Landing on the Moon
“How long were you in detox for?” this girl asks me. I’ve never seen her before. We’re standing in line at the cafeteria waiting for the attendant to refill the juice machine.
“Two days, I think.”
“I was in detox a week.”
“Good for you.”
I give up on the juice and this girl follows me as we cut out of line and walk to the tables. I spot a table in the far corner. She sits down next to me. She looks at me and every time I look back, she turns away.
“So why are you here?” I say, tired of the silence.
“Cocaine. Let me guess you, OK?”
“Sure, go ahead,” I mumble, picking up my fork.
* * *
Three days ago my mom asked me if I wanted to go get something to eat. We drove to Judy’s Deli on the south side of town. She seemed nervous and continued to examine the menu long after we ordered. After we finished eating, she suggested we take a walk. We strolled down the street and then my mom opened a door and motioned for me to go in. I didn’t even think to read the sign on the door. I went in. Two large men were sitting on a couch in the waiting room and I saw a receptionist desk and then I read the writing on the wallMidwest Adolescent Rehabilitation Institute.
The two men stood up and just then a woman with a clipboard approached me. I turned around and my mom was wiping her eyes and looking down at the floor. The woman was smiling and introduced herself. I shook her hand out of instinct.
The smiling lady with the clipboard took my arm and suggested that we go in another room and talk. Since I was under eighteen, my mom had the lawful right to sit in on the intake consultation. She did although I soon forgot she was even in the room.
I did more listening than talking. She explained the program; I kept interrupting her, “How long?” And she kept talking over my questions. “How long am I going to be here?” That’s all I wanted to know. She told me.
“Eight to twelve weeks, are you kidding me?” I yelled.
“Scott, you really need to calm down.”
“Is this a goddamn joke?”
When the smiling lady with the clipboard said they were going to take me to detox, my mom lost it. She left the room. One of the big guys came in and introduced himself as Roy. I said, “Hi, Roy,” and he didn’t say hi back. He instructed me to stand up, opened a door and we walked side by side down the hallway. I could hear my mom crying. Then we went through another set of doors and I didn’t hear her anymore.
* * *
“My name’s Angel, by the way.”
“Hi, I’m Scott.”
“Actually my real name is Elizabeth but my friends call me Dark Angel, or Dark or just Angel. But I want you to call me Angel. So you’re still on Level One, right?”
There’s a level system that distinguishes progress in the program. There are five levels. With each new level you obtain greater freedom and more recreational choices. Once you’re on level five, theoretically, you are ready for discharge. Angel tells me all this. She’s surprised that I haven’t yet heard about the level system. Oh, I remember vaguely someone telling me, I tell her, trying not to come across like a complete idiot.
“What level are you?” I say.
“How long you been here?”
* * *
My roommate is a scrawny guy from the sticks. He got transferred in from some farm town in south central Kansas. He’s a huffer. He inhales Scotchgard, paint and god knows what else. His eyes have a permanent glassy look. He’s not too bright. He says things like, “I ain’t gonna quit huffin’, no siree, not me, they can get someone else, but damn better leave me alone, know what I mean?”
Yeah, knock yourself out.
After breakfast a psych tech pulls me aside and informs me that my doctor is here to see me. Angel waves at me from down the hallway and I wave back. After I visit with my doctor, I will join an A.A. group, the tech tells me. I go into a little room, a tad larger than a phone booth and sit nose to nose with my doctor.
“How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” I tell him.
“I’m Dr. Miller.”
“We’re starting you on Wellbutrin today.”
And two minutes later I’m finished and walking up the stairs with a different psych tech, Beth. Beth is cute. I don’t usually care for blondes, but I’m always willing to make an exception and for her, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I prefer dark hair, red hair, Asian, Jewish girls, Hungarian, Greek, Colombian, Russian, Welsh. I even dated this Saudi Arabian girl once, until her father found us holding hands on her couch one day. He went ballistic. “No American! No American!” he screamed and then broke into a sing-song tirade in his native Arabic. “What the hell is he saying?” I yelled at my Arab princess. “He’s reciting an Islamic prayer; he’s putting a curse on you, so that you will have bad luck for the rest of your life.” I told her, “This just isn’t working out,” and ran to my car as fast as I could.
