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The Worrier's Guide to the End of the World
Love, Loss, and Other Catastrophes--through Italy, India, and Beyond
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Torre DeRoche is at rock bottom following a breakup and her father’s death when she crosses paths with the goofy and spirited Masha, who is pursuing her dream of walking the world. When Masha invites Torre to join her pilgrimage through Tuscany — drinking wine, foraging wild berries, and twirling on hillsides — Torre straps on a pair of flimsy street shoes and gets rambling.
But the magical hills of Italy are nothing like the dusty and merciless roads of India where the pair wind up, improvising a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Gandhi along his march to the seaside. Hoping to catch the nobleman’s fearlessness by osmosis and end the journey as wise, svelte, and kick-ass warriors, they are instead unraveled by worry that this might be one adventure too far. Coming face-to-face with their worst fears, they discover the power of friendship to save us from our darkest moments.
Somebody once told me that when two people fall in love, they create, in the overlap between them, an invisible entity made of the sum of their two beings. This third party is nameless and formless, and when the relationship ends, that entity begins to die. What gets mourned is the slow death of that unseen thing as it begins to wisp away into the realm of the forgotten. These entities exist everywhere: between siblings, friends, parent and child, between you and that stranger who stirred you with a warm smile on the train. If you were to count all these invisible entities going about unseen in the world, that would be 7.4 billion to the power of… I'm bad with numbers. An unquantifiable shitload.
This story is my best attempt to illuminate an entity that came into being when I met a woman who changed my life. To bring this entity to life, I've crafted dialogue to serve the telling using a combination of verbatim quotes, general recollecting, and fuzzy wine-soaked memories. I should also mention that, during particularly intense moments in life, time has a way of stopping, slowing, speeding up, morphing, or curling around in loop-the-loops, and so there may be inaccuracies with my account of timing here and there. Also, some names have been changed. Otherwise, this is a true story, and the characters and events are real. I have no desire to deceive you with lies; real life is peculiar enough on its own.
WHEN I WAS a kid, I killed everyone I loved in a hundred creative ways. At night, in bed, I would craft tiny horror films in my imagination, casting my sisters, friends, and pets in the leading roles. I spared no gory details of squirting blood and shrill screams of agony when the monsters came. It was awful, but I couldn't help it. I'd count the dead instead of sheep until my eyelids grew heavy, often wet with tears from so much self-inflicted personal tragedy in a single night.
You don't need Sigmund Freud to unravel this psychological snafu: My dad was a horror movie film writer, and death and terror were my family's life as much as rolling hills and fresh air might be to the children of a farmer. But instead of learning to squeeze milk from a cow, we were taught to milk nightmares from our minds.
So skilled at his craft was my dad that Quentin Tarantino, master of depravity, once said: "Almost everything that Everett DeRoche has written is one of my favorite films." They were our favorite films, too, and we were proud to belong to him. Dad's professional accomplishments were displayed all over our home—props and concept sketches, awards and films posters—which meant, in order to go to the bathroom at night, my five sisters and I would have to sneak past giant images of a murderous chimpanzee (Link), a killer pig (Razorback), a monster in a lake (Frog Dreaming), and deranged hospital patient (Patrick).
I learned to hold my pee in.
We followed in our father's footsteps and developed macabre fixations of our own, making Dad proud when we'd dress up for Halloween using film biz tricks to get our makeup looking hyper-realistic. One year during my teens I went as a character from a movie I'd been haunted by since age four: Regan from The Exorcist. I dressed in a soiled nightgown with sheaths of lacerated skin hanging off my face, lips chapped and oozing. My youngest sister went as a woman who had given herself an abortion with a wire coat hanger, and my mother made a fabulous Lorena Bobbitt in her leopard-skin robe, knife in one hand, severed penis in the other.
We looked striking among all the sexy kittens, sexy lollypops, and sexy witches—so astounding, in fact, that all the sexy things were too scared to talk to us. It's obvious that nobody else knew how to Halloween properly.
