I woke up and it was real. It was real, I was sober, and I was already halfway into an anxiety attack. I was due at work in 90 minutes.
It took some concentration to unclench my body enough to pull on clothes, an ongoing act of will to stand straight. My body against my will was mimicking the effects of an actual, physical gut punch. Unfavorable election results are not considered a legitimate reason to call in sick. I went to work.
Less than an hour into the shift my boss noticed I was barely functional. I looked “more frazzled than usual,” he said. That was one way of putting it. I was having trouble walking, which is a thing that happens to me in extremis. Feet leave the ground with difficulty, after some thought. Objects lose their utility and become strange artifacts whose function I can barely apprehend. “Are you sick?” he asked.
“I’m not okay,” I said. “I’m sorry but I need to leave. I’m sorry.” He saw, and I knew he saw, that my sickness was not physical. I was pathetically grateful that he granted it parity.
I wanted to be in a place where news did not exist, also I was desperately hungry. I drove with unerring muscle memory to the nearest truck stop diner. Now that the wild wilderness has shrunk to nothing, truck stops are America’s best and truest nowhere.
When I walked in, the lone waitress was engaged in a lengthy explanation of their kitchen’s version of chicken-fried steak that left everyone confused as to what exactly was being fried. I wandered towards what I thought must be the bathroom and was asked if I was looking for the prayer group. Two truckers, neither thin, discussed the legal and practical limits of how fat you can get while remaining employed as a long-hauler. Country music throughout.
I had a paperback with me, but size and shape made it impossible to prop open. Instead I clacked fork and knife to plate and listened. It was Real America, Trump Country, but I felt oddly safe. In a truck stop we are all equally harmless.
I got back in the car. My radio is perpetually tuned to NPR but I switched it off. I could think of only one thing and I couldn’t bear to think of it.
There is a certain kind of vision impairment, a function of acute depression, where the scene beyond the windshield exists as something less than the sum of its parts. The world flattens and then slows down or speeds up or both, it’s hard to tell when I’m in the thick of it. I get lost on familiar routes. I forget how to read traffic signals. I was lucky to make it to the state park without causing an accident.
I took an easy trail along the dunes towards the lake. One foot before the next, slope upon slope. The day was warm but not unseasonably so. That is, not unseasonable given how we’ve come to readjust our idea of normal temperatures. In Persian Gulf states, I’ve read, there are more and more days when it’s impossible to leave a climate-controlled environment for more than a few minutes at a time. The heat at sea level is incompatible with human life.
There was a bench at the apex of the last dune, overlooking the water. Wind and gravity had sheared away the sand piled on its supports, so the bench stood lanky against a recalculated angle of repose. There are precious few wild landscapes that aren’t in some way managed. Someone anchored that bench deep enough to hold. Someone will return to shore up the slope beneath it.
I had nothing in my pockets but keys and phone, and to be honest I don’t know why I bothered to lock the car. I called my mother. As it happened she was getting a pedicure. Waves to one side of me, drifting leaves to the other. I was for a moment acutely conscious of living in the future.
“I understand you can’t talk,” I said, “but can I just talk, and you listen?”
“No, I can talk,” she said. “I’m with L___, she’s safe.”
In the moment I was too distraught to give proper weight to what I’d said and heard, but you may see it more clearly. Is it safe to speak freely or isn’t it? How often, in the coming years, will you bite your tongue because the room isn’t safe? Because you don’t know who’s listening, or what their intentions are?
I can see now, in the retelling, how terribly cinematic it was. There would have been a static closeup on my mother’s face, shallow depth of field. Perhaps switching angles as she switches the phone from ear to ear, or speaks to a salon tech outside the frame.
A long shot on me, switching between handheld and crane, or even aerial. They can do it with drones now, you don’t even need a permit. I watch myself bracing myself against the bench, hitching up one knee, clambering across it. I sit facing ahead, feet dangling where the ground used to be. I cross my ankles. I uncross them and hitch down. I’m pacing, elbow crooked and phone mashed against my ear. Cut to a close shot, ankle level: sand over my work boots, sifting into my cuffs. My voice mixed down and replaced by distant waves. Cut to an aerial shot of me half-falling. A metaphorical gut punch. I grope to the bench for support, corkscrewing my feet into the face of the dune. Pace into the trees and back towards the dropoff. I’d passed others on the trails but the beach was empty.
You already know what we said. I don’t need to repeat your own anguished dialogue back to you. I wept and ranted; she talked me down. Between us we recapitulated statistics, anecdotes, arguments from the dozens of thinkpieces I would read days later when I was calm enough to go online. And then there was nothing more to say.
Every time I drive out to the lake is a small pilgrimage. I’m not on speaking terms with the divine, but I trust in nature. Not its beauty, though: its vast indifference. I felt on that beach as safe and as invisible as I might ever be.
When I began writing, I had the idea a natural coda would suggest itself. Recurrence of some key phrase or image, an obvious-in-retrospect emotional arc. But it goes on and on the way we’ve all got to, like or no.
I took the back roads home because I still couldn’t trust my reflexes past 40 miles per hour. I sat hunched and cross-legged in a patch of sunlight near the back door. My mother called to check on me. Yes, I was fine. No, I wasn’t driving.
After some time I walked to the neighborhood bar. I didn’t particularly want a drink but I couldn’t stand to be alone. I cringed away from having to overhear conversations that mentioned certain names. Even the word “he” was fraught. Eventually I went home.
The next day at work my boss asked if I was feeling better. “Much better,” I said, “I’m fine now.” These days all I want is to live into a future where that isn’t a lie.