I repainted each detail for Milo, that first evening. I described the rock growing in my throat, the sudden sense that the supermarket was dangerously big. I described rushing back to the Honda with a jellied barrier between the biting fall air and me.
Every movement of his eyebrows told me he didn’t understand. And like any valedictorian, Milo treats the inexplicable as a particularly rude threat. Oh, not that he’ll ever admit that’s why he left. He has other accusations to level: coldly incompatible schedules, my allergy to the vacuum. Milo is not the type who’d abandon his girlfriend because she developed an anxiety disorder; surely everyone understands that.
By the time we got around to the cards-on-the-table verbal showdown, the end of our relationship was a formality. My waking hours, accumulating in disturbing numbers, were reshaping into nightmares. And in every nightmare, I am alone.
That was how I explained it, when Carmen insisted on treating me to break-up dessert. I shuttled myself from one safe box to another, fondling the mace in my winter pocket and trying to believe nothing bad would happen. I tried to make it funny, for her sake. It was like Paranormal Activity, the deformed flashes of sinister on strangers’ faces, the malicious plots that vanished if I blinked with too much intention.
Small buildings are usually okay, I told her. Big stores never are, now. All I think about is how somebody could attack me. And outside, forget it. In seconds, I can’t breathe.
A planet hovered on my fork between me and the cheesecake. I had pointed at its plate pretty arbitrarily when Carmen pushed me to pick. She stared, like a student gathering unsure words.
Have you thought about taking self-defense? she asked at last.
Once Carmen said it, it was in the air, like a word you hear three times in the same week.
My former boss, whose opinions I could not muster caution for anymore: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You know, my college roommate took this self-defense class…
My Floridian sister, bewildered at the medicalized term of agoraphobia: Maybe it’d help to learn self-defense?
I changed the subject, or at least its angle. It doesn’t really mean you never leave the house, I assured her, though she hadn’t asked. It just means you’re afraid to.
Perhaps I was defending myself already.
What I couldn’t say was that I didn’t want to accommodate this fresh insanity; I only wanted to excavate it. Several times a week, I went through the motions for sustenance and sundry. After the sisterly phone call, I tried to meditate on the texture of my fear. Its phantom presence was bloodlustful, armed, and unquestionably masculine.
Well, maybe my course of action was clear after all. Therapy, the deus ex machina, the third-act climax before the hero either rejoins society or leaps off a bridge. Google led me by hand to the free clinic. After all, the cold and chaos were hard enough to brave, minus heavier anxiety about my plummeting bank account.
I’ve read introspective memoirs. I could follow the toxic breadcrumbs of my neuroses back to that parked, third-hand Volkswagen bus. My science partner’s meaty thumbs fumbling with locks, his sticky bang cowlick, the neckline of my department store t-shirt. The way I had scrabbled at the doors against his smelly weight, seen clearly that my goal was impossible, and fixed my gaze on the moths under the sulfur lamp outside.
Later, in college classes and small groups of friends, I had marveled that something objectively terrible had barely affected me. Was this my humbling moment? Had I been begging for it to come back and bite me in the ass?
The old PhD was determined to turn my illness into a logic puzzle. And for a few jaunty minutes, he believed he’d succeed. So an unresolved trauma crept back up. It made perfect sense, really. Except for the fact that the man in question was now thousands of miles away and hadn’t been a stranger at all. And except for the fact that we hadn’t even been outside. Oh, and why do you suppose this phobia didn’t manifest a decade ago, when your trauma actually occurred?
If I knew, there might be no occasion for the question.
Oh, he continued, the lightbulb over his head nearly visible to my sleepy eyeballs. Do you know about the self-defense lessons at the gym?
Even when I was healthy, I rarely ventured to the southwest side. Its constantly changing freeways like knotted intestines, its block-long office caves and claustrophobic parking. Predictably, I hit the darkening hour of gridlock. The other drivers’ stress invades the personal air of my vehicle, tightens my knuckles, dampens the backs of my knees. Twice, I pull over amidst honking robots, to put my head between my knees and breathe as hard as my body is demanding, until I am light-headed and some semblance of calm.
Why does this feel like my last chance?
The half-boarded strip mall almost eludes me. Its tan squares simultaneously stand out and beg to be ignored, a Flintstone village in aggressive urbania. Its neon block letters claim Mongolian takeout and discounted shoes, which I can’t confirm given the shops’ lack of windows. Only one other storefront is in use, and it makes up for its neighbors with a glass-paneled front wall like a fishbowl.
There is one rain-slicked parking spot open. I pull in as subtly as I am able.
The glowing building illuminates each participant’s body to passersby, like a drive-in movie. Weightlifters flex through routines in groups of threes, hugged by matching muscle tanks. Ponytailed women stare straight ahead, jogging to untold destinations, pausing only to ingest recommended amounts of water. Men throw rhythmic punches that rock blue-bagged structures, that would rock any structure. The rock in my throat rises, expands, solidifies.
I switch the Honda into reverse.
Deb Jannerson is the author of the poetry collections Thanks for Nothing (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and Rabbit Rabbit (Finishing Line Press, 2016). Her debut YA novel is forthcoming from NineStar Press. She won the 2017 So to Speak Nonfiction Award for her short memoir about queer intimacy and PTSD, the 2018 Flexible Persona Editors’ Prize for a work of flash fiction about gruesome work injuries, and a Two Sisters’ Publishing contest for a story about switching bodies with her cat. She lives in New Orleans.