Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor via Unsplash.com
I should have known something was wrong after the first time it happened. I remember three days afterward I was walking with my mother to the small corner store on Livingston and Miller. It was a two block walk from my grandmother’s house and if you took the alleyways you could make it there in less than five minutes but you’d have to cross at an intersection with no stop light. I had taken the journey dozens of times before, many times by myself to purchase chips, pop, candied baked beans, and (even though I was only nine years old) filterless Commander cigarettes for my grandma. This time though, there was an abrupt difference; I felt it as soon as we made it to the intersection. My mother held her arm out in front of me to bar me from crossing as she looked left and right down the road, checking for a break in the traffic. When a chance finally came, she crossed and was halfway to the other side before she noticed that I hadn’t moved. My legs had stopped me. Instead of moving as I had ordered them to, they stood, quivering and buckled slightly at the knee. I stared down at them, perplexed and betrayed by their insolence, fascinated by the involuntary tremors. I was jolted out of my dream state by the tug of my arm, my mother had run back to pull me across the street. There was a simple, ‘The hell’s wrong with you?’ as we both made it across and a dismissal of the incident.
It went on like that for several weeks, me having to be dragged across intersections, crosswalks or not, several times simply past parked cars. I would walk by them, unmanned and unstarted, and the same quivering of my legs would occur. The same buckling of the knees and the fascination of their involuntary movements, until there was a harsh yank of my arm by my mother or some other familial relation, be it cousin, aunt, or (disgracefully so) a younger brother. And all the time I worried about nothing, no one did. It was all chalked up to simple ‘foolish shit’ as most things in lower income communities are; depression, anxiety disorders, common mental health problems, all of which remain prevalent in most other American societies remain undiagnosed in impoverished and especially black communities. We are always skeptical of such things, superstitious even. Of course you’re depressed, life is rough. Of course you’re anxious, you work three jobs too many and rent is due. We subjugate ourselves to a lifestyle usually reserved for the unnecessarily macho and the masochistic. But something was wrong, something that would take me years to accept and understand, something that could be traced back to one particular incident. The incident that had happened of course was that I was hit by a car- for the first time.
I was nine years old, at the time, as I found myself bolting across Parsons Avenue, from no particular intersection, and in the middle of heavy traffic. My heart beat loudly in the cage of my chest, horns blared as drivers screamed obscenities that I caught in fragments and flashes as they whizzed by. I remember it was sunny that day, I remember being very afraid and the exhilaration of almost making it across the chaos of the road. I remember the last step I took; I think I was even smiling. Then there was nothing, a few faint images of a car and a funny tranquil feeling before losing consciousness. When I awoke I was surrounded by a circle of adults, all frowning and concerned, some crying.
The car had swooped me up, my small body smacking into the windshield and spider webbing the glass. I tumbled over the hood, concussed and unconscious. When I awoke amidst the crowd of concerned faces and worried adults I remembered not feeling any emotion until the fear seeped in; the fear of my mother finding out. Only then did I start to cry. I begged them, all of them, not to tell her. Of course they did, the monsters.
I guess because I was younger my bones were less brittle, more malleable, and though I remained sound and unmarred in body I by no means remained unscathed. In fact, it was the beginnings of a scar that would only fester and worsen in time. The involuntary tremors and reluctance around cars were a beginning symptom, the onset of something more, but over time they went away and with it what little concern anyone had. I wouldn’t encounter any other indication until I had become a teenager. ‘Do you wanna go for a drive?’, my mother would ask. I was at the age to learn how to operate a car and part of me was eager for it. But there was something else, something there in the pit of me that was apprehensive, anxious even. So I put it off, coming up with some lame and terrible excuse and my mother would shrug and we would all move on. This went on for years, up through all of high school and then into college. My family found it amusing, joking that I’d be an old man one day, still without a car and still without a license. It was sometime during and after this period that I was then hit by a car four more times and on four separate occasions. Each instance involved an intersection, a cell phone, and some idiot suburban American who couldn’t stop yamming for five seconds to do any decent driving.
