round here

She says, “It’s only in my head.”
She says, “Shhh…I know it’s only in my head.”
But the girl on the car in the parking lot
says: “Man, you should try to take a shot.
Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?”
Then she looks up at the building
and says she’s thinking of jumping.
She says she’s tired of life;
she must be tired of something.

Counting Crows, “Round Here”
(August and Everything After)

Walking down the sidewalk, a steeper incline than I was convinced I had driven up, I realized that my super-soled big heeled boots are not good walking shoes. It’s not that I’d never walked in them before; these boots have seen me through at least a year of Birmingham meandering. But all of a sudden I’m confronted with maneuvering downhill in some crazy-ass plastic-suede stylegrrl boots and I’m getting *vertigo* of all things because not only am I trying desperately to get down a hill, I’m trying desperately not to talk myself out of going to what’s at the bottom of the hill.

The appointment. “Intake assessment” appointment, to be more exact.

“Intake,” to me, always seems like it should have “valve” after it. The intake valve sometimes malfunctions in the oxygen tank, and therefore should be checked on a regular basis by experienced personnel.

This is the first time I have been checked by experienced personnel. Or at least, this is the first time my brain has been. Halfway through it, I’m figuring out that normal abnormal people have done this before age 25.

do you want me to go with you? Jeremy asks, and I’m so tempted to say yes, reschedule your own appointment, reschedule your life to fit mine, so I never have to do the hard things by myself, but I can’t. It’s not fair to him, to a new friendship, and it’s not even really fair to me, because if I make this by myself I can at least feel good about one little thing today. no, i’m going to be fine, i’ll talk to you afterwards and tell you how it went. Now it’s afterwards and although while I was more functional than I am now I shot off a quick email his way, letting him know it was fine, I’m fine, I still feel like I owe him, everyone, a lot more explanation.

The intake assessment form is shorter than I expected. It asks me quite cordially for my full name, my sex, age, employment, spouse/life partner’s name, how long have you been with him? Oh, four years almost, how lovely. Check these boxes according to your experiences with each one. Rate these difficulties on a scale from 0 (no problem at all, don’t mind if I do) to 3 (oh my god how are you coping with that). Does your spouse drink too much? Have you been sexually abused? Are you in danger of losing your job?

Before I even see anyone, I’m exhausted. The age, name, sex questions are admittedly the easiest, but even thinking about how many years I have been with Chad reminds me of how many years before that the *breakdown* was, and how I am teetering on the same sort of precipice once again: the colours are all the same, the rock underneath my crazy boots, the desperate yearning for the world to leave me alone. Just let me sit this one out. I’ll be back in before you know it.

Winter doesn’t prowl around the outside of the houses in Edinboro, Pennsylvania; it breaks the doors down and puts its feet up on your coffeetable. You have no choice but to be cold, every day, every night, every bare foot on the floor, every chance ungloved finger against the windowsill. Winter arrives and you can run out of snacks and smalltalk months before it gets the hint.

I was living in the dorm — Lawrence Towers, on the eighth floor — alone, in a double room. I wasn’t supposed to be alone that year; my ex-best-friend Kelley was coming to Edinboro University of PA the previous fall, but she decided against it, and shafted me with a double room and no other human being I could stand sharing it with. As it was, it worked out for the best; her roommate of the year before, Lara, and I ended up becoming friends, and we both had double-turned-single rooms on the same floor of the same dorm.

As it was, without Lara, I might not have lasted long enough to teeter again.

Remembering that time — as blurred fragments, as the worst parts of my life are always remembered — I can’t tell what set it off, what gave me the solid nudge and left me breathless and staring out into empty space below my toes. I know the semester before, I was happy … really happy, the happiest I had been in years, maybe even ever. I was on the Dean’s List. I had successfully completed pledging the co-ed honour fraternity on campus, and as a result made a lot of new, good friends. My theatre career was branching out after the play I wrote was entered into the American Collegiate Theatre Festival. I was in love with someone, and treated well by him. Lara and I had become fast friends, closer than even expected, and we hung out both in and out of fraternity activities.

What happens when you’re on top of the world and something tries to push you off?

