"I don't want to cut straight to business," said the young man with the spiked black hair, an inch and a half, gelled as if it were cut like a faux-hawk. He leaned onto his elbows, which he rested upon the table. "Not that there's anything straight about it." He smiled.
Don't be so sure of that! The dark blond gentleman across from him leaned back in his swivelling metal chair. He was nibbling a French fry into his mouth, while it was threatening to drip gravy and hot cheese onto his tight, thin, long-sleeved, red hoodie from Old Navy.
They were in the middle of a food court in The Eaton's Centre in downtown Toronto. They had seated themselves at the first immaculate and unoccupied table they had come across.
The other looked down at his burger, waiting for an appetite that wasn't quite there. "Let's catch up, shall we? Tell me, how have you been since Homewood?"
Homewood Mental Health Centre, thought the blond. A fine gem in Guelph's modest crown. Nine weeks that changed me like nothing else. He remembered being an inpatient there, being treated by specialists for his mood disorder. "I went in feeling worthless and came out feeling priceless," he told his friend.
"Did my cousin have anything to do with that, CJ?"
"Yes," admitted CJ. He stopped eating for a moment and dug a hand into his pocket. He withdrew a hair elastic and a red comb, matching his hoodie. With it, he began to comb his hair back into a ponytail so that it wouldn't get in his food. He spoke thoughtfully as he did this. "Though Nicholas made me feel very alive, and has become a rather close friend, he has also caused me pain. Well, not intentionally. Rather, his unexpected and pure heterosexuality has."
"It is a terrible burden, I know," said his companion.
Behind the shorter-haired young man, in a chair facing the opposite direction, was a red-headed girl. She was busy, seated at another table, pretending not to eavesdrop. Occasionally, she spun her chair around and gave the blond a curious look.
He was the only one of the pair that was aware of her presence.
Nicholas's cousin looked at his warm burger. His stomach groaned. And it was a sound without an urge.
"They have tentatively cured me of my depression," proclaimed the blond. "However, my anxiety remains, Blake. It hasn't become much of a problem. Yet."
"It's not social anxiety," identified CJ.
"Ah, that makes more sense to me now. Academia?"
"Yes. But I'm finishing this semester just fine. My marks are higher than they've ever been. The university stuff, however, is another story. Because I haven't graduated, I've applyied as a mature student. I'm probably going to get a high eighty, if not a ninety-something in English and my social studies course. Far better marks than before I was depressed. That'll open doors for me, even if I don't graduate by September."
"Mature student? You're only twenty!" exclaimed Blake, before taking a reluctant bite of his hamburger.
Blake shook his head. "That seems nuts to me."
"I didn't think I could do it at first. I think those anti-depressants woke something in me. Powerful, unrequited love at first sight. Cupid's being a real jerk to me," said CJ. "More intense feelings than I've ever felt in any of the relationships I've been in. Really making me feel alive. Obsessive. Nearly stalkerish. The intensity scares me."
Blake knew it had happened to his friend once. But to know that it had happened multiple times.
CJ remembered every moment of it quite vividly.
On Monday, October 5th, 2009, at eleven o'clock in the morning; I sat in the chapel of the Homewood Mental Health Centre in Guelph, Ontario. It was a therapy group. Almost every seat was full.
The chaplain, a swarthy and charismatic middle-aged man, was at the front. He was talking. Pacing. The focus was spirituality. The name of the group was 'Spirituality'. But we weren't examining it through a Christian lense, nor even a religious lense. The group had absolutely nothing to do with God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, or any other potentially supremely reigning divine power. And that was why I enjoyed it.
It was so different from my father's sermons. As a preacher's kid, I felt over-exposed to religion. I stopped going to church not because I was an agnostic, but because my father preached to me enough at home as it was.
I was listening. I was silent. But I wasn't watching him.
Roughly twenty days in, this was before the therapy groups really starting working changes in me. The most valued therapy to me that week was my medication. Since being admitted in mid-September, they had made sudden and drastic changes to my medication. Because I was in hospital, a place of safety, they didn't worry about changing it slowly in minor increments.
I had been taking two anti-depressants that worked in conjunction with one another, as well as one to make me sleep.
The first was effexor, nick-named 'effects-her' because of its profound variety of side effects, for better or for worse, upon the female sex drive. For most women, it made it nearly impossible to achieve orgasm. But I'm a man. And for men, it simply adds far too much sexual stamina. On higher doses, it can take hours of priapic sex, or frustrating masturbation, before a man can ejaculate and achieve orgasm. But usually that was a good thing, and thus women had it worse. It also caused vivid dreams. I really enjoyed those.
