A World of Glass

By  Kevin Wilson |  June 24, 2014

"Oh, be careful—if you breathe it breaks!"—Laura, from The Glass Menagerie

I am afraid of glass. Or I should say, I am afraid of glass breaking. It's been this way since I was a child, and I am pretty sure that it will continue until I am a very old man, eating off paper plates. I simply cannot forget that deep in the soul of an object lies the potential to shatter at any given moment. I've read that the fear of glass can be called nelophobia, crystallophobia, hyelophobia, or hyalophobia, but being able to define it withmultiple terms doesn't make me feel validated. I know the fear is irrational, abnormal; even as it happens, I think to myself, What are you doing?But when I think of glass, it is always broken, always shattered into a million tiny pieces on a black asphalt road. I see each shard catch the sunlight and sparkle like a diamond lost in a sea of darkness, and it's almost beautiful.

I would like to think that there was a key moment in my childhood that led up to all this—like falling through a window or watching my father hurl a beer mug across the room in drunken anger. But I never had such an accident, and my father doesn't drink. I once thought that I had perhaps suppressed a disastrous memory involving glass, but my parents assure me that this is not the case. Maybe I broke a glass or plate as a child, they tell me, but nothing that would shellshock a kid. It seems, then, that my fear is entirely arbitrary, as if at birth I had reached into the Bag of Fate and pulled out a slip of paper that read: Be afraid of glass.

My priest once said people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, but for the longest time the true meaning behind that phrase wascompletely lost on me. All I wanted to know was why these people would live in glass houses (much less throw stones). I thought of what it would be like to be surrounded by four glass walls, to sit on a glass sofa, and to eat on glass plates on a glass table with glass utensils. I would have to build a giant stone wall around the house. Not only should people who live in glass houses refrain from throwing stones, but they also would have to keep other people from doing it. The very idea gave me nervous fits.

Every month or so, when I was kid, we used to load the station wagon with magazines and soda and travel to Nashville to shop. I think my first glass episode occurred on one of these trips, when I was six years old. My mother took me into a department store. We walked over to the dishware section of the store, where plates, bowls, and glasses were stacked on shelves and tables. My mother had purchased a set of dinnerware the year before and was always looking for bowls or teacups that matched the design. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by rows upon rows of breakable glass. I began to have nervous tremors. I started to breathe rapidly in bursts like hiccups. I kept my hands close to my body, elbows pulled in to my sides, making absolutely sure I wouldn't touch anything. My mother asked if I needed a drink of water, but I shook my head and tried to hold my breath. I kept my entire body tight, as if tensing my muscles would pull them closer to my bones and away from the glass.

I envisioned myself bumping into the shelf and sending a wave of glass crashing down upon the floor. That image flashed for a split-second in my mind, filling my head. After that tiny epiphany—the understanding of what could happen—I got dizzy, closed my eyes, and swayed slightly before I could continue walking. My mother kept pulling me along, weaving us in and out of display stands of fine china like race cars speeding around orange cones. She held a purse that rested against her hip. As she walked, it would leap out into the air before coming to rest again. I gripped her hand and focused on the jumping and recoiling purse. To me, each bounce of the purse, each movement, was yet another opportunity for a vase to tip over and explode in a geyser of glistening shards.

Finally, when it was over and we were pulling out of the parking lot, my mother said, "That wasn't too bad," but all I could think about were the shelves and shelves of glass.

I guess I wasn’t just preoccupied with the fear of glass breaking; my fear expanded at the thought that I might knock over a display case filled with glass in front of a hundred people. I feared being alone among a sea of unknown faces and standing over something that was totally and irrevocably altered and that I was powerless to fix. Nor could I bear the idea of watching another person do the same thing—to see anyone in such an unguarded moment of helplessness. I didn't want to believe that we could lose control so completely. Any person could bump into a table and shatter a glass. So I watched out for everyone. I said the words watch out to my mother more than just about any other phrase I can think of. I once grabbed a stranger's purse in a crowded store when she got too close to a glass figurine. I have seen signs that read "You Break It, You Bought It" and added up the price of a shelf of fine china in my head. I was just a kid, but I thought I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, which made it hard to maneuver around tables filled with glass.

There's a scene in the movie From Here to Eternity when Burt Lancaster breaks a beer bottle over a bar counter as he squares off against a knife-wielding Ernest Borgnine. He smashes the bottle, and in that instant, you see how quickly things change, how an object can transform into something violent. What's unsettling about the scene is your realization that glass always held that potential to hurt. Even in its "safe" form as a bottle, it was just waiting all along for a hand to change it. The same thing comes into play when a rock is thrown through a window. One minute you could be sitting in your living room watching TV and, just like that, what used to be your window is now a gaping hole of jagged glass. Potential is always more powerful than action.

