Jimmy, he’s my dragon. He’s not a dragon like Smaug from The Hobbit. He’s a dragon like Mushu from Mulan. Except he’s purple with golden eyes. He likes to sit draped around my shoulders. He spits hot fire.
But only if you give him sixteen bars.
Jimmy’s been my best friend since I was maybe five years old. He likes to breathe his rhymes into my ears. I don’t think he realizes that he just rips off popular tunes and changes the words. Or he does know and doesn’t care. He spends a lot of time talking about artistic license.
He’s at his best when he’s doing “Copacabana.”
Jimmy is the one getting me through high school. I’m going through this phase where I don’t sleep a lot and it’s hard to stay focused. I go to public school, but a suburban one. People probably say it’s pretty nice, especially by public school standards. The problem with nice schools for kids who don’t sleep is that, sometimes, the teachers actually give a shit.
The teacher, she goes by Ms. Rachel. She’s not a teacher like Veronica Vaughn, the love interest from Billy Madison. She’s a teacher like that guy in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the one played by Ben Stein, in that she’s boring as shit. I think her last name’s Bass or something, like the fish, not the instrument. Or maybe she just has a fish face.
Anyway, she’s one of those people that insists you call her by her first name, even though she clings to the “Ms.” I guess as a way to symbolically hold onto her authority or something.
She starts in on me about do I need anything from her. And how are things going at home. And have I considered talking to the school guidance counselor. She can’t make me, but strongly recommends it. She’s a pain in the ass.
Every time she really gets going with this shit, Jimmy picks up the Barry Manilow.
—Her name was Fish Face. She was a teacher. And she could never butt out, because her face looked like a trout—
I whistle along while Jimmy sings, until Ms. Rachel gives up and goes back to writing on the board about who-cares-what.
Here’s the other thing about public school. They need public funding. To get it kids have to graduate. And yeah, the school’s in good shape, but there were teacher strikes last year. Something about not enough money in the budget. I can’t really remember.
So I graduate on the merit of this creative project I do. I put on this black-box, one-man show in the theater for Ms. Rachel, the assistant principal, and the volunteer theater director from the local church. Jimmy is my sounding board throughout the whole thing. The show is about characters created by this guy with extreme insomnia. Each one has a key personality trait that helps the main guy cope with all the underlying shit that keeps him awake. The character makes a big deal about not going into the issues he’s repressing. He says how far down he’s shoved everything. He goes on and on about keeping his real issues safe and removed from anyone, even someone as far away as an audience member he’ll never meet.
He won’t go into details about how he stays up until 4 AM every morning watching old movies because they’re the only way he can connect to the world. The father who he watched kill his mother. His brother who, at the age of 14, smoked himself into paranoid schizophrenia. He won’t tell you any more about his crippling inferiority complex. Or his inability to connect with actual human beings. There won’t be anything more about his fear of letting anyone in because they’ll leave.
He—the main character—tells you all of this without really telling you any more about it. The story isn’t about his past.
The whole thing’s probably way too meta, but they wind up passing me, so that’s pretty neat.
Tiger, he’s my bear. He’s not a bear like the bears from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He’s a bear like Yogi Bear. Except he doesn’t wear a tie. He wears a leather jacket and smokes cigarettes. He goes by Tiger because he thinks the irony makes him sound cool. He doesn’t have a great grip on the true meaning of irony.
But wow, can he beat box.
Tiger gets me through my Associate’s at community college. There are all these prerequisite classes that everyone has to take, no matter what. That’s where I meet Tiger, sitting to my left, drumming on his desk and making popping noises with his mouth. This wouldn’t really bother me, but it makes it so Jimmy never shuts the fuck up.
—His name was Tiger. But he was a bear. With a stupid fucking name, and he always dressed the same. With that dumb jacket, but never shoes on—
So we’re sitting in this freshman comp class, and my head starts to nod and jolt the way it does when you’re fighting to stay awake. And of course, the only time my body is willing to sleep is during class. If only I were cool like that dude from Fight Club.
