The Third Time in a Month

by Karen Gsteiger

Tonia shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she stood on the train platform, her cell phone in her hand. I have to call him. I can't call him. But I have to call him. I'm going to be in it...I'm really going to be in it if I call him. But I have to call him.

It was the third time that month that she found herself incapable of walking the three blocks from the train station to their apartment by herself. She couldn't explain this paralysis. She wasn't afraid of anything tangible--getting mugged, raped, or run over by a car--she just couldn't do it. She would walk to the end of the platform near the exit, and her heart would start pounding, as if she were running at full speed. Her palms would feel clammy and sweaty, and the closer she walked towards the exit, the more she felt as if she were drowning. She couldn't cross that threshold...she would have passed out.

The first time it happened, she called her husband, who promptly responded with great concern and took her straight to the emergency room in case she were having some sort of heart problem. But everything was okay as soon as he arrived, and she didn't have any extraordinary symptoms to present to the doctor. She took a plethora of tests, which all came back negative, and she and Michael wrote off the experience as weird PMS or something she ate that didn't agree with her.

And then it happened again. One week later, almost to the minute. She summoned her husband, who was still quite concerned, but he was almost equally worried about how many more EKGs and blood counts their insurance would pay for in a month. So once he ascertained that she had settled down, he took her home and rubbed her back just how she liked it and made her a chocolate milkshake, and everything was better again. She loved him so much that she even had sex with him that night, despite the fact that she felt so drained. Afterwards he threw a heavy arm around her and mumbled sleepily, "Maybe you should make a doctor's appointment..." Tonia noted to herself that he didn't specify which kind of doctor. She gently wriggled free from under his arm--not because she didn't like to be held but because she was feeling overheated.

Thirteen days went by without another episode, but she walked through the train station more slowly and gingerly, like a dog that's been kicked by its master for reasons it does not understand. She was about 80 percent sure that God didn't exist, but nevertheless, every time she got off the platform, she started to pray, Please don't let it happen again, please, please, please. How she envied the days when her head would be filled with work problems and her friends' dramas and looking forward to seeing Michael. It was as though someone had taken away her ability to walk, and she toddled like a baby, staring at her feet with every step.

And everywhere else she went, she kept it together. Her coworkers had no idea; her friends had no idea. So far she only seemed to be plagued at the train station, but she didn't take anything for granted anymore. If it could happen at the Wellington Brown Line, it could happen anywhere. She briefly considered not taking the train--declaring herself claustrophobic and riding her bike to work when the weather was clement or navigating a somewhat convoluted bus route. But she ultimately dismissed these alternatives. If she gave up on taking the train, it would be like handing over ransom money and plane tickets to Rio to a crazed hostage-taker.

And now it was happening again, and Tonia felt as though she were made out of sand. If she took another step, she was going to spill all over the platform and fall into the grating below, through which she could only ever see darkness.

She knew that Michael loved her, but she also knew that he was not a very patient person. And above all, she knew that he, who was never afraid of anything, would not understand why this was happening again. So she knew she was going to be in it, but she had no choice.

So she called him. And she was in it.

"Baby?" she asked with a pleading, childish voice.

"Yeah?" he replied (with a suspicious tone? she wondered).

"Um, I'm at the train station, and can you come get me?" she asked as nonchalantly as she could under the circumstances.

A few seconds of silence passed. She could have sworn that she detected a quiet sigh on Michael's end.

"Baby?" she asked again.

"Honey, are you sure you can't make it home yourself? I'm kind of in the middle of something here, and I'm going to be working late tonight. If I come get you and take you home, then I've got to go right back to the office, and that only means that I'll be getting home even later tonight. It's only a couple of blocks..."

"I know," she replied, her lower lip trembling.

"You know there's nothing out there that's going to hurt you."

"I know," she said, her eyes starting to blur.

"You've done this a million times before, and everything was fine. You walked home just yesterday."

"I know," she squeaked, wiping her nose and inhaling with a shuddering sound.

A few seconds of silence passed.

"Are you crying?" he asked.

"No," she miserably lied.

"You're crying," he accused.


"Tonia, something's really wrong if you can't walk two blocks by yourself."

"I know."

"Did you find a doctor yet?" he asked.

"What, like a psychiatrist doctor?"

"If you think that's what you need."

A few seconds of silence passed.

"Can you please just come get me?" she begged. "I can't take it heart's going to explode, but I can't leave."

"All right, all right. Give me like 10 or 15 minutes. I'll get a cab."

"Thank you, thank you. I'm so, so sorry for making you leave work. I'll make an appointment tomorrow, and this won't happen again..."

"Bye," he said and hung up.

Tonia sank trembling onto a bench and wiped some tears away. She knew that everyone on the platform was staring at her, but it wouldn't bother her so much if she didn't look at them, so she stared at her feet.

She tried to think of home. She would be relaxed if she thought of home. But then she remembered that someone in their building had pierced a huge hole in the drywall in their hallway (probably while attempting to move a couch or some such), and this gaping hole (through which Tonia could see a thin pipe and thick, pink insulation) had not been repaired for five days, and it looked so much like a wound that the thought of it made her shake. Home wouldn't feel like home anymore; it would be just as bad as this place. Tonia's heart rate increased even more, and she put a hand on the left side of her chest to calm her heart the way she imagined her mother must have soothingly pressed her wailing head to her breast when she was a newborn. But all she could think about was the alarming way that it was pounding so incessantly, and the muscles in her throat tightened so that she could barely breathe and swallow. She was trying so hard to keep from sobbing out loudly on this crowded platform that she was giving herself a migraine.

A beggar approached her then, reciting his script by rote. "Hey, miss, you got twenty cents? All's I need is twenty cents so I can get something to..." He paused, then, puzzled by this young, well-dressed woman who sat on the bench in front of him, who was breathing shallowly with her eyes screwed shut with one hand resting on her chest. She appeared to be rocking ever so slightly back and forth on her seat. The man regarded her for a second and then silently laid something next to her and shuffled away. When Tonia was certain that he was no longer standing in front of her, she opened her eyes and found seventy cents lying next to her on the bench.

Tonia tried to count the seconds that passed before Michael arrived but was repeatedly derailed by anxiety. What if he doesn't come? she wondered. What if he purposely doesn't come to make me walk home by myself? What if he doesn't understand that it would kill me? But he did come, 19 minutes after Tonia had called him. When he ascended onto the platform, his face was set with tension and annoyance, but when their eyes met, his expression melted into one of concern and regret and...could that possibly be pity? She couldn't decide whether she wanted to be pitied or not. He walked faster towards her now and immediately wrapped his arms around her without a greeting, and Tonia felt limp. He absently kissed the top of her head twice and only lightly brushed her hair.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she moaned.

"It's okay. Let's go home, baby. It's okay. I'm here. We can go home."

And he was right. They could go home. Although Tonia felt miserable and sick and exhausted and furious with herself, she no longer felt any fear. Thank God he loves me, she thought, forgetting momentarily that she was mostly an atheist.