Double Wide – Yet another relationship story

I thought I was done with my relationship stories, yet I have found another one. Names and minor details have been changed to protect identity. This is a first draft. I don’t know if I will continue with this one, but I thought I’d post it, as a friend once requested I write it.


Lisa is straddled over me on the couch hiking up her blue-cotton sun dress and kissing me nonstop, deeply and passionately, as if we have fallen in love all of a sudden, like an unexpected downpour in summer. I don’t like her much, but I guess she’s my new girlfriend. The entire time she has me pinned to the couch, I worry my mother will come downstairs and see this girly-girl swarming me and coming on like torrential rain. An apt image, given how wet she tells me she is, when she stops kissing me for a second.  Okay, we’re not teenagers. I’m a grown-up woman and so is she, but I’m worried about my mother seeing this spectacle, not because we are lesbians, or in her case, acting the part of a lesbian, but because this is embarrassing — this femme has her sundress hiked up and she has me clamped to the couch. I have muscles in my arms and a lot of upper body strength, but I can’t get up.

“I’m so wet,” she says again. Oh, Mom, do not come down those stairs. I cannot toss her off of me. So we kiss. It’s a little like drowning.  I don’t want to drown, but I allow myself to drown. Why? God, it’s complicated. Isn’t everything?

My mother called me at work at 4 p.m. on Friday, one of hottest days of the summer in July of 2011.

“The air conditioning isn’t working,” she said. “The house is very warm.”

“How long has it been out?”

“I don’t know, since one o’clock.”

I didn’t ask her, because I was afraid I’d scream, but why did she wait until near the end of the work day Friday to call and tell me the air conditioning was out? The temperature was close to 100 degrees. It was easily the hottest day of the year, and now I would need to leave work early to see if anyone could come out to the house to fix the a/c.

I called Lisa. I was attempting to keep her at bay, and to find a diplomatic way out of this friendship about to turn dating. I’d asked her to do meet me for an ice cream, a completely unromantic activity.

“Lisa, the air conditioning went out at my house,” I said, about to cancel our ice cream meeting. But before I could get the next sentence out, she said, “I’ll be right over.”

“Okay,” I said, when I really meant “no,” but she’d already hung up the phone, anyway, and presumably dashed to her car to come to my rescue.

Lisa and I pulled into my driveway at about the same time. She exited her vehicle wearing her blue sun dress, and I exited mine wearing blue jeans. She smiled wide, as we entered my house. It felt like a thousand sweaty degrees in there. My mother was in the kitchen. She was 81 that summer.

“Mom, this is Lisa, a friend of mine.” After the introductions, Lisa got down to work.

“We’d better get the bunny out of the hutch and onto the floor,” she said. She was right. A rabbit can die from heat stroke, and the stone floor in the kitchen stayed quite cool. So, as the rabbit rested on the floor dropping shit pellets and pee, and Lisa stood centimeters from me with her face stuck right next to my own, I frantically looked through the local shopping guide to see who could come over on a Friday evening and fix the a/c.

It took three tries, but I got someone to answer on the third phone call. He sounded drunk.

“Yeah, I can fix your a/c, but I’m eating dinner,” he said. “I can come over after dinner, around 6:30.” What he said made sense but the way he said it – with slurry speech – made me very nervous.

I sat on the floor with the bunny. Lisa sat next to me. She made small talk with my mother. I was angry at my mother for not having called earlier so I said nothing.

At precisely 6:30 p.m., the doorbell rang, and I was afraid to let in this man I’d called. He hulky, with a red scraggly beard, and his eyes didn’t look right, drunk or nuts or something. He had spaghetti sauce in his beard and on his shirt. Somehow, that made him seem somewhat less threatening, although not anymore inviting.

“I’m John,” he said. “Can I come in?”

Against my better judgment I let him in. He had no internal filter, he made that clear. He leered at Lisa in her little blue sun dress and said, “Damn, you are looking mighty fine, lady.” I tapped John on the back, more than once, with my knuckles, until he finally turned around, and I said, “Hey, Mr., I’m the one who owns the house. I’m the one who is going to pay you.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” he answered, “She’s looking great. So, tell me what the problem is.”

I explained to him that all the equipment in the house turned on but the unit outside didn’t.

“Ha,” he said, an out of place chuckle. “Yeah, yeah, I can fix that.”

I seriously doubted he could fix anything. I had one hand on my cell phone ready to call the police. He was still lewdly staring at Lisa whenever he could turn his head away from my (apparently annoying) voice.

“I’ll follow you outside,” he said finally. So we went out the door and around to the side of the house where the a/c unit was. He lifted the top of the unit and giggled, scaring me further because what was so fucking funny? I could see Lisa staring out the window at us, also scaring me, two strange people surrounding me, filling my space on this sweltering day. How does one so quickly become surrounded by strange human beings, spaghetti man and come-on girl?

“Oh yeah, yeah, I can fix that, I just gotta get a part from my van.”

John went to his van and came back with a small tubular item. I have no mechanical abilities and I couldn’t fathom how that little tubular thing could fix my big a/c unit.

Lisa continued to stare at us through the window. I was sweating.

John pulled the old part out of the a/c unit and pushed the new one into it. He shut the lid. It took him 3 minutes. (The bill was $290.)

“That’s it,” he said.

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it. These things last about 10 years. This will be good for 10 years. Go turn on the a/c.”

We both went back inside and I turned on the a/c. Son of a bitch, it worked! The guy with spaghetti sauce in his beard and on his shirt, the lewdly staring creep who had come to my door, fixed the a/c.

