In order to get the insurance company to pay for the visit, the therapist needed to make a diagnosis within the first session.
“Don’t pay too much attention to it, though, these kinds of diagnoses aren’t really that helpful or accurate; it’s just paperwork.”
But then the woman proceeded, in trying to figure out which boxes could be checked, to fixate on things Atoosa did not care for. She asked too many questions about Atoosa’s eating habits, ignored the reasons Atoosa gave for not eating. Then she picked at Atoosa’s choice of words in describing her mother, wanting to hear more about that than about the difficulty Atoosa was having trying to negotiate her need to have a phone for her job and social life with the unethical production of the object.
“Ecological anxiety, yes, I get it. That makes sense. We should all worry more about that, Lord knows. But what else? What is actually causing the anxiety?”
Atoosa scheduled another appointment but, while pretending to put it into her calendar, set a reminder to cancel it the next day. She had hoped therapy could help with the recent resurgence of constant, uncontrollable fear. But, clearly, the therapist only wanted to treat the surface-most symptoms. That wouldn’t work this time, because the dangers were not just in her mind and they couldn’t be cured. Atoosa could tell the difference and wished other people could too.
Atoosa had always been a worrier. As a child she had been obsessed with the idea that while she was at school her home might catch fire, or someone might break into it, or, most tragically, and therefore most likely, the family cat might choke on a toy while everyone was out of the house. She would spend every day uncontrollably imagining coming home and smelling feces as soon as she opened the door because the animal’s bowels would have released after he died—struggling, alone. Worse, she had worried that when a tragedy did occur it would be her fault, because she thought of it before it happened and hadn’t moved to prevent it.
But thanks to an adolescence spent in therapy, Atoosa learned to believe most of the things she feared were unreasonable—all within the realm of possibility, yes, but not likely. She understood that thoughts could not cause catastrophes, and she knew how to keep herself from reacting noticeably to her anxieties. For many years she functioned “normally”—nervous, but not disruptively so.
Recently she started to think her dog, a pitbull-shepherd mix named Sampson, might chew off a scrap of the blanket in his crate and choke on it while she was out of the apartment. So she did, then, remove the hazard. Doing so, she realized it likely made him less comfortable, and maybe made his life a little worse. But he could not argue with her, and no one else would ever know, so she permitted it of herself. It seemed harmless. Such a small thing to ease her worries so effectively.
Atoosa blamed part of her resurrected fear on Our Dangerous Era: the tv show she had been working on for three months, a stylish miniseries with famous actors reciting fact-filled monologues to a premium-channel-paying audience, mostly focused on the environment—rising oceans, collapsing ecosystems, the people and animals that would not make it through the next century. Her bosses wanted numbers and the names of think tanks and labs, and then high-quality footage of people panicking, landscapes that looked like sci-fi dystopias—her job was to find this evidence, source it, and begin the process of obtaining permissions for its use. It meant long hours of reading, watching hour after hour of amateur and professional videos, digging deep into proof of the worst of things.
A small voice inside, the distrustful, rational thing at the center, reminded her of the manipulative aspects of the production. The show, after all, was not made out of the goodness of anyone’s heart. The people in charge may have been genuinely concerned about the subject, but they were also concerned about their next project and paying rent. There was always a level of sensationalizing. Yet as she spent her days studying the environmental issues she had heard about her whole life, she knew there was no need to sensationalize. The dangers were real. The collapse was happening. The situation was exactly as bad as it sounded.
When she shut her laptop at the end of the day, Atoosa told herself—in tones picked up from magazines and brunch conversations with caring friends—that it was unhealthy to fixate. Work had to be left at work. She had to stop worrying herself. To do this, she decided on a rule: no thinking or speaking about what she had read and seen at work until she got to the office again the next morning.
But on the very first day she tried to implement that rule, she struggled with the rationality of it while walking to the subway station. Terrible things would not stop just because she looked away. Despite herself, she kept thinking this as she walked and only succeeded in forcing the thought to grow shorter—it’s not going to stop—and become more melodic: it’s not going to stop, it’s not going to stop, ’til you wise up. She couldn’t remember the rest of the lyrics, but she was pretty sure it was a love song and thus not actually applicable to ecological disaster.
