(Warning: This story is a little NSFW…but only a little.)
Welcome to The Silkworm, where we feature stories spun live and unedited. Just as a reminder, this podcast is part of our Crimson series, which contains explicit material that may not be suitable for some listeners.
Tonight’s story comes to you from Daniel Costain, who spoke at our open mic night at the Wherever You Go Café in Toronto. The theme of the night was On the Way.
The first time it happens, I’ve just stepped out of the shower. I put my hand out to grab my towel from the hook on the back of the door, and there’s nothing there. I remember that I did laundry the night before. And just like that it comes down over me like a weighted curtain, like someone’s thrown a black bag over my head. This sudden paralyzing realization that nothing ever works, that nothing’s ever good or clean or easy, that everything I do is futile and will end in failure and ruin. And I double over like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and I watch the water drip down my legs onto the mat for I don’t know how long, because it just seems a pointless effort to walk the ten feet into the kitchen and take the clean towels out of the dryer.
The second time it happens, I’m just about to leave for work. My shoes are on, my coat’s on, my bag’s over my shoulder. As I’m reaching for the doorknob, this–this cold, this heat, this force rushes into my chest from out of nowhere, and just know that if I touch that doorknob, if I open that door, something terrible is going to happen. I freeze, and then I start shaking. I pull my hand back slowly, silently, so that whatever’s out there can’t hear me move. And I stand there for fifteen minutes before I can bring myself to open the door and go to work.
The third time it happens, I’m standing in the orange juice aisle in the grocery store. The selection of orange juice covers more square footage than my kitchen. No pulp, some pulp, extra pulp, from concentrate, not from concentrate, fibre added, organic, low-sugar, low-acid–all of the cartons shining in my face like a million orange spotlights. And I start thinking about this article I read, about how it’s not like they take the oranges and squeeze them into the bottle, about how the oranges get bought in bulk and processed at these massive facilities that look like oil refineries and then frozen in containers the size of shipping crates, and how it’s impossible to trace where any given oranges come from so if there’s any contamination from one orchard, it can corrupt the supply being shipped out across the continent. And I think about herbicides and pesticides and gassing the oranges to make them ripen faster and using dyes to make the juice the colour of the picture on the carton, and I think about migrant workers and the children of migrant workers, and I think about the fossil fuels burned by the eighteen-wheeler driven three days straight by a sleep-deprived private contact worker with no benefits or pension so that I can buy a product that was a once-a-year Christmas treat to my grandmother’s generation from an acre of open refrigerated shelving in my supermarket in Toronto in the middle of September. And I think, We are all. So. Fucked.
And, I mean, it’s not like a lot of that stuff isn’t true. But as a rule, people don’t find themselves sobbing about it in the orange juice aisle at the grocery store.
And I think, It is remotely plausible that I might be going crazy. And as it later turns out, I am!
Hey, it’s okay to laugh at that. That’s why we’re here.
And I am, granted, even before this starts, I’m going through a rough patch, which is the phrase used in my family for everything from failing a grade-seven pop quiz to terminal cancer. My dad passed away less than a year ago, and my mom’s really struggling to take care of the house, but she’s lived in that house for forty-three years and no way is she going to move out of it now. And my older brother just had a heart attack scare, and there’s shit going on at work. But I mean, I live in Canada, for crying out loud! All over the world, people are suffering, getting kidnapped and raped and murdered, parents are watching their children get shot by soldiers or swept away by tsunamis, and I’m a regular middle-class asshole with a regular middle-class asshole job getting overwhelmed by my extensive choice in breakfast beverages? This is bullshit, and I need to get the fuck over it.
As a plan, this is not a resounding success.
Soon this thing is happening two or three times a day. At work, I go lock myself in the single-stall wheelchair-accessible washroom and splash my face with cold water when it’s over so I can pretend that no one notices my eyes are bloodshot. At home, I just lie down wherever I am when it happens. Anything can set it off. Beautiful things, broken things, something dropped and left on the street.
One thing that helps is walking. It’s good to be moving, like the bad thing can’t find me if I’m in motion. I start walking home from work. It’s about five kilometers. I go for long walks on my lunch hour. It’s not like I need it for lunch, because eating, like sleeping more than five hours a night, turns out to be one of those things I don’t really need in my life. I’m surviving on canned soup and ice cream.
People start asking if I’m okay. My best friend at work keeps telling me I look like shit and trying to make me come out to lunch with her so we can talk about it, so I start leaving five, then ten, then fifteen minutes before twelve, so I’m not at my desk when she comes around.
