Police have cordoned off the McDonald’s, and the medic who was first on the scene has already prioritized the three teenage girls, all shot in the head. “This one’s yours, Mark,” he says.
I click into that place I have been so many times before, an emotionless realm where the mechanics are all that matters: she’s not breathing adequately; blood is compromising her airway; she needs a tube. I get out the laryngoscope, look for the vocal cords, suction, look for the vocal cords, suction again, then back to the mask to keep her breathing.
Finally, I place the endotracheal tube, secure it, start her breathing again, then get her “stripped and flipped” — remove all clothing, do a quick assessment, immobilize her on a spine board, cover her with a blanket, and get an IV started. “The copter’s here,” someone says. We “one-two-three” her onto a gurney, her face half obscured by the tube and the blood, and roll her out of the McDonald’s toward the waiting flight nurse.
As I’m pushing the gurney, I look up from my patient and across the thin yellow police tape at a woman who is screaming, “No!” Her voice is so loud in my ear that nothing else, not even the nearby helicopter, exists for me. I have looked in her eyes just as she has seen her daughter’s blood-smeared face. I suddenly realize what I’ve been doing these past ten minutes, and I feel my submerged panic start to surface, bringing tears to my eyes.
Then we push roughly past the mother, and I click back out of myself long enough to give my report to the flight nurse: “One left-occipital entrance, uncontrolled bleeding at the entrance and in the throat, secured airway 7·5 tube, sixteen-gauge IV in the left AC, no other trauma, unresponsive to deep pain.” And they leave. I watch the helicopter become a black dot in the sky before I turn back to scrub the blood off my equipment. Someday, I fear, I will need to leave this job in order to stay human.
One summer during college, I ran an indoor roller coaster at a theme park. It was rumored that on this particular ride a man had been decapitated. An operator had miscounted the cars, the story went, and diverted the car in which the man and his wife were riding to the maintenance bay, where it passed beneath an improbably low steel girder. The man had pushed his wife’s head down, saving her, but had been unable to save himself.
According to legend, the ride had been made safer as a result of the tragedy. There was no low steel girder anymore (I checked), and a system of redundant notifications was now used between the operator and the loaders. The only real danger — besides launching a car while someone was getting on — was that something could go wrong with a car inside the ride. To guard against this possibility, progress lights on the console lit up as each car tripped switches on the track. If the lights stopped coming on, it meant a car was stuck: a collision waiting to happen. Part of the operator’s job was to watch those lights and, if they stopped blinking, to hit the STOP button. That button was larger than the others, set right in the middle of the console, and lit with an alarming red light.
I dreamed about the roller coaster every night. I would be operating the ride without the benefit of the safety system. Cars supposed to arrive empty would be full of parents and giggling children and sweethearts. The progress lights would stop coming on, the last car full of people would be speeding toward certain death, and the large, comforting STOP button would be gone. Then the tracks would disappear, the loaders would signal “all clear” while a small child was boarding the ride, and the infamous steel girder would be back. Every night, carloads of people died.
Even though in my nightmares I realized that things weren’t adding up, that this couldn’t be happening, it didn’t matter: people were hurtling toward their deaths, and I was helpless to prevent it.
Unemployed since the corporate axe fell in September 1998, I’ve suddenly realized that I may never work again. Though I’ve managed to land two jobs since then, I’ve lost them both. I must take chances now, turn down nothing. I act self-assured, but my confidence is eroding as fast as the beaches of New Jersey.
I meet a man in the library who tells me he was forced to retire at fifty-three because of “corporate resizing.” (These euphemisms give me the creeps.) He says his retirement plans are off, and his house is up for sale. He wishes he had planned better. (Why do we always blame ourselves?) He asks what I do for a living. I’m a secretary, I say, but I also answer ads that call for word processors, office workers, clerical assistants, and receptionists. People with my skills are a dime a dozen, and I am disappointed at not being unique. “I need a gimmick,” I joke. He stares into the room as if I’m not really there. I know his pain: the pain of not being needed anymore. We wish each other luck, and he leaves.
The offers are few and far between. I am in a constant state of panic. How am I going to live? What am I going to do? I wake up from anxious dreams, my body wet with sweat, my heart beating like a jackhammer. I think I am going to die.
At fifty-seven, I am swinging in the wind, interviewing like mad. I look good on paper, but what do people see in person? I think I know, and it is hard to face the truth.
When I was a girl, bats would fly into our lake cabin through the fireplace and sometimes nest in our jackets. The boys used to say that if you got too close to one, it would get caught in your hair, and you’d have to shave your head to get it out. One time, Billy and I caught one between the window and the screen. This was at his family’s cabin, next door to ours. Billy was sixteen, four years older than I, and in my opinion the most gorgeous, wonderful boy on earth.