Though effexor is often prescribed alone, that seemed to have made me too manic during my first relationship, so I was prescribed Wellbutrin to take with a lower dose of effexor. It's also prescribed for smoking cessation. But I'm not a smoker. But I had a slight problem with wellbutrin. Whenever I missed a dose, I would hallucinate. Fortunately, I was not delusional about them. That is to say, I knew they weren't real.
But the drugs are similar, and the Effexor withdrawal can make me hallucinate too, but it's less likely to happen.
The changes they made were to take me off the wellbutrin and increase my Effexor dose back to the maximum dose: 300mg.
Also, they took me off the clonazepam that I was taking for the headaches and insomnia caused by my depression and, to a lesser extent, my anxiety. I think they really underestimated my anxiety. They took me off the clonazepam because it was too addictive in the long run. They put me on something else called seroquel.
Seroquel is the bread and butter of Homewood's prescriptions. I wasn't in the Integrated Mood And Anxiety Program ward, because my anxiety wasn't troubling me at that point in my life. Rather, I was in a ward called Comprehensive Psychiatric Care, which had all types. It was like a mental health variety show. There were mild schizophrenics, people with bipolar disorder, trauma victims, the depressed, the addicted, the chronically pained, and others. Some even fit into multiple categories. There were roughly thirty-five of us at any given time in that ward. And a vast majority of us took seroquel for some reason or another.
It helps with sleep. It works as a mood stabilizer. It has anti-psychotic properties, which helped keep my hallucinations at a minimum despite the sudden and dramatic changes to my anti-depressants. I was taking half the smallest pill, 12.5mg before bed; but in significantly higher doses, it is prescribed for borderline personality disorder, which I know very little about. Also, it stops ruminating thoughts.
I remember my first night at Homewood, my first night on seroquel. My mind was firing on all cylinders, apprehensive of the med changes. I had just taken it, and walked into my shared room at the far end of the ward. I had been fortunate enough to share it with someone my own age.
My depressed and alcoholic roommate had passed out, with his headphones blasting music as loud as possible. I could hear it, as if it were a stereo, though I was on the other side of the partitioning curtain. Despite this, he was in a deep sleep.
It was the voice of Amy Winehouse, singing,
"They try to make me go to rehab,
'n I say no, no, no!
Yes, I've been bad,
But when I come back,
No, noo, no!"
I gave a loud chuckle, that filled the room as I appreciated the irony far too much.
He kept sleeping.
I turned his light out. And then I wondered, How am I supposed to sleep with that music?
And the thought stopped there. It was the seroquel! I became acutely aware of my train of thought. It was my usual train of thought before bed: worry, worry, worry. And yet, it felt like it was on a chopping block. Being diced. Cut short.
I had the blessed experience of paying attention to it right as the medication took its full effect. I could visualize it so well. It was a feeling I will never forget, being so intimate with my thoughts at such a pivotal moment.
And in seconds, I was shedding my clothes as fast as I could and falling asleep faster than ever. That had been 25mg. I requested half as much after a few nights like that, oversleeping and missing my groups and all the morning activities I was expected to attend to as part of my therapy.
However, I had woken up in the middle of the night. I am accustomed to sleeping in sheer silence. My roommate was snoring. It had woken me.
And then, he stopped for a brief moment. He rolled over, reached for a can of pop and snapped it open. He glugged some down briefly, and then went back to sleep, and resumed snoring immediately. It happened so fast that I was in a state of shock and disbelief. I was not dreaming. I was not hallucinating. It would not be the last time I heard him do this. It was like sleep-walking.
That explained why he had a large supply of Pepsi. I reckon he was used to beer cans, though. Part of his alcoholism. Addicted to the habit of opening a can in the middle of the night, such that he did it habitually in his sleep, without truly waking up.
I slept in. My body didn't give me a choice. And it wouldn't for several days to come, thanks to the seroquel.
Well, the nurse assigned to me wasn't happy with my sleeping habits at first, though I don't think she knew how to do anything but smile with infinite sincerity. She exuded optimism. She clearly had greater expectations of me than of my roommate.
I wasn't happy either. It was the meds. I wanted to get better! I wanted to work at it!
The nurses would wake everyone up at a quarter to seven. Ninety percent of us would just roll over and go back to sleep. Even if we wanted to get up, many of us were too doped.
