My mind traps so much stress that it gives me the runs. It’s called anxiety diarrhea. I’ve had it happen before an interview; I’ve had it happen on my birthday; I’ve had it happen before sex. When I’m put in a situation where I might be judged, it just squirts out of me.
Today it’s happening because of Meiling’s party. She’s a co-worker who only knows my emotional state through the emojis I place on our Slack messages. The company’s remote now, which I prefer, but there are still people like Meiling pressing the issue.
Meiling’s the type of person who knows the exact number of days it’s been since we were last in the office together. She’s the type to ask the CEO during an All Hands Q&A to lay out the timeline for the next company retreat. You know the ones; they’re eager to return to the past.
Meiling’s kicked off a meeting with me by asking, “Are you fully or half-vaxxed?”
The question felt intrusive, but since I got invited to her party, I’ve viewed it as strategic.
It’s the third time this morning that I’m on the toilet. As you can imagine, the exit point is raw. I suggest baby wipes in these situations, but beware: they clog pipes. Or at least they plug the ones in my Chinatown apartment.
Meiling loves that I live in Chinatown. She loves it so much that she tells all of our colleagues that I live here. She reveals it to them like I’m the first white guy to ever live in Chinatown.
My colleagues look at me curiously like I’m hiding something. They can’t understand why a thirty-six-year-old, single, white male who can’t speak Chinese lives in Chinatown. Do you know who else can’t understand my choices?
She just texted me.
I don’t know when the last time was that I took a shit without my iPhone in my hand.
My mom says that she’s going to FaceTime me later when she’s at the pool. She’s fully vaxxed and getting after it by vacationing in Cabo.
I’m fully vaxxed and should be excited about tonight’s party, but here I am, emptying my insides. If only draining this debilitating anxiety was as easy.
-The Haircut -
Don’t look at yourself if you want to feel better about your life. That’s what I think as I stare at my ugly reflection. I can’t recall my mom saying I was a cute baby; I remember her saying my brother was one. Still, I think my early youth was the only chance I had at being pleasing to the eye because as soon as I became a pre-teen, I developed severe acne. The constant ridicule frightened me into isolation. I even distanced myself from friends who seemed capable of ignoring the battlefield that was my face.
I overcame my problem with the help of Accutane, a potent acne medication that they’ve since banned because it makes people suicidal. I’ve never wanted to kill myself, but I believe the anxiety started around that time. I graduated high school with trauma, acne scars, and my virginity. It’s written on my face.
I’m not a fat guy, but I guess I’m fat enough to have a double chin. I never really noticed it before, but there it is, bright and early in the morning: a second chin on the bottom of my face.
There are bags under my eyes too. Every morning you wake up after your thirty-fifth birthday, you look like you’ve got a bad hangover. The reality is that’s just how you look now. I’m sure if it weren’t for my tinted moisturizer and the “touch up my appearance” feature on Zoom, people would ask me to turn my camera off.
My hair is screaming at me to cut it. I just want to be presentable; I want the type of looks where someone looks at you and then immediately goes on to the next person. Forgettable looks; looks like unseasoned food. That would be better than what I see in the reflection. I can’t go to the party and have everyone comment on my quarantine hair. I don’t want the attention.
I grab the scissors and start to cut. Like everything else in my life, I have no idea what I’m doing and completely botch it. It only takes a few snips to turn me from an ugly guy going through quarantine to an ugly guy going through a mental breakdown during quarantine.
I can’t have this.
I reach for the hair clippers; my only resort is to give myself a buzz cut. It will probably look like the haircut a pledge gets after a fraternity hazing night, but I hope it will create less attention than the failed scissor cut.
Do you know the type of people who get out the vacuum to clean one small thing and then end up cleaning their entire house? I have that same bad habit with my hair clippers.
I buzzed my head and shaved off all of my body hair; I don’t think any woman will find me attractive like this. I look like a hairless cat with a dad bod, but there’s something else that’s more concerning: my eyebrows. They’re too thick and dark compared to the rest of me.
The next thing I know, I’m using the 1mm attachment on my eyebrows.
