Fiction / David Stromberg

:: Panic ::

Well, I was sup­posed to be in Paris for a short stay, and I real­ly wasn’t try­ing to meet any­one. The com­pa­ny was con­sid­er­ing coop­er­at­ing with our French com­peti­tors, and I was the only one in the office who’d stud­ied even basic French. The idea was to meet rep­re­sen­ta­tives from dif­fer­ent depart­ments and, based on that, see how we could work togeth­er. It was my first chance to lead a project—and the French agreed—so I went. We nev­er real­ly set a time­line—and, I know it sounds crazy, but I think that’s part­ly why I end­ed up in an emer­gency room. 

As soon as I got to Paris, I called Mel—you know, my friend from busi­ness school, the one who went to work at one of the French banks and end­ed up mar­ry­ing a native Parisian—and she invit­ed me to her hol­i­day par­ty. That’s where I met Clémence. 

Mel lived in an old Parisian apart­ment over­look­ing the Bastille. Her hus­band had inher­it­ed it from one of his grand­par­ents and con­vert­ed it into a super-mod­ern Euro­pean loft.  I did­n’t know any­one except for Mel at the par­ty, and she was busy host­ing, so I spent a lot of time stand­ing in the cor­ner look­ing at the view.

Clé­mence walked by, giv­ing me this sweet apolo­getic smile. I smiled back and said, Hel­lo. She asked me, in per­fect Eng­lish, what I was doing there, and I told her. She said she knew Mel’s hus­band from high school and didn’t real­ly know any­one else there. Most of the peo­ple at the par­ty were from the cor­po­rate world, and she was an inde­pen­dent cloth­ing design­er try­ing to make a name for her­self, so she thought she’d come to net­work a lit­tle. But in the end she said she felt too shy. And that’s how we end­ed up talk­ing to each oth­er for most of the night. 

At the end of the par­ty I drunk­en­ly asked her whether I could kiss her. She said not tonight—but gave me her num­ber. I asked her whether she want­ed to come to where I was stay­ing for lunch the next day. She said she would. As we said good­bye, she had that sweet sad smile on her face again. I asked her why she was smil­ing. She said she was hap­py. I might sound mean, but my first reac­tion was a feel­ing of hor­ror, like, Oh no …  

So that was the first night. Actu­al­ly, I was so drunk that I did­n’t exact­ly remem­ber how the night ended—only that it end­ed very late. I man­aged to some­how get back to the tiny stu­dio apart­ment I was rent­ing just off the Canal Saint-Mar­tin. I woke up around ten o’clock and wasn’t even sure that what had hap­pened was real. Did I real­ly meet a woman named Clé­mence? Was she real­ly plan­ning to come over for lunch? 

So I wrote her a text message—like good morn­ing and how’re you feel­ing and do you remem­ber any­thing—and it turned out it was all real. She was com­ing over for lunch. 

Look: I couldn’t have known what would hap­pen at that moment. How strong the attach­ment would grow. I mean, how do you do that? You don’t even know that anything’s going to hap­pen at that point—you cer­tain­ly don’t know how it’s going to develop. 

All you’re think­ing as it’s hap­pen­ing is: this is inter­est­ing. Sud­den­ly you’re filled with all these feel­ings, out of nowhere, and just like that, you have an emo­tion­al life. And you just met this per­son two sec­onds ago. 

We had a nice lunch. I made mush­room-bar­ley soup with leeks and car­rots. I made us cof­fee. We talked—not as eas­i­ly as we had the night before, but still, there was some­thing nice about the awk­ward flir­ta­tion. And I guess that was the point. 

When we fin­ished she got up, and I got up, and we both kind of froze like we weren’t sure what to do next. I put my hand out toward hers, and she put hers out toward mine. We locked fin­gers light­ly and then leaned in to kiss each oth­er. It wasn’t pas­sion­ate. Just a soft, pro­longed kiss. Real­ly nice. 

She left. That should have been the end. It could have been the end. But it wasn’t.  

The next day she texted me and asked if I want­ed to come over after work—she was plan­ning on mak­ing pump­kin bisque. 

