Spotlight: My Sweet Amygdala

[fiction]

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I walk out to the car in a state of unusual calm. In the house over there, which I share with my husband and son, my husband has just now informed me that he isn’t in love with me anymore, that in fact he is in love with someone else entirely, and that he will be leaving as soon as logistics allow. He wants me to stay and talk things through but I remind him it’s time to pick up August from daycare and he agrees we should try to keep things normal for him.

“Are you upset?” he asks.

“No.”

“Are you going to be OK?”

“No.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive?”

“No.”

Refusal seems to be my jazzy new mode.

I am still calm as I open the driver door, climb in and put my key in the ignition. I take one last glance back at the house, convinced this is the last time I will see it, at least while it is still my home, then I start the car and pull away from the curb. As I approach an intersection a few blocks away from August’s daycare center I detect a tiny bubble of anxiety rising, followed by the familiar crescendo of fear until it reaches the five-alarm thumping terror in my chest and head. I see that the light is green and hit the accelerator. I’m still convinced it’s green even as I sail into the intersection and it’s only when I notice the rapidly approaching vehicle on my left that I realize I’ve got it all wrong. I have been looking at another light, one further on down the road, and the one that applies to me is red as danger itself. A sickening crunch of aluminum and glass and the world crumples into darkness.

I wake up with an eerily empty feeling both inside and outside my skull. I put my hand to the back of my neck and jolt as if electrocuted: not only is there a tube protruding from the hand but I feel a shaved patch of hair beneath my hand. My skull laid bare. I see that my other hand is being held by my mother. Her hand is cool and dry: no clammy palms or night terrors for her. From whom did I inherit this fear? It runs through my life like a red thread. I was that chronically timid child peeking out from behind my mother’s skirts, sniveling and mute. (Not that she ever wore skirts mind you, only pants.) It irritated her, I could see that. What had she done to deserve a craven child? She who had blazed a path through resistant forests of contemptuous men to become the first female principal of our city’s most prestigious high school.

I squeeze my mother’s hand limply to let her know I’m back. But I know this much: with lucidity will come some sort of reckoning of what has happened to me, so I close my eyes and try to work out instead where it all began. Trace the red thread back twenty-five years. An above-ground swimming pool in the yard of a suburban house. I can still recall the exact shade of blue, a glaucous dull plastic that had obviously once been a jaunty ultramarine. You don’t need to be in the Gifted & Talented program to see that pool as a metaphor for inclusion: look at its very shape, a perfect circle enclosing the swimmers and excluding anyone outside its circumference! How I long to join the fraternity of boisterous neighborhood kids paddling in that soupy blue murk, their legs working beneath the surface like fat pale worms. Goose bumps spell out messages in Braille on my arms, hugged tight around my flat chest. My toes curl primate-like over the edge, knuckles leached of color. The hot rush of humiliation as the other kids jibe and tease me for my reluctance to jump off the spring board, which is positioned literally a foot above the surface of the pool. Actual three-year-olds have jumped before me without hesitating even a second. But I just stand at the end of that wide scarred board, miserable and keenly aware of the scene’s parallels to walking the plank. Below me the others laugh and jeer from inside the smug sociopathic bubble of childhood. Eventually another kid climbs the four-rung ladder and roughly shoves me aside so he can enter the soup.

I probe my psyche for hysteria, for any of the usual signs of terror, and there’s nothing. Even before the surgeon enters the room I know something has changed.

