Jan/Feb 2019 KR OnlineNonfiction |

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Read Editor at Large Katharine Weber’s essay “Why We Chose It” here.

Once, as a child, I was playing hide and seek at a house out in the country. We hid in old outbuildings. We were running, ducking under fences, crawling. When I finally stood up and looked around, I was in the horse’s pen. The horse, colossal and brown with dark, knobby joints, looked at me. When I began to walk away, to find some exit, the horse followed. As I began to run, the horse galloped after me. Sprinting around a barn toward the widest part of the pasture, bordered by an electric fence, I saw I was too short to jump over it. I had to jump through, the wires buzzing around me. I landed in a hard tangle on the ground, breathless. The horse looked at me stock-still from the other side.

Once, I could slip out of my body and into the shelter of my mind as easily as a wet fish from a hand.

Once, I was daydreaming while walking on a dirt path. I was picturing an imaginary conversation so clearly my lips began to say the words. I did this all the time. I was in my head when I tripped on a root and lurched forward. I felt the heat of every nerve remembering itself, pulling me upright as if by a harness.

Once, I read, “Academics are alive only above the neck.” I wasn’t exactly an academic but nonetheless felt indicted.

Once, I stopped at a gas station on a Sunday morning while driving through a town that was barely a town. I wouldn’t even have known its name then. When I finished filling up, I looked at pictures on my phone while waiting for my boyfriend, who had gone inside. One photo from that morning—a small, fine spiderweb cast between blooms on my mother’s hanging impatiens. The web was beaded with dew, making the invisible exquisite.

I once found an old poem where I wrote, “My body like a pasture / I sometimes gain entrance to.”

Once, I didn’t know what it was like to feel safe. That is, I had generally felt that way, so it was invisible. The way that grass was invisible to me until I took a train to the desert. The way cornfields were beige backdrop until I moved to the city. Now I see the striation of tilling that hits all the way at the horizon, or the slight dips in the fields that fill with water, then ducks.

At the gas station, while I was in my head, a man had been watching me. I hadn’t seen him. His presence came over me like a cloud blotting out the sun. By the time I felt it, it was already happening. I put my phone away and shut the door. He took a few steps past, then turned around toward me, gun pulled from his waistband and extended like an arrow. He wanted my car. I saw the tip of his gun, then his mouth, wide and demanding. Behind him, an aluminum grain silo towered.

The local newspaper wrote articles, some parts true, some wrong, but either way, it was a relief to have someone else tell the story. She started backing away and said yes, shocked and very scared, the report said. I was the woman in the articles, which allowed me to play a revisionary game: the times I knew I was the woman and the times I imagined she was someone else.

When I was a lifeguard, I was taught that if someone is drowning, their arms will automatically begin to flap outstretched against the water. I didn’t believe it until I saw a child go down a slide and sink in the water, only to begin flapping as if taking flight. In fear there is a version of this: raising your hands to chest height, open-palmed. It’s a preverbal way to say, I will not get in your way. I have no tricks. The man folded himself into the driver’s seat and drove away, quickly out of sight. He tore into my morning, and the fissure he entered through sealed behind him. After he pulled away, I was revealed, if there had been anyone to see it, like an actor on an empty stage.

A curtain was pulled back, and I entered a new life. Enter is the wrong word. I should say, a door closed behind me, and there I was.

After, I felt every second tick on my skin. What happened was a fencing-off, an inescapable you-are-hereness.

At first it was subtle. That evening, I ran errands with my mother while waiting on a call from the police about my still-missing car. I noticed myself peeking around the store displays, scanning the aisles, the parking lot, looking for him. My mind was foggy, but I assumed this to be a temporary state.

But after, this heightened feeling grew more powerful and came as sure and predictably as waves. Adrenaline flooded my body when someone changed course on the sidewalk, when I couldn’t see their hands, when I thought someone was watching me, when stopped at a red light, when someone walked too closely behind me, when turning corners in my own apartment building. My heart quickened, my breath became deep, my blood rushed. I didn’t notice any of these sensations separately, but instead it felt like my insides were thrown into a centrifuge, spinning wildly, becoming hot.

When everything inside me began moving faster, the world seemed to slow. The seconds became generously, or cruelly, longer. I used them to observe: Is he coming toward me? What is he reaching for? Is he looking at something behind me? It was almost always, unremarkably, a he. When this would happen, I couldn’t tell you if my body was still moving or if I’d stopped cold. There was no “I,” no pilot. When this would happen, I was a network of decisions I was no longer making. A deer at the edge of the road before it decides to go is as still as anything.

A man who said he was a homeless heroin addict when he stole a car from a woman at gunpoint in September pleaded guilty Wednesday to armed robbery. [ . . . ] He told a Lenawee County sheriff’s deputy he’s been living in a woodline north of Britton.

My fear drew from a well that was filled with probabilities. The sun and cornfields, a small town on a Sunday morning, a man I’d hardly seen. Nothing tripped my wires. There were no signs. The wind didn’t change course. I heard no bell. I couldn’t sit in my car anymore when I wasn’t driving. It felt like tempting fate, like my stillness was running against the second hand of a clock counting down to some terrible thing. When my boyfriend said, but you know our parking lot is safe, my mind was already replying: I don’t. He was a man walking past me until he wasn’t.