We fit in nowhere, but that didn't matter. We were the Brady Bunch meets the Addams Family, tight-knit and lovingly bonded by our morbid interests. As a self-sufficient society of eight, we had each other. We were scared, sure, but we were scared together, for fear is powerfully bonding.
Despite all the fun we were having, there were side effects to our lifestyle, and not even my dad was immune to the consequences of his own creations. One time he took us camping in the Australian bush, and sometime in the evening, not long after night had fallen, a loud, guttural snort came from the inky blackness. We all knew what it was: a giant killer pig! Spooked by his own cult classic, Dad turned wide-eyed and rushed us inside the camper, locking the door behind us. As an American who had emigrated to Melbourne, he was unfamiliar with the sounds of Australian fauna; in the morning, we worked out that it was not a murderous Razorback but the mating call of a koala.
And so it was that fear became my innate mode of being, and scanning my immediate environment for threats was as natural as breathing. Though I was scared, I wasn't going to take it lying down. You can either run away from the monster or you can run toward it, all guns blazing, and I didn't want to wait around to get eaten. I was going to kick zombie ass or die trying.
In order to survive all the perceived threats, I became a strategist, and at all times of the day, and often into the night, my brain worked at a vast blueprint for my own survival and the protection of people I loved, with branching diagrams to troubleshoot every imaginable catastrophe. It was an epic handbook that I carried inside my brain: The Worrier's Guide to the End of the World.
The idea behind it was this: In order to have inner peace, all I needed to do was scan for dangers during every waking hour and then simply anticipate, well in advance, any possible disaster that might befall me, the people I loved, any human or animal in my immediate or far vicinity, and the planet as a whole—and have a complete step-by-step action plan in place ready to go. All I had to do was keep asking myself the same question—What if?…—so that I could be ready to deal with anything. That way, nobody would ever have to suffer the kinds of blood-squirting, agony-screaming deaths that took place in my imagination.
I was busy.
In cinemas I watched exits instead of films. On planes I watched engines for smoke. In bed I watched shadows for teeth, and in the woods I couldn't see the forest for all the possible murders. Social settings were fraught with dangers, too: What if a drunken person stumbled into the pool and drowned? What if a foldout couch gobbled someone up into its soft and suffocating folds? What if something as benign as a hairdryer slipped and made bath time into an electric Jacuzzi? The only time my mind stopped running through all the What Ifs was when it exhausted itself into sleep.
When I saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth at age twenty-six, my daily worry levels shot up the line graph like Al Gore's carbon emissions diagrams. This was the dawning of the age of very real, very urgent cataclysmic events and the number of beings now in danger tallied up to one… two… three… four… five… six… seven billion people! That's not even counting the animals, plants, and bugs. Oh boy. Worry poured into the zeitgeist, and catastrophizing was the new black.
It wasn't until my late twenties that an osteopath introduced the word "anxiety" into my vocabulary to explain why my muscles were locked and causing headaches, and I realized then that perhaps not everyone woke in the morning trembling as if they'd been intravenously over-caffeinated during the night. I had assumed constant face pain from a clamped jaw was a standard symptom of being alive. Doesn't everyone keep their shoulders up around their ears from hypervigilance? Isn't it normal to walk around stiffened like a mannequin in a near-constant state of impending doom, lips pinched into a fake smile at parties, skin waxy with terror?
"No," said the osteopath. "That's not normal."
"Doesn't every thirty-year-old ask her boyfriend to accompany her to the bathroom in the night due to a debilitating fear that Regan from The Exorcist is crouching under the bed?"
"Uh, no, I don't believe so."
I sought out more information. Self-help books called it catastrophizing. The doctor called it "generalized anxiety disorder." The psychoanalyst called it "post-traumatic stress disorder." My friends called it "annoying." But these were just fancy names for what I called it: survival. I resented anyone who told me to stop worrying. "Just lie down and die," they might've said. "Just let the monsters eat you."
Worry wasn't a disorder. It was necessary. It kept me safe. It kept everyone safe. It kept everyone safe, until it did nothing for my dad.
