This room is too small. It is oppressive and dank with the smell of stale cigarette smoke mixed with the air freshener that fails to cover the stench. It’s just after four o’clock in the afternoon on a bright and sunny Monday. I have been in this room every Monday afternoon for the last year resting upon the same earth-toned vinyl couch that always embraces me too tightly, an uncomfortable and bothersome seating arrangement if ever one existed, although I can admit that it’s made more so by frustration and the reason for my visits than by the couch’s nature. My bare legs and arms stick to it where they meet the vinyl directly. Damn this searing Texas heat, and why doesn’t the air conditioner in this office make it any more bearable?
I don’t remove my sunglasses. I never do when I’m here. Viewing the world in swirling darkness is a defense mechanism, especially here where I am expected to face existence directly. I know I’m hiding in my own way, and I don’t care. I gaze upon the room and its contents with the impartiality and detachment my sunglasses provide. Behind the impenetrable tint, my eyes wander the room aimlessly. Surely there must be something here to hold my interest. There never is, but I never fail to search for a new diversion that will make this a little easier to endure.
I slowly close my eyes in the crushing silence. They remain closed only for a brief moment as I try mentally to escape this experience, to seal myself off from the world at large, to be anywhere but here.
Jack, my psychiatrist, undoubtedly maintains his silence in preparation for leveling his newest judgment. I say that, but it won’t be a judgment in the strictest sense. How I deplore these awkward hushes; they always seem to proclaim some pending doom, but that’s always in my head. Why doesn’t he just get it over with already?
The lit cigarette dangles clumsily from his thin parched lips. I’ve played this game for a year now: certainly it will fall this time, spurring him to leap to his feet while madly brushing away the ashes and cinders and desperately attempting to stymie any damage to his furniture. Alas, my hopes for such entertainment are never fulfilled.
When he speaks, Jack’s southern twang drips from him like tree sap, a slow drawl that could easily sedate an elephant. I originally thought this was not conducive to proper psychiatric evaluation and treatment. I learned over time that he was sharp as a tack, highly intelligent and insightful in ways that some would find troubling. He wasn’t infallible, though. That’s probably why I dislike him now.
I watch the smoke from the tip of his cigarette as it wafts upward in front of his face, flitting lightly through his hair in acrid little puffs and streams. It rises above him and eventually filters into the light streaming in from the window just behind and above him. Watching him smoke during these sessions always keeps my mind off my own desire for a cigarette. Somehow being exposed to the habit in someone else under circumstances such as these inhibits my desire, so while he speaks I focus my attention on this eerily silent dance of plumes.
He asks me question after question in this false communion of minds. “Are you still angry at the world? Have you accepted yourself? Or, do you still resent who you are?” Each question rattles from his bony frame with conviction, one after the other, his deep relaxing voice attempting to calm and engage, and he hesitates only slightly between each inquiry. The pause seems just long enough for me to ignore him blatantly.
I understand the questions. “You’re angry. You’re hurt. Derek’s death changed you in ways you don’t like. You obsess about trying to be different than who you are, and you blame the world because you don’t think you’re like them. This makes you lonely. Why must you be this way?”
There are times when I’m unclear on precisely what he says because my own mind translates for me on the terms under which I attend these sessions. Those terms have rapidly changed in the near past, so his words flow over me as our mutual fascination subsides. He knows I will not answer him at this point. Instead, I wait him out, and he takes the cue and moves on with only subtle hesitation should I slip up and grace him with a response. One might call him a master of the strategic pause. I like to think I helped him develop that gift.
My eyes shaded behind sunglasses, my sight comes to rest upon the window residing above his head. Sunlight swims through the glass and smoke with lazy interest. I wonder how many times during the last twelve months I rested my eyes upon that same window seen through the same predictable wafts of cigarette smoke.
Beyond Jack and the smoke and the window is visible the intolerable brightness of the day. I see blue sky out there. How boring, and it bounds in all directions with indefinite deliberateness, mocking me in some way no one else understands. How unnecessarily cheery and inviting. While I can’t see them from this view, I know the grass and trees are prospering right now, verdant and virile in such an agreeable environment. I am angrily jealous. For a year I sat here decaying, and for a year I watched Jack slowly dying of cancer. I may not be healed yet., but at least I’m not him. And, at least I’ve gained some enlightenment from our sessions. All he’s gained is more cancer. I suppose it makes no sense for him to quit now.
