“Meet Steven” by Chris Jansen, 2019 Non-Fiction Spring Contest Winner

When the lunch bell rings we gather again, a clot of disheveled junkies in the artery of the hallway. A couple of new zombie faces have appeared, including the living-dead doctor and a girl named Melanie who wears the ubiquitous sweatpants and, instead of flip-flops, dirty pink Dearfoam slippers. She’s young and skanky-cute, like she just fell out of the nearest trailer park and landed in here. As usual, Jonah is the master of ceremonies.
“Ashley, did you even sleep? You look like shit this morning,” he says to the giggly girl with workout leggings and an oversized sweatshirt.
“Oh my god!” she erupts, and paws at the blonde side-braid that is coiled like a python on her shoulder. “My doctor, oh my god, he woke me up at fucking midnight.”
Baseball Scott D., the boy next door, jumps in. “That’s Frogner. He’s an idiot.”
Ashley giggles her affirmation. “Yes!”— giggle — “He’s sooo weird!” She has the endearing quality of a teenager who is inching toward thirty, still petting her hair and giggling at everything.
“He’s not so bad,” offers Jonah. “He hooked me up with this sweet Clonidine patch.” He peels his shirt sleeve up to show the plastic dot stuck to his tricep. I notice the blurred edge of a cross on his shoulder. I worked in ERs long enough to recognize a prison tattoo.
We’re waiting for the last of the addicts to assemble in the clot so Nana can take her babies down to lunch. “How long you got left, Scotty-too-hottie?” asks Jonah.
Scotty shakes his Jesus-head. “Don’t know for sure. My girlfriend is supposed to be coming today to meet with Jessica, but I came in last Saturday, so should be soon.”
So ex-cheerleader Jessica, the social worker with the see-through shirt, must be the gatekeeper. This seems like a good piece of information to file away for later use.
“Ugghh, Jess-i-ca!” the girls echo each other in a chorus of disgust and look at me for some reason.
“What’s wrong with her?” I ask.
One of the depressed housewives answers. “She only likes certain kind of patients. The kind that have a dick.”
“Oh, come on,” I say. I’m pretty good at reading people and I didn’t get that impression from her. But who knows? I’m still the new guy here.
“No, it’s true,” Cassie says, while making her frown a little frownier.
I get the feeling Cassie’s face is stuck that way. I think if she could laugh it would help, but also if she could break the frown by crying – a lip-curling, gut-shaking, puke-punctuated cry, so she could be done all at once with sorrow, throw it away forever like rain.
“Seven days is the average stay on C2,” says Jonah. “That’s the average length of a full detox.” I’m impressed with this because he quotes the “average stay” with authority. That’s something smart people do.

