Dec '03 [Home]


Omicron Ceti III
by Thomas Balázs

. ... My dad said he loved me, kept saying it over and over again, ad nauseum, in the cab, first on the way to the animal hospital while I clutched my bleeding kitty in my arms and wailed like the mother of Christ, then on the way to the lunatic hospital while I accused him of having the touch of death.
          "You're a modern-day Midas. Everything you touch turns to shit. How do your patients survive your fingers in their mouths? Why don't their teeth turn to turds? Oh that's right, you wear gloves. That probably helps. You should wear them all the time. You should wear a full-fucking body suit."
          "Erik," he said, "Erik, I'm sorry. I love you. It wasn't my fault. He just jumped away. I just came here to see how you were doing, to try and straighten things out."
          Never trust an orthodontist to straighten things out. That's what I was thinking, but I couldn't speak anymore. I was trying not to heave my brunch all over the back of the cab.

          Other movie, television, and theatrical characters with whom I identify:
          1.      Bogart in Casablanca. I mean the part at the end, not during those cheesy flashbacks in Paris, but the part where he's telling Ingrid Bergman to get on the plane, and he's looking all cool in his trenchcoat and fedora.
          2.      Eastwood in High Plains Drifter. He just rides into town out of nowhere, casually rapes a woman in a barn, kills a few people, spits tobacco. Never cracks a smile or blinks or says he's sorry.
          3.      Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar. I don't know why I like this guy because he's one tortured individual, and he doesn't even get to mess around with Mary Magdalene. But when he sings the reprise of I Don't Know How to Love Him, I feel like it's me on that CD. Though, let me say for the record that it is only Murray Head, the Judas from the original brown and yellow soundtrack, who does anything for me. The rest of the Judases, Ben Vereen included, don't know Judas from a hole in the hand.

          My parents and I went to see J.C. Superstar back in 1977, when I was six years old and it was revived on Broadway. But I suppose that's overstating the case. My mother misremembered the time on the tickets, and we arrived an hour late and were not let into the first act. My father threw a tantrum, said the best music was in the first half of the show, and he was going for a walk and would meet us afterward.
          "A walk? A walk where?" my mother asked. It was starting to snow.
          "A walk," is all he said.
          She and I hung around in the lobby under the watchful eyes of the ushers for the next half-hour, my mother biting her lower lip as she often did when she was angry. Then the two of us went in for the second act, which is, in fact, far superior to the first with its woe-is-me whining and sloppy sentimentality. Really, the final half of the show not only features the Judas rendition of I Don't Know How to Love Him, but also Herod's taunting of Jesus and Pilate's execution of the thirty-nine lashes. My dad was seriously misinformed. Anyway, afterward, my mom and I sat in a coffee shop to await his return from wherever he had gone. We left a note on the car windshield telling him where we were, but it was soon covered over in snow. It took him a good while to figure that out, so our stay in the coffee shop was far longer than we spent at the Longacre Theatre. Yeah, he was crazy in love, that dad of mine.

          I would have waited an age in Hell for Rosie if we were late getting to see Jesus. The problem was Rosie got ahead of me.

          Three reasons Rosie and I couldn't stay together in the psyche-sanctuary for all eternity:
          1.      Someday Westchester Hospital would cease to exist.
          2.      Someday Rosie and I would cease to exist.
          3.      Insurance wouldn't cover it.

          "Do you know you compulsively make lists of three?" a girl in group once asked me. " 'Three movies I'd like to see,' 'three things I'd like for dinner,' 'my three favorite selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors'."
          "Three's a sacred number. The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. The past, the present, and the future. The ego, the id, and the super ego."
          "It's weird."
          "The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Three Stooges."
          "Okay. I get the point."
          "My Three Sons. Three's Company. Three to be You and Me."
          "That's Free to be You and Me."
          "Once, twice, three times a lady. Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub. I'm as three as a bird."
          "Freebird! It's Freebird."
          "Free, three, what's the difference?"
          "That's an interesting question," said Jonathan, one of the group facilitators. "Can you be free of three?"
          "Oh please," I said. "Don't get Freudian on me. Or Jungian. Or Adlerian."