At some point, I made up a little image to help explain to myself why I couldn't be near glass. At the center, at the true core of a plate or an ashtray there is a little demon stuck inside simply waiting for the chance to break out. It's as if every piece of glass is a Pandora's box, and if I break it, somehow I will be responsible for all the confusion and unhappiness that results. So, by avoiding anything made of glass, I could avoid danger.

I have a dream that has reoccurred sporadically for more than a decade now. In it, I am always watching an ungodly amount of glassware smashing on the floor. I will be asleep, having normal (by my standards) dream sequences, and somehow this event will work its way into the dream. It's a funny little gag that my subconscious plays on me and, realizing just how much it gets a rise out of me, continues to play over and over. Eventually, it's not funny and, as it continues, I get scared. I wonder if it was ever supposed to be a joke in the first place. What's frustrating about this dream is that I don't see what I did to cause the glass to fall over, only the actual smashing, so I can never figure out what it is that I shouldn't be doing.

When I got to be around ten or eleven, I realized that it was simply impossible to avoid being around glass but that didn't stop me from trying. When we decorated the Christmas tree, I begged my parents to keep the glass ornaments in the boxes. I stayed away from windows and mirrors. I used plastic cups and paper plates whenever possible. I made sure my mother's decorative plates were kept high enough to avoid being knocked over. At stores, I was old enough to go play video games and read comics while my mom looked at dishware and vases. 

My eyesight was terrible, and so I had to deal with wearing glasses. Luckily, I coaxed my parents into buying me a pair of prescription sports goggles for Little League. Whenever I was alone I would take off my regular glasses and slip on my nearly indestructible plastic goggles and feel safe.

Around that same time, I read a book about the mysteries of the unknown: the Bermuda Triangle, Big Foot, things like that. There was a section devoted to people who would, for no apparent reason, spontaneously combust, explode in a flash of light and be reduced to a speck. I began to wonder: if this happened to people, why couldn't it happen to inanimate objects? What if, while I was standing in front of a window one day, all the planets somehow aligned and the pane of glass suddenly exploded for no discernible reason? I would look at ashtrays and soda bottles and believe that, at any second, they might combust.

In the ninth grade, while walking barefoot through our kitchen, I stepped on a piece of glass from a long-forgotten broken bottle of soda. It was a tiny sliver, almost invisible, but from then on, I wore sneakers everywhere. I began to wonder about the living room, about how many lost pieces of glass were embedded in the fibers of the carpet. When I went outside, I looked for broken bits of beer bottles that would catch the rays of the sun and shine amid the tall grass of our backyard. Even though I didn't find any, I believed that there were even smaller pieces hidden under the layers of earth. I decided that eventually the rain would erode the dirt and these slivers of glass would peek up from the ground like newly sprouted plants, waiting for the meat of a bare foot. Later, I read an article about some vandals in North Carolina who had hidden pieces of glass around a children's playground, positioning the shards under slides and monkey bars, hiding them in the sandbox.

My father's favorite movie is Terminator 2, and on at least three occasions he has made me watch it with him—a little time to bond while watching cyborgs blow things up. I have seen the movie multiple times now, but still all I can remember about it is that a lot of windows got broken, that glass was spraying everywhere during the action scenes. I once asked him if he thought I was screwed up when I was a kid, and he told me, "Not outwardly, no."

A few years ago, my father told me that when he was six years old, he ran through a glass door and made a jigsaw puzzle out of the skin on the left side of his body. He said that on the way to the hospital, blood soaking into the front seat, he lay his head on my grandfather's lap and repeated over and over, "Don't let me die." l asked why he'd never mentioned it before, and he said he never really thought that much about it. Now, he can hardly remember how painful it was. He'll tell me about the scars on his side and legs, and I realize that is what would make you afraid of glass.

Sometimes I think that my father froze that moment in his mind, pulled it deep into his body, and passed it on to me like DNA when I was born.

Things break. I've come to terms with that in my own strange way. I realize that there are things that will hurt us and things that will keep us safe; that sometimes it's hard to discover the line between them, and that sometimes they are the same thing. There is only so far you can withdraw, only so far you can pull tight within yourself for protection, before you get lost. There are objects that will fall apart no matter how tightly you hold them together. I've acknowledged these things and tried to move on. I've worked my way into an acclaimed university and attend classes without having to run away too often. My mother and father say they are proud of me, when it seemed not long ago that they were exasperated just to be around me. I exist in a world where things break, and I can accept that.

But I am still afraid of glass. As I said before, I imagine that l always will be. Even after whittling away at the paranoia and anxiety that constantly crept around me, like the inescapable sound of a leaky faucet in the pitch-black night, I still cannot disregard the fact that things naturally possess the ability to quit functioning as they should. I realize things break, but I have no desire to be reminded of it day after day. When I walk into a store and see dishes, or when someone in a restaurant breaks a glass, I can't help but think about the meaning hidden inside: there is potential for disaster in everything. I think about the fragile, delicate design of what I keep inside my head and how it can crack at any time. I think that all of this is amazing, that people can function even though they know they can break, and I guess this is what matters.