“It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it,” Joan Didion wrote, after her husband died at the dinner table. “I recognize now there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell.”

Once, after, a man crossed the street directly toward me. He grabbed for something in his pockets as I stared at him, wings inside my body beginning to flap, but I was also somehow frozen. From his pocket he pulled out a cell phone and looked at it as he got into his car, parked near the sidewalk where I was walking. Heat swept my body, then nausea, as I realized my miscalculation. The fear swirled into embarrassment. I walked, heaving breath, the few blocks home.

Freud, observing what were once referred to as war neuroses, wrote that the soldiers, “were endeavoring to master the stimulus retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis.”

Intellectually, my mind said, “Onward!” I waited for these feelings to pass like bad weather. The administrative work of the carjacking had a way of pushing me forward—there was the lineup, fingerprinting, a hearing, a subpoena, district court, circuit court, and pleas. There were meetings to schedule, e-mails to flag, a mortgage to apply for, poems to edit. I thought the future was empty, a place for forgetting, and I ran toward it.

Each night, after my boyfriend had fallen asleep, the reel of Bad Things began to spin. I spent hours awake with these thoughts, which bred intimacy with dread. The scenes were horrific and violent and also improbable, though I knew probability was a fence with large gaps. There was not a .001 percent chance of something happening. It either did or didn’t, 100 or 0. No 100,000 times and then Yes. I was a Yes. I didn’t speak of what I imagined to anyone. These secrets grew in the dark, like a strange plant.

Around me, people tried for kindness, which belly flopped and only increased my isolation (Doesn’t it seem so long ago?). The curtain hadn’t been pulled back on them, though it could be. My fear took me seriously. It was keeping me alive. That I felt that I would die without it made my relationship with fear a kind of romance. In a poem I wrote: “Does everyone think their fear / is the most real, has the whitest teeth, the broadest shoulders?”

My neck went crooked from the tight muscles in my back. In an X-ray, I saw how the white blocks of vertebrae stacked slightly sideways, like the Leaning Tower. I couldn’t turn my head to one side without a sharp pain. My jaw became stuck half-shut. My stomach seemed to hold only nauseating foam. I didn’t constellate these pains to my fear; I looked at each of them separately with a question mark in my mind. I stretched my jaw with my fingers. I ate fermented foods. I let the chiropractor whale on me and hoped my stack of bones would find their way back to center.

Once stuck in my body, I remembered how fluid it all was once, forgetting myself, then slipping back in. I used to think it was a bad thing, that my mind and body were somehow disintegrated, that I should do more yoga. But now I think it was beautiful, like a tide going out and returning. I would always come back, and there my body would be, waiting for me like a docked boat.

“Another odd feature of the parallel universe,” Susanna Kaysen writes of madness in Girl, Interrupted, “is that although it is invisible from this side, once you are in it you can easily see the world you came from. . . . Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.”

After, I pictured my old self. Look at her, how she walks with her head down, like there’s no world around her.

After, I was a seed in a large husk. I clanged around. Being aware of my physical self made me want to escape it. It seemed the greatest danger: being. When I would walk past a man, his hands in his pockets, some part of me was a dog with its legs running, skittering against the ground. My body was the hand holding my collar, not so fast.

My safe world grew very small. As small as our one-room apartment, but even then I would often hear something at night and run to the windows (a car door, someone coming back from the bar, a dog barking). As small as the bed, but only when I wasn’t trying to sleep.

After, I imagined myself banished to a life below the neck, knocking on an attic door at the base of my skull, asking to be let back in.

After, I walk out the door of my apartment building each morning and let the air rest on my skin. I wait to feel if it snags, if something is about to happen. On my skin, my edges, there is a low hum.

There are moments when I am briefly let back in to my old life. A perforation. I can be for a moment without being aware of existence and its precariousness. Sometimes this will be two or three seconds of forgetfulness at a stoplight before my gaze begins to bounce around the mirrors. Or it will be after sex when my body goes slack. My edges seemingly melt into the rest of me, then my eyes well with tears. I can’t think of anything more pitiful. It is some reflex as sure as a rubber hammer on a knee.

“She basically froze,” he said, telling the Judge he wasn’t looking at her facial expression to gauge her reaction.

“I was scared at the time, too,” he said.

These brief moments pour me back into my body again, edge to edge. How fleshy it is, how weighty. I fit within myself for thirty seconds, a minute, before it passes like momentary sun. There is my heart and lungs, which fill to my ribs, which is beneath a bit of muscle and fat, and then my skin. I feel all of it. I am not just the buzzing fence, but what is inside: the whole field.

Lia Greenwell
Lia Greenwell’s poems have appeared in the Missouri Review, Witness, and Poecology among other publications. She is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has received scholarships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is currently at work on a book about fear.
Lia Greenwell
Lia Greenwell’s poems have appeared in the Missouri Review, Witness, and Poecology among other publications. She is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has received scholarships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is currently at work on a book about fear.