Eat the Fish

On being forced to confront an unreasonable but unassailable fear.

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My earliest phobias were inherited. I learned to scream when my sisters did — when they imagined a cartoon mascot looming outside the bedroom window or when they encountered a stray piece of garbage on the street.

The first phobia I developed on my own was of a fish. I remember, very clearly, watching the kids' science program 3-2-1 Contact with my grandmother one afternoon when I was in first grade. This episode was all about the Arctic. The adolescent hosts were on a submarine; they were at a polar research station; they were pulling an enormous, pulsing, brown sturgeon from the black, icy waters that surrounded them, piercing her skin with hollow steel pipettes, and extracting a mess of bulbous eggs to squirt and slide over an antiseptic steel tray.

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Or, at least, this is what I remember, because it was at this moment in the show that I began screaming and screaming and screaming and then experienced a blackout. When I came to, my grandmother was staring at me, terrified. I looked down at the living-room carpet I was sitting on and imagined it was the same sandy, pebbled brown as the sturgeon's skin, and I began to scream again, disgusted. I was paralyzed with fear: I couldn't move from the carpet, and yet I desperately wanted to get away from this reminder of fish skin, and I screamed and cried, unable to move, until my grandmother coaxed me onto an oversize pillow she set on the floor, and left me there, shaken.

When my mother came home, what felt like hours later, my grandmother could only look at me in disbelief and horror. "I've never seen anything like it," she said, shaking her head. "I've never seen a child behave like that."

So my one true fear was born — fish — and made worse by a story told to me in summer camp, about a pregnant goldfish bought at the town fair whose distended belly exploded on the ride home; by the minnows my grandfather kept in an aquarium in the dining room that he flushed occasionally down the first-floor toilet, a bathroom I could never use again because I imagined all those ghosted fish, rising through the bowl to greet my bare ass whenever I sat on the seat. Fish tanks in restaurants were to be avoided. I became convinced that the sleazy tiki-themed restaurant that we snuck into after school was harboring a deep secret because its soft-serve machine was too close to its wall-length aquarium — I knew, in my fish-terror, that the two were intimately connected.

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I knew it was an irrational fear, and I took pride in that. It was not one that I was interested in conquering. It was more like a logic to the world, that I could not understand why no one else could see it as well — fish were disgusting, insidious beings, and just to think of them made my body curl in revulsion.

I knew it was an irrational fear, and I took pride in that.

I worked three jobs — in the school cafeteria; in a day-care center with infants who seemed vaguely menacing and eerily cognizant in my depressive haze; and at Ellis Island, in the visitor-services office. Every Friday morning, I got up at six a.m. and took the 1 train from Washington Heights to the bottom of Manhattan. Then I got on the grimly quiet "staff boat" with the other Ellis Island workers, all of us avoiding eye contact that early in the morning. Instead, I watched the water.When I was eighteen, my skin began to grow scales — thick patches that looked like an animal's hide or a swordfish's back and fostered ugly, weeping sores. I lost the ability to burp and sometimes swallow. I slept almost all the time. I was in my first year of college, against my will — I had wanted to take a year off and work on an organic farm, instinctively knowing that I wasn't ready for school. But my mother balked. She was close, so close, to having every girl of hers safely out of high school and maybe, finally, taking a breath. So she told me the farming plan was not a good one, that school was best, and I went and promptly fell into a depression so deep that my skin swirled over with scurf and my mind dropped me into a long, restless sleep from which I emerged only to go to class and work.

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I was assigned to work with an aggressively chipper woman, short and blonde, who told me all about her daughter, whom she hated. "We adopted her from Korea," she explained, "but she doesn't act right. Always goes out with boys all the time. She won't stay home." I smiled politely, unsure what to say, and the woman gasped, delighted. "You look just like her when you do that," she laughed. "I know it's weird to say. But you got those Chink-y eyes, like my girl." She saw my expression. "Don't worry, I can say that. My daughter's Korean, remember?"

I was assigned to work with an aggressively chipper woman, short and blonde, who told me all about her daughter, whom she hated.

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We were not prepared for how small it all is. Downtown Juneau is only a few blocks wide. It feels promising, at first, to shrink your world down to this single space. We take a ferry to Alaska in September, unable to afford cabins, sleeping in blankets on the deck. We pass the time talking about public-radio hosts Ira Glass and Scott Simon (this was the year 2000), and we are charmed and delighted when a fellow passenger overhears us and our love for listener-supported broadcasting and tells us that he works at the city's public-radio station, and we should find him again when we land. With all the certainty of being nineteen, we agree that this is a good idea, and we do not even realize how lucky we are when we discover this man is telling the truth. It seems like being here is maybe ordained.I knew I had to escape this existence or sink further down to nothing. So my best friend from high school and I decided to move to Alaska. We moved there without a plan, for the sole reason that we'd read on a scarcely populated website that Juneau's public-transportation system was voted the best in the United States. By whom? At what time? We didn't know; it didn't matter. Neither of us had driver's licenses, so we told ourselves we were doing research and being practical in picking this place. We wouldn't even need a car, but we could still live in a place like Alaska.

