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On Fear (And, OK, Also Steak) photo

I was twenty-two the year I realized I was scared of everything.

This realization came slowly, as big things often do. You never anticipate that one morning it will happen: you’ll wake up, look in your refrigerator, and realize then that everything about you—the way you’ve stacked the beer cans, the way you’ve segregated fruits, the policy you’ve imposed that mandates milk is expired and unworthy two full days before what’s suggested—all of it’s just downright stupid.

But you’ve been living with all this fear!

Here is how it happens: you go to a small, private liberal arts college where the students outnumber the locals. You study poetry and Buddhism. You declare yourself a “Writing Across the Genres” major. During junior year, you study abroad—not to New Zealand or China or Egypt—but a French town often used on calendars: those lavender fields, those men in hats. You teach yourself, “Je suis Américaine.” You say, “Je suis ivre.” You drink wine from cheap carafes and fall down on the cobblestone streets. Later, you return to your expensive college—the one that sells embroidered hand towels and overpriced bracelets in their bookstore made mostly of glass—and because you miss the life you’ve known, you let family members order you a “Spoil ‘em Long Distance” gift basket from the campus cafeteria. They are white whicker baskets filled with brie and water crackers, salmon dip and sparkling cider, and you eat them proudly on the quad in Rainbow sandals and a Red Sox hat.

You don’t care—at all—about baseball.

You would be hard pressed to name even one player.

When you graduate, you are scared of big transitions, so you take a job as a local secretary for a man who fiercely loves your hands. This is what he’ll tell you on the morning of your interview.

He’ll say, “They’re so small and paper thin!”

He’ll take them often into his, run his fingers over your skin, and you will try to suppress the urge to jam them deep into a paper shredder.

Anyone else you know has moved away—New York City, Chicago, Worchester—but you, of course, fear the buildings, the people, the steam rising through the street grates. Because where in the world is it coming from?

You don’t care about fancy nightclubs or bars that sell condoms in the bathroom. What excites you most at twenty-two is instead the possibility of driving home—across one-lane bridges and dilapidated roadways—to your mother’s chicken puff pastry and a glass of Australian wine.

This is how it happens. This is how everything gets bad. It’s not a simple fix. You have to reroute your entire life. After all, you’re living in a town now where there’s nothing in the world to do except eat bad tacos and worse Chinese, and yet you live there anyway, thinking all the while, “I am safe because I am close.”

There were other things—“warning signs,” if you’re into terminology—that might have broached the issue sooner, had I known to look for them. I drove my dead grandmother’s car, for example. It was the safest one on the market. I used a cellphone my parents paid for and made dental appointments six months early. I listened when he told me I needed fluoride. I listened and had pre-cavities filled. Whether or not I needed it, I got my hair cut every three months: in January, May, and August, and once more come November.

What else did I do?

I feared intimacy with complete strangers, so logically I slept and ate and watched television with the same man I’d been with for over four years. It wasn’t just because I loved him, but: what was the point in someone new?

And still, with all this consistency, I remained squeezed by insecurity. I was seized by vulnerability I’ll tell you only the most careful upbringing can create. There were slices of apples and cubes of cheese prepared daily as an after-school snack. There were monogramed gardening gloves and a playhouse my father built.

Do you even understand?

Somewhere along the way, I began to fear everything I didn’t know, and what could it do by twenty-two but continue to grow and swell? It bubbled like a thing that, you know, bubbles in the way it does. I began to experience panics about my future—because all of that uncertainty!—and these sensations were so severe the only solution was to drive twenty minutes to the local mall. I’d walk the upper-level atrium in frantic circles, past Dillard’s and Peeble’s and Macy’s, and look in the windows of home goods shops, imagining all the lives I could play out within the safety of their storefront.

I returned home with bagfuls of products I didn’t need, products I certainly couldn’t afford, and the man who greeted me there did not need me at all, either. We owned square dinner plates and shower caddies, chocolate fountains and a Bullet blender. I collected coupons I did not need and pinned them to my fridge with a Red Lobster magnet. Our apartment was small and nestled beside the train tracks, and because there was no other place, we kept these products in their boxes: cheese domes, bamboo bowls, teapots and electric fondue sets. We owned a machine that frothed hot chocolate and a light-up vertical rotisserie. All of it sat in bags or in the cabinets we never opened.

My boyfriend never said anything about it, because really, what is there to say? It was hard—even for me—to pinpoint exactly where all that fear came from. I’d been raised in a small Mennonite town where neighbors knew neighbors and diners sold scrapple and homemade jams. We gave gifts to our bus drivers in June—Applebee’s gift cards or brooches shaped like tiny birds—and the only bad influences I ever made simply played in unfenced, rural yards.