Bats are scary when they’re flying around the room with nothing to keep them out of your hair, but up close, behind glass, they’re just tiny black mice with wings, their bones thinner than toothpicks. Billy and I sat and stared at the trapped bat late into the night, talking about big, important subjects, like the fate of the world and our crazy families. The whole time, I was secretly adoring the side of his face, his long black hair, his cheekbones and eyelashes.
The next morning, someone unlatched the screen, and the bat made its jagged ascent. That afternoon, I heard the sound of a guitar coming from the same window. I walked in, and there was Billy stretched out on the couch, noodling on his red Gibson, wearing nothing but cut-offs. I immediately spotted his left testicle falling out of his shorts. I’d never seen one before, and was simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the wrinkly red thing.
Quickly, I started to tell him a story in order not to let on that I could see what I was seeing. I couldn’t tell whether he knew. How could he not know? My God, was he embarrassed, or pleased, or just indifferent? I wasn’t going to look again, but then I wondered if my not looking was itself obvious. Meanwhile, he just sat there, strumming his guitar.
When I got to the end of my story, I told him, calm as you please, “I’m going swimming now,” and he said, “OK. See you later.” I raced over to my family’s cabin, threw on my suit, ran down to the dock, and jumped into the cold, cold water, where I stayed for the rest of the afternoon, still seeing that wrinkly red plum. Eventually, since nobody was around, I took my suit off, and I swam and swam until dusk, when my mom called me in for dinner.
I avoided Billy for days afterward. It had been so intriguing and so ugly. I knew I’d have to get used to them, but I didn’t know how I ever would.
San Francisco, California
I was twenty three years old and traveling alone through the south of France. Wandering around the markets in Avignon, I saw a small shop selling glassware filled with tiny bubbles the color of the sea. The owner of the shop came out, and, with my French-English dictionary in hand, I tried to ask him how the beautiful glass was made. He spoke no English, but with pencil and paper he drew pictures to explain how sand and water and fire were mixed together.
It was a beautiful summer morning, and, having nowhere else to be, I stayed and tried to talk to him. I learned that his daughter had been to the States, but I couldn’t decipher what else he was trying to tell me. “Mezzechoozay,” he kept repeating excitedly, but I just didn’t understand.
Suddenly, he held up a finger, telling me to wait, and proceeded to lock up the shop. Then he walked over to a pickup truck, opened the door, and gestured for me to get in. I hesitated, but he was quite insistent, so I complied. As he started the engine, I realized I was putting myself at this stranger’s mercy. I pulled out my dictionary and frantically looked up how to say that he reminded me of my father, who certainly would not approve of what I was doing. He didn’t answer, but drove like a maniac from the countryside to the city, where he sped through the crowded streets. Finally, he came to a screeching halt in front of a building, got out, and walked around to open my door. I could hardly believe what I’d gotten myself into.
He went into the building first, huffing and puffing up the steep stairs. As the door closed behind us, the stairwell went dark, and I could smell him: sweaty, male, old. I was dizzy with fright but unable to stop climbing. By the time we reached the top, I was sweating, too. He opened a door and shouted something in French while I stood frozen in the hall. Then I heard the sounds of people talking, and a woman appeared in the doorway. The man turned with a smile, gently took my arm, and led me inside.
A table was set for the midday meal. After introducing me to his wife and son, the man sat down at the table, folded his arms across his chest, and beamed at me like the sun. His wife quickly set another place, and his son, who spoke some English, asked if I would please stay for lunch. In a daze, I sat down, and they served me meat (the biggest and best piece), potatoes, vegetables, and bread. The man didn’t say much, but his wife told me I reminded her of her daughter. At this, the man went and got a framed picture from a bureau and held it up next to me. She was right, there was a resemblance.
“Our daughter,” the woman explained through her son, “went to America two summers ago — to Boston, Massachusetts — but she was killed in a car accident while she was there.”
The man smiled sadly at me and said, “You remind me of her.”
Bainbridge Island, Washington
I’m getting old and I still haven’t had a decent love affair. I was married for ten years, but it didn’t involve much sex or passion. Divorced now for four, I am finding it difficult to meet someone. I’ve dated an endless stream of men through personal ads, but either I don’t want them or they don’t want me. Even the men I might date again, for lack of anything better to do, don’t call me back. If a man does call me, I suspect there is something wrong with him, and I’m usually right.
After a while, I have to ask, What’s wrong with me? I’m good-looking, intelligent, interesting, and have my own career and hobbies. (God forbid I should appear too interested in finding a mate!) Will I have to spend the rest of my life alone? Or must I keep placing ads, which is in some ways worse? I call this panic.
I set my suitcase down and hurried across Grand Central Station to use the pay phone, my footsteps echoing loudly in the great empty space. It was 3 A.M., and, seeing no one around but a still form under a pile of newspapers, I felt I could leave for a moment the enormous bag I had lugged through three train stations since I had started out six hours ago. I was beginning to think I would never make it home to South Carolina for Christmas.