          It began when I emerged from my crying jag over Stumpy and continued right on through Bellevue and Westchester Hospital. All day long, everything in threes.
          At dinner, "I'll have peas, broccoli, and carrots."
          "We don't have broccoli."
          "I'll have peas, carrots, and potatoes."
          "We don't have potatoes."
          "I'll have peas, carrots, and peas!"
          During visiting hours, "I don't want to see my father. I don't want to see my mother. I don't want to see anyone."
          "Your mother's not here."
          "That's because she's dead, dead, dead."
          With George during our sessions, "So why this obsession with three?"
          "First, I don't agree it's an obsession. Second, I happen to like the number. Third, get off of my case."
          But Rosie didn't care; she was able to use it, to channel it, to sublimate it, if you will.
          "Tell me three things you love about me," she would say.
          "I love your sweet eyes, your soft lips, and your warm, flannel-covered breasts."
          "So you only love me for my body?"
          "I love the way you kiss me, the touch of your hands, the sound of my name on your lips."
          "So you only love me for what I do for you?"
          "I love the way you eat, the way you sleep. I love everything about you."
          Like I said, I was never much of a lover boy, but with Rosie, it was easy.

          It seemed like a long, lazy eon before my father was there, telling me I could leave soon. "Dr. Gregory says the suicidal ideation has subsided, and you're getting the counting thing under control."
          "Do you know you're the third person who's told me I'm ready to leave? You, Dr. Gregory, the head nurse."
          "Everyone thinks you're improving."
          "I don't think I am. Rosie doesn't think I am. The other people in the group don't think I am."
          "Blue Cross and Blue Shield thinks you are," he said, trumping my girlfriend, my peers, and me.

          Rosie and I began to plot ways of proving I was unfit for society.
          "You could weep uncontrollably again," she said.
          "I can't cry on command. I usually can't cry at all."
          "You could play with yourself in group."
          "In front of John and Karen? No way."
          "You could make a suicidal gesture."
          "I might succeed."

          Then a strange thing happened. Rosie got out first.
          It was my fault. As I started to get better, I developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, identification with the oppressors, like Patty Hearst, and I started practicing lay therapy.
          "Have you had your thyroid checked?" I asked Rosie.
          "God, what haven't I had checked? Yes, I think so. They said it was normal."
          "You know those tests can be wrong sometimes. I think you should get it checked again. You've got all the classic symptoms of hormonal deficiency. You're a little young for it, but still, it often happens after pregnancy."
          "I thought you majored in sociology?"
          "I did, but my mother was a psychiatrist."
          She let out a big yawn. Taxi was just starting on TV Land, so we let the subject drop, but she spoke to her parents about it, and they spoke to the doctors, and they ran the tests again, and, sure enough, I was right. They started her on the hormone treatment, and a few weeks later, the doctors decided she could do a half-way kind of thing, come in for just the day, do group and individual therapy, get her meds administered, have lunch, and then go home at night.
          She didn't want to leave. Yet, as she stood in the corridor with her suitcase, her hazel eyes already sparkled with new life. Dressed in gray and blue, she withdrew from sight like a cloud floating away.
          My eyes were sparkling too, but not with life. I didn't get as bad as I did over Stumpy, but it was worse than my reaction to when Spock dumps Leila, and one of the nurses actually put her paw on my shoulder to comfort me.

          Things weren't the same at Westchester without Rosie. In the evenings, I lingered by the window, staring out into the night, but all I could see was the glare. I tried to make things more interesting in group by challenging John and Karen's facile interpretations, but that just annoyed everyone.
          "I liked you better when you were talking in threes," said the girl who only a few months ago had been driven to distraction by my triads.
          "I never liked you much, period," I said. I was getting back to my old self.
          Shortly thereafter, they put me on the part-time plan too, and I went to go live with my dad and stepmom-to-be. They hadn't gotten married yet, and technically, they weren't living together, but she was there all the time. She was okay, really. Nothing like my mother. She was a businesswoman, worked in orthodontic administration recruiting interior mouth decorators for various medical systems. She dressed in blue suits and wore her hair up and used a lot of makeup and always wore earrings. She was handsome rather than pretty and teased my father in ways I don't ever remember my mother doing.
          "I'm teaching John to play golf," she said one night at dinner. "We have to pay an extra green fee for all the divots he leaves."
          Golf. The clubs my mother bought my father one Christmas gathered dust in the basement for twenty years. Heather fished them out to get him started, but then decided they were obsolete and bought him a whole new set. He was playing tennis too, and they were taking weekend trips to the Catskills and to little bed and breakfasts in Connecticut. They even went and caught the second revival of J.C. Superstar on Broadway. Heather got them there early.
          I wasn't doing much myself. I spent my days in sweats and t-shirts, not even bothering to put on jeans when I went to the hospital for the day program, and when I got home I slept and watched TV.
          I didn't see Rosie anymore. They had, apparently, assigned us to different groups. So one night I called her.
          "Hey," she said. "You escaped."
          "Was more like dragged out."
          "Still talking in threes?"
          "No," I said. "George has me writing down lists instead. It seems to help."
          There was something odd about her voice. I couldn't quite place it at first. I thought maybe she was uncomfortable talking to me because of where we had met.
          "You sound different." It was energy, I realized. She was awake.
          "It's the hormone therapy, just like you said. It's made all the difference. Can you believe I'm taking care of the baby all by myself now? Well, almost all by myself. My mom watches him when I take night classes."
          "Night classes?"
          "Yes, I'm finishing my degree."
          "Terrific," I said. "Great."
          She asked me if I wanted to come over and see the baby. I told her no thanks. I was busy.
          "Busy doing what?"
          "Sleeping," I said. "I've been doing lots of sleeping."