Bowel cancer is a highly treatable condition if it's caught early, but Dad's greatest phobia—and the setting of his first hit film—was hospitals. It had been easier for him to ignore his symptoms for ten years than to confront his fear of the gurney, and so, by the time he was forced to address it, the disease had already metastasized throughout his sixty-five-year-old body, scattering his lungs with tumors, his liver, his brilliantly creative brain, sprinkling my dad with the black seeds of death.
As he fell into decline, he could no longer get up the stairs to his own bedroom, and so he slept downstairs in the room I'd had as a child, his six-foot-two frame poking through the wrought-iron bed end like a boy who'd awoken to find himself curiously elongated overnight.
One day, I crawled in alongside him and took his hand in mine. He had giant writer's hands that had supported the family by tapping at keys for forty years, but he'd suffered nerve damage during one of his surgeries and could no longer bend his fingers to type without great difficulty. Of all the changes he was going through, this was one he flatly refused to accept.
"My hand isn't working, and I can't write anymore," he told me, looking into my eyes as though I might be able to troubleshoot this issue in the same way that I sometimes fixed his computer when it froze. This was a problem I couldn't Ctrl+Alt+Del. I was out of ideas. All I had to offer him was a pained expression.
"I'm falling apart," he said, his chin quivering for a moment before his stoic façade came up like a steel gate, signaling the end of our conversation.
How could worry be a disorder? People are in danger. The earth is in peril. Worry kept me safe, though it couldn't stop the cancer from spreading and it couldn't save my relationship, either.
We'd been together for almost a decade, but a terminal illness in the family will test every relationship you have with a series of brand-new challenges; watching a parent grow more and more ill is a period of grasping, choking, desperate helplessness, set against a backdrop of dullness and stillness and waiting.
"I can't keep waiting," he said. "I need to live my life."
And just like that, I was alone.
When you lose control of everything in your life at once, when up becomes down and down up and everything you knew before stops making sense, there's a universal explosion inside you, a big bang of sorts, and debris goes flying every which way from the core of your solar plexus. You can't see it, of course—nobody can, and so some people, in their attempts to help, might offer, "He wasn't the right one for you anyway," or "You just need lots of 'me' time," or maybe, "Everything happens for a reason." And then there are the wonderful people who bypass all practical advice and go straight for "Here's a tub of ice cream with chunks of butterscotch in it, I'll just leave the spoon right here."
These offerings, though caring, are absurdly nonsensical when the fabric of your reality begins propelling itself outward at detonation velocity from a solar plexus explosion. All the chunks of butterscotch in existence can't stop the obliteration, though it may take many tubs and a tightening of your pants before you acknowledge that fact.
Stuck inside this state of mind, maintaining friendships, working a job, and pursuing passions are not particularly interesting to you anymore, though you may become skilled at operating your body like a puppet, pretending to laugh and care, dabbing thick concealer on the hollow half-moons under your eyes so as not to raise alarm. If people become concerned, they will get on your case, and so you pretend when really you don't give even one teeny ounce of a shit about anything at all, and believe wholeheartedly that you never will again.
From that point on, you have only one task on your to-do list: You have to sit very still and attempt to stop the world from turning with your mind. But despite your efforts, the earth keeps spinning, the sun keeps rising, babies are born and birthdays come and go, the sun falls behind horizons and the climate warms and countries go to war and refugee babies wash up on shores—and there you are: a tiny, powerless speck on a giant blue marble, floating in the empty nothingness.
Another Siberian sinkhole pops off as if to celebrate the New Year: Hooray! And all at once it's January again and then February and then March, and this—this—is your life now.
And this isn't even as bad as it gets.
It was April. The hospice nurse handed each member of my family a pamphlet with bold lettering that read "So Your Loved One Is Dying"—a rather overstated title, I thought, but I read it anyway.
"The last thing to go is their hearing," the pamphlet read, and so, when the nurse raised her voice to broadcast to everyone in the room, "Your father is now actively dying," I thought: Shhhh! He can still hear you, lady! Exnay on the deathnay!
