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.

Snack Break

There is something about being a woman in an office setting. You can’t be too gross. One could say that applies to being a woman most anywhere, and they would be right. But it’s particularly true in an office. Guys can belch, get too drunk at the holiday party and throw up a few blocks from Soldier Field, let mayo drip down their fronts and it’s stomach-turning but somewhat accepted. If a girl does that it’s socially lethal. You’re a foul goblin — no longer gendered but some beastly thing, a cartoon legend that echoes through Google Chat or IM or if your office is particularly restrictive, company email. It sucks. You’re supposed to be pretty and get along with everyone be and social and pleasant, but not too loud or icky. It’s unfair. It’s sexist and awful.

I still shouldn’t have eaten Corn Nuts on the toilet.

Eating in a restroom is legitimately gross. It’s unsanitary on a basic, scientific level — food doesn’t go in a room where people shit. I accept this. You probably know this. This story is not for you. You probably don’t eat delicious junk food, let alone in a work setting, let alone in a multiple stall company restroom. This cautionary tale is for the girls and women who take bites so big it makes their cheeks look like woodland creatures, because they finally got the good pizza for the project meeting. The type who emit ungodly odors, not realizing that a leftover burrito chased with a giant coffee isn’t the best breakfast when you have to be around other people. The type who go three days without a shower because those extra 20 minutes of sleep are just beautiful and awesome. The type who chug a beer too fast at happy hour because they don’t really want to be at Paddy McFakeIrish’s Shitty Suburban Pub, and choke back upchuck while smiling politely at some bro from sales who will two months later get housed, give you his sleek, expensive Columbia earmuffs, tell you you’re beautiful, and quit a week later before you have a chance to awkwardly give them back. This is for you, because I like you, and I am like you. I know you’re doing this until you can find something better or so you can do something else, and I think you can. I want you to be remembered for your job performance and pleasing personality, not a very avoidable form of social suicide. And that means not eating Corn Nuts on the toilet, which I definitely did.

When I was 23, I worked for a company we’ll call in a building in the South Loop that was basically a call center. I talked to a lot of car dealership owners through resizing their photos, listening to them complain about how their nephew set this up and they didn’t care about the Internet anyway. I looked up a lot of VIN numbers. I started at 7am, and making it to lunch was hell. I got really, really hungry, like stupid hungry. Usually I brought snacks, but one morning I didn’t.  Not eating isn’t a thing I can do. I really wish it was. I envy people who can go hours without eating, yet maintain focus. That is magic to me. You have achieved something I probably never will, and when I get mad at you it’s really a mix of jealousy, low blood sugar, and slight awe.

By 10am I couldn’t think. There was a long line at the convenience store in the lobby, chomping into a strict 15-minute break. I mean really strict — they checked what time you logged back into your machine. I got Ranch Corn Nuts. I still really had to pee. I came up with an idea: combine peeing and eating. Done. Multi-tasking. Brilliant. I am smart. This is going to work.

I settle into the stall, and start peeing and opening the bag. My hands are shaking with hunger, and it doesn’t open. Come on, I thought, feeling more and more desperate as the seconds ticked past. What am I, a toddler? Is this plastic bag child-proof? Fuck this job. Fuck getting back to my seat at 10:45 exactly. John at the Ford dealership in Oklahoma can figure out how to download Picasa on his own. I want to be a writer but I’m not doing anything about it, and fuck too.

In a burst of anger I use one hand to tear at the top, the other to pull the sides apart. The bag bursts and Corn Nuts scatter everywhere, little powder-crusted yellow nuggets skittering across dark tile. Oh God. Oh God. I can see pointy-toed heels far at the other end of the stalls. They’re ugly shoes, cheap black vinyl with tanned toe cleavage bursting over the top. Or is she wearing nude hose? That’s not important. Breathe. Stuff some Corn Nuts in your face, showing a care you could have used 10 seconds ago to not crunch too loudly. It’s 10:42. I have to wait until she leaves. I can’t pick them up because that will implicate me for sure, and besides there’s no time. She finally leaves. Eating junk food on the toilet is my foxhole: I thank Jesus and Moses and every other saint and prophet that made their way into my hybrid religious upbringing. I love you all. I love you so much.