At home that night she had trouble choosing something to eat, because everything in her fridge screamed waste: using anything up would mean throwing away packaging, buying more, repeating the cycle. Only Sampson got to have his dinner, and she reasoned that his food was allowable only because he was not culpable for any of the systems that brought him food—she was.
The next evening, at a happy hour with people from her office, Atoosa again failed to follow her rule.
“Look. I thought this was horrible.”
She held her phone out to Gilli, one of Our Dangerous Era’s assistant producers. On the screen was an article about the first places in the world that would be, for a part of the year, completely uninhabitable for humans due to heat. Right beneath the headline was a map of the Persian Gulf, the land northwest of the water highlighted bright red, bleeding over into Syria and Iraq, and turning orange as it brushed over Egypt. Gilli glanced at it, then nodded forcefully and took a long drink from her beer.
“Fucked. We’re all fucked.”
“No, look, doesn’t the region look familiar?”
Gilli leaned over from her seat at the bar, wrapped one arm around Atoosa’s waist, and squinted at the map on the phone.
“It’s where your family is from?” she asked, tentatively.
“No, sort of, yes, but we’re from the center, near Isfahan. I mean the whole area marked.”
Gilli held the phone closer to her face, studying the image. The moment dragged, and Atoosa felt it was about to turn bad, that Gilli would be embarrassed for not having known. She liked Gilli, liked her curls and her eyes and how she seemed truly affected by the work they were involved in, so she tried to pitch her voice just right, to announce the answer without any condescension.
“It’s the fertile crescent, the cradle of civilization.”
“What’s that?” Gilli asked.
“It’s the region where some of the oldest major civilizations were started, the first cities—” Gilli looked back at the phone, her face falling as she began to understand. “Isn’t it horrible? The place we started from is the first to go.”
Gilli turned to Atoosa with tears in her eyes and said, “That’s too big a coincidence, isn’t it? It must mean something.”
Atoosa nodded but did not actually think so. To her everything was always the worst, and this would be at its worst if it did not mean anything at all.
At the end of the night Gilli tried to pull Atoosa into her cab, but Atoosa said she had to get home to walk her dog. As she sat alone on the subway, she hoped that in some small, doggish way Sampson could see how they had to make sacrifices for each other’s comfort.
One morning before work, Atoosa’s father called to ask if she could use some of her vacation time to come visit the family in Iran; a lot of cousins were getting married or having babies, a few great-aunts and uncles were getting to the point where a last visit really needed to happen. No, things weren’t good with the U.S.—but were they ever? A quick trip. It would be fine.
Atoosa could not imagine herself getting on a plane—it caused her stomach to twist painfully. Her father felt her hesitation but misread it.
“You’re still afraid of flying,” he said. “You’ve got to get over it. Planes are very safe. Look up the statistics. Let me tell you—”
Atoosa cut the oft-repeated speech off, promised to look at the production calendar and see what was possible, and hung up.
Yes, she was terrified of trapping herself in a several-ton box filled with hot, flammable fuel, gliding thousands of feet in the air—what thinking animal wouldn’t be? But there was also the equation she had seen, the one that could calculate how many square meters of Arctic ice would melt due to the flights it would take to get there and back.
Throughout work that day she considered it all deeply: perhaps she should prioritize seeing her country before politics made it logistically unreachable or climate change made it physically unbearable. There were dozens of people over there whom she loved and dearly missed, and who did not have the option to travel. She would never see them again if she did not choose to go there herself.
But those were all selfish reasons, weren’t they? People like her, Americans with all the choices and the biggest carbon footprints, needed to be making more sacrifices. The flights, of course, would happen anyway, she reasoned—but isn’t that what everyone reasoned?
After another night of post-work drinks, Gilli asked to come to Atoosa’s apartment. It was not until they were there that Atoosa realized how her home might seem. Weeks spent wracked with guilt over her past consumer choices meant there was almost no food in the kitchen, no AC in the window. The living room was filled with piles of items—variously sized glass tea bottles, old phone chargers, a cracked humidifier—that she wanted to get rid of but needed to recycle in the most efficient ways, which were all time-consuming and not-yet-done. Atoosa quickly shepherded Gilli to the bedroom.
