I am a nervous Nellie. Always have been and since no matter how passionately I beg, my doctor refuses to write me a prescription for intravenous Xanax, always will be. I’ve outgrown a few of my fears: when I was a little girl (okay, until I was like, sixteen and driving myself), the bumpy span of U.S. 95 in Las Vegas that stretches between the Spaghetti Bowl and the Sunset Road exit used to send me into white-knuckled, armrest-clutching paroxysms of fear. I was sure that our minivan was about to fly off the overpass, much like how nowadays when I fly, I am convinced that my plane is going to fall out of the sky at any moment.
Most people are afraid of things that have some basis in reality. I, on the other hand, am afraid of things like airplane bathrooms. While it’s at least conceivable that my plane could fall out of the sky—especially now that rogue drones are apparently a thing that I need to worry about, JESUS CHRIST, PEOPLE, BIRDS WERE BAD ENOUGH—airplane bathrooms are pretty much completely harmless. For the first several years of my life, I coped with my fear of airplane bathrooms by dehydrating myself nearly to the point of collapse every time I boarded a plane. This included, notably, a ten-hour flight from Phoenix to London.
Only the steadily decreasing capacity of my bladder has forced me to confront this fear head-on. On a related note, I found myself in my own personal hell a couple weeks ago on the Acela from New York to Washington when the door to the train bathroom got stuck shut. With me on the toilet side. I have never felt less dignified than I did when I had to press the “CALL ATTENDANT” button next to the toilet. You know, the one that’s there for old people when they’ve fallen and they can’t get up? That one.
(Really, though, if it weren’t for the keen embarrassment of having to look the conductor in the eye after he wrestled the door open to discover a fully functional adult standing on the other side, I would have felt empowered. They should probably make an episode of “I Survived” featuring me, hungover and confused in the Acela bathroom, struggling mightily to wrest open the door, considering whether I should just climb out the train window instead, and ultimately emerging triumphant to face the world with newfound strength. And by “strength,” I mean “the lifelong burden of knowing that one time when I was 25 I had to press the CALL ATTENDANT button in the Acela bathroom because I got stuck.”)
In addition to bathrooms and certain highway overpasses in the Southwestern United States, I am also afraid of fire, injuring myself on a trampoline, and carpal tunnel syndrome. The trampoline thing isn’t much of an issue these days—except for the occasional 27th birthday party at the trampoline park, because as you’ve probably heard, the millennial generation refuses to grow up—but there is something a little demoralizing about being 25 years old and constitutionally incapable of striking a match. Or toasting a marshmallow. Or using an Aim-Flame to light candles on a birthday cake. (Carpal tunnel, the only real threat to my well-being given that I am a writer both by trade and by hobby, is naturally the one I take the least seriously.)
I’m also afraid of space. You’d assume that all this means is that I never had to trouble myself with being disappointed when NASA rejected my application, but instead, it means that I still have nightmares about the space-themed “choose your own adventure” that we used to play in Gifted and Talented class in third grade where if you chose the wrong adventure, your spacecraft blew up and you went cartwheeling into oblivion like George Clooney in Gravity. (Karmic retribution for making us think we were intellectually superior to the other third-graders. You’ll never win the Pulitzer if you’re always up all night worrying that you picked the wrong noble gas to fuel your jet propulsion engine!) Also, Gravity scared the shit out of me. I can barely handle navigating a vehicle with Google Maps talking to me, let alone fly myself across space in a pod with only Chinese directions for guidance. No wonder Sandra Bullock felt compelled to strip down to her sexy astronaut underwear the second she got back to Earth. That’s what happens when you let women drive!
I’m not afraid of conceptual things like dying alone or failure. As a curmudgeon, the prospect of dying alone is not an unpleasant one. (I’m half-kidding, but doesn’t it sound nice to live out your last days nesting quietly in a pile of books with a mug of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal? It also sounds like my senior year of college, although I expect to throw fewer costume parties in my old age.) Failure is impossible when you don’t set goals for yourself, so I’m pretty much set on that front. Instead, I’m afraid of an arbitrary selection of things that have an incredibly low chance of affecting me during my lifetime. Why am I afraid of plane crashes, but not train crashes? Trampolines and not waterskis? Not that I’ve ever gone waterskiing, and if I were given the chance I’d probably spontaneously develop a fear of it, but the point is that my fears are not just irrational but kind of bizarre.