That’s where Tiger sort of bails me out. While the professor talks about these bullshitty philosophers—guys like Paulo Freire or Michael Pollan—Tiger will tell me jokes.
He leans over and whispers stuff like, what happens when you shove a pogo stick up a duck’s ass?
He times it so that his question ends right when the professor says, “What.”
He tells me you get a bouncing quack and tilts his chin towards our professor.
My head snaps up and I snort loud.
The professor and a couple other kids look at me. I avert my eyes. The professor looks less than happy. He asks, “Is there something funny?”
Tiger leans over and whispers to me.
I say, “Knock, knock.”
The professor stares at me. A girl in the front row of the class asks me, who’s there?
I say, “To.”
The girls asks, to who?
I snarl, “To whom.”
The professor’s lip sort of curls, like maybe he’ll laugh. Then his face turns all hard.
He says, “Get the fuck out of my class.”
I shrug and sling my backpack over one shoulder, slouch out of the classroom. On the way out, Jimmy is singing.
—His name was Hard Ass. He had bad E.D. And since he couldn’t get it up, he could never get enough. Shouting at students, to o-ver-comp-en-sate—
The girl from the front of the class, she scoffs at the professor and does the universal sign for “suck it” before following Tiger, Jimmy, and me from the classroom. So I guess, now, I officially have my own posse or something.
The girl and I don’t talk. She keeps looking at me while we walk outside and opening her mouth then not saying anything. Eventually she shrugs and that’s that.
We all loiter under an ash tree until it’s time for my Intro to Theater class. This class, I kind of like. We learn about some interesting people. Tiger likes Oscar Wilde and takes to quoting him.
He starts saying things like, the only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.
He thinks it makes him sound real deep.
He says these quotes in class, while drumming in weird time signatures, experimenting with 13/8.
The professor, she’s a doctor. She’s not a doctor like Henry Gray, the one who wrote Gray’s Anatomy, the essential medical text, nor the overwrought TV show. She’s a doctor like Dr. Seuss, in that she’s not really a doctor. Her name is Frances Moyer. She smiles a lot.
She has us reading The Importance of Being Earnest. Tiger is beatboxing behind me at his desk. Jimmy tells me it’s my turn to rap, but that I have to do it quiet so I don’t disrupt class. The girl, she’s not in this class, but she sits and takes notes anyway.
“Here, with Jimmy and Tiger, my bear. I’d call him my dog but he’s a bear I swear—”
After class Dr. Moyer comes up to my desk.
She asks, “Do you mind coming with me to my office?”
I tell her, “Sure.”
—Her name was Frances. She was a Ph.D. But it was in Theater Studies, so she might be a dummy. But what a rack on her, I’d love to see them things—
I flick Jimmy in his snout and follow Dr. Moyer to her office. While we’re walking, Dr. Moyer tells me how interested she is in this one-man show I put on in high school. She read my personal essay about the play and wants to hear more.
Tiger tells me that there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
We get to her office and I explain the character from my play. Explain to her Jimmy’s character. How he loves Barry Manilow. That sometimes you love your best friends simply because you don’t have to hide from them.
She blinks at me.
She says, “That sounds interesting. Do you hide a lot?”
She asks if I like plays by George Bernard Shaw.
I say, “I don’t know who that is.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be studying some of his work in a week or two. He’s one of the really big hitters of playwrights.”
Then she starts talking about Shaw’s philosophies and approaches to theater. I’m not listening. I’m more interested in the way her eyes sparkle while she talks. The little movements her lips form around vowels. The fingers flying through the air with her hand motions. How her French manicure reflects the light.
But I nod along as if I know exactly what she’s talking about.
—There was some tension. And it was sex-u-al. With the hot doctor in her lair, and her perfect shiny hair—
Tiger waxes poetic about be yourself, everyone else is already taken.
When Dr. Moyer finally relaxes, her breath is a little short. I think, okay, yeah, maybe I can, like, talk to this lady, possibly.
So I say, “Would you want to get a drink sometime?”
The girl from comp is leaning in the doorway and her eyebrows go up.
Dr. Moyer asks, “How old are you exactly?”
