Doctor Steinbaum keeps telling me that intellectually I know that mom didn’t die because I refused to call her back, but I’m just having a hard time knowing it emotionally. She’d been dying for a while, my mom—struck with one of those strains of cancer where the only thing doctors are able to do is nothing at all—so when she eventually did pass it didn’t come as a big surprise. The thing was I hadn’t talked to her in about four years. She’d always held it over my head, her dream of becoming a parent, her dream of becoming a grandmother herself. But I’d known I’d never be a father ever since I kissed Sam Perkins after swim practice in the ninth grade, or at least not the type of father she wanted me to be. And when I told her all that seven years ago, when I was 16, she had this breakdown of epic proportions that eventually resulted in, among other things:
1) Her casual religiosity becoming a festering obsession: she joined the choir of a mega-church out in McLean—the kind that has an amphitheater instead of a chapel, the kind that displays pop art that incorporates the word “faith.”
2) My three-week stay at Journey into Love, a camp in some unnamed valley outside of Richmond, even though she’d paid for a month.
3) The erasure of my phone number from her Nokia.
In any event, she started phoning about a week before she died, but I let the calls go unanswered. The last time she called she left a message—the only one, actually—that said, “Finn, this is the last time I’m calling you.” It wasn’t angry—not like a threat or something—so I did call her back; I just waited until the next day. But I missed her, the nurse at Sibley told me. She’d died about ten minutes earlier. Which—and this might sound harsh, but Dr. Steinbaum says that’s okay—I think was a little cunty on her part.
Anyway, I guess I’ve been having a pretty shit time during the past three months. So shit, in fact, that Dr. Steinbaum suggested the drugs; he said that my being down and anxious and scatterbrained had prevented me from reaching rational conclusions about my feelings. This was a little over a month ago. I was sitting in his office on M Street, on one of the two EZ chairs he’s got set on either side of the window. One is upholstered in warm colors—reds and yellows and these bright orange triangles—while the other is decked out in cooler tones—so, greens, blues, and small purple circles. Sit where you feel, is what he told me during my first appointment, the first time I walked into his office.
But. Over a month ago:
“How was your week, Finn?” He crossed his legs and looked at me over the top of his glasses. I don’t remember where I was sitting. Dr. Steinbaum is gay and wears expensive ties; he has a framed picture of a basset hound on his desk, and he lives in Bethesda with his partner. All of this makes me think that sometimes he understands me just a little bit more, and sometimes just a little bit less.
“It was alright.”
“Have you had a chance to complete your journals yet?”
A month before Dr. Steinbaum had given me these journals where I was supposed to write down everything I was thinking when my thoughts started spiraling and sinking. He said he was worried that I wasn’t working through the appropriate stages of grief.
“No, I haven’t,” I said.
“Has work been busy?”
“Do you find the worksheets confusing?”
“What’s confusing about them?”
“That’s what I’m asking you.” He pushed his eyebrows together.
“No, I don’t find them confusing.”
“I don’t know what to write about.”
“Write about anything. Write about your Journey into Love.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I don’t know if it was meant to be.”
I breathed. I waited. I said: “I guess I just get lost in the spirals and forget which way they’re pointing.”
Which apparently was what he was looking to hear, or at least it was some sort of trigger phrase, because it was then that he suggested the Lexapro and everything else. He fucked around with things for a while; he’d ask how the pills were making me feel, if there were any side-effects that I just couldn’t handle; he’d add alprazolam and subtract lorazepam—stuff like that—until he hit upon a combination that was the closest to right:
Escitalopram (Lexapro): For long-term treatment of Major Depressive Disorder
Clonazepam (Klonopin): For short-term relief of the symptoms of anxiety.
Dextroamphetamine (Adderall): To treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Zolpidem (Ambien): For the short-term treatment of insomnia.
I’d been against all this at first; Emily, this girl I ride the elevator with at work, said once that pills were for the same sort of people who became vegetarians so they’d have something to talk about at parties. But on that day when he asked, I told him I’d give it a try. I think I’d grown tired of feeling like I could never fully inhale, like I always had about half-an-inch of water at the bottom of my lungs.
I’m sitting at my desk at the housing coalition where I work, and I’m getting the feeling that my supervisor, a woman named Francine who only wears mock turtlenecks, is upset with me. She keeps walking by the bank of cubicles that makes up the coalition’s communications department, holding an empty stapler labeled FRANCINE’SSTAPLERDON’TTOUCH that she keeps clicking, and she’s making small talk with everybody except me. Normally I’d care; normally I’d get nervous and depressed and I’d try hard to get her to stop at my desk for at least five minutes. Lately, though, things haven’t been bothering me—not as much as they used to, at least. So I let Francine gab, and click her stapler, and shake her swathed neck at me, while I look at a blog about fat things doing stuff.