I have to tell you that she’s a very beau­ti­ful per­son. Not just physically—though I think she’d be con­sid­ered attractive—but there’s some­thing else. You can see it in how she moves: care­ful, con­sid­ered, slow. She’s got this sim­ple style—she can be for­mal and casu­al at the same time. You can tell when you see her that this is some­one special. 

So I said yes to her bisque. I went to work for meet­ings that didn’t real­ly go any­where. And then I went to her place. 

You have to under­stand, I had no idea how long I was going to be in Paris. I had noth­ing to think about oth­er than work. The com­pa­ny was pay­ing all my trav­el expens­es. There was noth­ing for me to be con­cerned about except what I was expe­ri­enc­ing at that moment. 

Clé­mence lived off the République in a tiny stu­dio where she also did her design­ing. We sat at a lit­tle bar that’d been attached to the kitch­enette and had wine and talked. It was the stan­dard get-to-know-you stuff that comes after a cou­ple of dates: where did you grow up, who are your par­ents, what made you pick your career. She told me that her dad was British and that was why she spoke Eng­lish so well. She told me about her deci­sion to switch pro­fes­sions from graph­ic to cloth­ing design. I told her that I’d always intend­ed to go to busi­ness school and work in finance. That sort of thing. 

She also told me that she’d been invit­ed to the hol­i­day par­ty because her best friend from high school—who’d died in a car acci­dent a few years ago—had been the sis­ter of my friend’s hus­band. And since her friend’s death, Clé­mence and the broth­er had become friends of sorts, and tried to see each oth­er at least once dur­ing the holidays. 

Her bisque need­ed a lit­tle salt but oth­er­wise it was good. We got through more than half of the wine bot­tle. The whole thing was very sweet. And it had this slow­ness that some­how made it feel safe. 

After­ward, we sat down on her futon bed to fin­ish the wine. You can imag­ine how that end­ed. The thing is that, on the way there, I remem­ber think­ing: go, have a nice time, and then go home. Don’t get involved in any­thing or give her the wrong idea that some­thing might be pos­si­ble between the two of you. You’re leav­ing. So don’t act like you’re not. 

But who remem­bers that sort of thing by the time you’ve shared a bot­tle of wine and are sit­ting togeth­er on a futon? And it had been a while since I’d been with any­one. There was this sweet per­son here who was open to shar­ing moment … who could remem­ber anything .…

It was real­ly nice to be with her that night. You know I don’t usu­al­ly talk this way, but it felt like some­thing deep had hap­pened, some­thing rare and spe­cial. I imag­ine there are peo­ple who can resist some­thing like that. I’m not one of them. 

So that’s how it start­ed. That first week was real­ly so easy. I’d been to Paris before but I didn’t know it well, and she showed me around all these dif­fer­ent areas that you wouldn’t see unless you were with some­one from there. Every evening after I fin­ished work I’d meet her at her stu­dio and we’d go to Belleville, to Oberkampf, to Mon­torgueil, to the Batig­nolles. It was real­ly some­thing to walk the streets of Paris with her. She seemed so at home. 

Paris in win­ter is dark and cold and dank. It’s a good time to have some­one in bed with you. That might have also con­tributed to our spend­ing so much time togeth­er. Though it wasn’t just that. We real­ly liked each other. 

One week turned into two, which turned into three. And most of that time I was with Clé­mence. A few times we went out with Mel and her hus­band, and my French col­leagues took us out once or twice. I also met some of her oth­er friends. But most­ly it was just us. We talked about our ambi­tions. I told her that I want­ed to go into prod­uct inno­va­tion, that it was a spe­cial­ized niche in the finan­cial indus­try which was hard to get into, that this was why I’d even accept­ed the French project. She told me that her inter­est in cloth­ing design had devel­oped from a poster project on pat­terns, that she was less inter­est­ed in glam­or than in using out­er pat­terns to help peo­ple become aware of their inner pat­terns. Our worlds were dif­fer­ent but they also felt some­how par­al­lel. And we were break­ing the rules of math­e­mat­ics through some kind of worm­hole that allowed us to cross paths some­where in the middle. 

But you can only do that for so long. And the trip start­ed drag­ging out. 