So there I was, twenty-one days later, able to attend my first Spirituality group. Every Monday at 11'o clock. I missed the first one because I was being admitted at the time, and wasn't expected to attend groups on my first day. And I missed the following two in the weeks ahead because I was still adjusting to the seroquel. It was the one group I hadn't attended yet. Mondays were special. But now I had overpowered it! I had even gotten up for breakfast at some ungawdly hour.
So had my roommate. He usually skipped. This was one of the few times when I actually remember attending a group with him.
As the chaplain introduced the topic of forgiveness, my eyes wandered.
Outpatients, formerly inpatients, as well as some patients from various wards, had nearly filled the room. Once in a while, a straggler entered late.
I was sitting on the chaplain's left-hand side. And my eye wandered to my left, down the aisle.
That's when I saw Nicholas Bourne for the first time in my life. It felt clairvoyant, that moment of sizing him up, unconsciously making assumptions about his personality based on his clothes and stance.
The tall, thin young man was wearing a white dress shirt, loose around the collar, over tight denim jeans, black-bodies sneakers and round, white earrings. They looked as if someone had pressed circles of white plasticene against his earlobes. He was sitting in the sunlight. He was cleanly shaven. His thick, brown hair was clean and in an attractive disarray.
I thought he was exceedingly handsome. And, though I'm not gay, he sent my gadar spinning.
My heart began pounding.
I knew he wasn't from my ward.
I didn't think he was from this world. I remember assuring myself that he must be an apparition of the angel Gabriel.
I had no idea how long ago a sour, young marriage had caused him to secure himself to the ground and then try and lift his head off, effectively hanging himself, with a remote control construction crane.
The real angel had been Blake's older brother, who worked as a welder on the site with Nicholas. Neither of them was supposed to be there that day. Nicholas thought he had had the entire place to himself.
It was a gawd-send that Nicholas's other cousin had been there, needing that exact crane at that exact moment by utter coincidence.
Two days later, I went on the morning walk at 8:15 AM, after breakfast. I spotted Nicholas. He walked ahead of the group, and kept to himself. I was too timid to walk up alongside him.
I ogled him from afar that morning.
Thursday, I spotted him during one of the meals. He had friends from his ward. The less stable ward. He wasn't in hospital voluntarily. But I had no idea what could be wrong with him. He seemed, and was, exceedingly happy and sociable. I found out later that he had the psychiatrist rather stumped. I suppose it meant it wasn't a chemical depression. Being in hospital had, after all, taken him out of his depression-inducing life. However, the young twenty-two year old, on the brink of an inevitable divorce, really missed his two young children. His wife wouldn't let him see them, apparently for their safety, and she was the only thing I ever saw bring down his indomitable spirit.
Friday morning, five-pin bowling. It was meant to be therapeutic. I suppose anything that gave us structure in our day and got us using our bodies was therapeutic.
His friends were there. Everyone was bowling together in the two lanes the hospital had within its facilities.
I watched him bowl. He was graceful and masculine, and an extremely good bowler. I only ever beat him one Friday, near the end of my stay.
I knew the psychological explanation for love at first sight. It involved the work of Carl Jung, on the collective unconscious. In a heterosexual context, people unconsciously projected archetypes, usually their inner contrasexual opposites. The man had the anima, his inner female persona; while the woman had the animus, her inner male persona. Some even believed the process was extrasensory and clairsentient at some level. They would compare the person to their archetype, and if it was a close match they would proceed to assume, on an unconscious level, that the person was a complete match and thus was everything they'd ever looked for in a mate. It wasn't always a mutual phenomenon. And it often involved a plethora of wrong assumptions leading to disillusionment down the road.
I had done my research. I recognized my obsession with him for what it was. And that didn't make it any less enjoyable.
The following week came slower. I was more awake. I was more engaged in the groups. I was making friends with so many people, and that was raising my spirits.
I was amused by the perverted nineteen year old across the hall, who insisted on exposing himself to anyone and everyone. However, it was a serious matter when he was sharing the ward with traumatized, female rape victims.
He would walk back from the showers, past several rooms on the way to his own, with his towel open. Such passings through the halls were meant to be done fully clothed.
Then he'd complain when a stern, female nurse, who the patients had nicknamed Hitler, had insisted upon watching him fill the cup for his urine test.
He'd walk into my room and then into the adjoining bathroom and start going to the bathroom with the door wide open. I would turn away, facing my chuckling roommate, put my arm over my eyes, and walk backwards toward the bathroom door and close it.
He never succeeded in exposing himself to me.
Tuesday of the following week, Nicholas entered my dreams. In my dream, which was quite vivid, all the patients were together at some sort of fair with rides, games and attractions. In it, I sought out the company of Nicholas and his friends. In the end, he was shirtless in the moonlight.
