A Night in December: A Story about a Trigger
“But it’s in the naming of the wound that the possibility for the curing happens. It’s the very act of identifying that opens up the possibility for change. Hope is that you’re going through that hard place, [that] you’re recognizing the obstacles. By that recognition, which can really hurt, there is a possibility for transformation.”
– Cherrie Moraga in an interview for ColorLines.com, posted April 6, 2015
It doesn’t matter where you are when it starts. Heat travels from your toes to the crown of your head in waves. You start yanking at your scarf, your sweater, your collar, hungry for even a wisp of air to cool you off. Sweat starts to form in the curve of your spine, in the hollows of your arms and knees, in the folds of your skin. On the coldest day of the year, you tear damp clothes off at the door of your apartment and sob.
You breathe more heavily, as if the air is thick like oatmeal and you just can’t get enough oxygen. You have to breathe. You have to get out of here. You have to lie down. You have to run. You have to sit.
You get dizzy sometimes. Nauseous. Sometimes, you actually vomit in a toilet if you’re lucky, in a garbage can or the gutter between cars if you have no other choice. Your stomach does flips like you’re nervous but worse, like it’s curling into itself and it fucking hurts. Your toes and fingers go numb and you think you are about to explode like a pin-popped balloon. You cry tears that roll down flushed cheeks in huge drops. You can’t explain why you’re crying.
You start to panic because you know you can’t control what is going on. You are humiliated by this.
Your only salvation is knowing that it’s all temporary. Once you can hold onto that, your body starts to relax a bit. Your breathing softens; your tears dry.
It can take you a few moments to come down or take you all day to relax. No matter how long though, the effort to get to that small space of relaxation takes all of your energy. It is exhausting. You can go through this on nights out with friends, during workouts, on dates, in the middle of class, in the middle of the workday, right before bed. It can wake you from sleep.
People ask you what triggers this. Most times, you don’t know. Sometimes, it just fucking happens. It’s nothing they did. It’s nothing that you are doing. It’s nothing that is happening.
There are weeks you don’t have to do this. There are weeks where you go through this every other day. When it happens too frequently, you are so exhausted you snap at the people you love, pick fights that you later apologize for. To avoid this, you withdraw and become a hermit crab, overcome with a sudden blaze of agoraphobia. You sometimes avoid it by sleeping. You sometimes can’t get to sleep until the sun peeks in through the blinds. You have used the idiot box and sex and food and alcohol and social media in excess to assuage it. You have often neglected passions, hobbies, friends, family, and lovers because of it. You have tried to ignore it when it happens and it has knocked you on your ass.
The battle to keep this all at bay is a constant. The battle is the most exhausting part.
It is his thirty-first birthday, a chilly December night that seeps through the windows. You are there to make him dinner to celebrate the occasion. “Him” is Paul, a charismatic, saccharine son of a bitch who, of course, you are completely infatuated with. You recently rekindled your on-again, off-again relationship after a year apart. This is Try No. 3.
The basement apartment Paul shares with his best friend is at the back of a private house, up at the end of a long steep gravel driveway. It is a small place; when you step out of the kitchen you are in the sala and about three yards from the entrance door. The living room is the biggest room of the one-bedroom apartment, with an L-shaped leather couch where Paul sleeps, crammed into it, and a large flat-screen TV that sits above a chinero-turned-dresser. Behind the couch, next to the entrance of the kitchen, are laundry bags full of Paul’s belongings. They sit wedged behind the couch along with an acoustic guitar in a black fabric case.
You eat late, watching television and chatting. You both grunt in satisfaction as you shove forkfuls of pasta and chicken in your mouths. After eating, you lay out a much-too-short black dress that has a see-through bodice of black lace. You begin washing the dishes, wanting to make sure you come home to a clean kitchen. You’re going out later to wherever the liquor flows and the music thunders. It is supposed to be a fun, drunken night that will end in voices hoarse from laughing, feet swollen from heels, and, hopefully, an orgasm.
