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"Anaphylaxis" by Joanna Acevedo


Limbic resonance—I often know when he’s not feeling well, even before he tells me—I know when something’s wrong, the way a dog can smell fear. Late summer, early fall, I sleep with the window open. Moths are eating all of my sweaters. We talk obsessively about how long distance is hard, how it’s getting harder. How we want to make a change. But neither of us makes a move.

Anaphylaxis, the slow closing of the throat around a word that is both said and not said. I’m sorry, I did this because I wanted to hurt you.

I play songs from college, cringey songs, because they remind me of a nostalgic time, a time when there were parties every weekend, I wasn’t doing cocaine yet, and I wasn’t obsessed with the idea that everyone is a building block to everyone else. We’re all on our own paths, my good friend R— used to tell me when I expressed too much ambition. For a woman to express that she wants to be something bigger than herself is somehow unattractive, like a cat showing its teeth. Since being with B—, I want smaller things—an apartment in a nice part of Brooklyn, a hairless cat, a life I can call my own. But the open maw of achievement lingers.

So I go to poetry readings. I hug my friends. We talk about our hopes, our fears. I have the endless feeling that I’m not doing enough, when I am overscheduled, running from meeting to meeting. I can’t have too much unscheduled time, because my mind will wander—obsessively over thinner, whiter bodies unlike my own, and I say that social media isn’t making all of us sick but it has infected me; I must cut the rot out of the tree before the whole tree dies. I throw up my dinner. I quit smoking.

How do I explain what it feels like to be in my body? What mania feels like, that rapid cheerless agitation, under the skin like bugs. How do I explain the restlessness, the tossing and turning in the sheets, the sweat and the bile in the throat, the countless nights spent bent over the sink, the toilet bowl? How does one tell the story of a life lived in between short, painful intervals, the knife blade pressed to the skin, the cigarette held to the lips, the smoke exhaled and then chased and then exhaled again?

I suppose there isn’t anything wrong with me. Illness, it seems, is only one part of the picture. Everyone’s sick—we all have our crosses to bear. This is my cross. This is my martyrdom. Said recently: I’m sorry I’m making this funeral about myself.


I tend to react in desperation when someone doesn’t like me—I overreact, am too complimentary, overdo it. It is, I will admit, a rare occurrence—who is often disliked? But it bothers me so much that it gets under my skin like a splinter, and I am overly nice, sanctimonious, until the person wanders off into the sunset with someone who isn’t such a blithering idiot.

Limbic resonance—we often sleep and wake at the same times, eat the same meals, even eight hundred miles apart, and we often have the same obsessions. Chess, for example. He worries about my upset stomach, my constant vomiting. We’re telepathically linked, and sometimes I forget that we’re not the same person. Boundary issues are one of my problems. I can’t separate my own experiences from that of others; I tend to believe that if I haven’t experienced it, it hasn’t happened. No sense of object permanence, like a toddler.

Transcribing an interview, I wonder: how do you translate a conversation, a thought, a life, into a set of words? As a writer, I have to do this on a daily basis—but the very mechanism of recording seems somehow alien to me, impossible to transfer the minutiae of life into a series of symbols that ultimately mean nothing, but at the same time, could mean everything. It bothers me, the way a hangnail bothers, the way you tongue a sore tooth. The way you pick at a scab until it scrapes off, leaves blood flowing underneath the skin.

How do I explain the heavy sink of depression, the leaden feeling in the limbs, the hum in the ears, the brain fog? How do I explain the sudden rush to the mirror—yes, you are still there, you have not disappeared, you are still a body with feelings and memories and friends and a career, even if you cannot bring yourself to believe it. The fear, ultimately paralyzing? I sit in front of a soup bowl unsure what to do with a spoon.

Anaphylaxis—the tightening of cords around the neck, the terror of a life cut short over something as simple as the wrong word said too quickly over dinner, over drinks, over a set of consequences.


Limbic resonance—I fully believe that we are connected by a set of treelike receptors under the soil. Lying on his chest, listening to his heart beat, I have never felt so close to another human being. His thoughts are a mystery to me, but I can sense his contentment, his amusement, his fear at the bigness of our experience. We snap together like magnets. Maybe we’re incompatible. He’s all I know.

I don’t know how to be in love. The mechanisms of love are bizarre to me—taking care of another person doesn’t come easily to me, a naturally self-centered person. I perform acts of service. I love shopping for him, finding small items that would make him smile or laugh or cry, the whole gamut of human emotions in one package airmailed across the U.S.A.

I think obsessively about the future—where I’ll live, if B— will live with me, what our life will look like. I work myself to death because I have to fill this endless time with something, something to distract me from the fact that he is not here and I am here and there is an empty hole where something important should be. I also work myself to death because this is just how I am, I am a workaholic. I have always been this way. Work stops me from thinking about the endless panic that has consumed me since I was a child, the frenetic flurry of thoughts that never ends and get me out of my head.

Anaphylaxis—the fear that something will go wrong, when everything is going right—the throat closing up at just the wrong moment.

Sleeping next to him in bed, I have a dream that he gets up and leaves me, but when I wake, he’s right there. The shrinks will call this anxious attachment, abandonment issues, but I think it’s something else—a premonition. I don’t know the end of our story, but I want it to be a happy one, a kind of accidental forever, made of endless naps with our limbs intertwined in the afternoons and sleepy mornings on the couch.

I’m scared for the what-next. As a chronically ill person, I don’t know how to make plans, although I obsessively plan: I keep a planner and mark out my days in blue or black ink. I know where I’ll be on November 3rd, 2022, or August 5th, 2023, but I don’t know who will love me tomorrow, or next week. I don’t know if I’ll be sick or well, crazy or sane, happy or sad. None of us know, I suppose, but I’m more bothered by this unknowing than most people. I’ve always hated surprises. I’ve always flipped to the end of the book to read the ending before I read the middle just to see what happens next.

Joanna Acevedo is a writer, educator, and editor from New York City. She was nominated for a Pushcart in 2021 for her poem “self portrait if the girl is on fire” and is the author of three books and chapbooks, including Unsaid Things (Flexible Press, 2021) and List of Demands (Bottlecap Press, 2022). Her work can be found across the web and in print, including or forthcoming in Litro, Hobart, and the Rumpus. She is a Guest Editor at Frontier Poetry and The Masters Review, Associate Poetry Editor at West Trade Review, and a member of the Review Team at Gasher Journal, in addition to running interviews at Fauxmoir and The Great Lakes Review. As well as being a Goldwater Fellow at NYU, she was a Hospitalfield 2020 Interdisciplinary Resident. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021 and is supported by Creatives Rebuild New York: Guaranteed Income For Artists.

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