Eddie pulled at the leash just like he had done four times a day for the past three weeks. Three of the four weeks I am to be walking him around this neighborhood, living in this duplex. This is not my neighborhood. This is not my duplex. I yank his leash again and tell him, “Cats. Cats are the answer. I like Eddie, but I’m depressed. I have no job, no lover, no money, no home and, “you’re not even my fucking dog. I realize I’m talking out loud. I laugh. Laugh like a crazy person. Maybe I am a crazy person. I don’t know anymore. All I know I have to drive across town to Woodland Hills in half an hour and I need coffee.
I make my way from East Jesus China to West Frickin’ Africa Hills I listen to KZLA, the southland’s best country station.
Shania finishes intoning the musical question “Who’s bed have your boots been under” and an ad comes on asking me if I’m depressed. Coincidence? Traffic has come to a boiling standstill on Burbank boulevard. The announcer recites a checklist of symptoms. Each one sounds familiar and personal. I’ve heard this kind of ad before, but I’m stuck in traffic, hot, vulnerable with a fully charged cell phone and 5000 rollover minutes. Plus, I get a free physical.
A physical. My mind flashes to the possible horror of “You’re Riddled With it” a recurring terror. It goes something like this:
After my free physical, teams of nurses and student doctors gather around me in my fetching paper dress, and stare, agape. They’re amazed I can even stand, am even conscious in my condition. They ask if they can study me. Poke me with medical sticks and flash bright medical lights up my nose. They don’t even ask if I’d like some morphine. They look at me like a drug addict when I mention it. “Come on, fuckers, I’m riddled with it! I get mad and then sad. And then I get all Cherokee and walk out of White Man’s Medical Land alone in my paper dress all the way up the mountain. You know, the one Cherokees walk up. Today is a good day to die. I plan to pray to Great Spirit and drink the bottle of fire water in my hand and on purpose nap very close to the falls, and on purpose place a small, stabby rock at my back. A car horn honks. Strangely out of place on top of a spite mountain. But not in Reseda. I dial the number.
A timid, very gay sounding boy named Darrin tells me about lots of studies. I listen. Just as I’m about to politely excuse myself he mentions one that studies the depressed person’s response to massage. I know already that, depressed or not, I generally respond well to free massage. I make an appointment. Eight a.m. Friday.
I wake up bright and energized Friday morning because… I have somewhere to be. I don’t feel particularly depressed or crazy this morning, but I hope I’ll be a good subject anyway. I try to think dark thoughts. It’s not difficult. I’ll be fine.
I’m told to park in the Steven Speilberg lot. Which, by the way, has no sign telling you it’s Speilberg’s. None. Maybe you’re just supposed to feel that Spielbergian vibe. Use your feelings, Paige. I used my feelings and found it. My feelings were tired so I asked the parking guard to direct me to the Thalions building. He pointed.
Across the street stood the giant, gray Thalions Building, which couldn’t say any larger on the side “Mental Health Services. I imagine what someone would think seeing me walk in here. This paranoia is probably a symptom of my condition. I call it that now. I’ve claimed it fully, planted my flag atop the quivering heap of neuroses I call ME.
An imposing flight of concrete stairs leads up to the entrance doors. I position myself right in the middle and climb them slowly, thoughtfully, gazing up at the monolithic structure like Mary Tyler Moore in downtown Minneapolis. Maybe it’s the just the size of the building, but I begin to feel like I’m doing something important like going to court to fight for my children or taking on a great corporate bully. I feel a little Brokovichian. “This is important,” I tell myself as I climb, “I’m taking steps toward my mental and emotional health. Literally.”
Suddenly, from the top of the steps, comes a loud noise. I look up. A Mexican kid in a crash helmet explodes from the doors. His mother is just steps behind him trying futilely to wrangle him, “Paco! Paco! But he’s in a determined frenzy, “No, Mami, I can do it myself. I’m not a baby! The crash helmet seemed like evidence enough to the contrary. I casually drift from the center to a safe distance at one side of the steps. If Paco takes a header down the mental health steps I certainly don’t want him landing on top of me. After all, he’s the one with the helmet.
The inside of the building is grayer than the outside, if that’s possible. Gray industrial carpet. Gray water fountains. Gray trim. Gray doors with plaques beside them announcing the room number. Long room numbers. Office E90087H. Pantry F62224.
The first person I see is a very thin woman in her fifties wearing that outfit all thin women in their fifties in the health care professions wear. High-waisted black pants, blouse tucked in, black flats with hose and a fussy necklace with add-a-charm parts of some sort. She has short, confidence inducing hair and a confidence inducing name: Joan. Joan asks me to wait in the hallway. I smile politely and sit. I think about listening to my iPod then think I’ll just look like a punk. Then I think about organizing my purse. This I do. Maybe a little anal retentive, but that’s it. And I, frankly, don’t think having a tidy purse is all that damning.
Joan emerges from Office E46973 and leads me to Exam Room E45793B. She gives me documents: information sheets and release forms for two different studies.
I am to read and understand both studies by the time Joan returns. I haven’t seen Darrin and neither study mentions a word about massage. I make a note to ask. Then I set about reading and understanding.
Joan returns and has brought with her the doctor. A very tiny doctor. She introduces herself and I recognize her name from the paperwork: Dr. Merlot. That’s a nice name, I think.
Dr. Merlot has short severe hair, but with in an industrial, art school kind of androgyny. She wears plastic rimmed, art school type glasses, too. Man, she’s tiny. I assume she’s a lesbian and possibly the tiniest lesbian I’ve ever seen. That is, aside from child lesbians, who are, by virtue of the fact that they’re children, small. If she was a little bigger and a little prettier she might be fully sexy in that hot, Weimar way. She has the confident, self-possession of a German. I instantly assume everyone’s German, even Joan. I imagine Dr. Merlot and Joan smoking unfiltered cigarettes, throwing back bootlegged Absinthe in a dank Berlin resistance bar, while Marlene Deitrich lies on top of the piano oozing Lili Marlene and making eyes at the world’s tiniest lesbian.