My mother leans in to smooth the sheets and telegraph to me via a tight little smile that everything will be OK now that she is here. I ask in a croaking voice about August and she assures me she’ll bring him in later in the afternoon now that I’m conscious. This feels like the appropriate time and place to consider being afraid. But I probe my psyche for hysteria, for any of the usual signs of terror, and there’s nothing. Even before the surgeon enters the room I know something has changed. He relates with inappropriate jocularity the story of the paramedics pulling me from the Gehry sculpture that had once been the front end of my car, and how there didn’t seem much wrong externally. Broken ribs where the impact forced me into a swift bow, first intercepted by the steering wheel and then the airbag. A sprained wrist. Gashes on my nose and forehead and blood leaking from one of my ears. Not too bad considering. That’s until they realized my whiplashed head had made impact with some piece of the car at a strange angle. There was an indentation the size of an unshelled walnut towards the back of my skull. He informs me that I was rambling, incoherent in the ambulance, and that’s why the paramedics suspected there had been some brain damage. When they opened my head up, they discovered that my amygdala—an almond-shaped part of the brain associated with emotion and decision-making, the little hair-trigger fight-or-flight button—had been damaged. He is very pleased with how the operation went though, and thinks I should suffer few problems apart from some possible short-term memory loss.

That’s when I understand. Contrary to common belief, it is possible to be a person whose every waking moment churns with fear—on a spectrum ranging from mild social anxiety to paralyzing panic—and then miraculously, instantaneously, have that terror surgically removed. I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it happened to me.

*     *     *

I’m on a motherfucking roll. All around the table strangers lean in, alcohol-laced breath hot on my shoulders. There’s a festive feeling in the air, that specific brand of excitement generated when uninvolved bystanders with nothing to lose get to witness a reckless stranger’s spectacular flameout. They say casinos are deliberately designed without windows or clocks so that gamblers lose track of time and space. This fails to bother me, as for the first time in my life I’m conscious of being in the exact right time and space, cradled within this moment’s singular perfection. The wheel spins. A hypnotic dangerous blur, it looks as though it would cut you if you put your hand in to stop its whirling. I want to do it anyway. It’s against the rules though, so I refrain. The numbers and sequences of colors come to me as if channeled by some divine power. Five, eighteen, thirty-three. Double zero. Odd, even, odd, odd, odd, even. Black, red, red, red, black. The dealer doesn’t smile but she subtly tilts her head towards me, as if paying respect to my powers. As I’m riding this winning streak I feel not exactly euphoric but extra alive, a-tingle with a sense of rightness. Everything is as it should be, and the next number and color will be in my favor as the previous ones have been. It feels less like magic than science. All gamblers probably feel this way when they’re on the crest of success. That’s why when you see them in casinos, the serious gamblers I mean, they never look manic or desperate but utterly controlled, even dispassionate. They’ve convinced themselves that chance is actually science and coincidence, destiny. Poker faces all. Perhaps that affect takes years of practice and inside all is shrieking turmoil or despair. I only know that in my case the inside perfectly matches the outside.

When I start losing, the mood at the table shifts. It’s subtle but unmistakable. Doubt creeps in: what they had taken for divine providence was perhaps nothing but a fluke. These strangers had invested all their hopes in me and now I was letting them down. It had been a temporary investment, to be sure, but the hope had felt so real, so redemptive. They resent me now, for reminding them of the fundamental shittiness of life. They begin to drift away, all of a sudden mortifyingly aware of the general state of dishabille that has infected the table. Ties are straightened and dresses adjusted with resentful faces, as though I had forced them to engage in some untoward activity.

As goes the winning, so goes the losing. There is no passion in it, simply a detached acceptance. Perhaps it is only when I get out to the parking lot and unlock my car that the reality sinks in, that I have lost my life savings over the course of the last four hours, and that for all intents and purposes this car no longer belongs to me. Nothing belongs to me. There will be no recouping. And only then do I think about what my ex-husband will say when I break the news to him. Sorry, but the hard-earned meager sum of money I had saved for our son’s college fund has disappeared, flung into the maw of a spinning wheel.

*     *     *

August swears he’s seen a snake. August is prone to such imaginings: he’s a fanciful child under the influence of Beatrix Potter and Fantastic Mr. Fox. My ex-husband and I have agreed a pet just isn’t feasible with his travel and my attention span, not to mention our separate housing, and as a result we are parents who have deprived our child of his only solace, or so August’s brimming eyes and quivering lip implies every time we pass a pet store window.