She’s definitely gone. I tear up a little in gratitude. No one will ever know. It’s 10:43. Time to go. I eat one last handful like a duck, wipe my hands on toilet paper, and ditch the wrapper as I power-walk back to my cube. I do not stop at the sink. Hand washing is for people with slow metabolisms and self-control.

I feel like everyone is staring at me. I have a scarlet CN on my chest. My hands tingle with ranch-colored flecks of shame. If you don’t eat a lot of junk food, ranch-colored means blue and green and red. These are the colors of bold and savory, the kind of taste that lingers on the palate and in the system in the way only a chemically perfected flavor can.

I log into the system at 10:44, breathing shallowly. The phone rings instantly. “ Dealer Support, how can I help you today? Let’s get that VIN number.” My breath is all buttermilk, salt, garlic, onion, and a proprietary blend of herbs, with delicate base notes of self-loathing and slowly fading adrenaline. It’s Wednesday — Jimmy John’s and Comic Book day. In exactly one hour and fifteen minutes Mike and Luke and I will go to Graham Crackers on Madison and Wabash, then get sandwiches. I can already feel the stress of 12:26, waiting for the Brown Line to appear and bring me back to the cube, where I will hoover a Turkey Tom and read the latest issue of Warren Ellis’ Fell, watching the minutes tick by between bites and pages.

It is an uncomfortable and mundanely foul truth that the most low- and middle-paying jobs have the strictest rules. Do something with consultant or analyst in the title? Be gone for two hours without recrimination. Go ahead. Miss a meeting here and there, or even a full day. Service and support industry? You are straight fucked if you’re back five minutes late, on the way to a verbal warning or worse, a write-up.

Still, Eating Corn Nuts on the toilet is pretty gross.

Anxiety makes the time pass quickly. It is 11:46. There are two girls talking by the microwave, and I strain to catch their conversation. “Did you hear about what happened in the restroom on the 7th floor? There was candy or something everywhere. Like Reese’s Pieces or something.” I flush with shame and pretend the ticket I’m working on is fascinating. I am really into figuring out why this guy’s 2003 Crown Victoria isn’t showing up in his listings. “Ew,” the other woman says. “That’s so gross.” I wait.

“Did you see Megan at O’Gara’s last Friday? She was so drunk and kept trying to get Chris to come home with her and play X-box or whatever.” They laugh. My shoulders drop an inch. I figure out why the Crown Victoria isn’t displaying. It is 11:58. Mike’s head pops up above the cube wall. “You ready?” he asks. I nod, and log out. It’s time to go.

Winter Roads

(performed at Story Lab on January 15, 2014)

“Make a left on Elston. No, a left — why are you using your right turn signal?!”

My driving instructor was yelling at me again. As usual, she was right. I did have my right turn signal on. I fumbled, switching to my left. 

“Too late. Just drive straight for now.”

She closed her eyes for a minute, weary. I felt a stress headache bloom behind my eyes, and wondered why I had decided to learn to drive at age 27. 

It’s not like I’d never tried. I’d taken a weak stab at driving in high school. I went to driver’s ed, where I zoned out a lot, thinking deep thoughts about Livejournal drama and various brands of maroon lipstick. I was there because my parents wanted me to be there, which seemed weird: my mom didn’t know how to drive. She was from San Francisco by way of Manhattan and Queens, and moving to Minnesota had not inspired a desire to learn. On the rare occasion my dad was around and speaking to me, he wouldn’t let me near his 1996 Saturn Wagon. What would happen after I learned to drive was vague: there was no mention of me being allowed to borrow the car, driving anyone anywhere, or doing anything with a car, ever.  

