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.
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.
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 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.