My husband used to chide me for worrying too much, but he never understood what it was like. For me motherhood was a train in search of a crash. I not only vividly anticipated the disaster—wheels falling off, windows exploding, chassis crumpling—I felt as though I sometimes willed it to happen. The day our son was born I got a stalker. The stalker’s name was Terrible Things. Fear of what might happen to his little self, coiled within the infinite peril of his fragile human body. What a joke these bodies are. What kind of a bulwark against danger is soft flesh stretched over crushable bones? Come on. I once insisted that we install bars on his bedroom window, not to keep him prisoner but to keep Them out. I suffered from crippling anxiety attacks every time he was out of my sight. Every bruise was leukemia, every chest cold a deadly virus. When the time came to give August his very first haircut I was so overcome with visions of snipping the top of his tiny ear off (the blood gushing down my elbows, his echoing screams) that I couldn’t even hold the scissors. My husband assured me what I was going through was normal, forwarded articles about postpartum depression and violence ideation in new mothers. It turned out I wasn’t the only crazy one, but somehow that wasn’t much consolation.

The snake is on the path in our garden, August relays. It’s big and angry, he claims. I say I’ll take a look but I’m grading some papers that I should have finished days ago and completely forget about it until he comes over and tugs at my jeans, insisting I bear witness. We venture out into the garden together hand-in-hand while I explain with a certain degree of adult condescension that there are no snakes in suburbia and that what he has seen must be the hose that I left out after watering yesterday, and when we turn the corner into full view of the garden I’ll be damned if there isn’t a living, breathing, hissing snake stretched across my garden path. I swiftly pull August behind me, gently shove him back towards the safety of the house. OK, let mommy handle this sweetie. Go wait inside. He wails of course, scared I’m going to kill the snake, whom he probably harbored ideas of befriending. In truth I have no plan. How does one even go about killing a snake? How does one tell if it’s poisonous? I could go inside and Google to see whether there are any venomous species in North Carolina, but turning my back on the creature would run the risk of having it slither away, perhaps enter the house. Then we’d spend the rest of our lives wondering if it were going to leap at us from beneath the sink or rise up Svengali-like from inside our rain boots.

So I do the only thing I can think of. I walk towards the snake, lean down, and grasp it behind the head. I can hear August screaming from the house. My head hurts. It is hard to make a decision, what with my child screaming and the snake writhing furiously in my hand, its tensile bulk truly unbelievable, muscular tail flicking my ankle like a whip. The snake and I look at each other. I have sympathy for animals but there is no humanity in that black orb. I look out into the garden and see the metal dumpster where we keep grass clippings. Clutching the thrashing snake, I walk over to the dumpster, open the lid with my free hand, and throw the creature in. That should have been that, except before I can slam the lid closed the snake somehow pivots in mid-air, rears its head and then lashes towards me, sinking its teeth into my forearm before dramatically flinging itself backwards.

I yelp, slam the lid down and run back towards the house, clutching an arm that feels strangely free of pain. I congratulate myself on having made the right decision in picking up this non-venomous snake with my bare hands before realizing that the absence of pain is a result of the entire appendage from shoulder to pinkie having gone numb, completely paralyzed. It is curious to feel the breeze on my cheek and neck, then nothing at all down my right-hand-side, as if that section of me were encased in bubble wrap. I’m informed, after waking in the hospital, that it was probably a cottonmouth. I could have died, everyone helpfully explains. I didn’t though. I never find out what happened to the snake.