          At the end of "This Side of Paradise," Kirk and McCoy discuss their experience on the planet. McCoy says that once again man has been thrown out of paradise, and Kirk says, no, this time we walked out on our own, and he makes a big pompous speech about marching to the sound of drums. Then he turns to Spock.
          "You haven't said what you thought about Omicron Ceti III."
          "I don't have much to say about it," Spock responds, "except that for the first time in my life I was happy." Cut to the credits.

          "You are not Spock," George told me.
          "That's just what Leonard Nimoy said. 'I am not Spock.' And then he went and did half a dozen sequels."
          "How many sequels do you hope to do at Westchester?"

          Then one day, Rosie showed up on my doorstep when my dad and Heather just happened to be out. She was smiling broadly in jeans and a t-shirt that nicely showed off her pillowy breasts, and her beer-die prize was in the crook of her arm, perched on her hip.
          "It's the welcome wagon."
          "I'd prefer the paddy wagon." But I let her and the offspring in.
          He was okay, that kid. I mean, he was no Stumpy. He didn't fetch or roughhouse or anything, but he crawled around a lot. His balance wasn't much better than my old cat's. He would try and stand up every once in a while, only to topple over. But he didn't cry much, and I liked that. Jimmy was his name.
          That first night, we just sat and watched the toddler tumble, and we didn't touch or kiss or anything even though it was the first time we had ever really been alone. Then Rosie began stopping by every Monday evening until one time when she came in the middle of the week. She was on her way to school, but she had the baby with her.
          "My parents couldn't watch him, and I don't want to take him to class."
          Talk about set-ups.
          "You're going to leave him here with me? Are you kidding? Did you bring his litter box?"
          She was not kidding, and she had brought his diapers, which she showed me how to use.
          "You're a smart guy. You can handle it."
          When she left, I sat my charge down next to me and popped Star Trek Volume 17 into the DVD player to watch "This Side of Paradise" one more time, but Jimmy would not pay attention. He kept crawling off the couch and tugging on my arms, and he did need to be changed—not once, not twice, but thrice.

          Thus, I became the kid's weekly Wednesday sitter. It was the only job I had for months, and I was pretty good at it. We'd watch TV, and I'd bounce him on my knee and try to teach him tricks like chasing a ball of aluminum foil. But it wasn't enough, and I began to think of those sleeping pills Rosie had taken and how she had failed in her attempt to rid herself of daily woes. Maybe, I thought, it's because suicide is a man's job. George once said that women tried more often to take own their lives, but men had a higher success rate. And the thought stuck with me for a long time, to go boldly where so many men have gone before.
          Finally, I sat down with half a gallon of orange juice and a tremendous bottle of fluoride tablets I'd obtained with a prescription pad heisted from my dad's office. I had read online that you could OD on the stuff if you took enough, and it seemed appropriate to whack myself with a dental wonder drug. Vicodin, Codeine, those were so pedestrian. I wanted a suicide with a measure of poetic justice. Somewhere, I thought, there was a six-foot cavity in the ground waiting to be filled. Of course, my father was an orthodontist, so it was kind of a stretch, as suicidal metaphors go.
          At any rate, I hadn't yet decided whether to swallow the huge chalky tablets whole or to crush them into the juice. Either way, I'd have to get down quite a few to do the job. While I was thinking it over, I took out the pencil and pad I had been carrying in my shirt pocket since coming home and started to write a list of three reasons why I should still go on living.
          I came up with only two:  Rosie and Jimmy.

(Thomas Balázs recently completed his MFA in fiction writing at Vermont College, where his work was nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Project contest and for Best New American Voices 2004. He is also a graduate of the University of Chicago's Ph.D. program in English, and teaches in and directs the north side location of the Odyssey Project, a free college-level course in the humanities offered to low-income adults in Chicago.)