I know why she’s mad at me. Yesterday, while I was riding the bus to work, I started to get all panicky. This in itself wasn’t all that weird; I always get all panicky when I ride the bus, at least lately. I started thinking about how mom hated the bus, but how I was doing it, and how there’s probably tons of things in life that I’m doing now that she’d hate, if she’d stuck around to see them. I started breathing fast, and I shook my knee, and I pulled out my journals, and I told people who asked that they couldn’t sit next to me; that the seat was taken.
Then I did what Dr. Steinbaum has told me to do when I’m in one of those situations, which is to take a Klonopin, and by the time I stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the coalition, the bus spitting exhaust in my face, I was feeling fine. Better than fine, really. Relaxed. So relaxed that I never managed to make it to my office. It was nice out, or nice for February, so I stared up at the way the sun refracted light off the building’s glass and then I took about an hour to walk home, where I spent the rest of the day watching reruns of Dancing with the Stars. Between episodes, I’d check my voicemail – partly to see if work had called me, wondering where I was, but mostly to listen to the message mom had left me— “Finn, this is the last time I’m calling” —which I’d saved. Then when the program ended and I’d turned off the television I rummaged through my workbag until I found my journals and I wrote—for the first time—the things I could remember.
At the camp’s entrance the Os in the “Journey to Love” sign were painted yellow and shaped like halos; the guy who shook our hands when we got off the bus was named Ken and he was very tan and smelled always of citrus aftershave; there were 3 other kids in my bunk room: Ben liked theatre, Diego was Cuban, Josh couldn’t swim in any of his league meets without getting hard; we weren’t allowed to make telephone calls but at night I’d sneak out and use the pay phone next to the infirmary but she’d never answer, though I cried and cried—more often than not to a dial tone and I’d beg to be picked up; in the morning before we’re allowed to talk to each other we have to answer the question “what is a man” to Ken; there are no gay people, just SSAs (same-sex attractions); everything smells of pine and vanilla candles which I remember thinking isn’t very masculine; we’re told to play flag football but most of us just pick grass.
I pour myself a glass of water. I scratch behind my ear with the cap of my pen. I take another Klonopin.
In the evenings after dinner Ken makes us stand in two lines facing each other. We’re asked what stories we tell ourselves about the boys we see. He calls us out one by one and asks us to give rationalizations for our SSAs. He calls each one a “barrier to love.” Diego cries. So does Josh but Diego cries more. Ken tells us to give Healing Touches. We pair up and sit between each other’s legs and lay against each others chests and wrap our arms around each others shoulders in giant bear hugs. Ken tells us we’re enacting the fatherly love our own fathers never gave us. I call her again and again there’s no answer so I talk to the dial tone. After lights-out as we lay in our bunks I whisper in the dark to the three other boys. I say: I have to get out of here. Ben sings back: Hello twelve, hello thirteen, hello love.
Francine is done ignoring me. She calls me into her office and asks me if everything is okay.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I think so.”
Her turtleneck is the color of port wine and white lint is buried in its deep folds.
“What happened yesterday?”
“I wasn’t feeling all that well.”
“Someone mentioned you were standing out in front of the office before work.”
She pulls at the wool. Her skin beneath it is white, the purple veins drip like hot wax. “That’s not really important.”
“It couldn’t have been me. I was at home.”
“And why were you at home?”
“Because,” I say, “I wasn’t feeling all that well.”
“Finn, We understand that you’re going through a hard time.”
“My mom died.”
“Yes, we know. And we’re very sorry for that.” Then: “It’s just that we think it seems as though you’re still having some trouble concentrating. Still.”
And it’s the “Still” that gets me, that makes it feel like a little more water is being dripped into my lungs.
“Am I being fired?”
She throws her hand to her breasts and pulls her head back so the waxy veins disappear, like someone’s said something mean, something actually offensive, and she goes: “No, no, no. Of course not. We just want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help.”
“Right,” I say. “Right, I’ll concentrate more. I’m sorry.”
Back at my desk I knock my knuckles against my teeth. I think of Ken and vanilla candles and forbidden pay phones. I dig around in my backpack until I find what I’m looking for—the Adderall—and even though Dr. Steinbaum says I’m supposed to break the bright blue pills in fourths, I swallow a whole one with a swig from a cup of cold coffee I’ve got set next to my computer. I watch a two-minute long video clip that shows this fat panda bear eating an entire tub of ice cream, and about four minutes after that I open up the press releases I’m supposed to be editing.