*     *     *

One lover can’t stop praising my skin. It is surprisingly novel, and intensely gratifying, to have one’s largest organ at long last recognized and appreciated. We walk around in our skins all day every day and how often does a stranger stop to compliment us on that most exterior yet mysterious aspect of our corporeal selves? He cannot settle on my skin’s best analog. He declares it feels like silk, like cream, like a flower. It’s so soft, he says almost accusingly, as if it pains him. As if its silken, creamy, floral existence is an affront to his own epidermis. (Which between you and me is kind of coarse and stubbly.) He isn’t an exciting lover but he is kind, and his flattery is a turn-on of sorts.

Another looks at me like he’s trying to memorize me for a test. Gratitude seems a common denominator with these men. Perhaps it’s a symptom of our age group. We’re a decade or two past the casual egotism of youth, when it feels as though everything good that comes our way is richly deserved. As you get older you learn to take your gifts where you can find them and not to point out the flaws. So what if the glass has a crack in it: it still holds water, doesn’t it? Fleeting pleasure is still pleasure.

Or maybe the gratitude stems from my own eagerness to please. I’ve always been a generous lover, but after my husband left I could have won a humanitarian award for the advancement of sexual favors. Blow jobs? Bring ’em! Anal? Sure, why not! That weird thing you read about in GQ? Sign me/tie me up! Who came up with the idea of sexual favors anyway? In my case they weren’t favors, but gifts given with a full heart and a willing pussy. I enjoyed every one of those brief encounters, and even when the doctor gave me the news, that my brief, unprotected but glorious foray into looking for Mr. Goodbar territory had left me with a less enjoyable gift but one that I was welcome to keep forever, I didn’t really regret any of it. The doctor offered to write me a prescription for an anti-depressant, a panacea appreciated by patients at these delicate times, but I demurred. I can sense Churchill’s black dog lurking at the periphery of things, but another advantage of finding bravery is how strongly it suggests the possibility of being able to survive other things. My disease wasn’t fatal. I had lived, again.

*     *     *

He is the most beautiful boy I have ever seen. Under the pallid gleam of the streetlight he resembles a Botticelli angel, all sculptural bones and golden hair and ethereal eyes. I suppose that’s why I stop, to get a better look at him. You know how people talk about those rare souls who can walk into a room and every eye will be on them? He is that type, which may explain why it takes me a few seconds to properly register another person on the scene. This person is standing so close to the beautiful boy that it is unclear at first whether the stance is threatening or amorous. I stare for a few more moments at the boy, who is wearing a great deal of eye makeup and holding a purse pressed tight into his bony hip, and I smile when he turns towards me, because I want to convey that I’m here to help him if he needs it. Help me, he says. Does he say it out loud? In any case, I get the message. I glance from the boy to the man opposite him, a much larger much angrier man who is holding a knife. Not a particularly threatening looking weapon, less a switchblade than a knife with dreams of being upgraded from kitchen utensil.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, lady?” the big man says, waving his knife in my general direction. “Get the fuck out of here.”

“You should,” agrees the beautiful boy, but I think I hear a waver in his voice.

“Why don’t you leave him alone?” I address this to the big man but I’m still looking at the boy. My voice is calm, even gentle. “Just leave and we’ll forget all about it.” (Forget all about what? Hell knows. I’m winging it.)

I look down the road. It is miraculously empty of cars, but it’s late so maybe that’s not so strange. The streetlights bleed puddles of yellow. A waxing gibbous moon hangs above the treeline, just watching. Keeping out of it. I like to take these walks late at night, in spite of all the warnings. The air is so beautiful in your lungs when you don’t have to share it with the masses. But I guess this is the kind of situation they warn about.

The two men are both looking at me as though I’m the director and they’re the acting students waited to be moved around the stage. I silently will the boy to flee while the other man’s attention is diverted but I can tell he won’t, that he doesn’t want to leave me alone.

Then I’m on the ground alone and I can’t get my breath back, all that beautiful air my greedy lungs had hoarded, and the edges are blurring and growing black, pulling in to a single luminous pinprick like a lens closing.

“Listen, bitch,” says the man with the knife. (He has retrieved his lines.) “Do you want me to cut your goddamned face off?”