Afterward she ran Sampson around the block, thinking apologies at him for making him wait, and for the shortness of the outing, and for banishing him to the living room for the rest of the night. Re-entering her apartment, she smelled food, the oily scent of the gas stove, and though she made a rush toward the kitchen she heard Gilli call her from the bedroom.
“You make something?” she asked, trying not to sound anxious.
“I’m so hungry and no one delivers here! I warmed up some lo mein I found in the fridge. Is that okay?”
The concerned way Gilli looked at her then, up and down, as she stood awkwardly by the bedside, signaled how badly Atoosa was hiding her worry.
Atoosa sat on the bed and stretched, as though relaxed enough to sleep.
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
Gilli believed her, smiled in relief, and leaned against the pillows.
“Why don’t you have a microwave?”
“I just like toaster ovens more,” Atoosa oversimplified. She did not want to go into the energy comparisons or her vaguely unscientific, unfounded fear of microwaves.
“But they take so long, though, and they’re so complicated, I gave up. I just used the stove.”
Gilli yawned, shifted over, and indicated the space beside her for Atoosa to lie down. Atoosa crawled into that spot, began to nestle down, until she noticed the plate and fork on the bedside table. She sat back up and grabbed the things, but Gilli caught her free hand.
“Leave it.” Her grip moved up, pulling Atoosa by her arm, drawing her back down. Atoosa awkwardly dropped the plate and let Gilli wrap them both into a tangled embrace.
Though Atoosa tried to enjoy the peaceful moment, she could only think of the toaster oven. Though she smelled no smoke, she couldn’t help picturing the machine on, glowing red, smoke pouring out the little window and fire flickering to life. She waited until she was sure Gilli was deeply asleep before slowly slipping out from under her arms and legs. Grabbing the plate, she tiptoed from her room to the kitchen.
The toaster oven was still turned to on, but it was also unplugged. She had unplugged it that morning as she did every morning with all of the kitchen appliances, both because she feared spontaneous electrical fires and because she did not want to waste energy. Atoosa was grateful that Gilli had not seemed to notice, but in feeling that relief she knew it was not sustainable—there were too many things, too many habits, to hide.
As that summer went on, Atoosa deteriorated. The temperature rose, breaking records occasionally as had become the new normal, but Atoosa suffered it exponentially. She could not stop herself from imagining the heat stretching on forever, endlessly. It acted as a constant reminder and punishment—she saw the damage in everything she bought, watched, walked on, entered, or enjoyed.
Despite even Sampson’s whines, she would not reinstall the AC, so they both lay awake late every night in the oppressive heat, while she rubbed ice cubes on his paws and her wrists. She started to have recurring dreams of a hot, wet darkness, and every dream ended with her realizing that the dream was death, what it would be like to be dead. She woke into the same thing—heavy darkness, humid heat—and started to worry that she was slipping too far to save herself.
Still, she thought, there was no reason to believe that anyone could
At dinner one night with an old college friend, Atoosa explained how she treated walking Sampson as a form of psychological exercise. People always wanted to stop her and pet him, and she had to find ways to seem pleasant and comfortable while enduring this. For a while it had gone all right; pretending to be at ease did make it feel easier, but then things got complicated. A few unfortunate incidents—a man who followed them for an hour, mewing quietly; a crustypunk who threw a glass bottle at Sampson; a woman who wiped a bloody palm down his back—made Atoosa more discerning.
She tried to figure out in a real and impartial way which people were legitimately frightening and which were only eccentric or tragic. As far as she could tell it was in the eyes: the people she really needed to be afraid of did not necessarily look cruel, but they had a cruel way of looking. Their eyes moved slightly but constantly, a sign that they were measuring, looking for soft spots.
As she said this, her friend laughed—the sharp, big laugh that she recognized as an indication she had said something ridiculous.
“What if they’re just checking you out? Or have a twitch or, like, a lazy eye or something?”
“What if you just try not expecting everyone to attack you?”
