Greatest Fear

(read at Two Cookie Minimum on December 4, 2012)

I don’t remember how we got to talking about our greatest fears. I think there was alcohol involved. It was definitely late at night. We were hanging out in Sydney’s tiny apartment. Sydney was the editor of our college’s literary magazine and she was beautiful. It was her, her boyfriend Aaron, and me. We were sitting in a circle on the floor. It was 2006, my second to last year at Loyola University. I lived in Edgewater and worked at a library in the suburbs. I’d been dumped for the second time in the same year by the same guy. Sydney was in a few of my classes and we had started hanging out on the weekends. That was how I met Aaron. 

Aaron was condescending and intense, with a sharp face and small, deep-set dark eyes made darker and smaller by thick black glasses. He was thin as a rail and in my opinion, about as smart. He had a long, beaky nose — a perpetually angry, squawking crane. Sydney talked to me about how he fucked her a little too hard but she liked it. I didn’t want to think about Aaron fucking, especially Aaron fucking Sydney. A small part of my brain thought people like Aaron should never get laid, ever. I saw getting laid as validation, but he looked more tense and unhappy than anything.

If I was being true to myself, something I wasn’t very good at, I didn’t like Aaron. You may have figured this out already. I think my feelings about him were a small part crush on Sydney and a large part wanting to roll my eyes most of the time he spoke. Or existed. He was a staunch atheist, or so he said. He loved to talk about how religion was for idiots, with an unsubtle implication that it was something for people without money or brains. His flannel shirts were three sizes too big. He was weird about food, picking at diner omelettes and muttering about botulism and rats. He loved Nietzche. He loved nihilism. Where did he get this shit? He was from some small town in Kansas. He talked and talked and talked and I said nothing because I wanted Sydney to like me. There were a couple of times I started to say something in response to his arguments, murmuring a faint objection, but was stopped by his goggling disbelief, the snorting laugh that made my face turn red and my tongue tie. I wasn’t sure what I hated more: that he was an asshole, or that I was a coward.  

We were sitting in a rough circle, talking about our fears. I muttered “failure” and nodded to Aaron. He sat with his knees up, knobby limbs crossed over them, rocking back slightly as he spoke. “Hell.”

Sydney looked at him, her smooth brown face expressionless. I gaped.

His voice was quiet, almost a whine. “I’m afraid that everything my parents believe is true, that what I’m doing is wrong and that I’m going to hell for it.”

Let’s back up for a minute. At 20, I was afraid of pretty much everything. Failure was the tiny, tiny tip of the iceberg. It was easy to say and no one would question it, and no way was I going to tell anyone something personal, sticky, and raw. But my list of fears was miles long. I was afraid of sounding stupid, of being ugly, of saying the wrong thing. Being lost. Interacting with most of my family. Getting a B on a test. Teenaged acne making a triumphant return. Undercooking chicken. Overcooking chicken. Money. The zombies in 28 Days Later. Rejection. German shepherds. The list went on and on and encompassed many things both large and small, real and imagined.

I was born about two thousand miles away from Aaron, in San Francisco, California. My parents came out there in the early 70s. My mom had worked on Harvey Milk’s campaign. My dad had left the house for days at a time without explanation and little memory of where he’d been. When I was 10, we moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. It was about as big of a transition as it sounds like. I feel as though I spent just enough time in the former to make it really hard to adjust to the latter. Things were different there. People lived in the same place for generations, in the same zip code. They didn’t move across coasts and change apartments every two years like we did. In California, transience was the norm, being gay was somewhere between not unusual and fairly standard, and we walked through the Castro to get ice cream at Double Rainbow and Sharper Image to look at electrical orbs. In Minnesota, a picture of Ellen DeGeneres in People magazine made my classmate cringe. “That’s so gross,” she whispered. I stared outside the window, watching snow fall and form cold, heavy drifts. It was different.

By the time I was 20, I didn’t feel as different. The way I saw it, we were all from different places but we were all around the same age and went to school and we’d all moved here from other states, so we all felt more or less the same about things, right?

But he was afraid of going to hell. I fought the urge to laugh. Who was he, a 2nd-grader in Catholic school? That was the last time in my life I could recall being able to empathize that kind of fear. I think I would have been less surprised if he’d said “unicorns” or “gum wrappers”. Hell. He was afraid of going to hell.  I thought of my fears, the ones that would never make it into this circle. They were as natural to me as breathing. But be it California or Minnesota, or any stage in my family’s jumbled history, sin and banishment to evil realms had never been on the moral menu. My mom joked that she knew her first marriage was a mistake, because she threw up on her wedding day. “It was a bad omen,” she said, laughing a little. “Also, I was eight months pregnant with your sister.” For Aaron, sex before marriage wasn’t funny, or even fun. 

He said nothing, looking at the floor. I still couldn’t believe it. I wanted to pity him but didn’t know if I could. Sydney nodded. Silence settled, until she broke it by clearing her throat. “I’m hungry, and there’s nothing here.” We walked to Standee’s, the small diner under the Granville stop that had pretty good gyros and milkshakes and pretty bad everything else. We got there just before closing and got food to go. I ate a gyro in giant bites as the train moved overhead, the pita steaming in the frigid air. Aaron smoked cigarette after cigarette between sips of bad black coffee, for once forgetting to make a face at something someone else was enjoying. I said a silent prayer of thanks for that, then good-bye. I walked home, my mind knotted up with a new awareness of what it was to be afraid.

It is seven years later. I have lived in Chicago for almost a decade. I am 27. Aaron would have been 30. I am less afraid and things are pretty good, and I am beginning to think they are related. I am starting to write again. I have a boyfriend and a cat and we live together in a house. I’m sitting on the couch in this house one late Saturday morning, and I’m wasting time on Facebook and see Sydney comment on his wall. “You were loved and are missed,” My brain starts to crawl, disturbing little thoughts pushing their way to the surface. I click through to his page, already feeling like a voyeur. I read other comments, “My heart is broken,” a girl says. She is in some of his pictures — his girlfriend, maybe? It’s hard to tell. I’m shocked but oddly not surprised. I click up and down, doing sad, creepy research: Aaron moved back home straight after graduation. Unlike seven years prior, I am not surprised at our differences, but it is somehow disappointing and these announcements fill me with a quiet dread. 

“The memorial service for Aaron Swanson will be held at Grace Fellowship Evangelical Church. Services will be at noon Wednesday.” The sentences on his Wall are neat and uncomplicated. I read more comments then click to his mother’s page, all pretense of not snooping forgotten. People say how sorry they are. The words “shocked’, “a waste”, “he’s with God now” float up over and over again. Aaron committed suicide. Something hot and sick rises in my throat and it all felt sudden and wrong a door slammed shut hard by an unexpected but in reality ever-present breeze.

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