It was the birds that woke me. Every morning at five, the brown sparrows that lived in my vent screeched. I lived on the third floor and sometimes rain or the occasional unlucky egg would fall from the vent and onto my bookshelf. I put a towel there so the wood wouldn’t get damaged and after the third egg I bought a tiny brush-the kind that girls use to put that pink stuff on their cheeks. I would brush the unborn birds into a paper towel and leave them wrapped up in the bushes outside my complex. Dead or alive, birds don’t belong inside.
The bus was going to come in half an hour so it was better to be awake anyway. I threw off the covers and the morning air washed over me. I stood up and stretched. I was honoring my body, I was honoring God, and I was honoring my spiritual journey. I lifted my arms in the dim light. I was still practicing but it all felt a little like bullshit.
After I checked the top of my bookshelf to make sure I wouldn’t have to prepare for a funeral, I went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and scrutinized my face. It wasn’t the best face, but at least it was mine. I saw stubble but I didn’t feel like shaving. I left my room and sat in front of my television where I had a stone with the word PEACE on it. It only cost $1.25 but it was my most prized possession. I found it at a thrift store when I still lived with my parents. I only had seventy-five cents and I was about to steal it but a kid a little older than me saw me reaching for my bag. He asked what I was doing and I told him I was short. He put two quarters in my hand and flicked my forehead. I didn’t see him after that and I went away with my treasure.
I lit a stick of incense and prayed. It was “dragon’s blood” and the smoke danced into the air and out of my open window. I watched it for a moment and thought about how I had never noticed the smoke before a month ago. I never noticed much of anything, but now even the softness of my carpet catches my attention. “Dear God, thank you for waking me up. Thank you for giving me the energy to get out of bed today. Please give me peace, strength, and motivation to make it through today. Amen.” I sat until the incense burned out. I breathed deeply; they told me I should breathe from my stomach but I still don’t know what that means. I wondered why dragon’s blood smelled so sweet.
I made myself eggs and turkey sausage for breakfast and sat at the table near my window. Across the street was a bus stop and the man with the red jacket was there again. He always waited at the bus stop before the sun rose and he always had a flower with him. Today it was a tulip. Yesterday it was a lily. By the time I finished my breakfast, he would be gone. I never saw him come home but I always remembered the flowers.
I could see the mountains from my apartment. They weren’t the type of green that you’d use in a coloring book. It was a mix of pine green and dirt. Rows of houses that melted into buildings and shops. Beyond that was the ocean; I could see the world.
I pulled my backpack tighter and adjusted my name badge. Kevin would be picking me up today because Jason was sick. I liked Kevin well enough but Jason was my favorite. Jason let me eat my breakfast on the bus if I didn’t wake up early enough to eat at home. Kevin always made me wait and he never let me sing along to the radio-even if I was quiet.
He pulled up in the Scripps shuttle bus and got out to help me. I wasn’t like the others, I didn’t need help but I let him help anyway. He called it protocol, I called it pity. He wasn’t my friend. I sat closest to the window and put in my ear buds. The woman who was always talking to nobody was on the bus today. I didn’t want to hear her. Sometimes she and nobody would talk about some pretty steamy stuff and Kevin or Jason would tell them to be more considerate of the other passengers. I thought those days were the funniest and then felt sorry for laughing. I hated feeling sorry for her because at the end of the bus ride, we were the same: broken people trying to be fixed.
I listened to Linkin Park. The screaming mixed with the violent words soothed the fear and anger inside me. It was peaceful. I was angry with myself, I was angry with Jason for not being there today, and I was angry at the woman who was laughing with no one. She was always laughing. She seemed happy. I didn’t want to be on this bus, but I had to if I wanted to get better. The music helped. They said in times like this, to take a deep breath-so I did, but I still felt like a football player was dancing on my chest.
We were going to pick up the boy with schizophrenia. I liked him. He was the only other 20-something. Everyone else had white hair and worn out faces, but his skin was smooth. We turned onto his street. I never memorized the street name, but I knew it was his because there was an orange tree on the corner.
Half the street was shaded and we drove into the shadows. We stopped at Jin’s house and he was wearing torn jeans and a “My Chemical Romance” shirt. I liked that. He wore a chain that hung from his belt loops and a necklace with half a heart on it. When he got on the bus he smiled at me.
