Whenever I am in a crowded room, I find a person standing far away and wait until they look in my general direction. I imagine they’re really looking right at me. We forge a connection, plan without words to meet in the bathroom and fuck, to meet outside and run away, to meet at the gas station and rob it and share the thrill of a first real crime. Maybe we’ll kill someone together. Snuffing out one life with another standing ablaze by your side must be intimate.
On bad nights, I watch their gaze pass over me, and while I know relief that no one is looking at me, that no one’s eyes would stop on my face, part of me freezes in terror. Unseen, my body is convinced of a long, painful death by suffocation, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy, forgets how to fill its lungs with air.
On most nights, I am not in crowded rooms. Most nights, I am with Grant, or I am alone.
Alma, someone says. I don’t turn. I have been watching the thirsty garden through the window, but my focus now shifts. The glass is dirty. There is a smudge where a bird shat a long time ago, where the shit stayed on the glass until the dried white and brown mess fell off after enough sun exposure, Alma, someone says again, and now there is only the outline of where the insides of that bird once stuck, clues to its life, what it ate and swallowed over the course of some hours, and I feel the skin of my shoulder stretch with the weight of fingers, someone gripping a palmful of me.
Oh, I say, yes. I turn, I nod, and I smile, and my husband looks concerned, but it is only me, Alma being Alma, and so he relaxes by introducing me to Bert, short for Alberto, an abbreviation I’ve never known to be connected to that name, and his wife Jeanie. These are our new neighbors. I have seen her, Jeanie, hanging her laundry on a thin, weak line. Drought, none of us are made of money, climate change. She has made small talk over the rotting wood of the backyard fence, speaking slowly, as if my skin signaled that my English was not muy bueno, until she heard my flat Midwestern accent and her words sped up, and we both pretended to be suburban housewives in what is really a working-class neighborhood of doublewides. Now she smiles widely at me, her lips making the shapes of words I hear in only my right ear, the left having gone deaf after a deadly game of dare played with the kind of wooden chopsticks that come with Chinese food delivery. Jeanie says, How do you do, and Come on over anytime, and Well, not at the crack of dawn, and then laughs as if she has said something witty. I’m still smiling, mouth open to make it look genuine, as if I’m simply aching to jump in and speak as well. But it’s not speaking I do, it’s breathing and nodding, and my heart constricts like it does, and my husband says, Excuse me, and he puts one arm around my back and clutches me close and he steers me by my waist out of the community center and into the setting sun.
Hey, hey, you’re okay, he says. I nod, and I don’t scream, How do you know, or No I’m not, or even, Please, which is what I want to say most of the time. I don’t say anything because Grant, my husband, conjured from somewhere and gifted to me, is being what he is, giving me what he has most of, which is calm. He coaches me into letting air pass through my constricted throat, into allowing my panic-severed vocal chords to slowly mend, so that before too long, I am able to face him.
Sorry, I say. It’s just—I told you I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
You were doing great, he says, he lies, and takes my hand. Try again?
The body remembers. Therapists, panic attacks, the freezing of my limbs and lungs have all convinced me of this. My body remembers more than I would ever like it to. And so I live in small spaces, because they are comforting and safe. And so I don’t leave them much. And so I lean on Grant.
I’m sorry, my husband is saying, is lying, and then matter-of-factly, She’s a bit claustrophobic, and You know, and he points to the ceiling which is low in this musty anteroom where a paper tablecloth is stretched over an industrial grey fold up table, which is stacked with bottles of Coke and ginger ale and a bowl of potato chips crumbs and a bunch of foul-looking grapes that no one has touched.
It’s okay, you do you, I get it, I really do, Bert, short for Alberto, says, although I have found that anyone rushing to say so doesn’t. He reaches forward with a hand that has white hairs on the knuckles in arcs that almost look moussed, and I let him shake mine, even though I don’t seem to have moved it very far from my body. But he’s grasping me, with a reach and a yank. Oh, I doubt it, I say, and he says, Pardon? And I say, Yes, yes, thank you. Grant rolls his eyes at me. He would never call me a bitch, but he thinks it; he doesn’t understand that the same anxiety that took my breath away moments ago is now filling it with vitriolic intent.
