WHAT FEAR ALLOWS
"A life is a reworking of a destiny by a freedom."
Simone de Beauvoir
I'm sure there are children in the world, have been and will be children, who don't live fogged with terror: anticipating, at each moment, an armageddon. I was over-nerved. I trembled like a sick animal who can't understand its own discomfort, can't remember a time when it was comfortable. I was afraid of dying, of living, of being alone and with others, of talking, of being silent, of not knowing enough and of knowing too much. There was no escape; things were either bad, or differently bad.
There are as many kinds of children as there are adults, or trees, or shellfish. But I wasn't, ever, much of a child; I was a little organism built for fearing, as if the atmosphere needed a certain percentage of fear-gas in its make up and I was the plant that released that gas as the waste product of my respiration.
My great-grandfather rode in the front seat of my mother's car and I didn't sit there for months afterward. His presence polluted the surrounding space. When he kissed me I leaned away so as not to breathe in age.
I felt that death and horror collected in the atmosphere, in zones of denser air that I sensed and shied away from. Affect was geographically organized. The demarcation of one space from another was invisible to the naked eye, mapped only by histories of human passage. I still have that feeling. Those treacherous places now are between bodies. The pockets of death are in speech.
Sometimes I lose language. Words get slippery; they wallow out of reach. When I open my mouth I feel as if something could escape me, with terrifying finality, flying from my mouth like flocks of shitting pigeons. What am I afraid of saying? If my will weakens and words have their way, what will they say out of my mouth?
To exhaust the nervous system's capacity for response: pacification by proliferation of forms, sedation with image, ornament, excess analogy, the baroque, rococo, trompe l'oiel, uninhibited multiplicity of reference, pattern anesthesia, festival writing, dazzle camouflage. Masks, ribbons, buttons, petticoats, jackets on the body of language, cushioning for too-stark truths. I, you, he, she, we, they, and it: the terrorist pronouns. Let us alight gently in the forest of ourselves amidst others.
Happiness requires making peace with things as they are. But I've always felt allergic to things as they are, however they are. An allergen doesn't damage the body on its own; the body misinterprets the allergen's potential for damage, and damages itself with its defensive response. I'm crippled by paranoid fantasies: defeatist, irrational, petulant, self-handicapping. In my defense, I quote Fanon: "In the Algerian war, even the most liberal of the French reporters never ceased to use ambiguous terms in describing our struggle. When we reproached them for this, they replied in all good faith that they were being objective. For the native, objectivity is always directed against him." Objectivity is an alibi for a subjectivity so dominant, so oppressive, it's invisible. In what sense, I'll be asked, am I a native? What country am I native to? A country of citizens who fail before they begin, who squander their talents, who are habitually uncomfortable, offended, indignant, who do not struggle valiantly in the face of adversity, who sit on the ground and refuse to go on, whose will to live is not inspiring, who say no thank you, who do not bear up under their burdens, who opt out.
Most people can distinguish between safe and hazardous activities. I lack that faculty. Anxiety levels the world. How I can travel, into far and dangerous spaces? It's no more frightening than going to the bank or the store. As long as I'm launching myself into space I want my abyss to be exotic, surprising. I want a pay-off.
American school buses that fail their safety tests are sold in Central America where they are painted blazing colors and used for public transportation. Wild men mount religious figurines on the dashboards and drive them 70 miles an hour on one-lane roads through the mountains. They careen around hairpin turns, honking to clear traffic (vehicular, animal, pedestrian), blasting Mexican radio from speakers mounted down both sides of the aisle. The driver fiddles with the stereo while shifting gears and passing cars on blind corners at tremendous speeds. The back of the bus swings like a cat's tail.
We rocketed around a corner on a stretch of 2 lane highway leading into Guatemala City, a huge truck carrying racks of water in 10 gallon plastic jugs inches from our window. I was sitting with my best friend. Terrified, elated, we held hands and sang:
If a double-decker bus
crashes into us
to die by your side,
is such a heavenly way to die
if a ten-ton truck
kills the both of us
to die by your side,
oh, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.