You see, we kind of never told my Dad he was dying. I mean—we all knew it was coming, but in our household we didn't use phrases like "You're dying," or, "I'm dying, and I love you," or, "You're dying, and I'll miss you so much when you're gone." Instead, we preferred such sweet sentiments as "What's on TV tonight?" and "That was a really shit movie," and "Russell Crowe might be a dick, but you can't deny he's a great actor."
We'd only ever discussed death in the context of villains and protagonists, jump-scares and compelling third acts, and though death was my dad's professional specialty, dying was twelve kinds of awkward for him. Out of respect for his privacy, we all pretended like everything was normal and that gathering in palliative wards was what we did now as a family, for fun.
We bought snacks from the vending machine and ate cross-legged on the floor while watching television together in strained silence. Whenever a person in the next room would let out a pained moan that sounded like someone was dying—because someone was—one of us would be sure to cough-cough over the disturbance, yawn, and pick up a strand of unrelated conversation, like this: "So have they found that missing Malaysian Airlines plane yet?"
You've never experienced an elephant in the room until you've been party to a you're-not-really-dying elephant, let me tell you. Those bastards are enormous.
Weeks before that final day, my dad had been given a dose of morphine that had tackled down his apathetic guard, and in a rare moment of vulnerability, he'd said to me, "I'm afraid that when I close my eyes there will be nothing but black." Here was our one opportunity to have a serious conversation about what death means, to reassure him, to share an emotional outpouring, to talk existentially. It was a big moment. We never talked like this. His watery eyes searched mine.
Nervous, I began to ramble something about atoms coming and going and how we're all stardust and how our cells are constantly being regenerated, meaning we've all had particles of Einstein pass through us, and Beethoven, and, unfortunately, a pinch of Hitler, and maybe nothing goes anywhere but swirls around like dust, changing form ad infinitum inside one giant, never-ending quark storm, only we live up close to it so it seems chaotic and senseless, but when you zoom back it's a brilliant gemstone, and…
His jaw clack-clacked, which was something he did when he was annoyed. His fluffy white brows stitched with agitation. Perhaps it was too much too soon. Maybe I should've held back on the Hitler part. I always lose people on the Hitler part. The silence was painful. He tried to take a sip of water from the television remote while staring into the middle distance, and I realized he was stoned out of his mind on morphine.
"So have they found that missing Malaysian Airlines plane yet?" I said.
And then all of a sudden there I was clutching "So Your Loved One Is Dying," but there was nothing in the pamphlet pages about missed beats during final conversations. Besides, it was too late for any existential cram studying. Dad's breath rattled, and his eyes tried to flicker open, pushing hard against a cocktail of painkillers that could've knocked out the entire dinosaur epoch. He looked scared.
I held the giant paw of his writer's hand in mine and told him it was okay. But it wasn't okay. He will never read another story of mine, I thought. Who will I tell stories to now? Who will tell me stories?
"It's okay, Dad," I told him, stroking his hand as he labored for his last gulps of air. "We're all here with you." Sometimes this calmed him, sometimes his thumb stroked back, but mostly he was rigid with fear.
He closed his eyes.
For most of my thirty-three years, I'd been strategizing ways to keep myself safe, to keep loved ones safe, to survive any disaster. But the survival guide was all for nothing. I couldn't save anything: not myself, not other people, not animals or trees or bugs or the world. I too was afraid that when I closed my eyes, there would be nothing but black.
I curled my hand into Dad's paw and felt his warmth begin to evanesce.
WE MET IN a New York bar. It was friendship at first sight.
"You're Torre, right?" she asked. Her eyes lacked the shifty, distracted expression you see on most people at networking functions—they were piercing and alert, as though capturing every detail in the room, every bluff, every whiff of bullshit.
It was at an airline-sponsored event in a classy bar, put on for travel writers, bloggers, and photographers in the hope that free drinks might lead to some favorable hashtags for the airline. A perk of the job. Too many people were crammed into a small, dark space, and the crowd was busy shaking hands and swapping business cards with anything that wasn't bolted down to the floor. The bar was lined with glasses of anesthetizing beverages and bartenders who had been instructed to pour and keep pouring.
So I drank and kept drinking, trying to cleanse my woes with white wine in the way that one might flush out an infected wound with antiseptic.