And then there is a knock on the door.
Your mother sighs on the other end of the phone when you tell her about your anxiety attacks. It is a sigh that, growing up, you heard often—a sigh laden with her own shit, her own anxieties, shit you’re not even privy to, the kind of shit that parents think their kids could never understand.
“Nena, what do you have to be anxious about?” You cry when she says the words, and at the sound of your tears, she comforts you as mothers do. But there is your shit, floating on the surface of that conversation, shit she isn’t privy to, the kind of shit that children think their parents could never understand.
When you tell your father, his voice is low in response, his words chosen carefully as if he is worried he’ll break a piece of glass if he says the wrong thing.
“Mamita, you have anxiety because you worry too much about the future. Stop worrying about the future and you won’t have anxiety.” How simple, his advice. How simple it is to believe that coasting on just today and not thinking about tomorrow could change what seems to be crippling you. You agree with him, tell him you will be okay.
But there is your shit, still floating in the air.
Sometimes, if you have an anxiety attack in front of someone, you make it worse for yourself. You feel them looking at you. Staring. You start to imagine them questioning what is happening, thinking to themselves that this is all a joke, that you are a fraud just looking for attention, that you are overreacting. You tell yourself what you’ve always heard since you were a kid: that you’re not in a telenovela, that life isn’t in Pine Valley, that you are not Erica Kane. What do you know about pain, about sadness, about depression, about feeling anxious?
In the middle of an anxiety attack, what you fear most is being a nuisance to whoever is around.
You’ve told yourself that your emotions are a burden on your family, your friends, and later, your lovers. You worry about how everyone else feels in response to what lies in your heart and choose to ignore what hurts you. What you feel just isn’t worth talking about. All it will do is create un rebolu that you won’t be able to manage, won’t be able to control.
Keeping your shit to yourself is a way to control the shitstorm. It’s as simple as that. Or at least that’s what you’ve convinced yourself.
You tell yourself that telling people about it is just you comparing heartaches, that those around you can’t fathom what is wrong because they think that, for you, everything is so damn right. You stamp how you feel down like packed earth and tell yourself it is better to see someone else’s scars than show your own. You ignore what is hurting you until it bubbles over like boiling milk, until the nata sticks to the back of your throat and you can’t control it any longer. Until the anxiety burns like bile when you try to swallow it down.
Until the hurt starts to control you.
When you hear the knock on the door, you step out of the kitchen, hands damp and soapy, and ask Paul’s roommate who’s knocking. He shrugs, not worried, letting Paul answer the door instead.
You return to the dishes, oblivious. Rinsing a plate, you hear something above the din of the water running, the clink of dishes hitting each other, the TV blaring in the living room. A grunt, a curse word that makes you step out of the kitchen again.
It’s Paul, struggling with the door as someone pushes against it, trying to force their way in. He is red-faced. His jaw is tight in a grimace of concentration. The muscles in his right shoulder are straining to make sure whatever boogie man is out there cannot get in. His face darts up at the sound of you stepping out of the kitchen. It changes, registering your presence. It’s almost as if he has forgotten you were there.
“Go back in the kitchen!” He yells. The yell echoes through the small apartment. You glance at his roommate. He is sprawled on the floor, hands reaching for a cell phone plugged into the wall to call for help.
You do as you are told. You press your body against the kitchen wall, unable to see what is happening. You are stiff with fear. Frozen with your heart in your throat.
That’s when you hear the gunshot.
The first time you ever had an anxiety attack, there were no gunshots or intruders or boogiemen trying to get through the front door.
You were at work.
At the time, you worked in a now-defunct commodities firm as a data-entry associate in the middle office, whatever the hell that means. The recession swallowed a lot of financial industry jobs already, and you were one of the lucky ones who was just transferred to a different department. You were extremely grateful for this. You were paying monthly out-of-pocket payments for night classes at a local community college and needed the cash.