Each night, my father set out his sandwich and brought the potted plants inside, but then he pushed himself against the doorframe and secured first one lock and then another. Maybe that’s how it happened. Perhaps I learned, at some young age, that there was something out there I could not see, something invisible and omnipotent, and it was waiting for me behind lawn ornaments, or the thick rows of darkened corn.

At twenty-two, my list of fears was long: I didn’t have tattoos because I feared regret and I didn’t have piercings because I feared the pain. I was scared of flying and of being alone and I was certainly scared of failure. I feared snakes and spiders and deer ticks, and at night in my glowing bathroom, I scanned my thighs for red bull’s-eye marks. There were the dark clouds that spread across the horizon like a welt and the act of unplugging a power-strip. I was scared to sit on the toilet or stand in the shower or stand in the kitchen during a thunderstorm because these were the three indoor places, I’d read, where people were most often struck. I was scared of gas stoves that could blow up, and scared of visiting Mexico because of kidnappings, and I was scared most of all of being in basements or bedrooms with unfamiliar men. Why did I eat whole wheat bread? The bleach. Cage-free eggs? Their pain. And I drank organic milk because of the udders that ooze thick, red-yellow puss. I was scared of dogs bigger than my own and scared of water so deep I could not touch. I was scared of dirt, of bacteria, of the bird flu and the swine flu and the seasonal flu, and I was scared of driving at night, driving in the snow, driving in the city because where is the shoulder in case of emergency? All my lamps were set on timers and I slept with a box cutter beside my windowsill. I owned a lipstick-shaped aerosol of mace and I carried it with me every day down the same residential sidewalks that offered Dairy Queens and daycares and not one but two brick public libraries.

This shit kept me up at night. It gave me nightmares when it didn’t. In these dreams I began to have, yellow light seized my entire body, the pain sharp and blindingly white as it burned my most complex cell structures and fleshy cartilage and organs, too.

Then this morning came where it happened: I wanted something more. I wanted to push up against the boundaries that kept me tethered to all I owned, those handheld blowtorches and square pillows and all those tank-tops stuck with sequins.

Mostly I wanted to eat steak. I hadn’t eaten beef in over eight years—since my sixteenth birthday, when I decided to care about cows—and that was what really did it—I realized my world had become undone.

Do you think I just went to the store and bought some? No. Change never comes so easily. But what I did do that very evening was tell my boyfriend I was unhappy. That I really needed a change.

“I’ve got to shake things up,” I said, and I meant smoke cigarettes on shitty sidewalks and ride a rollercoaster until I puked. I meant dying my hair dark or red or maybe just cutting it short. I meant—above all—making love to a stranger in a bed with the lowest possible fucking thread count.

For reasons I couldn’t explain, I needed some kind of struggle—a hurdle so big I couldn’t be sure I would ever make it over. In some ways, I’ll admit it, I think I sort of wanted to fail.

I applied for jobs out of state, and when I received one in Iowa—a place so far that even time was different—I accepted and didn’t care when my boyfriend told me he would not follow. I left anyway, because I was a girl, and all that stuff.

Those first few days in my new apartment, I unloaded boxes by myself late into the night, swigging cheap beer I’d bought defiantly at the convenience store a block away. I got on my hands and knees in that new, dimly lit kitchen, and wiped down the dirty linoleum—dead spiders and dirt alike. When the bedroom windows wouldn’t lock, I decided to just leave them open. I felt the night and the cold breeze and the many things I’d wanted to feel forever.

In October, the bugs made their way through floorboards and squeezed through the cracks between the window, and each morning I stood in my kitchen before spiders as wide as my clenched fist. There used to be a man to do these things for me—kill them, dispose of their little bodies—but instead I held a boxed juicer above my head and closed my eyes and dropped it down. The weight of it crushed the insect and then I’d bend down to grind it into the floor. It seemed necessary to be certain.

But what was left now was just a steak.

“Can you help me?” I asked a new colleague. He owned a small house on the edge of town. “Will you grill these things if I buy them?”

Of course he would, he said. He was a self-proclaimed “Grill Master.”

“Tomorrow night,” he said, “that’s easy. I’ll stop by after work.”

Later, it rained in a way it hadn’t for some time, but the sound I awoke to at three o’clock was not thunder but another fear. I felt it rising in my chest. Outside, the sky was bruised and black, the lightning flashing only long enough to illuminate thick clouds in the inky darkness. Then it came again: a forcible, heavy pounding. It was loud, rattling the windows in my bedroom until they shook against the sills. I made my way to the front door and through the peephole I could see it: the figure of a man, his shoulders slumped in the rain, his arms raised as if to attack, and he was bigger and clearly older. He did not belong inside my building.

