There is a Window in this Room

There is a Window in this Room

There is a Window in this Room 500 333 Chris Jansen

The thick gray privacy curtain blocks out all sunlight. I know it must be early morning because I hear the noise of life beginning on the other side of the door. An intercom is paging, Doctor Beck, call 2378, Doctor Beck. I hear people talking in the hall. It isn’t time for that yet. No, I told you it isn’t time. I hear the long moan of a floor buffer running somewhere. I lie on the bed, afraid to move. I listen instead.

The buffer sound reminds me of the time I worked as a janitor in a nursing home in Athens. It was my first job when I dropped out of college in my senior year. Obie and I had to sweep and mop and buff the floors daily. Obie taught me how to run the buffer, change the pads, guide it around the room without it going rogue and bucking into the residents as they crept around on their walkers. Obie didn’t have a driver’s license, so he would ask me to take him to the liquor store at lunch. He’d pop his dentures out and suck down a pint of cheap vodka in one great gulp like a catfish swallowing blood bait, then go back to work like no big deal. I didn’t blame him. The work sucked. The pay sucked. The nursing home was a depressing warehouse of death. And this was all the world for us.

I’m wrapped tightly in a hospital blanket so worn it’s practically a rag, still wearing my clothes from last night. I know the Ativan must have worn off by now but I’m not shaking anymore, just incredibly cold.

Where am I? I look around. The battered old desk and chair. The little beds. The temporary look of everything. This could be a dorm room in any college; it just needs some posters of Bob Marley and a dry erase board hanging over the desk. I look down at the yellow river of puke on my shirt. So this is what you did with your wild and precious life.

I hear a rolling clatter, voices and footsteps on the other side of the door growing louder, more hurried. I don’t want to get up but I can’t lie still anymore. I finally wrench myself up, throw my wooden legs over the side of the bed and rewrap the blanket around my arms and head. It’s about as thick as cheap toilet paper, but I can’t stand the death-touch of the air conditioning on my skin so I burrow down and wrap tighter. The tighter the blanket is, the more I feel like something is holding me.

I stand up, dizzy, and lurch toward the light that comes from under the door. I pull back the heavy metal handle and a flood of overwhelmingly bright light pours into my room.

Cautiously, I peer into the hallway while my eyes adjust. Chuck Berry is gone. The pretty island nurse is gone. An older woman with a pinched, sour smoker’s face is now standing at the nurse’s desk. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but I’m still in compliance mode. I think that if I play whatever game this is I can be out in a day or two, smooth things over with home and work, and start buying drugs again. I tighten my blanket and take a few steps out into the hallway. It feels much colder out here.

“Chris Jaaaaayy? You’re up,” calls the sour-faced woman with a gift for the obvious. “You need to go to…” She looks down at some papers. “First door on the right. Group.” I’m no longer Mr. Jansen or Jensen or Jonson. I’m Chris J. I’ve been stripped of everything, even my last name. I don’t really mind. You can steal my identity. It wasn’t doing me any good.

I go obediently down the hallway, a kindergartner on the first day of school.

Through the window in the door I see something is already going on, with people lined up in chairs against the wall and a good-looking blonde girl with an Auburn Tigers lanyard around her neck standing in front of a whiteboard.

I fumble open the door and the woman stops talking. I try to sink deeper into my shroud so no one can see my face and, even better, I can’t see theirs. I slip across the room, quiet as a mouse.

Please don’t see me. Please don’t see me.

“Look! A ghost!” shouts a voice from the other side of the room and everyone laughs.

Peeking out of my hood, I see the joker. A young guy with a bulldog nose and a long, sickly body, like his skin has been removed, boiled, and slipped back onto his white bones. He’s still beaming at his audience. I decide to take the empty seat next to him.

“Guys, let’s focus,” says the group leader, the hot blonde, and presumably,  Auburn fan.

“Hey man,” the joker whispers. “I’m Jonah F.”

I slip a paw out my blanket and give his boiled hand a little shake. “Chris.”

The group leader resumes. “We were talking about the therapeutic model and what to expect while you’re here.” She turns to make the marker squeak on the board.  With her being a quarter past gorgeous, normally I’d be required to stare at her ass. Now she’s just attractive in theory. My libido is as destroyed as my credit. Still, as she writes on the board I can just barely make out the hint of lace beneath her white shirt.

I take inventory of my fellow zombies. There is a plump white babygirl, a couple of dumpy middle-aged ladies, a young blond surfer-looking guy, a guy bent double with his shaggy yellow hair falling straight down at the floor, a tiny brown man in dusty work boots who looks like he was abducted from a landscaping crew. So these are the losers who wind up in a place like this.