“I can fix all appliances,” he said. “Everything. Whatever you need!”

“Fabulous,” I said, as he handed me his card, as I directed him toward the door, “I’m sure I will need that.”

“Bye, honey,” he said to Lisa.

When he left, my mother went upstairs as the house began to cool. I put the rabbit back in his hutch. Lisa and I fell to the floor laughing over the absurdity of the situation.

“The slob was a mechanical genius.”

We cracked up again, rolling on the floor. Laughing like that with someone is such an intimate act. I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms, but looking back now, I see this was the beginning of my mistake with her, which would arrive within the hour.

I had met Lisa at my personal trainer’s. She had recently joined the workout group with a friend of hers. I didn’t notice her, at least not in any kind of love-interest way. I did notice that she was very verbal, very intelligent, and extremely intense. I didn’t think she had noticed me at all. I didn’t care.

I can’t recall exactly when the transition happened, and Lisa started to notice me and I noticed her attention. I had purchased a bike and wanted to go bike riding over the weekend. Nothing too strenuous, just a few laps around the local park under the trees, by the pond, safe, easy, a way to get outside and exercise.

“I love to bike ride,” Lisa said at one of our workout sessions. “I’ll come.”

I thought: great, seriously, this is great, someone local can meet me at the park, and I don’t have to do this alone. I was so used to doing everything alone.

“We can go out for coffee after, Lisa.” I said.

Her smile was wide and a little over the top. I put it down to her intense way of expressing herself in any situation.

That Sunday, she showed up at the park with an ancient bike, all black, a man’s bike, probably from someone’s basement, probably it had been abandoned there for decades, but Lisa had dug it out for this occasion. Obviously, she hadn’t ridden a bike for years. I pulled it in from the back of my head, her statement, “I love to go for bike rides.” Maybe when she was five?

Why was she here?

We made it around the park once, 3.9 miles. I wanted to go around two or three times. You don’t burn any calories on a bike till you go at least 10 miles.

“Let’s go for coffee now,” she said. And I said “okay” because that’s what I always say.

At Panera, as we were sipping coffee, she stared at me as I spoke. I hadn’t told her I was gay, but I figured now was as good a time as any. Why? I didn’t know what else to talk about. When I told her, she said, “I know,” because that’s what everyone says when I tell them.

“I’m looking for someone,” she said.

“A man?” I asked. She didn’t say anything. The last I’d heard from her at the gym was about a breakup with a guy. I wanted us to be clear.

“A man?” I repeated.

“I don’t know what I’m looking for.” She stared right into my yes.

“Fair enough,” I said, thinking this isn’t at all fair.

I still didn’t understand the series of mistakes about to happen, that would lead to her pinning me to the couch in her blue dress.

I was working out on the elliptical at the gym on an early Tuesday evening in June, when Lisa arrived, strode right up to me. Her smile was wider than any smile I’d ever seen, but rather than find it beautiful, I found it disconcerting. Her smile felt aimed at me, like a pistol, and I didn’t get it, what was about to transpire.

“This has been the best Tuesday ever!” she said as I did rotations on the machine. “Ever.”  And then she stared right into my eyes and said, “This is the best part.”

Was she in love with me? Why was she smiling at me like that, as if she’d just discovered the love of her life sweating on an elliptical machine?

What did I say back to her? Something like, “I’m glad you’re having such a good day.”

Yes, I said something lame like that. But I didn’t know exactly what she was getting at, since every word she spoke held innuendo and therefore was not straightforward. I could only read her face, which was brighter than the June sun at noon, and that smile, wide as a ruler. Okay, wider. She had shoulder length light brown hair. In a way she was pretty. It was hard to see her as pretty because her personality was so overwhelming. Overwhelming on her was like a facial feature, like a too-big nose on a small head, although in reality, her nose was quite small.

“Yes, the best Tuesday ever,” she repeated, and I became even more uncomfortable.

There was a point, between June and July, when she made it clear she wanted to date me. I tried to warn her off. I brought up our age difference.

“You’re 32 and I’m 49,” I said. “I’m an old woman to you.”

“I loooooovvvvvvveeee older women.” Okay.

“I hardly know you. We barely know each other.” Another good argument, I thought.

“That’s what dating is for!”

I had spoken to my trainer about Lisa. At the time she said she liked Lisa. She was intelligent and pretty and fun. I couldn’t argue with that. Lisa worked at MIT, had a sharp mind, and as I said, if you could look past her overbearing personality, she was fairly pretty.

So I set up the ice cream date out of fear. Fear of what? Fear of hurting her feelings or fear of having an adult date with this young woman. I set up what amounted to a play-date for grown-ups, meeting at Big Daddy’s Ice Cream Parlor in Stoughton, where we could sit outside and watch the traffic go by. Great ambiance for a five year old. But we never made it there, to our non-date, because the a/c broke and because we fell to the floor laughing over the lewd spaghetti repair man, and became intimate through shared laughter. I became vulnerable: Lisa and I had shared a moment of mutual support.

“Do you want to go out to dinner?” I asked after we’d stopped laughing. “Out to dinner” sounded much more like a real date, but I couldn’t see going for an ice cream now that she’d gone through this air conditioning debacle with me.

“YES!!!!!”  Well, you can imagine.

And then, as if she’s already become a high maintenance girlfriend, she said, “Why don’t you go to your car and turn on the a/c? Last time, it took a while to cool down.” I think that statement unnerved me as much as any; she sounded like a wife.

