Having alien objects lodged in my feet, 1998–present.
My physical reaction to fear is often a sharp discomfort in the soles of my feet. It doesn’t feel like your average stinging or aching or bruising—it’s a scratchy, dull sensation of having too much there, like something unnatural has intruded upon and disrupted the makeup of my body. I sometimes get this sensation in my mouth, and it makes me bite the insides of my cheeks and become viscerally aware of my teeth. The foot sensation accompanies every flare of fear, and I think it originated with a spectacularly awful splinter I got at the beach when I was seven.
I was with my mom walking on a wooden pathway to the shore when I got it lodged all up in my unsuspecting foot. Imagine a splinter thick and wide like a Scrabble tile, but double the length and sharp on the edges, and you might understand why I didn’t stop screaming for the entire hour it took the First Aid tent to remove the errant wood chip from outta my zone. The nurse, like me, had never seen one that big before, and since his tweezers were hopeless against its horrible girth, he had to carve out some of my surrounding foot-skin with a blade in order to get it gone. Things I do not recommend: Being seven and having a sizable chunk of flesh removed from your sole with a sterilized knife when you expected to be swimming or collecting clamshells.
The next time this fear was realized was also courtesy of the ocean, that most beautiful of total feet-scarring monsters. I had gone a whole twelve years successfully avoiding podiatric invasion, but then I had to go and accidentally kick a sea urchin. My family had just arrived in St. Croix on a vacation to celebrate my grandparents’ 50th anniversary, and after tossing our suitcases on the floor, we dunked our persons into the gorgeous, sequined ocean with relish. I had been in the water for five perfect minutes, but then the business end of my foot met its pointy little match. 12 spiky needles shot into my heel at once. Screaming underwater produces a terrifying and frustrating nothing of a sound, so it felt like ages before my Uncle Jimmy saw me thrashing around and rescued my incapacitated ass. I had to wear crutches, on the beach, for the whole rest of the week because the really fun parts of urchin-related injuries are that a) you can’t remove the needles, which I found out after waiting in a doctor’s office for three hours to no avail, and b) putting pressure on them in a way like, oh, say, walking, is excruciating. But the disappointment of the ruined vacation was fish feces compared to having to wince through life with something else’s biological matter in my feet alongside just my own. UGH IT WAS SO TERRIBLE. Although I hated sushi at the time, when I got home I immediately sought out some uni, or globs of gooey urchin innards, and ate it in grim revenge. Take that, ya idiot Koosh balls of the sea! In short, stay the hell out of my feet, EVERYTHING.
I learned to drive in my dad’s white Ford Explorer SUV over the course of a few afternoons when I was about 12, which is how I also learned that I absolutely could not do it. My body seemed disconnected from the simple instructions it was given; despite being told ad infinitum not to do so, I drove with two feet on each pedal—one for gas, one for brake. My hands, instead of indicating a calm, controlled ten minutes until two o’clock on the watch face that my dad instructed me to mentally layer on top of the steering wheel, both hovered tentatively at six, except whenever I had to turn, when I would jerk the bottom of the wheel a whole 90 degrees to one side. I swerved, braked so abruptly that the whole rig seemed to buck like an obdurate horse, and disregarded the speedometer entirely. I understood that these things were very wrong, but I couldn’t stop doing them, and the inability to command what I perceived as a giant, fast-moving death machine was terrifying to me. After just a few minutes, I got out of the car, vowing that I’d be an eternal passenger from then on out.
There are plenty of factors to consider when I try to parse my immense fear of driving. The maybe-unrelated-but-almost-definitely-relevant-because-how-could it-not-be one, the one that the aspiring psychologists among you might have the most fun with, is that both of my parents were car dealers for a very long time, and my dad actually still is nowadays. He’s always been astonishingly successful at this because he’s a preternaturally talented salesman. He genuinely seems to need people to be happy, no, elated, about the cars they’re driving, and he’s always sure of exactly how to make that happen. Because of this passion, they rightfully trust him to show them what’s best for them. Although I tried my hardest to do the same, to follow his confident, knowledgeable lead in the afternoons where he, a very capable driver, tried to show me what the right way of doing things was, I couldn’t make it happen, no matter how much I wanted to. To this I say: What the FUCK, brain? Cars are like a part of my family’s genetic makeup; there’s practically motor oil intermingled with our blood. So why do I loathe driving so much?