Me? I hid. I didn’t leave my dorm room except in the middle of the night to run to the store for cigarettes and coffee and ramen noodles and oranges — oranges because I didn’t want to get scurvy, I was terrified of getting scurvy. I didn’t bathe, or even dress; I remained in a baby-blue flannel shroud of a blanket for 95% of the semester. Every waking moment was spent online: I logged on in January and I didn’t log off until the dorm powers-that-be kicked me out in May.

There were times I wouldn’t eat, or bathe, and Lara would come to my room, knock softly, and without requiring me to think or talk would get me showered, feed me macaroni and cheese, and cups of hot, good coffee in her room, the room that always smelled like Country Garden Glade Plug-Ins and was always so warm and thick with smoke and clean. After Wallace moved in with her — a covert operation, to which I was one of the only observers — the three of us would watch “Jeopardy!” and shout out the answers and for a little part of each day, I was safe, and alive, and I was okay with people.

But it never lasted. I would head back to my room, growing heavier with each step, and slump into my deskchair to watch the words flicker on my screen and wonder how much energy it would really take to kill myself, and then after that, how much energy it would take to die. Every time, I’d decide I had enough energy to kill myself but that I’d run out halfway through dying and I’d be left a vegetable to suck my parents’ finances down the drain and I wasn’t worth *that* for sure. So, another day, typing through the night, sleeping through the day, waking up with Lara’s knocking and over and over.

Sometimes I’d wake up to Patrick’s knocking. Those were the days I could not take. I could picture him so clearly on the other side of the door, crying softly, knocking, begging over and over to just open the door, just enough so he could hold my hand, so he could see any part of me, to make sure I was still real and that I hadn’t disappeared from him forever.

But I wanted to disappear, Patrick. How many times couldn’t you understand that, and how many times would I try to explain it to you in my head only to have the words stuck on this end of a busy-signal?

One Saturday, my dad and stepmom came to the dorm. They sat outside for days of my-time, probably only one or two hours of theirs. They brought me doughnuts and coffee and an African violet as puny and sick-looking as I felt. Maybe they hoped I would feel some maternal vibes over it, and it would cheer me up, to have something else alive in the place, to brighten things, and me.

All I saw when I looked at it was another thing that wanted to die but didn’t have the energy to do it right.

“So, no, I wasn’t *suicidal* then,” I added truthfully as the counselor nodded her best Receptive and Acknowledging Face at me. “But you haven’t talked to *anyone* before? Not about …” and she looks again at my sheet. A deep breath for both of us. She is about to say something nice instead of ‘being raped,’ and I don’t want her to say either thing so I head her off. “No,” again, so truthful, you’d think I really believed in telling the truth to counselors or something. “No, never. I mean to friends, yes. To Chad, and my close friends. But not in therapy or anything.”

I am suddenly, resoundingly aware that I have a lot of shit to cover with these people, if they don’t send me immediately elsewhere. It’s pretty easy, inside my own head, to file past situations and look at them as Learning Experiences, some sort of freakish Petting Zoo O’ Pain that I just happen to have season’s passes to, every season, and the season is getting shorter and shorter …

And Ms. Very Nice Counselor is done with me. She only looked at the clock once; I was watching for it, and secretly I’m proud she didn’t get too bored. It is, after all, an intake assessment. I guess if she were bored with me already, she could assign me to some other counselor. Or maybe tomorrow in the staff meeting they’ll go into a fierce bidding war over the twenty-something with loads of angst to work through. “I’ll give you my parking space if you let me shrink her head!” I’m such hot property, you know.

Weeks before the sequestering, Patrick gave me a CD entitled “August and Everything After” by Counting Crows. At the time, their big hit was “Mr. Jones” and it was bigger-than-big with me. During the winter and spring of ’94, I played that CD almost non-stop, and after I came out of hiding, listening to it wouldn’t give me flashbacks or nightmares or nausea … it felt good. I liked hearing the songs, and I liked singing along, knowing all the words, just when the tempo changed, and which song came next. I would listen to the CD and stare out of that tiny, squalid room to where, the winter before, Patrick had stamped out ‘STED in huge bootprint-letters across the snow. The first track, “Round Here”, made me feel less alone, less foolish somehow, even if it always made me cry.

Today, it got me down that hill.

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