The Panic, by Aidan Ryan


It wasn’t amnesia; I remembered everything, my name, my wife’s name, my kids’ birthdays, and all the twists and turns on life’s long and winding road that had led me to where I was and what I had become at that very moment: forty-two years old, an investment banker, showing the first sings of gray; a nice home in the suburbs, a lovely wife, two adorable children, aged five and eight; a dog named Marlon, a sail boat named Lucille, and a slight paunch from lack of exercise. The question wasn’t who, what, when, where, or even how, but why.

Some might call it the onset of a mid-life crisis. Others might write it off as the last remnants of a half-remembered nightmare, a panic carried over from a dream into the cool AC dawn of reality. I honestly don’t know what to call it.

In fact, I can’t say that I know much of anything anymore, or at least I don’t know anything for certain. The one thing I do know is that when I woke up that Monday morning, next to the sleeping form of Laura, my once-ravishing and still-beautiful wife, I felt extremely cold. I wondered if someone had turned up the air conditioning during the night – perhaps one of the boys – but I soon realized it wasn’t that. The chill wasn’t external, but internal; it was coming from somewhere in my lower chest or upper stomach – perhaps the pancreas. As I turned to look at Laura’s sleeping figure, the chill turned into a bone-biting cold. Just who the hell was this woman anyway?

I tried to calm my breathing. I knew who she was. Of course I did. She was Laura, my wife of sixteen years, thirty-eight years old, a real estate agent, president of her book club, a die-hard fan of Anita Shreve and Jodi Picoult, a slight germaphobe and a decent cook. But why her, why me, how exactly had we ended up chained together by twenty-four carat bands of Holy Matrimony?

She stirred, blinked, looked into my panic-stricken face.

“Good morning, honey,” she smiled and blinked again, showing off the first signs of crow’s feet in the corner of her eyes.

I stared back, my mouth a cavern several inches in diameter.

My God. I was trapped. I was trapped in bed with a woman I didn’t know. Well, I did know. Sort of. I knew her. I even knew why I had married her – she was pretty, I was handsome, or at least I had a strong chin; she wanted three kids, I wanted two kids, she said that was alright; she liked Devo and I said they were alright. Those seemed like logical-enough reasons to marry a person. So then what was bothering me? Why did I feel so cold?

Then it hit me. I never liked Devo at all. In fact I hated Devo – I found “Whip It” particularly irritating – and I had only told her I liked the band so that she would sleep with me that one time at Marty Humple’s Fourth of July party.

Without responding to her saccharine morning greeting, I threw the sheets off my numb legs and leapt out of bed. That wasn’t a figure of speech – my legs were, inexplicably, actually numb, and I crumpled to the floor like a chronically imbalanced action figure. I was up in a minute, though, and with sensation returned to my legs, I hurried downstairs to make myself some coffee and caffeinate myself out of this waking nightmare.

I found my children, Oliver and Bentley, already in the kitchen pouring Aunt Jemima’s over Eggo waffles – or was it pouring their Eggo waffles over Aunt Jemima’s? – and I stopped short. Something seemed odd, off, out-of-place. They were my children, of course, my sturdy boys, my pride and joy, the fruit of my loins – look, Oliver has my nose and Bentley, though he more closely resembles his mother, will probably inherit my paunch and my bad knees. They were mine, yes, but something about them seemed off…

Of course! Their names! Oliver and Bentley, Bentley and Oliver, just what the hell had I been thinking? I’m a conservative man, at least socially; I live in the suburbs and I drink Bud Light – Bud Light Lime only when I’m feeling adventurous. So why hadn’t I named my sons Jack, Jimmy, Mark, John, Steven, Patrick, or Humphrey? Although I had never realized it before, Oliver reminded me of that damn cartoon kitten, and Bentley sounded like a name you’d hear on “16 and Pregnant.” Why had I chosen these ridiculous names? More importantly, why did I know anything about “16 and Pregnant?”

“Morning, Dad!” the boys greeted me in unison. I let out a pitiful squeak and lurched out of the kitchen. Not knowing where I was headed, I stumbled into the living room. The panic gripped me like a straight-jacket; though I had never experimented with drugs any harder than weed and the roofie my college friends once slipped me as a joke – oh, and that one time that I took one-too many Codeine after my knee surgery – I supposed that this was how Hunter S. Thompson felt as he stumbled around Las Vegas in a psychedelic daze: I couldn’t walk straight, my vision was blurred, and all the colors of the room swam and blended together like an impressionist painting left out in the rain – not that this last effect was really all that dramatic: my wife had taken care of the decorating, and the carpet was tope, the walls were white, and the Venetian blinds were either eggshell or accrue – I can never tell the difference.