Burned almost to the filter, I am relieved to see him tamp his cigarette against the glass ashtray that rests on an imitation macassar ebony end table sitting just beside his chair. How pretentious that table is. I see he’s distracted, curiously staring at the ashtray as he absently tamps his cigarette again before crushing it into the bottom of the receptacle. His face remains turned away from me while his shallow and distant gaze hangs there like a curiosity. The cigarette now relinquished to the ashtray, his fingers silently strum and trace meaningless outlines on the table. Sometimes he brushes lightly against the ashtray. He speaks again as I wonder if he’s still talking to me.
“I believe you’re on the verge of a breakthrough. You’ve come so far already.”
Only during the last few months was this routine in our sessions. I am not certain if he believes this to be true, if he ever did, or if he stopped believing it. I just doubt he’s sincere. How long can I be on the verge of a breakthrough without actually breaking through? Three months? Six months? A year? And what breakthrough? Can I get a clue here? Is asking for guidance too much to ask of my psychiatrist?
There is silence.
“Do you still think your life has gone wrong?” Jack asks of me after a moment. “Do you still think it’s impossible to survive with who you are? Who you became after Derek’s death?” The words fall limply between us, somehow weakened and overcome by the smoke-filled air. Times like this make me think some magical force is at work between us. It keeps us in opposite dimensions so that our minds work in completely opposite ways. My being repels his words and rejoices to see them fall. Does he have to sweep the carpet more often because of it? I can’t help but wonder if the words fall listlessly to the floor below and eventually cause piles to form that must be swept up. Are they visible in the dustpan if it’s the right color?
I like Jack. Jack’s a very smart man. Jack taught me a great deal. Jack helped me in ways I can never thank him for nor acknowledge. Jack will be missed. Despite all of this, his words lack sufficient energy to support any real connection with me.
“Yes.” I’m correcting him, not answering his questions. My own voice surprises me. It seems hoarse and removed. Answers swim inside my mind, immediately surfacing, undeniably accessible. Without hesitation, I say, “Yes on all counts.”
My gaze snaps down to his pad of paper where he suddenly jots down a few notes. I laugh although I’m not sure if it’s audible or just inside my head. His scribbling reminds me of a chicken I saw once at a family farm in New York. That bird stood on dry dirt, a simple patch of barren barnyard that didn’t seem to offer anything of interest at that moment, and he scratched aimlessly here and there, clucking happily and kicking up dust the whole time. There was a mad fervor in it. Jack’s hurried writing looks the same way. Is he even listening to me? Has he ever listened to me? I bet he’s writing a grocery list. Maybe’s it’s a suicide note resulting from lethal boredom.
If I don’t blame all of my woes on the world, who’s responsible for my despair? Why do I feel ostracized? I can’t imagine I’m expected to take responsibility. My life couldn’t possibly be the result of my direction. Who I have become must be the result of someone else’s machinations. I can’t seem to be normal and no one seems to accept me. Admitting that this catastrophe is my fault doesn’t sound like any fun at all.
Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to be just like everyone else: a normal kid living in a middle class neighborhood. I wanted a girlfriend and to get married in the future. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to graduate high school and go on to college and then a good job. But I was fighting myself the whole time. I seem to contradict inherently some critical parts of those dreams. If I’m a joke to the world, and I fear I am, I don’t get the punch line.
I see the vibrantly alive people around me and want nothing more than to be like them. No matter how hard I try, however, I can’t make it work. My wails are primordial. Is it any wonder that I left my parents’ house when I was seventeen? That I ran headlong and alone into the real world without anything but the help of a few friends? I walked the fine line that separates starvation from survival and spent time on both sides of it. Essentially poor and surviving need to need is as real as it gets. If nothing more, it’s as real as I ever wanted it to be.
But what is real now? I blink at the dust. Hanging smoke lingers evidently in the sunlight. I am thankful for the sunglasses yet again. They’re real: the sunglasses that shield me from direct human contact are real. That’s one thing. So is the scorching Texas heat that is equal parts unbearable and sensual. Real is signing that check every month to pay for my psychiatric addiction. It’s lamentations and miseries. It’s joys and triumphs. Ultimately, real is what it’s made to be by circumstance and design. I just prefer not to have my name on the blueprints for this one.
Jack lights another cigarette. His lips purse about the filter as he drags on it with brief intent. My eyes search upward to find their normal view and happen upon the glowing end of the cigarette for just a moment. It brightens with red anger before quickly fading to smoldering embers again, a transition marked by a sudden increase in smoke coming from that end. I allow myself to be fascinated with this. I’m thankful for the diversion no matter how soon it’s over. I’m glad I’m still wearing my sunglasses. He turns and looks at me finally. “And?” he asks.