The doors open and we push out into the sunlight. Here we are back on the walkway with magnolia roots cracking up through the cement. Here we are again, the Detox class of 2017, a bunch of misfits at the world’s strangest high school. There’s the jock, the pretty girl, the fat girl, the weirdo, the artist, the good girl, the nerd. This is like a John Hughes script that was never made because it was too cliché. I wonder which one I am. I think I know but I’m ready for a different role this time. I think of something Oscar Wilde said: “Life is a stage but the play is badly cast.” So, if I’m not who I thought I was, who am I really? I realize I know almost nothing for certain about myself, except that I’m middle-aged. I’m supposed to know who I am by now! I’m supposed to know things by now, I think, as if notifying God that he’s really screwed this up.
After lunch — served with a garnish of bitterness by Miss Gayle — we go through the same airlock routine to get back to C2. Maybe it’s all the science fiction I’ve read lately, but it feels like we are being returned to our capsule after a moment of weightlessness in the cafeteria.
The professor is still there, staring out at his own version of outer space. He uncrosses his legs and crosses them back like a clock tolling the hour. The rest of his body doesn’t move, as if he’s not connected to his legs. The Tear Woman with her tear cup is sitting behind the glass wall, shaking her head like saying no to an invisible question. Maybe she’s a little less desperate looking. Or maybe I just need her to be better today.
We disperse back onto the Detox unit, the only home most of us have left. There aren’t many places to go. There is the hallway with its dark doorways to other patients’ rooms, the dayroom with its eternal TV blare, the tunnel to the madhouse with its single window looking out on a birdbath, and the nucleus of the nurse’s station, where we go for vitals and meds. Going somewhere is better than going nowhere, though. I pace the hallway for a while, doing the circuit of window to door to TV to nurse’s station.
As I’m pacing by my room, I decide to duck in and pee off some of the gallons of coffee I’ve had during the morning. This is my place, my sanctuary. They’ve taken away my phone, my keys, my wallet. This room is the only thing I have left that is just mine.
I burst through the door and freeze in horror.
In the dim light I see an enormous intruder in black clothes is standing next to my bed, poking around at the books on my table.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” blurts out the giant in black. “You have a Rilke book!”
Well now. The intruder pronounces Rilke correctly. Rilk-uh. I never pronounce it correctly, even though he’s one of my favorite poets. I always pronounce it Ril-kee, like Nietzsch-ee. I knew Ingrid liked me when I said it in front of her once and she didn’t even make a face.
“I…I’m sorry,” says the intruder again. “I’m Steven. I guess — I mean I think — I’m your roommate.”
I notice the giant wears a black sweater, cheap black dress pants, and black shoes that I’m surprised don’t have Velcro closures. He is a sweaty, glasses-wearing oaf of a guy, and the all-black ensemble adds a gloominess to his lumpy form. His body seems to apologize for taking up the very space it occupies. I love him immediately.
“I’m here from Cottage C. I had…I mean…there was a problem over there,” he says.
Suddenly I’m a snob. Oh, so you’re not a junkie? Well then, why don’t you just run along back to the Psych unit where you belong; but then snobbery, even something as basic as being annoyed at having a roommate, that’s for people who are more alive than I am. Besides, I know I’ll only be here a few more days because I feel in the deepest part of myself I can only take it for that long.
I shake the giant’s hand. “I’m Chris. I’m here for drugs.” He looks at me as if I just told him I was from Pluto. What do you expect, man, this is Detox.
Although I’m slightly upset at being deprived of my little kingdom, the man in black seems like a genuinely nice guy and I should be glad my roommate knows who Rilke is, rather than being some court-ordered psychopath who’s doing Detox to look good for a judge.
He turns away from me and goes back to the books. A guy who is more comfortable with books than people. Maybe it’s not so bad having company.

The giant points to one of my books. “How…how do you pronounce this word?”
Most people out in the world don’t know bad poetry, let alone Rilke, and who takes care enough to worry about the title of Rilke’s masterwork, The Duino Elegies? I can’t believe I had to go to a mental hospital to meet a fellow poetry fan.

“Dew-ee-no,” I say. His pale hand sets the book down gently, as if it was a fragile treasure.
He scans the table and pushes his glasses back up his nose. “You have a lot of books,” he says, passing his enormous paw reverently over my collection. “There’s not much over on Psych to read.”
“I know,” I say, remembering the teetering bookshelf over in the dancehall with its yellowed and trash-worthy novels. “You’re welcome to any of my books, any time.” Well, almost any of them. Best Science Fiction of 1974 currently has several powerful tranquilizers spit between pages 263 and 264. He’s probably wondering why, of all my books, I picked up that one and stuck it under my arm.
“Thanks,” he says, now studying the titles closely and pushing his glasses up his sweaty nose again.
I look at him looking over my books and note his shoes — the blackest, ugliest, most generic shoes imaginable. Most people wouldn’t even notice, as these shoes are designed to be ignored, but I notice. See, I’ve always had a problem looking people in the eye. When I meet someone’s gaze, whether it’s a beautiful young barista or some giant nerd in rehab, I avert my eyes. It’s not that I’m anti-social, it’s just that when I look in their eyes I see way too much. Your standard-issue civilian is usually boring, needy, or crazy, and I don’t want them to put their problems in my soul via eye-file transfer. As far back as I can remember I’ve always looked down, which meant that I spent a lot of time staring at shoes instead of faces. Over time I found that I had a freakish talent for reading people based on their shoes. Mental illness, socio-economic status, sexual proclivities, neurotic traits, quirks, inner beauty, intelligence, all of this is available to the careful observer who refuses to submit to the tyranny of solid eye contact.
My genial giant of a roommate thumbs through King Lear, giving me the impression he is totally fine with not talking. I could tell everything I needed to know about him by his shoes anyway. I could tell he did web development, played a classy instrument like the clarinet, was a virgin, had a Reddit account, and jerked off to tentacle porn.