It was sometime between the fourth and fifth incident that it really began to set in. I don’t remember the first time it happened, it was sort of an uneasy transition. I’d be in a car, riding along with a friend and, seemingly without reason, my heart would quicken, palms moistened with sweat, my breaths became shallow and rapid, and an impending sense of dread and terror would overcome my senses. These panic attacks would begin to occur every time I set foot in an automobile, until I eventually began to avoid them all together. Instead of carpooling to work I opted to take the thirty minute walk. Rather than going on the annual camping trip my friends have every year I fabricated some lame excuse and flaked out, anything to escape the three hour ride there and back.
What I was developing was this fear, an irrational and sick fear, of riding in vehicles. An anxiety condition that I continue to grapple with. It hasn’t made life easy. I’m forced to find employment within a walking radius of where I live, shopping almost anywhere is always an ordeal, not to mention having to explain why I’m thirty years old without a car or license becomes tedious and tiresome. The looks are the worse, awkward doubtful glances from people as you try to explain. Sometimes I’m met with outright contempt, other times with the look of pity usually reserved for small wounded animals.
Though my situation seems more obvious than most, we’re all ruled by these fears. They dictate the parameters of our growth, they instill in us a wisdom of what is and isn’t safe, and it’s in understanding our fears that we truly begin to know ourselves. But fear can also be a hostile prison of the mind, confining us to a labyrinth of worry and self-doubt. Left unchecked it would have us wandering it’s halls indefinitely.
Twenty years, four accidents, and a lifetime of god-awful embarrassing spazz-outs later, (I once tried to climb out of a car while it was still moving which didn’t work out too well for anyone involved) I found myself in the passenger’s seat of a car whizzing down the highway towards downtown. My hands were stuffed under my thighs and every so often I would rub my lap nervously, wiping off the sweat that just wouldn’t stop accumulating in my palms. I distracted myself by staring out of the window and into the distance. Deep breaths, I reminded myself. The driver was a pretty faced girl I had just met weeks before whom, through sheer charm and much trickery, I had convinced to accompany me on a date. ‘Are you okay?’ She asked, glancing at me with equal parts bewilderment and concern. ‘Yeah, of course.’ I lied. There was no way I was going to allow myself to mess this up by doing something as stupid as telling the truth, so I leaned back and tried my best to feign a cool and calm composure. I’m sure I failed miserably.
I managed to survive the trip down. I had picked an awesome spot, a barcade, for the date. My intention was to get some drinks and play some games but we never even made it to the latter. She sipped on her vodka tonic, me on my domestic beer, and we just talked. The iridescent lights of the arcade machines reflected off our faces, illuminating her smile. It wasn’t far into our first drink that I began to notice it, a fear behind her eyes. Sometimes her smile would slip and she would look off, remembering something she’d rather forget. It went beyond the normal jitters of a first date. I recognized something broken as only another broken being could. I said nothing of course. We drank and continued to laugh and the date went fine. The drive back was easier, booze sloshed around in my belly, warming my body and soothing my nerves. Later that night we made our way back to my place where we had awkward but enjoyable sex. Our inebriated bodies flailing into one another, finding a comfort in each other’s inelegant touch. Afterwards we laughed, panting to catch our breath, but I couldn’t help but remember that brokenness about her, that stagnant fear that penetrated the thin veneer of normality she used to mask herself. So I asked her, explaining what I had noticed, what I had felt. I didn’t know how she would react, I half expected her to think I was crazy. ‘So then, what are you afraid of?’ I asked. She looked up at me, shocked, surprised, and beautiful, with these blue eyes that had nothing to do with the sky or some bullshit ocean, a blue all her own. Those same blue eyes that would dart left and right out of a nervous habit but would occasionally forget themselves and stare into me, enraptured and delighted by the stupidity of my jokes, fascinated by a mutual understanding of mundane music knowledge. Those same eyes that just moments before fluttered beneath me in ecstasy now began to tear up, creating streaks of make-up down her face. ‘I don’t know, fucking everything.’ No one had ever asked her that before and I realized no one had ever asked me either. We stayed up that night, talking about our fears, her mascara running down my shoulder. That’s the thing about fear; it drives and isolates us. So powerful and encompassing is the emotion that it blinds us to the most important part- that we all feel afraid and in that we are not alone and never will be.