Okay, I said, with a nervous pit rolling in my stomach.

I took her down the road to Rick’s, a family restaurant, where I sometimes bring lesbian dates. A few years back I’d had another woman falling all over me at the piano bar in the middle of the floor, as we requested Beatles’ songs from the piano man, and while we provided the heterosexual nuclear families an education in “gay.” Across the street was The Randolph Country Club, an actual gay bar. That night my date and I went straight from terrifying the straight patrons at Rick’s to a party across the street complete with cross dressers, beautiful gay men, and an assortment, let’s say, of gay women. The spectacle, then the spectrum.

I had no intention of making this dinner with Lisa into a “date.” I just wanted to thank her for hanging in with me during the air conditioning crisis at home. Still, I squirmed in my seat as they served us the warm bread and butter, as her smile was so wide — double-wide — it was if she were opening her legs for me to enter. I found something unnervingly sexual in that unabashed smile.

I don’t remember a word we said to one another. I imagined we joked again about Mr. Spaghetti man. I do, however, remember leaving the restaurant with her because this where the real escalation into “dating” began.

She kept bumping into me as we walked through the parking lot. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. She was bumping into me on purpose, and smiling, of course.

Do you know what I did?

I took her into my arms and kissed her.

Have you fallen off of your chair? Even looking back, I am ready to fall off of mine. Why did I kiss her? I can’t count the number of times I have misled women, as well as myself, confused them (and myself) by acting in ways nearly opposite from my words. “I love being with you,” and then I go home, for example. Or, “I don’t want to date you,” but I kiss you deep and long in a public parking lot.

I don’t get it either and I believe this is what therapy is for. I imagine now I kissed her because she wanted that from me, and I wanted to make her happy. She’d made it clear that she wanted to date and who was I to say no to her? Why say no to a bright, relatively attractive young woman who appears to be crazy about me?

Bra shopping finally did us in. During that hot summer, it became apparent that I was in dire need of new bras. I’m small-breasted so bras are never top in my priorities, as I can get away for years on the same couple of bras or can get through a day or two in a sports bra. But this was the year of the bra. Lisa wanted to go bra shopping with me. As we seemed to be dating, I said, “Sure, why not.”

I don’t recall what store we were in. It might have been Sears, but it was a department store with many dressing rooms.

“Can I come in?” Lisa asked. I hesitated. Her question felt at once like an invasion of privacy and at the same time, harmless. We hadn’t slept together. She would be seeing a good portion of my body. I didn’t want her to come in.
“Okay,” I said, “Come on in.”

So, there she stood, with the double-wide grin that made me feel swallowed or fucked or something smothering due to its inability to reign itself into any semblance of controlled emotion.

“Turn around, please” I said. I needed to try on another bra, and I was shy about having her see my naked breasts. Lisa moved to the corner and turned her back. Before I had the bra in place, however, I felt her body against my back. She used her hands to squeeze my stomach and held on tight from behind. I could feel her nether regions pushing into my ass. Oy.

“Does this bother you?” she asked when I failed to respond to her overture.

“Yes, it does.”

Oh my god, I actually told the truth.

She was upset. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” It’s okay, it’s okay, I assured her but it wasn’t. I knew that statement “Yes, it does,” perhaps my first statement of truth, was the end for us.

I am not a liar. I don’t blatantly lie to women I date or to anyone. But what I am is self-delusional, hoping always that I can overlook issues in a girlfriend that in the end I cannot overlook. I try to convince myself that I need time, need to get to know her better, need to lighten up what my usual type is – relatively feminine, usually pretty, much girlier than I am. Of course, Lisa was girly enough, it was the force of her personality that was so hard for me to take. In any case, the self-delusion always breaks at some point, and I am left with no choice but to face the truth and the speak it.

After the bra incident, Lisa and I ate lunch at Panera and I had very little to say to her. She called me from home that evening to continue apologizing. I said to her something along the lines of, “What you did wasn’t wrong or bad, Lisa, it just made me uncomfortable. I think we should not date. This isn’t the right relationship for me.”

The honesty was just gushing out of me at this point.

She called again the next day, or rather, she texted. I had a trip planned to Colorado in a few weeks and before I told Lisa I didn’t care to date, she had (over eagerly) agreed to take care of my pet rabbit while I was away for 12 days. My mother was not up to caring for such a creature, which requires particular feedings and tray cleanings frequently.

“Even though we aren’t dating, I still plan to take care of your rabbit,” she texted.

“Really? I don’t think that’s a great idea.” That’s all I needed, to leave this woman with a key to my house.

“Yes,” she texted, “Even if I killed you, I would still take care of your rabbit.”

Oh, my, right? “Even if I killed you…”

“Don’t bother, Lisa.” For the next few weeks, I was looking over my shoulder for this woman. I expected her to come at me, with that smile a mile-wide grimace, screaming crazily as she stabbed me in the back, right through to the chest. At least, I expected to come home from work one day and find my rabbit being boiled in a pot, like the crazy shit that happened in movies.

But nothing happened.

It would be fabulous if I could say that after being mauled on my couch by this femme woman in a blue sun dress on that very hot July night, and realizing she wasn’t right for me after she mauled me again in a dressing room while I was bra shopping, I moved forward in my life never making the same mistake again. The truth is, the self-delusion I experience continues to be a fault of mine, no matter how much I work at it in therapy, and no matter how old I get. In different shapes, ways, forms, and experiences, there is conflict inside myself – give the relationship a fair chance, convince myself that it can work and realize in a nanosecond that it’s not what I want.  I end up hurting the other person, at least superficially, sometimes more deeply.