"Yes, I'm Torre."
She offered her hand. "I'm Masha." She was wearing a pencil skirt that hugged her curves, tall black leather boots or high black heels or something elegant like that, maybe a shirt made of soft and delicate fabric: silk, I'd guess. Or maybe pants and a blouse? Don't ask me. I had a glass of white in both hands.
Knowing her as well as I do now, her caramel-colored hair would've been gathered back into a bun, red lipstick and smoky eyeliner would've made her green eyes pop against the porcelain of her heart-shaped face. Charisma would've been oozing out of her pores to shimmer across her smile. There's not a person in this world that Masha can't charm with her smile.
She'd told me she was planning to walk around the world on a series of pilgrimages, but she didn't look like an adventurer. She looked more like a glamorous New Yorker en route to a meeting with her wedding planner. The mismatch between her aspirations and her appearance was so confusing, I wondered if it was a networking stunt. I pressed her for more details. "So where are you going, exactly?"
"Well, I'll start in Canterbury in the UK and walk through France and Switzerland to reach Italy, and then down to Rome."
"All on foot?"
"Yes, on foot. And then from there my plan is to walk pilgrimages in Turkey, Israel and Palestine, Mount Kilimanjaro, India, Nepal and Tibet, Japan, Australia, Hawaii, Peru, and then the Camino de Santiago to finish it off."
"So I guess you're really fit and have all your gear ready?"
"Oh, sure. I'm super-organized. I've been working out every single day and have all my high-tech gear laid out, ready to go." Her deadpan expression made her self-deprecation barely detectible, and I eyed her for a lengthy spell before catching on.
"Maybe you should shave off your eyebrows," I said. "They'll cause aerodynamic drag."
"You already know me so well."
We laughed. I went to sip my wine but noticed it was already empty, so I started on the one in my left hand.
"Am I prepared?" she scoffed. "No, that's why I've called my blog 'Unlikely Pilgrim.' I'm not in shape. My bag will be stupidly heavy. I have very little idea of how this is all going to come together. But that's kind of the point, you know? To work it out as I go?"
My skin prickled with inspiration. "And you're doing all this on your own?"
"Mostly. Some friends and family members might come and join me for parts here and there," she said. "My husband is hiking Kilimanjaro with me, but he doesn't really like to travel much so—"
"Wait," I interrupted, "you're married?"
She nodded. "He's not much of a traveler. He runs a bar here in New York, and he's pretty happy just doing his thing."
"I had assumed you were single."
She shrugged. "I want to see the world. He doesn't. He knows it's something I have to do, and we've talked about it a lot. I'll take my year to travel, he'll hang out and do whatever, and then I'll come back to New York once the year ends." She eyed me sideways. "You know, you should come walking with me sometime. Let's keep in touch."
We didn't stay in touch. When I went home my dad died and my relationship ended, and I didn't keep in touch with anyone.
But six months later, by way of a blur of boarded planes, trains, and random left turns, I found myself in Cinque Terre, Italy, for no good reason beyond the fact that, in a series of strange cities and cheap hotels, I could watch the tick of a new clock, hoping time would heal all wounds.
Each morning I would sleep until the noon sun would flood the room with light, and then I would remind myself: You have legs! For what a great privilege it is to not only have legs, but arms and a torso and eyes that see things, to have a remarkable vehicle made of exquisite flesh and sensory feeling with which to explore the world, to have sunshine and air, to have breath and a heartbeat, to have—
But your dad is dead…
Then I'd roll back over and go to sleep for several more hours, because I couldn't stand my own asinine attempts at positive thinking.
When I woke, I walked. Along a cliff edge that traces the Mediterranean, I climbed stairs. The terraces built on the cliff face looked like colorful Lego blocks that could so easily topple and drop off into the sea—plop, plop, behind which were stepped green orchards of sweet nectarines, vineyards, and fields of enormous lemons that pucker and bulge like an old man's elbow. Their aromatic peels get zested to make limoncello, which is probably a deliciously sweet alcoholic beverage, but I wouldn't know, because sorrow makes everything taste like armpit. Pasta tasted like armpit; pizza tasted like armpit; salami tasted like toe jam. If you think it's possible to eat your way out of grief, I'm telling you it's not, unless you have a fetish for the taste of damp and fetid places.
