Phobia

Posted by on Nov 6, 2010 in Angst, anger, anarchy | 3 comments

The bridge grew like a leviathan as we approached from the south, it’s exposed metal girders suspended impossibly high off the ground. In the back seat I become silent as my brother and sister chatter about our trip north. My skin feels clammy, my stomach twisted as if the bridge has reached its awful steel-gray hands into my gut. My brother, suddenly realizing I am too quiet, seizes the opportunity.

“You know the road ends up there.” He points forward and I look with rising terror at the arch of the highway ahead. My five year old eyes cannot fill in the space outside the lines. I believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy because they give me gifts. I wonder why I go to God’s house every Sunday, but he never seems to be there. I imagine him as a man in pith helmet, machete in hand, cutting through the African jungle in search of lost sheep.  I believe in the picture I see ahead, where clearly, the road is simply not there.

My thirteen year old brother, encouraged by my fear, continues, “When we get to the top the car is gonna just sail off the end.” My fists clutch the edge of the fold down arm rest that divides the space in the back seat. I am allowed to sit there because I am the smallest. My siblings both fume at my privileged position. I look for help from the front seat, but my parents seem engaged in serious conversation. I waver slightly on our imminent death by drowning, but I know for a certainty the consequences of interrupting them. I look back at the road way. I review the few years of my life I can remember, the sandbox in my back yard under the willow tree I love, the church, the grocery store, my grandmother. It blurs into a impressionist montage as the mouth of the monster approaches. Seconds now until our death, but my brother continues to badger.

“Just a little further and it stops” he taunts as we draw ever closer to the crest. I hold my breath for the plunge, eyes riveted to the asphalt. Very soon in real time I become aware that the ribbon of highway in front of me stretches flat and straight as an arrow across the Indiana bottom land, as far as I can see. I know I have been duped, and I tell him so with my eyes. My confused and angry glare elicits a quick, “Wrong bridge” and a belly laugh from he and my sister. “It’s the next one, honest” he swears, hand in the air. The scene fades to a gray humiliation.

Ten years later, Sunday afternoon on a back country road, my mother sits beside me in the family station wagon. I am the apprentice driver, my hands positioned on the steering wheel like they showed me in the driver’s manual at 10 and 2, as if the wheel were a clock. Her fists are digging into the seat in a manner reminiscent of my five year old fingers long ago. A pale shadow of the giant bridge of my childhood looms ahead of us. Both of us look at the pancake flat road as if the ground were going to open and swallow us whole. “Move over to the center line,” she intones, trying to keep the rising panic out of her voice. Responding to the fear I turn the wheel slightly left, slow to a snail’s pace and straddle the double yellow lines. We roll down the center of the three car length structure like a parade float, our four eyes fixed directly and unblinking forward. Finally on the other side, we both remember to breath.

At age twenty I drove across the Verranzano Narrows connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island with a steady hand and a joyful heart. At twenty two I crossed the Golden Gate to visit friends at Stanford, delighted at the beauty of the perfect bay around me. Large or small, from coast to coast I cruised over them with a trust in technology stronger than any fear I could conjure in my head. One night, not long before my second marriage, I woke from a fitful sleep in a cold terror. A nightmare of a bridge loomed ahead of me and my car was moving too fast for me to control, especially from the back seat where I found myself sitting. Reaching desperately for the wheel, knowing it was too late to stop, I sailed off the end, just like my brother predicted. It was the bridge he told me about, the one my mother tried to prepare me to cross. Since that night the dream has come back to me many times in many forms, all my fears tucked neatly in one basket.

Perhaps in my rush out the door of childhood I was moving faster than the speed of fear. Now here in my dotage I have time to reflect on how high those bridges were and how deep the water lay below them. I do not pretend to understand the psychology of irrational anxiety. I only know I miss the audacious, reckless, sometimes outright foolhardy girl who lived on faith and velocity. I think I might still have enough courage left to conjure her again, slightly shopworn perhaps but stronger for the journey.

3 Comments

  1. As always my friend, you speak with words that paint the scenery and memories as if they are the reader’s own. Beautiful 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for coming by April. I’m still stumbling around trying to sort this all out. I have written for days on end, redoing pieces and moving things over. I feel like my brain has had too many chocolates I am so full with all the words.

  3. You have such an amazing storyteller’s voice! I love reading these reminiscences (and the inevitable profound connection with your current life). 🙂

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