This is my bane, my fault, and my folly.

My Fight with Panic Disorder Part II: Gwin and Marijuana

From the essay, “Stuck in the Middle,” by Cindy Zelman

Look, you even get your own handbook.
If only I’d had a handbook on how to keep out of trouble when I was 15.

When I was thirteen I met Gwin, new to town, and we spent a lovely year bonding as we entered the eighth grade at junior high. We walked to and from the bus stop each day, chatting about our young lives, and yet feeling so mature.

 “Those seventh graders still act like children,” she might say, and I’d answer, “Yes, they do, Gwin, like babies.”

Already, she was interested in junior and senior boys in high school. I thought this made her very grown up. Although we didn’t share many classes at school, we hurried to each other every afternoon when we caught the school bus home. We babysat together, and spent all waking moments keeping each other company. We shared secrets. Her father drank too much. So did my mom. Her mother was mentally unstable. So was my dad. She was a virgin but she wanted to have sex. I was a virgin and I wanted to learn to play the guitar. We ate Swiss Rolls (chemically produced cake with chemically manufactured whip cream) and drank Diet Pepsi (with fake sweetener to give you brain tumors, someday, long down the road, we imagined.) We laughed so much. That was the thing: I’d never been so happy, as I was with Gwin.

She had cat-green eyes and a reddish-blonde afro, a hairstyle popular in the 1970s, no matter your skin color. When she smiled at me, all other reality collapsed. I had fallen secretly in love with her – the secret was on me, and it would take me years to understand these feelings. I would have done anything to please her, and I did.

Before panic attacks exploded as a regular part of my life, I agreed, at the end of our freshmen year in high school, to try marijuana. By age fifteen, Gwin enjoyed smoking pot. She thought it was her right that I should smoke with her.

“What are best friends for? I want you to get high with me. That’s what best friends do together.” She demanded it, her tone chastising.

I had done a little drinking since entering high school, but I never got drunk. I hated the taste of booze, truly, and thought of my mother every time I felt even a little tipsy. My mother was a big nighttime drunk. As a child, I’d suffered through her episodic inebriated jags, always as she came home from a night out partying, fumbling with her house key, noisy and incompetent. Such memories made me afraid of the idea of pot—the potential loss of control—but I did not know how to articulate such a fear to Gwin or to myself.

Too late!

As we departed the woods, I stumbled down a three-foot embankment and blacked out. I could not remember climbing down the embankment. I was at the top of it, and then I was staggering at the bottom of it. I couldn’t remember the two seconds in between. A terror ignited inside me, extinguished, lit again and extinguished, like brush fires ravage through the woods on a windy day. Somehow I managed to reach Ellen’s patio, which served as an open and pretty backyard to the condo she lived in with her mother and sister.

Ellen had laid out a feast for the stoned: potato chips, onion dip, little meatballs on a stick, chili, Doritos, candy, cake, and Diet Pepsi. My getting high for the first time signified an occasion. I sat down in a patio chair. Ellen turned on music. We were seventies rockers. We listened to The Who, Rod Stewart, and Queen. One of my favorite songs of the era was “Stuck in the Middle,” featuring a now obscure band called Stealers Wheel. The song played out of Ellen’s stereo speakers. Ellen and Gwin were giggling ecstatically, but I sat with a mortified expression, feeling stiff and paralyzed and other-worldly.

“Are you having fun?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know.” I managed to say.

“What’s the matter?” Giggles.

“Nothing. Just let me feel the music.”

“Just let me feel the music!” They mocked with more uncontrollable giggles.

That was a line I never lived down with those girls. Yet how appropriate some of the lines of the song: Well, I don’t know why I came here tonight/I got the feeling that something ain’t right /Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right/Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

I was stuck in the middle of a drug experience. I was stuck in the middle of my first full-fledged  panic attack. I was in a state of marijuana hallucination. I stared at the red brick wall of the back of Ellen’s condo. The brick wall existed and did not exist. I viewed everything through a warped visual haze that apparently my friends either did not experience or did not experience as terrifying. I saw a hand crumbling Ruffles Potato Chips to my lower right, understanding that this was my hand, but this wasn’t my hand. I had no reference point for reality, and my perceptions floated un-tethered and petrified, as a hand, mine, not mine, crumbled Ruffles.

My throat was parched. The table with the refreshments rested just feet away, but it seemed miles. There is a table but there is no table. I couldn’t imagine how I would get out of my seat to pour a drink, and I could no longer speak to ask for one. I could see my friends laughing and munching Doritos, but I couldn’t figure out if they were there or not. Gwin, Ellen? There, not there. I would die from thirst. My tongue was huge and leathery in my mouth.

I was pouring myself a Diet Pepsi over ice cubes. How did I get to the table? I did not remember rising from my chair. How will I get back to my chair?

 I am paralyzed.

 I will fall and die.

 I am back at my chair.

The hand continued to crumble potato chips. It’s my hand. It’s not my hand.

 I couldn’t lift the glass to my lips to relieve my enormous tongue that no longer fit in my mouth. It is my tongue. It is not my tongue.

I was downing Diet Pepsi and trying to un-parch my tongue. Drink or die. I felt myself swallowing liquid. Drink or die.

I swallow. I cannot swallow. I swallow.

I could not turn in any direction; everything I saw was there but was not. I looked up to the sky (which exists and does not exist) and prayed to God (who exists and does not exist) to get me out of this: Dear God, if you get me out of this, I promise I will never again take another drug.