Alma is very funny, my husband says to Jeanie who doesn’t buy my thanks. But she smiles politely and says, Oh, we should sit, and grabs Bert’s elbow and steers him towards the crowd of people from our town. There is the grocery store owner and his wife who runs Check-Out Lane 5, and there are Mrs. and Mrs. McKinnon who are seventy and work at the flower shop on weekends, and there are the several children belonging to various single mothers and the single single father who, if he has his way with married Tina, won’t be single for long.
Grant watches me watching them milling about and trying to decide how far from the podium they should sit. He says, We can sit in the back, and I say, No, in front, I don’t want to keep counting how many people are here. Grant exhales into my right ear, the hearing one; Grant always stands to my right, so that I don’t have to strain. He follows me to the front row of folding chairs, gray like the tables but made of metal, not plastic, and we sit on the two closest to the aisle on the left. I clutch the edge of the seat and feel the dust under my fingers, the soft velvet of it, before I press down and it turns into a thin paste with the clammy moisture of my skin. They haven’t cleaned, I say, but Grant isn’t listening, he’s reading the pamphlet left on all the seats by the gas company.
Whenever I am in a crowded room I lose things: my breath, my composure, my mind. They tell me it’s because of what happened.
I can’t remember it, but I’ve watched it, recorded on a grainy videotape from one of the many news broadcasts of the event and shared with my relieved, my disbelieving parents. Parents who could not bear to squander their good luck: me, alive, somehow. They never let me do anything until I was old enough to realize they didn’t have to let me, and that they wouldn’t physically harm me no matter how angry they were that I broke their rules.
They were right to keep me from the world. From acting in it. Even without what happened, I would have been a risk-taker, catching rides on the freeway to get to the city for concerts, combining my liquor with dangerous games of chance, surrendering good sense and gaining stares of admiration in return.
Welcome to all of you, and thank you for coming out tonight, someone on the podium says. I allow myself to tune out the voice. Grant is listening intently, and I wonder if he could ever not, whether he could lose himself to the world or to the sound of his blood pumping through his ears and his heart thunking in his chest. No. So Grant is my ears, and he will tell me when it is time.
I twist my wedding ring around and around. I close my eyes and pretend I am alone, that the sounds of fabric shifting and plastic-and-metal seats creaking are my white noise machine. I silently practice my speech, which Grant and I have been preparing for weeks, going through each sentence like a prayer. As if some god will strike the earth beneath me if I get the words wrong. I smile. Splitting the earth is exactly what I am trying to prevent.
But what about what happened in Chico, in Texas? someone shouts, directly behind me, and my body jumps, the closeness of another person startling more than the voice. I know what he’s talking about, and I feel myself nodding, the caring allowing me to peek up, to see the pantyhose and smart heels under the table on the podium, crossed tightly at the knee, and beside those legs another pair, this one spread apart, in slacks and shined shoes that tap to a nervous beat. At least, I think it’s nervous. I won’t look up at the faces of these people until Grant squeezes my knee, the signal we agreed on.
But not yet, because, Yeah, someone else calls timidly, and I think it is Jeanie, and I am certain it’s her when an odd, placating smile creeps into her voice, and perhaps it is her armor against the world, her coping mechanism, and she goes on to say, We’re not going to let our children be poisoned, are we? and her mouth is still wide, as if the topic were sugar, and she continues, Our grandchildren? Another voice shouts, We can’t trust any of these people! A howl of sound bursts forth from the crowd behind me and I think, How loud people are.
Whenever I am in a crowded room, I think of the ceiling coming down, burying all of us.
That’s what they expect me to say, but it’s not true. I only think of how loud everyone is, and how far away. I think of how I don’t fit, like a spare piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a defected bit of matter that slipped past quality control unnoticed. I was born twice, after all. I wasn’t fit enough to survive, but human nature intervened with Mother Nature, and a man named Ridolfo Bianchi stepped on a slab of concrete and rebar that shifted under him and slid down, leaving open a hole into which Ridolfo Bianchi’s trained dog sneezed, sniffed, and began barking urgently.