Somehow I made it to the front door, which I swung open with a clumsy heave; I stood there, clad in Ralph Lauren pajamas, and starred dismally at the sight before me. There, parked in my driveway, sitting there smug and unashamed, was a minivan – and not even one of those sleek ones that tried to pretend like it’s a semi-respectable SUV – a fucking minivan. I put a hand over my mouth, wondering if I had just said “fucking” aloud in front of the boys.

Of course I remembered buying it. I remembered the smarmy dealer, remembered picking out the color, remembered nodding sagely and agreeing with everything he said – “Hmm, yes, highly functional” and “Oh look, honey, a built-in Blu-ray player!” But why? WHAT had I been thinking?

It seemed to be mocking me with its unappealing high-capacity bulk. I looked back, and it had turned into a unicorn.
Actually that part isn’t true. It was still a minivan.

Reeling from the smart of my own poor taste, I turned and stumbled back towards the kitchen, towards anything, towards some familiar household item that I could unreservedly call my own. My wife appeared in the door to the kitchen, smiling with just a hint of concern.

“Honey, is everything alright?”

I stopped short. No, everything was most certainly not alright.

“I never liked Devo!” I screamed, and ran up the stairs, away from the subdued tones of the living room and from the subdued – one might even say “dulled” – attractiveness of my wife’s pale face, away from my two syrupy sons and their absurd names, and most of all, away from that goddamn minivan squatting in my driveway.

Upstairs, in the hall, I was breathing fast and my head felt very heavy and light at the same time, as if I needed first to lie down and then float out of my body, up and up into sunny suburban skies.

The very air seemed to be made of impossible questions, which threatened to suffocate me like Carbon Monoxide. Why had I married Laura? Why had I chosen such embarrassing names for my children? Why oh why oh why had I bought a minivan? Were the blinds eggshell or accrue? What made them Venetian? And what was so great about Devo anyway?

The coldness was becoming unbearable now. I shivered involuntarily. My life seemed to be coming apart at the seams. I suddenly wished that my minivan actually had been a unicorn – less practical, yes, but at least it wouldn’t be a sign of my defeat as a man and as a human being. And grass had to be cheaper than gas, I was sure of it.

The cold was getting worse. These sporty Ralph Lauren linens just weren’t enough. I needed a coat, a hat and gloves. Or at least a Ralph Lauren robe. I lurched forward, still dizzy, trying to make it to the bedroom. If only I could get back in the bed, hide under the sheets like I was six years old and afraid of the dark all over again, fall back asleep, and when I woke up, maybe the world would make sense again, maybe the house would be a comfortable sixty-four degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe the Panic would pass like a mental kidney stone, in a mighty exertion of equal parts pain and relief.


I tripped just outside the door and clutched the wall for support; my head came to rest next to the thermostat on the wall. Shivering, exhausted, my eyes fell on its LED screen. The temperature read forty-nine degrees. My eyes widened. That was much too cold. The mid sixties was my preferred range; high fifties would even be acceptable on an August afternoon. But forty-nine was virtually Arctic. One of the boys must have snuck into the hall and lowered the temperature in the heat of the summer night. I raised a weak hand to the touch screen, tapped the up arrow several times, and then sank down to the floor.

Slowly, the house warmed, and my panic subsided. It had been the thermostat after all.Things started to make sense again. My wife was still quite attractive, and would probably remain so until it didn’t matter anymore, anyways. I married her because I loved her, or because I thought I was getting old and all my friends had already married – I can’t quite remember. Oliver and Bentley were alright names; they made the boys stand out, and added to my arsenal of small-talk subjects for backyard barbeques. I didn’t mind the colors in the living room; I should have known better than to worry about window treatments, after all. And I had to admit, Devo had some catchy songs.

Yes, it looked like everything was going to be alright. But I decided then and there that I had to trade in the minivan – there would be no compromising on that issue. I still, to this day, can’t quite remember why I bought it.

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Posted in 2011, Fiction, Humor
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