But Beth, lovely Beth. She has short blonde hair, cut all clean looking and sweet, with these ocean blue eyes to boot. I let her walk in front of me as we went up the stairs.
An old man with a ponytail is standing at a dry erase board writing words on it: Alcoholism, Addiction, Delirium Tremors, Family Dysfunction. I stop and read them before sitting down next to my roommate in the back of the room.
“Has anyone in this room suffered from delirium tremors?” Old Man Ponytail asks the room.
I raise my hand. “Not sure if this qualifies but the first night I was in detox, I woke up and thought there was an elephant in my room. So I started yelling at it to leave.” Everyone laughs.
“What did the elephant do?” a girl says.
“Just stared at me and then took a big shit right there in my room.”
“How awful!” The girl next to me covers her mouth.
“Not to mention, I was the one who had to clean it up.”
“During this delirium, you cleaned up the feces?” Old Man Ponytail says.
“Yes! Not a simple process trying to clean up elephant shit with Kleenex and toilet paper.”
My roommate taps me on the shoulder. “You can’t say shit.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about saying, well, you know, what I just said.”
Old Man Ponytail shakes his head, assuring me that my word slip-up was unimportant. He rubs his beard, which I just now notice, and writes another word on the dry erase board. Forgiveness. He starts in on something about calling up friends and family and apologizing for past wrong behaviors. He goes around the room and asks each of us, what is one thing we might want forgiveness for. A girl who introduces herself as Melinda says she has eight ex-boyfriends that she needs forgiveness from. She cheated on all eight of them. Old Man Ponytail scans the room, randomly calling on people. After a few more painfully forced, half-hearted attempts at eliciting guilt, he calls on my roommate.
“Who are you?”
“Thad? Are you supposed to be here?”
“Maybe? I’ve never seen you here before. Are you a new patient?”
“No, siree, been here at least a coupla weeks. And all this stuff you saying mister ain’t serving me nothing but rotten stink.” Everyone is quiet.
“OK then, Thad, how about if you go down to the nurse’s station and see where you belong because I don’t think you are supposed to be here.”
“I might just do that,” and he stands up. He looks at me before he leaves the room. “Don’t let them do it to you. They can make me sit in this hospital as many times as they want and say their stuff over and over again, makes not a damn of difference ’cuz when night comes, it’s all the same, all over again, know what I mean?”
* * *
After the A.A. group I wait at the nurse’s station. I’ve asked to talk to the head nurse. The short woman sitting behind the nurse’s station is annoyed with my request and insists it may be several minutes if not longer before the head nurse will be available.
Beth walks around the nurses’ station and stuffs a file in the file cabinet. “Going to lunch,” she tells the woman sitting down. I say hi to her. She smiles back. Then I look away from her, I feel my face getting warm and I feel like I’ve been sprinkled with fairy dust.
“Can I help you?”
I turn around, startled.
“Can I get a new roommate?” I say to the old woman standing in front of me.
“Why do you want a new roommate?”
“I don’t know. He’s weird.”
“I’m sorry, we can’t just”
I interrupt her. “That’s OK, that’s what I figured.”
* * *
That night, I can’t sleep. The pangs of adolescent longing were making me physically ill. Boys hurt more in this love and lust business. Girls think they do, but they don’t. Girls are smart; they connive, flirt, and keep their options open at all times. Boys are ignorant in their pursuit of that special one, the one especially made for them. Girls are better liars, they are better at keeping secrets. Boys are too idealistic, old-fashioned romantics at heart. I toss and turn. I hear Thad cough, spit and sit up in the bed.
“Whatcha doing still up this late at night, huh?”
“Nothing, just can’t sleep.”
“It’s that nurse Beth, ain’t it. I seen the way you look at her.”
“Go to bed, Thad.”
Every thirty minutes a psych tech opens the door and shines a flashlight in our face. This is heaven.
* * *
Angel sits by me at breakfast. Thad sits by himself at the window and talks to the birds. “I tell you, birdy-bird, you darn better not come back ’less you got a worm to feed me.” Angel and I turn away from looking at him and roll our eyes at each other.