“Let me in,” he shouted. “You better fucking let me in.”

Immediately my mind rushed to the stories, the articles I’d read, the things I knew men did to women when they climbed in windows or shattered glass. The lock was, of course, secured, but still if he made it into my building, my apartment would be the first one that he tried. It was closest to the entrance, just feet from the door he stood against.

I pulled a knife from the bamboo, wedged block and put my cellphone in my pocket, then went into the bathroom, the only interior room that had a lock. The man was pounding harder now, his voice raised and angry, so I pulled my phone from my pocket and pressed my fingers to the screen.

Outside, I could hear the sound of shattering—the glass giving way to the man’s fist and weight. I imagined his fingertips, bloody, the places they might go if somehow he made it in.

“Please,” I said when someone finally answered. “There’s a man trying to break in.”

The 911 operator was calm when he told me police would be notified.

He said, “They’ll arrive as soon as possible.”

“I mean it,” I said. “He broke the glass, even.”

I thought he would keep me on the line, instruct, carefully, exactly what I should do. I’d seen it on television a thousand times. Instead he said the police were coming,  hung up, and then the line went dead.

Out front, the man began to scream. He was wild. From the bathroom I could see him as he made his way to my front window, surveying the glass and pushing his body against it. It did not give but would soon, I knew, if he was this hell-bent on breaking in. I thought of the many years I’d wasted—years I’d held car keys sharp-side up, holding mace in the small of my palm—and I’d feared away whole years of time and now would meet my end like this, no less preserved from all my fearing.

“Let me in,” the man yelled again, and again I raised the phone to my ear.

“I’m serious,” I said. “I’m calling you back because I don’t think you understand. He’s trying to break this window. He’s going to come inside. He’s going to enter and then he’ll kill me.”

“The police are on the scene,” he said, but it was so obvious that they weren’t—out every dark window was only darkness. There were no lights, no sirens, not a single helpful man.

And then, suddenly, there was. I saw first one police car and then another, saw the man run across my yard, saw the policemen follow him and grab his jacket and then throw him to the ground. They interviewed him for forty minutes beside their squad car before finally lowering him into the back, and from my dark kitchen, I watched them closely, refusing to open the refrigerator for a glass of water because I feared the kitchen would go aglow with the light. What if the man saw me? He’d know my face and, later, return.

When finally they left, I returned to bed but couldn’t sleep. I rose and made myself pancakes, eating them on my couch to the cartoons cable airs when they know no one is watching.

By afternoon, I was still in pajamas; I had forgotten all about the steak. When at five my friend with the grill arrived, I wanted to scream or just to cry, fold myself into his arms.

“Why did I move away?” I’d say. “Why am I so far?”

Instead my friend suggested we go to the grocery store to browse for bleu cheese and bloody meat, and I grabbed my coat without saying anything, because I thought it could make me strong.

“It’s supposed to rain,” he said, nodding to the window. “But I made sure to pack a jacket.”

“Listen,” I said. “You don’t have to stand out there, get all wet. It’s been over eight years. I can wait a few more days.”

“It’s only rain,” he said, laughing. “It’s only drops of water.”

In the grocery store, we bought five steaks and four potatoes and a yellow onion and a clove of garlic. We bought green beans and a bag of charcoal, cheap beer and a puck of cheese.

“This stuff will be good,” he said, studying the label.

Back in my kitchen, we unloaded the groceries and listened to the rain hit the hot summer pavement. We opened the window above the sink and cut the potatoes, placing them in layers. We softened a stick of butter and wrapped it in neon blue cellophane, then took turnings massaging it into the soft, malleable cheese. My friend snapped the ends off the green beans and I placed them in a pot with water. We drank one beer and then another, and when finally the rain let up, we sat on the damp concrete and watched the grill give off smoke.

“This is good,” he said, and I nodded.

My new friends arrived at seven, their hands full with salad and wine and zucchini, and we passed the bowls of food until our plates were heaped and full. I took a steak from the serving platter and dragged my knife through the marbled meat.

“Eight years,” they said, raising their wine as in an awkward toast, but I didn’t feel big or brave or anything. It was nothing like what I expected. I was glad to have them in my kitchen, but I knew that they would leave. It would get dark and I would be alone, and what if he came back? Or what if it was someone different? What about everything unknowable?

The rain picked up and from the kitchen we could hear it fall on the sidewalk and collect heavily in the gutters. It was peaceful—that noise—and the cars slowed, driving past my windows in a static of light and noise, their window wipers going. Their lights shined across my yard and the darkened spaces between the rows trees. My new city was surrounded by nightfall, the skyline dark along its edges, and what else could I do but raise the fork to my lips and eat?

image: Dominic Episcopo