anxiety

“It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.” A sharp, pitying smile pinched the corners of her lips. “What was it? Was it a boy? Was it a vocation? Or was it a whole life?” To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you. One day he’ll stop adding and subtracting income and expenditures in his head all the time. There’s an obvious difference between the children who live in homes where the money can run out and the ones who don’t. How old you are when you realise that also makes a difference. She said the word “fat” slowly, funneling it back and forward, and thought about all the other things she had learned not to say aloud in America. She was fat. She was not curvy or big-boned; she was fat, it was the only word that felt true. And she had ignored, too, the cement in her soul. His mother looked agitated, more confused and distraught than Ferguson had ever seen her, no longer acting as the rock of composure and wisdom he had always thought she was but someone just like himself, a fragile being prey to sadness and tears and hopelessness, and when she put her arms around him he felt frightened, not just because his mother's store had burned down and there would be no more money for them to live on, which meant they would have to move to the poorhouse and subsist on porridge and dried-out pieces of bread for the rest of their days, no, that was bad enough, but the truly frightening thing was to learn that his mother was no stronger than he was, that the blows of the world hurt her just as much as they hurt him and that except for the fact that she was older, there was no difference between them. After the festivities ended, however, as he and his parents were on their way home in the blue car, he was caught by surprise when his mother started bad-mouthing Uncle Lew to his father. He couldn't follow everything she said, but the anger in her voice was unusually harsh, a bitter harangue that seemed to have something to do  with his uncle owing his father money, and how dare Lew splurge on Cadillacs and mink coats before paying his father back. His father took it calmly at first, but then he raised his voice, which was something that almost never happened, and suddenly he was barking at Ferguson's mother to stop, telling her that Lew didn't owe him anything, that it was his brother's money and he could do anything he goddamned pleased with it. Ferguson knew his parents sometimes argued (he could hear their voices through the wall of their bedroom), but this was the first time they had fought a battle in front of him, and because it was the first time, he couldn't help feeling that something fundamental about the world had changed. Because she was nervous herself, and because Stanley continued to sit there mostly in silence, she wound up talking for the two of them, which is to say, she talked too much, and as the minutes ticked by she grew more and more appalled with herself for rattling on like a brainless chatterbox, bragging about her sister, for example, and telling him what a brilliant student Mildred was, summa cum laude from Hunter last June and now enrolled in the graduate program at Columbia, the only woman in the English Department, one of only three Jews, imagine how proud the family was, and no sooner did she mention the family than she was on her way to Uncle Archie, her father's younger brother, Archie Adler, the keyboard man with the Downtown Quintet, currently playing at Moe's Hideout on fifty-second Street, and how inspiring it was to have a musician in the family, an artist, a renegade who thought about other things besides making money, yes she loved her Uncle Archie, he was far and away her favorite relative, and then, inevitably, she began talking about her work with Schneiderman, enumerating all the things he had taught her in the past year and a half, grump, foul-mouthed Schneiderman, who would take her to the Bowery on Sunday afternoons to hunt for old winos and bums, broken creatures with their white beards and long white hair, magnificent heads, the heads of ancient prophets and kings, and Schneiderman would give these men money to come to the studio to pose for him, in the most part in costumes, the old men dressed up in turbans and gowns and velvet robes, in the same way Rembrandt had dressed up the down-and-outs of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, and that was the light they used with these men, Rembrandt's light, light and dark together, deep shadow, all shadow with the merest touch of light, and by now Schneiderman had enough faith in her to allow her to set up the lighting on her own, she had made several dozen of these portraits by herself, and then she used the word chiaroscuro, and she understood that Stanley had no idea what she was talking about, that she could have been talking Japanese for all the sense it made to him, but still he went on looking at her, listening to her, rapt and silent, thunderstruck. The driver of the ambulette brings in a wheelchair. Mother lets herself be placed without a murmur, as though this happened every day. Amazed, we