When my parents answered the phone, they made matters worse by telling me not to go out on the street. “Stay put, for God’s sake,” they cautioned. After we hung up, I went to sit down and found my suitcase was gone.
I felt a sensation like cold fingers on the back of my neck. I was completely alone. The ticket windows were all closed. I paced the station’s unfamiliar corridors, ramps, and steps, my mind spiraling out of control. I reviewed all the stories I’d heard of the big city: rapes, murders, the homeless who lived below the tracks. I checked the end of each bench again and again, hoping I’d simply forgotten where I had left the suitcase. I prayed that someone in charge would step up and say, “Did you lose this?”
Suddenly, a door opened, and I almost screamed. There stood a station attendant, holding my suitcase. “I took it to teach you a lesson,” he said.
And teach me he did; I have remembered that cruel lesson for thirty years.
Hendersonville, North Carolina
When I was fourteen, my family was robbed at gunpoint by three escaped convicts. When I was sixteen, I was raped on a country road in the middle of the day by a man wielding a big knife. By the time I was twenty, I was a basket case, afraid of everything and everyone; afraid to go out, and afraid to stay home alone.
Realizing that this was not how I wanted to spend my life, I began to set myself a series of challenges, pushing the envelope a tiny bit each time: I drove alone to the grocery store. I walked a tenth of a mile by the roadside. Little by little, I expanded my range of movement until my days almost resembled a life. And then I put myself to the final test — I agreed to baby-sit for one of my college professors for an entire evening.
Little did I know that my professor lived several miles down a dirt road in a ramshackle house surrounded by a few windswept trees and a broken-down fence. To make matters worse, the sky was threatening, and the wind came up just as he and his wife left. Their child was already asleep, making me feel even more alone. With every wind gust, the house creaked and groaned. A door slammed somewhere in the back. It grew dark. There were no curtains on the windows, so anyone outside could see me. The bulbs in the living room were dim and cast little pools of orange light surrounded by looming shadows.
I sat on the couch, telling myself that I would pass this test. Meanwhile, another voice screamed, Get me out of here, somebody, please! Of course, nobody came to my rescue. The phone didn’t even ring (not that I would have answered it). I tried to read, often looking at my watch only to find that just five or ten minutes had passed.
Near midnight, I heard what sounded like a knock on the door: a loud tap-tap-tap. Then silence. Then again: tap-tap-tap. There was a strong gust of wind, and the tapping turned to banging. I snapped. I crawled across the room, stuffed myself inside the coat closet, and closed the door behind me.
I crouched there behind the coats for at least an hour, until I heard voices outside and the key in the lock. Relieved, I jumped out of the closet and landed on the couch just as my professor and his wife entered. “Everything go OK?” they asked.
“Sure,” I answered. “No problem at all.”
Opening my front door that Tuesday afternoon, I knew right away that my husband had been drinking and taking pills again. I hated him, pitied him, and loved him all at once. Most of all, I knew that I couldn’t endure this way of life any longer.
He passed out in the bathroom, and I could hear him snoring: a sure sign that he wouldn’t bother me for at least a few hours. I sat in the living room pondering my future. Then the snoring stopped. Concerned, I went to check on him. It was hard for me to tell in the half light, but he looked blue. My heart began to pound. I knelt down to see if he was breathing. I thought he wasn’t, but in my panic I couldn’t be sure. I ran next door, screaming for help.
My neighbor and I raced back to my apartment, but in my haste I had accidentally locked the door behind me. I could feel the panic beginning to grow. Somehow, we managed to get the door open and immediately attempted CPR. Because I had only seen it performed on TV, however, I couldn’t figure out what to do. I felt helpless and stupid and nauseated. I was killing him; I just knew it.
Finally, we called 911, and the operator guided us through CPR step by step, but our efforts were in vain. My husband died that night on the bathroom floor. It took me many years to understand that, even if I hadn’t panicked, he still wouldn’t have lived.
North Hollywood, California
My parents and I heard the helicopter coming and raced to cover the plants. As the National Guardsmen hovered over our house, my dad grabbed his stash and ran into the woods, and my mom told me to pack and leave immediately for a friend’s house. I hurried out the door, but men with guns circled around me and bombarded me with questions. Though I tried to act calm, inside I was quaking with fear.
The men threatened to douse me with pepper spray, kill our dog, and bash in the door. Instead, they pushed past my mother, who was quoting the Constitution, to search our house without a warrant. They handcuffed my mom and, as soon as they’d determined that I was over eighteen, put me in handcuffs as well.