“Eighteen and three quarters.”
She looks at me sideways.
She says, “Legally, no.”
She tells me, “Besides, you’re my student.”
Tiger tells me hear no evil, speak no evil—and you’ll never be invited to a party.
I ask her, “What if I wasn’t your student?”
I tell her, “There’s more to life than sleeping through classes.”
I say, “Dropping out is always an option,” and I wink at her. I immediately wish I hadn’t winked at her.
She says, “You’re still too young.” Then softer, “Maybe when you graduate—if you’re twenty-one—I’ll buy you a drink to celebrate.”
I try not to take it personally.
The girl steps into the room now. She points her finger at Dr. Moyer. She asks what the fuck is wrong with her?—the doctor that is.
She calls Dr. Moyer a fucking prude bitch, asks her if she’s serious.
She talks about how much of a fucking cock tease Dr. Moyer is being and can she really not see how hard that was for me? How fucking lucky Dr. Moyer would be to go out with me? That, at the very least, to hedge her bets against me becoming the next Bernard Shaw, whoever the fuck that is, she could at least throw me a hand job or something.
This whole time, I’m staring at the girl. I can feel all this burning heat in my ears. My eyes hurt from how wide they are.
Dr. Moyer is looking at the girl with one eyebrow raised and her hands folded on her desk.
I stammer out an apology and grab the girl by her elbow.
We leave the room with the girl still shouting shit at Dr. Moyer.
The girl from class, Analyn, she’s my dream girl. She’s not a dream girl like the girl in that shitty Dave Matthews Band song, “Dream Girl.” She’s a dream girl like if you wrapped up the personalities of Juno from the movie Juno and Olivia Munn and made them smell like daisies.
Analyn, she’s getting me through this stay we’re doing in a behavioral center for people with substance abuse issues. She’s there because she accidentally took too many Xanax. Then she decided to drive out and adopt a puppy. She crashed into a fire hydrant on the way. I’m in for getting high huffing glue and trying to hang myself with an extension cord. I found out which behavioral center Analyn was in and demanded to go to the same one.
The thing with Analyn is that her mom is Filipina and her dad is Jewish and she’s fucking beautiful. She has these thick cords of scar tissue on her inner forearm from middle school. They spell the name “Kurt.” She loves Nirvana. Maybe she likes me because I smell like teen spirit, but even I know that’s a bad joke.
Analyn loves bad jokes.
I ask her, “What do you call an alligator in a vest?”
She pretends she hasn’t heard it before and asks what? She laughs hard when I tell her it’s an investigator.
I can almost hear Jimmy and Tiger in her laugh.
Her laugh sounds like —Her name was Analyn. And she s-oon became. Our very good dear friend, and she will be till the end—
Her laugh is Tiger saying that man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
Analyn falls asleep on my shoulder during our daily classes. We have all these guest speakers come in. Guys with PTSD from Desert Storm and women who say they’ll never beat their heroin addiction, but they know they won’t be shooting up today, at least.
We watch episodes of Intervention after these guest speakers. Most of the other patients shout at the television. They yell stuff like, “Why are we watching this? It’s fucking triggering,” or, “I can’t watch this bitch cut herself no more,” or, “Tell him to stop talking to his fucking brother, that dude is an enabler.”
I don’t understand why we watch them, either. No one here is getting scared straight. No one feels safer for the fact that other people have similar problems. No one evolves from watching these videos.
We watch a particularly graphic episode. One about an alcoholic, anorexic woman, who was sexually assaulted as a child. She can’t stop slugging down vodka and taking razors to her inner thighs. Afterwards, we get a little lecture to wrap up class.
The nurse who plays these tapes says, “The things we’re most scared of are ourselves. The things we’re most in danger from are ourselves. The only thing really holding you back is yourself.”
And what a load of horse shit that is.
We get dinner from a cafeteria. Then we come back and unwind in these surprisingly comfortable chairs. There are tables for doing jigsaw puzzles and a chess set and some other innocuous stuff. Analyn and I sit and color.
Analyn asks me what do you get when you breed a horse with a rabbit?
