The last time I almost fainted came at the most embarrassing moment possible. I had just started dating my now-wife Maris. I didn’t know her well, but I did know that she worked in the publishing industry. So, as a fourth or fifth date, I invited her to see Gone Girl because it was a movie based on a book, which is a lot like a book. That was the only fact I knew about Gone Girl when we walked in.
It turns out that in the movie Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike plays Gone Girl, who marries Ben Affleck before deciding she hates him, faking her own death, and framing him for it. Which, honestly, I get. This is a bad movie to see on a man-woman date because men are afraid of being framed for murder, and women are relieved to watch a movie where — surprise! — the lady’s romantic partner doesn’t actually kill her. The emotional experience of watching this movie, therefore, varies wildly depending on the viewer’s gender.
But this is not a story about the plot of Gone Girl. It’s a story about fainting, which requires just a little bit more explanation of the plot of Gone Girl.
In a scene near the end of the movie, Gone Girl frames Neil Patrick Harris, her wealthy nontownie ex-boyfriend, for assaulting her (For the second time! Fool me once, Gone Girl...). Gone Girl, it turns out, is very good at framing people for things. But this time, instead of leaving Neil Patrick Harris to face the consequences of the justice system like she did with Ben Affleck, she murders him while they are having sex. And what a murder! She stabs him in the throat (one of the worst places to be stabbed, in my opinion) and leaves him to gurgle to death.
Either the sound designer of Gone Girl was incredible, or Neil Patrick Harris is even more talented than we thought, because his gurgling sounds exactly like someone drinking a smoothie made of ground beef through a straw. It turns out he’s actually a quadruple threat! Acting! Singing! Dancing! Gurgling! The scene is very gross, grosser than anything else in the movie would lead you to believe was coming, like finding a human foot in your sock drawer. Terrific, I thought, as I felt myself go pale in the dark theater. It’s happening.
“I’ll be right back,” I whispered to Maris, and I slipped out into the lobby of the movie theater. Then I slumped to the floor with my back against a column. I felt sick and must have looked sicker than that, because a concession salesperson cast me a long, suspicious glance as she walked past me to see if I was a drunk teenager about to puke on the carpet. I nodded, hoping to suggest that I was not an unruly teen, just a clammy, maladjusted adult. Nothing to see here.
I pulled out my phone to text Maris that I was grabbing some water and would be back in a minute. But, because I had a two-year-old iPhone, the battery had gone from full to 0 percent while sitting unused in my pocket during the movie. Okay, I thought. Just give it a few minutes and sneak back in. She’ll assume you were doing something less embarrassing than this, like, I don’t know, having diarrhea or walking into a parking meter while taking a selfie.
I nodded, hoping to suggest that I was not an unruly teen, just a clammy, maladjusted adult. Nothing to see here.
Fortunately, I knew exactly what was going on with my body. Unfortunately, it’s because it had happened too many times before.
The first time I fainted, I was eleven years old. I didn’t know then that it was fainting. It’s a word that I associated with Victorian baronesses having their blood drawn to have their humors examined. For years, I called it “passing out” or “needing a minute.” But it was fainting. I fainted. I’m a fainter.
What was embarrassing as a child has only grown more shameful as an adult. Fainting represents a betrayal of your body against your will. It’s like being unable to handle your liquor, but without the readily diagnosed intoxicant. To the outside observer, fainting is an effect without a visible cause.
Worst of all, though, to faint is to be vulnerable. There’s the physical vulnerability, of course, the crashing to the ground like an imploding building. But the worst part is the pity, friends’ and strangers’ wide, sympathetic eyes. You poor, delicate Fabergé egg of a person, their faces communicate without a word. You must possess a soul too gentle for this cruel and thorny world. I picture myself as a detached intellect, governed by reason, cool under pressures both real and imagined, piloting my body smoothly and capably through the world. My history of infrequent but unavoidable fainting proves that definitively untrue. I am a man-size cavity, tender and susceptible to perceiving any tickling breeze as a hurricane-force wind. Or, in my experience, any description of something I find too yucky.