We talk about the two studies and I ask questions I’ve jotted down neatly in my note pad. I ask about the massage study and Dr. Merlot knows nothing about it. I decide it was a clever ruse and curse my knee jerk trust of friendly sounding fags. She asks me more questions about my personal habits. When I tell her I’m a regular drinker she gets really excited. The two studies are whisked off the table and I’m given a new set of papers to read and understand. Her name is also at the top of this paper. But I see now that it is in fact not Dr. Merlot, but Dr. Melort. This is obviously the study for me.
Dr. Merlot/Melort asks if I mind if a student observes the profiling process. That’s fine, I say. In a flash I imagine a hospital porn scenario and wait for the slap bass. But the door opens and in lumbers Paula, a great corn fed girl from our icy northern provinces. The slap bass evaporates into bagpipes. Paula is so white she’s almost clear. Her eyes are wide, very blue and very open. No discernible eyelashes. Maybe little pink ones.
She has the black flats like Joan, and the fussy necklace. But she wears a skirt, showing off her sturdy, cow coaxing legs. Like great aspens of the hinterlands. She shakes my hand, strong. If Paula had been on the mental health steps she would’ve caught that crazy, Mexican kid in the helmet. She would’ve scooped him up in her mental health arms and whisked him off to holy mental health sanctuary.
Behind Paula comes another student, Kelly. This is veering dangerously close to the Riddled With It scenario. The upside is, Kelly is stunning. She looks like young Mariel Hemmingway in Manhattan. She’s tanned, young, healthy and impossibly perfect all the way up and down. She shakes my hand. It’s a wet paper towel of a handshake. I’m thinking “ew’ and “oh” at the same time. I almost short circuit.
The study Dr.Merlot wants me to participate in examines the effect of the anti-depressant Celexa on drinkers versus non-drinkers. Dr. Merlot believes drinking is really self-medicating and should be regarded as such. Yeah, we’re gonna set the medical community on fire with that one, wee one.
Dr. Merlot asks probing questions about my drinking habits. I’m a little uncomfortable at first but then I get used to being the big juicer in the room and I kind of run with it. She asks, “Do you ever have a drink in the morning? I answer, “What if I’m jet-lagged and I have a spicy Bloody Mary at brunch, their time? Neither Kelly nor Paula smile. Fucking humorless Krouts. “No, I don’t have drinks with breakfast. Scribble, scribble.
Perfect Kelly finally speaks. It is sun drenched SoCal and not the least bit confidence inspiring. Kelly’s training must have told her to “look compassionate and interested. Make the question sound conversational. I resent Kelly’s eyebrows that arch upward with the studied “bad actor” version of compassion each time she reads a question. Why does she think she needs to do this? Because she doesn’t see me as a person, she sees me as a subject. She looks at me, reciting from her list like I’m an un-put-together Ikea bookcase. I hate her. She’s a gorgeous, condescending twit.
Finally we finish. Kelly consults with Paula about something on the next sheet and then Kelly’s eyebrows tell me they need to administer a breathalizer test. I guess since I’m doing the drunk study they need to make sure I’m not drunk right this second. My appointment was at eight and I haven’t been out of their sight since then and to my knowledge the Mental Health building doesn’t have a bar. But, as I consider this, it might not be a bad idea.
By this time I’m feeling a little like I’m giving plasma for money. Why did I want to do this? The steps. Remember the steps. Yes, of course. But is this really the way to go about self improvement? There are people who wouldn’t balk at Kelly’s condescension. There are tons of people way worse off than I am. But those are probably not the people who could be prompt for an eight am appointment unless they slept outside the door. What do they, NO, what do I hope to learn from this study? In order to rein my depression I’ve agreed to take a mind altering drug which, if it doesn’t give me panic attacks, will probably make me fat, itchy and unable to achieve orgasm. I can’t imagine anything more depressing.
The breathalizer shows that I am not, in fact, hammered. I offer to go get us all jello shots and dash right back. Kelly’s eyes go blank, micro-seconds pass, tiny synapses finally fire and in moments she realizes I’ve just made what people call a joke. She smiles. This is the first time. I may never stop hating her.
Paula takes my vitals. Dr. Merlot takes my blood. And not a little either. I’m lightheaded. I am given Pepsi and a granola bar and left alone in the exam room to scale the growing summit of my sugar high.
When I can finally stand without seeing little sparkly bunnies, I exit the room. Dr. Merlot is in the hall talking with Joan, Kelly and Paula. They stop talking when I approach. Why yes, I guess I do feel like people are talking about me. “So I’m done? I ask.
Joan tells me there’s one more thing. She hands me a very large plastic bottle. It’s brown and, did I say, very large. The day before the test begins every time I pee I am to pee into this. It’s not a joke. What’s better is that I’m going to be driving six hours on Interstate 5 that day. I politely ask if there’s something a tad more discreet I could bring into the Pacheco Road Texaco with me. I secretly hope this disqualifies me from doing the study altogether. Joan supposes I can fill the pee jug the day before I drive. She puts it in a nice Cedar’s Sinai shopping bag and we say goodbye outside Exam Room E4579384456B.
Outside the mental health building the sun is high and searing. I fumble with the giant pee jug, my purse and my plateauing sugar rush. I decide to sit at the top of the Mental Health steps and collect myself. I wish I had a helmet. I’m not sure I’m coming back.