I admitted my newest fear publicly for the first time at Thanksgiving dinner the other day after we had opened the second bottle of wine (to be honest, we opened the second bottle of wine at the same time that we opened the first bottle of wine. Why wait?). “Guys,” I said, apropos of nothing, probably because the conversation had subsided for a moment and I’m about as afraid of silence as I am of drones flying into my plane engine, “I think I’m afraid of squirrels.”
They looked at me like I was crazy. Granted, my friends have mostly learned to keep this expression on their faces when I’m around, because a lot of what comes out of my mouth is, like the content of this blog, weird. Instead of changing the conversation to something more universally appropriate like Taylor Swift or the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, I pressed on. “I’ve noticed that I’ve started to, like, avoid squirrels when they’re in my path,” I explained. They continued to look at me like I was crazy, which is probably a reasonable response when your friend, who has a history of mostly harmless mental instability, is confessing to a fear of small and generally nonviolent mammals. “Like, if a squirrel and I are walking in the same direction, and it becomes clear that one of us needs to move before we end up running into each other, I move.”
I didn’t grow up with squirrels. I grew up with wildlife that actually poses a threat: rattlesnakes, and scorpions, and cockroaches that can both fly AND live without their heads for thirty days or some equally ungodly length of time. I encountered squirrels in the wild for the first time at Vassar, a college that, like many others, is infested with squirrels that are too damn big for their furry britches.
If you went to a college with squirrels, you know what I mean. Like freshman boys at the on-campus dance club, they are all up in your grill, no matter how hard you try to intimidate them from your ostensibly higher position on the food chain. I was walking down the sidewalk on the quad once when a squirrel came rocketing out of a nearby trash can. It was the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced in my life, including the time that I had to fly into Denver in a turboprop plane during a lightning storm. They are fearless.
Squirrels in Arlington aren’t quite as ballsy as the squirrels in Poughkeepsie were—maybe they’re not all tripping on molly—but they are certainly as comfortable around humans as I am. (Which is, to say, sort of. Depending on the day.) They’re on the grass and the sidewalks, and when you come near them, they don’t back down. They’re feisty. I was jogging down the Custis Trail in Arlington a few months back when I found myself in a showdown with a squirrel. It was scampering back and forth—a little rabidly, I thought, based on my comprehensive veterinary training and deep knowledge of the pathology of rabies that I developed as an English major at a liberal arts college—and it was clearly not bothered by the footfalls of the hulking human advancing rapidly. Or, rather, the featherweight huffing and puffing down the sidewalk at an embarrassingly leisurely pace.
I weighed my options. I could continue on my path and assume that the squirrel would eventually move out of the way. I could leap over the squirrel, putting my twelve years of ballet training to use for a reason other than puddles (I don’t get much out of all that money my parents spent on pointe shoes these days, but my feet stay dry!). Or, as I ultimately chose to do, I could dodge the squirrel by angling sharply to the left at the moment I passed it.
“Gotta watch out for those squirrels,” I heard from behind me as the dulcet tones of Demi Lovato faded just in time for me to remember that I had neglected to weigh the embarrassment factor of each choice. Two commuters on their bicycles rode past me, cackling like the K Street version of Miss Gulch, as if I hadn’t just come face-to-face—okay, face-to-feet—with a vicious creature and won. It was just like the conductor on Amtrak. People underestimate the potential threat posed by overconfident woodland creatures. Just imagine: one second, you’re trotting down the Custis Trail like a champ listening to “Let it Go” and imagining yourself outrunning Usain Bolt in the 500-meter dash, and the next, there is a squirrel CLAWING OUT YOUR EYEBALLS. And it all could have been avoided had you only thought to dodge it. Face your fears. Let woodland creatures have the right-of-way.
I suppose it’s a sign of gentrification that in 2014, the greatest threat to a single woman walking alone down the streets in Washington D.C. is a squirrel. Either that, or it’s a sign that I’m probably going to jump into the arms of a mugger someday when I’m trying to escape a rampaging squirrel.
I’m also afraid of llamas, but I’ll save that one for the third bottle of wine.