That’s the story I’ve been told, anyway. The part where they discovered I was there was never caught on tape. Only the part where, after spending several hours shifting the concrete without causing further collapses, they were ready to pull me out. I know, because I looked for that proof. I wanted to know what of this rebirth was true other than the footage of a man pulling a dirty and faceless child out of heavy, dramatic rubble. There was no one to say any of it was true. I don’t remember it.
I don’t remember it at all.
When I was a teenager, angry and experimenting with dares given by cruel or unthinking boys, I wondered if my parents had invented my second birth as an excuse for keeping tight reins on me all those years. During a fight, I insinuated it. My father slapped me, the only time he ever had or would, and stormed out of the house. My mother didn’t even berate him. She stood there, shaking with anger, and said, You were dead. For forty hours, you were dead. I ran on a broken leg when they told me a child your age was found alive, and he, she pointed at the door my father had disappeared through, he offered his wedding ring to the taxi driver if he could get us there fast. Then he tried to give it, and mine, too, to Ridolfo after you were pulled out.
I can’t tell from their shoes which of the six on stage are from the EPA and which are from the gas company. I know it’s not time yet, because Grant hasn’t signaled me again, and he hasn’t spoken, though I’ve heard his tongue click with impatience and his throat let out grunts of agreement or consternation. The room is full of murmurs now, the creaks of shifting bodies in seats too small for most of us. An airplane zooms overhead loudly. We’re near an airfield, a military outpost. I close my eyes and imagine myself in a small, safe cockpit, hundreds and hundreds of feet above the treacherous ground.
I have never been safe. Safety is an elusive impossibility, I know now, a knowing that runs from the marrow of my bones to the calluses on my feet. Grant disagrees. He believes I am safe and he is safe and that we are protected by the police force. He believes in advertising and paychecks and network TV. He believes, though he would never say so, in a status quo. He likes, though he will never say so, that I need him. And I do. I have long stopped being ashamed of my need. It would be like feeling shame at needing crutches to walk with a broken leg. I am broken, and Grant is my crutch. We both know I am healing. Slower than a broken leg, yes, but it’s happening. And Grant, bless him, lets me lean when I need and push him away when I don’t. We don’t know where we’ll be when I don’t need to lean anymore. Mostly, I don’t think I’ll get to that point.
The plane whooshes above again, and I remember the air isn’t safer, really. A mallet strikes and my body constricts again. Grant squeezes my hand and leans in to whisper, You’re okay, it’s okay, it’s just a call to order. A loud throat clears above us from the lectern and Grant straightens up in his seat, a chastised schoolboy.
We are not here to argue, the throat-clearer says. The EPA, and they are here to attest to this, is not concerned about us poisoning your ground. We have made great strides technologically to ensure this will not happen. Our proposed injection well is on an unoccupied hill at a safe distance from any town, including this one. We—
But he stops talking because I have risen to standing, before Grant signaled me, before my time. This is what happens when I listen. I react.
I really don’t remember any of it. I’ve built a narrative that spins through my mind in a mockery of memory, far clearer and more detailed than any early recollection could be. The first true memory, from when I was four, involves a white rabbit and a magician and many children around me whose faces I can’t picture though I recall certain items of clothing that I must have coveted: overalls, green with yellow polka dots; a pair of sneakers that lit up and their constant stamping; a grown-up-looking digital watch. I remember the rabbit, the magician, these children and their clothes. My parents have confirmed that this memory is true, and have pulled out old photos to show me.
The next memory is the first day of first grade, the orange backpack I wore, and my parents kneeling to talk to me very seriously about what to do if I got scared or if I was worried. I cried, and my parents hugged me, and I didn’t go in for the first day of first grade after all. I ended up starting the next year, and only because my grandparents put their foot down, a fact I discovered at my grandmother’s funeral.
