Tag Archives: Creative Nonfiction

A Fear of Everything Except Permanent Psychological Damage

We were heading out the door when I realized my mother thought our dryer was trying to kill us.

“Turn the dryer off,” she’d told me.

“Why?” 10-year-old me asked.

“I don’t want it to catch on fire while we’re away.”

Looking back, 26-year-old me wonders why it would’ve been preferable for the house to burn down with us there instead of away, but 10-year-old me just nodded and turned off the dryer. The clothes remained damp until our return. Just like every other time we had to go somewhere mid-cycle.

Mom, now almost a decade deceased, had numerous such obsessions. Another one related to the dryer: She emptied the lint filter as if lint was about to replace the dollar as America’s currency. “The lint will catch fire if you let too much build up,” she’d say—or shout, if I was in another room—after seemingly every load.

I left for college convinced dryers were pyromaniacal death machines, so I was shocked during my freshman year to find people didn’t always empty lint filters. Sometimes I’d open a communal dryer and find six or seven layers of lint from six or seven cavalier undergrads. You fools, I thought each time I cleaned a choked filter. You’ll burn the college down, and then we’ll have to apply somewhere else.

Another of Mom’s fears was based not on fire but water. No matter how much of her I come to forget, I will never be able to throw a plastic six-pack ring away without hearing her in my head: Cut the rings apart or you’ll strangle a fish! And every time I hear that, I obey and take the rings apart. But instead of cutting with scissors I tear with my hands, because I know she’d find the brutality scold-worthy—You’ll hurt your fingers!—and I like that.

As long as I knew her she bought no vehicles but Subarus, largely because of their reputation as safe. But she still found ways to make driving seem extremely dangerous. Sometimes, when I was old enough to ride in the front but still short enough to fold my legs up, I’d thump a foot onto the passenger-side dashboard. “Don’t do that or you’ll set the airbag off!” always came Mom’s warning. If Subaru airbags actually worked that way, I later realized, then Subarus would be terribly unsafe.

Paradoxically, Mom still viewed Subarus as paragons of safety. While beaming over her first Subaru Forester, a low-slung SUV, she told me, “It’s good it sits so low to the ground because the bigger SUVs roll over all the time.” For a stretch after that, I flinched every time a Chevy Suburban or Ford Expedition passed us on the highway, certain the larger vehicle was about to topple over and crush us.

As with the six-pack rings, I’m still trying to rebel. Earlier this year, I bought a newer, taller Forester—they’ve gotten a bit bigger with each redesign—and smirked when I saw this label on the visor:


It made me like the vehicle more.

Along with Mom’s affinity for Subarus, I’ve inherited much of her anxiety. One manifestation: Every time I leave somewhere and plan to be gone for more than a day, I need to do several laps around the place to make sure everything’s turned off, I have all my belongings, and no animals are being strangled by six-pack rings in the corner. If I’m traveling with someone, they eventually resign themselves to going outside, sitting in my Subaru, and hoping it doesn’t roll over while they wait.

Once, while my girlfriend, Rosie, was helping me close up a house that was going to sit empty for a few days, she asked if it was OK to leave a package of hot dog buns on the kitchen counter. “No,” I said. My tone befitted a request to shoot me in the thigh: “That’d bring mice!” Mom’s words in Dad’s voice.

Rosie responded by heading for the Subaru. I joined her half an hour later, laps complete.

Despite the contrary evidence, Mom’s anxieties fueled her best qualities. Her concern for animals—Cut the rings apart!—manifested itself in hundreds of hours spent volunteering for the local animal shelter. Though her car- and dryer-related fears were tough to take seriously, they were borne from her trying to keep her family safe. And she did the same for her pals; one of her lifelong friends, Sharon, told me, “She was the caretaker and worrier of our group. Always pointing out the danger.” She turned her worries into her best trait: bottomless caring.

Likewise, I benefit from this neuroticism. I’m an editor by trade, and while compulsively triple-checking a document out of fear I’ve missed something is stressful enough to twist my intestines, it’s rewarding when it turns up a would-be $20,000 mistake.

I learned about taxes, investments, and retirement planning years before most of my peers, because in my early 20s I became convinced I’d be a bankrupt, accidental tax cheat by 30 if I didn’t wise up.

And I picked up my now-favorite activity—improv comedy—not because I wanted to go on stage and be funny, but because at 25 I got an obsessively nagging thought that I’d die miserable by 50 if I kept pounding beer and watching hours of Netflix every night. It’s tough to enjoy Trailer Park Boys with that anxious snake in your head, so I signed up for an improv class to get myself out more. A year later, it’s what I enjoy doing most.

Our anxiety—and I say our assuming Mom’s experience felt similar to mine—can’t be called a double-edged sword, because a double-edged sword would still have a hilt, and thus an obvious way to keep it from hurting its wielder. (I’m not sure if dwelling on cliches counts as anxiety or just pedantic introspection.)