“Morning Jin” I didn’t smile, even though I wanted to.
“Morning Ryan,” he scooted comfortably close.
He placed his hand on the seat, almost close enough to touch my fingers. One of the rules of the program was that patients couldn’t touch each other. We were in the second row of seats and no one could see us. Jin did this every day. Today, like every day, I moved my finger to overlap with his. He smiled without looking at me, and I looked out the window. He rubbed his fingers over mine-he felt along the length of my finger. He turned my hand over and touched my palms, he traced along the lines and when he got to the pads of my fingers, he rubbed them in small circles. I looked at him and he looked at me before we both turned to the front again. Kevin was talking with the woman and no one.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Give me your number,”
“That’s not how you ask. Besides, what are you doing?” I said as his hand traveled to my knee.
“Can I please have your number? Your face is all red by the way, do you have a fever?” he glanced over and smiled. He moved his hand to rest on my lower stomach.
“I’m fine…why are you teasing me?” I tried to move a little but he reached down lower and held me in place. My jeans got a little tight and Jin laughed a little.
“I want your number so we can talk more,”
“Okay, just stop before Kevin sees. Last time he said he’d put me on a different bus if he caught us again.” Jin let go and sat back. He was such a brat. One day, Jin and I sat in the front and we held hands like normal but Kevin told us to separate. When we reached the hospital, Kevin reported us. We were told if we were caught again we would have to switch buses or we couldn’t take the shuttle bus anymore. Jin and I sat in the back from then on. We switched phones and put our numbers in them.
Jin’s program was in a different part of the hospital and he took a different shuttle home, so this was the only time we saw each other. Forty-five minutes of silence and stolen glances was never enough but it was all we could afford. I hadn’t even known his last name and we never talked to each other. He gave me my phone back. Collins. Jin Collins. I liked it.
The bus pulled up to the hospital and the woman in the way back got out first. She was laughing again and Kevin helped her out. Our hands were still touching.
“You need help getting out Jin?” Kevin said. He moved his head so he could see us properly. I was mad at Kevin as Jin pulled away and got off the bus. Kevin was not my friend. When I got out, I pulled my backpack tight and noticed Jin had left already. I took a deep breath and I held my phone tightly. I usually didn’t like playing games but Jin was intriguing and his games were exciting.
I walked to the Don Allen Garden. The hospital had a little garden in the center of it. A koi pond snaked through the garden under three wooden bridges. Patients would stand on one watching the koi and red-eared slider turtles swim beneath them and around the artificial plants. A stone path decorated with bright red and yellow stones outlined the koi pond. Patients would walk the outskirts of the pond and sometimes follow the stones to one end of the garden and back. Cypress and Jacaranda trees circled the garden. When the winds came, the purple flowers rained and decorated the pond, the bridges, and the stone path. At the far end of the garden, a weeping willow stood alone with the only patch of real grass underneath it. A waterfall crashed over a fake set of boulders that nestled beneath the tree. I still had twenty minutes before my program started.
I passed a few offices and saw Dr. Hurt’s office. I never saw his face before but I’d seen him sitting at his desk once. I always remembered his office though. His nameplate had a ladybug painted on it. One day when he was out of the office, I walked up to the door. When I saw no one was around, I closed my eyes and traced the ladybug with my finger. It felt like acrylic paint. His door was never closed and there was always a piece of fruit on the windowsill, today there was an orange.
I continued to the garden and saw Jin waiting near the weeping willow. I didn’t go over to him, but instead went to sit at a wooden table hidden behind some thin Jacaranda branches. Jin came over and pulled a chair close to me.
“You like to sit under that tree right?” Jin asked leaning forward. His arms rested on his knees and he stared.
“Aren’t you late for your program? Besides, why do you care what I like?” I couldn’t look at him. He had hazel eyes and I liked them so I looked at my hands instead.
“I’m kind of late, but it’s cool. I want to know more about you and the things you like. I know you like to sit near that tree and I know you like to watch the fish.” He leaned over and kissed my cheek.
“I’m a guy you know,” I pressed my hand to my cheek. It was warm, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the kiss or my embarrassment.