I am a person who composes suicide notes while daydreaming: autothanotographies. I try to render the event less painful for those I leave behind, to thank the ones who have loved me, to express my love in return, to help them come to terms with my body's new inertia. My mother would be the one most damaged.
I love my mother but my mother's body is dark. Cell by cell she made me. My cells fear unmaking. I evade her touch, her gaze. What gave me life could ruin me. Nevertheless.
Parts of her find parts of me. There is a dialog of our legs. They have their own, rent mouths, and those mouths are rebellious. My mother's legs speak, her injuries with my own. My mother's wound mothers mine: my own, a faithful daughter. Our flesh is proud, where cut; shared stories in which the characters are ligaments, sutures, bones. A kneecap, a shattered cup.
But in a world of injury we are both children.
The Khmer Rouge clubbed their victims, like fur trappers dispatching seals. Prisoners were held in a high-school in Phnom Penh. The soldiers wove nets of barbed wire over the arcades of exterior corridors. Birds were tangled there like flies in spider's webs.
Captions from a series of etchings by Goya titled The Disasters of War:
I saw this. This is bad. One can't look. This is worse. This is the worst! Barbarians! What madness! This is too much! Why?
When I visited this unlikely tourist attraction the gate was crowded with beggars. The beggars here were different than other beggars. More of them were missing limbs. A man thrust himself at me, coming close, his cupped palm held out for coins. A practiced visual assault—the man's face had been melted or mutilated in such a way that his features no longer made up a face. One eye looked undamaged; the other was pulled down from its usual position and partially covered by an extrusion of flesh and scar tissue that dove through his misshapen cheek to his mouth. I don't think he had lips.
To give him money would be to pay him to remove himself from view. I have tried to imagine his life—a figure, at all times, of revulsion, eking out a living on the sad fame of his own destroyed face. How unlike a human a human can look.
In war humanity is everywhere and nowhere. This is why warriors have creeds and codes of honor, regulations that preserve the person while rendering the body dispensable. Before battle Samurais composed "Death Poems:" small statements of life on the verge of its completion. From Hôjô Ujimasa, in 1590:
Autumn wind of eve
blow away the clouds that mass
over the moon's pure light
and the mists that cloud our mind,
do thou sweep away as well.
Now we disappear,
well, what must we think of it?
From the sky we came.
Now we may go back again.
That's at least one point of view.
This is my Death Poem, an ephemeral thing, mysterious even to me, arriving unbidden on the verge of sleep:
Leave Everything Alone
Everything Else Will
Leave Itself Alone.
Really I think I have come closest to dying in New York, when my car broke down on the Williamsburg Bridge. My sister and I were driving to JFK to catch a flight to Barcelona. Cell phones weren't ubiquitous yet. Another car stopped and two men pushed us to the nearest exit, down a side street where we left the car in front of a church. We were close to missing our flight. They offered to take us to the airport for twenty dollars and, desperate, we agreed. Once we were in the car they drove immediately away from the expressway, down an alley that seemed to dead-end at the railroad tracks. At the last moment an outlet appeared and took us back onto an arterial. They asked us if we liked to party, if we liked Ecstasy. I tried to make my peace with God but I was hung up on the fact that my younger sister would be raped and killed along with me. I held my keys in spikes between my knuckles. They were blasting Cheap Trick's "Surrender" on the car stereo. Finally, miraculously, we pulled up an on-ramp and into the departure lane at JFK. I was stunned. We got out and I passed over 20 dollars, my hand shaking. The older of the two men gave me his phone number and told me to call if I wanted to party when we got back. Since then I've felt that in one possible universe I am already dead and that in this one my time is blessed, borrowed.
"What Fear Allows" began as connective tissue for a series of travel narratives. Those now exist independently, while this piece, cut away, is reconstituted in positive form. Credit and thanks to Steven Patrick Morrissey and the Smiths, Frantz Fanon, and Hôjô Ujimasa for scavenged language.