Problem is, you hated the job. It was a brain-numbing position that chained you to a desk for eight-plus hours every day, surrounded by all the –isms and ills of society in one room. Despite the repetitive nature of your job description, it was also a position that was considerably high-pressure and aggressive. If you fucked up—welp, you were fucked. You were under concrete layers of doubt about the stability of your position in the company. This, combined with the soul-draining nature of the job and being in the midst of full-time night school, began to affect your ability to cope.
You don’t remember what sparked it. You do know you were stressed out. You excused yourself to the bathroom, feeling overwhelmed and dizzy. You felt that day’s breakfast swirling in your belly and to calm it you forced yourself to throw up. You sat on the cool floor tiles of the women’s bathroom and sobbed into your hands. You jumped up when you heard the door to the bathroom open and a woman’s heels click toward one of the stalls. You bit down into the flesh between your thumb and forefinger to keep from wailing. The woman left the bathroom and you tried your best to compose yourself, using the automatic hand dryer in an attempt to dry the sweat that had soaked through your blouse, splashing cold water on your face to ease the puffy redness of your eyes.
You walked out of the bathroom, and your supervisor, a short blonde man with a lazy eye whom you dubbed the Robot for his mechanical work ethic, was standing in front of the bathroom.
“I was going to send someone to get you. Are you sick or something? Are you pregnant?” The Robot looked frustrated, his arms crossed, his foot tapping on the floor.
You shook your head, hoping your mascara was not smudgy proof of your emotional breakdown.
“Look, you can’t get so emotional at work. It’s unprofessional. You gotta get it together.”
You looked down at your hand, down at the place where you had bitten, and noticed a droplet of red blood had begun to form in one of the marks your teeth had left. You felt tears well in your eyes.
Something is wrong with me, you thought.
Your mother’s greatest obsession is the coquí, a small brown tree frog native to Puerto Rico that sings its name in the dark. A representation of her love and nostalgia for an island she hasn’t visited in decades, your mother’s collection of coquí kitsch is massive. When you were a child, she was given a keychain made out of metal that was supposed to be a coquí, and it sang its song when you clicked on its belly. The first time you noticed her keychain, you made the mistake of snapping it in your left ear, wanting to hear how a coquí would sound. It popped loudly, and your ear went numb. It took a few seconds for your ear to regain sound again. In those moments, you thought you were going to be deaf in that ear forever.
You feel that same sensation after you hear the gunshot, an exploding pop that echoes on the walls before numbing your eardrums. You are on your knees now. You repeat the Hail Mary prayer your mother taught you as a little girl. You press both hands against the kitchen wall, and pray to every god and goddess, every santo and muerto you can remember the name of, that you would live, that you would survive whoever was pushing against that door.
Ten seconds pass. You imagine Paul facedown in a pool of his blood. The back of his head is a shredded mess. You imagine clusters of Paul’s skull and brains littering the floor. You imagine Paul’s roommate hiding in the bedroom, cowering like you are, clutching his cell phone, hissing for them to hurry, that you are about to die. You imagine the intruders kicking Paul as they step over the shell of his body into the apartment. You imagine them finding you crouched in the kitchen, frozen. Waiting to die.
You look up to the window. A flashlight pokes itself through the glass and then disappears. Your heart seizes in your ribcage. Your breath is both hot and cold in your chest. Each one hurts. It takes too long to inhale. It’s too loud when you exhale. With each breath, you are reminded that this is a reality. You are about to die. You kneel there, frozen, staring at the rectangle of window above you.
They can see you.
And if they can see you, you are a dead woman.
You think you are all going to die. You are not ready for this. But you don’t cry. You just call on your orishas, on your muertos. And repeat your mother’s prayer in your mind.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for our sinners,
Now and in the hour of our death.
Paul walks into the kitchen, one arm clutching the other. The bullet has only grazed his right arm. He was able to keep them out of the apartment. The sound of the gunshot makes shit hot and brings attention, so the intruders race off, leaving the three of you alive inside.