Next to me the joker raises his hand. “Don’t we need a check-in from the new guy?” He cocks a thumb in my direction. “I mean, he looks like another shady junkie to me.” A titter of laughs from the room while he turns and flashes me a conspiratorial smile.

“Yes, thank you, Jonah. Would you care to check in with us?”

Me? I don’t know what “check in” means. Am I not already checked in? I think back to a group therapy thing I did years ago with my crazy Jungian therapist. I guess I’m supposed to say something.

“I’m Chris Jan—Chris J. I just got here.” I smile my don’t-hurt-me smile, my I’m-sure-I’m-doing-this-wrong smile.

“Can you say how you’re feeling right now?” she asks.

“How I’m feeling? I don’t know…” The truth is I’m scared and feeling pretty fucked-up and awful. I try to quickly divine what she wants to hear. “I’m feeling…hopeful?”

I’m feeling anything but hopeful. Hopeless, angry, panicked, vengeful. But nothing that falls even slightly within the perimeter of hopeful.

“Welcome to the Group. We’re glad you’re here.” Her duty done, box checked, she returns to her rap. “So who knows why we recommend residential recovery? Can anybody tell me?” I see her name written on the board in a bubbly blue script. Jessica.

This girl is too attractive to be working at a place like this. She’s every hot college chick that ever chanted a song outside an antebellum mansion on sorority row. I live in Athens, Georgia, home to the University of Georgia (at least I did live there when I was alive), and I see her at fall rush every year. She comes and goes, perpetually nineteen, while I age into oblivion like a science fiction nightmare. Only this one had stuck around long enough to get a master’s in social work or marriage and family therapy. And now she was here, unweaving some spell of shame. Maybe dad was your standard alpha-male alcoholic business-success-philanderer. Maybe mom was pill-popping bipolar who looked the other way. There had to be something wrong with her if she was spending her day with these freaks instead of lunching with the ladies.

I’m watching how this Group thing works and trying to screw myself deeper down into my blanket. This place is supposed to be a hospital. There’s a nurse’s station outside and I’m wearing a white hospital armband, but there are no machines beeping, no gowns, no cute nurses in green scrubs with stethoscopes draped across their necks like languid snakes. How is this room and this woman and these chairs filled with zombies supposed to heal my sick body and broken brain? This is just talking.

Zombies. My fellow seat-fillers look like they just escaped from a very boring horror movie. At the touch of the blonde lady’s voice a zombie sits up, murmurs an answer. I guess we’re supposed to talk about things? I’m not sure if this is supposed to be therapy or maybe just a way to pass time until we are sobered up, cleaned out. I used to think words had magical properties. I used to be in love with them. There don’t seem to be any magic words here though.

Jessica makes her way through the undead, getting a few groans from each one. I don’t like this. I don’t belong here.

Sitting in this Sunday school room with colored crayon art projects on the wall and stenciled slogans like Easy does it and One day at a time, I start to feel apprehension solidifying into terror again. The shot they gave me last night has definitely worn off.  The hollow place inside me, which used to contain my heart, has been replaced by a tangled nest made of toilet paper and wasp spit, and now it’s waking up inside my chest, alive with fear and pain.

I’m so cold inside. The shakes are starting again in my hands, and spasms of dopesick roll through my side where my liver is. I’m giving birth to a baby called Withdrawal and it fucking hurts. I don’t know what else they’ll give me or when, and I still don’t know if they are even competent to take care of me given the exotic pharmacopeia of internet-supplied substances I abuse, but I have no choice now. I think of a line from a Theodore Roethke poem. “I sleep to wake and take my waking slow / I learn by going where I have to go.”

Where I have to go. Where I have to go.

When the last zombie has had his turn at moaning, Jessica proffers a sideways grin. “We’re glad to have you all here. Please feel free to find me if you have any questions.” Class dismissed.

I look around at the tamed menagerie of undead bodies beginning to rise and shuffle toward the door. Two of the women look at Jessica and then look back at each other with feminine disgust. I start to feel sorry for her, even though as a staff member she is clearly going to be my enemy. This is what happens when you get to a new place, any new place. You have to choose sides right away. Who will be friends and who enemies. Who’s in and who’s out. Even though Jessica seems nice, the first friendly face I’ve seen here, I dare not choose staff. If anyone, I choose the joker. I choose Jonah.

Header photo © Joanna C. Valente.

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