There was this creepy movie that came out a few years ago in the United Kingdom before an American studio bought it and distributed it here. The version released on our shores was almost identical to the original cut, but the film was given a brand new ending that basically served to create the possibility of a sequel (or five) because, if there’s one thing our country knows how to export, it’s action and horror franchises. The Descent’s plot involved a bunch of women willingly shimmying themselves down into the deep and narrow crevices of caves where they promptly lost their way and, just when it seemed like it couldn’t possibly become any more horrific or traumatizing, it all somehow got even worse. See, the caves were also home to wiry creatures that looked like the alien fetus who popped out of the guy’s tummy in Alien and the backwoods inbred folks from Wrong Turn had a baby – and then ate that baby and then vomited the baby up and decided to go and raise it deep beneath the Earth’s surface.
The cave-dwelling creature (so deadly white and blessed with a mouth crammed full of sharp teeth, all the better to eat you with, my dear) was visually alarming for sure and the filmmakers revealed him perfectly. There he stood, lurking in the back corner of the frame. The light was dim and he slowly came into focus. It was a powerful moment, the kind only an art form like cinema – one that is capable of manipulating time and space and lighting and sound – can truly create. But the bulimic-looking monster who appeared to relish binging on human flesh isn’t what haunted me. No, it was the topographical nature of the caves and the winding mini trails that led to nowhere and the sharp rocks that jutted out menacingly and the certain knowledge that being trapped is perhaps the very worst thing one can be.
I’m not afraid of heights and I will pick up a spider with my manicured fingertips and guide him back outside to his homeland and you won’t even see me flinch. I can be stuck in a vein with a needle as long as I don’t have to watch as the sharp point enters the first layer of my skin. I think clowns are fucking weird, but they don’t scare me. I love a good rumbling thunderstorm and I consider lightning to be a spectacle nature throws us as a gift that we don’t have to pay for. I’ve been known to snuggle up in bed and nestle in the crook of a strong arm and gaze out the huge window in my bedroom after tossing on some Pink Floyd while the lightning flashes electrically and majestically through the sky. I pretend in those moments that I’m at the planetarium. I cannot even imagine what it must feel like to have a sharp and real franticness grip at your inner throat and tug when it’s time to rise up and stand tall in front of a crowd and begin speaking. Public yammering is the kind of stuff I do every single day – it’s what I effectively get paid for – and the only thing I ever worry about in those moments is that the technology I’m relying upon will stop working. I might not like the sound of my own voice, but I’ve been known to wave away a microphone, even in a crowded auditorium. I’m a girl who can project.
A mild bout I had with agoraphobia turned out to simply be a weekend of rampant laziness. I’ve never seen a dank basement I didn’t want to either roller-skate in or fervently make-out with some guy atop a threadbare couch. I’m not afraid of ghosts that I’ve never seen or the ocean, though I do not enjoy swimming when the water is rough because I was twice turned upside down inside of a twisting wave and I was careened from safety to hysteria in three tenths of a second flat. I think I know for sure now what true helplessness feels like and I’m not particularly interested in clarifying or revisiting that debilitating emotion. Still, in spite of all the regular things that don’t even make me wince, you’d have to provide me with a lobotomy to even beckon me to the mouth of a cave with the intention that I go spelunking, which is the proper term for cave exploration, though I’m also pretty sure it’s the kind of thing you’d see on some porn site that involves a couple of albinos and maybe some poo tossed in for good measure. For me, it’s not the darkness of the cave that terrifies me; it’s also not the deadly still coolness that has to be a disquieting and unavoidable outcome of being sequestered from the burning sun. No, it’s the claustrophobic tightness of it all, the feeling that I could get stuck in some sharp corner of the underground and remain there forever. It’s the prospect of never being able to wriggle myself free.
It’s the dread that I won’t come up for air again.
