Nails birthing crescent moons in the palms of my hands, I try my hardest to breathe. It seems like the more oxygen I manage to take in, the smaller my lungs get. My chest is tightening to the point that I want to claw at my skin to release my heart. My ribcage is constraining against itself, the bones are warping and creating a cage, no longer a barrier of protection, but a place where my own body feels unwelcome. The first coherent thought that crosses my mind is merely an observation.
“The party is still going on around me,” I choke out, pushing against the wall to keep steady. I can feel tears pricking my eyes and the need to curl up in my bed is overwhelming. I don’t know why I came here, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. These days, it seems like a trigger can shapeshift itself into almost anything: a surprise phone call from an old friend, deciding what to wear, or, in this case, the overwhelming truth that in this room filled with people, I am still alone.
The large cabin now seems like it’s shrinking before my very eyes, and with every step I take, I tread through a sea of ever-growing red cups and blurry, familiar faces. I push past and stumble out before anyone can say a thing.
When outside, I press against the wall and try to take deep breaths. I do not look around, because the forest at night is filled with shadows, and shadows could be anything. Shadows can be the innocent figure of a passerby, the distorted image of a tree, or a warning sign for bad things ahead. I try not to think about it too much, for fear of making things worse for myself, so I focus on breathing. I slowly count to ten… twenty… thirty… and then count backwards.. I don’t notice the person standing right in front of me until I reopen my eyes.
“Hey, Nicole, you alright?” He says. I almost start crying again. Of course, with my luck, the host would be the one to find me this way. To see me in my most vulnerable state. I half expect him to kick me out, or make me feel bad about putting a damper on the mood. Although, I doubt that anyone really noticed. They’re all trapped in their blissfully ignorant worlds where shaking hands and too many doctor visits don’t exist.
“I’m sorry-I should just go- I really don’t know why my friend dragged me here,” I choke out as many excuses as I can, hoping that he’ll just leave. I never did too well with confrontation, but I try my best.
The boy, Jensen I believe, tilts his head to one side, shaking his head slightly. He places his hand on my shoulder, leans in close to me and says, “Don’t sweat it.” My muscles immediately stop tensing, I can feel myself unwinding. That is, until he says, “You probably didn’t take your pills today, right?”
My first reaction is to laugh. A dry, unbelievable laugh that only occurs because I’m in plain shock. I forgot that people liked to joke about mental illness, forgot that people like him still existed. He must be taking my nervous laughter as approval because he smiles and pulls closer, further invading my personal space. He almost looks smug, as if he just cured my anxiety disorder by making the worst remark of the century.
Every single bone inside of me is screaming for me to find my friend and leave, but I can’t. I can’t will my legs to move yet, my body is still drained from the energy I used to interact in a social environment. And now, I have to deal with Jensen, someone who was obviously born into a mindset I believed we had long since stopped supporting. I try smiling politely and remove his hand from my shoulder.
“With all due respect, that is… absolutely none of your business, and no, I do not take pills.” I am content with my answer and am about to push off the wall to isolate myself yet again, when he stops me and frowns. His body is big enough to block my way to safety, and I can feel my throat beginning to close in on itself again.
He shrugs, clearing his throat. “Well, you should. Take pills, I mean. My sister has a friend who gets those attacks too. It’s all in the mind.” He crosses his arms, and if I remember anything from the books I read on body language, is that he’s becoming defensive. He thinks he’s right, and he’s closing himself off from any suggestions.
The only thing I can think to do in that moment is scream. I want to scream and shove him away from me and go home and never come back. The idea that someone can be so purposely ignorant and still think that they deserve to be stubborn is something that I don’t think I will ever be able to grasp. I want to voice all of these thoughts, but I don’t say a thing, because I’m too busy thinking about not passing out from hyperventilation. So Jensen remains clueless, still in the warped mentality where he thinks he’s helping me. I open my mouth to try to explain to him that everything he said is inconsiderate, but out of the corner of my eye, I spot Alexis, the one who brought me here.
I try to subtly move his hand off my shoulder and position myself so that I can leave and my friend can save me, but when she spots us, her expression reads nothing but surprise. She’s shaking her head, eyes moving between the two of us in disbelief. She thinks Jensen is making a move on me. I try to tell her that no, that’s almost the exact opposite of what’s happening, but she runs back inside. Now on top of being exhausted, stressed, and annoyed, she has fabricated this extreme misconception between me and Jensen, who already has a boyfriend, that she is probably spreading everywhere.