I saw my father, difficult and frightful, walking toward Ellen’s patio, although he did not know where she lived. I imagined him, with his dark-tanned skin and wounded eyes, demanding that I get up and go with him. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t walk. He would have a tantrum. I can’t get up. My father is not here but he’s coming. No he’s not. Yes he is.

My prayers worked, eventually, because I started, after what seemed like hours, to come down. Reality slowly started to look real again: the brick wall, the table, the glass in my hand. Potato chips were just potato chips. I ate some. I thanked God in my head, and I experienced a deep physical calm and acceptance of all things. I wondered if this was how people felt right before they resigned themselves to drowning at sea. I felt I had drowned, had lost something in silvery waves of fear. Although God (or something) got me out of this horror, I had not been saved: I remained the daughter of a drinker mom and a mental case dad, and now, I would come to find out, I’d triggered a psychiatric disorder and would become a teenager with a wrecked adolescence.

To be continued.

A version of this essay was originally published in Cobalt Review

If you are interested in reading Part I – please click here:

Watch the video: Stuck in the Middle

My Fight with Panic Disorder (Part I)

On the advice of a writer-acquaintance, I will be publishing excerpts from some of my essays here on my blog. I hope you will enjoy reading.

Stuck in the Middle

The cashier and the bag boy look at me as if I’m insane.

They have a point.

I toss items out of my shopping cart onto the conveyor belt at mental-case warp speed. The Oscar Mayer bologna package bounces off the belt and onto the floor. The meat is pink and the supermarket lights are bright yellow. It pungent in here, the smell of fresh fruit and deli roast beef wafting through the aisles. The conveyor belt is black, faded after years of rotation and thousands of grocery orders. It squeaks on every other turn. I try to focus on the normal task of placing groceries on the belt, but the florescent lights glare in my eyes and make me look away.

I am having a panic attack.

My fingers shake.

My breath comes in short gasps.

Focus, Cindy.

The cashier is young, high school, with long brown hair, pretty, someday beautiful. The bag boy is no more than sixteen and will grow to be handsome and strong. I think. Maybe I’m fantasizing. My bologna is on the floor. That’s no fantasy. I’m in my forties. Another reality. Sweat screeches from the pores in my chest and underarms. I bend over and throw the bologna package back on the belt, and it bounces to the floor again. Who knew a package of bologna had so much elasticity?

I’m hot. I mean like hells-oven-hot. Eight-hundred-degrees-hot. Who-the-fuck-lit-me-on-fire-hot.


Breathe deeply.

I inhale slowly and exhale. Three times. Like the shrink taught me. I have a moment that’s something less than raging panic.

Once I was as young as these kids. I was that cashier in 1978: Roxie’s Supermarket, home of the fifty-nine cent “rubber” chicken which the boys used to toss and slide across the meat room floor before packaging the skinny yellow carcasses in plastic and putting them on display. When I was that age, we still had to ring in each item. We did not have bar code scanners. This was before my problems with panic disorder. This was before I realized I was a lesbian. I’m not implying a cause-effect connection between panic disorder and lesbianism, just explaining all I was unaware of at age sixteen, all I was “in for” you might say. At Roxie’s, we used our fingers to type numbers on a keypad and counted out change by doing math in our heads. And if we had same-sex desires, we kept quiet about them.

The cashier is silent as she slowly scans my items, eyeing me. The bag boy has a thoughtful expression, as if he’s wondering how he can get me into an ambulance. I can barely breathe. The hot flash runs through me and the heat implodes: spreads inside out, then outside in, from guts to limbs. I’m not sure I’ve ever been this hot in my life, like I’ve just hiked up a mountain under a furious sun. I manage to throw most of the grocery items from the cart onto the belt, but I must get out of the building. The heat in my body will not relent and my mind cannot process rationally. I’ll fall down and faint. The walls are getting fuzzy. I’ll pass out! I must leave.

“I’ll be right back when you’re done,” I say to the cashier. “I need to get some air.” My voice still works like a sane person’s—small, quiet, and strangely normal—as panic roils inside of me.

“You all right, ma’am?” says the nice bag boy.

“I’m just hot, a little crazy.” I give a choppy laugh for his benefit. I look directly at the cashier.  “I’ll leave my credit card with you in case you’re ready to put it through before I return.”  My hands vibrate and the palms sweat. I keep moving my right hand behind my back, pressing into the small of it, a gesture I make only when in the throes of panic. It’s nearly an involuntary movement. Always my right hand. I don’t know why I do this.

Thank God I managed to hand over my credit card. The last thing I need is to have someone return all my groceries to the shelves thinking I won’t be back to pay for them. The last thing I need is to start this shopping debacle all over again. I’ve gotten this far – groceries on the belt, bologna on the floor. I exit through the glass doors out into the early March cold: the gray, the wind, the dank and dampness of late winter in New England. Suicide weather, but I am not suicidal, just saturated in sweat. I have no coat on and the temperature is barely thirty degrees. I’m not cold at all. I’m warm now but not overheated. I try to touch my shaking fingertips of my left hand to my right—I don’t know why I make this gesture either. The cold winds dry the sweat from my neck and back and chest. I’m close to hyperventilating, but I force myself to breathe slowly.