I guess it’s always been my practice not to wander too deeply into situations I won’t be able to control or at least find my way out of with a little bit of poise. I’m the sort of person who leaves my home for the night with three excuses tucked into my clutch along with lip-gloss and my phone. I will do anything not to feel trapped, but the one prospect I can never quite prepare for – the one thing that fucks it all up – is the element of surprise and it is that facet of life I wish I could keep distant from the careful and strategic pacing of my days.
Do you need an ego boost? I received that text last night quite out of the blue from a friend.
Big time, I wrote back – and I wasn’t joking. Yesterday was the kind of terrible day where the misery kept accumulating like the kind of heavy snow you don’t even attempt to shovel and it was a misery so bold and so blatant that I couldn’t help wondering if maybe I’d earned it. I could feel it attaching itself to me like spiky barnacles that would not allow themselves to be pried loose. The hot shower I took didn’t seem to stop the feeling of invisible monsters tearing at my skin and the long powerwalk I embarked upon in the gorgeous glow of that pre-dusk magic hour did nothing but tone my ass. The phone call I received from my best friend just made me feel like I had to assuage her concerns about me instead of combating my own concerns about myself. So when this text rolled in from a guy I respect and have grown to really see as a friend and confidante, I felt like I’d unknowingly cast out an emergency lifeline and he’d graciously responded.
You’re really an excellent writer, he said.
Thank you, I wrote back. I needed that.
That text, you see, was a nice surprise.
Another pleasant shock was getting the news that someone wants to cook some elaborate dinner for me on Saturday.
“What should I have in the house?” I asked him. I’m the kind of hostess who always wants to have the right serving platters so food of any size looks perfect once it’s plated.
“Nothing,” he responded. “I’ll take care of everything.”
“You’re not going to tell me anything?” I asked.
“Nope. You’ll just have to wait. You’ll like it, I promise.”
This too is the kind of surprise I’m okay with, though he will be the one who is surprised if he tries to serve me veal or eel because I won’t eat either. He knows that, though. And I’m okay with the unexpected as long as I know what the tone will be of the unexpected and, in this case, it’s clearly a very sweet kind of surprise being planned and the only clarifying information I asked for is if we will be leaving the house at any point because that will necessitate me choosing a different outfit for the evening.
“The outfit thing is very important,” I explained to him patiently.
“I promise to keep you informed,” he said back and I think he began to shake his head a little bit, but I’m okay with that. Better he realize what he’s in for now.
But it’s the form of shock I cannot possibly prepare for that paralyzes me. I had one of those yesterday – two, actually – and the physiological reaction I experienced at being so traumatically stunned is the kind of thing I’m not sure I’m even able to adequately describe. The process kind of went down in this linear order, but I can’t promise total accuracy here because I was dizzy from being emotionally boomeranged into an alternative universe where I’ve apparently done so many awful things that my karma has been shot to absolute shit:
1. Notice or get confronted with something totally unexpected in a moment where everything was feeling normal and just fucking fine.
2. Actually feel a thud – hear it, even – that you’re certain is the sound effect of your heart stopping for a fraction of a second. (You can later marvel at the way the expression “My heart skipped a beat” is apt and entirely realistic, but for now you need to quickly resuscitate yourself and you will have no time to appreciate the magical quality of language.)
3. See everything going on in front of you in only splices and flash frames that you will piece together constantly for the next several days in a way that will surely destroy what’s left of your soul.
4. Feel a tingle in the back of your throat that is more pronounced than it has ever been and know for sure that it’s some strange combination of you needing to scream and simultaneously being strangled from the inside out.
5. Accept the fact that you won’t blink for about a minute but your eyes will dart back and forth quickly as a part of you seems intent on searching for something else – anything else – you can stare at that will bring about just a piece of peace.
6. Your hands will be shaking, especially your right one. The other stuff you can hide and you have always been very good at faking things, but if anything gives you away here, it will be those fucking hands. It’s like that blush that colors your cheeks too quickly, the one that makes it look like your image was briefly submerged in a filter of rotten rose. Your trembling hands will be the last thing you will get under control. Even as your heart slows, even as the color makes its way back into your face, your hands will continue to quiver and you need to forgive yourself for that.