And then! And THEN! I’m flying through them, the press releases, flying through them so fucking fast that it’ll make Francine click that stapler —click click click—to the beat of a damned applause! And it’s not that I’m just doing my work fast it’s that I’m doing it well: There’s a dangling modifier—zap! Here’s a typo—pow! That’s a misplaced comma—get the fuck out! I scroll my mouse so it’s over the fat things doing stuff blog that I’ve got minimized at the bottom of the screen, but I don’t open it, I haven’t got time, I’m too focused, too targeted on these press releases! I finish the day’s assigned work by 3:45—fifty-six minutes after Francine called me into her office—and I email her asking her if she’s got any more press releases or editorials or website articles that she’d like me to edit, but she messages me back and tells me no, so I drum my thumb against the desk for two and a half minutes, concentrating very hard on the steady beat, and then I ask Emily, who I hardly know, the one from the elevator, if she wants to walk and get some coffee and even though it takes her fifteen seconds or so to examine my face, to see if I’m kidding or not, she finally agrees!
We’re walking down 14th Street to the Starbucks on the corner of New York Avenue and neither of us is saying anything which is absolutely killing me because I’m in the mood to talk so eventually I’m like “hey, look, could those elevators be any slower!” and she goes “I haven’t really noticed.” “Well they are I mean maybe we should take the stairs when we head back.” “That’d be twelve flights.” “Twelve motherfucking flights!” I hold the door open for her when we get to the Starbucks and let her order her green tea before I order my coffee.
“Were you the one who threw me under the bus?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” We sit at a table by the door and I start folding napkins into perfect squares. “Are you the one who told Francine I was standing outside of the building yesterday?” “I think people are just concerned about you, is all.” Emily is pretty, not really in a way that I would’ve noticed before, ha ha ha, but in this way I feel like someone else should’ve noticed by now. “That’s nice of you to say.” She takes off the lid to her cup and starts dunking the teabag in and out of the water. “You know. You know, my mom passed away when I was seven. I know that—” I stop her: “Oh it’s fine, it’s really fine. I hadn’t spoken to her for four years.” She looks down into her cup so I continue: “But my God, seven years old? My God how awful. I’m—“ Emily holds up a hand, silences me.
Nine napkins folded! Nine! “Anyway I hadn’t spoken to her because I told her I was gay and she sent me to one of those camps where you’re supposed to learn to like women again.” “Oh.”
And I can tell that she’s a little uncomfortable so I say “She did call me, though, a few times, right up until the day before she died.” “What’d she say?” “Oh, she only left a voicemail. We didn’t actually speak.” She’s set the teabags on the table and they’re swimming in pools of green and I’d clean it all up, I’d clean it all if these napkins weren’t in perfect squares! “Well, what do you think she would’ve said?” “You know, I’ve tried to think about that—about what she wanted to say—but my therapist told me not to.” “Why?” “Because he said that moving on is what’s important, instead of imagining outcomes that could’ve constituted the past.” “That seems silly.”
I hold out Emily’s hand and I give her all the napkins, and she looks at me like she can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.
That night once I get home it still feels like I’ve got bottle-rockets mixed in my blood. So I order take-out and I watch two more hours of Dancing with the Stars and I spend seventeen minutes thinking about Emily’s dead mother and whether they would have looked anything alike.
By 11:30 I’ve finished all of the episodes that I’ve got recorded, so I switch the channel to the local news and I lay back so I’m reclined fully on the blue futon in the living room of my apartment. I stare up at the white ceiling, hoping that my eyes will at least start feeling heavy, but they don’t, and I start thinking about how little I slept at Journey into Love; how—at night—I’d listen to Ben sing. At 11:36 I take an Ambien. I work on my journals.
Each night of the second week we form circles instead of straight lines. We wear blindfolds that smell like sweat and something else. Ken makes us dribble basketballs even though we can’t see. When the balls get away from us he yells out things like “WHY DIDN’T YOU MAKE THAT SHOT, MCPHEE” even though none of us have the last name McPhee. Before we go to back to our bunks he shows us a slideshow of a bunch of guys with AIDS-face. He says: These aren’t Men. I think: They’ve got nice cheekbones.
The weird thing about Ambien is that it fakes you out. You think it’s hitting you, but really it’s just your mouth getting dry, and then when it does hit you, you fully convince yourself that it hasn’t hit you hard enough.