As a young know-it-all, I smugly read well above my grade level. Reading, I learned early on, serves dual purposes; it is fun to do and it lets you feel superior to other people. The best thing about books, though, was that I could read whichever ones I wanted. My parents, who kept a keen eye on my diet of television, movies, and video games, saw reading as a good unto itself.
My mom and my dad (but mostly my mom) had an extensive collection of literature, and I picked through it with one eye toward what was good and the other focused on what was bad. I tore through The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies in elementary school, my pre-tween brain vibrating with a mixture of titillation and pretension. Ahh, so many swears. Very grown-up, I would think. And, Even on an island, I would know it is bad to murder a little boy with glasses, because I am a little boy with glasses. Books hit the sweet spot of my personality; they let me experience something taboo and adult (or at the very least, young adult) without breaking any rules.
It was a book that first exposed my fragility to the world, revealing just how sheltered I had been. My fifth-grade class took a trip to the local public library, where I checked out a copy of Superstitious, the young adult author R. L. Stine’s first horror novel for... old adults. Like (roughly) every single child I knew, I was obsessed with Stine’s Goosebumps series. It took only a few months for me to grow anesthetized to the shock of signature Goosebumps twists: ventriloquist dummies coming to life, Polaroid cameras foretelling doom for the subjects of their photographs, and summer camps full of more terrifying monsters than the ones that populate most summer camps even.
So, as my classmates browsed the Hardy Boys and Baby-Sitters Club selections, I made my way into the adult fiction section of the Stoneham Public Library. The librarians didn’t shepherd me back to my classmates, as I often browsed in search of a John Grisham book, because as a fifth grader I had the taste of a 57-year-old father of three.
The sensation of finding Superstitious was not unlike the feeling of coming across scrambled porn on an obscure cable channel. When I held this book in my hands, I didn’t know its exact contents, but I knew I’d come away changed having absorbed them. Superstitious had a hard spine, rather than the flimsy paperback of a child’s horror novel, which to me meant Serious Literature. The front cover bore the ominous image of a black cat with glowing green eyes, a tasteful and mature symbol of the macabre. No more moody, masked teens wielding knives, or lawn gnomes come to life on the cover of my reading material, thank you very much. Also, it had a lot of pages, which would make me look impressive when I carried it around at school. On every level, Superstitious represented adult fiction. Reading it would signify my intellectual, and more important, my emotional, maturity.
Teachers and a few underemployed volunteer parents carpooled us back to school, where I immediately flopped onto a beanbag chair for Sustained Silent Reading, a time of day that only years later did I realize was as much for the teachers’ benefit as the students’. I cracked open the book, and for eight pages, I was riveted by the adult drama. A woman named Charlotte (which no kids I knew were named!) walked alone through an alley late at night (which kids aren’t allowed to do!). And then, on page 9, things took a turn for the worse. Charlotte, whom I had grown so attached to on the previous eight pages, was murdered. Twenty years later, I still remember some vague details of the killing. Some stabbing maybe? A thing with her spine? Maybe somebody stabbed her with a spine? That can’t be right.
Physically overwhelmed by the power of the prose, my mouth went dry and my forehead became clammy, as if all my saliva had been wicked through my skull and converted into sweat.
At the time, however, I felt sure that each word of the description would remain vivid in my waking hours and make itself visually manifest in my dreams each night. How could anyone have committed these words to a page? I could hardly imagine imagining such violence. Physically overwhelmed by the power of the prose, my mouth went dry and my forehead became clammy, as if all my saliva had been wicked through my skull and converted into sweat. In a daze, I asked my teacher if I could get a drink of water.