Instead, our anxiety resembles the shrapnel embedded in Iron Man’s chest, poised to destroy his heart: It could’ve taken him out, but instead spurred him to make an armored suit and start shooting lasers at his problems.

I often wish neither of us had shrapnel, Mom, but thanks for passing on enough armor to deal with it.

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Micah and Righty Raid the Biodome

We were walking towards Montreal’s Biodome when I saw a bus unloading doom: a horde of 60 children on a day trip from summer camp.

They immediately swarmed towards the Biodome, which was the destination I’d most wanted to hit on my Montreal vacation. The Biodome is like a zoo, except instead of each animal being in their own tank, lots of animals live in small ecosystems together. The experience is something like being on a hike in the forest, except instead of having to actively search to spot animals, it’s hard to look anywhere without seeing one.

The other way the Biodome is different from hiking is that you may have to fight your way through massive groups of children. The child-horde from the bus entered just ahead of my girlfriend, Rosie, and myself.

Inside, I saw that a bunch of overmatched teenage counselors were in charge, each trying to control a squadron of eight to ten younger urchins. “Micah, come back,” one counselor pleaded in every exhibit I encountered her squadron. She gave such a plea whenever Micah—a thin but athletic blonde boy—outpaced his group to see the next cool animal; for instance, penguins.

“They can’t fly!” Micah told the counselor as he hurtled towards the penguin exhibit.

“Micah, they can’t, but we need to stay together,” his counselor said, exhausted nearly to tears.

Rosie thought Micah was cute, but for weeks to come, the counselor probably had nightmares of Micah charging into the penguin pool and drowning. “They mate for life!” Nightmare Micah would inform the counselor between gasps for air.

I didn’t have much sympathy for the counselor, though—she could’ve ended Micah’s nonsense by teaching the rest of her squadron a game called Tackle Micah’s Scrawny Ass Until He Learns to Listen. But that’s probably one reason I’ll never be a camp counselor.

Another reason is that I have no idea how to interact with kids. Rosie and I are in our mid-20s, and we’re at the point in our relationship where she has asked me dreadful questions like, “When do you want children?” and “How many do you want?” My replies of, “When I’m 30, I guess?” and “Few enough to afford” don’t ever seem to be what she’s looking for—but they reflect my uneasiness around children and my worries about the time and money it takes to raise them. Rosie has numbers, names, genders, and rough dates of birth picked out already. I have a mental clock running down to when I think I’ll want to start a family.

But in the Biodome, I had children whether I wanted them or not. In what I think was a coral reef exhibit, I became swamped in several summer-camp squadrons. In front of me were two girls, probably eight or nine years old, with their backs to me. The one on the right (Righty) clandestinely tapped the one on the left (Lefty) on the back of her far shoulder, playing the “I’m Gonna Poke You But You Won’t Know It Was Me” game. Lefty turned around to find out who poked her and saw … me.

In my life, I’ve been sucker punched twice. I’ve been in two car wrecks. I’ve performed live comedy with no scripted material. None of those moments froze me up like seeing Lefty turn around, thinking I’d poked her.

Lefty stared back and up at me. I looked down at her. Our eye-lock felt like it took longer than Lefty had been alive. Insanely, I didn’t want to sell Righty out by snitching to Lefty.  She would never believe you, anyway, I thought as I saw discomfort grow in Lefty’s eyes.

And now you look like a fucking weirdo, came another thought. My eyes flicked to a sea anemone, but the creature was no help.

What if she tells a camp counselor I poked her? my brain helpfully finished as Lefty turned back around. I made a path through another group of children—I’m 230 pounds and graceless, so the scene looked like a water buffalo tromping through a colony of prairie dogs—and abandoned Lefty and Righty to their game.

Righty, if you’re reading this, know I never snitched. And know that Rosie will look back on kids like you and Micah and think about how adorable y’all were. Meanwhile, I’ll look back and realize how accurate the answer, “When I’m 30, I guess?” really is.

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The Unit

February 2013

“Let’s get rid of all the big shit first,” I said to Mike at the beginning of the worst-planned weekend of my life.

I was moving out of my Chesterfield, Virginia, apartment. It was the place I’d moved after college to find a job; I was unsuccessful. I was temporarily going to stay in a small guest room in Northern Virginia, so I came up with the terrible idea of sticking my belongings in a storage unit until I found a new place of my own. The storage unit I selected drew me in with the promise of a free first month’s rent.

Mike had agreed to help me over an extended weekend. I’d gone three hours out of my way to snag him from our hometown, as much because I wanted to work on preserving our friendship as for his help.

Continue reading

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The Forester for the Trees: Epilogue

The first time I drove Harold after finishing my 1,500-word ode to him, a young guy driving a Mustang crossed four lanes of traffic out of turn and totaled my beloved Subaru Forester.