“So what? I like you, what does it matter if you’re a guy? You like me too right?” he kissed my neck.
“I guess,” I closed my eyes as his lips traveled from my chin to my collarbone. He stood up and tugged on my shirt until I stood up with him.
“Say it to my face. Tell me if you like me or not,” he held my face in his hands and made me look him in the eyes.
“I like you,” I said. He held me for a moment and then kissed my lips. I had a feeling in my stomach-the one you get when you’re going down on a swing. I could feel his tongue poke against my lips. I hesitated but I parted my lips anyway. His tongue felt like a strawberry and tasted like texas grapefruit-sweet and sour. He broke the kiss right when I started to kiss back.
“I know,” he smirked and touched his forehead to mine. “Let’s hang out. Outside of program, okay? We can kiss some more if you want.”
“We can hang out but I’m not going to kiss you. Who would want to kiss you?”
I whispered, although I didn’t know why. He laughed.
“November 3rd, Scorpio, my favorite color is red, my favorite food is carne asada fries,” he rubbed his nose against mine.
“What are you talking about?” I hadn’t realized I was rubbing too.
“Tell me about you too, or do you want to kiss again?”
“July 1st, Cancer, my favorite color is blue, and I really like squash,” I said and he smiled before releasing my face.
“Let’s talk more okay?” He kissed my temple and walked away.
I stood and watched him climb into a nearby window. My face was hot and my knees felt tight-like someone was gripping them so that I wouldn’t fall. I sat down and I took out the journal they made me keep. I wrote a few sentences:
What was that? That was our longest conversation and our first kiss. Jin is interesting and I need to know more.
If I’m so broken, how can I feel? I wasn’t numb once I felt his lips.
If I’m broken, who can fix me? If he’s broken, can we put our broken pieces together?
I covered the words in a thin layer of lead. Sometimes they’d read our journals and I didn’t want them to know about my new investigation. Jin made me mad, I wish he hadn’t kissed me but I really liked his taste in shirts. I still had that feeling in my stomach and that made me mad too. Why did he taste like grapefruit anyway? I stayed at the table until they came looking for me. They said I was going to miss the mindfulness exercise, but I didn’t care because I didn’t want to be in my head anymore.
The hospital offered a free lunch. I didn’t usually go but today they asked me to work on being social. I had to walk to the far end of the hospital to reach the cafeteria. I would look at the placards and motivational quotes on the walls. My favorite was the “Five Steps to Recovery” painting. The background was dirt brown. It was as if the words were embedded in the earth. Roses and Hibiscus petals were painted on. ‘Hope,’ ‘Connection,’ ‘Empowerment,’ ‘Self-Responsibility,’ and ‘A Meaningful Life,’ were painted in a serif text. I stood in front of the painting and felt in my pocket. I felt along a laminated wallet-sized version of the painting. I had it made so I could keep the words with me when I wasn’t at the hospital.
The line was out the door. I didn’t like waiting but I had agreed to come. I placed my napkin first then a knife, fork, and spoon. I never needed the knife but I always got one anyway.
I got a pear, a burger, and sweet tea. I wanted to sit alone-I would just lie to them later-but all the tables looked full. I scanned the room again and felt someone behind me. It was Jin. He ushered me to where he was sitting. It was a table in the corner of the cafeteria and he and I sat alone
"I've never seen you in here" he said eating a salad.
"I don't usually come to lunch,"
"Why not? It's free food."
"I don't really care about that. I can just eat at home. I only came because they 'challenged me' to be more social. Besides, I didn't really have a good enough reason before today."
Jin smiled and I smiled back. He started eating what looked like eggs and vegetables. He later told me it is a dish called 'quiche'. He speared a piece with his fork and offered me some. I opened my mouth and he looked a little confused before laughing and feeding me. Even though it was eggs, it didn’t taste like them. It was fluffy and I could taste the spinach and garlic that was mixed in. We sat for a while: sometimes in an awkward silence, sometimes with our feet overlapped.
I got home around 3pm. I said goodbye to Kevin and stepped off the bus. The woman who talked to nobody said goodbye and I waved. I started walking up towards my building.
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Wanna go out this weekend?
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