It was a terrible decision. Without their dark, defined lines, my face has completely changed. It is shocking how much more prominent my acne scars are without those two black lines.
I’m freaked out. If I had kept the quarantine hair, I could have just said some bull shit and moved on. With this new appearance, people are going to think I’m in the middle of a crisis.
I think about going into every conversation with even more of a disadvantage and shiver. There’s sweat all over my body, and the shaved-off hair sticks to me like glue. It will probably do something bad to the pipes.
Weight gain could be a sign you’re losing it. I need to get out of the house and away from the double chin staring back at me. I decide I’m going to exercise.
I tried to run to Jack London and back but gave up on 3rd St. after a stomach cramp attacked me. It hit me like a paintball in the lower-left corner; I doubled over in the middle of the intersection. The sudden stoppage was too quick for my old body, and I ended up tripping over myself and smashing to the ground.
To my credit, as quickly as my hands and knees scraped against the asphalt, I was back up and limping to the sidewalk. It was one of those falls where you practically bounce off the pavement. As I dug tiny rocks from the palms of my hand and took deep breaths to try to rid the cramp, I heard laughter coming from one of the cars that had witnessed the whole thing.
I went outside to try to exercise, and I became the laughingstock. The noise forced me to limp back home.
Inside my apartment building’s elevator, I tap the button for the 10th floor. I’m standing beside two older Chinese women whose arms are interlocked. They live on my floor and always try to talk to me.
One of them says to me, "Nǐ hǎo lǎowài nǐ hǎo ma?”
I say, “Wǒ hěn hǎo.”
This is the extent of my Chinese; I know that they called me a foreigner and asked how I was. I told them I was good. The elevator hasn’t even started to go up yet, and I’m out of material. I sense the women want me to ask them a question, but I just stand there and try my best not to shake.
The woman who hasn’t spoken yet rattles off a bunch of Chinese. Familiar sounds ping off the elevator walls. I stand there knowing nothing. The language barrier I’ve created keeps me isolated, but everyone’s isolated now because of the pandemic, so what’s the difference?
Years ago, I told people I moved to Chinatown because I wanted to learn Chinese. The real reason was that I wanted an apartment in Oakland with super cheap rent. However, I was confident in my lie about learning Chinese. A part of me expected to pick it up just by being around it. After spending three years in this building, I can confirm that Chinese is not something you can simply pick up.
I interact with other tenants just like I do with these women. We remain mostly silent. Even the ones who I’m sure can speak English don’t exchange words with me.
On the tenth floor, the women say ‘Zàijiàn,’ and we walk in opposite directions. My favorite part of any social interaction is the ending.
While I was in the shower, I was seized by the fear of interacting with people at the party. If it weren’t for the warm water, I think I would have been paralyzed by it. It’s not just my appearance that’s of lesser quality; it’s much deeper than that. The core of me is flawed. Normal people don’t feel how I do. I don’t know how to interact with others.
But I have a plan: make a list. I like lists.
After the shower, I sit at my IKEA dining room table, thinking of conversation starters to put on the yellow pad in front of me. I use my surroundings for inspiration. There’s an empty cardboard box by the front door.
I write down, “What was the last thing you bought off Amazon?”
All my furniture is from IKEA, so it looks okay from afar but feels like it will break the second you use it. I write down,
I might be the most interesting person at the party.
My phone rings.
It’s a FaceTime from my mom. She’s on the beach.
“Hi, mom,” I say.
“Hey! Look where I am,”
She fumbles the camera, and it falls to the sand. During its descent, I managed to spot her toenail polish. It’s dark purple like the skin of a plum.
“Oh no!” She says, picking up the phone, “Now it's covered in sand.”
She readjusts the screen, so it’s facing the ocean, “Can you see it?” She asks.
“It looks beautiful,” I say, wondering why she chose purple.
“What are you doing?” Her face dominates the screen again. She’s wearing a hat and sunglasses. She looks three shades darker from when I last saw her.
“You’re inside?” She asks.
“What are you doing inside? It’s amazing here.”
I can feel the warmth of her exhales through the phone.
“How’s everything with COVID?” I ask.