“No,” I say truthfully.

He lunges towards me and I hear a little anguished yelp from the boy and then the clatter of boot heels receding on the asphalt and another set of feet pounding down the pavement in the opposite direction. Then I’m on the ground alone and I can’t get my breath back, all that beautiful air my greedy lungs had hoarded, and the edges are blurring and growing black, pulling in to a single luminous pinprick like a lens closing. The last thing I remember is a feeling of awe at how much it hurts to be stabbed. I have never experienced anything with the ferocious intensity and singular purpose of that pain. It is a tidal wave that obliterates the human. You have to respect anything with that much power.

*     *     *

There is a new scar now on the left-hand side of my pelvis, next to the C-section. The skin is paler and puckered there where the knife melted through fat and tissue and muscle wall. My bikini days are over and I’m tired a lot. But those things don’t preclude happiness. August is fascinated by my scars, by my belly in general with its air of a deserted war zone. How to tell him this is the price you pay for surviving? He’ll learn soon enough.

I see him off from the front porch, sudden tears sprouting. A preschooler already. His gargantuan backpack reduces him to a pair of stout little legs sticking out below Star Wars decals. When he’s at the gate about to turn into the street I call out that I love him and am proud of him, but who knows if he hears me. I clear the breakfast dishes and start my work for the day and I’m well into the zone when there’s a knock at the front door. I know right away that it’s no one I know, although I couldn’t say how. There’s just something about the caliber and tempo of knuckles on wood that doesn’t sound familiar. I tuck my shirt in and go to answer it. A policeman and woman stand on my front steps. The woman has her hand resting gently but with a certain authoritative sternness on my son’s shoulder. I smile at him, send him a quick psychic signal to let him know that everything’s OK.

“Officers. Is something wrong?”

They glance at one another quickly.

“Ma’am, is this your son?”

“Yes. Yes it is. My son, August.”

The man clears his throat. Out in the street, a police radio emits a crackly stream of arcane law enforcement blather.

“I understand you and your husband are divorced?”

“That’s right.”

“Can I ask whether your son was supposed to be in the custody of your husband today?”

“No, he was in my custody. That is, I have him on weekdays. My husband takes him on weekends.”

The two officers shift their feet simultaneously. August looks up at me. I can tell that whatever adrenaline rush he’d experienced riding in a real-life police car has now dissipated and he’s getting bored, eager to get back to his books and games.

“Your son was found wandering the street several blocks from here. Can you tell us why he was unaccompanied?”

I have to say the question throws me, although I should have been expecting it.

“Because he was on his way to preschool. He goes there every morning. Did he tell you he was lost?”

The woman licks her lower lip. Her hand is still on August’s shoulder, and this proprietorial stance is beginning to get on my nerves.

“Listen…”

I reach out my hand to pull August towards me, but the man swiftly throws a stiff arm in front of my chest, like a train signal coming down.

“Ma’am, you can’t just let your child walk to preschool by himself.”

“Why not?”

They look at one another openly this time, then back at me. Perhaps nothing in their training has really prepared them for this.

“We could have you arrested.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Really? On what charge?”

“Child endangerment. Ah, neglect. A neighbor called it in, was very worried about the boy. Claims you let him run wild.”

I laugh, which is probably a mistake, but the situation is so absurd and I just want to retrieve my child and get back to my day.

“Does he look like a child who runs wild? He’s absolutely fine. Ask him.”

“You’re missing the point, Ms….?”

I don’t like the bullying, patronizing tone that is starting to creep into this discourse, and I square my shoulders.

“Listen, this is all a misunderstanding. My boy is very independent, I’ve taught him to be that way because I don’t want him growing up in a world where he’s paranoid and scared of his own shadow, and as you can see he’s totally fine, apart from having now missed part of his school day, so if you’re not going to arrest me I think I can take it from here.”

