IN THE MONTHS FOLLOWING the carjacking, I woke up a few times each night startled by sound. When I walked, my eyes patrolled the street. Adrenaline came in surges many times per day, like the tide on another planet. I couldn’t sit in my car when it wasn’t in motion.
First, I thought time was the answer. I would wait it out—a week, a month, a season. My mind began to turn in a tighter spiral. I thought I would try anything. As one treatment, I was asked to sit in the car and rate my fear on a scale of one to ten intermittently. These were called exposures. During the few minutes I managed, as promised, my fear peaked and fell. Learning how to watch my fear from the outside, as if an eel at an aquarium, didn’t help what had become most ragged, something I denied until the last possible minute, as my mind crumbled from beneath me: my soul.
The word had always embarrassed me. I thought it was because I took language seriously, and as a lifelong skeptic, even a cynic, soul felt like an allergy. The closest I came to imagining it was a wisp of smoke. Trite, cliché, hollow—everything I wanted to wring out of language. I had friends who could say it, and in their mouths, the word rang clear as a bell. Still, it made me blush—for them, for myself—that they felt animated by something beyond mind or body, and that they needed a word for it.
When I describe this person who didn’t believe in her soul, I mostly think she was lucky. I no longer spend time not liking her.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY AFTER the carjacking, my brain began to flicker in every in-between place: hallways, alleys, parking lots, corners, roads. Scanning, measuring, guessing at what was safe and unsafe, until I was at the next place behind a door. Then, my circuits would calm until there was a loud sound, and my head would swing suddenly, like a dog toward a knock at the door.
My brain did all of this checking without me, and I could not find an off switch. This was the crux of the wildness that had come upon me. It was the first sense I had that my brain was not me, as it dragged me along like a forceful friend holding my hand.
I began to notice how I would situate myself in public places, with my back to a wall where I could see everyone come and go. The assumption: Someone is coming, someone is hiding. Will you see them before it’s too late and you’re pinned down? That’s how it felt as he pointed the gun at me, like I had a pin through my center, couldn’t have dreamed of moving, not even wiggling my useless arms.
IN DUTCH STILL-LIFE paintings, among the blocks of gouda, flayed artichokes, and glowing cherries, there is sometimes a fly. As symbol, it reminds us of decay. Even in the stillness of the painting, this can’t sit here all day.
A fly was buzzing about my days, hovering and alighting. At the stoplight, at the gas station, ahead of me on the sidewalk. Death, death, death.
THE MORNING THE MAN with the gun came toward me, my mind retreated, not to return for some time. My lizard brain woke up.
It was September and still warm in Michigan. I was at a gas station, just finished pumping. I never watched the security footage, but I know what it would show: a thin man, ticking with withdrawal and circling the car, while I am distracted like a soft-bellied thing in a nature documentary.
In the moment, nothing that could be described as a thought went through my mind. My mind was blank as a sheet. Everything narrowed, telescopic, toward the man in front of me. My body shifted backward, I raised my palms flat. I saw his face, then his mouth, then the black hollow of the gun, like a tunnel I was entering.
I was petrified, closer to the literal meaning than to the emotion, as if in stillness I could become impenetrable.
He folded himself into the car and disappeared quickly down the road, toward the biggest thing in the town of 500, the metal silo of the grain elevator.
My legs ran toward the gas station store, where I entered the world of the living, those with minds, the brain in a nice suit, who looked at me curious, then confused, then afraid.
When I asked a teenage clerk to lock the door, so certain the man would come back for me, the boy did so slowly, with his eyes on me. I was the only scary thing in sight. No one in the store saw what had happened.
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LIA GREENWELL is an essayist and poet currently at work on a book about fear. Her work has appeared in the Missouri Review, Kenyon Review online, Witness, and Ruminate among other publications. She is a graduate of the M F A Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has received scholarships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Lia has taught creative writing to high school and college students through the Girls Write Now program in New York City and as the 2015 Joan Beebe Graduate Teaching Fellow at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Detroit, Michigan.