My dad was caught. My brother was picked up at his job in town. We were all arrested and given a family reunion in the local jail. Bail was set at a hundred thousand dollars each, but somehow mine was reduced to fifty thousand, and some friends put up their property to get me out. I spent only one night in jail. It was a week before I could bail out everyone else.
It has been four years since that day. My parents are convicted felons for growing marijuana in our front yard. And I still panic whenever I hear a helicopter.
I tried to kill myself because, for me, life existed only in those brief moments between pervasive feelings of dread and panic attacks. After my first suicide attempt, the state committed me to a mental institution. The day my insurance ran out, I was released — alone, scared, and certain that I needed to die.
For my next attempt, I employed what was, according to Final Exit, a fairly foolproof method: To start with, I swallowed approximately a hundred benzodiazopines by mixing them with vanilla yogurt. Then I drank as much tequila as I could stand. Finally, I put a plastic bag over my head and secured it with a rubber band around my neck. The bag was supposed to ensure that I would suffocate even if the pills and alcohol were not strong enough to kill me. Instead, I woke up in the emergency room covered in vomit and urine.
After this incident, I lost my job as a mathematics professor. I had always derived my sense of self-worth from my work (this may have been part of the problem), and now it was gone. But so, oddly enough, were the panic attacks and the dread of living.
Since then, I have stepped grudgingly back into life. By chance, I started sitting with a small Zen group. (The chance part was finding such a group in Mississippi.) My practice eventually became my path back into life. At the age of thirty-three, I am just now learning how to live.
He was asleep when I stepped into the hooch: a boy, my age or younger, in the uniform of the enemy, dozens of miles from any road or village. I wonder now if he was dreaming.
I panic as I write this. I’d rather be outside listening to the fading thunder and feeling the last drops of rain, or checking on the garden and seeing if the baby rabbits are out again. What will you think of me if I write the truth?
I killed him. It was war; that’s the justification. Our jobs were to kill each other. When he stirred in the hammock, I fired, afraid that he might have had a weapon beside him. I panicked. It was thirty years ago this summer.
The dream came randomly over a period of fifteen years. At the end, it came four nights in a row. In the dream, I was trying to escape a search party that was closing in for the capture: unforgiving men wielding old-fashioned revolvers. I felt I could explain if given a chance, but they only smirked. At this point, I’d awake and praise God that it had been only a dream. But on the last night, these words came out of my mouth instead: “I am a murderer.” That was in 1990. The dream has not returned since then.
I cannot describe the sense of wrong that I felt as the first round bucked from my rifle. I followed that shot with an extended burst, to cover it up. His eyes found mine. He put out his hands, as if to defend himself. We were almost touching. He spoke to me in Vietnamese. My Uncle Buddy would always curse anyone who’d allow another creature to suffer unnecessarily — he would curse their character. I raised my weapon again. I wanted his moans and cries to stop. This is what gets left out of the movies: that human beings give up life very slowly. They almost never fall over dead.
Next, I tried to dehumanize him: I tried gook, slant-eye, slope, commie, VC, red. But the words wouldn’t hold up anymore. His humanity overwhelmed them. I believe that I felt his soul depart as he died.
I found a garden near the hooch, tucked in among the vegetation of the surrounding jungle: a series of small plots on the side of a hill. Water was brought to the plants by a series of bamboo aqueducts laced together with rushes. I remember the soft splash of water in the trees, and the reedy sound it made in the bamboo.
My grandmother was a gardener. In her eighties, she gardened on her knees at sunup. When cataracts kept her from seeing the flowers, she said she could recognize them by touch. The qualities I’d admired in my grandmother were there in that jungle garden. And I’d killed the gardener.
A month later, I was shot. I felt my bones break, felt all the tension release. As I fell into darkness, I heard a voice in my head say, Isn’t it funny how you have chosen to live your life? Then the light returned, and I could hear the voices of the men in my company. When I saw blood pumping from my shoulder, I panicked again.
Now I garden near a small, intermittent creek in southwest Missouri. I watch the lilies bloom: one that smells like ginger, and a pale yellow one whose folded petals suggest a bird in flight, or delicate lips molded into a kiss. I get down on my knees in the early-morning dark and try to find recognition, try to quiet my panic. And I fail.
William A. Miller
Webb City, Missouri
I panic at the approach of a man in a red ski mask with a long knife, coming down the green slope. His movement has awakened me. My friend Tanya slips off into the nearby bushes. He pulls my head back by my long hair and proceeds to slit my throat, but my legs kick hard enough to rip me away. He follows, and I fall in the mud above San Francisco Bay. The scream comes from the depths of my stomach. He slides away across the wet grass to pursue my friend among the eucalyptus. She runs barelegged, but not very fast. We are hippie girls. We threw the I Ching earlier today. The reading said: “It does not further you to move. Do not go anywhere.”