I ask her, “What?”
She tells me it’s a dead rabbit.
I snort but don’t laugh.
She tells me to come on. That that’s a funny one.
I say, “Too morbid for me.”
She asks me why the girl dropped her cell phone.
She tells me the girl was an unfortunate victim of a drive-by shooting. She laughs from her belly and slaps her knee. She explains to me that these are a brand of comedy called “anti-jokes,” in which the humor arises from the fact that they’re not at all funny.
The explanation makes me laugh more than the jokes themselves, which I find to be in poor taste.
I get up to get us a bag of pretzels from a little snack alcove. I sit down across from Analyn and she says she wanted Raisinettes. I stick my tongue out at her and we split the pretzels.
There’s a nightly AA meeting we have to go to. Everyone goes through the motions. This guy Floyd with three piercings in his nose—one in each nostril and another in the septum—snores loudly from the back. The same people volunteer to do the readings every night, not because they’re invested in the meeting, but because it gets us out quicker so we can all watch Sanford & Son.
After the meeting, after the two AA guys tell their horror stories about rock bottom, after the same three people from our group say the same three things that they say every night, we walk up to shake the speakers’ hands. Their palms are sweaty and their eyes are a little shifty.
Analyn says she’s pretty sure she smells liquor on their breath. She says it’s definitely whiskey. That the mix of bourbon and cigarettes makes her want to gag. A lot of the other patients complain about the same thing. They tell our unit’s staff. The staff is pretty well used to these kinds of complaints and ignore them.
Analyn and I sit by ourselves while everyone else gets their vitals taken.
Analyn tells me to drop some phat bars for her.
“Analyn and me, we’re sitting at a table, she’s so pretty that this might be a fable, but it isn’t one, so it’s more fun, and maybe some time we could go for a run—”
She giggles and tells me I really lost the thread there.
The nurse, she’s a real eyesore, but I think her outside reflects her insides. She’s not a nurse like Florence Nightingale. She’s a nurse like Kristen Gilbert, the lady who murdered four veterans in the hospital. She’s a nurse like that fucking kid killer Beverly Allitt. She’s a nurse like the nurses that worked for Dr. Mengele and smiled.
She says, “You need to stop singing and come get your blood pressure taken.”
I say, “I wasn’t singing.”
I mutter, “You should mind your own fucking business.”
I tell her, “These new pills give me the night sweats.”
She looks at me annoyed and hands me a little paper cup with a white tablet and a green capsule. Analyn tells me we have creative therapy tomorrow. That I should make another one man show so everyone can see that I’m exactly how I need to be. That I don’t need these fucking meds. That I should just be myself.
I look at her.
I remind her how it was only 9 days ago that I tried to kill myself.
I sigh and take the pills.
The nurse makes me get up so she can take my vitals. She lets everyone out for a cigarette break. The smoke reminds me of Tiger, but of course, he isn’t there.
One of the orderlies, the only one I can even moderately stand, plays music for us quietly, even though he isn’t supposed to. He plays “Copacabana,” per my request. I feel for Jimmy around my shoulders, but of course, he isn’t there.
I turn for Analyn, so I can tell her about the joke I just thought of. An anti-joke about the president really being a seventeen-foot-tall reptile in a human suit. But, of course, she isn’t there.
My doctor tells me I’m set to go home right before Thanksgiving, I’m not listening to him. I spend the next day idly saying yes to IOP—intensive outpatient—programs and chemical regimens, pulling my pants up constantly because there are no strings or belts of any kind allowed inside the unit, shitting behind a curtain because the unit’s staff has to be able to check on me every fifteen minutes.
So now it’s time for me to leave.
Usually, everyone does this weird, lovey-dovey bullshit act of handing out their phone number when they get discharged. It’s like a ritual. They tell every single person to call them. They promise they’ll call the facility from the outside to keep things lively. They write the number down in green crayon on torn strips of paper.
This show, it makes me think about George Bernard Shaw, who I’ve been reading while I’m here.
He says, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
I wonder if Dr. Moyer has any openings in her classes.