Today has not been a good day. I turn to Jensen slowly, and don’t think to filter my words enough. “Do me the greatest favor ever and get so far away from me that you’re just a speck in my vision. You are purposefully ignorant, and I do not have the time or energy to deal with you. I am going to go inside, and then go home, and you will never try to invite me to a party again. I am tired of having to pretend that I have fun at these things. Alright? Alright. Have a nice night.”
His jaw slacks, and he looks like I’ve just told him that I have a second head. Good, he’s probably not used to people shutting him down so abruptly. He could use an ego check. He takes a few steps away from me and rolls his eyes before walking away. I don’t even humor the thought of how he’s going to tell everyone that he can’t stand me and that I’m a horrible human being. I can think about that another time, when I’m not on the brink of lashing out at anything that breathes in my direction.
I take long, purposeful strides to the entrance in the house and stand in the doorway, scanning the room, wasting no time and not even bothering to walk into the crowd. All I’m doing is looking for the bright blue highlights in Alexis’s hair. As soon as I make eye contact with her, I call for her and motion for her to come over. When she sees the angry glint in my eyes, something must click in her head because she says goodbye to the group of people she’s with and comes my way. Finally, one thing that night works out in my favor.
As she reaches me, she’s filled to the brim with questions. At first, she pours out all of her thoughts and asks me why I’ve been crying and what was happening with Jensen. After my consistent silence, she gives up, walking away towards her car. I silently link my hand with hers, hoping that the look on my face is enough to keep her quiet for the rest of the night. It’s not.
“God Nicky, you’re always in a bad mood,” she mutters under her breath. I stop dead in my tracks, ripping my hand out of her grip. Out of all people, out of all things, the one who dragged me here is criticizing me. It was the last thing I needed. I wanted to leave, I wanted to go home and sit on my bed and never move again.
“I’m taking a taxi.” I told her, starting to take a step back, hoping my voice stings. I try to be as cold as humanly possible, I can’t allow my voice to betray just how much this day hurts. As I’m walking away, she says something I will never forget.
“How will you do anything without me? You can’t even talk to people on the phone!” I do not turn around. I do not turn around because if I did, I’d probably fall apart all at once, and I cannot let all my hard work of keeping myself together go to waste. I keep walking. It feels like someone has a cold grip on my chest, and as the night goes on, they are relentlessly twisting. My breathing is sparse, and the choking noises escape me without my permission. I silently walk up to one of the people I share classes with, I faintly remember her helping me when I was panicking about the test.
“Please call me a cab,” I whisper, my voice meek and my posture caving in on itself. I do not have the strength to pretend to be strong. I do not have the strength to pretend anything anymore. The girl nods, pulling out her phone and marking something quickly.
In the meantime, I fall to the ground right where I’m standing. I cross my legs and sit, breathing, a bit calmer now that I’m sitting down. My black, wavy hair barely touches my lap and sways with the rhythm of my trained, calming breaths. I know all the motions I must go through. Inhale deeply, hold, exhale slowly, and repeat. The girl taps me on my shoulder and says it’s on its way, and I mumble a thank you. I have no intentions of moving from this very spot until the cab comes, no matter how messy my jeans get from the dirt.
Instead, to distract myself, I marvel at the way Tracy is so comfortable in a group, surrounded by people. She’s laughing and telling her own share of stories, leaning on someone’s shoulder and smiling. She’s relaxed and in a good place, and here I am. Sitting in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people but still alone. I am always still alone.
Before I can think anything of it, one of the people from her group of friends comes over and sits next to me. I recognize him as Jensen’s boyfriend. He says nothing, only scoots closer to ensure that our bodies are making contact, and holds my hand.
“I’m sorry.” He says. When I look up at his eyes, there are tears gathering in them and he sniffs his nose. “I-I’m Jensen’s boyfriend. My name is Zach, by the way. I can’t believe he’d say something like that. I honestly thought he was better than that.” He shakes his head slightly, uses his sleeve to wipe at his face. I want to say something to him, but my voice escapes me. He goes on, “I know it probably means nothing to you, but I broke up with him. As soon as I found out. In fact,” he laughs coldly, something I can only describe as a way to hide, “In fact, when I confronted him, he tried blaming it on you. Said you were making a move.”
I shake my head quickly, “I could never do that. Thank you for… at least trying to fix this when it’s not even your mess.”
He smiles softly, “Of course. Someone has to restore your faith in humanity.”
Tracy taps my shoulder, and motions in the direction of the taxi that has pulled up to the cabin. I mumble a thank you and start to stand, mindlessly wiping the dirt off my clothes.
Before I go, I turn to Zach and give him a hug. He graciously accepts and rubs my back comfortingly, mumbling apologies in my ear. When I pull back, I manage a small smile, and tell him, truthfully, “It’s okay.”