My friend and I survived, but our carefree days of long, flowing skirts and free love were over. Friends treated us as if we had the plague. Our experience interfered with their drug-induced bliss. Only an old boyfriend who’d been shot up in Vietnam could understand. He knew the panic of being under attack, the pain of watching friends lose their legs — or their lives — and the loss of faith in the rightness of it all.
Forty-four years later, I can say that it’s happening at night, inside a house trailer. I see the place as a dark, square tunnel. There haven’t been any lights on inside for what seems like forever. The smudgy windows let in only an eerie glow that reveals hints of soiled mattresses scattered over the floor.
The three babies on the mattresses have been crying forever. I think no one can cry so loudly and for so long, but they do. Two of the babies belong to my mother’s girlfriend. The other, my youngest sister, is sitting in a filthy diaper that we can’t change. She never stops crying. My three-year-old brother is all cried out. He sits in his dirty, footed pajamas on the mattress he and I share, and now and then he chokes and shudders. His tear-streaked face is vacant. His eyes glitter wildly. He’s figured it out. So has my six-year-old sister, who holds me silently. But nothing she does can stop my howling and shaking.
I want my mother and her girlfriend to be here, sitting with their glasses of awful-tasting brown stuff. I want her oddly sweet breath, her cruel laugh, her sharp, angry voice, and then the slap smothered quickly in her babbling hug. I want the lights back on at night. I want clean clothes and warm food again.
I’ve just figured it out myself. I’m standing in my underwear in the middle of this dark, noisy, smelly, messy place, and I’m screaming. I’ve just realized that Mommy is never coming back. She got rid of Daddy in the divorce, and now she’s gotten rid of us — gotten rid of me.
After forty years of absence, after I grow up without her, after I marry and divorce her twice without knowing it, she tries to come back. I don’t let her. I don’t let anyone come back.
I grew weak with fear when the police officer said he had “something very serious” to talk to me about. He suggested we talk alone, so I sent the kids upstairs, and we went into the kitchen.
One week before, I had knelt at the bedside of a dear friend who was dying. He wanted deliverance by way of his hoarded morphine. Before he injected himself, he made us, his closest friends, promise to “finish it” for him if his plan didn’t work. As a nurse with years of experience, I felt confident that no one could survive the amount of morphine he was preparing to give himself, so I said, “Of course,” never dreaming what the next four hours would hold: more injections, begging, crying, hysteria. Eventually, he would be dead, but not by his own hand.
Every day since then, I’d felt unglued: couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. I’d promised myself not to tell anyone, but I had to in order to keep my sanity. I’d told friends, my therapist, an AIDS volunteer who tried to comfort me with the knowledge that I was not alone in my nightmare. Nothing helped. A single parent, I was haunted by the possible consequences. I could go to jail, lose my kids, my job, my house — everything. I was consumed simultaneously with grief and fear. And now the police. How had I gotten myself into this?
“We have reason to believe,” the officer began, “that about a week ago” — my face turned to ice, and my hands started to tremble — “your son was involved in some vandalism at a loading dock near your home.”
I dropped into a chair and covered my face with my hands, gasping and dizzy. Thinking I was crying, the policeman tried to comfort me: “He has no previous record. He can repay some of the damage and will probably just get probation.”
I barely heard him. My impulse was to laugh and hug him and thank him for the good news, but I didn’t want to press my luck.
Since undergoing bilateral mastectomies and aggressive chemotherapy for breast cancer eight years ago, I feel panic whenever an ache or pain remains unresolved for longer than a week or two. My anxiety spreads, multiplying my fears of death and undermining my normal trust in my body’s health and in the rigorous detoxification routines I maintain to safeguard it.
Too afraid to undergo medical tests that might confirm the cancer has returned, I remain in the purgatory of not knowing: Is the pain in my spine bone cancer, or only a rib that’s out of alignment? Is the pounding in my head a brain tumor, or just a reaction to the anti-estrogen drug I’m taking? Are the abdominal pains symptoms of colon cancer, or merely irritable-bowel syndrome?
During these periods, I live from day to day, attending only to absolute necessities, seeing only my husband and my daughter, eating and sleeping only occasionally. If it is cancer, I worry that my out-of-control anxiety is contributing to the tumor’s growth. Overriding everything is my obsession with the physical symptom itself: Is it getting better, or worse? Does it hurt when I bend this way, or that? Has it been four weeks now, or five? As the fixation intensifies, the pain escalates, and the panic strengthens its grip. Recently, I lost seven weeks of my life to this vicious cycle of panic.
Eventually, there will come a time when I feel I cannot take another breath without knowing for certain whether the cancer has returned. Then I move quickly, scheduling the blood test or bone scan or colonoscopy for the earliest opportunity. The paralyzing fear loosens its grip just enough to allow me to drive to the appointment, endure the appropriate tests, and return home. Then, while I wait for the results, panic settles in again. But at least the die has been cast.