Next Friday, Lunch came forty-five minutes after Bowling was over, and I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Nicholas, Garth and Benjamin. We were four young twenty-somethings.
After that, I began to eat with them regularly. However, when they weren't around, I continued to hang out with the friends of varying ages I had made in my own ward. Whenever I sat with Nicholas and his friends, they would usually talk about girls. It seemed like every guy, even the young guys in my ward, were smitten with one or more of the girls in the Eating Disorders program. Except me.
I was appalled by the objectification of women they were willing to resort to. With Nicholas and the other guys, I tried to change the topic to each other's mental health issues, and other personal anecdotes.
In the weeks that followed, Nicholas was teased by the prospect of being moved into my ward, as he had been deemed stable enough. It was simply a matter of waiting for a bed to become available.
He proceeded to try and convince the dietician that he was anorexic. After all, his depression had, like my own, made him as gaunt as ever. The seroquel's minor effects, mostly odd cravings, were not causing enough weight gain for his satisfaction. He also wanted to be transferred to the Eating Disorders program, so he would have some nice, female eye candy.
This amused me. And disgusted me. But it didn't break my heart as much as you think. At that point, I assumed he was a closeted bisexual. After all, he dressed the part. But I wasn't sure enough to make any advances.
Now, the scope of my crush was not strictly romantic love. Rather, it was to be anything he'd let me be. Whether it was to remain complete strangers, to become casual acquaintances, to develop an intimate friendship or to become lovers... I aspired to be the most he would let me, toward him.
After all, my heart was on the mend from my previous relationship. It was already broken and disspirited. Nicholas didn't turn out to be interested in men in the way I had hoped, but that doesn't mean he broke my heart. Rather, he helped me put it back together.
One afternoon, the exhibitionist confronted me in the middle of the hall of our ward.
He looked at me. He was taller. He was muscular. He had a buzzcut.
I looked at him. Then I frowned.
His right hand moved to his fly. It was already unzipped. He pulled something out of it.
I never saw it. I maintained firm eye contact.
I heard the sound as his pants fell to the floor. But I never flinched. I told him, "You'll have to do better than that."
He grinned, "Fine, I'll go show it to Isaiah."
I chuckled, and walked away as he reached down to pick up his pants. I passed Isaiah's room on the way and spoke to him through the door that had been left ajar. "Run, Eyes, run!"
Then I kept walking down the hall, to the TV lounge.
The thieving troublemaker exposed himself to Isaiah that day. Legend has it that he treated it like a clown making a balloon animal, and contorted it into all sorts of odd shapes.
Afterwards, I lent him my spare belt to keep his pants up and on.
Eventually, my roommate was discharged from the facility. It was an opening, admist many, that wasn't given to Nicholas.
Well, the dietician was a smart woman, and not easily fooled. However, she ordered two extra meals to be sent up for him at his request. And with that weight gain, and regular visits to Homewood's gym, Nicholas Bourne transformed his body magnificently.
By the end of my nine week stay there, the six-foot-tall young man had increased his weight from 120lbs to 180lbs. He even defended me whenever Isaiah's short temper with me got out of hand.
I guess I hadn't warned him clearly enough. Or something. I had no idea why he had beef with me.
There were some mornings when we got along perfectly well.
One morning, I came down for breakfast especially early when the muffins were just out of the oven. And Homewood has wonderful muffins.
Isaiah was ahead of me in line.
After getting my food, I go to reach for a fork.
An old man is there, first, and has dropped a fork.
I am wearing a purple t-shirt. I reach for the fork. The old man nudges me aside and hurries off in a huff, muttering loudly, "Friggin faggot!"
I sit down across from Isaiah.
"Don't worry," he tells me. "He said the same thing to me the other day."
Nobody is straighter than Isaiah. Though I really didn't want to know, my old roommate told me one weekend, which I spent at home, that Isaiah was getting some from one of the girls in the Eating Disorders Program. I didn't care. And I wasn't surprised. After all, Isaiah and his roommate had been cybering her one night, much to my own roommate's amusement, having introduced them.
I was, as usual, disgusted. Perhaps it showed. Isaiah was, after all, bright and paranoid. One lunch, he got mad at me over something nobody else had found insensitive, and as Nicholas tells it, Isaiah almost punched me out. I don't recall things getting so dramatic, but I wasn't worried at the time. After all, Nicholas was there to protect me.
And after three weeks of waiting, Nicholas finally moved into the Comprehensive Psychiatric Care ward. He became Isaiah's roommate.