I’d orig­i­nal­ly booked my plane tick­ets and sub­let for a three-week trip. But work was going well, and it looked like we were actu­al­ly find­ing some com­mon lan­guage and shared goals. I sug­gest­ed that the French com­pa­ny could work with us to devel­op a new finan­cial product—conceptualize its pur­pose and gauge its mar­ket poten­tial and maybe even co-patent it—while apply­ing our coun­tries’ tax laws to pro­mote the prod­uct in our own mar­kets. The French liked the idea, but it meant com­ing up with a min­i­mal blue­print for that poten­tial prod­uct, and that’d take more time. 

I shared the good news with Clé­mence. I told her that I need­ed to quick­ly find a place to stay and asked her what areas I should con­sid­er. We’d been sleep­ing at her place half the time and at mine the oth­er half—and it did occur to me that she might think I was try­ing to insin­u­ate that she should invite me to stay with her. But real­ly I just want­ed her input on where I should look for a place. And I trust­ed her to resist the temp­ta­tion to invite me to stay with her. 

She smiled the way she had on that first night. And then she said that, if I want­ed to, I could stay with her. 

She was very cool when she said it—I remem­ber we were drink­ing wine at a bar in the Haut Marais before going to dinner—and even though I knew she might say it, I was still sur­prised. It wasn’t about sav­ing money—she knew the com­pa­ny was cov­er­ing my expens­es. And it’s not like we were mov­ing in together—because any­way I was leav­ing as soon as this part of the project was done. I didn’t under­stand why she made the sug­ges­tion. But I couldn’t ask her. I was afraid to know. 

What I felt very strong­ly was that get­ting clos­er than we already were was dan­ger­ous for us both. You don’t want to get so attached to some­one you’re going to leave. It was one thing to spend time togeth­er, to even sleep in the same bed night after night, but it was a whole oth­er thing to only have one liv­ing space. Even for a short amount of time. This was a romance, not a rela­tion­ship, and there had to be some boundaries. 

The thing is that I didn’t know how to say any of this. I’m not sure I even knew I felt this way. I just had this sense of dread. And it made me feel guilty. 

We left the bar and went to din­ner at a lit­tle gourmet restau­rant near­by. We talked about oth­er things—her recent ideas for a new col­lec­tion and the need to redesign her label—but the whole time I kept think­ing about her invi­ta­tion and what it meant. 

We went back to her place—she lived clos­er to where we’d had dinner—and on the way I tried to express my hes­i­ta­tion. I told her I appre­ci­at­ed her invi­ta­tion but that I real­ly hadn’t meant to sug­gest that. She smiled again and said she believed me and that it real­ly didn’t wor­ry her. 

As we walked, I found myself hav­ing to put my feel­ings into words that were clos­er to what I actu­al­ly felt—though I didn’t want to hurt her. I said that I was com­mit­ted to my job and intend­ed to go back as soon as I was done with the project here. She said she under­stood and that maybe there’d be some unex­pect­ed change. Maybe I’d find a way to stay at my job while also stay­ing in Paris a while longer. I told her it was unlike­ly because my job was in Amer­i­ca. She smiled and said that I was already stay­ing longer than expected. 

When we got to her place we went straight to bed and made love. It was very strange. It’s not like we were in a lov­ing mood. We were basi­cal­ly arguing—but some­how there was no out­right anger. There was con­fu­sion and there was frus­tra­tion. She had this hope that she’d revealed, and she decid­ed to hold onto it no mat­ter what I said. And I just want­ed her to hear me and to accept that I was going to leave. I think that’s what I real­ly wanted. 

But she wouldn’t. When we were done we lay in bed and talked some more. She said that she didn’t expect any­thing from me except not to pre­sume how the whole thing might end. Just to let things devel­op how­ev­er they devel­oped and to give myself room to accept what I hadn’t con­sid­ered beforehand. 

I can’t explain to you what that com­ment did to me. It’s like I could see two ver­sions of the future extend­ing out of me—one that extend­ed only from what I planned for myself and anoth­er from what was hap­pen­ing at that moment with Clémence—I saw an entire life with her in this place. I saw that poten­tial, I felt it, it entered into my heart. And then I got scared as hell. And start­ed crying. 