As soon as I hear that there is no cancer in my brain, my bones, my colon, the panic vanishes instantly, like pink cotton candy on my tongue. Each time, I make this vow: when the next symptom arises, I will summon the courage to have the tests as quickly as I am able. I don’t want to throw away any more days of my life to panic.
The first morning of my vacation, I woke in a bright mood, took a three-mile power walk on the boardwalk, then went for a swim to cool down. The water felt wonderful. I swam for a while, allowing the ocean to envelop me in its gentle strength. I floated with my head back, taking in every detail — the sky, the sea gulls, the water rushing across my face and ears and body.
When weariness set in, I decided to return to shore. Only then did I realize I had drifted dangerously far out. Keeping a level head, I assessed the situation, then started back, taking my time, alternating strokes, and floating as much as I could. After a few minutes, however, I found that I had actually moved farther away.
At this point, I became convinced that I was going to drown. And with this conviction came an indescribable calm, such as I’d never experienced. At peace with my predicament, I thanked God for “not too bad a life.” I had four incredible sons, great relationships with most of my family, several true friends, and ( just recently) the kind of love they write songs about. What more could I ask for? I thought. Still, I’d never thought this would be how I’d leave the earth.
Then I remembered my two youngest sons, who were up in the hotel room and had no idea where I was; I’d left while they were still asleep. Two days earlier, I had dropped another son off for his first year of college, and my oldest son was due to become a father in a month. As all this flooded through my mind, I told myself, You haven’t tried hard enough.
Somehow, I garnered the strength to make one last attempt. I swam a bit sideways and got close enough to scream to a woman on an inflatable raft. She thought I was kidding. As she drifted away, I went under. When I surfaced, I screamed again, swallowing half the ocean. This time, she was convinced. She alerted a lifeguard, who came and saved me.
As he pulled me in, the lifeguard told me I’d been caught in a riptide. He’d blown his whistle at me, but then figured I must have known what I was doing because I had remained afloat for so long. I hadn’t noticed the whistle, of course, and wouldn’t have thought it was for me, anyway — a forty-four-year-old woman out enjoying the beauty of the ocean.
I now find it interesting that, of all the feelings I experienced during my ordeal, not once did I panic.
I didn’t want to pay twenty-five dollars to join my local Sam’s Club — it rankled somehow — but I was still curious about the wholesale warehouse chain, so when a friend who was a member invited me to go with her, I jumped at the chance.
The Sam’s Club was housed in the most enormous building I’d ever seen, like an airplane hangar, with goods being moved about on motorized carts and employees skating from department to department. Everywhere I looked were mountains of bestsellers, gargantuan boxes of Cheerios, gallon bottles of catsup, and ten-pound bags of jelly beans. It was a world of giants.
Though I’d never had a panic attack before, I suddenly became aware of an extreme anxiety overtaking me. My breathing was much too rapid, and I felt as if I were shrinking, just like Alice in Wonderland. I feared I might lose myself in Sam’s oversized world.
I told my friend the place made me nervous. We didn’t linger.
I am terrified of emus, those tall, flightless relatives of ostriches. You see, when I was five, my family was attacked by an emu. It happened at one of those small, sad zoos that littered the exits of the interstates back then, drawing families in station wagons briefly off course during summer road trips. My own family stopped at every attraction: Largest Rubber-Band Ball, Alligator Land, Genuine Indian Teepee Village. If we saw a sign, we stopped.
My father organized these marathon trips with the intent of entertaining and educating his family. An accountant to his soul, he would spend months poring over maps and brochures, calculating the most efficient and enjoyable vacation. He saw a family as a quantifiable unit that would, if fed and protected according to certain well-established guidelines, turn out to be both an asset to society and a personal triumph for its members. I don’t recall him ever asking any of us where we wanted to go.
The summer we stopped at the zoo, my brother was three but already more bold and adventurous than I. A nervous child, I was bright, but easily spooked by loud noises and sudden movements, largely due to having been born deaf in one ear and with poor vision. I couldn’t tell from which direction a threat was coming.
The zoo was a large, fenced-in, grassless pasture where goats, miniature donkeys, chickens, and sheep all wandered aimlessly. It was deadly humid that day. My brother wobbled ahead while I huddled close to my mother, gripping a handful of alfalfa pellets to feed the animals.
Suddenly, I saw the flash of a non-human eye next to mine, heard a hissing, spitting noise, and felt a scorching breath against my deaf ear. Enormous, fuzzy legs with big feet were stomping the ground, raising puffs of dust that filled my throat until I couldn’t call out. Glancing up, I saw two pairs of darting eyes — the bird’s and my mother’s. My father was trying to wrench the camera away from my mother so he could hit the bird with it, but the strap was tangled up in her purse strap, and she was trying to disengage it. Between the two straps, my mother was effectively being choked to death. I ran to my brother, and we cowered on the dry ground, too afraid even to think about screaming.
