At a shawarma shop in Brussels, you are mesmerized by the glistening meat-towers spinning on their spits at three am. You are drunk enough to ask the two swarthy men behind the counter where they’re from, but too drunk to understand their answer, their accents as thick as the lamb is thin. You are an ignorant American, a bleary-eyed backpacker squinting dumbly at a tall wall of language. The older man turns his back on you in frustration; the younger grabs a napkin and pen and draws you a crude little map in blue ink, also in frustration. The map consists of three countries: Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The younger man draws a circle that cuts into all three countries, like a regional Venn diagram, and points at it.
Kurdistan, he says.
Over a year later, on a rainy Monday morning, you awake in your Atlanta apartment with an unwelcome visitor: a terrible feeling standing in the pit of your stomach like a fat little man, smoking an unfiltered cigarette and pinching your insides, hard, with his fat little hands. You ask the feeling what’s changed since you fell asleep late Sunday night, and he just laughs, like it’s a stupid question. True, you are unemployed, alone in a new city. You spent much of the past year breaking your ex’s heart, and every time you think about it you want someone to do you a favor and punch you in the throat. But these are not new problems, and you have your family, your health, your words. There is no obvious reason for the feeling to have shown up—not this morning, anyway.
The terrible feeling does not heed your logic. He loiters in your gut all Monday, gripping your insides and laughing, ashing in your intestines. You want to cry, pine for that release, but it won’t come no matter how many tragic notes Bon Iver hits. You nap a lot, but every time you wake up the feeling is awake, too, waiting for you, an oblivious asshole who won’t take a hint, a squatter in your belly, eating all your food. That night the feeling draws the blinds, kills the lights, straps you into a chair, and sticks toothpicks between your eyelids. You watch something horrific unfold on your television.
On Tuesday, without even asking, the feeling climbs onto your chest and parks there, crushing your lungs till they’re half their normal size. Breathing is no longer something you just do, but something you think about. You are convinced this is all in your head, that if you forget about the feeling, it will go away. But you are notorious for your inability to forget. When you are saddled with a heavy bladder or the hiccups, it is all you can think about. It is a running joke among your friends that you always have to pee, that your hiccups last forever, like a cartoon drunk with little bubbles floating from his head. These feelings, though, rarely last more than an hour or two.
The terrible feeling lingers over a week. You think about asking your roommate for anti-anxiety medication, but you are weary of pills, and opt instead to self-medicate with alcohol. Drinking a six-pack and losing yourself in a good book—or movie, or, when you can bring yourself to socialize, conversation—is just what some misguided doctor ordered. Some nights you pass out breathing easy and wake up doing the same, only for the feeling to return in the afternoon, in a sweaty huff, apologizing and making excuses, something about 85 being a parking lot, or a kid at home who’s sick as a dog. Lies.
On Friday you go off caffeine because you want to be tired and slow. Your worrying about breathing has given you an unparalleled appreciation for yawning. Yawning is thoughtless, natural, a miracle. You live for those big gulps of air.
The following Tuesday you start to feel a little woozy and wonder if the previous week has been one long, drawn-out panic attack. You’ve never had a panic attack, but have heard that people have trouble breathing, can feel lightheaded. You consider a trip to the doctor, but you don’t have insurance, and you know your ailment is inexplicable and psychosomatic. You lie down on the couch, drink a lot of water, and try in vain to take a deep breath. The terrible feeling sits on your chest, laughing, smoking, fatter than ever from eating all your food. A little after seven you give up, drive to a bar called the Righteous Room to drink and read for a couple hours before seeing a movie next door.
Halfway through your second beer you get a text from the ex whose heart you spent a year breaking. She says she is leaving tomorrow for Kurdistan, the Iraq part. She says goodbye. You knew she was moving there to teach for a year but didn’t realize how soon. You are afraid something awful will befall her. You are afraid she will die. You are afraid she will die thinking you hate her. You are convinced the past week has been one long, drawn-out premonition, that she won’t even survive the three-legged, twenty-four-hour plane ride. You are guzzling your beer as if being timed. You are staring at your phone and crying—really crying—here on the Righteous Room patio, in daylight, in front of at least three strangers. The terrible feeling looks up at you with a winning smile and reminds you that there is no combination of words to describe how terrible you feel, or how much you care about her without leading her on. You nod and with bleary eyes type a three-word reply: Be safe, goodbye—
You are startled by the sound of feet on pavement: a team of high school girls running single-file and fast right past the patio. The old man seated at the table across from yours—bald, tan, and lean, with yellowish strongman facial hair—raises his glass and says to the girls, Beer?… Have a beer… Bet you could really go for a beer right now… The girls ignore him, but you are now laughing and crying at the same time. You are laughing and crying hard, like a lunatic—a week’s release pouring out of you in waves. When you accidently make eye contact with the old man, he winks at you and sips his beer. You pry the terrible feeling off your chest, toss it screaming to the ground, and let the high school girls stomp it into the pavement, into oblivion. You no longer believe in terrible feelings, premonitions, panic attacks, or language barriers.
You reach for your phone, erase the three words you’d typed, and replace them with new words, more words, better words. You breathe deeply, and try to draw her a map.
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.