I put my hand on the door, implying that I’ll soon be closing it whether they’re still standing there or not. They remain in place, digging in, no doubt rehearsing how they’re going to discuss this encounter back in the car. But in the end they must figure it’s too much trouble to book me for anything, and August is so obviously fine and happy and not being abused or neglected, so they warn me that if he’s found wandering alone again they’ll be forced to take action and they reluctantly shift off my front porch.

I figure there’s no point sending August back to school now, so we have lunch together and play in the garden for a few hours. When the phone rings at five p.m., I’ve almost forgotten the unpleasant events of the morning, until I hear my ex-husband’s raised voice, wobbling in an unfamiliar register. He’s crying and saying this is it, I’ve finally done it, he’s going to sue for sole custody of August. Before I can say anything in my own defense, he hangs up. But not before letting me know that I’ll be hearing from his lawyer. I used to be so scared by threats and confrontation. Not anymore.

*     *     *

My ex-husband always said that humans are born imprinted with their capacity for happiness and sorrow. We each have a baseline, a preprogrammed ability to be happy or anxious or fearful. He would joke that my fear baseline was perilously high, out of kilter with any objective reality. He was right. The crash fixed it all up, it recalibrated me. I no longer recognize that person who viewed the world as a bottomless Pandora’s box of calamities. Things have not been easy but I don’t miss her. I consider my confrontations with mortality a gift. Amazing to realize it has been there all along, death, submerged just beneath the membrane of life.

It’s not good to live this way, people scold me. (I appreciate the rich irony when it comes from the same people who used to urge things like, Don’t be so scared of everything… Get out there… Live a little!) Risk-aversion is a necessary human adaptation, they lecture. The fight-or-flight instinct gives us an evolutionary advantage: without it we’re as trusting and doomed as cows. When I tell them that the accident was actually a blessing, they look at me with pity, as if wondering how deep the brain damage really goes.

or the first time in a long time I’m really scared: if they successfully restore my factory settings, will I return to my former state?

But in the end I give in. I agree to go under the knife again, let them fiddle with my brain and try for another recalibration, this time a return to normality. For the first time in a long time I’m really scared: if they successfully restore my factory settings, will I return to my former state? And if I do, what will happen to August’s beautiful fearlessness that has grown and prospected alongside my own, like an ambitious plant sending out tendrils? I must remember all the sweet blessings that came with this catastrophe, and in this way perhaps I will have the last word over my fears.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I would take August on a trip. I will take him on a trip. We’ll climb to Base Camp on Everest. Maybe cruise the Amazon or visit the favelas in Rio. We’ll ride rollercoasters and watch scary movies and one day we’ll live somewhere without locked doors or bars on the windows and we’ll thumb our noses at the darkness.

*     *     *

They are wheeling me in now through the metal swinging doors and I stare up at them, all those backlit upside-down people in scrubs, heads haloed, they’re itching to open up my scalp and find out what I’m really made of. Count backwards from ten, the masked anesthesiologist commands in a voice inflected with the musicality of an Indian accent, and as I open my mouth to form the word ten I glance first at the needle she is wielding and then at her face, only half of which I’m permitted to examine. I see myself for a moment through her eyes: a vulnerable horizontal person about to undergo a scary procedure, laid out on a gurney with no more dignity or autonomy than a corpse but who nevertheless is showing remarkable calm and restraint. I am the ideal patient and I can tell she approves of me. I radiate bravery. She probably doesn’t even know this might be the last time.

 

Emma SloleyEmma Sloley is a travel journalist who has written for many U.S. and international publications, including Travel + Leisure, New York, W, Conde Nast Traveler, and Harper’s Bazaar Australia, where she was an editor for six years. She is a MacDowell fellow and currently at work on her first novel. Emma’s short fiction has won awards and honorable mentions in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. and has been published in Catapult and Headland Journal, with upcoming stories in the Tishman Review and Structo magazine.