Fiction: A Study in Agoraphobia (edited)


There she was.

It was the annual flower festival and the streets and sidewalks were full of bustling excited people.  The children were pulling their parents towards the old-fashioned carousel, with its strange, out-of-place organ music. Julia walked along the sidewalk not far from the carousel.

She was being caught up in her own personal difficulties.  It’d been years since she’d felt the thump, thump, thump in her ears as the blood rushed through her body.  She was having an attack of agoraphobia.

“Oh Jesus! Here we go again!” she started rationalizing to herself.  “The fear of crowds.  To me, it’s more a fear of being closed up in a crowd…a kind of “people” claustrophobia! It’ll pass….”

But it wasn’t working,  the feeling was growing, becoming overwhelming.

“Luca!” a familiar note of panic had come into her voice as she gripped her husband’s arm.  He immediately realized what was happening.

“Now I wonder what’s brought this on?” he pondered as he began to lead her out of the crowd.

“I don’t know, but I’ve got to get away from here!” her voice low, but still sounding like a scream to her.

“Not to worry…here, through the park…” he deftly guided her to a quiet lane in the park.

She thought back to that first attack, almost twenty years ago.  It had happened in Siena during the season of the Palio.  There were literally thousands of people.  It hadn’t happened in Piazza del Campo, though, that she would have understood.  No, the attack took place after leaving the piazza.

The streets in Siena, like in most Italian medieval towns are very narrow.  Four people walking abreast is a good metaphorical way of measuring most of these “streets”: more like alleys to North Americans, come to think about it, she’d seen wider alleys in Athens, Georgia!

That day with the throngs of people pushing one another to get back to their hotels or to go to  dinner, she’d suddenly begun to feel the thumping in her ears.  A sensation of oppression weighed down on her chest.  She looked up and it seemed that she was at the bottom of a deep well…the sunlit blue sky so far above…the world twirled…she felt dizzy.

Luca her boyfriend, looked at her, realizing that something wasn’t right: “Are you ok?”

“No!  I’ve got to get out of here…now!” hers was a desperate whisper.

She began to push her way through the crowd, jostling the people around her  in nearly full-blown panic.  Finally, Luca grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into an art gallery.  The show-room was softly lit, light being concentrated on the paintings all around the walls.  They sat quietly on one of the couches in front of a beautiful pastel.  The panic slowly seeped away.  They looked around for a bit, commenting on the paintings…temporarily putting aside what had led them there.

Then Luca said solicitously:  “Are you feeling better?” putting his arm protectively around her shoulders.

“Yes, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.  I’ve never felt anything like that before in my life!” leaning her head on his shoulder, feeling a little foolish, a like a kid again.

“Not to worry. I think you’ve just made the acquaintance of agoraphobia.” his matter of fact voice had just the right timber to clear up any embarrassment that she’d been feeling.

“Not claustrophobia?”

“Have you ever been afraid of being in tight spaces?  Been closed up in any closets lately?” he gave her his lopsided grin that always warmed her heart.

“No, but I wouldn’t consider those alleys “wide open spaces” !” She laughed now, the whole terrifying episode nearly forgotten.

“Actually I think it was the crowd that got to you. You American’s and your personal space and all that.” he teased.  They sat there for another half an hour, enough time to let the crowd thin out tehn returned to their hotel.

For a brief period of time after that, she’d experienced these attacks at odd moments.  She could be at the supermarket or maybe during a ball game. Then, just as they had come, they had disappeared.

Luca had led Julia to a quiet corner in open air café. She already felt better…it was just a light attack.  Maybe the noise, the crush of the crowd, the eerie music of that carousel.

“What can I bring you fine people?” the waitress wanted to know.

“Two Aperol spritz  please.” Luca ordered.

They sat back calmly drinking their drinks watching the crowds ebb and flow.

cafè in the park

This story is based on an experience I actually lived through years ago during a
particularly difficult time of my life.

11 thoughts on “Fiction: A Study in Agoraphobia (edited)

  1. Nicely described. I really feel the contrast between the press of the crowd and the serenity of the art gallery. (Points to James for the save!)

    If I were your editor, I might make a few suggestions. When there are only two people in a dialogue, you can pretty much get rid of the “said” tags. (including ‘she asked’, ‘he informed her’, ‘he speculated’, etc.) It’s already pretty obvious who is talking, so you have a chance to add an action that tells us something about the person or their relationship. For example: James led her to a long padded viewing bench where he pretended to examine the exhibits, careful inches separating their bodies as her breathing slowly returned to normal. “Feeling better?”

    Also, the humorous aside ” (To tell you the truth I’ve seen wider alleys in North America!)” breaks into the mood of panic. If you want it to be part of the random, desperate thoughts of the narrator, I’d go ahead and integrate it into her internal monologue. “The narrow medieval streets of Siena — a tight fit for even four friends walking abreast — made the alleys of her North American youth wide by comparison.’ And for a connection to your readers, it would be even better to name those youthful alleys — ‘made the alleys behind the Brooklyn brownstones of her youth loom wide by comparison’. Of course your words would work better, but hopefully this is food for thought.

    • Thanks Barb! The first point I had been wondering about…I mean it’s so boring to have to write the “he said-she asked” (and probably not much easier to read). I like the idea of working action into the place of he said etc. (though I suspect I’m a lazy writer…or at least an impatient one 😉 ) Good idea about the alleyways as well…that popped into my head whilst thinking that some of the alleyways I saw this summer in Athen’s Georgia were bigger than most of the streets in these Italian small towns! I appreciate you taking your time to make these really useful comments…this came story took me about 30 minutes to write after looking at that photo. I knew it needed work, but couldn’t figure out where…your comments a precious!

  2. Agoraphobia is so misunderstood. I wrote a short story on it which is on my blog if you would like to see it. It is fiction but based on a real experience I had..

  3. I felt her panic, but I’m a bit confused as to whom she’s with. She says “Luca” at the beginning and then I see that he was her boyfriend when the first attack happened, but then suddenly, “James” orders drinks. Did James (her husband) recognize that an attack was coming because she said Luca’s name? I think you could the distinction between these two men (at least I’m assuming there are two) clearer and it would improve your story.


    • Opps…I’d changed his name, and I guess I missed that last change…Thanks for pointing it out to me! He started out as James…but then I decided he should be Italian so I changed his name to Luca…sorry! That could have been an interesting twist though.

  4. Pingback: Just a note: May 16, 2013 | Bastet and Sekhmet

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