I promised you a post on fear. On the inescapable “what if.” The twitching psyche. The wandering mind. The rip in reality. The turn of the screw. The stolen breath. The nudge toward the edge. The man you thought you saw or thought you heard or knew you felt breathing just inches from your clenched eyelids.
I walked out of the grocery store unrelentingly clear in my head. It was after 1 in the morning and so quiet you thought the stars should be making noise. I looked up at this American flag straight above me, and it was so bright against the black sky that I felt like a kid again looking up at a skyscraper. A lot of people get scared looking down from the top of something high, and I do too, but I also get a kick in the pit of my stomach looking up at something really tall.
Why it starts here, I’ll never know, but suddenly the sharpest thought: what if I looked up again and a man was perched there on top of the flag pole? A man without a purpose? A person just there, on the tiptop of a flag pole, looking at me looking at him?
And if a person could be there, on the tiptop of a flag pole, a person could be anywhere. In a tight black jump suit with an all black hood that covered tight against his face. In my back seat. Behind that stop sign. On the chair on my porch. On the couch when you let the front door swing through the house so the moon can pour in.
Not in the hall.
In the reflection in the mirror on the back of the door when you close it to point down the hall.
And if a person could be anywhere, he could be anyone. And if a person could be anyone, he could be no one. He could be me. In my head. The twitching psyche. The sheet covered bed.
And why not? If what we fear is only a projection of who we are, then it’s possible. And if he’s me, (oh god and here’s the good part) why would he torment me so? Why poison me? Make me run to the door? Look twice? Turn on all the lights and all the music and call and call until someone picks up?
Unless it’s true, you know. If our fears are simply those things we refuse to face, and that elusive man is me, he must look like me when he pulls back the mask. And what do I look like? Manipulated, grotesque and practically faceless. Just a winding mound of dripping flesh, knotted shut where the eyes should be. Stumbling blindly. These are the things we won’t let ourselves see.
I can count my fears on a few fingers. I’ll never get in shape. I’m not good enough for this. I won’t become something close to what I expect of myself. I made the wrong choice. That finger divides itself a million times; that lurking suspicion is the hallmark of my life right now. Why am I here? Should I have taken this job? Waited for a different one? Taken a previous one? Not gone to Maryland? Not studied journalism? Shouldn’t I be a chemist? Or an actress? Or in grad school in Paris? Should I have tried harder? Should I be smarter? Should I stop thinking I’m smart? Will I be paying off student loans for the rest of my life? Will I be fired? Die before I leave here? Never leave here at all? Did I lose you? Will you lose me?
Sophomore year of college a kid in our dorm, Sam Rittenberg, got a Halloween card from his mom. On the front was a cow in a sheet with big circles cut out where the eyes should be. A cow dressed up like a ghost. When you opened the card, it said, “Moo. I mean boo. Happy Halloween Love Mom.”
And here is yet another ponderous matter: what if we could see everything that’s scary as just a silly thing in disguise? And what if they always have been? But we allow ourselves to warp those silly things into something terrifying, something larger and ghastlier than what they initially are, even if they do start out to be kind of big. It occurs to me now that, maybe my man in black could be just a cow, standing on its hind legs, dressed up like a ghost. Instead of the man, it’s the cow waiting there for me on the couch. “Moo. I mean boo.”
And that is infinitely more horrifying.