Atoosa smiled sheepishly, ducking her head while she tried to find a way to play off what she had said, realizing too late the paranoia she had revealed.
“Honestly, ’Toos, sometimes you remind me of my grandma. She’s always going on and on about how dangerous the city is and how she can’t imagine living so close to so many strangers—I mean, she’s a racist old biddy, so she doesn’t say ‘strangers.’ She has a very specific list of races, nationalities, religions, professions . . .”
The friend trailed off, laughing. Atoosa laughed too but also squirmed a little, fearing the comparison. Were the people she feared always something specific? Sometimes homeless, often sickly—but there was a difference between fear and hate. She did not want her fear to hurt anyone, or to be the kind of person who protected herself at the expense of others.
“You know, I was reading an article the other day; I didn’t look into it too much, so it might be total bullshit, but it said the biggest difference between liberals and conservatives—or maybe it was Democrats and Republicans? I don’t remember, but you know what I mean—the difference was that the liberals, Democrats, whatever, believe people are essentially good, and the conservatives believe we’re essentially bad.”
Atoosa picked through her food while nodding to show she was listening and began to feel a trap being laid—she saw where he was going and jumped to deny it.
“I don’t believe people are bad.”
“Okay—but you think they want to hurt you.”
To buy time, Atoosa took a large bite of the curry she had been failing to eat. Her friend sipped his drink casually, but Atoosa felt he was eyeing her peripherally, smug about having caught her.
Immediately she reprimanded herself; her friend was not “smug,” he had not “caught” her. Her friend was her friend—he meant her well. She tried to respond honestly, without defensiveness.
“I don’t know. The world isn’t good, it’s not safe, and nothing is really okay. I want—I do want to trust people. I want to believe in humanity. I want that but—” she stopped herself, unwilling to continue as her throat tightened, a lump growing at the back.
The friend smiled and put his hand on the table, a gesture open to offering comfort.
“Maybe think about therapy?”
Atoosa smiled and nodded in a way she knew would make him think she was agreeing, though she did not, not at that moment.
She didn’t actually think until a little later that she should try therapy again, on the subway ride home that night, when a woman with a ragged voice got on and began crying out about hunger. “I’m hungry, it hurts, I’m hungry, please,” she pleaded with her hands curled against her chest. People turned away or pretended not to hear her, but all shuffled slightly out of her way as she walked down the length of the car.
Atoosa accidently made eye contact with a man near her, and he rolled his eyes, nodded toward the woman and smirked. Realizing he meant for her to share in his disproval, Atoosa felt suddenly indignant. She fingered a small wad of bills in her pocket and imagined herself handing it to the woman. But then Atoosa saw scabs and dirt covering the woman’s face, her neck and arms, as she got nearer. The thought of making contact—what if the woman had a fit? What if she did not like how much Atoosa gave her? What if she followed Atoosa home?—prevented Atoosa from giving even a small, encouraging smile as the woman passed by.
For the rest of the ride Atoosa regretted her cowardliness. She hated her own, fearful gut. And when she lay down in bed that night, Sampson by her side, Atoosa fell asleep wondering what happened to an animal that did not trust its instincts.
After hours of research and weeks of trial sessions, Atoosa finally found a therapist she liked, one who struck the perfect tone between sympathy and instruction. She withheld, for the first meeting, the things she knew the therapist might try to focus on if given the chance: family history, sexual hang-ups, disordered eating. Instead she told the woman generally about her fears, how far they ranged and how strong they were.
In a clear and clinical fashion, the therapist told Atoosa that all neuroses originally develop as rational coping and defense mechanisms to deal with a specific time and place. They only become harmful when people fail to let go of them, once the situation they were made for passes. She told Atoosa that all the things she hated in herself for being unreasonable were reasonable once, or could be reasonable again, if they were tailored correctly—if she could just learn to see the reality of the situation. Atoosa liked how all of this sounded, sensible yet hopeful.