The night I decide to leave I smell like insecticide, sour. I tell Diego I’m leaving and he says ay dios mío and he starts crying. I hold him like a father. I tell him sh, sh, sh. I am wearing a backpack I’ve packed with clean underwear. The camp is set around a large grass oval. When the screen door closes behind me it claps and echoes off the buildings across the lawn. I make it one hundred yards before Ken is upon me with his flashlight. His teeth look whiter in the night; he smells more like lemons. He asks me where I’m going. I tell him I’m leaving. He asks: Would a Man leave? I say: a Man wouldn’t have come to this fucking hellhole in the first place.
I sit with Ken in the camp’s main office. There is a picture of him and his post-lesbian wife and their three children. The backdrop of the portrait is painted to look like clouds. Ken calls my mother and she answers. He tells her of the camp’s Zero Tolerance Policy Toward This Kind of Behavior. I srtain to hear her voice. He tells her Ill be on a bus in teh morning. I thikn I hear hre cry. I ask too speak to hre. She tels Kne no and he hagns pu teh pohne. I say: waht do we do nwo. H e wrpas his arms aruond me. Slides hsi hnads down my bcak. Syas: Lets pray.
It’s Monday and all the weather reports are predicting snow. I’m sitting in Dr. Steinbaum’s office, on the cold EZ chair, and he’s asked me twice if I’d like to take my coat off, but I tell him each time that I’m fine, that I’m still warming up.
“How are you feeling?” is the next thing he asks me. “Have you noticed any side-effects from the medication?”
“Not really,” I say, “Or, I’m not sure—I don’t know what I should be looking for, or what I should be concerned about.”
He nods and writes something on a pad of paper. “What would you like to be concerned about?”
“I’d like to know what my mom wanted to say to me when she called that last time.”
“Do you consider that a side-effect?”
“You tell me.” Then: “Have you finished any of the journals?”
“No. Well, yes. But no.”
He exhales long and slow before crossing his legs and looking over the top of his glasses. He looks old, I think, like the picture of the basset hound on his desk: skin sinking, melting, till it just becomes the floor.
“Why do you think it is that you’re so concerned with what your mother would have said to you?”
I think back to the way her phone number appeared on the screen of my mobile, how it danced and jumped across my desk as it vibrated, how it seemed like forever before it stopped ringing. “She called me for a week,” I say. “Ten times total. That’s ten times more than she’d called me in four whole years.”
“But does any of that matter now?”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“Because isn’t she gone?”
“So what does that mean?”
“Doesn’t that mean it’s time to start focusing on you and your life?”
“Are you saying what I’m feeling isn’t right?”
“Is that what you think?”
“Please,” I say. “Please stop with the questions.”
He sighs again and he cranes his neck so he can turn out the window. I think it’s started snowing.
“Finn, would you be opposed to increasing the amount of Lexapro you’re currently taking?”
Outside the Duane Reade on Florida and Connecticut I stand with the prescription he wrote me, looking up at the clouds. The snow’s really coming down now in big clumps that look like cornflakes. There’s not much wind, so they fall in perfectly straight lines, perpendicular to the ground. Every few seconds I’ve got to close my eyes because one of the flakes will land on the bridge of my nose, and the cold will sting and I’ll get teary.
I don’t know why I’m doing this, looking up at the flakes; I’ve always hated the snow – it was nice when it fell, when it was pure and intact and how you’d like to imagine it, but that was never really enough for me, because as soon as it hit the ground, or even got close, it’d melt or turn brown, basically becoming something you regretted ever liking or wishing for in the first place.
I take my phone from my pocket. I listen to my mother’s voice and I wonder if this is how she’s always sounded. I hold the prescription in my left hand, think of how “Lexapro 40 mgs/day” is scrawled across it in angry exhausted cursive.
I listen to the options provided to me by the voicemail—erase, save, replay—I let them all pass. I wait until there are no more options, until the automated recordings hang up on me and the line signals that it’s disconnected—a series of tones. There’s wetness under my eyes but it’s warmer than the melted snow.
I wonder if she would’ve said I was wrong.
If she would’ve said you’ve broken me.
I close my eyes and I listen to the tones: high, low, high, low, high, low. I listen to them until I forget the snow melting on my face, until the only thing I can picture are the flakes suspended, stopped high above the pavement.
I wonder, briefly, if there’s such a thing as a Healing Touch.
I wonder, briefly, if this is what happens when things fold in on themselves.