It’s too hot, even for mid-July. The mercury pushes past ninety degrees even as the sun stuffs its hands in its pockets, turns its back, and walks away for another night. I feel the same way.
We’re inside, though, momentarily away from the heat. Tan carpeting, blue wallpaper, white ceiling with track lighting. Six of us are in chairs, sitting in a circle, an obedient shape. We’re quiet. We’re trained. The hum of the central air conditioner is enough to keep us occupied while we wait for further instructions. No one wants to look at the other, or engage in conversation, not before the designated time. Normally, it’s the kind of situation I wouldn’t mind tweaking, but I’m still exhausted and overheated from my walk over here. Besides, we’ve all been tweaked enough.
This guy named Gus sits next to me. He’s been coming here as long as I have. He’s short and wiry, and he wears black hornrimmed glasses. He has thick beard stubble that has been cultivated and encouraged and colorful tattoos on his pale, thin arms. Behind one less-than-impressive bicep is the face of a green cartoon dog that winks and chomps on a cigarette. The dog has the right idea.
Gus is around my age, early-but-aging thirties, and like me he’s dressed in vintage clothes: black leisure pants, black wingtips, a white, skin-tight V-neck T-shirt tucked in and underneath his unbuttoned powder blue guayabera, a canary yellow porkpie hat that struggles to hold down purposefully greasy tufts of black hair. He pulls off the look better than me. I look like I stumbled out of your grandfather’s closet, mothballs and all.
Gus is done with his drawing, and it rests on his lap. He taps his pen on the metal chair, working out something in double time. I sneak a peek at his picture. He took up an entire page. His head and hat are detailed and accurate. His body is a cartoonish mess. Legs and arms are broken, twisted. His forearms, hands, shins, knees, and feet and other unidentifiable pieces of himself break off and fall away, toward the bottom of the page. It’s a good picture.
Gus catches me looking and says, "Don’t judge me," but then he winks, just like his tattoo dog. That’s supposed to be a joke. I don’t find anything funny.
Here’s my drawing:
It’s a smaller, doodle version of my head. It’s all anyone ever need see of me. Rembrandt, I’m not. I’m not even that paint-the-happy-tree-there guy.
Gus leans in and gets an eyeful. I say, "I did better when I tried drawing that turtle and the pirate for those art tests in the backs of magazines."
Doctor Who announces his return to the circle. "Okay, everyone," he says, and that’s it. It’s enough for us to know what to do next. He hands out bonus smiles while collecting the pens and our composition notebooks, the kind I used in elementary school. My notebook has chunks of paper torn out. The black-and-white cover is warped and cracked. Our assignment was to draw a self-portrait, but we’re not going to talk about it until next week. This is my sixth group therapy session at the Wellness Center, and I’m feeling well-er every day.
If I sound skeptical, I don’t mean to. I’m just practical. My landlord and mother, Ellen, made my weekly visits to the center compulsory if I was to continue running my little private detective business rent free in her building. We’re at a point where she thinks my narcolepsy is some kind of social disorder, not physical. It’s all depressing enough to make me want to attend group therapy.
The doctor pulls a chair into our circle. He’s not British or into science fiction, but he tolerates me calling him Dr. Who. He’d tell you that my naming him is an attempt at asserting some control in my life. He’d tell you that my everyday existence is usually about naming and piecing together my reality even if the pieces don’t fit. I’d tell you that I just like calling a tall, skinny, bald guy Dr. Who.
The doc, he’s nice, plenty enthusiastic, and obviously means well—the ultimate backhanded compliment. There’ve been times when I wanted to tell him everything, tell him more than I know. But there are other times when I’m ready to take a vow of silence, like now, as I look at his faded khaki pants with the belt cinched well above the Canadian border and his white too-tight polo shirt. That shouldn’t bother me, but it does.
He swoops the drawings up and away. Now it’s story time. Everyone is to spill their tales in a regimented, predetermined order. I think that’s what I hate most about this whole setup. It’s disrespectful to stories. Stories don’t happen that way. There’s no order, no beginning, middle, or end; no one simply gets a turn. Stories are messy, unpredictable, and usually cruel.
I try not to listen. I’m not being selfish. It’s not that I don’t empathize, because I empathize too much, and I can’t help them.
I say I try not to listen, but it doesn’t work. The man across from me goes on about how his cats are trying to sabotage the fragile relationship he has with his third ex-wife. Or maybe I’m asleep and dreaming it.
It’s Gus’s turn. He has a smile that’s wholly inappropriate for the setting. I kind of like it. He talks about how his mother—who died two years ago—used to make her own saltwater taffy when he was a kid. He tells us that since her death, he craves social settings and has become a compulsive joiner. If you have a club or group or association, he’ll join it. He pulls out a wallet full of membership IDs. He gives me two cards: one for the Libertarian Party and the other belonging to some anarchist group that’s clearly fraudulent because anarchists don’t make ID cards. He seems particularly proud of that one.
Dr. Who holds up his clutched hands, like he’s arm wrestling himself, and says, "You’re always welcome in our group, Gus."
Gus tips his hat and sags in his chair, clearly at ease in the group setting, a junky getting his fix. Despite his earlier protest, I’m judging him. I don’t feel guilty. I never promised him anything.
Dr. Who asks, "Mark, do you have anything to share with us today?"
Last week he phrased the question differently: Do you feel up to joining our conversation this week? I answered with a rant concerning his poorly phrased question, about how it was domineering and patronizing and made me feel more damaged than I already was. It was a solid rant, an 8 out of 10. But I don’t know how much of the rant I let loose. I woke up with my circle mates out of their chairs, standing, and staring at me like I was a frog pinned up for dissection.
Gus wiggles his fingers at me, a reverse hand wave, the international Let’s have it sign.
All right. Let’s have it.
Excerpted from No Sleep till Wonderland by Paul Tremblay.
Copyright © 2010 by Paul Tremblay.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.