I was shak­ing and Clé­mence took my hand. She asked me: “What hap­pened?” I said: “I real­ized some­thing.” And I just kept cry­ing. She asked: “What is it?” It took me a few moments to catch my breath enough to say what I felt. “I always thought,” I said, almost pant­i­ng, “that I was afraid of death. But now I real­ize that I’m actu­al­ly afraid of life.” I buried my head in her arms and the tears just flowed and flowed. 

I know I’m cry­ing again, but it was very very pow­er­ful. I don’t think I’d ever faced such a deep fear in front of any­one. I’m not sure I’d ever faced one with myself. And I can tell you that it wouldn’t have hap­pened if I hadn’t trust­ed Clé­mence so deeply. That was the thing about her. You could trust her with your life. She was a deeply good per­son. How many peo­ple like that are you ever going to meet? 

So I end­ed up mov­ing into her place. I just couldn’t see myself hav­ing an expe­ri­ence like that and then walk­ing away. I fig­ured she was right. I’m here now and that’s what counts and who knows what the future will bring. I was work­ing to devel­op these ideas with the French. Things were going well. I could just as well leave when I was done—what did I need to rent some oth­er apart­ment when I could take the chance to spend some time with some­one so spe­cial? There was no need to insist on being sep­a­rat­ed from her when in all like­li­hood we were going to be sep­a­rat­ed any­way. What harm could come from being with some­one so good? 

That’s what I told myself. I had no idea then how much being with some­one good could hurt. 

Things at work were going well. I’d sug­gest­ed devel­op­ing per­son­al trav­el loans that would cre­ate direct lines of cred­it with air­lines, hotels, and car rental companies—like mort­gages or car loans that fun­nel resources from these com­pa­nies back to their con­sumers in return for inter­est. The idea was to use pro­ject­ed over­stock and can­cel­la­tions to cre­ate lim­it­ed num­bers of loans. Our com­pa­nies would work with trav­el providers in our respec­tive coun­tries to pre­pare pack­ages that min­i­mal­ly exposed them to loss while using their excess ser­vices to cre­ate debt-dri­ven income. I have to admit, even I was sur­prised that no one had done this yet. 

The French loved the idea and had me work direct­ly with their inno­va­tion department—which has been in the glob­al mar­ket much longer than ours. We set our goal at prepar­ing a pitch for the prod­uct that we could each present to trav­el providers. I report­ed the progress to my boss, and she said I could get my name on the inter­na­tion­al patent. That’s a real­ly big deal. 

Clé­mence was work­ing on her new col­lec­tion, and I helped her devel­op her own mar­ket­ing plan. She want­ed to rent a lit­tle show­room, and I helped her pre­pare a bud­get. She had some mon­ey from her par­ents that she was liv­ing from, but she also knew that she had to turn her project into a busi­ness and earn some income. I sug­gest­ed she should lim­it her goals to what she could real­is­ti­cal­ly reach—and to be patient. 

We were a work­ing cou­ple. Our days were filled with pro­fes­sion­al wor­ries, and at night we enjoyed our few tired hours togeth­er. We went out for drinks and din­ner, we watched movies, some­times her friends invit­ed us over and we went. Paris is a great place for hav­ing a sim­ple city life. It’s so beau­ti­ful that the whole expe­ri­ence is just enough by itself. 

Before I knew it I’d been in Paris for nine weeks—six of them liv­ing with Clé­mence. And at that point I also real­ized that the project was going to end soon. It was an abrupt real­iza­tion because pulling togeth­er data from dif­fer­ent indus­tries had gone slow­ly, but the analy­sis and con­struc­tion of the trav­el pack­ages went much more quick­ly. By the time I real­ized this, we were going to be done in a cou­ple of days. So just as Clé­mence and I were  get­ting into a rhythm—I had to start prepar­ing for my departure. 

Clé­mence and I were liv­ing togeth­er, so it wasn’t like I could go home and think things over. We were liv­ing in a tiny stu­dio. There was no room to think. 

