A Month In Hell
I don’t remember the bandage being uncomfortable on the plane to Florida. I only remember stuffing myself into the middle seat and watching 70 percent of Meet the Parents. Robert De Niro had just realized Ben Stiller had spray-painted the cat’s tail. Then we landed.
A week before that, in the dermatologist’s office, I fainted while my new doctor scraped a patch of skin off my back with a sharp tool. He’d found something and wanted to get it biopsied right away. I was cool with the whole thing until he walked in front of me and I caught a glimpse of the metal blade he was about to use. I started getting lightheaded but tried to keep it together so we didn’t have to do the whole thing twice. As soon as he told me he was done, I told him I had to lie down, and I did. He cleared the room and a nurse draped a damp cloth on my forehead while I re-centered myself. When I got up 10 minutes later, a narrow blood streak colored the center of the exam room table. I still get queasy thinking about the image.
In Florida, Haley helped me change my bandage and put Vaseline on the wound, which I’d soon learn was the home of a benign growth, every day after I took a shower. One morning, in her parents’ generous kitchen two days before Thanksgiving, a friend texted me a Facebook post written by the singer of one of our favorite bands, a group I’d profiled in early 2016. He had written a statement saying he’d been accused of sexual coercion—about month after the sweeping #MeToo purges began—and that their upcoming tour, set to coincide with their second (and by all the advance press it was receiving, star-making) album, was canceled. We were confused and disappointed. We wouldn’t get clarity for another 10 months.
The exit of November 2017 had not been any easier than its beginning. When my parents had packed up nearly everything in my childhood home in Rochester, they asked me to venture back one final time to help haul it to a storage unit in their new city, Buffalo. I had already said my goodbyes to the place in July, during what I thought was my last trek there. But the first weekend in November, I risked what I was sure would be a psychological catastrophe by returning once again. They’d hollowed the place out. Conversations echoed against barren walls and I slept on a soon-to-be-discarded futon. I might’ve been in the physical space, but my childhood home was already gone. Two days and a night in a ghost house.
The whole ordeal was admittedly a little bleak. My dad had signed on to continue his job in Rochester for another six months, so he locked down a dingy apartment across town in a complex that reeked of divorcees. My mom was going straightaway to Buffalo, moving in with her ailing 91-year-old mother to help out as best she could. (My dad arrived there permanently just past the worst of winter.) After my mom had been there just a week or two, though, her mother died, leaving my mom in the house she grew up in, alone save for a very recent, very raw emotional abrasion. And the memories.
I flew home for the funeral just a few days after a man rigged himself up with a pipe bomb, rode the subway from his home in south Brooklyn to Times Square, and detonated it in a long commuter corridor underground. No one was killed, not even the bomber, but a few people got hurt. It happened just over a month after a far deadlier attack in Tribeca, where a man plowed a rented truck down a bike path, killing eight people and injuring 11 others. This one occurred just south of where I worked, on a route I used to walk regularly in the warmer months. I couldn’t stop thinking about these two horrific events. Sometimes I think back and get so afraid I don’t want to leave my apartment.
I didn’t use to let these casual horrors rattle me. I’d go to concerts that didn’t begin until 9 or 10 at night, alone, and take the subway home without a second thought. I know many people who still do this. I don’t.
Just after we returned to New York after Thanksgiving, I headed out on a Wednesday night to see a friend’s band at a Brooklyn venue I’d never been before. I didn’t really plan out my route and spent some time briskly walking in the wrong direction before I course-corrected and ended up at the show early anyway. The next night, feeling emboldened, I ventured out solo again to another previously unvisited venue. This time, though, I took a shortcut. Instead of following the well-lit main road on a slightly longer path, I opted for a darkened side street populated by industrial garages. I saw a minivan parked up ahead with its lights on and heard some rustling nearby. A young kid, probably not older than 15, jumped out in front of me, brandishing a metal rod. He said, “Give me your shit.” I was incredulous at how young he seemed, put off by his smirk, and mostly just dazed by the immediacy, so I paused, and said, “What?”
He repeated himself, more aggressively, and I took off running as fast as I could. At that same moment, I felt someone behind me take a swing and connect with the top of my ear. That knocked me slightly off balance, but I kept pumping my legs until I reached the road about 40 feet ahead. I overshot the sidewalk because of my surging adrenaline and was almost struck by an oncoming semi truck. As I turned the corner and kept on running, I realized the cruel irony of escaping a mugging only to be nearly obliterated by 80,000 pounds of machinery. It was a worse feeling than getting sucker-punched from behind. I let it fuel me. I looked back and saw my attackers give up the chase. I ran all the way to the venue but my mind went blank when the doorman asked which show I was there to see. I stammered for a moment, then told him, and he sent me down the block to another entrance, where a lengthy queue had formed. I had some time to think.
Do I call Haley? No, not in this state. Do I call my parents? No, I can’t worry them. Do I call… the police? I could, but I didn’t get a good luck at either of them. Do I go inside and get a beer and watch the show? I nearly did. But even standing in that long line, I felt unsafe, like my every move was being tracked. So I called an Uber, texted my roommate a preemptive warning, went home, drank four beers, and together watched the best Vine compilations we could find.
Bad things happen sometimes. Almost exactly three years ago to the day of that incident, I was at a grad school Christmas party on campus when a bloodied woman arrived in our conference room screaming out for help, saying a man had just punched her. He’d lured her there under the pretense of a job interview, we learned later. We stayed with her until campus security arrived. That was just a few months after my grandfather, my mother’s father, died in a cold hospital in the middle of winter.
But sometimes good stuff happens. My brother and his wife had a baby. I landed a cool job where I sometimes get to interview famous musicians. Paddington and its arguably superior sequel, Paddington 2, were released to great (and rightful) acclaim. These things make the rest of it—the unbearable bleakness of the 2016 election aftermath, the credit-card fraud scare that happened just before my Florida trip—seem worth it.
I still panic. I take anti-anxiety medicine to get on planes. I hate the subway.
But there’s always a bus. And if I miss that one, there’s always another one a few stops away. As long as I’m willing to wait.