Still, in that first meeting as the therapist went over it all, Atoosa could not help but bring up an article she had read about a children’s therapist in Gaza who was not sure if it was ethical to treat children who were continuously being traumatized. If behaviors developed under duress are survival strategies, and if the danger is continual, how can you ask someone to let them go? How could she let go of her fears if they were all, ultimately, based on real problems? The ocean was rising, water shortages were coming, the bees would all be gone soon, and worldwide the ecosystems could not survive it. Not to mention that manhole covers did explode because of the crumbling underground infrastructure of the city, and people did die from improperly installed ACs falling. And not only were there several recorded cases of Uber drivers stalking the women they serviced, but also a few yellow-cab drivers had killed themselves because of the havoc the share-economy had wrought on the regulated taxi industry.
The therapist calmly pointed out how inappropriate it was for Atoosa to compare herself to a child in Gaza, and how narcissistic it was to consider all the global problems her own cross to bear, and how unlikely such accidents were, though she conceded that Uber was problematic in many ways, perhaps best to be avoided.
Two sessions a week, for a few months, is what they agreed to. It may seem like a lot, the therapist said, but it was just until Atoosa could recalibrate her instincts. When the therapist said this, this thing about her instincts, Atoosa decided she would truly commit to their sessions. It lined up so well with her own concerns, seemed so within her own language, that she felt comforted for the first time in a long while.
At first, it really did seem to work. With concentrated effort, between therapy and her relationship with Gilli, Atoosa got better and better at shutting down the parts of her that screamed when she shopped for food or toiletries. She even bought a high-powered fan that Sampson loved to sit in front of for hours, ears fluttering.
Atoosa felt strong, then, like a growing thing.
She briefly tried to model herself after Gilli—a person who seemed both good, truly concerned and emotionally involved in the work they did, but also functional. Atoosa saw their relationship as a way to test her own normalcy. If Gilli liked her the way she was, she must not be so wrong.
That was until the day Gilli accompanied Atoosa and Sampson on a walk. As they turned a corner, a homeless man reached out toward Sampson and said to them, “Hello ladies, do you have anything you can spare today?”
Atoosa immediately responded, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t have any cash, sorry.”
“Okay, have a blessed day,” the man replied. Atoosa turned back to him to say, “Thank you, you too.”
Gilli laughed at her but waited until they were half a block away from the man before asking, “Why ’d you do that?”
“Have such a proper conversation with him.”
Atoosa pulled Sampson away from eating something wrapped in tinfoil on the street and shrugged. “I don’t want him to feel ignored.”
Gilli smiled and took Atoosa’s hand, squeezing it.
“You’re so funny. You would freak out if that guy tried to keep talking to you, but you’re the one that responded to him.”
Atoosa tried to smile, to be unoffended at the critique and to see how her behavior toward the man did not make sense.
“I just don’t want to be mean if I don’t have to be.”
“It’s not mean, it’s perfectly normal to just say ‘no’ or nothing at all.”
“I know it’s normal, but—”
“But you just have to do the right thing all the time.” Gilli laughed and bumped Atoosa slightly.
Atoosa knew it was something like a joke and a compliment and an insult all rolled into one but was not sure what her reaction should be. She wished they were not holding hands but thought pulling her hand away would be an overreaction. She wanted things to work with Gilli.
“I just don’t think it’s right to ignore people.”
Gilli twisted her hand a little to make Atoosa look over at her and gave her a small kiss. “I know, I get it, you like doing the right thing. You’re always so good. I like that about you.”
Atoosa felt herself smile. She squeezed Gilli’s hand back, but then Gilli let go to search through some clothes on a rack left outside a thrift shop. She watched Gilli for a moment, watched her face as she appraised the fabrics and thought blank, happy thoughts. Then Gilli caught her eye again.
“But, you know, you can’t actually do the right thing all the time. Like—you didn’t actually help that guy; that would be too much and you know it. Sometimes you just have to be reasonable.”
Atoosa shrugged as though she conceded the point, but privately felt that Gilli had just said something awful, something unforgivable. Not doing the right thing was bad enough—she agreed she had done no real good by the man—but then to say ignoring him would be reasonable? To dismiss the wrongness of it all as practical? That was too far.
The therapist asked Atoosa, after a few frustrated sessions, to simply trust that there was a healthy way to experience concern.