I completed the course well-prepared to muddle unhappily into behind the wheel training. I kind of liked my instructor, a former alcoholic and born-again Christian in his 60s with the biggest sweet tooth I’d ever seen. We went to a lot of bakeries and convenience stores, with the occasional fast food side trip, and he asked what I would do if I had an unwanted child. “I don’t know,” I replied between clenched teeth, trying to make a left on Minnehaha Avenue. “I’ll think about it when it happens.” He tried a few more angles then gave up, returning to the baked good of the day. “They never put enough frosting on these,” he grumbled. I gaped at the solid inch of buttercream on a giant cupcake. I liked listening to some of his stories over gas station pastries and White Castle sliders, but the expressway moralizing made me queasy. 

My forays into real-life driving didn’t go very well. I didn’t understand when I should make a turn. I screamed bloody murder if someone honked at me. I had a lead foot when making turns, yet 20 miles an hour driving straight felt blindingly fast. I drove my then-boyfriend’s Honda Civic exactly two times, then was done. He never mentioned it again. 

I graduated and went to school in Chicago, where the trains and busses and cabs felt like childhood and home. Over the years, friends would occasionally offer to teach me: “I can show you and my little sister at the same time,” one said, spurring nightmares of being outdone by a sophomore at Kenwood Academy.

I never followed up with them. I never left the city, and wasn’t planning to. I would never have a car of my own, and you needed a license for two years to use iGo or Zipcar. These weren’t excuses, I told myself. They were facts.  

But like so many other things, not driving worked until it didn’t, and then it couldn’t work any more. It didn’t happen fast. I was a pro at avoiding what scared me, I had been doing it for years. It was the culmination of a few things: with the help of a therapist, I decided I was going to start looking at why I was afraid of so much. I got a job that regularly required travel to the Minnesota suburbs, and stayed at my mom’s house during these work trips. My mom’s house, where twelve boxes of VHS tapes blocked my high school bedroom door, the garage couldn’t fit a car even if there had been one, and trying to throw out bottles of lotion that expired in 2008 resulted in tense arguments.

A co-worker picked me up in the morning and dropped me off at night. For the first time in a long time, I felt the suffocation of being housebound. My world narrowed to an office park and rooms you could barely walk through, in a state where winter temperatures dropped to thirty below. Not being able to go where I wanted, when I wanted was suddenly unacceptable. I felt as crazy and restless as I had when I was 14, stuck in every sense of the word. I made a decision: when I got back to Chicago, I was going to learn to drive.  

My friends were supportive, and helpful. But I needed more. I signed up for driving lessons. I put the woman from Illinois Driving School who drove up to my house at maybe 60. Dominga was Puerto Rican and had lived in Chicago her entire life. She was what my mom would affectionately call a ball-buster, kindly but firmly kicking my ass up and down the North and West sides. “Tire for distance,” she would murmur if I inched too close to the vehicle in front of me. “If everyone used tire for distance, no one would be in any accidents.” Or: “What are you doing? Why are you going so fast? You’ve got nowhere to be!” when I sped up during turns, a habit that hadn’t faded in the last decade. 

The first few lessons were brutal. My skills hadn’t magically improved. I made hairpin turns, then barely broke the speed limit. “Speed up, speed up! Move with the flow of traffic!” Dominga would yell, exasperated. “Why are you slowing down?” “Because you told me not to speed up!” I yelled. “I meant during turns! You drive too fast when you’re nervous! You’re in love with being afraid!” 

I gritted my teeth, furious. I started crying as I walked into the house. My boyfriend stared at me. “She’s right.” I sobbed. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this, I hate her, but she’s right. I wasn’t meant to do this.” He hugged me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, “but you can do it. You’re not meant not do anything. And stupid teenagers do it.” I called and scheduled my next lesson.

Dominga took me through the worst intersections: Logan and Western, Lawrence and Elston, Fullerton, Elston, and Damen. We went to the Jewel parking lot on Division and Ashland, where she’d tell me to look around, look around, adjust my mirror, look around again, account for people meandering through the shifting sea of cars. She told me to watch out for bikers and pedestrians and never to pull up in the middle of the crosswalk, even though a lot of people did.