My manager calls me into his office. He says that he’s not trying to invade my privacy, but he’s concerned about me and wants me to know that he’s fully supportive of employees taking a leave of absence if they need some time to deal with personal matters. He gives me a card for the employee assistance program. Later that day I drop the card into the confidential recycling bin. I don’t need no stinking employee assistance program. I am a man, and in my family, men deal with their shit on their own.
One morning I’m in the bathroom, and I see this face in the mirror. It’s about the colour of that crappy cheap mozzarella cheese they sell in two-pound bricks at the discount grocery store. This guy hasn’t shaved in a lot of days, and his eyes are puffy and surrounded by circles so dark they might be bruises. And so deep in denial am I, so far up my own ass is my head at this point, that for a split second I actually think, Well, I may look like shit, but at least I don’t look like that guy.
That’s when I realize I might need some help.
I make an appointment with my doctor. When she asks me what brings me there, I say, “I think I might be…allergic.”
She says, “What are you having a reaction to?”
I say, “…Everything I see? And think about?”
She pulls it out of me piece by piece, how I might be having a small problem with difficult life decisions like not bursting into tears because a little girl in the park’s wearing a bright red hat. And she says, “It sounds like you might be experiencing some anxiety.”
And I’m like, anxiety? You feel anxiety when the dentist starts up the drill. You feel anxiety when you look at your employer’s second-quarter report and all the graphs are jagged red lines heading downwards. I don’t have anxiety, I have absolute fucking certainty that I and everyone I know and love are going to die in agony and despair.
She talks about how there are pills, and there is therapy, and I’m like, thank you, no, I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to fix it. So I get a prescription for little white pills. When I pick them up, the pharmacist tells me, “Be patient. This medication doesn’t always take effect immediately. It can take some time.”
And he’s right about that. It does take some time.
I take two weeks off work, during which I can’t really tell whether the pills are working or not, and when I get back, I can tell no one’s really sure whether I had a bad case of the flu, or, you know, cancer. And they’re doing their best to be supportive and sympathetic, but some of them say the stupidest shit. About living in the moment, and cultivating gratitude, and enjoying the journey. These things have never been of primary importance in my life. I mean, I have shit to get done.
In the middle of all this, I get a phone call.
Before all of this started, I’d been seeing this guy. Dating as an adult, it’s different from dating when you’re younger. When you’re in your twenties, you’re looking for someone to build your life with. When you’re steering into the curve of forty-two, you’ve built your life, and the question is, can this other person fit into it or not. I like him a lot–he’s hot, he reads, he’s a partner in a law firm specializing in human rights cases–I know!–but we’ve been taking it slow. I’ve seen him twice since this whole thing started, and though I’m sure he can tell something’s up, I haven’t actually told him anything. There also might have been some texts I didn’t reply to, like maybe only a dozen or so. And I get a voicemail from him that makes it clear that he thinks I’ve dumped him and just not bothered to inform him.
And the reason I haven’t told him is because I’m afraid of what he’s going to say. Because if he says something stupid, if he talks to me about gratitude and appreciating the journey, it’s going to just kill me.
But now I have to tell him. So we make a date to meet for dinner. I’m early, he’s late, and I sit at a table for two thinking about snapped elevator cables and speeding SUVs and ebola and comets hurtling towards the earth. When he arrives he takes one look at me and says, “Do you want to get out of here?” And I nod, because right then I can hardly speak.
Out on the sidewalk, he asks, “What do you want to do?” And what I really want is to walk for about three hours, but he’s using his crutches that day–he has to sometimes, he has a thing with his hip–and I don’t want to force him to deal with my high-speed long-distance panic walking. So I say, “Can we just drive around?”
Which is a ridiculous thing to say to someone in downtown Toronto. But he makes it happen. We get into his car and he takes me to the Port Lands, and we drive up and down in the dark on these long, beat-up roads lined with half-grown weed trees and an abandoned incinerator and piles of rubble where factories used to be. After a while he pulls into a parking lot and drives to the end and parks. From here we can see the skyline at night, a crenellated wall of gold courtesy of a nuclear power plant producing radioactive waste that remains lethal to all living things for tens of thousands of years, streaks of colour from the lights reflected in the toxic water of the bay.
He turns off the car and says, “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on.”
I’m pretty sure I make absolutely no sense. At this point I still barely have the words to describe it. But I talk.
When I’m finished, what he says is, “It sounds awful. I’m sorry you have to go through that.”