“Is he for real?” she asks me. I eat my pancakes.
“Well?” she says.
“Well, what? I don’t know. He’s nuts.”
“How can you stand rooming with him?
Beth walks into the cafeteria. Today she’s wearing a pink nurse’s uniform. She has her hands in her pocket and nods her head at a few patients who say hi to her. I watch her pick up a glass and stand in front of the juice machine. She can’t decide. Beth starts for the orange but then at the last second moves her glass under the cranberry and presses the button above it. I turn away. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that she’s walking towards me. I look at Angel.
“So, Angel, where you from originally?”
“I grew up here, in Kansas City.”
“Yeah, I was born in. Hi, Beth!”
Beth takes a sip from her cup. “Hi, Scott, how are you?”
“Good, good, good. Just having breakfast and you know.”
“Have you written down your five goals for the day?” she says.
“No, no, I haven’t. I was going to see if maybe, if you weren’t busy, you could sit down with me and explain this goal-setting aspect of the program. I’m not sure if I completely understand it.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. I’ll be in the recreation room doing some charting after breakfast. Just swing by and I’ll give you the run-down, OK?”
She walks away and I intently watch every step, her hair swinging from side to side.
Angel throws a Cheerio at me. “Goal-setting aspect of the program?”
“Shut up, Angel.”
“Oh my God. Scotty has a crush.”
* * *
After breakfast I tell Angel I’ll see her around. She smiles knowingly as I walk toward the recreation room. Beth is the only one in the room. She’s sitting on the couch. Her legs are crossed. Her pants are hiked up enough to see her right ankle. It is smooth and almost shines. I feel this tingle down there that makes me embarrassed to even talk to her. Beth looks up before I have a chance to turn around and leave. She smiles and waves me over with her left handno wedding ring.
“I made a photocopy of this. It explains in general terms the goal-setting that we do each morning here.”
“Oh, great,” I say taking the sheet of paper from her. I glance down again at her ankle.
“What we want each patient to do is…” and she talks for what seems like forever. Her voice sustains me in a moment that feels infinite and free. With each new word, my breathing slows, my pupils pinpoint to an acute focus. I nod my head and when she glances down at the piece of paper, I steal a quick look at her. The longer I’m around her the more out of control I feel. Like she knows that she has this power over me and I am helpless to it. The pathetic thing is this. I’m supposed to be a guy’s guy and think about doing this or that to her and whatnot. But in reality, that is not what I want. I want to kiss her. That’s all. And God, today she has this pink lipstick on and it is driving me crazy. I know how I would kiss her too. Not like I kiss other girls. I would be subtle at first, very softly hovering near her lips, feeling our breaths mix together in that tiny space that separates us. Then that would be too overwhelming and we would have to press our mouths together. I would go first, placing my lips on hers as if I were landing on the moon and then so delicately pull away. Then I’d hear a soft, “Ohhh.” So I’d kiss her again. Then after the second time she would not be able to control herself any longer and she’d kiss me back, a little harder this time. Then there’d be that sound, of tongues languishing in our mouths, smacking against the inside with anticipation.
“Scott? Scott, are you OK?”
My eyes open when I hear her voice. She’s looking down at me.
* * *
In the medical room, a strawberry-haired nurse is taking my blood pressure and a doctor I’ve never seen before watches on.
“I’m fine,” I tell them.
“Did you eat anything yet today?” the doctor says.
“Yes, yes, I ate breakfast. I’m fine.”
“We’re going to draw some blood and check your levels.”
“My levels? OK, fine. But, I’m telling you it was nothing.”
“You passed out Scott, for no reason.”
This is embarrassing. I want to tell them I’m in love. Beth walks in.
“How is he?” she says to the doctor.
“Oh, I think he’ll live.” Then Beth walks over to me and puts her hand on my shoulder.
“You really put a scare in me, you know that?”
“I’m sorry, Beth, nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re OK.” She pats my shoulder and winks at me. The wink makes me nervous.
* * *
“Oh my God, are you OK?” Angel says when she sees me.
“Fine, Angel, fine.” I pick up my pace as we walk down the hallway.
“Someone said you had a heart attack.”