“Are you okay?”
You stand up, wanting to grab him and cry.
Instead, you nod. “Can I get a cigarette?”
He hands you one from a pack sitting on the coffee table in the living room and then lights one for himself.
The bullet went through the neck of the guitar that is sitting in its case by the kitchen entrance and is now embedded in the concrete wall behind it. You stare at the dot of damage, the bullet hole an eye staring back.
“Damn! My guitar! That shit went right through it! Fuck!” He reaches for it, fingering the perfect hole that has punctured the fabric guitar case, splintering the neck of the guitar like a bone. You stand there, mute and trembling, while he handles the guitar gingerly as if it were bleeding—the fatality of the night.
You don’t remind him that you had been standing in front of the guitar just moments before the gunshot.
The speed of a bullet is 1,126 feet per second. The speed of sound is 768 feet per second.
You were standing in the bullet’s direct path for about five or so seconds.
You wouldn’t have heard the bullet when it hit you.
A neighbor comes in when the cops arrive. It was his flashlight you saw in the window as he ran the perimeter of the house after calling 911. He opens a bottle of Grey Goose vodka that’s sitting half full on top of the fridge and helps himself to a shot, asking if you’re okay. You nod again. Paul’s roommate comes in to light a cigarette on the stove, his hands shaking so that he burns his fingertips. You drink straight from the bottle when it’s handed to you. The neighbor leaves when Paul is taken to the hospital, and you sit next to Paul’s roommate on the couch. To steady your trembling, you clutch his hand, curl up next to him.
A cop approaches the couch, a small notepad flipped open.
“Is that your boyfriend?”
“What are you doing here?”
“It’s his birthday.” You point to the floating balloon. “We just finished dinner. You can have some if you want. It’s on the stove.” What the fuck are you saying?
“No thanks. Do you have any jealous boyfriends, miss?”
“Sir, I’m a student. I go to Hunter. I came to make dinner, have fun, and have sex with my boyfriend. That’s it.” You’re going to lose it. You sound insane.
The officer smirks and nods, stepping back. You worry he can see you perched on the brink of hysteria and when he walks away, you can’t sit still. Every time you stand to get another cigarette, your eyes land on the bullet hole in the wall where you had been standing.
You would like to believe that it was an attempted home invasion, that neither Paul nor his roommate had any idea why that happened. You never speak about it with them, just acknowledge it as the scariest night of your lives.
The reality is that you have no idea why that person or those people were trying to get into the apartment that night. You have no idea why they had a gun. So you tell people that it was an attempted home invasion, go so far as to tell them that Paul and his roommate had asked their landlord to install motion lights and it hadn’t yet been done; that the apartment’s location in the back of a private house up a long desolate driveway made it an easier target.
The only thing you know for sure is that whoever it was, they were there to hurt you, to kill you. The only thing you know for sure was that if Paul hadn’t gotten that door shut, you would all be dead right now.
Sometimes, you still think someone saw you through the window that night, that it wasn’t just the neighbor out there, that it was the intruders standing and watching you, hands pressed against the wall, lips moving, body rigid.
You’ll catch eyes with someone in the street, on a bus, on a train platform, and you’ll tense with fear, knowing that it was them, that they were looking in on you that night and now, recognizing you will come to finish what they started that night in December.
That woman kneeling on a kitchen floor is who you try not to be every day.
The first time you have an anxiety attack after that night in December, you are on the train heading to school to drop off a final paper. It is only a few days after, and this week is finals week at school. You are determined not to allow this to affect how far you’ve come in school.
You start to sweat first, heat crawling up your body, suffocating you. You must look like you’re about to hurl, because a woman asks you if you’re okay. You nod, swallowing a hard, dry lump in your throat. Your toes start to tingle as if you have pins and needles, your arms feel slack. You get off the train at 77th street, afraid it will stop moving between stations and you will be stuck there, easy prey, an easy target. You sit down on the platform bench and cry.