The French com­pa­ny was based in Mont­par­nasse, near that big ugly tow­er, so I decid­ed to walk home to the République—which is about an hour’s walk. I left a lit­tle ear­ly, it was the begin­ning of March, so there was actu­al­ly some sun­light left in the day. I walked out and saw this beau­ti­ful street in front of me, in this mag­i­cal city, with all this activ­i­ty right there. I didn’t under­stand how I was going to leave it all. I’d only been there two months, but it felt like I’d been liv­ing there my entire life. 

I remem­ber real­ly well the route I took on that walk home. I went down the Rue de Rennes and then turned onto the Rue du Four then end­ed up on the Rue de Buci and then the Rue Saint-Andre des Arts. I remem­ber I left like this area was so touris­tic, and then I laughed because I was a tourist too. But I also felt like I was going to miss being able to just walk through here. 

I crossed the Pont Saint-Michel and saw the Notre Dame off in the distance—and it wasn’t like I was going out of my way to see these sights. It was just my walk home. And in the last rays of the after­noon sun there was just this amaz­ing warm bril­liance to the whole thing. I didn’t know what I was going to do back home with­out all this. 

And then obvi­ous­ly I real­ized that the city was the easy part—what was I going to do back home with­out Clé­mence? I loved this woman. And it made me want to cry. 

The whole rest of the way to her place I thought about the var­i­ous options that we had, and it seemed pret­ty straight­for­ward: either I stayed, or she came with me, or we did the long-dis­tance thing until one of us could join the oth­er. All we had to do was fig­ure out which of them was best for us. 

By the time I got home I was prac­ti­cal­ly excit­ed about the fact that I was leav­ing soon. It felt like this weird lim­bo that we’d been liv­ing in was actu­al­ly going to take some prac­ti­cal form. Our time togeth­er hadn’t had any struc­ture, and now we’d have a chance to give our rela­tion­ship a real frame­work. We’d just been sort of float­ing from day to day, each of us doing our thing, and being together—but there’d been no vision, no direc­tion, no plan. Now there was no way to ignore the fact that I was leav­ing, and we were actu­al­ly going to have to think about what we meant to each oth­er, and what that meant for each of us going forward. 

Well, that con­ver­sa­tion did not go as opti­misti­cal­ly as I’d imag­ined. She start­ed cry­ing. And it wasn’t like just reg­u­lar crying—I mean like the sad-that-you’re-leaving kind of crying—she was cry­ing with this deep sad­ness. Like some­one was about to die. 

I’m alive,” I kept telling her, “and you’re alive. Why don’t we just first be grate­ful that we’re alive.” 

But she just cried and cried. We were sit­ting on the futon and she leaned into me and put her arms around my waist and just kept crying. 

I didn’t know what I should do or say. I felt guilty that she was cry­ing and I was just sit­ting there, and sud­den­ly I start­ed feel­ing this deep sadness—I don’t know how else to describe it except to say it felt elemental—and I just start­ed cry­ing too. 

In my head I told myself that I was just cry­ing to make her feel bet­ter, so she wouldn’t have to feel like she was the only one who was sad about our sep­a­ra­tion. And I was sad about the fact that I had to leave. But I was also think­ing ahead, about our next steps, about the future that we could build together. 

But as we sat on the futon, cry­ing togeth­er, all the thoughts I’d had about our future some­how start­ed to dis­ap­pear. It felt like there’d nev­er been a future and maybe not even a past. It’s like the mem­o­ries that we had of the time we spent togeth­er just evap­o­rat­ed. There was just this sense of a now that was full of the feel­ing of death. It’s like we were sit­ting right there on the futon and dying together. 

I’m not say­ing it felt like an out-of-body experience—but you know how some­times there’s no way to explain some­thing oth­er than with words that already exist? So in a way it was like an out-of-body experience. 

I squeezed her and asked her why she felt so sad. She said she hadn’t had a friend like me since her best friend who’d died. She said she loved me and I told her I loved her too. 

I tried to steer the con­ver­sa­tion toward some­thing more concrete—like our plans for the near future. I had to reserve a tick­et back and I told her it might be good if we made a plan for her to come vis­it. She’d nev­er even been to America. 