I last saw the emu trotting away across the dry field, leaving clouds of dust in its tracks, just like in a Roadrunner cartoon. My mother was disheveled and sobbing silently. My father was red with rage and exertion. We left immediately. We did not stop in the souvenir shop.
As an adult, I find my lingering fear of these birds particularly ludicrous — but at least it doesn’t keep me awake at night or cost me any opportunities. I once saw emu steaks in a grocery store, and part of me thought about buying one, but my relationship with the species was perilous enough. Eating them seemed like tempting fate.
Recently, I read an article that said the emu ranches in Texas are all going broke, and the failed entrepreneurs are turning the animals loose. The birds are showing up in strip-mall parking lots and terrorizing people. And they’re migrating.
Kelly E. Justice
We’d been stuck in planes for more than eighteen hours — my husband, Dave; Harry, our crying toddler; our other son, Ollie, almost five; and I — and we were still only halfway there. We’d just sold our home in Melbourne, Australia, to start over in upstate New York. Now we had a thirty-hour layover in Honolulu, Hawaii, until our next plane left for Los Angeles.
We fell asleep around dawn, and the kids woke up hungry at exactly noon. Jet lag was hitting me hard, but we needed food, and our flight to LA didn’t leave until around midnight. So we got dressed, stuffed diapers and towels into the baby bag, and walked to the beach. On the way, Ollie shot off in all directions, looking at everything, while I pushed Harry in the stroller. Ollie was especially excited because he was wearing his new wet suit and had been promised a ride on a boogie board.
We waded for hours amid the lulling waves, near a tree that was growing right up out of the water. Dave and I took turns holding Harry and watching Ollie ride his board. Then we spied some catamarans in the distance and convinced Ollie that it was worth taking a walk to see them. On the way, Ollie didn’t want to hold Dave’s hand. He wanted to go back in the water, he said. We told him to wait. He wanted to run ahead; we told him to stay with us. He wanted to climb an empty lifeguard stand. We told him no. Dave and I were talking about all the calls we needed to make: to our friends in LA, to my parents, to the airline to confirm our seats. Suddenly, Dave stopped short and stood looking around, his hands on his hips.
Sometimes life ceases to be something that is happening to you and instead becomes a kind of movie in which you must reluctantly take part. That is how I felt the moment I realized that Ollie was gone.
Amazingly, I didn’t scream at first, but remained rational. After all, Dave was rational. He theorized that Ollie was either back at the lifeguard stand or ahead at the catamarans or at the blanket. Since I was holding Harry, Dave proposed that I stand in place and scan the beach while he ran to check out those locations. He soon came back alone, still speaking in measured tones, but now twisting a piece of his hair. OK, he said, Ollie must have either kept walking straight or turned back toward the place where we’d been swimming, so I should keep going straight with Harry, while Dave doubled back to the tree.
Ollie had been missing for at least ten minutes. I tried running, and Harry obligingly bobbed along in my arms. When I couldn’t see Ollie anywhere, I started to call his name.
After a long and desperate search, I went back to the boogie-board stand and barged to the front of the line. “Excuse me; my son is lost,” I said in a strange, shaky voice that wasn’t my own. “He’s almost five. He’s got blond hair. He’s wearing a little surfer outfit, black and green.” The man behind the counter pointed and said, “Phones are down there.” Then he went back to filling an order.
Of course. I had to call 911. I was starting toward the phones when a woman standing in line offered to help. I repeated Ollie’s description to her. “You go call 911,” she said.“My boyfriend and I will find him.” She went off yelling, and I ran to the phones, hauling Harry, who by now was so heavy on my hip that I thought of putting him down — and then felt a jolt of guilt.
The phones were all in use, and there were people waiting in line. It had been almost an hour by now. Ollie was either very lost, or being helped by someone, or drowned — or stolen. I suddenly remembered a documentary I’d seen on Australian public TV about an international ring of pedophiles.
I repeated my story to the people at the bank of phones with the same shaky voice, only louder this time. “He’s been gone for an hour,” I said. “Please.” A man stepped aside, and I grabbed the phone. When I reached 911, the operator told me to stay put. “I can’t do that,” I told her. “I have to keep looking.” I gave her as much information as I could. If Ollie wasn’t found, I realized, we would need pictures to give to the police, but they’d all been shipped ahead. “Don’t worry,” the operator told me. “They usually get found quickly.”
