Dec '03 [Home]


2003 Spring-Summer Fiction Contest Winner (Mid-Length)

Omicron Ceti III
by Thomas Balázs

. ... Three things I loved about Westchester Hospital:
          1.      The all-u-can-take therapy buffet.
          2.      The 32-inch television with the Sci-fi Channel and TV Land.
          3.      Rosie.
          Rosie had fat cheeks and dirty-blonde hair and walked around all day long in her pajamas. She was pretty in a grown-up-mall-girl kind of way, and she had a nice rack, but that's not what made me love her. It was her quiet, gentle ways. She shuffled around the corridors of the hospital in furry slippers and flannel pee-jays, smiled at the nurses when they gave her medication, laughed at the stupidest reruns on daytime TV—Too Close for Comfort, Full House, Saved by the Bell. She was a soft, mellow, sleepy girl, always warm to the touch like a kitten waking up from a nap.
          She sat next to me one day while I was in the lounge, flipping non-stop through channel after channel. "You need to relax," she said, and ran her palm against my forehead, smoothing down the furrows. "They're like speed bumps. You've got to slow down." She eased the remote from my hand and placed it on the coffee table in front of us.
           "Close your eyes," she said, and lightly pressed my lids down her with thumb and forefinger. "Lean back." Then, she draped her arms around my waist and laid her head in my lap where seconds later she drifted off to sleep without seeming to notice there was a bump in her pillow.

          Rosie slept a lot. "There's nothing in the world I like as much," she once told me. "All the things I want, I can get them in my sleep. My brother visits me, my parents leave me alone, and my baby doesn't cry. I can fly. It's like swimming, only no resistance. I breaststroke my way above the crowds, over the tops of houses. Sometimes I get too high, and then I get scared and come down, but most of the time I enjoy it. I wish I could sleep all the time and never have to wake up."
          I asked her once whether she ever had nightmares, and she said, "I only have sweet dreams." That's what Rosie was for me.

          You weren't supposed to date in the hospital, but, of course, people did. Rosie and I held hands on the couch when the nurses weren't looking, rubbed feet under the table at mealtimes, and always stuck up for each other in group. At night before lights out, we stood by the windows, pretending we could see the heavens through the wire mesh and the blazing white lights that illuminated the hospital.
          "See that star, " I would say, pointing to where I knew the night sky was. "That's Omicron Ceti III, the planet I come from."
          "And there's Orion," she would say. "You know I gave him that belt."
          We liked to act as though we were crazy. That way we felt superior to the others and didn't have to think about the fact that we really were crazy.

          Occasions on which I have cried:
          1.      When Mr. Spock, in "This Side of Paradise," tells Jill Ireland he cannot love her as he once did on Omicron Ceti III.
          2.      When my cat Stumpy died.
          3.      When I thought I'd lost Rosie.

          During that first occasion, I was in the arms of girlfriend number eight, who looked at me with ironic dismay.
          "Are you crying? Can it be? Erik Kavanaugh actually shedding a tear?"
          "Cut it out," I sniffed.
          "No, really. I can't believe it. When your dad was in the hospital having part of his lung removed, you didn't cry."
          "Judy, please. This is my favorite scene."
          "Listen to your voice! It's squeaking! Your voice never broke the time we split up. Your voice never broke when you told me how your mother died. Your voice—"
          "Jesus, Judy. Leave me alone!"
          She didn't say another word, but I couldn't shut that voice out of my head. The whole thing was ruined, and I went as cold and silent as space itself. Later that evening we made love, mechanically as usual, except that when I came I thought about her complaint, about the coitus interruptus of my moment with the DVD, and the anger mounted inside me until I imagined I was shooting photon torpedoes into her uterus.
          She left not long afterward.

