Of Fear

Hi, internet. Since March is easily the spookiest month of the year, this essay will seem extremely timely (and not something that would make way more sense to post around Halloween. Why would you even bring that holiday up right now? Come on).

The short story is that I wrote this for an essay contest, and I made the final rounds but didn’t win. I’ve been writing personal reflection essays basically non-stop since October for college/scholarship applications, and this one really ended that whole process with a bang. I think.

I’ll write more about college later, but for now here’s Of Fear:
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It wasn’t my idea. We hovered side by side in pitch black air, cool from a draft crawling under the emergency exit door. I was eight, she was still seven–a heartthrob indefinitely treading in the waters of frustrated prepubescence. She looked at me. I looked into the dark, silently reprimanding my trembling lower lip.

“Don’t be scared.”

Her hand brushed past my hand (likely unintentional, but it helped soothe my nerves). She gulped black air and took a step forward, arms stretched outwards, feet shuffling, as the undead tend to do.

There was a loud bang, and then a shriek, and then there was silence. I ran away. Fast.

“Aww, Nate… Don’t be scared!”

I heard, but I didn’t listen. I ran through the throng of families waiting their turn in the cool summer air. I ran past my friends wearing Jedi costumes jousting beside the flagpole, past a gaggle of girls in Disney dresses, who pointed and whispered. I ran to the corner of the playground, tears in my eyes, my mom trailing not far behind.

“Sweetie, what’s wrong? It’s just a haunted house, it’s all fake. Don’t be scared.”

I hated haunted houses. I absolutely hated them.

Six years later, Mari Parks called me her boyfriend for thirty-one days. She wore black My Chemical Romance T-shirts, had black helix piercings in both ears, and she was skinny as death. She straightened her hair, and she hated her mom.

We texted each other in class and paced circles around the mall on weekends. I bought popcorn with my allowance. She complained about her mom while I agonized over her lips. Every Saturday I left the mall furious that I wasn’t brave enough to kiss them.

When October came she informed me that she loved haunted houses, which was clearly a backhanded request. I cursed my terrible fortune, although fortune really had nothing to do with it. Of course Mari loved haunted houses–she was practically the embodiment of one. She shrouded her body in dark shadows. Her skin was whiter than a ghost’s. Her blood red lips were a forbidden temple.

Comparing kissing to haunted houses stretches the boundaries of metaphor thin to the point of breaking, but how dissimilar are they, really? Both are voyages into dark, uncharted territory. Both are impossible to fully understand until experienced. Patrons walk away with wry smiles on their faces, flushed and relieved. Newcomers are ready to believe in magic. Veterans see only smoke and mirrors.

And crucially, they’re both an early proving ground for boys to prove that they are men. In her multiple attempts at persuading me to go to a haunted house, Mari’s principal argument was that if I came along she would have a tall and strong male figure to cling to in moments of terror. I would become not only a boyfriend but a protector, a source of comfort within chaos. I was learning that relationships aren’t only romance–they’re often also utility.

Suddenly every Saturday night Mari was going to haunted houses with her Englewood friends, and suddenly I was becoming busy with prior commitments. We’d been talking less. She posted pictures online from her weekly outings that made me jealous. Tall skeleton boys wearing black T-shirts stood beside her, grinning, pupils red from the camera flash. She said they went to school with her. She said they were cool. I wondered if she was grabbing hold of their bodies in the dark–terror washing away any loyalty she had for me in a mad scramble to find the closest body brave enough to restore her comfort, if only for a moment.

I knew things weren’t going to last much longer. We still hadn’t kissed, and it felt like if we didn’t, then we never would.

We never did.

My first kiss was three days later, with a blonde, kind-eyed girl from my school who had a crush on me. Truth or dare. I could have been a decent person and refused, but the idea of The First Kiss had infected my brain, not unlike a virus. I thought about the skeleton boys with red pupils. I thought about squeezing my eyes shut and entering the abyss. Embracing my fears. Emerging victorious. I’d never wanted something more.

“Sweetie, what’s wrong? It’s just a haunted house, it’s all fake. Don’t be scared.”

Adrenaline pierced my veins. Champagne shot between my synapses. Her lips lingered for a moment, then she drew away. We opened our eyes. She grinned. I felt like a monster.

When I was young, I wondered about cheaters. Who would ever go behind the back of a loved one? Why damage the spirits and worth of another soul with no justifiable cause? Why commit an act that you would never wish upon yourself?

My first kiss revealed the beginnings of an answer. I was afraid of girls and all the hand-holding and awkward phone conversations it takes to date them. I was afraid of Mari, and how wildly unalike we were. I was afraid that there was a club for kissers that I couldn’t see until I joined, and I was afraid that its membership was expanding quickly without me.

The accumulation of problems in our relationship let my guard down. However, the fear of it all is what triggered my knee-jerk decision to throw away morality and pucker up. Like a spooked horse, I was scrambling and lashing out without giving my decisions much consideration. As Franklin D. Roosevelt advises us, I should have been more concerned with the fear itself.

When guilt finally worked up the courage a few days later, I called Mari and broke her heart. I could have lied to her, or at the very least omitted details. I did neither of the two in a blind and desperate attempt to clear my conscience, restore my honor, because I used to think that being honorable and being honest were the same thing.

I apologized, sincerely, for doing the most rotten thing in my life to her. For a while, the line was silent.

She said it wasn’t the first time this had happened. She said she liked me, at first, because she thought I was different. This might have been true, or maybe it was just one of those things hurt and humiliated people say. She said, coolly, that I didn’t deserve her forgiveness. I knew instantly that she couldn’t have been more correct.

I’ve done my best to bury Mari my graveyard of embarrassing middle school memories, but every so often, her corpse floats to the surface of the floodwaters. I recall how easy it is for me to be cruel and selfish when I’m feeling afraid. I remind myself of how when the stakes are high, I’m only a few blind choices away from becoming a villain.

It’ll probably haunt me forever.

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