suddenly remember how to breathe. I fetch her doctor's order: “DNR — Do Not Resuscitate” off the kitchen wall. My hand bursts into flame. Her blog was doing well, with thousands of unique visitors each month, and she was earning good speaking fees, and she had a fellowship at Princeton and a relationship with Blaine—“You are the absolute love of my life,” he’d written in her last birthday card—and yet there was cement in her soul. Her fears that the break-up of her marriage to Charles might portend a life of solitary, uninvited, ostracized, divorced neglect had not of course been fulfilled, but neither had they been wholly without foundation. For six days and six nights Alsana did not know, was not sure. During this period she read extensively from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and tried hard to believe his assurances (Night’s darkness is a bag that bursts with the gold of the dawn), but she was, at heart, a practical woman and found poetry no comfort. Most of the Co-op members, male and female, from the youngest who was eighteen to the eldest who was in his thirties, complained of home. It was fashionable among the Kilburn College students generally, Marianne noted, to complain of home, family. Her professors made witty jokes about “domestic American rituals”—Thanksgiving, Christmas gift-giving, family summer vacations—in such knowing ways, everyone in class laughed; or almost everyone. Marianne perceived that to be without a family in America is to be deprived not just of that family but of an entire arsenal of allusive material as cohesive as algae covering a pond. A cruel counterthought mocked No, you’re just afraid of what you might discover. Corinne tried one of the heavy doors, cautiously—it opened. Her heart was beating painfully. She stepped inside the dim-lit vestibule and a sweet-rancid odor made her nostrils pinch. Incense. An undercurrent of mildew. That unmistakable smell of so-aged-it-can’t-really-be-cleaned-any-longer linoleum tile. As if rehearsing a way in which to speak of this adventure, a way of most artfully recounting it to make her listeners laugh, Corinne thought Why, you know right away it isn’t one of our churches, it’s one of theirs! So Corinne was a new mother: slightly touched by new-mother craziness. She hoped to dignify herself by commenting sagely to the doctor (always, you want to impress them: men of authority) about “the sucking reflex”—“the bonding instinct”—and similar clinical-anthropological phenomena. She wanted to impress this man she hardly knew, she’d been a college student after all, even if she was only at Fredonia State, and she’d dropped out between her junior and senior years to get married. The library performed a similar function to the English church—it gathered together the exiles who had left England partly because they did not wish to be gathered together but who had changed their mind once they had arrived on the Côte d'Azur, settled in their retirement homes or apartments, redecorated and furnished the interior, cleaned up and planted the garden, and then sitting back to enjoy the arrival of the long-anticipated time for living, found that it was late, or it had been and gone, or it was only a dream. Grace, in this family setting, was the tolerated outsider whose slightest false move would change her to the enemy; the seeds of enmity had been planted with her arrival as Michael's unofficial wife but the rain- and sun-making forces necessary for their growth had been imprisoned within the seasonless weatherless world of the parents' love for or indulgence of their son. He understood that she'd spent the day wondering why she hadn't had happiness like this, Jesus Christ why had she made all the wrong decisions, these stupid teenagers getting married knew how to have a beautiful and humble wedding by this Alaskan river, goddamnit, why did she make it all so difficult when it could be so simple? Any given year you should expect certain things. You can expect to see some horrifying act of terror, for example. A new beheading of a man in orange is a shock and will make you want to never leave the house, but not if you have budgeted for it. A new mass shooting in a mall or school can cripple you for a day but not if you've budgeted for it. That's this month's shooting, you can say. And if there isn't a shooting that month, all the better. You've come out ahead on the ledger. You have a surplus. A refund. Back home Josie was so tired, so bone-weary of spending money. It crushed the spirit. You lie awake at night, tossing to and fro and brooding on it (and other wretchedness). Where was I in my composition? At a standstill. Mr Barrell (testily). What is it, Mrs. Rooney, I have my work to do. Opinions vary as to whether the doorkeeper intends the announcement that he is going to shut the gate merely as an answer, or to emphasize his devotion to duty, or because he wants to arouse remorse and sorrow in the man at the last moment. It’s the special skill of the adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent.
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