“Yeah, pretty mucha heart attack is a good way of putting it.”
I missed lunch because I was laid up in the medical room and now we’re on our way downstairs to school. Angel is explaining to me that we go to school three hours each day. We sit in cubicles and do schoolwork that has been forwarded from our teachers. When we get there the tutor, a woman in her forties, informs me that no one from my school has sent any work yet. What do I do then? Why don’t you read, she suggests, and then points to a small bookcase next to her desk. I look over at Angel and she’s writing on some paper, her head down in deep concentration.
“Can I have some paper and maybe draw or something?”
“If you’d like.”
The tutor hands me a few pieces of paper and a pencil and points to my cubicle. The first thing I draw is a big heart that takes up half the page. It looks odd and I feel silly. Only girls draw hearts. So I crumble that up and throw it away. The tutor watches me get up and throw the paper into the trash can. The room is quiet, except for the occasional squeak of a chair or a bronchitis cough. On my new piece of paper, I draw a monster. It has eight arms and four legs and three heads and two of the arms have a pitchfork in its hand. And there is a long tail and the monster is sticking its tongue out.
We’re allowed two breaks in which we can stand up and walk out into the hall and get a drink at the fountain if we want. We usually lean up against the wall and try and stand as close as we can to the girls without getting caught. The girls don’t mind. If we’re lucky we sneak a kiss, a quick one. And the girls think that’s the sweetest thing in the world. I don’t do any of this, though. The girl I want to kiss is somewhere upstairs. Angel leans in close to me.
“I’m fine, how many times do I have to tell you.”
The tutor has gone back into the room. Several couples quickly embrace. Angel is smiling, playing with her hair, staring at my lips.
I turn around. The tutor is holding my picture.
“Did you draw this?”
* * *
The tutor marches me upstairs. She calls my doctor who happens to be in the building. I can’t hear exactly what she says to him but then she marches me back into the phone booth room and tells me my doctor will be with me in a few minutes. When he opens the door, he is looking at my drawing. He sits down.
“Why did you draw this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Kinda scary, don’t you think?”
“Does it have a title?”
“What would you call this particular piece if you were to give it a title?”
“Big scary monster? I don’t know.”
“Big scary monster?”
Like everything else here, the slightest indication of deviance is blown completely out of proportion. I want to tell my doctor that maybe that’s how some people see the world, full of monsters. The staff and doctors here want us to adopt a new way of looking at life. Just like that, a snap of the fingers, a blinking of the eye and we’re cured, different people with new outlooks.
I don’t know why I drink so much. I know it’s the only thing that makes me happy. One girl in A.A. group called it artificial happiness. Artificial happiness is better than no happiness. I’m sixteen and I already know it’s too late for some people, for people like Angel. Sixteen isn’t old but it’s old enough to permanently affect the way you’ll live the rest of your life. I don’t tell anyone how I really feel. They’re all busy. This is just a job for them. I understand that and don’t begrudge them for it. I tell my doctor I won’t draw any more scary pictures.
“OK then.” And my doctor lets me leave.
* * *
That evening Angel sits by me again in the cafeteria. I look around the cafeteria every few seconds.
“She’s already gone home.”
“How do you know?”
“Day shift is over, she works day shift.”
“Oh, I wasn’t looking for her.”
I examine my dinner, which pretty much looks like the same thing I had for lunch. I pick up a giant pastry the size of a softball and ask Angel what in the world is this.
“It’s a cream puff.”
“It’s a little more than a puff, wouldn’t you say?”
“There’s a cream filling in the middle.”
“You can have mine.”
“I was going to offer you mine.”
“My cream puff.” Her face turns a bright red and she giggles into her hand. I look around the cafeteria and see all the guys obscenely licking out the filling, much to the self-conscious delight of the girls. Angel watches me.
“When you getting out of here, Angel?”
“I don’t know. I kind of like it here. It’s not so bad. It’s safe, I guess.”
“My parents sent me a present from Italy. They travel all the time.”
“What’d they get you?”
“A t-shirt. It’s black and says Italy on it. I took a black marker and scribbled out the a, l, y.”
“So it says, It?”