The anxiety attacks you had in the past pale in comparison to this one. Whereas attacks in the past were once triggered by feeling overwhelmed, this one is different. You feel as if you are being strangled, as if every person around you is going to suddenly spaz and attack you. You think that, at any moment, a crisis beyond your control will happen and you will be frozen, still, mute, helpless. Just like you were in the kitchen. Just like you were in those ten seconds when all you could see was Paul dead, when all you could see approaching was your own death.
After that night in December, the anxiety that flickered in you is now a flame. The attacks during the first months following that night are probably the worst you have ever had. You don’t wish this kind of anguish on your worst enemy. You walk out of classes, get off the train even if you’re late, cancel night outs with friends, and avoid dating entirely outside of a few nights of casual sex and conversation. You carry a box cutter in one purse and a pepper spray in another.
You tell everyone you are busy with school to avoid the probing questions. You force yourself to finish assignments and tell yourself that you just have to get through the semester and you’ll feel better. The semesters begin to blur before you.
You don’t care to leave your house, but you do because you have to. You have to make some cash, you have to go to class. You have to let everyone believe you’re okay, so no one will question your behavior, so no one you haven’t told yet will find out what happened and blame everything on you even being there that night. You would much rather have everyone believe you are a total bitch that flakes and ignores them than let them know what is really going on. You become comfortable in your pain, comfortable with beating yourself up for being there, blaming yourself for the trigger you did not pull, for the helpless fear that now seeps into your days.
What is left of you and Paul is sad and fading. You don’t need or desire each other in the same ways you once did. Your moments together feel like nothing more than an ellipsis in a sentence that has already gone on too long. You wait for the end of it, you suppose you both are. You drag it on for months before he tells you over the phone that he doesn’t see anything long-term with you. You don’t try to stop him.
You no longer know what life feels like without anxiety. It is a constant hum in your day, like when you leave the ocean and still feel as if you’re being moved about by phantom waves, or still feeling the buzz of the treadmill when you step off. Your equilibrium is shot. You have no memory of a life without the undercurrent of fear, of worry.
A random noise in your apartment has you checking and rechecking windows and locks and flicking light switches on and off. You keep a sharp kitchen knife under your pillow when you sleep alone and your roommate isn’t home. Sometimes a car passing its lights through the windows of your ground-floor apartment sends you into sheer panic.
You don’t know what to call it, but every page in your journal screams out its name. You don’t know how it all happened until a sister-friend suggests you write about it as a form of catharsis.
You realize as you’re writing that no one will understand your story unless they can see it as their own.
“If we could realize that the work is to keep doing the work, we would be much more fierce and much more peaceful….” From Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarisa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.
You don’t take medication for anxiety, mostly because you’ve learned homeopathic methods that have eased your attacks a bit. This is not the case for others. You don’t claim to know what helps others. You know what helps you.
This is what helps:
Being alone. Knowing when you can’t be alone. Releasing whatever (or whoever) does not serve you, what does not cultivate you, nurture you. Lighting incense, changing the waters on your altar, lighting candles. Journaling. Herbs. Cups of tea. Friends.
And this. Writing this out. Putting it out into the world. Telling your truth.
This is my story.
This is a story about a night in December.
This is a story about a trigger, one pulled and one created.
This is a story about my anxiety.
This isn’t really your story, but it could be.
Angelique Imani Rodriguez is a born-and-bred Bronxite who has always had her nose in a book and a pen in her hand. She participated in the 2014 and 2015 VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) Writing Workshops and in the Writing Our Lives Personal Essay writing workshops, as well as the Acentos Poetry Workshops. Her work has previously been published on sweatpantsandcoffee.com and on the So To Speak Online Feminist Journal. She is also the creator of the Boricongo Book Gang, a burgeoning online book club that focuses on the works of writers of color. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, as yet untitled. Selected by Vanessa Martir.
Image copyright Anastacia Tolbert.