Why is it so hard for me to say to people, “Give me a minute, I’m having a panic attack?” Why the necessity of this ruse, “Oh, I just need some air,” and the little fake laugh to cover up my fear? Why am I ashamed? Embarrassed? I’m still silent about my lesbianism, too, except when I write. I’ve known myself as a lesbian for twenty-five years and have been suffering from panic disorder for even longer. I keep silent about all of it. Some people think I’m mentally unstable if I say I panic. Some people still think being a lesbian also means I’m mentally sick or spiritually evil. It would be worse to be sick with cancer than to panic; it would be worse to repress my sexuality than to deal with homophobes. So I say this with perspective: Life is difficult when you are pre-menopausal, prone to panic attacks, and gay.

To be continued….

Note: A version of this essay was previously published in the Cobalt Review.

David, pray

1975 Plymouth Duster photographed at the Rasse...
Image via Wikipedia

(Early draft stories from my agoraphobic life)

In his youth, David Pray sported a thick shock of blonde, wavy hair. That’s what you noticed first: all that crazy yellow-white hair. He had fine blue eyes, thick, pouty-boy lips, and a charismatic, toothy grin that occupied half of his face. He wasn’t what the girls considered a hunk, but he was sweet. Before my problems with agoraphobia landed me in my mother’s apartment, bewildered and paralyzed, I’d dated David, in his junior year and my sophomore year in high school. For several months, he bicycled six miles to see me. When he got his license, he bought a used car — a green Plymouth Duster with a kick ass stereo. He’d pick me up and we’d cruise around town with Lynrd Skynrd and Jethro Tull thrumming in our ears. These were our glory days; these were our days of innocence and joy.

We’d find our way back to my condo, where we’d make out sprawled across the plush carpet in the living room. My mother worked and my brother had moved to his college dorm. David and I had privacy. We didn’t shed much clothing during our make out sessions. We kissed and we held each other. After, we ate Doritos and drank Diet Pepsi. We smoked cigarettes. He smoked weed, too. We didn’t think about tomorrow. We went for another drive. We blasted Molly Hatchet and Pink Floyd. We sang this shit at the top of our lungs. We were free, like Skynrd’s Freebird, before the band members died. We stopped at MacDonald’s for fries.

The better part of a year passed, and David enrolled at Wentworth Institute of Technology, as my senior year in high school began. We’d broken up for no apparent reason except he was off to college and I wasn’t. By 1979, I’d become housebound, and I hadn’t seen David or any friends since “coming down with” panic attacks. Agoraphobia was the term we used in the 70s and 80s, for those of us who were so deeply terrorized by panic that we could not leave home to see a movie, attend a dance, go to the prom (David had asked), work a part-time job, or sit in a classroom. At the time, I was the only person I knew like that. I thought I had gone insane, I thought I was nuts. The inside of my head was a fucking mess; I imagined it looked like Alice Cooper’s face in Welcome to My Nightmare.

One night in the middle of my housebound year, I was surprised when David called and asked to visit me.

“You know I can’t do anything.”

“I just want to see you. I need to talk.”

“David, I look awful. I haven’t had my haircut in a year.”

He sounded so sad, that at his urging, I told him he could come over.

By this time, my mother and I had moved out of the condo and to the third floor of an apartment building. I heard the “buzz” of the ringer when David arrived. I let him in and I tried not to stare at his eyes, glassy and teary, as he attempted to hide sadness behind his huge and dazzling grin.

He hugged me and gave me a kiss. “How have you been? Are you doing any better?”

I don’t remember my answer. I’m sure I explained to him that I wasn’t as bad as I had been at the start of 1979, and as 1980 moved closer, I could almost imagine going outside. I know I explained to him during one of our phone calls that I thought I’d lost my mind, that I was afraid to go anywhere, because everywhere I went, I had a panic attack.

“I can’t even sit on the stoop,” I told him, as I told anyone who was in touch during that period in my life, “I run back upstairs sweating and trembling and feeling as though I’ll faint.”

“I’m sorry,” he’d said. I told him it was okay, that I was bound to get better, right?

And now he stood in front of me, looking more emotionally disturbed than I was.

“David, what’s the matter?” His grin had evaporated.

“I smoke too much pot.”

“You always did, David.”

“This is worse.”

I waited for him to explain.

“I can’t get to sleep at night unless I smoke a joint, and I’m scared. I can’t control it.”

It wasn’t the joints and the marijuana that were the problem. It was his lack of control. Maybe that’s why he wanted to see me. Lack of control was something I’d been living with for most of the last two years; I felt out of control during my panic attacks and with my life generally. I’d been going to therapy in an attempt to deal with my panic and phobias, so when David asked me what I thought he should do about his problem, I said, “David, find a therapist on campus to talk to about all this.”

We continued to discuss his dependency on pot for a time. He asked me more about what it was like to be agoraphobic and housebound. Our discussions led to talks about teenage tragedies. “Remember, Pat CXXXX?” I asked him. She’d been a girl who was a year behind me in high school, killed in a car crash in her sophomore year, just a mile down the street from where I lived. I recalled seeing her in gym class when she was a freshman, a short, cute cherubic girl, who looked much like her older sister, whom I’d known since first grade. A year later Pat was gone, dead at fifteen. David and I both recalled, Dave CXXXXXX, a boy we worked with at Roxies Supermarket, a physically large and generous guy, who had been diving from cliffs stoned out of his mind with his friends one night. He broke his neck during a swan dive, and died from complications in the hospital days later, after the entire high school, it seemed, had sent rallying prayers that he should live. “He’s tough,” a friend of his said hopefully, proudly, while he bagged someone’s groceries at the end of my check out counter. This kid had never talked to me before. All the girls who worked the second shift arrived at the supermarket crying on the day Dave CXXXXXX died. Two kids dead. Me, housebound. David, frightened about his addiction. No longer in the glory days, we’d entered the years when the shit rained down upon us.