Steven continues to pull at his black sweater and look lovingly at my books. I sit down and pretend to read from Best Science Fiction. You establish an unspoken deal with another guy at the beginning: Let’s sit here and not talk and everything will be okay. Still, it’s awkward getting used to another human being breathing my air.
I think I hear my name from the nurse’s desk. Sweet relief. If they call you from the desk and it’s not for VIIIIIITAL SIGNS or meals or group, then it has to be your doctor. I hear Eddy, the nice tech with the Brooklyn brogue, calling for me out in the hall. When he sticks his head in the room — “Chris, your doctuh’s here to see youse”— I have a renewed feeling of energy and a sense of hope. I bet I can hoodwink this new doc into letting me out of here.

I’m waiting in the consult room, my ass going to the ground in the same ancient chair, when the door opens and in comes Dr. Lynn, the guy that kooky Dr. Harvard said was head of psychiatry. Dr. Lynn looks friendly and stout, wearing a tweed coat and a couple days of scruff. He could be a functional version of the Nutty Professor from next door.
“Hello, Doctor, pleasure to meet you!” I give him my there’s-been-some-mistake-see-how-normal-I-am handshake. “I hear you’re the head guy! The head ‘head’ guy, I guess,” I say, as if we are old friends. I’m a colleague after all, not a patient. He has my chart though. And apparently he’s read it.
“So. Chris is special. Chris needs the ‘head guy,’” he says, plopping his ample ass down and leisurely opening my chart like he’s reading Proust by the fire.
Jesus Christ, dude. I was just being friendly. Can’t I give a compliment without being pathologized?
He did give me the impression of being a good doc, and a glance at his brown Cole Haan dress shoes confirmed that he was competent and sane. I say nothing to his question though. He’s obviously not on my side, and I’ve learned the more I say, the more will be held against me in this interrogation room.
Dr. Lynn flips through my chart. “How’s the Suboxone going?”
Great. It’s the only thing keeping me from hanging myself in the shower, I want to say, but don’t, since it would land me over in Cottage C with an ass cheek full of Ativan and no shoe laces.
“It’s fine. It just wears off too soon.”
“Uh-huh,” he says, unimpressed. “Well, I know you’re aware of how this stuff works.” I wonder what Dr. Harvard wrote in my chart.
“It has a half-life of 36 hours, so it’s probably more of a psychological thing you’re feeling.”
A psychological thing. Yeah. Isn’t everything a psychological thing? I didn’t need the head psychiatrist to tell me this.
As he’s rubber-stamping some bullshit orders in my chart, I know that we’re done and my mind flies out of the tiny exam room and far, far away to New York City where Ingrid lives in some hovel apartment and tends the embers of poetry as if it was the most worthy occupation in the world. I met her at a writer’s conference five years ago, sitting in the hopeless misanthropes’ section in the back. We took one look at each other and understood we had somehow always been friends, even before we met. I would see her once, twice a year after that. And we would text (that’s talking for introverts), sometimes late into the night, sometimes first thing in the morning. It was nothing special, just love, death, poems, God, meaning, and other lighthearted romantic topics. We argued a lot. Sometimes we agreed. Those were sweet times.
Dr. Lynn leaves, shutting the light off absent-mindedly on the way out, but I remain behind. I sit in the exam room by myself. I sit there and think about the good times before things went wrong.

Back in my room, the giant is lying on his bed reading my Flannery O’Connor short story collection over his enormous eyeglasses and sweating Crisco. His horrifying shoes are neatly off beside the bed and he nervously picks at a toe under his black sock. I grab Rilke and try to concentrate. I’m trying so hard to glean some wisdom from the poet.
I am too alone in the world, and not alone enough
to make every moment holy.