          In "This Side of Paradise," Spock goes down to Omicron Ceti III and gets sprayed by these poppy plants and spends half the show frolicking around with a young Jill Ireland. Leila, she's called. She's blonde and buxom and always in soft focus, and he's laughing and joking and hanging upside-down from trees, telling her he loves her and stuff like that. It's a beautiful thing because Spock is normally so reserved. But then the poppies wear off, and he goes back to being regular old Mr. Spock, the one who can't feel emotions. Jill Ireland tries to get him back. She says they can return to the planet, get the poppies again. But he says, "I am what I am, Leila, and, if there are self-made purgatories, we must all live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else's."
          I've watched that scene a hundred times on DVD and on the Sci-Fi Channel. I penned a letter to the writer of the episode, D.C. Fontanna, to tell her what a genius she was, but I figured she would never read it, so I just marked it, "Starship Enterprise, Star Date 3417.3," put a stamp on it, and dropped it in the mail.

          "What did you hope to accomplish with that?" my therapist George asked me.
          "I don't know," I said. "I just wanted to tell someone I loved their stuff."
          "You loved their stuff? That's quite an admission from you, Erik."
          "What? I love that episode. I can't love something? I'm a robot?"
          "Those are your words, not mine."
          Actually they weren't mine either. They were Diane's, girlfriend number six. She once compared me to Data, the android from Star Trek The Next Generation. "It's like you've got no feelings at all, like Data—only at least he tries."
           I resented the remark. I hate The Next Generation. Data is a pale imitation of Spock, a mere Pinocchio retread. I told her as much while she was walking out the door.

          Three theories for why I am the way I am.
          1.      Freudian:  My mother died in a car crash when I was fourteen, just as I was emerging from sexual latency, overwhelming me with Oedipal guilt and cutting off access to the libido, leading to a general lack of affect punctuated by occasional eruptions from the unconscious.
          2.      Jungian:  My father's emotional abandonment of me following the accident left me with a gaping "father wound," hemorrhaging vitality and preventing me from mourning the loss of both parents.
          3.      Spockian:  See above section on self-made purgatories.

          Rosie loved me just the way I was.
          "I'm no lover boy," I once told her, echoing Warren Beatty's speech to Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. He tells her that right after they've robbed their first bank, and she gets so worked up she starts smothering him with kisses while he's driving the getaway car. In my case, Rosie and I had just snatched a smooch while the other refugees from reality lined up for meds. "I mean, I'm not impotent or anything—not physically, anyway. Emotionally, though, I have trouble getting it up."
          "You'll just have to use your tongue then," she laughed. "Tell me what you know you should feel."
          Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade; this girl could make tuna casserole from kitty litter. That's why I never understood why she had so much trouble taking care of herself and her baby.
          "I can't look at him without wanting to go to sleep," she told me. "Even when my parents bring him here to see me it's all I can do to stay awake."
          "Post-partum depression?"
          "Post-party depression," she said. "I knew I shouldn't have joined that game of beer die. I should sue Pabst Blue Ribbon for child support."
          Beer die was a college drinking game. It was like Quarters, only you used dice and a wooden board, not unlike a knock-hockey board. Suing the beer manufacturer probably would have been her best bet, considering that, short of paternity tests, she had no way of knowing which of the five guys she'd slept with that night bounced his sperm successfully into the cup of her womb.
          In Westchester Hospital, however, paternity was mostly irrelevant. We rarely had enough time together alone to share more than a brief kiss. Still, those kisses were never rushed. Rosie's mouth would open to mine as if in a yawn, and her tongue nosed around my mouth like a tired, wet otter exploring a hidden cave.
          The hospital, like our kisses, was outside of time. Sure, there was a kind of chronology: Meals at 7, 12, and 5. Meds at 9 and 3. Group therapy at 1. Individual therapy at 11. But all those things were just like railings on a path that stretched forever before and behind you. There were no mile markers, no days of the week, not even months. We were both in there for the long-term. Rosie couldn't keep a job, barely fed herself, much less her baby, and had overdosed on sleeping pills in the hope of inducing a coma and dreaming forever. And me, I couldn't stop talking in threes.

          Three things I loved about Stumpy:
          1.      He was a one-man cat. Stumpy couldn't give a damn about the rest of the world. When people came over and tried to pet him, he'd shy away or lick the place they'd touched as if their fingers were covered with dog shit. Then he'd come up to me, rub against my leg, and leap onto my lap. Jane, girlfriend number nine, said the cat was in love with me.
          2.      He thought he was a dog. He would fetch, roughhouse, and sleep on the bed. One woman, who was around too short a time to be counted, objected to him napping there. It was her or him. It was him.
          3.      He never asked me for anything I couldn't give.