“It’s not about fixing, all the time. Sometimes it’s just about being aware.”
Over and over they ran through scenarios. What could Atoosa do when she was in a situation that made her ecological anxieties surface? Ask her friend or boss to turn off the air conditioning. How would that go? How would that make another person feel? What if Atoosa did not ask, but avoided those situations? Wouldn’t she be isolated? Jobless? Was that sustainable for Atoosa? Why didn’t she just go live in a forest and forage for her meals?
When the therapist asked this last question, at the end of a session full of these scenarios, she said it in the lighter tone of a joke. Atoosa took it seriously and forced herself to speak the first thing that came to mind.
She had not run away to the forest for the same reason she had not poured all of her money into a survival bunker—the kind of people who did that were not the kind of people she wanted to be.
“Who do you want to be? Can you give me an example, the kind of person you think is doing it all the ‘right’ way?”
It was the first session to end with Atoosa shaking, sobbing, but the therapist called it a breakthrough. Shame, she said, was usually regarded negatively, but it seemed to help Atoosa stay grounded.
“You’re just a human,” the therapist promised her, crouching down and handing her tissues, “The whole world isn’t on your shoulders. You don’t need to do anything except survive, right? That’s all you can do. That’s all any of us can hope to do.”
And though Atoosa wanted to feel comforted, she was not.
Things were still getting somewhat better, though slowly. Atoosa found her own ways of making it easier to identify positive things in the world. One day as she walked home from a friend-mandated spin class she passed by a homeless man sleeping outside a laundromat and dimly registered that there were a few people standing around staring at him. After a block she finally realized that the man’s head was caved in, not just strangely shaped or obscured. She stopped walking, looked back, and could still see people gathered around the corner.
She knew there was nothing useful to be done anymore, and while she stared at the group of people she noticed one woman smack down the phone of a man trying to take a picture, and then the whole group began reprimanding the man. Atoosa realized she had never actually seen a person in real, dire need ignored. The homeless, starving slowly, maybe, but the bleeding and broken and dead always got noticed and addressed. At least there’s that, she thought.
Daily, she began looking for and noticing small, half-good things, and it became her mantra. At least there’s that.
And because she was trying harder, even though she did not want to go at all, Atoosa attended the premiere party of Our Dangerous Era with Gilli.
At first she only hovered behind Gilli, arms crossed, spacing out every time a conversation went beyond initial greetings and pleasantries. But then a graphics intern Atoosa was friendly with came up to her and started a conversation that allowed Gilli to walk away. Having to speak to the intern—who was younger and eager for Atoosa to laugh and be friendly—made Atoosa, briefly, laugh and be friendly.
She came across Gilli later in the night outside in a little huddle of assistant producers, smoking. Together they went inside so Gilli could reapply her lipstick in the bathroom, and Gilli told her that one of the APs had invited them all to continue the party at his apartment in Hoboken. Atoosa shook her head and said she would rather go home. Gilli asked why, in a flat tone that Atoosa picked up as dangerous. She hesitated before saying, “I’m tired.”
“Is it because we ’d have to take the train?” Gilli turned to her and asked, point-blank.
Earlier that week, a NJ Transit train had derailed, and so Atoosa had stopped taking even the subway, waking up hours earlier to walk and navigate buses just to get to work—though she thought she had hidden it from Gilli.
Standing beside Gilli in the bathroom, Atoosa wrapped her arms around herself, pulled her shoulders in around her neck, until she was too tightly wound to shrug. She swayed instead and hummed. By looking away, toward the mirror, she could still see that Gilli was staring at her, body rigid and lipstick held in a fist. Atoosa watched the reflection speak.
“I’ve tried to be nice about this, but it’s fucking exhausting. There’s no reason to act like this. It’s totally fine—”
“You know it’s not. We were just talking about doing an episode on it next season. The tunnels are falling apart—you know it’s only getting worse—”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
Atoosa said nothing, did not move at all.
“This is getting so old.”
Atoosa forced herself to nod and began to back out of the bathroom. She could hear Gilli’s sigh even as she pushed the door open and the sounds of the bar came pouring in.