I left the classroom, growing dizzier with every step I took, like the heroine in a Jane Austen novel realizing her betrothed had spurned her and taken up another lover. Instead of turning right, toward the bubbler, I walked straight across the hall, directly into the door of another classroom. Not through the door. Into it. At least I think that’s what happened. I don’t remember the contact, but judging from the mark it left on my face, I’m pretty sure my head slammed into the rectangular sliver of window designed not to be wide enough for hallway traffic to distract the students on the other side.
My collision with the door didn’t disturb the kids in this particular classroom, though. The school I attended didn’t have enough enrollees to fill its building, so it subleased part of the space to a school for hearing-impaired students. As I crashed into the door and crumpled to the ground, the deaf children remained unperturbed, but the teachers rushed into the hallway to investigate the commotion.
When my brain rejoined my body, I found myself sprawled on the floor, the two teachers from the hearing-impaired classroom hovering over me, their students peering from behind them. In the few seconds before my own teacher came to see what had happened, I remember having the thought I am deeply humiliated by what my body just did, but also in the future I will appreciate the irony of this moment. It was the first time in my life I realized something would make a good story. But, for years, I was too embarrassed to tell it. Who gets light-headed from reading? What a dork.
I’m sure that if I read that book now, I’d laugh at the over-the-top violence, but also... I’m not sure of that at all. Because I’ve never fully managed to anesthetize myself against the macabre. Through my teenage years, my squeamishness reinforced itself in a vicious cycle. Without the exposure to more explicit imagery, I became increasingly squeamish and avoidant, which means I didn’t get any more exposure, which meant I became more squeamish and avoidant. My experience with horror movies, to this day, remains mostly limited to a few I saw at sleepovers when there was no tactful way to excuse myself. Every few years, I’d be caught by surprise by an unexpectedly gory piece of art (if, indeed, the film Tales from the Hood counts as art), and I’d revert right back to my ten-year-old self. The fact that I didn’t want anyone to see it happen to me made it all the more likely to happen.
Despite the predictable adverse reactions, I didn’t stop probing the limits of my squeamishness, but I learned how to recognize and deal with these incidents. When I felt the telltale dizziness and cold sweats coming on, I’d stop what I was doing and try to distract myself from my own unspooling nerves. If that didn’t work, I’d grab a glass of water and get myself as close to lying down as possible. Sometimes that meant reclining an airplane seat. Other times, under more perilous circumstances, I had to pull over my car. I never told anyone what was happening, if I could help it. And, even weirder, I almost always felt compelled to finish whatever I was reading or watching, as if narrative closure would exorcise the revulsion from my body. I had to conquer the thing that had conquered me. Weirdest of all, it often worked. I kept a library copy of Stephen King’s It on the coffee table of my parents’ den for six months, too anxious to finish it but unable to return it incomplete after a particularly eerie scene shook me up badly. Finally I picked it up, skipped four pages forward, and sped through the last three hundred. Now I can barely remember any details at all of the book that haunted me for half a year.
Finishing It ended my brief Stephen King phase, and yes, I realize that for a young boy whose guts were prone to pitching and curdling like a pint of heavy cream left out in the sun, having such a phase at all seems like begging for trouble. Part of me liked the spooky supernatural plots (I do still like hearing people give synopses of horror movies), but a bigger part just wanted to prove that no book could get the best of me. Every time I cracked open one of his gargantuan tomes (or any of the pulpy crime novels I read as a tween), what I was really doing was testing myself, trying to prove my strength. It was never an attempt to push my external boundaries. Books were never off-limits to me. I just wanted to know if I’d finally put the worst of my trembling, childish reactions behind me. Sometimes it seemed like I had. Other times, the dizziness returned, my loins seemingly ungirdable.
