If Heaven really exists, it would be just like a folky, bluegrassy, neo-hippie music festival. Forget the whole bit about angels floating around in nightgowns in the clouds, strumming on harps; they’re wearing the skimpiest of clothing, enjoying the perfect bodies God gave them. They’re playing the guitar, the fiddle, the upright bass, the drums. They’re swaying with hula hoops and keeping those sticks you keep in the air with two other sticks. They dance and they dance and they dance. When they’re not dancing, they’re smiling and they’re still smiling when they are dancing, that blissful smile that tells you they’re transported by the music. And everyone’s young. Even the old hippies, circled in chairs in the shade, reunioned with friends for the thirty-ninth consecutive year, are young, forever young, and released from the cynicism that arrived with the mortgage papers, was supplied, along with staplers, paper clips, and keyboards in cubicle farms, and accrued with a 401(k).
Despite the abundance of joy around him, the Geeky Guy wasn’t feeling it. He was wishing he’d never gone on this date. He would’ve like to have been home, reading a two year old newspaper, or in his workshop, with his screwdrivers, voltage meters, and soldering guns, repairing a TV he would never watch, rather than following the Lisping Barista, as fine as she looked from behind, past the rows of tie-dye venders, patchouli merchants, and foot reflexologists. Peace, love, and understanding is all very well and good; but it can’t compete with peace, calm, and predictability. He was OK with getting a girlfriend, but not at the cost of losing himself.
So, what was the problem? What could possibly be wrong with accompanying an attractive female to hear good music outdoors on a beautiful day in a loving environment? What could possibly be wrong with that?
If I were going to create a hell, I would not need to go through the expense of digging a hole in the middle of the earth, staffing it with demons, supplying it with pitchforks and fueling an unquenchable fire. No, I could build it right in heaven, with angels and an everlasting soundtrack of hallelujahs. St Peter would have no need to guard the pearly gate, keeping out all unredeemed sinners. He could just let them in, provided they possessed a single thought.
What would be the thought? What single, simple thought could possibly ruin being in heaven? What electrochemical signal, cognitive track, firing of synapses could hell of a heaven make?
The Geeky Guy was afraid he would have a panic attack.
Please note, he wasn’t actually having a panic attack, actually having one is unnecessary. He was worried he might have one. A panic attack would ruin everything.
The Spellbinding Fish Fry was not on till later, but an opening act tuned up on the grandstand in the middle of a county fair racetrack. The dusty track was packed with people. The Geeky Guy would’ve preferred having his panic attack at a little distance, but the Lisping Barista dove right into the crowd and he had no choice but to follow. No sooner had they arrived at the foot of the stage, than the band began to play. The Geeky Guy wanted to tell the Lisping Barista they were too close, he didn’t feel well, could she take him home. He leaned to her ear and she turned it towards him. He could smell her hair, it smelled of coconuts; but she couldn’t hear him. She just smiled and flashed her eyes, as if to say, isn’t this heaven!
The Geeky Guy tried to do the things the Therapist Emeritus had taught him. He slowed his breathing; but, when the music started, the crowd began to dance and kick up dust, till he could barely breathe at all. He tried to focus on a distant point, but his concentration was swarmed by fears, apprehensions, and trepidations. Even the music, which should’ve been overpowering, for he was by the speakers, seemed to diminish, revealing a single, reiterating, reductive thought, like a strumming bass line. I’m going to have a panic attack. I’m going to have a panic attack. I’m going to have a panic attack. Where is she?
The Lisping Barista was gone.
She had spotted some friends and gone off through the crowd to meet them.
The Geeky Guy turned from the stage to look for her, pushing his way through the crowd, first in one direction, then in another. Every single face he encountered had a broad grin. They were laughing at him, he thought. He was going to have a panic attack and everyone would laugh. They were laughing already.
Of course they weren’t laughing at him. They were smiling because they were in heaven. If you were in heaven, wouldn’t you smile? They barely noticed the Geeky Guy.
He had reached the edge of the crowd and broke into a run as the Lisping Barista spied him out of the corner of her eye. She’d been talking with her friends, Deep Fries, both; a rugby player with a busted knee, and a fat woman with too much makeup. The Rugby Player and the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup had just been telling her where their bus was parked, what they had on board, and when they were going to smoke, drink, and snort it. As important as this was to know, the Lisping Barista said, there goes my guy, and ran off after him. The Rugby Player and the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup followed at a more stately pace; The Rugby Player, because of his knee and the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup, because she was just plain fat.
His instincts were direct: run to cover; even though the thoughts that brought him to that point were complex. He had seen that the Lisping Barista had seen him, but he had already committed himself to avoiding his panic attack. Once evasive maneuvers take over, there’s no going back. There’s no saying, there’s your ride home, the very person you were looking for, the one you were afraid of losing, you found her now, you can calm down. No, circumstances demanded that he hide, so hide he must.
The Geeky Guy ran into a nearby shed, which happened to be filled with costumes and people trying them on. He bushwhacked through yards of tulle and hid himself within a labyrinth of clothing racks. The Lisping Barista tried to follow after him, but a piercing got caught on some lace. By the time she freed herself and located him by his heavy breathing, he had stopped and was sitting on the floor behind some long dresses. His feet stuck out where he might’ve tripped her.
Fortunately, the Lisping Barista knew how to deal with people avoiding panic attacks, when she wasn’t avoiding one of her own. Even though she saw his feet, she tripped over them anyway, went sprawling to the floor, and slid obliquely to his side.
“Oh, there you are. I wath looking for you.”
The Geeky Guy didn’t say anything. He was trying to breath.
“You found a nith plathe.” She gave a long sigh and cradled her hands behind her head. “I got thome friendth I want you to meet, but leth thtay here a while.”
It was a nice place, there on the floor, behind the long dresses, smelling of coconuts. In fact, it was beginning to seem a little like heaven.