The Fever Dream That Never Broke

Last summer I frequented the East River, where I would cry and fantasize about filling my pockets with rocks so I would sink to the floor. I abandoned that fantasy for shame of my family burying me in a waterlogged state. Images of my burial turning the cemetery into marshlands, bodies of people’s loved ones rising to the surface only for cicadas and mosquitos to suck the life out of them all over again. The dead rising along with the temperatures come the midsummer heatwaves. Think Thriller with better acting and higher stakes as my body, pumped full of fresh formaldehyde lays stiff in her casket, incapable of escaping the rising waters. I’d finally know what it’s like to live right on the water but would never experience the magical realism of walking on it.

For better or worse, I never fulfilled that fantasy. I bought self-help zines from a mail-order shop out in Portland, Oregon. They performed like a bad maid—sweeping my negative thoughts with the positive ones all the same. Not new but simply refurbished. I went through the motions as best I could but Pandora’s Box grew inside me like a cancer.

When I moved into my summer housing assignment, my roommate left a note saying she was out-of-town for Memorial Day weekend and would return that Tuesday. When I returned from my first shift back at work that evening, she had a friend over while I sat at my desk, tears streaming into the dinner I could no longer stomach. How’s that for a first impression? Her seeing me cry became a trend for the half of the summer we lived together, though I tried to hold it in when she was around. Luckily, she had a class and work, while I only worked four hours a day at that point, so she wasn’t around to watch the waterworks.


Her class ended in mid-June but nobody ever moved in in her place. Even though we never talked and rarely saw each other, the room felt empty. I had no reason to even try to control myself anymore. I eventually secured an internship for the remainder of the summer but started nearly two weeks after my interview and ended about three weeks before the other interns, after missing days at a time without offering any notice. It was a miracle I was still making it to work but that was the only thing I had going for me then. By mid-June, I’d been to the East River more than a handful of times just to contemplate life and death.

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Once as a child, I hid in my bedroom closet planning to scare my mother when she came to tuck me in. It backfired as I hyperventilated and struggled to turn the doorknob in the dark crowded by last winter’s wardrobe. I reinvent this scenario years later, sitting in the dark of a walk-in closet I cannot afford in Manhattan, just waiting for the panic to set in.

It doesn’t then but a year later, on my first date since that fever dream of a summer, I feel claustrophobic at an immersive exhibition at the New Museum. The panic finally returns 365 days after it was summoned. My girlfriend at the time guides me through it and the feeling dissipates, not the void it was before but the relief of being rescued after getting in too far over your own head.

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Tell me a secret about that version of you that exists only in your head. The person you’d never tell your parents, your best friend, or even your one true love about. I have a question: do you ever daydream of mediocre dinner dates, lines at the post office, root canal procedures for this abandoned passion project those self-help books were supposed to help you realize?

Was she the one who died when you dreamt of your suicide? Is that why you mourned for so long? My condolences. Unless it was you who failed her, rather than the other way around. My entire family has anger issues but I seem to be the only one considerate enough to lash out against myself. Every Mother’s Day, I’d help my grandmother plant the flowers my parents had bought for the occasion. When weeding, you pull from the root.

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When I wasn’t sitting along the East River pretending to admire the views of Brooklyn while I skipped meals, I was walking it from 23rd down to the Jacob Riis Houses. I’d walk through the projects during sunset wishing for an alternate future to the one I’d laid out for myself at the start of my treks. By then a friend had begun squatting in my former roommate’s place and it was a dream come true. I’d always wanted a sibling, always wanted to share a bedroom with someone I could get in petty fights with only to always have an unbreakable bond. I found something like that in her.

We parted ways for the few weeks before the start of our senior year, when we’d be living in the same building but on different floors. I remained suspended in dream state through a short girls trip all the way through my first full day in the dorms. My second day, I woke up to a video call from her in the Atlanta airport asking if I’d like to help grab her things from storage. My suicide was the only item on my agenda but I could gladly push it back for my sister.

The thing is, I kept pushing it back. Even today, I feel like I continue pushing it back. One day she may realize but for now she doesn’t so I’ll say it here: when my mind distorts to the point it had last summer, I call her and regain lucidity.

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On another date with the same girlfriend we sit on a bench watching boats on the East River. It’s an inversion of the scene I’d become used to; in fact, we’re watching the sunset behind the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn Bridge Park as children practice tumbling on the lawn behind us. I recognize this as the alternate future I’d yearned for all those times I thought I was ready for it to end.

Joel CampoComment