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.