From the highest point on the cliff, I looked out over the water toward the sailboats bobbing on twinkling refractions. Memories flashed, lucid and sharp, of adventures had, now lost. Once upon a time, I had lived on a small boat with the man I loved and we didn't go a single minute without seeing each other, but after I said goodbye to him at an airport as he stood holding a ticket to another continent, the length of our apartness would make up the rest of our lifetimes. All I had to show for nine years of companionship was a few boxed personal items, half the money we'd saved together, and a published memoir called Love with a Chance of Drowning—the story of our voyage across the Pacific Ocean. Each day I would get heartfelt emails from readers: "I cried like a baby at the end of your book," confessed one gay man from New Jersey in a tender letter. "You've given me hope for my own relationship. I'm so pleased that your story had a happy ending." But page 352 wasn't the ending. It would've been inhumane to reply with anything resembling truth:
Our love? It drowned. It broke apart like the Titanic, splitting in two and sinking into freezing waters while violins played and people screamed and fought over who gets a seat in the life raft. I'm terribly sorry.
Seventy-one percent of the world was now a salty, blue reminder of a failed relationship. It felt personal.
But you have legs!
Oh, go fuck yourself.
I snapped a photo of the blue water and Cinque Terre's cliffs and uploaded it, using social media for one of its most beneficial functions: to give the illusion to others that I had my life together. For two months I'd been floating around Europe, working from my laptop from any random location, hoping that creating the illusion of high spirits would become a reality in time if I simply Photoshopped a layer of golden joy over the top of all images. This is one of the perks of being a traveler with a communications degree, otherwise known as a Digital Nomad. A bum with a laptop. A homeless pixel artist.
As I started down the stairs, my phone pinged with a message. "Torre!" the message read. It was from the woman I vaguely remembered from the New York bar, Masha. "I'm one train stop away from you right now." She had begun her walk around the world and, by coincidence, was only four minutes away by train. "Do you want to meet up?"
My thumbs hovered over the screen.
"I'm sorry, I'm busy." Delete.
"Sure, that sounds great!" Delete.
"I'm sorry, I'm busy." Delete.
"Sure, that sounds great!" The cursor blinked.
I wanted to sink into the inviting depths of my aloneness and go back to bed. Oh, how I wanted to sleep, but I had legs and eyes and a fully functioning torso with which to experience the world. All I lacked was any iota of motivation for anything at all, but I hoped that once my body was in motion, the willingness might catch up.
You have legs!
In a blink, I hit send.
"Like so many of us, Torre DeRoche is wracked with fear, doubt, uncertainty, anxiety; unlike so many of us DeRoche figured she might as well walk 250 miles through India. Which she does, with humor, grace, insight and a fair amount of grit, too, in this lovely and wholly uplifting account of confronting our fears... Luckily (and always enviously) in The Worrier's Guide to the End of the World we get to tag along."
--- Carl Hoffman, bestselling author of Savage Harvest
"Torre's managed to write a witty and engrossing tale of loss, pain, and transformation that captivates the reader as magically as her first book. Like her previous work, I couldn't put it down! I highly recommend it!"
--- Matt Kepnes, New York Times Bestselling Author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day
"A moving account of conquering fears while walking a pilgrim's path. Also funny as f@#k."
--- Janice MacLeod, author of New York Times bestseller Paris Letters
"Each journey provides valuable lessons about embracing the unexpected and releasing control. DeRoche's writing is conversational and her humor, in shades of black, is copious...a page-turning memoir."
- "A pair of fearless female friends team up on a journey through India and Italy in a memoir about courage, loss and resilience."—The New York Post, ?Required Reading? list
- "Full of relatable, funny and moving advice for anyone who has longed to see the world but felt that niggling feeling that wants to hold them back. Best of all, it demonstrates that the best way to confront fear is to meet it head on, and to laugh at it along the journey."—BUST.com
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Seal Press