Writer in Residence · 09/13/2011

The Dictionary of Your Fears

Allergies, Diagnosed: Attic dust, sandbox sand, pumpkin seeds. Knowing your fears does not always protect you from them; that should have been your husband’s job.

Allergies, Undiagnosed: On your geocaching honeymoon to Nigeria, you and your one and only twenty-two-year-old husband dined under an umbrella tree of exotic fruit shaped either like mythological horns (his words) or engorged phalluses (yours). You plucked one and peeled its spiky skin completely and fed it to him like you were afraid if you didn’t make this connection here and now, this honeymoon wouldn’t be your last (see: First Sign of Love). You thought he was speechless at the sheer wonder of his own luck: to end up like this, with you, in Nigeria, on the trail of a tupperware container full of figurines or locks of hair or a logbook of old names—but it was his throat cinching shut. He couldn’t swallow or breathe. You wished there was something obviously easy to do, like throw a Life Ring to the drowning. You gave him mouth-to-mouth but it wasn’t enough and the small town morgue made you homesick for your attic, where you’d never spent much time but in which you’d always thought it best not to be alone.

Atypically Large Strawberries: See Being Unable to Explain Your Fears.

Being Unable to Explain Your Fears: It would be calming to think that your fears could be traced back to precise origins. It would be even more calming to discover a single common source for all your fears so that you could backtrack them throughout your life, like a phylogenetic tree, down to The Very First Seed. Without this seed, this tree, how do you answer the quiet questions posed by your acquaintances, such as “She never eats pie—why is that?” and “What’s the deal with always holding her forehead and/or her stomach?” See: First Sign of Death.

Closed Trunk in the Attic: The grief counselor said to take your negative cognitions and hide them in a specific container (in your case, a My Little Pony lunchbox). Then make a detailed list of fears. Visualize this manual secreting and do not let them out. This is also where you have kept many of your Indecisions and Locks of Hair. It’s quickly filled. Worry about them all escaping Pandora-style the next time you open it to drop in a new one. Eventually, you chose a larger container because some fears do not fit inside a lunchbox. See: Atypically Large Strawberries, Unicorn Horns, The Very First Seed.

Commitment: Now that you are alone, you envision your next romantic tragedy taking place in several fluid steps: walking in the jungle with someone special, that someone special stepping into unexpected quicksand, that someone special sinking into unexpected quicksand, you not having brought along a safety device for this quick-sinking scenario such as a Life Ring, you grabbing that someone special’s hand to keep him from sinking, that someone special’s hand pulling you down with him, you sinking over your head into unexpected quicksand because of someone special you went walking with in the jungle.

Containers: A result of putting your Fears inside 1) a My Little Pony lunchbox, 2) a Closed Trunk in the Attic. You once climbed into the trunk and pretended to start over. You woke up, thinking it was tomorrow. See: Live Burial.

The Dos of the World: The counselor also said it’s best to surround yourself with good things when you are afraid. Your list of creature comforts includes: leftovers, democracy, certain unicorn-less episodes of My Little Pony, the large grey umbrella your grandfather left you in his will, delicate and tiny strawberries, precise directions to your next geographical destination via a reliable map service that does not offer alternate routes or “scenic jaunts” through flora-hostile territory, your good vibrator, and X-rays proving the correct placement of your internal organs.

First Sign of Death: Usually loss of eyesight, breath, democratic virtues. All the while, the sun rises and the days go on. You find yourself in the attic, holding this umbrella for two. Certain Deaths elicit stronger Fears than others: rapine rendezvous, suffocation, anaphylactic shock due to Allergies, Undiagnosed. It is the ripened fruit on the phylogenetic tree’s lowest branch.

First Sign of Love: When kissing, close your eyes and hold your breath because the question of where is this going makes your throat tighten up like someone’s slipped a too small Life Ring around it.

Indecisions: Aside from Allergies, Undiagnosed, what leads most quickly to Death, compared to Organ Misplacement and Atypically Large Strawberries. For example, Should I move on from here? What road is quickest? What is least scenic? Is Googlemaps reliable? Are there any un-caught serial date rapists in this particular region? Do they prefer brunettes? See: Locks of Hair.

Live Burial: You used to play a game called “Worms” in the attic with two older boys from down the street. Each of you crawled headfirst into sleeping bags, zipped them shut, and then wrestled. Once, you rubbed against something hard. You asked one boy if that was his Unicorn. He kissed you through the two bags. Then the other boy tackled you. He said he wanted you to kiss his Horn. You had yet to form The Dos of the World.

Locks of Hair: Product of First Sign of Love or Death. They look like hairy worms with scarves.

Marriage: An institution you have sworn never to involve yourself in again, like trail seeding collectives, untimely Communist revolutions, and Couples Adventure Vacations. A distinct element of inescapability surrounds the picture of marriage because one is always posing inside a black-framed box. See Commitment, Live Burial.

Organ Misplacement: You’re afraid that, due to emotional trauma and contrary to your counselor’s opinion, your heart has changed addresses. It’s beating in your forehead or in your kneecap. You feel completely flensed. Like someone has opened an umbrella in your rib cage. But you’ve grown okay with this. Now the heart’s incapable of inspiring tragic, compassionate effects, e.g., holding the hand of someone special who is sinking into unexpected quicksand.

Pies: Your prejudice, like your suspicion of un-caught serial date rapists, is blanket; all pies are potentially poison: Key Lime, Pecan, Pumpkin. On dates, you accept dessert. You say your husband was an archeologist before he caught the plague from a sample of ancient wolfhound hair. You act like it’s your job to inspect pastries for signs of tampering or contamination, but your heart’s not in this for very long. See: Allergies. See: Indecisions. See: Organ Misplacement.

Rapists (Date-, Serial-, Uncaught-, Unconfirmed-, Provisional-, Well-Intentioned-, Blue-eyed-, Spatial-Learning-Centered-, Fleet-of-Foot-and-Effete-, or Otherwise-): You carry two things on your person at all times: your umbrella—the one with the knifeblade concealed in its handle—and your good vibrator.

Unicorn Horns: There is an episode of My Little Pony in which Princess Luna grows jealous of all the ponies that can play during the daytime because she’s nocturnal. So she transforms into the wicked Nightmare Moon. You used to think it was pretty fucked up when her horn glows black and she stops the sun from rising, but now you kind of understand why she’d do a thing like that.

The Very First Seed: In sixth grade, after you were caught making out behind the toolshed with a boy much younger than you, your grandfather forced you to eat a pumpkin seed and then told you that every time you kissed someone, the seed would swell. The seed would swell until it displaced all your internal organs, until one day you suffocated alone in the attic or in a foreign country or in the middle of the ocean. But he did you a favor. He taught you where the very worst things in the world come from, and for that reason alone you need only worry about saving yourself.

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Alexander Lumans graduated from the M.F.A. Fiction Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Story Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, The Cincinnati Review, American Short Fiction, Blackbird, The Normal School, Surreal South ’11, and The Book of Villains, among other magazines. He was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the 2010 Sewanee Writers’ Conference and he won the 2011 Barry Hannah Fiction Prize from The Yalobusha Review. Recently, he was awarded a MacDowell Colony Fellowship for Fall 2011. He now teaches in Denver, CO, and lives in Boulder, CO.

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posted by Jess Stoner