The collision happened on a zippy four-lane road, which the Mustang’s driver was attempting to cross perpendicularly. From my vantage point, I was driving in the far-right lane. The Mustang first registered in the left corner of my vision as a panicked white flash; the driver had misjudged the speed of the traffic he was trying to cut through, then floored the accelerator and shot across the roadway to try to hurtle out of his mistake. I braked as the Mustang illegally surged into my lane, but still t-boned the car’s passenger-side door with Harold’s snout, which destroyed Harold’s engine compartment.

The Forester’s safety system acquitted itself well; I came out with no injuries except sore hands from strangling the steering wheel throughout the collision. Mentally, though, I was a little off. I stayed outwardly composed at the scene, but looking back, the wreck created several incongruities in my head:

  • I at first thought the Mustang’s passenger was a woman, judging from the glimpse I caught as the Mustang slid sideways away from Harold immediately after the impact. “Is your lady OK?” I asked the driver about a minute later, thinking his girlfriend might be hurt. He looked confused, but said the passenger was fine. Later, when I got a good look, I realized the passenger was a sturdily built man with a shaved head. (He was, in fact, OK.)
  • The tow-truck driver who came to retrieve Harold picked up a car’s grill off the road and tossed it onto Harold’s front passenger-side seat. What the hell, man? I thought. That’s not mine. I somehow believed he’d mistakenly thrown a random piece of road debris into my car, until I visited Harold at the junkyard to retrieve my belongings and saw that it was the Forester’s grill in the seat. (I kept the grill.)
  • The police officer who reported to the scene initially talked to me while I was standing on a curb, looming above him. The curb exaggerated the difference in our sizes: He was about 5’7″ and trim, while I’m 6’2″ and oafish. Hope he doesn’t think I’m trying to intimidate him by standing up here, I thought. Then I considered stepping off the curb, but was worried I’d bump into him. I ended up slouching a little and concentrating on keeping my voice, which was threatening to shake like my hands already were, slow and calm. Some intimidator I am.

The timing of Harold’s death—so soon after I’d articulated what the Forester meant to me—has remained in my mind as much as the wreck itself. The obvious lesson from the incident’s timing is to never write about the things you care for.

But the better lesson is to always write about the things you care for, because some guy in a Mustang could kill one of them later today. I was too bullheaded and lazy to learn this while my parents were fighting their terminal illnesses, but the SUV they left me got it through. Thanks, Harold.


And welcome to the Steger Sector, yet-to-be-named replacement Forester.


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The Forester for the Trees

We’d been friends for 10 years when Harold told me he was dying.

Granted, Northern Virginia’s battered highways, repetitious stoplights, and erratic weather are tough on cars, but I didn’t expect Harold to give up so soon after we moved there. He kept bucking whenever we reached 60–70 miles per hour, and his check-engine light was on.

My thoughts weren’t: If this car dies, how the hell am I getting to work? Nor were they: How can I afford to fix this?

Rather, I thought: If this car dies, God damn I am going to miss it. Continue reading

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Case Studies

Part 1: Games at JMU Apartment, 8:15 PM

“Grenade, Paul!” Bill yells as he tosses a can of Natural Light across the floor. It bounces in front of Paul, who immediately jumps on it like a soldier sacrificing his life to protect his squad. He pulls the tab and chugs the spewing beer, swallowing half of it and drenching himself with the rest.

The game is called Grenades, and you just learned all of the rules. We’re pregaming (drinking before we go out) in our apartment’s common area. The room’s decorated with carpet stains, a plaid couch, and wrinkled posters from GoodFellas and The Godfather.  

We’ve been living together in Harrisonburg, Virginia for a year now, which means we’ve been drinking together for a year. Bill’s the only one in the room with a decent idea of what to do with his life: Despite blacking out nearly every weekend, he’s come up with a solid plan to enter the PR world. As for me and Paul, we’re floundering in vague directions—him towards politics, me towards writing.

But floundering is for weekdays; right now, it’s time to abuse beer of the eleven-dollars-per-case variety. Continue reading

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Silence Is No Way to Argue

I was sitting on my couch, watching football, and drinking beer. Despite the immense pleasure those three activities give me, I had a problem.

My girlfriend, Rosie, was in the next room, silently wallowing on my bed. She’d been in there for most of the first wave of games and remained at her post well into the second. That was about four hours; she was in there under the guise of working on a letter, but instead she was gritting her teeth and staring at the ceiling.

For companionship in her absence, I called a friend, Meadows. We bitched about our respective teams for a bit. Eventually, Rosie’s anger came up. “What’d you do to piss her off?” Meadows asked.

“Oh, I reckon she’ll tell me in about 36 hours,” I said. She was giving me the silent treatment. And naturally, I didn’t know why. But I had some guesses. Continue reading