Fear, like its sometimes counterpart pain, is one of those things that lacks a verbal equivalent. The primary difference between the two is that fear exists only in the mind, whereas pain attacks the body or measured periods of time. Yes, fear can be painful, and pain can be feared, but the two are very different. Most of the time fear is shrouded temporarily by adrenaline- a natural drug generated by the body to combat this particular ailment. It only becomes tangible when introspection is added to the formula. It’s the “after” that gives fear its meaning and its definition.
Fear exists in varying degrees, not unlike pain. Fearing for one’s life is a very different experience than the fear of missing a plane or the fear of eating bad sushi. Language, as I have already indicated, is probably not the best tool for describing the emotions that accompany fear. Unfortunately that’s all we have.
The impetus for this reflection, which I am even now still experiencing-thirty minutes after the fact-is not unique. See, I live in New York city, a place many people fear even without having ever visited. It is not even the daily toil or intense human density of New York that I speak of, but more the conceptual vastness of the place. That fear, however, is also unlike the one I am referring to. Tomorrow I am going to the hospital where a doctor will give me large quantities of morphine and then stick a scope down my throat in an attempt to figure out why it is my stomach is not working properly. Yet even this is not what makes me feel fearful right now.
I live not far from where I work. To get from point A to point B I rollerblade. It is not only the cheapest way to span this distance, but it is also the fastest. At 9:18am every morning, right after the Dollars & Sense portion of CNN Headline News, I don my blades and skate across Manhattan to the office in which I pay for my current life. At 5:30pm every day I don the same blades and retrace my path.
Today, with the exception of my impending visit to the hospital tomorrow, was like every other day. I worked until lunch, ate, and then continued working until there was no more to do, or no more I wished to do. In the morning I take off my skates and change into shoes before entering the building. Every morning I do this on the same green paint flecked bench in the small concrete park across the street from my office. At night I change out of my shoes and into my skates before leaving. I ride the elevator eleven floors to sea level and then glide right out the door. For some reason it just seems better this way. I usually drop a portion of the daily mail into a mailbox outside a nearby pizza joint and then continue on home. Today I choose to forget the mail. Maybe that was the difference.
I skated out of the building into an unusually warm early February evening. I’ll be leaving the city soon, so on these temperate nights I think to myself how great it is to be here, with or without stomach problems. The trip east across the city takes, on average, seven minutes. Tonight it will take slightly more. This has to do with the fear (I am getting to that-trust me). As I skate along Spring Street, staring longingly into the windows of stores well beyond my own personal patronage, I am cursed at and then nearly knocked over by a bike messenger. To this I respond, and not nearly as creatively as I could have liked, “Fuck You.” I do this often in similar scenarios and nothing ever comes of it. Tonight it nearly does, or should I say it does and it doesn’t.
The bike messenger, who is black, and I mention this only because he makes it a point to identify the color of my skin, skids to a halt nearly knocking me over a second time.
Fear strikes- and not like it does in the movies. It almost hurts, but I’ve already established that it’s different.
“What did you say, muthafucka!”
“Nothing, let’s just forget about it.”
I continue forward, but quite aware that I now have a pursuer.
“Where do you think you goin’ pussyasswhitepieceoshit”
I pretend I’m not hearing what I have just heard. I make it ten cement sidewalk squares before being headed off by my new friend. Attempting to avoid any sort of eye contact I am struck by a loud clinking. I recgnize this as the sound of an industrial strength metal link bike lock. I should add that tonight I packed a large finger full of chewing tobacco into my lower lip, a habit I am not proud of, but one I tend to indulge in from time to time.
Fear strikes-again-much more severely this time.
“Hey just leave me alone.”
“You the one wit the big mouth, so why don’t I jus’ shut it the fuck up.”
I wonder whether he is speaking literally about the bulge in my lower lip, or figuratively about the comments I have just unleashed. I conclude that this probably not a good time to question his intent.
I should also add, at this point, the fact that I am not a very big person. I mean I’m not short, but I am very skinny and very wimpy. In fact sometimes I think the muscles in my mouth are probably stronger than the ones hanging off my arms.
I am stopped in front of a deli, and an old man sits peeling carrots in front of me. He probably sees the fear from where he’s sitting. My friend, who by this point has already dropped his bike and is swirling the chain around like costume jewelry, is walking towards me. I am no pro on roller blades and I feel even less agile now.
“Common-lets forget about it. What did I do to you?”
(Notice I do not apologize, this has nothing to do with pride. I has everything to do with the fear.)
“You’re fuckin’white. And you fuct with me.”
I think to myself ‘I don’t hate you because you’re black.’ It occurs to me that this isn’t exactly the time to have a multi-cultural discussion about racial hatred in the late twentieth century. Two other deli workers are now standing behind the carrot peeler. This makes me feel better for all of three seconds.
I am staring at his eyes. The whites are not exactly white but more a stale yellow, like cigarette stained teeth, even so this is a striking contrast to the blackness of his skin. He really does hate me, no doubt about that. My eyes tell him that I am scared shitless, no doubt about that.
He paces and then quickly turns and mocks a punch, coming dangerously close to my face and the walks towards his bike.
I continue skating, changing my usual route to a more highly populated street. The problem is that the street I am no now is desolate. I hear chains tinkling behind me.
He gets off his bike, and once again approaches me. I wobble on my skates.
“I should fuckin’ kill you. I could. I should. Give me $1.25 so I can get the bus.”
This request strikes me as odd because he seems to be riding a bike.
“I don’t carry cash.” which is a lie, ‘for this reason’ I think.
He bluffs another punch. I flinch again, and turn around retreating to the deli. I decide to make forward progress so I skate east along the sidewalk. He keeps pace on the street, still hurling indecipherable words at me. They miss me and bounce off the wall and stick to him like glue, only I’m not in fifth grade anymore.
I’m now on Broadway, only six blocks to go. I’ve lost tack of him. The light is red. There are no policemen. There are always policemen on this corner. Out of the corner of my eye I see a biker flying towards me. It’s him. He bluffs a kick. Why doesn’t he just get it over with.
The light turns green and I start moving. He is standing in the street still looking me down. Cars cross both of our lines of vision so I ignore his searching gaze and speed up. I take my first left still trying to hit a major street, filled with cabs, if necessary, and cops, if necessary. He appears to have ceased his assault. I will not believe this. Not yet. I skate very hard down Houston street. I can see my building but it is still very far away. I nearly run into the back of a bus. I am passed by many bikers, my body tightens as they pass . They are not him.
I make it to my block and skip the deli where I was going to buy myself the soda I had promised myself twenty minutes before. I am in my building. My doorman gives me the rent bill. This doesn’t make me feel any better. I open my mailbox. There are three bills. This makes me feel worse. I press the elevator button but stand out of sight of the front door. The door opens and I glance towards the door. He is not there. I sigh and press the button that will tell the elevator to take me to my floor. I am alone in the elevator. This is good and bad. I must still look spooked, but some company might make me feel better.
There is no light seeping out from under my door. My roommates are not home yet. I cautiously open the door. It is silent. There are no chains clicking. I drop my bag, play the messages on the machine. There is one from the hospital. This reminds me of the thing I had managed to forget. I sit down on the couch, shaking almost like a really bad hangover, and flip through my mail after turning on the stereo and inserting a new CD into the player. The music begins but I can’t really hear it.
The adrenaline is gone now. Only the fear is left. I sit down at my computer, and start writing. I am no longer nervous about tomorrow. Well I guess I am, what if he is waiting for me. No he won’t be…