We moved to the couch where we lay and held one another, both of us frightened by our behaviors, growing out of our teen years and into our twenties, into young adulthood with addictions, phobias, and fears so powerful they hurtled and ricocheted like daggers and boomerangs in our brains. We imagined the worst that could happen to us, instead of dreaming of the best, as you’d like to do at age 19 and 18. We lay there, our arms wrapped around each other, trying to save the other and ourselves, slipping instead into black holes of terror.

I didn’t know if therapy was helping me. I didn’t know if it could help David. I didn’t tell him that I’d begun praying for the first time in my life. I was not and still am not religious, but I had a few litanies I’d made up, which I said nightly, such as “God, get me through another day, send me a miracle, I can’t go on like this.” I’d need to repeat such a prayer five times before bed. And then a variation on it ten times. Why? I don’t know. The compulsive nature of my prayer was part of my illness. I was embarrassed to admit the prayer, the compulsion, or that I’d been thrown into a hell that had me trying to believe in God, where before I’d just believed in love and rock and roll. I didn’t say any of this to him.

David, I pray, I wanted to say. David, pray, I wanted to say. David Pray, I want to say, where are you now?

Please enjoy this hilariously dated video by Alice Cooper:

Running up the escalator

Suzanne, what is wrong with these fucking people?”

It seemed more appropriate than usual that I should fling the f-word, seeing that I found myself in a Secaucus, New Jersey train station near midnight. “I mean, why the fuck are these people running up the escalator when there are two huge staircases on either side of us?”

We’d just come from a Prince concert at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford. I’m from outside of Boston and rarely use public transportation. I was perplexed as I watched people running upwards on a moving escalator. I was also geographically disoriented. I have no idea where I am when in New Jersey, no sense of what goes where. If I’m in Secaucus, where is New York City? Where is Jersey City? Where is the Hudson? Where am I? But one thing I do know, despite all this confusion: When you ride an escalator “up,” you don’t run up the moving stairs.

Image via Wikipedia

“They’re showing off,” Suzanne said. “Just stay to the right and let them pass.”

“But isn’t this the stupidest fucking thing you’ve ever seen? I mean, what is with these people? Assholes.”

Suzanne took my hand and laughed. She’s very cool that way. All my bad language just “sweetens the pot” for her, she says. Gotta love a girl like that, right?

The next day she reminded me of what seeing Prince at the Izod Center really meant in my life – it was an incredible success story for one such as I who has been fighting panic disorder and agoraphobia for most of her life. I told Suzanne about the first concert I ever attended in 1977: The Steve Miller Band played the old Boston Garden – home of the Bruins and Celtics. At that time, smoking was still allowed in public venues and smoking pot was expected and allowed at rock concerts, despite marijuana being an illegal drug. The Steve Miller Band was reaching the height of its popularity in the 1970s with songs such as Fly Like an Eagle, Jet Airliner, and Take the Money ‘N Run. Their first hit came when I was a little kid, four years earlier, with The Joker.

In 1977 I was fifteen and my best friend’s older sister agreed to take us to the concert at The Garden. I should have been excited to attend the event, but I was scared. I became obsessed with my fear of inhaling pot smoke, smoke which I knew would infiltrate the arena. That fear extended itself into a fear of crowds. This was the blossoming of my panic disorder and agoraphobia. I had no awareness of the extent of my anxiety at that time; it was an inarticulate tremor beneath my skin.

When we walked into the Boston Garden that night, and a reefer cloud of smoke reached all the way down to our ankles, I was petrified. I spent the entire concert in a state of panicked alert, waiting to trip out again as I had the year before when I’d smoked marijuana and hallucinated from it.  To better understand my problems with narcotics, please see my blog entry “Drugged.”

That was more than thirty years past.

It’s 2010. Suzanne reminds me of how I’m challenging myself and pushing my limits, of how I’m growing.

I can board trains, buses, and escalators and walk into the Izod Center arena in the State of New Jersey – so far away from my home in Massachusetts – to see a legend like Prince. When we first walk in, I note the music is way too loud. I feel the drums vibrating in my chest and the guitars searing my eardrums. That kind of physical stimuli can still give me panic. I remember how strong I am, what good shape I’m in, at age 48. I have worked hard (for decades) to reclaim my ability to attend rock concerts, to attend life.

Of course, it helps to have a supportive lover/friend by your side.  Thank you, Suzanne. And it helps that smoking of any kind is no longer allowed in public places. So there is no cloud of reefer smoke infiltrating my nostrils and making me hold my breath and squirm in terror. The worst we run into at the Prince concert is a young woman who tries to hustle us into buying her a beer at the concessions. “I’m thirty years old,” she lies. “And can you believe I left my ID at home?” When we tell her that we won’t buy her alcohol, she says, “You guys, suck.” I don’t hear this but Suzanne tells me later. Suzanne looks at me and says, “Thirty years old, my ass.”

It’s all so easy now.

Prince is gorgeous. One cannot help but stare at his phenomenal presence and physical beauty. He reminds me of my twenties, the age I was during his rise to fame during the 1980s. I feel a kinship with him because he can bring back my youth, just by standing up on that stage and singing the songs of 25 years past. He can bring that youth to me now, now that I am healthy enough to breathe it in deeply.