“Slow down before you stop, or you’ll get hit from behind — you’ll get a kiss, a kiss you won’t like!” she cackled. She liked checking out guys jogging in tiny shorts, and if they were shirtless, even better. “Mmmmm,” she’d say, “that’s sexy. What do you think?” I’d smile big, corners of my mouth twitching, not letting myself laugh for fear I’d lose an ounce of white-knuckled concentration. 

I almost always knew where I was going, and she liked that. We drove through Humboldt Park. “This is where I grew up,” she said, “you probably don’t come here very often.” “I’ve been here,” I replied. “Hmmmm,” she said. “Turn right at Kedzie. You know where that is?” I made a face. “We’re going to Belmont and Kedzie, right? I hate that intersection.” She cackled again. “I know you do, that’s why we’re doing it. It’s good for you.”

We took Belmont west to Milwaukee, then headed south towards Ashland for more parking lot training. As we made our slow way past Wood, then Wolcott, she told me how the long, diagonal street used to be all Jews up around this part when she was young, how she worked for a Jewish tailor in high school and liked it.  

When she first picked me up, she asked me if I lived there with my parents. “No, I live with my boyfriend.” She nodded. As we drove down Damen, making a right on Belmont, she asked if I liked the Mexican place we were passing, and told me how she would split burritos with her grandson, how he always thought he could eat the whole thing. “Do you think you’ll have children?” she asked. I’m not sure what it is about driving instructors and that question. “Yeah,” I said, quickly scanning the side mirror for nothing — another nervous habit. “Why are you looking there?! You don’t need to be looking at that,” she snapped, “Keep your eyes on the road.” Then, switching tones “How old are you?” “27.” “Aaaaah,” she waved her hand, “you’ve got time. Plenty of time.” I smiled, and made a smooth right onto Kimball. 

I took eight lessons, two more than the recommended six. I got better — not great, but at the end of our eighth lesson she asked when I wanted to take the behind the wheel test. I signed up the next time the Department of Motor Vehicles in Jefferson Park had available. “If you have work you don’t want to do,” my mom had always said. “Do it fast, before you think about it too much.” The lesson had stuck.

In my head, the behind the wheel test would take hours, and be somewhere between the The Fast and the Furious and Drive in terms of activities and difficulty. Right before I started, Dominga whispered to me: “I’ve had worse students than you pass.” She patted me on the shoulder.  

The test took about 15 minutes. I blundered the last part hard, parking at an awkward angle that nearly grazed another car. “Stop,” the instructor said. “Put it in park.” I stared at him, eyes red and teary.  “You need to be more careful with that, you don’t want to hit another car.” I nodded, holding my breath.

“Go get your picture taken, you passed.” 

I started crying in earnest. He looked incredibly uncomfortable. “Thank you, thank you so much.” He nodded again, still not facing me, a flush of red creeping up his collar. I took that as my cue to get out and leave him to his next, less emotional driver. I hugged Dominga, promising to refer others her way and leave a good Yelp review. I couldn’t stop touching the piece of plastic in my pocket, running my fingers reverently over my awkward photo and inaccurate weight.

I’m still not a great driver. But I love it. Doing something you thought was impossible, no matter how mundane, is powerful and heady. Driving is about more than multiple bags of groceries, as incredibly cool as that continues to be. It’s about waiting in the cold because you don’t feel you have a choice. It’s about doing something and making it your own, being the adult you always wished had got on your case about it when you were 16.

“Step on it!” Dominga used to yell when I waited too long at an intersection, and it’s about that, too: making a decision even when you believe deep in your bones that you’re going to fail. I think that’s why every time I pull onto my quiet street, I feel like a million dollars, and a little less in love with being afraid. 


How’s it going? I live in Chicago and write stories sometimes. Although I’ve worked with The Internet in some capacity most of my adult life, I’ve been pretty abysmal at having a website, and last week at a live lit type event this girl asked me if something I’d read was available online. It wasn’t. That’s not good. I resurrected this website so I can answer that question in the affirmative when it comes up.

I should probably post some writing next.