7. You will feel like you’ve been dropped into a cave where hybrid creatures feast ravenously on your heart and that area in your brain where you hold the capacity for memory. You will attempt to wave whatever wants to gnaw on what you long to protect away, but it will be a fruitless endeavor and you will feel a kinship with Tippi Hedren who had to swat away crows and sparrows in an attic while Alfred Hitchcock watched and smiled.
And after all of that – after your heart rate has altered in a manner so pronounced that someone should probably draw up a chart and study it and your belief that some higher power will only beckon you to look closely at things that will bring you comfort is annihilated – it’s then you will have to shove the complicated feelings down deep inside and move forward with your day. You are a person who has responsibilities. You have to engage in conversations with individuals who have no idea that your world just momentarily shattered. You will be mentally catapulted back to that very second where everything shocked you in a manner you hadn’t expected each time you experience an extended moment of silence.
You will be reluctant to close your eyes and dream at night because you know full fucking well exactly what’s coming.
What I know – right here and right now – is that everything cannot possibly happen for a reason. It was the random decision to leave five minutes later and that choice alone that beckoned me unwillingly into seeing something I can’t now unsee. The sheer logistics of timing can be cruel and I didn’t do a single thing to deserve such a pummeling of a karmic bitch-slap. In fact, I tend to do everything possible to avoid being psychologically tossed around by information I never sought out in the first place.
You can tell me what you want to tell me, I told her over the phone one day. But think very carefully first because I can never go back to not knowing afterwards.
She chose on that heady morning to keep her mouth clamped shut after actively hinting that there were important things she was leaving out to protect everyone. I’ll admit that I only cared about myself in that initial moment and where her information would leave me. It was selfish for sure, but I never asked to be included in the discussion and I resented the hell out of all of it. Besides, just the prospect that there were things I didn’t know and the fact that she implied that made me conjure up all sorts of scenarios in my mind and not a single one took place in the happy wilds of Candyland. Her verbal vagueness led me to directly to the frozen depths and I forgot to hold my nose when I did a cannonball. The acidic sting of the saltwater was the most gentle of all of the surprises that came next.
It was the kindest people in my life who attempted to suggest variations on where my cynical mind first led me after being offered just jagged slices of information. I wanted to appreciate their willingness to drag me somewhere positive, but I couldn’t. I’d already made assumptions, as though I’d never tried with all of my might to internalize one of The Four Agreements: If others tell us something, we make assumptions, and if they don't tell us something, we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don't understand we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don't have the courage to ask questions.
I used to think my biggest personality flaw was about being a procrastinator. It took me a while to combat that little issue – because I chose to procrastinate – but I overcame it and I have never looked back on those lazy days as anything but a series of anxiety-ridden mistakes. The next major defect ruling my personal universe was the fact that I willingly lived a messy and cluttered life. What started as a cute quirk ballooned into a problem because the exterior garbage began to infiltrate my mind and my spirit and I arrived at a point one day like an addict probably does and I made the choice to create an existence ruled by order. Sure, sometimes it takes me a day or two to put away my laundry, but that’s another personal and self-inflicted problem I overcame by embracing the notion that I’m an adult and it’s time to start behaving that way. But my biggest current issue that I haven’t yet conquered is that a part of me assumes too much and I assume too quickly and I solidify those assumptions in my mind that then barricade me in from getting out and forcing a change. I can change how I feel about somebody else and I can move forward with hardly any memory of the prior assumption and how it rattled the very essence of who I once was, but the assumptions momentarily bury me until I can’t even breathe and excavating my way to the light seems like it might just be an act of total futility.
Maybe if I asked the right questions, the ones I’m most afraid of hearing the answers to, the layer of pain would only be a single layer deep.
Maybe I should willingly descend into those caves after all.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.