escape into her own creations. She is a beauty junkie who is in love with fashion but doesn’t follow any trends. When she isn’t commuting, writing, or working, Aya researches unanswered questions that run through her mind.