My roommate suddenly folds Flannery O’Connor and sits up and stares at me over his glasses. “I…there’s something I need to tell you.”
Oh god, please don’t confess any sex crimes to me, you big, wonderful weirdo. Anyway, I’m listening. Go on, good sir.
“The thing is…I…I snore. I snore really bad.”
I laugh, relieved. “No problem, man.” My wife had put earplugs in her care package. She must really love me.
“No, I mean, really bad. My roommate in Cottage C tried to murder me. I woke up in the middle of the night and he was choking me. That’s why they moved me over here…with you.” He swallows hard as if to check that his throat still works.
“Don’t worry, man. I’m not going to try to kill you. I swear.”
“Thanks. I mean…thanks.” The poor guy. He was sincerely grateful that I had promised not to kill him.
We both go back to reading, mutually relieved at being introverts. In the dead zone of the ward I think I feel something though. There is a tremble in the ether, a disturbance in the Force, like when my kids were too quiet. It meant there was trouble.
While Steven remains engrossed in Flannery O’Connor, I toss Rilke on the nightstand and creep toward the door. I cautiously peek out into the fluorescent brightness of the hospital hallway. To my surprise, as I look down the unit I see every doorway with a leering junkie standing in it, and Jonah and Scott D. scrambling out of the TV room like the fire alarm had just been pulled. Something is sending out an invisible signal to us, the same way heroin did. Just then I see Jesus emerge from the last doorway on the hall.
“Babe!” he calls. I turn to look up toward the nurse’s station and every junkie head in every doorway turns with me. In front of the battered old nurse’s desk with its charts and papers and inspirational slogans and bulky computer monitor, she is standing there: The One. The Beautiful One. The girl every human being has wanted to fuck or to be since they were twelve: long, long, waterfall of blonde honey-hair gliding down her smooth shoulders in their shimmering black spandex workout top, clinging to soft, deep-cream shoulder blades. Silky round bubble-butt in glistening black yoga pants giving way to tight, curve-laden silken legs. Big gleaming white running shoes that look like they just came out of the box. Yes, this was her.
Scotty-too-hottie walks, not runs, confidently up the hallway, with every guy on the hall following at a respectful distance like a wake of junkies.
“Jesus Christ,” I whisper behind Scott D. and Jonah.
“Dude. Not bad,” observes Scott D., with his gift for laconic understatement.
Scotty gives the gorgeous blonde a casual smooch, then picks her up to hug her in his hairless, muscular arms. She dangles off his chest like the St. Christopher medal.
A girl like that. There were attractive girls and very attractive girls, beautiful even, but a girl like that was like walking out of a swanky store in Atlanta and seeing a brand-new cherry-red Ferrari in the parking lot. Wow, you think, I’ve only seen these in the movies, and here’s one right here in real life! You could even touch it if you got close enough.
I notice Lindsey coming down the hall toward us from the other direction, staring and scowling at Jonah.
“What the fuck, dude?” Scott D. whispers. “Why would you even do drugs when you’ve got that?”
I don’t have an answer.
Without looking away from the goddess, Jonah leans closer to us and whispers, “Scotty played a couple years in the NFL. Wide receiver. He got hurt and had to quit. Got hooked on Oxy.”
For once a thing makes sense in here.
We all watch as Scotty-too-hottie turns the corner, strolling away with the goddess on his arm. I go back in my room and find my new roommate asleep on his bed, still head to toe in black, glasses still on his face. He is snoring a gentle, not at all homicide-inducing snore. Who knows why his roommate tried to kill him. It is a mental hospital, after all.
Dinner is early and then there’s nothing to do. My roommate is gone, probably over to Cottage C to get some crazy pills. I try to read but I can’t focus on Rilke right now. My head is still swirling with anxiety and depression and the withdrawal that I can almost feel, like standing in the surf with an ocean current pulling at my legs, pulling me back out to drown. I wonder what the moon is doing in the sky right now. I wonder if any of my friends think of me when they get in bed, just before they fall asleep. Oh, who am I kidding? I wonder about Ingrid. What could I have done to make her act so weird? My wife. Nana. Ingrid. Dr. Harvard. It seems like every woman in my life hates me but for different reasons.
Trying to remember what you did when you were fucked up. My friend calls it “The Slideshow.” Little snapshots. And a feeling that something very bad happened.