The nightmares, the waking fear, only started in my late teens. After the rage had burned itself out, after my eardrum was decided to be unhealable, after I’d kissed and fucked and bandied about my rebirth like a badge of honor among fellow high school graduates starting at the community college. When anyone challenged my story, I dared them to look it up on YouTube, and they’d find the clip Ridolfo Bianchi had uploaded some years prior, just before he retired. I was his last big hurrah as a firefighter, and he apparently remained proud of my existence. He and my parents still exchange Christmas cards with brief updates on their lives.
The great irony is that it wasn’t another quake that dialed up my fear, that shut me down into the vague, quivering person I’ve been for the past decade or so. It was a mass of people loaded into a second-story room in a new rec center for an all-ages dance party. It was a song with a rhythm easy enough for everyone to dance to, even my best friend Grant, whom I didn’t love, who loved me. And when the DJ, feeling out the limits of his power, instructed us to jump, and jump again, and again, to the beat, the floor shook, the walls shook, and my body remembered something it had escaped from, something it had survived, and I crumpled into a ball with my hands over my head, screaming and screaming until I was sedated by a couple EMTs.
That, at least, is the story I was told. I don’t recall this either.
I am most likely a sight standing there, my heavy breasts, longer than they are round, hanging loose beneath my sweatshirt, my thick thighs encased in Walmart sweatpants emblazoned with nonsense slogans, my skin calling attention to itself in this landscape, skin that marked me in ways arguably more egregious than my rebirth, but skin I have ignored as much as my parents did, though I did notice other spots of color in the crowd when we first walked in, before I looked down, avoidant. I look down when I talk, too, and can feel Grant’s arm twitching as he stops himself from reaching over to gently lift my chin like he does when we’re alone.
I intone about the earthquake. My quake, as I’ve come to think of it. On a family vacation, a last-minute budget trip to Italy. Family, because they were no longer only a couple; they were now parents; new parents, tired, in need of refreshment. How they left me in the care of a babysitter for a romantic meal together, the only time they would ever have a babysitter as it turned out. And the quake happened, and no one knows why, it was harder to know why all those years ago. No, I say, before anyone can ask, it probably wasn’t because of these wells. But that’s not the point. The point, and I raise my head, and look at the pink cheeks of the man with the shiny shoes, and the dark brown forehead and big eyes of the EPA woman who is hiding her mouth and nose behind slim fingers with dark blue fingernails, perhaps sympathetic or horrified, the point, I tell them, is that raising the possibility of this kind of hurt and destruction anywhere is not in any of our best interests. We share one earth, I say.
Grant now rises beside me and unfolds a piece of paper, his farmer’s tan reddening with the attention flushing through his body. He reads statistics and recent examples, cites the US Geological Survey and accidentally reads their tagline, science for a changing world, because he’s nervous, too. I stand still and hear him through my right ear and feel my feet planted firmly on tile laid over concrete laid over piles that dig deep into the weaker soil until they reach firmness that isn’t so trustworthy.
Yeah, someone shouts, and, Look what just happened in Mexico! The entire country! and someone else raises a fist and says, We don’t want your wells here, and someone else, more quietly, says, Gosh you poor thing, and I hear it, that acknowledgement, and I stand taller beside Grant. Yes, I am that, but I am also here and loud enough for once to awaken the voices of others.
Whenever I am in a crowded room, I see options. Options are usually overwhelming. Occasionally, they’re the most beautiful abstracts of them all.
The woman from the EPA stands up and raises her hands. Her palms, lighter than the rest of her, arrest the crowd of voices, the teacherish gesture not lost on any of us. She nods once, quickly, in agreement with herself, and says, You are right to be concerned. She turns her whole body towards me and says, loudly, Thank you for sharing your story and your experience. I will take your story and, she turns back to face the room in general, all of your objections to my bosses. I’m grateful for your participation today.
Suddenly I am sitting, guided by Grant into this shape, and things move around me. People get up and grumble, people leave with sighs of gratitude, with conversations of shopping lists and Walmart trips and where the kids are going tonight. It’s over, Grant tells me, taking my limp hand. I nod to say I know. I know and I am breathing. I know and we tried. I know and we won’t know what will happen. I know and we probably won’t win. I know it’s over. And.
Rumpus original art by Maryam Afaq Ansari.