After weeks of her talking and sulking and searching the internet for different jobs, cities, ways of being, Atoosa’s friends and family persuaded her to stay in New York. She had tried to say her reasons clearly, to explain how she was scared all the time, how the city made everything harder, heavier than she could handle, but they told her that was a silly reason to leave, that her feelings were just a passing phase. They asked her if it was really because of the breakup, told her that was a bad reason to leave a city too. Bad, but they understood it better. Afraid to argue any more, ashamed of all her impulses, Atoosa gave in.
They told her she just needed to go out more, treat herself, take up running. So Atoosa tried. She finally agreed to visit her family overseas. She forced herself to go to social events, and friends noticed, praised her for it. She found a reliable dog walker to take Sampson out, so she could not “use him as an excuse.” She also started drinking far more in an effort to make the social commitments bearable, but her therapist told her that it was not at a dangerous level, not yet.
“We’ll keep an eye on that,” the woman said. “Every bridge as we cross it,” and “One step forward, two steps back.” Atoosa thought some of the phrases were being applied incorrectly, or conceived of in a strange way, but the therapist seemed so sure.
Fall came; the weather became cooler, less punishing; and life became easier. Atoosa’s fear got quieter, covered up by all the other emotions and obligations that filled her days. She started taking the subway to work again. Every morning she reaped some benefits and named them to herself—more time to take Sampson out, time to eat a real breakfast, even, if she got up early enough, time for a kickboxing class that made her feel stronger and left her too exhausted to overthink anything. A producer on the show had come to Atoosa, after hearing from Gilli about the fertile-crescent-first-to-go thing, and wanted her help pitching a climate-change-focused travel show on places that would soon be uninhabitable—or, rather, closed to tourists. Last Chance to See was the working title. The whole idea seemed ghoulish to Atoosa, but the few friends she mentioned it to encouraged her to be open-minded. It could be huge for her career, and it might help some of those places get aid through attention—who knew?
When she thought about it like that, Atoosa acknowledged that she had to keep changing if she wanted to feel at all like a part of the world and not something pushing against it. She knew the rebellion she felt in herself, the hardening in her gut against all the positive thinking she was being fed, was unhealthy. She just wished there were some way to reconcile the feeling that she was right, even if she was not good, or it was not good for her to be right, or try to do the right thing every time—but her therapist told her these were not useful terms or ways of thinking. They were not real; neither people nor their actions were “right” or “good,” simply defined. It was all far more complex, no matter how much Atoosa wanted a simple directive, a clear path to a clear conscience.
Good things can be painful, she had learned to believe and accept. Nothing is completely good, so stop waiting for perfect—she was still working on that. Acknowledge and let it go, was what her therapist said over and over.
And then, one morning, as she reached the subway platform, she heard yelling coming from beyond the turnstile, down the steps. She successfully ignored the tight feeling in her chest and the urge to run back up the stairs. Whatever was happening had stopped by the time she got to the tracks; everyone was waiting silently, with only normal amounts of tension in the air. There was a man muttering to himself, pacing back and forth, being given a wide berth by all other people on the platform, but he was several feet away and seemed self-contained.
Atoosa walked to a place where she could lean on a column as she waited and began to tug at her tangled headphones. She noticed an email from her father, the itinerary for her upcoming trip to Iran, and she tried to focus her attention on the feelings of excitement rather than all the other, heartbreaking thoughts that surrounded the trip, her family, and her other country.
Atoosa was still staring at the email on her phone when she saw the muttering man from the corner of her eye, suddenly very close, and she told herself in a practiced tone, I will not overreact. She did not let herself move forward, defensive, pre-emptively. With everything she had learned about the world and herself, she knew she it was better to be wrong about the man than afraid of him. And as she fought the wild terror rising from her gut to her throat, she realized what it was—the thing that needed to be true even if it wasn’t.
I would rather be wrong than afraid.
The idea trickled down her spine, straightening and strengthening it, giving her whole body a new sense of balance, a new weight. The man grabbed her arm and she braced herself. Steadying them both, Atoosa raised her eyes to meet his.