AGORA

His days followed a pattern crafted specifically around his highest priority in life: avoiding the presence of other people.

Only went outside at asscrack-of-dawn o’clock, and only then for just long enough to put out the trash or bring in the paper. Invested in a grocery delivery service, and instructed them to leave his bags at the doorstep. Successfully convinced his boss that he could fulfill the duties of his IT job from the comfort (both introverted and otherwise) of his own home.

His life was a neat collage of patterns, a cozy assemblage of oft-repeated tasks. For him, his idea of adventure was leaving the house for his weekly library raid. (Because even to an agoraphobe like him, that vast store of old volumes was worth braving the outside world.)

Even then, his attack was scheduled to the second: arrive at 5 on a Wednesday (when the library was usually at its emptiest), give the librarian on duty a perfunctory nod when prompted, make a beeline for fiction, scan for other patrons through the gaps in bookshelves and adjust his route accordingly, then take his place at His Table, the one conveniently tucked away from all the rest and usually left empty due to its proximity to the bathroom.

And everything would’ve continued going just exactly According to Plan (as it always had), if it weren’t for that meddling lady. He’d say Lady with a capital L and mean it, and here’s why:

  • Had enough books in her hands to present a serious toppling risk.
  • Among the volumes were dog-eared copies of Dostoyevsky, DFW, some Murakami (his absolute favorites).
  • Social interaction was likewise the last thing she had in mind, or so he could tell from her own practiced route through the stacks.

He could actually feel his cheeks run hot as she took a seat at a similarly abandoned table, this one with a keen view of the trees and the birds that populated them outside. Felt the trickle of sweat at his palms, too, as she alternately thumbed through Infinite Jest and sketched the neighborhood’s denizens in a pad she’d brought with her.

And so it was these physical sensations (psychosomatic or not) that kept him fused to his table’s chair when she’d eventually seen and read and sketched enough, when she’d gotten up and left before he could muster up agora-defying courage to talk to her.

*   *   *

It’s kind of hard to call in sick from home, but he did so, and stayed out for as many days as it’d take to mourn the loss his anxiety had dealt him. Shut up the blinds and refused to answer the door, wouldn’t even return calls or emails.

It was after the fifth day of this that the Why finally hit him. The Why Am I Doing This and the Why Am I Like This that are on the tip of the tongue of those on the verge of breakthrough. But he shrugged off the Why for a while and went back to his books.

They say that most people would rather submit to electric shock than sit alone in a room with themselves and the thoughts their brains contain, and right then oh boy, yes brother, you better believe that was him. But there was something else about this fear that was tempting. Chalk it up to the knowledge that without facing this fear he’d have literally zero chance of seeing her again, that’s fine. But the important thing is that he did face it.

Took the bus into work on a whim. Forced his face into some semblance of a smile despite the bubbling fear inside him and struck up a convo with the tiny and hunched old man waiting at the bus stop with him. Within a half hour had relived the man’s entire tour of duty in the Ardennes, knew all there was to know about his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, and had actually brought the sweet old man to happy tears just by listening to musty old stories that were dying to be let out.

Rode the agoraphilic wave and chatted with the bus driver for a while, too. Broke down the grizzled guy’s practiced detachment with his earnest enthusiasm, till the driver was laughing at jokes that weren’t even any good.

His newfound superpower followed him into the workplace, where just by the looks on coworkers’ faces you could tell the prevailing question was, “Is this really the same guy?” Told his boss he was back in the office to stay before the day was through.

*   *   *

Back to the stacks. That familiar amniotic place that threatened to lull our MC back to his agoraphobic past. The table near the bathroom practically screaming his name, the fiction section freshly sorted. And there was her. At her same table, sketching once again. And there was heat in his face, and sweat on his hands, and he thought briefly of making his escape before the other side of his brain could intervene.

But he didn’t. Wouldn’t. Instead, he found his feet walking in her direction, his body following dutifully along like a child’s finger on the page of a good story. To her table. To the chair across from her. He took a seat. Breathed. And although his own pulse felt like it was choking him, his voice came out calm; clear; confident:

“Hi.”

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