I blamed it on the shoes. My sneakers didn’t support my ankles right; the soles were too slippery. But when I switched to my racing cleats, they were all wrong, too. The toe spikes messed with my gait, softened my calves. I couldn’t get power for the jump.
I liked having something inanimate to blame for why I was so bad at pole-vaulting. The real reason, of course, was fear.
I’d joined the pole-vaulting team to spend more time with a boy I liked, and he’d agreed to give me pointers after school today. Everyone else had finished their final exams in neurology or linear algebra and let the yellow buses carry them home across four counties, but we stayed behind. We were overachievers amongst overachievers at a prestigious high school like a funnel sunk into the mouth of the Ivies. We weren’t allowed to be here on the track after hours, vaulting without a coach. It was a liability. It was a turn-on.
The shoes, though. They were making me look bad.
I had good reason to be afraid of the pole vault: There were safety mats past the bar, but not in front of it – only asphalt to catch me if the pole skittered and fell— and my crush on this boy had netted me one head injury already when we collided in a game of Red Rover. So when it came time to swing upside-down on the momentum of the pole, I couldn’t do it. My body sabotaged me, seizing up when I needed it to be springy and going slack when I needed it to flex, as if the head injury had convinced it that it knew better than I did how to keep us safe. Again and again, I flailed through the bar belly-first.
Later that summer, the boy and I would go fly fishing in the turbid lake near my house, catching nothing. I’d have bags under my eyes from staying up late the night before, fantasizing about kissing to distract myself from the street below, where red-and-blue lights flashed and people argued too loudly to sleep through.The noise triggered flashbacks of the violence I’d overheard from my window when I was a child, the statement I’d given to police. These were things I couldn’t talk about at my school, where once the civics teacher asked, “Whose families have hired help?” and two-thirds of the class raised their hands. But in the daylight, cicadas would drone, mosquitoes would bite. The boy I liked would holler when he saw the great blue heron take off from the dam, and every time I cast my line, I’d look back twice to make sure he wasn’t standing there. I’d be scared then, too.
Ten years later, in quarantine, I am married to that boy’s friend and living two hours south, in a smaller city where my only reasons to fear are those of the comfortable: failure, rejection, car crashes, the virus.
Yet I am still controlled by fear, still self-sabotaging—still reluctant to hurt, except in the ways that I choose. I let a job application sit on my desk for two weeks untouched, preferring the risk of the position filling to the grief I’ll feel if I’m turned down. I’m so afraid of Coronavirus that some days I stay in bed until noon, though I’d rather be working, though I know I’ll hate myself for this later.
At night, on the edge of sleep, I see a montage of abject images: maggots swarming bodies, human eyeballs bursting under my shoe. And I’m relieved. The world is exactly as unsafe as I felt it to be.
I have always blamed my fear on my circumstances, believing if I could just configure a more comfortable life it would no longer control me. Now I understand my fear to be intrinsic, as much my companion as my own body is. And it’s a shame. I thought I’d be braver by now.
But at least in the pandemic I don’t feel so unique: So many of us undone by a dread we can’t point to.
Cameron Baumgartner is a fiction writer and literary translator from Charlottesville, Virginia, and an Editorial Consultant at Craft. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her bachelor’s from the University of Virginia. Her fiction has been recognized by a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center and residencies at the Tin House Summer Workshop; her recent translation work may be found in Asymptote and The Latin American Literary Review. She is at work on a novel.