I am so calm as I watch Prince dance and listen to him sing those amazing songs: Let’s Go Crazy, Kiss, Purple Rain, 1999. The idea of panic fades away to the mustier regions of my brain. I eat a giant pretzel and drink red Gatorade and hold my girlfriend’s hand.

And later, I will curse the New Jersey-ians running up the escalator. Life is so much better now.

Aisle 4 at the Stop and Shop: Where Lesbians Go to Pick Up Men

Allston shopping center: Super Stop & Shop, Go...
Image by Chris Devers via Flickr

Here is a little story I read in January 2010 during the residency of the Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College. Some of you heard me read it aloud, but others have not. Enjoy, or enjoy again: “Aisle Four at the Stop and Shop: Where Lesbians Go to Pick Up Men.”

“Now there’s a picture,” he says to me, leaning over his shopping cart, “Look at you holding your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup in one hand…” and then he points to the coffee-maker box I’m holding up with the other. I shrug my shoulders, perhaps begin to explain, you see, I’m the poster-child for caffeine addiction. We are in the Stop and Shop on a Friday night. He’s a youngish-looking bald man with blue eyes and a smile forming on his mouth. I look down into his shopping cart for clues. His cart is full of Nature’s Promise and Kashi products, expensive teas (no Lipton’s.) I mentally note the lack of red meat, of any meat. I look back to his eyes.

“Guess you caught me in my addiction,” I say. Thank god I’d thrown some zucchini and summer squash into my own shopping cart, some fresh spinach, enough vegetables to hide the deli-sliced roast beef and Genoa salami that lay at the bottom.  I am suddenly ashamed of my food. The Oreos are still visible. He holds up his Kashi cookies and says, “These are really good,” but I can’t believe that anything called a Kashi cookie will taste as good as an Oreo.  Then he talks about tea. He tells me at Starbucks he only orders tea. We are strangers who just happened to have met at this moment in aisle four of the Stop and Shop.

“Now, I make my own tea and bring it in a thermos to work,” he says, “I throw a slice of cheese on my own veggie sandwich I make at home, rather than buying one everyday at the Halfway Café.  I save a lot of money cooking for myself and I’ve lost ten pounds.”

I don’t tell him that at work today, I made three huge hamburger-filled tacos at the build-your-own taco bar and inhaled them into my body in less than five minutes. His eyes are twinkling at me, and I think he finds me attractive, somehow, even under the harsh lighting of the supermarket. I’m flattered, truly. I don’t tell him about my red-meat diet or that I sleep with women. I don’t see the need to come out to him regarding my love of hamburger or lesbians here in the coffee aisle at the Stop and Shop. Frankly, I’m enjoying his attention.

“So, you work around here?” I ask him. I continue to make small talk with a bald vegan man who eats Kashi.  Why do I continue to engage in conversation?

Or is a better question, “Why not?”

Do I want to get laid by a man?  I reach for a box of Triscuit crackers on the shelf opposite the coffee. “Oh yes, Triscuits,” I say a little too enthusiastically. Get laid the old fashioned way after twenty-five years of getting laid in alternative ways with or by women. Or have I been the one doing the laying? I lay women, I don’t say to him.  Am I hetero-curious all of sudden in middle-age? Maybe.  But no blow jobs. I place the Triscuits in my basket, over the Oreos. I never want another dick in my mouth. I don’t even really want a Triscuit. I’m not actually saying these things out loud to this man as we talk at the Stop and Shop. I’m saying something about Triscuit crackers, how I love the garlic ones best. While they are not Kashi-level-healthy, they are more presentable than the Cheez-its to which I am normally attracted.

“Did you see what you just did?” He’s laughing.

“What? Oh, you mean the Triscuits?”

“You were talking about coffee and then in a flash you were praising the merits of a Triscuit.”

“I’m on caffeine,” I say to him and furthermore, I only do oral sex with women, which I don’t say to him. When we do it together, create that sixty-nine, it’s better than any fucking Kashi cookie.  But right now, while I talk to Tim, who slipped in his name at some point, I do not expound upon my preference for a lesbian sixty-nine over a Kashi product.

It’s difficult to figure out his age but for some reason, I imagine he’s in his early thirties.  His skin is smooth and without wrinkles.  Finally I ask, “How old are you?’ and he surprises me by saying “Forty-nine.” I surprise him by telling him I’m forty-seven.  We stand in aisle four for a time ooh-ing and ahhh-ing over how young the other still looks.  Tim tells me he’s a fiction writer and independent film-maker and he doesn’t need to tell me he’s environmentally green.  One glance in the shopping cart makes that evident.

What a perfect guy I’ve met here in the supermarket on a Friday night. I, too, am a writer and into creative endeavors. I, too, enjoy talking and laughing. I, too, am apparently single and lonely enough on a Friday night to strike up a conversation with a stranger in aisle four. How perfect might we be together? But what would he think of all those plastic bottles I throw out with the trash? What would he think of the bloody roast beef I’ll be throwing in between two slices of white bread? Yeah, now those would be the problems between us should we have a date: the plastic bottles I throw in the trash and my roast beef sandwich — never mind the last twenty-five years of my life that I’ve spent sleeping with women.

Postscript to my encounter with Tim: I end up having tea and coffee with him a few times at a local Starbucks. He’s a very kind man, but aside from the fact that he is a heterosexual man and I am a lesbian, I can’t see him again because he keeps showing up with his black lace shoes untied. I am deeply freaked out that a grown man does not know enough to tie his shoes. There’s always that one thing.