I ran back toward the water. My ears were ringing, and I could barely breathe or move my legs. I stood at the water’s edge, whirling around. Down the beach to my right, a group of people were moving through the crowd, probably looking for Ollie. Down the beach to my left, Dave was standing before the surf like me, his face contorted with agony and rage, pounding his fists into his thighs. Then a man tapped me on the shoulder. He was fiftyish, balding, tanned. He looked like a doctor. I was sure he’d come to tell me that Ollie had drowned. Then his words broke through: “Are you the woman who lost her son? He’s been found.“
I stumbled forward, crying and pulling at him with my free hand. An elderly woman came toward us. She was wearing tiny, wire-framed glasses, a long skirt with a fitted jacket, and a wide-brimmed, Victorian-looking hat. Everything she wore, right down to her shoes, was mint green. “Are you the mother?” she asked. Then Ollie rushed out from behind her and threw his arms around me. “Are you really the mother?” she kept asking. “I can’t release him to you unless I know you’re the mother.” Ollie and Harry and I fell to the sand, crying and grabbing at each other. “You didn’t come with me! ” Ollie cried. “You let me go!” I didn’t argue with him just then — what would have been the point? Then Dave was with us, crying, too. When I looked up again, the woman in green was gone.
New Paltz, New York
The following is a recollection of Auschwitz written in Paris in December 1945. It was submitted by the author’s widow.
It was Saturday, December 16, 1944. On Saturdays we worked until 1 P.M. and came back to camp about an hour later — not in order to rest, but once more to clean the barracks (the floors had to be scrubbed twice daily, morning and night), shave (one razor per barracks, about 350 men, with one fresh blade per month), get haircuts (mandatory each week, with a pair of broken clippers so that the hair was pulled out rather than cut), clean our shoes (wooden soles tied on with torn rags and held together with small bits of wire, which we had to steal at the construction sites in order to be able to walk at all), and repair our clothes (find rags to cover the holes and sew on buttons). We received about 150 yards of thread a week per barracks, less than half a yard each. And you may be sure that, after a week’s work, these “clothes” were literally torn to shreds.
Every day we had our soup ration about thirty minutes after returning to the camp, and every Saturday this was followed by an assembly and roll call in front of the barracks, where the barracks chief informed us that before nightfall we had to shave, get haircuts, and so on.
I was so weak that as soon as I returned to the barracks I went to bed, and my father brought me my soup. Though I could no longer stand, I got up for a few minutes to get my hair cut. I needed to shave only every other week, since my beard was very light. I had one foot in the grave.
The room leader (a Jew of the worst kind) took pity on me that day. He said, “You can stay in bed. If the barracks chief asks for you, I will tell him you are sick; he won’t care.” So everyone went to assembly except me.
This assembly, it turned out, was not for the customary announcements, but rather to witness three executions. Two poor souls who had picked up some telephone wire to fix their “shoes” were to be hanged for sabotage, and the third was to hang for having dared to say that the accusation was absurd.
Since August of that year, we had become accustomed to this sort of spectacle. The inhuman brutes, in order to demonstrate their sadism, even had the band play for these occasions. All the SS guards attended for their pleasure. Then came the terrible “Alles Achtung! Mützen ab!” (“Attention, everyone! Hats off!”) One performed this gesture automatically. In the winter it made our half-frozen bodies just a little bit colder, and in the summer it let just a little more rainwater run down our necks. And then the Rapportfuehrer read the “verdict,” which always began: “Im Auftrag des Sonderbeauftragten des Führers. . .” (“By order of the . . .”)
Then the worst and most sadistic of the SS guards, the one we’d nicknamed Tom Mix, tested the rope. He placed it around the neck of the condemned, removed it, placed it again, all with a devilish smile on his face. At the first execution we witnessed, in August, the rope tore, and the victim fell to the ground. Tom Mix then brought out a new rope and started over. A second failure. On the third try, finally, he succeeded. One must have seen this to truly comprehend it.
That Saturday, he hanged three while I was lying in bed unaware.
After the executions, the assembly continued. It was terribly cold outside, and the men began to step inside the barracks to warm up, first one by one, then in twos and threes. Within five minutes, the place was crowded. When Tom Mix noticed the desertion, he began screaming. Everyone rushed toward the door. To punish this “revolt,” Tom Mix pulled his gun and fired in the direction of the door. Men leapt out through the windows until no one remained inside — no one except me. I was lying down and could not get up fast enough.
I heard them coming, three or four SS guards, going from room to room to make sure everyone was outside. Could I hide under the bed? The thought came too late; they were already next door and would surely hear me move. What to do? Now they were outside the door. We had triple-decker bunks, and mine was in the middle, facing the door. He would see me even before he came into the room. I pulled the blanket over my head and waited without breathing.
Through a tiny hole in the blanket, I could see the door open. Tom Mix himself was there, gun drawn. He turned his head both ways, then shut the door, saying, “No one there.”
The others were punished with an extra hour of assembly, my father among them. He didn’t know what had become of me. When he came back inside, we cried together.
But we did not go insane.
Submitted by Betse Streng
San Miguel de Allende