She hes­i­tat­ed. She said she want­ed to come, but that she had to work on her col­lec­tion. It was the only anchor she had, and she’d just start­ed mak­ing plans for a show­room. She couldn’t just get up and go to anoth­er coun­try. She had to think about when she could come. 

You can imag­ine my con­fu­sion. All I want­ed was for us to have some point of con­tact that we knew we’d have in the near future. And all she want­ed was to stay in Paris. I couldn’t stay—that was clear—and so sud­den­ly I saw that it meant we were break­ing up. 

When I real­ized this I start­ed cry­ing. Not for her. For myself. “I don’t want to lose you,” I said. And she said, “I don’t want to lose you either.” “So what do we do?” I asked her, cry­ing. And she said, “We try not to come to any conclusion.” 

And I just began to cry hys­ter­i­cal­ly. I mean real­ly hysterically—like with my jaw shak­ing out of control—and I couldn’t under­stand what was hap­pen­ing to my body. It was too much unknown. 

We hugged and cried and fell asleep just like that, on the futon, with­out even open­ing it up. We slept fold­ed into each oth­er all night, and in the morn­ing we woke up with our mouths sticky and our teeth unbrushed and lines of dried salt down our faces. 

We got up and cleaned up and I made us cof­fee and some­how we man­aged to make it through the morn­ing. When I left for work I didn’t even both­er chang­ing my clothes. 

That day I got an email from my boss say­ing the French com­pa­ny had updat­ed her on our progress and that she was look­ing for­ward to hear­ing more of the details when I returned. I wrote her back say­ing I was plan­ning to return by the end of the week and that I’d see her in the office first thing Mon­day morning. 


Clé­mence and I had two more days togeth­er. They were qui­et days—almost silent—we went out for drinks and din­ner but we didn’t talk the way we had before. She cried some­times. I didn’t cry again like I had that time, but I was sad. She was a sweet per­son and all I want­ed was to be in her presence. 

I think I was also mad that she refused to plan to come and vis­it me. I under­stood her rea­sons, but I was still mad. And I think that helped me not fall into the same sadness. 

We got through those two days, and then the time had come for me to go to the air­port. I’d ordered a taxi and it came to pick me up. We went down­stairs togeth­er and tried to say good­bye. But I could­n’t say the words. My jaw start­ed shak­ing again. You have to under­stand that I’d nev­er expe­ri­enced any­thing like that before. My body had nev­er been out of con­trol that way. 

I don’t know what to do,” I said, hold­ing onto her. “It’s like I’m scared of leav­ing you.” “It’s all right,” she said, “I’m with you.” And I just kept hold­ing onto her while my jaw shook. “I don’t know what’s hap­pen­ing,” I said. “It’s all right,” she kept say­ing. “I’m with you.” 

She reas­sured me enough to get into the taxi. Once I was on the road I felt this shift, like trav­el­ing split you into all these dif­fer­ent parts, and you didn’t even know exact­ly who you were. I just went into this trav­el­ing mode because the whole thing just felt crazy anyway. 

I slept most of the flight back, and after I land­ed I took a cab home. When I turned my phone back on I saw an email from her that just said: “Love.” In the cab on the way back I hit reply and wrote: “So much.” Then I hit send. 

I put the phone in my pock­et and watched the road. All these build­ings, all so straight, so dif­fer­ent from Paris. Amer­i­ca was made different. 

I called up a cou­ple of friends—I called you—that was when we made our plan to meet up for a drink Wednes­day. But I didn’t make it that long. I bare­ly got through Mon­day in the office. I man­aged to update my boss on every­thing we’d accom­plished with the French com­pa­ny. And when I got home I thought about call­ing Clé­mence. But the idea of hear­ing her voice was sud­den­ly so scary that I felt the tears welling up again. It’s like I’d been infect­ed with this cry­ing dis­ease. This sadsweet feel­ing that I had no idea how to handle. 

It was around sev­en in the evening when my phone buzzed. I saw it was an email from her and I hur­ried to open it up. It said: “I don’t know how to love you and let you go.” 