          It wasn't long after Judy left me for good that I got Stumpy. I had never seen a cat without a tail before, and unlike all the other mewing kittens at the pound, he pretty much ignored me. Apparently he was a Manx, but they couldn't say for sure. Sometimes things like that just happen, they said. I poked his little Beanie-Baby body, and he raised his head, glared at me, and went back to sleep. The perfect cat, I thought. I could use some companionship, but not too much. I had talked to my then-current therapist—I forget his name—about getting on anti-depressants. I had become a regular visitor to the back room of Video Express, and now I would have a cat. Pussycat, Prozac, and pornography. That's all I needed.
          My dad was visiting my apartment in Chelsea. He wanted to see where I lived, what I was doing, whether I was taking care of my teeth. He took me out to dinner, told me stories about my mother, how he had never loved anyone like he had loved her, how when she died and left him alone, he didn't think he'd be able to cope, how he threw himself even more into his practice because he knew the one thing he could do was to support me financially. I didn't know what he was getting at. Some kind of grand apology. Apparently he'd just met some new woman, and it was like the spring thaw of his heart, and he wanted me to meet her, and even though I was all grown up now, he wanted my approval. Whatever. I approved.
          Back in my apartment, he threw open the window and leaned out over Sixth Avenue.
          "New York is some kind of place. Are you happy here?"
          I said I was.
          That's when Stumpy leapt onto the windowsill, and my dad tried to pet him, and the cat took a swat at my dad and lost his footing. Some people think cats need a tail for balance. Others say that's a myth. In Stumpy's case, it's hard to know. Maybe if he'd had a tail, he wouldn't have fallen off the ledge. Then again, maybe if it hadn't been for the fire hydrant between him and the sidewalk, he would have landed on his feet. He died in the taxi on the way to the animal hospital, and I wept all the way to Bellevue.

          Therapists loved me. Frank, my first shrink, was head over heels.
          "It's so tragic," he would say. "Your mom and your dad on their way to see you in a junior high school melodrama in which you play the villain; the icy road, the three-car pile-up, your dad trapped in there with her as she dies, the jaws of life…"
          "Jaws of death I'd say."
          "They got him out."
          "In a matter of speaking."
          I saw Frank once a week for nearly three years in high school, during which time, he educated me in the ways of Viennese Voodoo. He claimed I was stuck on my mother, had not had the chance to renounce my erotic attachment to her before she got killed, and that I blamed both my father and myself for her death.
          "In your unconscious fantasies, you imagine it was your desire for her that resulted in the accident. It's a reverse Oedipus. I mean it's classic. She was even killed at a three-way intersection! So you figure you killed your mother, and now you're left alone with your father who is the one person you really wanted out of the way. No wonder you can't feel."
          I always had trouble with that whole erotic-attachment-to-my-mother business. How can you be oedipally attached to someone you never see? I didn't even know they'd been on the way to the play. They never came to my school stuff.
          But Frank had another theory. I had not only lost my mother but also my father in that accident. Neither of us could face the other afterward. So Frank was going to be substitute mama and papa for me. "A corrective emotional experience," he called it. He was going to pick up where they had left off. So, he would ask me about swim team and how I had done, get on my case if I didn't do my homework, encourage me to go back to acting. When I broke 1300 on the SATs, he slapped my back and yelped for joy. He and his wife even came to my high school graduation. I guess they had a lot of time; they had no kids of their own.
          The day before I went off to college, Frank went to pieces. When he opened the door onto our last session, his eyes were bloodshot. His hair—what there was of it—was a mess. He must have spent the night in the office. He gestured toward the couch and sobbed something about counter-transference.
          The guy at Bellevue was less analytical.
          "Oedipus schmedipus," he said. "Let's try adding Wellbutrin to the Prozac."
          "Sure. Could you prescribe a low-milligram dose of potassium cyanide as well?"
          "Maybe we better keep you in here for a few days."
          They loved me.

[Continuation, this issue]