This Writer Let Anxiety Take Over—But Love Saved the Day
In lieu of making noise, I make a mess. It's a thing that I have always done, and that I simply loathe about myself, but somehow can't seem to rein in. It's a shameful thing, being a messy person, and I try to limit the spillover into other people's lives.
Soon after my boyfriend of two and a half years broke up with me, for reasons that surely included the way I lived in my mess of an apartment, I lost another reason to enter the outside world. I had been working as an online art director at a magazine, and budget cuts lopped off almost every job in my department. While I was lucky enough to pick up a new gig as the web mistress of the Yoo-hoo chocolate drink website (yes, that's an actual job and it was mine for a very long time), after a few panicky weeks, I realized it didn't entail physically having to be anywhere. Talk to anyone. Leave my home. Manifest in front of anyone. So long as the work showed up online, it didn't matter if it was posted from Anchorage or Angola, Zanzibar or Zimbabwe. I could have traveled the world, as long as I posted regularly. Of course, all the posts emanated from a dark, cluttered, quiet cave in Brooklyn.
It's breathtaking how quickly a home can slide into chaos, tumbling from a few scattered sheets of paper, unwashed glasses and castoff socks into an avalanche of mess. What would have once been an hour or two's worth of stacking, sweeping, scrubbing and hauling suddenly became an insurmountable task. I'm so, so tired. I'll just shove it to the side, step over it. I'll deal with it tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.
A few years later, I flew the nest and landed in Douglas's world, and oh, did I love it there. After spending the night a dozen or so times, and parting ways with a lingering kiss on a blustery corner at 7 a.m., Douglas gave me a key to his apartment.
I thanked him profusely, I used it constantly, I couldn't return the favor.
Whereas I could barely manage the upkeep of an increasingly shabby walk-up floor-through, this new fellow of mine had almost single-handedly restored a 150-year-old Gothic, stone Episcopal church in upstate New York from a raw, unheated, barely plumbed cavern to a warm, two-bedroom home with a claw-foot tub, a granite-countertop kitchen and seating for 12 to 24 dinner guests in the sanctuary.
If he had a sanctuary, I had a belfry. And I wanted to keep the sanctity of it to myself as long as I could, because as God as my witness, who could love me after seeing how I lived?
Then it was my turn to flinch. After some pavement pounding, we'd found a suitably heavy-beamed, architecturally interesting apartment 11 blocks over, one block up and five flights lower than my junk-strewn hovel, with a little fenced-in area for a grill and wide enough so that the wolfhound could maneuver without required rearview mirrors. We patched and emptied Douglas' city apartment, lovingly rouged and gilded every surface of our (OUR!) place until it looked like Goth Barbie's Dream House and installed my rabbit, Claudette, in my new office behind a solidly dog-proof door.
And yet I stayed locked up in the tower, afraid to let my hair down and allow him up or me down. Daunted by the prospect of tossing and hauling (oh God, all those steps—I'll be so glad to be rid of those), I'd root through and find a few obvious things to throw away (Diet Coke bottles, those can go, but did I enter the code off the cap yet? I'm so close to having enough points for another free Diet Coke...) and then, overwhelmed by the mass of it all, allow myself the luxury of a nap across my clothes-strewn bed. It was just too much, too much, too much at once.
I've always been a lover of objects, imbuing them with meaning and emotional weight that they weren't necessarily made to bear. It can be a good thing—until you're curled up weeping in your hallway because you're afraid if you throw away an envelope with your mother's handwriting on it, you'll have nothing to remember her by when she dies. Eight years gives a person like me an awful lot of time to accumulate things. Eight years of hauling objects up five flights to be used exclusively by me and rarely discarded. Eight years of boxing, draping and concealing objects, as needed, to give the appearance that I lived like a halfway-sane human if I knew someone needed to come over. Oh, you don't want to go in the front room—it's too hot/cold/loud/full of bees, bears, alligators. Not to mention that if you step incorrectly, you will be crushed by teetering knickknacks and boxes of receipts.
I didn't see Douglas much over the course of the next few days. I'd call him, "This is your girlfriend, Sisyphus," reporting on my progress and offering revised estimates of my move-in date. I'd finally reached out to a moving company, hitting send with a shaking finger after several days of having the e-mail in draft.
He should know what he's in for, and I should give him a chance to bow out before I hand the keys back to my landlord. That's the decent thing to do. I met him at the front door.
Despite my bouts of agoraphobia, I'd been up and down the stairs a few thousand times in my eight-year residence, but the initial ascent next to Douglas may have been the steepest of all. My lungs constricted as we rose and I begged for breath at each landing. I could taste my heart. I'd been naked in front of this man in every way, but he was about to see me stripped, flayed, raw. I could see his eyes grow wide at the mountain of plastic, packed tubs I'd moved into the hallway already. No sense prolonging the pain. I shoved the door open and braced for his disgust, his dismissal. I led him room to room to bear witness to the sticky, stained linoleum, the strewn clothes, the teetering paper heaps. Take it in, take it all in. This was made by the creature you were foolish enough to love and from whom you can still be free.
I dared a look at his face, searching for signs of the love draining from his eyes, replaced by pity and revulsion.
"Are you grossed out by how much of a horrible slob I am? You see why I didn't let you come over before? If you don't want to live with me, say the word. Go ahead and do it now and I'll take everything back from the apartment. Just tell me now, so we can get it over with."
He stepped forward and drew my tear-sogged, hysterical face to his shoulder, wrapping his arms around to still me.
"I love you. Thank you for trusting me. What can I carry home to our place?"
Ten weeks in, I tempted fate, limping in the front door on February 14, yanking off my boot, and showing Douglas his valentine in the form of a tattooed key—the front door to our apartment, in fact—with a scroll underneath emblazoned with the word "Solidarity." He'd gotten under my skin so far, made me feel so very at home I forgot, for once, to be afraid.
Excerpt from Hi, Anxiety, by Kat Kinsman. Copyright © 2016 by Kat Kinsman. Used with permission by Dey Street Books. All rights reserved.