* * *
After dinner we have one hour of free time. We can leave our rooms, walk the halls, go to the recreation room to play ping-pong, watch approved television shows in the TV room. I’m watching “Wheel of Fortune” with about ten others when Angel comes in. “Sorry, no H’s. Debra, your spin.” The category is places and every letter but one has been turned and no one on the show seems to have the slightest clue how to spell Sacramento.
“Scott, come here a second.”
I follow Angel. She looks around cautiously and takes me by the hand, leads me into the towel room and closes the door. It’s the size of a large walk-in closet and it’s where we pick up our clean towels every day. Angel puts her hands on my hips and pulls me close to her.
“Do you like me?”
“Sure, Angel, of course I do, you know that.”
“No, I mean, do you like me, like me?”
“Maybe a little, I don’t know.”
“Can I kiss you?”
“Isn’t it the guys who usually say that?”
“Yeah, but I know you won’t, so I’m asking.”
I kiss her first. The door opens. I hear a loud gasp and turn to see Beth standing there. I pull away from Angel.
“I thought you worked day shift!”
* * *
Turns out Beth does work day shift but tonight two people called in, so she volunteered to come in on the condition of time-and-half pay. She explains this to me as she fills out a thirty-foot rule form. The rule states that Angel and I cannot be closer than thirty feet of each other at any time or else we will get level dropped. I’ve come to realize though, the levels don’t mean much; the insurance companies decide when you leave.
“I understand, Beth. I’m sorry.”
“I’m really disappointed in you, Scott. I didn’t expect something like this from you.”
* * *
When I get back to my room, all my roommate’s stuff is gone. His side of the room is empty. Gone to the paint store, I’m sure. For the next week I go to meetings. I stay away from Angel and my schoolwork has finally been forwarded. I don’t draw any more pictures. My mom comes to visit. She asks how I’m doing. I tell her fine. She asks if I’m making progress. Although I’m not sure exactly what this entails, I nod my head and agree that I am.
“You look good.”
“Thanks, Mom. I think I’ve lost a few pounds. My jeans feel looser.”
“You do look better than the last time I saw you.”
“Did you call dad and tell him where I am?”
“No, not yet. I didn’t feel like getting the bad mother speech from him.”
“Don’t tell him. He’ll never know. If he calls, tell him what you always say: I’m not home.”
* * *
Ever since Beth caught me with another woman, I don’t see her around as much. A week later, Angel left. She had written me a note. In it she said that if I ever needed anything, to call her. And on the bottom right hand corner was her phone number written inside a giant heart. I expected to see her back before I was discharged. It’s not uncommon for someone to be discharged and then come back a week later. She never did come back, though. A few weeks later my insurance ran out. Beth was working the afternoon I left. Good luck, she told me. She gave me a hug. But it was over, all of it. I was going home no better than I was when I first came here. I told all the staff that I had given up alcohol. We all told the same lies. And I don’t think there were many of us who stayed sober for more than a few days after we were discharged. Mom drove me home and I fell asleep on my own bed minutes after getting out of the car. When I awoke it was dark outside. I thought about Angel and my roommate and what he said about when night comes, it’s all the same.
* * *
At first, I went to my after-care meetings that were part of my treatment program. I had to go twice a week to A.A. meetings and meet with my psychologist and also attend a general support group for troubled adolescents. But since I didn’t have court-mandated incentives to attend the meetings as some did, I just quit going. Most of the people who ran the meetings had good intentions. They’d tell us they’d been where we are. We were what they used to be. If only you stop now, it’ll save you years of turmoil. It made perfect sense. But in a strange way, each and every one of us had already given up fighting it. As bad as all the horror stories sounded, the thought of getting drunk or getting high far outweighed the consequences of future problems. You see, alcohol and drugs do work. That’s what the doctors and counselors won’t own up to.
I still think about Angel. I always thought she probably wouldn’t make it. Maybe she did make it. Or maybe she’s living in a state hospital in a small town somewhere not listed on a map. Maybe she’s not living anywhere. And sometimes I try to visualize what she might look like today, perhaps still the beautiful green-eyed girl I never told her she was. And I know that if she is out there, she’s pulling another boy close to her, asking him, Do you like me? Will you like me? Please.
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