By Demetri Raftopoulos
It was something I had never felt before.
I’ll spare you some details, of why I thought it was happening. Because, I didn’t know why. Of how I was miserable at work. Who isn’t or hasn’t been at one point, punching a timecard? That I thought I was having a fucking heart attack. I don’t want to sound too dramatic.
I remember it, though. And I’ve embraced it, embraced that it did, in fact, feel like yesterday.
I roll up my sleeves instead of opening the driver’s side window, worried that a couple different emotions – jealousy, anger, confusion – will be snorted up my nostrils. Long Island in the spring, there’s nothing quite like it. Like the suns appearance after 67 straight days of darkness in Barrow, Alaska. A feeling of relief.
Cars pass each other on Herricks Road, some with windows down, smelling leaves emerging, the heat from the sun battling through lingering chills of the early morning. Mowed lawns, residual blades of grass sprinkled on the edges of sidewalks.
The winters weren’t always this rough. For a while, snow plows stayed hidden in garages, like snow above the clouds. Didn’t break out the shovel for a couple years straight and even when an array of flakes spread across the Island, it was never shovel-worthy; white symmetrical crystals disappearing once they met pavement. This year, the polar vortex and Hurricane Sandy joined forces and fucked shit up. A blizzard after a hurricane, their appearance following each other like dessert once dinner plates are cleared away. No big deal.
Well, temperatures bumped up past 60, the groundhog trotted into the sunset with its tail between its legs, and the cold was gone. I should have been doing jumping-jacks, two-stepping out of joy. But I am going to work. Rolling the window down will only tempt me to cut through traffic, merge onto the Meadowbrook and head to Jones Beach.
I make a right onto I.U. Willets Road. I’m not the only one going to work this morning. And I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to. I don’t want sympathy. I want anything. Anything else. I’m not waking up every morning because an alarm yelled at me but because I have to. My lips remain zipped, no peep rolls off my tongue. Complaints aren’t heard, protests not protested.
I break at the hand of the crossing guard, Searingtown elementary to my left. Backpacks flop up and down, the crossing guard rotating her arm like a third base coach urging a runner to sprint home. The last of the grade-school-congregation catches up to her peers, a family of furry and jingly keychains strapped to the zipper of her knapsack. It was easier when a Jansport was strapped to my back. The crossing guard waves me through, stepping backwards to the sidewalk and I proceed with my foot on the gas.
My windows are still sealed tight and the spring air remains outside my Acura. If there is one thing I hate its saying that I hate work. I entered the workforce at 13, refereeing soccer games, setting up goals, and lining fields. It’s been instilled in my DNA as strongly as my Greek heritage but at 24 years old I wasn’t accepting working for the sake of working.
I sit at my desk and my fingers click away, ten little insect-legs storming across the keyboard. Where do I work? Does it really matter? Internet Explorer bugs out on my computer, freezes. Control Alt Delete. Would you like to end now or wait for the internet to restore itself? End now. My pointer taps the left side of the mouse twice and the browser’s icon enlarges, zooms open and fills the screen. I type in the URL, the site loads, and the screen shifts again.
Your password has been entered incorrectly.
Caps lock? Off. Num lock? On. I type the password again and the same error message pops up. Your password has been entered incorrectly.
I contemplate trying Gofuckyourself88 but refrain. I slide the keyboard back into its slot, angrily, as if I’d searched for an outfit for hours, slamming my dresser shut, yielding myself to an overwhelming nothing.
The phone rings and I ignore it. Someone else in the office picks it up, their voice sounding genuine. The sound of mine would have been the first round draft pick in the league of irritable and annoyed. My thumbs flick the drawer out and the keyboard rests over my lap. I place my palms below both ends of the spacebar and my fingers levitate over the keys. They don’t move.
It’s like they fall into some REM sleep, mixed with a sewing machine pressing down on each digit, needle to bone, needle to bone, needle to bone. I lift my palms off the desk, dropping my hands to the sides of the computer chair. I look up to see if anyone is around in case I need to scream but everyone is at their cubicles outside my office. The tingling picks up and my fingers curl, my pinkies and thumbs nearly touching. Claws replace hands. I try to ignore it, try to extend my fingers but gravity pins them inward.
My heart seems to be beating irregularly, muscle smacking against sternum every couple of seconds, each time with more force than the previous. I’m not supposed to feel my heartbeat, I thought. Not sitting in a chair, exerting no physical energy whatsoever. I wait for the palpating organ to slingshot the fuck out of my body. I wait because that’s what it feels like and nothing I do will impede my heart’s rapid movement.
My breathing moves in the other direction, slowing while the beats quicken, feeling like my childhood asthma resurfaces, my hand slapping my desk searching for my Albuterol, gasping for relief. I breathe enough for ten breaths in one, hoping it will cease but the tingling in my hands pierce harder, the palpitations kick into an imaginary seventh gear and air refuses safe passage into my nervous lungs. I am choking, suffocating, draining life like the houses electricity on my block after Sandy.
Nothing is entering but plenty feels like it will exit. My stomach spins, a dryer filled with nerves. Dry-heaving, nausea, sick. My hands almost complete a forced fist. My heart ready for its exile. My breathes shortening with each attempt. And now, I want to throw up all over my desk.
The phone rings again and it’s a comforting sound. Maybe if my scrunched up fingers can clutch the phone, whoever is on the other line can send for help. But I’m doused in superglue, stuck to the office chair, arms shackled to my sides. As I swallow the built up saliva in my mouth, I lower my head and close my eyes. I can’t think of another solution. Maybe it’ll go away. But the minutes seem like years. Nobody passes my office. Nobody’s voice over the intercom checking if I am alright.
I am back in my car, not even lunch time, heading home. It took a while for the pins-and-needles feeling in my fingers to retreat and pause its assault. But I am able to grip my steering wheel. I am able to escape, composing myself long enough to believably excuse myself from the office. The nausea lingers but my breathing and heartbeats are back to normal, an irregularity still surfacing like the occasional hiccup.
I don’t remember how long it took me to get home. Trying to remember my drive would have been like trying to remember how long anxiety attacked me that day at work. It was the first one, in what I later diagnosed as an unhappy-at-work-induced panic attack. But in that moment, attempting to figure out what was happening to me was like attempting to write in cursive with my toes. Im-fucking-possible. I figured it was just one of those things. No explanation needed.
I do remember waking up a couple hours after I arrived at my house and pulled the covers up to my eyelids, afraid whatever it was that plagued me that day seeped into my cars exhaust and followed me home, waiting to strike again. But when I open my eyes, my hands lay flat on my sides, able to clench them into a fist and open them fully. I am breathing like I would have been on a normal morning, the sound of my alarm growing in my conscience more and more. My heart is fine and I feel no need to run to the bathroom and hover over the bowl.
If this happens again, I thought, at least I know it’ll eventually stop.
Demetri Raftopoulos is a writer receiving an MFA in Creative Writing at The New School, with a concentration of nonfiction. He is the program’s event and chapbook coordinator, where he hasn’t experienced any unhappy-at-work-induced panic attacks. His writing has appeared in Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors, The Ink and Code, Thought Catalog, and Sports of New York.