“It’s totally fine; everything is distanced, the staff all wears masks. All the restaurants - it’s all outside. So, it’s good. I feel good”
“That’s awesome,” I say.
“Got any plans for the day?” In my mom’s mind, if you don’t have plans, you're not doing anything. It was never about the moment.
“I’m going to a work party later,” I tell her.
“That’s exciting!” She says, “Who’s putting that on? Is it through work?”
“It’s not through work, but this girl from work is putting it on.”
“Will there be other people there?” My mom’s unable to stop her curiosity about my love life from peaking through.
“Yea, it’s a party.”
“Are you excited?”
I debate on telling my mother how I feel. I’ve never told her with exactness that I had anxiety. I’m not sure how she’d react.
“I don’t know.” I say, “I’m just kind of nervous.”
“Yea,” I say, “Like, I don’t know. Just kind of anxious.”
There’s a pause for a moment while my mom stares at me through the phone. I get the feeling that I’m not going to get the response I want.
Finally, she says, “That’s weird.”
“Yea,” I say.
“There’s nothing to be nervous about; it’s just a party. You got to get back out there. I’m in Cabo.”
“When I get back, your brother and I are going to see Uncle Dave in Orlando.”
“You can’t live your life in fear.”
“You’re anxious?” She asks, “You look red.”
I glance at my tiny box in the corner of the screen; I look sunburnt.
“Yea, I guess I am,” I say.
“You should try cleaning,”
“What do you mean?”
“When you’re anxious, you’re supposed to clean.”
“Yea, maybe I will,” I say blindly.
I stay on the phone for a bit longer. We don’t say another word about my anxiety. She tells me about the food she’s eaten since she’s been there (shrimp, fish) and what the plans are for the rest of the trip. I’m a dull participant, but she doesn’t mind. I’m not fully there because I’m stuck on what my mom said about cleaning. It makes me think of all the times when I’d wake from my sleep to the sound of a vacuum cleaner. My mom was always cleaning when I was growing up. Her suggestion was a revelation.
Could anxiety be passed down?
Is it all her fault?
My mom ends the call by telling me she’s, “So chill right now.”
We don’t say I love you.
I started in the kitchen by doing the dishes. As I was putting away the silverware, I decided I would organize all the drawers. Of course, other things were done as well; emptying the trash, wiping down all surfaces, cleaning out the fridge, picking up the food in the corners of the floor, under the lower cabinets, where the vacuum can’t reach, etc.
Next was the living room. I vacuumed, swept, then mopped. I moved furniture around. It irritated me that my mom was right about cleaning; it helped.
Cleaning didn’t erase my anxiety; it was still very much there. However, while cleaning, my anxiety was vague and abstract. I couldn’t fixate on the moments that usually gnaw at me because I was too busy with the task at hand. Cleaning made the party seem like forever away.
My mom’s never said anything to me about anxiety. She’s never said that she’s had it, and she’s never suggested how to deal with it. And yet, it’s clear now, if we’re using the frequency of cleaning as a barometer, that she was anxious all the time.
Three hours before the party, when I’m done cleaning, my stomach starts to feel how it did this morning. So, in the end, cleaning didn’t solve my problem. Instead, it was like a trip to Cabo, only a break.
Before I get into the shower for the third time that day, a message from Meiling lights up my phone. She’s created a group chat with about twenty people. I only recognize Meiling’s number. She wrote,
“So sorry to do this…party tonight is canceled. My sister tested positive for COVID today, and I was with her on Tuesday. I know I’m vaxxed and shouldn’t worry, but I couldn’t live with myself if anyone got sick bc of the party. Anyone want to do a Zoom at 8 pm instead?”
I take a huge breath and then exhale. Relief washes over me; my shoulders become butter; I smile.
I’m for sure not going to the Zoom. The only thing more embarrassing than showing up to a party with a whole new look is showing up to a Zoom with one. I refuse to do it.
The anxiety’s gone. The night is mine again.
I wonder if this is how my mother is feeling.
I get into the shower and enjoy the warm water washing over me. I could do anything that I want tonight, but I like not having anything to do at all. I’ll probably just hang around and wait for the landlord to email us about the clogged pipes.