I still can’t tell you why, but that sen­tence was too much for me. I start­ed hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing. I didn’t know what to do—so I called you. You didn’t answer, I fig­ured you were feed­ing the kids or putting them to bed, but I knew I had to do some­thing. I couldn’t breathe and I felt like I was going to die. So I called an ambu­lance. They picked me up and brought me to the emer­gency room. They gave me a tran­quil­iz­er. I’m feel­ing a lit­tle calmer now. 

I’ve nev­er had any­thing like this hap­pen, you know? I still don’t know what actu­al­ly hap­pened. I just don’t under­stand. I heard the words the nurse told me, it’s just a pan­ic attack, I know what each one of the words means. But I don’t under­stand what they mean togeth­er. Why attack? Why pan­ic?




From the writer

:: Account ::

This sto­ry is part of a cycle that con­sid­ers the ways that encoun­ters with oth­ers affect our emo­tion­al con­sti­tu­tions more deeply than we real­ize at a giv­en moment. I want­ed to record, in fic­tion­al form, the cir­cum­stances lead­ing up to our real­iz­ing some­thing has hap­pened—but when we don’t yet know what. I also want­ed to cre­ate an homage, some­times more obvi­ous than oth­ers, to how lit­er­a­ture affects us in our lives: how it enters our con­scious­ness­es and changes who we are from the inside. In this sto­ry, I turn Sylvia Plath’s “John­ny Pan­ic and the Bible of Dreams” inside out, with the voice being giv­en to a “patient” who is cop­ing with his first-ever pan­ic attack.   

From a craft per­spec­tive, in approach­ing this expe­ri­ence from the “inside,” I asked myself a rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple ques­tion: How do writ­ers con­vey events to read­ers? The pre­sumed answer to this ques­tion will almost always deter­mine the form and mode of a fic­tion­al work. No one can attempt to write any­thing with­out, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, apply­ing some mod­el. A lit­er­ary work is, in the end, addressed to a per­son who is meant to be reached—and in fic­tion, the per­son addressed in a lit­er­ary work is not iden­ti­cal to the one read­ing it in the real world. This is where the slip­page occurs, mark­ing the begin­ning of what I call abstract writ­ing

With this in mind, I want­ed to con­sid­er how sto­ry­telling is shaped by the fact that the peo­ple to whom we speak are usu­al­ly peo­ple we know—and this spe­cif­ic rela­tion between speak­er and lis­ten­er is the sto­ry­telling ele­ment that I began to abstract. When you speak to some­one you know, you don’t have time to go into every pos­si­ble detail of your sto­ry, because your time with them is lim­it­ed. You only say what’s most rel­e­vant to con­vey­ing the main events. But this kind of abstrac­tion requires read­ers to place them­selves in the shoes of some­one who is not direct­ly represented—the per­son lis­ten­ing to the narration—and to inter­po­late them­selves into the fic­tion­al world. This chal­lenges read­ers to enter into a dia­logue with the fic­tion, and to con­tin­ue it in their own lives. In this way, I invite read­ers to take part in the cre­ative project of fic­tion: to enter the sto­ry and to explore, in their own time and on their own terms, what it means to make lit­er­a­ture part of reality. 


David Stromberg is a writer, trans­la­tor, and lit­er­ary schol­ar. He has pub­lished fic­tion in The Woven Tale Press, Atti­cus Review, and the UK’s Ambit, non­fic­tion in The Amer­i­can Schol­ar, Lit­er­ary Mat­ters, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books, and trans­la­tions in The New York­er, Asymp­tote, and Con­junc­tions. In 2019, he pub­lished a series of per­son­al reflec­tions in Pub­lic Sem­i­nar about grow­ing up on the eth­nic and cul­tur­al mar­gins of Los Ange­les. He is the author of four car­toon col­lec­tions, includ­ing BADDIES (Melville House, 2009), and two crit­i­cal stud­ies, most recent­ly IDIOT LOVE and the Ele­ments of Inti­ma­cy (Pal­grave, 2020). He is edi­tor to the Isaac Bashe­vis Singer Lit­er­ary Trust, and an edit­ed col­lec­tion of Singer’s essays is forth­com­ing from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press. His spec­u­la­tive novel­la-length essay, A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, was pub­lished in The Mass­a­chu­setts Review’s Work­ing Titles series.