I’m already swallowing tears, because I will not cry in front of this man. But that shatters me completely. And to disguise the fact that I’m crying, I grab him and I kiss him–because maybe then he won’t notice!–and he pulls away and says, “Hey, whoa, slow down,” and gives me a kleenex and puts his hand on my back, and I sit there hunched over and sobbing, knowing that I’m broken and rotting inside, and that I’ve just killed every possibility we could have had together.
When I finally stop crying he starts the car up, and I know he’s going to drop me off at my condo and I’ll never see him again. But he finds a drive-through and orders hot sweet milky tea, and he gives it to me and drives around until I’ve finished it. He doesn’t just drop me off, he parks his car and walks me to my door, and he kisses me and says, “I’ll text you tomorrow.”
And he does.
A few days later he texts me again. Dinner or drive?
So it becomes a thing we do. And when I’m sitting beside him in the dark, hurtling down the tunnel we make with our headlights, rain or snow flinging itself against the windshield, I don’t think about mechanical failure and overcrowded emergency rooms. I don’t think about the future at all.
It takes a while, but the pills start to kick in. The existential dread begins to happen less often, and sometimes it’s not as intense, a sparkler instead of a firebomb. I sleep more. Eating becomes something I can do again.
One evening in April we’re parked beside the water with the windows open, and we’re getting kind of chilly but we don’t want to close them because we can smell the mud and green from the first warm day of spring, and it’s been a long damn winter. I’m not sure who makes the first move, but suddenly we’re kissing, we’re making out in the front seat of his car like a couple of suburban teenagers, and he bangs his elbow on the steering wheel and I smack my knee on the bottom of the dash, but we don’t stop. It’s like we’re afraid that if we stop and go somewhere with walls and a bed, we’ll lose a chance that’s only coming our way this once.
Now, these little white pills that I’m taking, their generic name is citalopram, which–was that a whoo? Did I just get a whoo for citalopram? Thank you, sir, well done.
Anyway, these pills have a variety of fascinating side effects, one of which is what the literature calls decrease in sexual function, which in real life, for me, means I cannot get off. And for a while it doesn’t matter. But since I’ve been feeling a little better, it’s gotten to be more and more of an issue. I can get hard, I can almost get there, but I just can’t get over that cliff. And it’s driving me nuts.
I know, it’s not all about the orgasm, enjoy the journey. And I’ve been on road trips. I like road trips. But there comes a point, four-thirty, five in the afternoon, when you’ve been sitting all day and you can’t face another cup of coffee and you’re done looking at the scenery, and it’s not like you’re not appreciating the road trip, but right now you’re just ready to arrive somewhere, you know?
So my forty-year-old lawyer friend and I are in a semi-public place with our hands down each other’s pants. And he unzips my jeans and goes down on me. It feels amazing.
But after a while it’s clear that I’m not getting anywhere. I’m impossibly turned on, I’m so hard it’s starting to hurt, but I still can’t come. And I start to get angry about it. My entire body tenses up, my teeth are clenched, I’m trying through sheer focussed willpower to force my body to have an orgasm. But I can’t do it.
And then something happens to me, like a mirror opposite of everything else I’ve been going through.
I look across the water to the lights of the city. And sure, it used to be forest and floodplains, and we paved the shit out of that. But it sure is beautiful, lit up like a billion stars, and I think of how most of human history has been spent huddling in the dark. And I look down at this beautiful man who’s making me feel good, who’s enjoying making me feel good, and I realize how improbable and miraculous it is that he exists at all and that we’re on this tiny piece of ground in this infinitesimal moment, together.
And while I’m thinking that, I come, and it is pure distilled white-lightning relief. As I relax down from the peak I’m floating, and through my closed eyes I can see light, constellations surrounding me, like a cloak, like wings, and for just a split second I understand everything, how we’re all made of light, and how everything matters and nothing matters, and there’s nothing I need to do about it anyway.
That was a year ago. I still struggle with incapacitating dread sometimes, but things are getting better. I’m weaning myself off the little white pills. I’m even getting myself some of that therapy I’ve heard so much about. It turns out that talking about things isn’t one hundred percent bullshit.
I still have a beautiful man who drives me interesting places in his car. I still know that I’m going to die someday, and he’s going to die someday, and even if climate change and viral pandemics don’t doom us all now, in a few billion years the sun will expand to engulf the earth in blazing hydrogen, and that’ll be it.
What I need to keep reminding myself is this: I’m not at the end yet, and even if the ending matters, it doesn’t have to define the rest of the story.