After my first set of doomed lessons, the next, and last, time I drove a car was when my parents tried to goad me into getting my permit, although I really only had to drive for about a few minutes of the first session. After botching several K-turns and nearly student-driving the training car right off the road, I turned to my youngish instructor and said, “Look, I can’t actually do this. I’m terrified of driving, and since it doesn’t affect you either way if I learn or not, can you just drive around until this is over?” I didn’t really think that my plea would fall on receptive ears, but instead of laughing it off, he said, “Sure. Let’s switch seats. Want to hear my demo tape?” We parked, swapped, he popped in the very Hoobastank- and Incubus-cover-centric home recording, and we patronized the drive-thru of a Wendy’s in lieu of continuing our useless lesson. I spent the next few sessions this way, eating burgers and pretending to like the dude’s shitty music so I didn’t have to drive, until the last session, when he tried to touch my boob and I made him bring me home immediately. If I was willing to endure brokenly-strummed acoustic Hoobastank covers on repeat with my arms locked over my chest in order to stay out of the pilot’s seat, you know I must REALLY be afraid of operating automotive machinery. Needless to say, I still can’t do it. In fact, part of why I live in New York City is so I’ll never, ever have to. God bless the MTA.
The apocalypse, 2003–present.
Have you seen the movie 28 Days Later, starring ultimate sex hottie Cillian Murphy? It portrays a lawless, dystopian world in which you can’t turn your head without getting chomped by a diseased ex-human zomboid. IT IS SO SCARY, AAAH, MY GOD. I watched it at my first girlfriend’s house, and when by the time the credits started to roll I was immobile with horror. I couldn’t turn off the DVD, even after the menu screen popped up. I spent the rest of the night trying not to stare at the words “Scene Selection” as the background looped a hackles-raising progression of hands clawing at stormy windowpanes, thinking about what our chances of survival would be if those windows were the ones near my girlfriend’s bed. I also thought about my inability to hurt other living things (even if the situation called for it) or to run for about two seconds without wheezing. As my girlfriend slept, I realized that I would never be able to save her if society collapsed, and I felt a real, palpable guilt about that scenario.
The only time I was afraid of death was when I pictured fighting for my life in a brutish, anarchic world where everyone around me was vying to hold on to theirs, too, and where, despite our desperate efforts, only a few of us had even the remotest chance of survival. Religious-type doomsday scenes were too unrealistic to scare me, but I couldn’t read about global warming or the imminent collapse of capitalism without wanting to immediately board up my apartment.
Not publishing my first novel at the age of 19 like Truman Capote, 2005–2010.
I have always hoped that someday I could become a published writer, so I am constantly trying to push my words into the world and to have other people consume them in as many formats as possible. I want to do this forever, and I used to want the official part of forever to have started three years ago.
Let me explain: When I was 14, my greatest goal was to have my professional and creative timeline match up with the career of my then icon, Truman Capote, who published his beautiful debut novel, Summer Crossing, when he was 19, and I knew that if I worked hard enough I could have my own novel available at a bookstore near you by the time I turned 19, too. Except I didn’t.
Now that I’ve been writing for a little longer, I’m able to see the flaws in this plan. I know that every writer and every career is different, and comparing my own progress with others’ will almost always disappoint me and snarl up my priorities, the first of which should be allotting myself the time necessary to make my writing great—or at least honest. But for a little less than a quarter of my life, this deadline dominated my life, and I tortured myself relentlessly. Everything I wrote had to be perfect, so I never actually completed a piece of writing (except for some seething, self-destructive journal entries about what a brainless pupa I was for not being able to write like I thought I could). When I finally turned 19, bookless and raw from anxiety, my fear of being anything less than a Capote-esque prodigy had overtaken all of the joy that I used to find in writing fiction. Looking back on this period, I’m so happy that the deadline has long since passed, and that I can just write without worrying that I’m over the hill at the still-green age of 22. R.I.P., this fear, I hope you rot in hell.