Shortly thereafter, we met Jacquiline. She was twenty-eight. I think her heart was made of gold. She stayed in our ward. Nicholas was madly in love with her, in the same way in which I was in love with him. Except she wasn't a lesbian. She was into much older men. Silver foxes. And she wasn't looking for love at a time when she had to focus on her mental health.
Nicholas believes that Jacquiline was in love with me, though, much in the way that I was into him and he was into her. She admired my attentive explanations as we watched our way through the complete first season of Joss Whedon's TV show, Dollhouse, in the TV lounge of our ward.
I thought of her as an older sister, as far as I was aware.
Nicholas was asleep on the couch. He'd gotten a haircut over the weekend. At that point, I had confessed everything to him. We had even shared our tragic pasts, sometimes in intimate detail. It was now a solid, platonic friendship with more than a hint of unrequited infatuation.
I had to look away from his sexy body, lest I stare or lick my lips.
Jacqui and I were watching an episode of Firefly, also courtesy of my DVD collection. She sat beside me on another couch.
There were other patients in the room too.
Then Jacquiline did something I will never forget. She rested her head on my shoulder. And it felt as if my shoulder and upper arm she was leaning against had burst into glorious flames that burned with a passionate warmth that welled up in my from some place unknown.
I was shocked. Sure, she was a wonderful and caring friend. And, yes, she was definitely on the mend. Sure, she was as pretty as a fashion model. Sure, I finally got Bastien and Lucas off my mind. Sure, I considered myself straight nine and a half months ago. But I thought I had learned my lesson to stay away from troubled nymphomaniacs with mental health problems and addiction issues!
Frith Grymes, thanks a bunch.
Did I have feelings for Jacquiline? I still don't know.
Or were my nerves picking up on her feelings for me on an extrasensory level? I still don't know if I believe in such things.
I told her to stop, and said Nick would get jealous.
She had no idea what I was talking about.
After the show's episode ended, and we had woken Nicholas, I explained it to her at lunch. I didn't tell her that he had confessed to me a daft crush upon her from the start, but I did tell her that I had a strong reason to suspect that he was into her.
Jacquiline wasn't buying it, though it was partially-withheld truth. She thought I was jumping to conclusions. But when I finally won my case, she explained to me that she simply wasn't interested.
And that was that.
I never stayed in touch with her after my nine weeks there, though perhaps I should have. Nicholas gave me her number. I'm afraid to call it.
Nicholas got out many weeks after I did. It took him a while to get over her. Longer than it took me to get over him. And yet, he dated another girl because he knew Jacquiline wasn't interested in him. Gradually, she faded from his heart as his new relationship blossomed.
Nicholas rid me, for a time, of my misandronistic feelings towards men, caused by my last relationship. Such feelings posed a threat to my pansexual orientation. Without freedom from that discriminating mindset, I was simply a bisexual, possibly veering more towards heterosexuality. And that wasn't enough for me. I craved a fragile, pansexual balance. I didn't just want to be right in the middle of the damn Kinsey scale, I wanted to be an enlightened exception to the rules that didn't have a spot on the scale.
The Kinsey scale, from 0.0 to 6.0, where zero is pure heterosexuality and six is pure homosexuality. I suppose bisexuality covered anything from 1.5 to 4.5, otherwise known as the middle. Or maybe it was the middle third, 2.0 to 4.0. Whatever. But I didn't just fancy myself an evenly split 3.0, I wanted to be the three with the asterisk beside it.
Anyways, my heart moved on from Nicholas the moment my second love at first sight crush struck in early December. And not a moment sooner. Of course, he and I remained great friends.
And that was why, right now, I understood and sympathized with the plight of this red-headed stranger sitting behind Blake so well, I would do as much for her sake as I would for the sake of my own wild infatuations.
"And your second crush?" asked Blake, as CJ finished telling him more than he ever had about the situation he'd experienced in Homewood.
"Let's save that story for another time," CJ told him. "I don't want to sound too much like I sympathize with Fernando. It's time for you to open up, buddy."
The hamburger and fries were gone.
The poutine and chicken strips were gone.
Beside their food trays, CJ's brand new dark red DSi XL was playing quiet music from its speakers. It wasn't video game music. He was making use of its music playing functionality, with whatever songs he'd uploaded onto its SD card. In fact, it was playing a cover of Robyn Carlsson's pop single, Be Mine, sung as a duet by Erik Hassle and Ellie Goulding.
As the song came to an end, Blake was no longer irked by the blatant heterosexuality of it. He sipped his drink, as he wracked his mind for a proper starting place in his own tale of intriguing woe.