Click. Drunk at the poetry conference. Mad at somebody. Don’t know why. Kate is sitting next to me, keeps telling me to shush. I feel like she’s babysitting me.
Click. Sleeping in at the conference. Fuck all these assholes.
Click. Party time. I’m tasting drinks. More, more, more get higher and higher. Yes, this is perfect. This is how I should feel.
Click. Dancing with someone. Ingrid and others. Someone’s in my face. Someone’s mad at me. What the hell is wrong with them?

Click. How did I get back to bed?
Click. I’m dying. What did I do last night? Something happened?
Click. Texting Ingrid. Did we dance last night?
Click. “I’m okay” she texts back. What does that mean?
Click. Susan’s in my face. What have you been taking? We had to…
Click. Martin wants to talk. I’m crying. I can’t stop crying. “Maybe you should take a year off, mate,” he says. I knew it. He’s on their side. Everyone has abandoned me. I knew they would.
Click. I can’t stop crying. I’m drunk and crying and Miguel is chanting over me, a ritual to rid me of evil spirits but they won’t let go and I can’t stop crying.

Real heroin is the color of skin, tan to dark brown. If I could snort a line of East Coast Powder I could make all this go away, the way I used to.

Click. What did I say last night? Who did I say it to? Damage control. Every morning, damage control. I don’t even like drinking. I hate alcohol. I love drugs.
Click. I drink every night now.
Click. Fentanyl, cocaine, Fentanex. Idea for a poetry thing. “We’ll call it The Love Defenders.” All my friends will be there. I’ll show everyone. I’m Superman. I can fly.
Click. Texting Ingrid. I can redeem myself. I can always redeem myself with my magic words.

I pull up my worthless blanket, curl onto my side and stare at my roommate’s empty bed.
What could I have done to her? I try to piece it together.

Click. Drunk off my ass, crying in Kaylene’s office with the door shut.
Click. Boss is on Line 2. “You are going to a treatment center tonight or leave your key.” Whatever. I can smooth it over. They can’t fire the IT guy — I know everyone’s password.
Click. Why is my car blocked in? I’m not even that drunk anymore. My package. Where is my package?

Click. Rebecca is driving me. Stuck in Atlanta traffic. Sun going down. My dry cleaning! My hotel reservations! “I don’t have a drug problem. I have a reality problem,” I tell her. Drugs are my solution.
Click. Texting Bob Forrest. “Everybody says I have to go to rehab.” I want to talk to Dr. Drew.
Click. Text from Bob. “Who is everybody? Are you in LA?”
Click. I watch out the window. What does an actual rehab look like? Will there be celebrities doing yoga on the lawn? Maybe a bunch of horses being tended by recovering junkies?

Click. We’re here. There’s an elephant statue in the parking lot with its trunk raised to the sky. There’s a sign next to the elephant that says: “Every Life Lesson Is Important.” Elephants. Jesus.
Click. Why is my wife here? I thought I was just going to talk to someone? If I hurry, I can still make the trip. Who is picking up my dry cleaning!?

Click: I’m special. I will make everything all right. I’m powerful. I’m special. I’m special. I’m special. I’m special. Oh, forgive me. Everyone. Ingrid. Forgive me. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Click.

I line up for evening medication. Combined with all the other doses I’ve stashed in Best Science Fiction of 1974, the Tranxene they give me should get me to sleep. There is a faint hope we will see Scotty-too-hottie again and get a detailed after-action report, but it fades with the bell for QUIIIIET TIIIIIIIME, the TV and phone going dead and all the little zombies slinking off to their beds.

I squish the yellow earplugs into my ears, like pushing bullets into my brain, and break open Best Science Fiction of 1974 to the chapter on benzodiazepines.

Click: Writing a Facebook message to Ingrid. I’m sorry if I did anything…
Click: Sending it.

I want to get up and pace around some more but the powerful tranquilizer holds me down and forces me unconscious.

I sleep through the night thanks to those bullets in my ears, so I never find out how bad my roommate really does or doesn’t snore. He is up before me, a figure in black sitting on the edge of his bed cleaning his glasses with folds of the oversized black sweater on his stomach.
“Did…um…did everything go…okay…last night?” he asks.
“Yeah, man,” I say. “I slept great. How about you?”
He says nothing. But—for the first time since I met him—he smiles.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s