1 . G i r l T a l k
“Did you know I spent the whole of my fifteenth year in my room?”
I sit in the trashed corner booth of an empty Indianapolis diner sipping Coke through a red and white striped straw and watch the reaction from my two friends.
We’ve been here, Melodie, Justine and I, talking, eating, and drinking for hours, and we’re all in advanced stages of serious twenty-something afternoon collapse. It’s reached the time when you run out of trivial, conversational-type things to talk about, so you say something deep and personal instead.
Melodie lifts her head from the table and flicks ash haphazardly from her cigarette in the direction of an overflowing ashtray.
“You’re kidding?” she asks.
“No, she isn’t,” Justine says. Friends since school, she knows me well.
Elbows all over the table I cup my palms around my chin and explain. “I suffered from agoraphobia. That’s what my doctors said. It sounds awful, but all it means is that I had an irrational fear of being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult in the event of a panic attack. So I avoided those situations. During my Dark Ages I left my bedroom only to eat and go to the bathroom. Basically I was worried about death. Abandonment. My health. My mother’s safety. The house catching fire. Food poisoning. Earthquakes. The environment. That kind of stuff.”
I tell Melodie and Justine all these things, and when I open my mouth the words just flood out, like I’ve been wanting desperately to speak them for so long. They sit and listen, perhaps too tired or too hot and bothered to do anything else. I tell them about the first time it happened… the first time I had a panic attack. When I was thirteen. One Saturday in a mall. I can remember the smell of doughnuts and ice-cream, and ferns. I remember ferns. And the sound of a radio playing that dumb Spandau Ballet song—True—boy do I hate that song!
“I was standing around, just hanging out with a bunch of my girlfriends, and this boy from my class, who I had, like, this incredible crush on, came up to me and said Hi!”
“Those girls pushed me forward. I could hear them giggling behind me, saying Briar’s in love and all that junk, and my body froze like a statue. I felt hot and sweaty. My heart was racing. I felt this numbness in my hands and this tightness in my chest like I couldn’t breathe. I had this need to breathe in more air, this need to escape. I just ran out.”
“Shit!” Melodie says.
“Shit,” I agree. “My doctor said later that this overwhelming sensation of terror is similar to the fight or flight response inherent in all animals, including humans. No one seems to know for sure what causes panic attacks, but there are a lot of tell-tale signs that I had right from an early age. I always used to cling to my mother’s leg. I was afraid of Santa Claus.”
“Oh yeah,” Melodie says. “I always hated that old, fat, red, pervert too.”
“I suffered a lot of phobias back then,” I explain further. “I would become possessed by a desire to clean the bathroom. The bathroom and I would literally be covered in Comet cleanser. But then I stopped.”
“Why?” Melodie asks. “Your cleaning phobia went away?”
“Not exactly. I ran out of Comet.”
Sunlight pours in through the diner’s windows and Justine keeps glancing anxiously out to the street. Am I boring her, I wonder? Anything’s possible—she’s heard this one before.
It’s only then that I suddenly notice the sunglasses she wears at a lopsided angle on her face hide a large bruise around her left eye. It’s a horrible purple thing that’s yellowing at the edges like rotten fruit.
“Oh there’s Addison,” she says suddenly. “I’d better go. I’d better not keep him waiting.”
Following her gaze, I see her boyfriend climb from his red Chrysler LeBaron convertible. Addison Healy has tanned skin and swept-back dark hair, and I’ve never liked him. He’s far too handsome—one of those people who’ve never known what it’s like to be alone—because there’s always someone new throwing themselves shamelessly at him. Someone who’s never had to appreciate the smallest signs of affection.
Justine scoops up her purse, quickly excuses herself, and rushes out to meet him. Leaving a three-quarter full Royal Crown Cola bottle sitting behind on the table, she’s gone almost before I can register it. She’s gone.
I watch them get into the car. She’s talking. Explaining herself. Addison seems agitated; gesturing wildly and I read his lips: “What fucking time do you call this? I told you to be home at three!”
Eventually he throws up his arms in frustration and drives away. I turn back to Melodie.
“Why does she stay with that asshole?” she asks after a long pause. “He hits her; don’t you know?”
“How do you think she got that bruise on her face?”
“She said she fell against the… Fuck!” I hadn’t noticed… Well, come to think of it, I have seen signs, but I’ve never put two and two together.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” Melodie asks. “No, forget that, I know I’m pretty. I have enough confidence in my own good looks.”
Sometimes I wonder if I am so wrapped up in my own problems that I fail to see the suffering of others around me?
“So what happened with you, Briar?” Melodie asks, toying playfully with the straw in her bottle.
“With me? Oh, after my first panic attack I returned to school and everyone laughed and talked about me, so I stopped going. Slowly I found it harder and harder to leave the house. After a while I gave up entirely.
“When I did eventually emerge from my room, a week shy of my sixteenth birthday, it wasn’t like a beautiful butterfly emerging triumphantly from her chrysalis, but instead a tired gray moth treading cautiously into the light.
“My doctor once speculated that my year’s hibernation was due to an irrational fear of growing up, but that’s not right! If I really didn’t want to grow up there are much more reliable methods: sleeping pills, guns, razor blades…”
“Whoa, so how did you, like, get out of it?”
“My brother. My brother helped me. Helped me help myself, I guess.”
“Is this Jeff—twenty-seven and still living at home?”
“No, it’s Paul—twenty and away at college. You haven’t met… Oh shit!”
And I suddenly remember: “Paul’s arriving home today and I said I’d go with Mom to meet him at the airport.” As the afternoon dissolved I’ve lost track of time.
“Is he cute?” Melodie asks as we slip from the diner out onto the pavement.
I can only nod yes.
“Can I come too?”
“No! I’ll see you later!”
Melodie’s super beautiful. When I first saw her, I wanted to see her again. I hardly ever see really beautiful females. I see pretty ones, hot ones, but hardly ever see a woman that just makes me turn my head and think wow she’s stunning. I think that people like her who are super attractive just want the world to see something other than their looks. They want other aspects of their personality to shine through. Sometimes, I feel like if I just be really quirky it will compensate for my lack of looks. Of course this never works.
On the way home I take a shortcut through an empty lot. Once it contained a drive-in cinema, but with the rise of multiplexes it went out of business and was abandoned years ago. It’s been gone for as long as I can remember. In its place there’s just this: an empty wasteland. The picture screen has been torn down. Cracked concrete slabs, grass sprouting from the ruins, and at intervals, bent, misshapen poles sticking from the ground like blighted seedlings. Only a few reminders linger, as if pleasant childhood memories.
I love these places, even today. There’s something about them, even in ruin. Often I’ll come here, just sit in the lot and wonder what it must have been like. I guess they’re something I missed out on. I can imagine all the kids who must have come here to watch those simple B-movies, or make out in the back of their parent’s cars. Did they ever know what they had before it was gone? The drive-in is passing from our vocabulary.
There was this program on TV last week all about these old educational films from the fifties—what to do on your first date… how to remain virginal… that sort of thing, and they were so stupid and corny and wonderful! Things seemed so restrictive then, but life was uncomplicated and safe. It seems strange to feel aching nostalgia for an era that existed well before my birth. I suppose I have a really bad habit of romanticizing the past—to the point where the world in my mind is far more interesting than the world in real life.
The second print expanded edition of the novel Exit is coming soon…