My head shakes with the same despair I came here to resolve. Why have I come no further than this? Is it his fault? Should I hate him? No, it’s not his fault. I might as well accuse the blasted sun shining through the window overhead. As for hating him, I can’t hate the sky for not providing a severe thunderstorm to match my demeanor, so I can’t hate him. Jack helped me more than he’ll ever know, certainly more than he can even suspect before he dies, yet his help, cloaked to him though it may be, got me to where I am now: able to admit that I’m not like the other boys in the schoolyard and need to face my own blundering before it tears me apart. It would be silly to hate him.
His interjection startles me for the first time ever. I skip it like a graceful stumble on ice skates, dancing over his words about some new prescription I might try and some mental exercises he’d like me to do. I agree unconsciously the same way I have agreed before. I don’t think I need it anymore, much the same way I didn’t need it from the start. They’re all the same anyway, yes? The drugs and the little games we play with our own personality for the sake of analysis? Life is fine the way it is at this very moment. It doesn’t need to change. I need to change, just not in the way I believed when I first came to Jack’s office. I wish I could say he is responsible for my new direction. He certainly helped. He doesn’t know that. He wouldn’t understand.
I tell him this is our last visit. I don’t need him anymore. I’m just not sure if I mean I don’t need him now or never did, or if I need something but not him. Nevertheless, I know these sessions are over. They accomplish nothing.
I stand up and adjust my sunglasses. The bottom of the window is now at eye level. I see trees blowing lazily in the wind, the sun shining vigorously down on them, and nothing but blue sky stretched in all directions. What a great day to go to the lake.
— — — — — — — — — —
I didn’t see Jack after that. I didn’t think I needed to. He’d taught me all that I needed to know by then, at least that he could teach me, and it was enough to get me on the path I needed. I was mad at him. I was also thankful. I imagine he had a very different view of our results.
I left that session and never looked back. I made the decision to take a different approach to life. It was a bad approach, but it was new and broke me through barriers that needed to fall. My anger was the basis for the new slant on living. There was plenty of opportunity out there in the real world. It simply needed to be located and capitalized upon. I decided it was mine to take and use at will. It’s dog eat dog out here. If I’m not doing the eating I’m being eaten, so I rushed back out in it and gorged. I consumed and I devoured and I didn’t care whom I stepped on along the way. I trampled a few people. I didn’t look back. Even I knew that someone would eventually do it to them; someone would have used and discarded them. Why shouldn’t it be me? The spoils of those conquests were mine and I deserved them at least as much as the next person did.
I stormed like a bulldozer through the days crushing opposition before me. I became a user. I wantonly pursued whatever caught my attention. I learned that channeling my anger did a fine job of hiding what was truly wrong. People didn’t have a chance to notice the real me. They couldn’t get past my behavior to see the unhappy Jason hiding beneath. They could never really know me. I wanted the distance.
Brute force pummeled everything in my path and I took at will. I built my new life from the rubble that remained in my wake and what little didn’t break under my feet. Shattered hearts and aborted relationships. Burned bridges and ruined opportunities. Emotional and professional damage on many levels. At first, I forced my way through time with no regard to the aftermath. It only took another few months to realize I hated what I had become and the damage I was doing. The person wearing my skin was completely alien to me. The life he built was a complete disaster and worse by any comparison to what had come before.
But by then I had become the man I intended, the remote and alien being who toppled social constructs on whims and shattered lives at every chance. I shed the real me like so much dead skin, and I did it quickly. I was finally the beast that inhabited me. It would take a catalyst greater than Jack to change my ways. And I would never let such a catalyst near enough to do so.
I liked the new me. He was safe. He was guarded. He lived behind walls that protected him from the pain. He could be updated a bit here and there, but he was always the strongest and smartest incarnation and deserved a chance to run things for a while.
This was Jack’s legacy. It would have been unrecognizable to him as such had he survived long enough to see it. Thought to be failures on so many levels, my sessions with him were during the formative year of my new life and he inadvertently set me afoot on a wildly destructive path that annihilated what was left of me so that I might learn how to put it all back together differently, safely. I was never mentally ill. I just didn’t want to hurt again. Ever.
I don’t know how much I crushed in the wreckage during and immediately following my final spasms. I feel for the people I hurt and broke. I feel for the opportunities I lost in the process. Neither regret outweighs the bank-vault safety of this new being I wear. I don’t think Jack would have been proud to see that transformation. I don’t think it was the result he was hoping for. But it was the result I wanted.