"Are you okay?" It was David. I hadn't heard the words, but the question was written all over his face. I shook my head, left to right.
I heard Michelle as if we were underwater, "I've never seen you look so flushed before, Barb. Your face is beet red. Are you hot?" My eyes widened, my jaw remained clenched. Without saying a word, I stood and walked through the dining room, down the back stairs, and into the gallery storeroom, where I could be alone with my thoughts, the first of which was, What the hell is wrong with you? I wondered if I was having some kind of allergic reaction to the food and then remembered I hadn't swallowed my first bite. My body seemed to be under attack, but if that were the case, where was my attacker? I'd heard of "panic attacks," but I always thought that was when someone freaked out over some irrational fear. My evening had been wonderful, full of great conversation and incredible compliments to my man -- what was there to be afraid of?
I breathed deeply, savoring the solitude. Once I relaxed, I decided to go back upstairs, but the mere thought of rejoining the party caused me to double over in pain as my insides twisted in protest, and I felt the blood rushing back to my face. Suddenly, the image of the man in the Santa hat popped into my head. I noted that his appearance at the gathering had coincided with the onset of my discomfort. But why? Why would some drunk guy upset me to the point of needing to hide in a storeroom in order to breathe? Neither of my parents was an alcoholic. As I thought about it more, I realized it wasn't the alcohol on his breath that had disturbed me -- it was his behavior, his sloppiness, his apparent inability to control himself.
Maybe I had been afraid of something after all. Maybe seeing that man reminded my nerves of the one dread I have above all others -- the one that causes me to alternate my feet over the cracks in the sidewalk, that requires me to methodically burn the tips of my other nine fingers should the tenth have foolishly brushed against something hot, and that compels me to arrive two hours early for a movie so that I can be assured of sitting in "my" seat -- my fear of losing control.