“I just need to sit down,” I’d say to whoever was around me when I grew overcome. “I’ll be fine in a second.” And I always was, physically, fine. Emotionally, I felt a deep shame. I was still a dizzy little fifth-grade dweeb, not only unable to navigate the world but actually ill at the mere thought of its horrors. I was embarrassed that I needed to be cared for. For not being able to handle something no one else seemed to have a problem with. For having the fragile disposition of an orchid or a child king. No one could know what was really the matter, I decided.
I was still a dizzy little fifth-grade dweeb, not only unable to navigate the world but actually ill at the mere thought of its horrors.
The last time I fainted was, somehow, more embarrassing than the time I smashed headfirst into a classroom full of deaf fifth graders. I was on a crowded subway train, headed downtown from my apartment in Harlem toward a part of Manhattan that used to be Harlem until so many white people moved in that they stopped calling it that. I was listening to a podcast in which two comedians were discussing their preferred porn genres in graphic detail. I hadn’t set out to hear this conversation; it’s just where the interview went. This was something I objectively should have been able to hear, not just as a guy, but as a human who understands that life is created through sexual intercourse (although probably not any of the acts being described on the podcast in question).
Cold perspiration beaded across my forehead. Knees buckling, I slid into one of the subway car’s few empty seats, much to the dismay of the older Dominican women boarding the train. In a perfect world, I would have sat for another fifteen minutes and composed myself. In a more perfect world I wouldn’t have made myself queasy listening to a casual, and not especially explicit, conversation about sex. Alas, this is the world we’ve been born into, so neither of those options presented themselves to me. At my scheduled stop, reality still gelatinous and quivering, I got off the train, climbed a flight of stairs, and collapsed onto the floor of the subway station, a surface so disgusting that even the city’s rats douse their paws in Purell after touching it.
My father once told me that the key to getting treated quickly in an emergency room is to lie flat on the floor, because they know you wouldn’t do that unless your situation was really dire. Similarly, if you ever need assistance in a New York City subway station, simply crumple to the ground. People will stop to check on you, which is remarkable, considering that in New York, the penalty for standing still to look at your phone in the middle of a crowded sidewalk is death.
In the movies, someone garnering the sympathy of hardened New Yorkers is heartwarming. In reality, it felt demoralizing, an admission of weakness. It felt like a mob boss deciding that murdering a snitch is beyond contempt because of how pathetically he begged for his life, or a referee calling off a boxing match after one overmatched fighter’s eyes has swelled shut. The kindness of strangers in New York City is truly the pity sex of compassion. When it’s presented to you, you take it, because you know you need it. But you don’t want to rely on it the way that circumstances have forced you to. At least, I didn’t.
Me, an adult man who faints on the subway.
That was the shame I felt as I slumped to the floor in the movie theater lobby, hopeful that as long as I didn’t keel fully over, I’d avoid attracting the concern of people walking by. Just before Gone Girl ended, Maris stepped out into the lobby, looking confused. I waved from my seat on the horrible carpet.
“Why are you down there? Are you okay? Do you need anything?”
“Actually, a bottle of water would be amazing. I’ll be okay. I’ll explain in a minute.” I gave a weak smile and handed her four dollars, the amount you would pay for water in a movie theater or anywhere after the apocalypse. She came back and handed me the bottle, and I took a sip. Then I told her the whole story. About the door and the deaf kids and the dizziness and most recently the gurgling. She smiled.
“I was worried you’d left or something.”
“Sorry. My phone died.”
“I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“But wait. What happened?” I asked. She looked confused again. “With Gone Girl. What happened?”
“Oh! She went back to live with Ben Affleck. They were kind of stuck together.” Thankfully, she’d already read the book. ●
Josh Gondelman is a comedian and writer/producer for Desus & Mero on Showtime. Previously, he earned two Peabody Awards and three Emmys for his work on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. Gondelman's writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the New Yorker, as well as some places without “New York” in the name. He lives in New York City with his wife Maris and their pug.
Nice Try will be released on Sept. 17, 2019, from Harper Perennial, and is available for pre-order. Copyright: Josh Gondelman.