We land with a thud at the youth hostel while we look for temporary jobs. The ones promised at the station won't come through for a few more months, we are told. They'll be able to hire in January. And we can't find a place to live yet. And the hostel owners are increasingly annoyed with us. For staying past the allotted deadline of two weeks, we are asked to work chores in the hostel, and mine is clearing out the abandoned food of other travelers. I open one of the cupboards in the hostel's kitchen and find six blocks of Philadelphia cream cheese sitting on a shelf. I throw them away and head back to my room at the hostel where I am ambushed by an angry Finnish woman a few hours later. "You threw away my cheese," she says, desperately. "It was in its home, where it belonged, and you threw it away."

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This encounter causes a panic attack, though I don't know the name for it. But I can't swallow, and I feel something rise up from my stomach and hover somewhere near the back of my throat for days. I walk and walk and walk the few blocks of Juneau, and I try to remind myself of how this is a promised land, how this is a place where things are supposed to be better.

A few days later, in the same hostel kitchen, a middle-aged woman traveling alone makes a pan of oven-baked salmon. She insists that we taste it — my friend begs off because she is a vegan, so the woman turns to me, expectant. The woman tells us that it's fresh, that she's in Juneau at the end of canning season. As she speaks, I look at the fish where it sits in the pan, the skin falling off, the meat pink and glistening. She holds out a forkful to me, and I force myself to take it because I'm worried about offending her. I force myself to swallow.

She holds out a forkful to me, and I force myself to take it because I'm worried about offending her.

Gavel to Gavel, essentially the Alaska State Legislature's version of C-Span. The job consists of pushing a very heavy camera mounted on an equally heavy rolling tripod through the halls of the Alaska State House, following various committee meetings and hearings around from room to room.In the next few weeks we get an apartment at the base of the mountain, what seems to be another stroke of luck. Except it has a dead fish in the freezer. I know it's something bad as soon as I open the freezer door and see the bulk masked by a flurry of plastic bags. I reach out. I touch it. I feel the gap of the fish's mouth against my hand. I shudder, I squeeze my eyes shut and I shove the fish's body farther back into the dark and the cold and resolve not to ever use the freezer again.

I am used to the perceived invisibility of the big city, so it does not occur to me that my friend and I will be of any interest to any of the people working in the State House, much less the legislators. But we are. The first few days on the job, we watch as the members of the House and Senate stand to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. It does not occur to me to join them — I haven't said the Pledge of Allegiance since I was in third grade, and I don't feel inclined to start now. My friend is technically a Canadian citizen, so it does not occur to her to stand and put her hand over her heart, either.

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We do this for three days, and then our producer asks me and my friend to come to his office, where we are told that we've upset many of the state legislators with our un-American stance. We are to join in the Pledge of Allegiance the next time we are present for it. In a few days' time, we are in the first legislative session of the day, the legislators rise, and ten of them crane their heads to watch where our hands go, if our mouths move, during this moment. They smile, triumphant, when they catch us complying.

There it is again, that old sense of panic, the rise in my throat. A special feeling to know that tens of elected officials hold you in disdain.

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A few weeks later, one of the legislators, a kind one, one of the few Native women serving, invites me and my friend to her office. She says, "It's a celebration." She says, "The ban on whale hunting has been lifted for us." She shows us a tray with a number of thick, pale squares on it. "It's blubber," she smiles. She knows this is a test. We know this is a test. My friend, again, begs off because of veganism. The legislator turns to me. "It's a delicacy."

In that moment, I reach out for the piece of flesh on the tray. I pull it toward my mouth. I think of the animal it was a part of, twisting in some cold and silent ocean a thousand miles from here, sounding noises strange and terrible. I think of the sea and all the horrors it contains.

I force myself to swallow.

But I left in the spring, fleeing back home to resume a conventional life. My fear of fish came with me — but now it was part of a story. I was afraid of fish and had temporarily moved to a state that worshipped them. Wasn't that funny? It would take a long time for me to understand what that story meant. Holding so tightly to your fear while also running toward it is supposed to be a sign of freedom.I left Alaska in the spring. When I got there, I had been convinced, before even seeing the place, that I would never go home again. I imagined meeting an Alaskan lumberjack and having babies on an Alaskan commune and generally divorcing myself from any of the confusion and anxiety of life in the Lower 48. That's what Alaskans call the contiguous United States, and I liked that: I reveled in the underlying sense of superiority in that phrase.

Not always. It's also a move of self-sabotage. Sabotage is very seductive — it has to be, to persuade you to work against your own best interests. There is something comforting in always knowing how a situation will end — in discomfort and the sense of having failed.

I think of myself, sitting on a carpet that is pebbled like a fish's skin, in the first squirm of fear. The adrenaline does not feel good, though it is a surge that feels necessary to live, in that moment. But there's the problem of being paralyzed, unwilling or unable to move, while your whole body insists on motion.

Kaitlyn Greenidge is Lenny's contributing writer and the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

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