“Do you want to be called Nicole or do you want to be called… something else?”
he said as he glanced at my name badge hanging off the belt loop of my jeans. I stupidly looked at my own name on it and flushed.
“Oh no, um… Nicole.” I repeated with more assertion: “Nicole.”
All their blank staring faces were better than the usual middle school secret smirking twinkle eye but I still felt pretty stupid for getting all nervous. Good news is the “terrarium” I had left in the dank hallway next to the sign-up flier had somehow flourished over the weekend, which is a whole lot better than dying.
Next stop on my day off was to again wait for hours in a clinic, which seems to be a recurring theme. One would think I had a debilitatingly serious condition given how often I have to wait around in clinics.
After I had signed in and initialed away all my rights in the paperwork, I cozied into my plastic chair and un-packed all my readings and notes and sweaters and pens like it was my own tiny bedroom space. I got a plastic cup of the lukewarm water available to satiate my bike ride thirst. Then, I settled in for the hours of wait ahead of me.
There’s real solidarity in the waiting room of the mental health walk-in clinic. Everyone is a mouth breather (except for me, of course) and crazy and desperate and angry at the System to some extent. Something about our shared qualities being more specific than just a regular medical clinic where the conditions can range all over the place makes us more like pals. I watchfully protected someone’s bike in the hall as they stepped out. Someone helped another get water. A woman got an inch from my leaned over face reading to tell me she liked my sweater in a tone like she was accusing me of doing something secretly wrong and she had noticed it. But I smiled and she smiled and we were all chill.
“The water’s out. The water’s out.” A man in his late 30s, early 40s leaned so painfully on a cane I felt hurt just being beside him. He was hovering around the water cooler, the most popular area in the entire room. Really, people were always going “Hey, is that water any good?” and crowding around like it was a free buffet. Then they drank so gulpingly thirstily loud it was as if they had just emerged from years in the desert, when in fact they had been sitting in this waiting room for hours like the rest of us.
Today, I was seated nest to the water cooler, sitting cross-legged next to a bearded woman who was knitting a giant purple sweater, the “beauty” of which everyone had remarked on- spurring a launch into a heartfelt conversation about sweaters, in general, more than once.
“There’s water in the faucet you could get I guess but I bet it won’t be as good.” A nice young man across from me tried to help the caned man at the cooler who could barely speak through his pain.
“Well, I won’t know what’s in it though. Could be stuff in it.”
“Yeah, ya never know…”
“In the war they put stuff in it. They put stuff in the water.”
The mouth breathing seemed to get a little quieter in the room at the mention of war from a man in such visible pain. We all imagined what terrible thing could have happened to make him this way.
After a moment the young man looked up from the Nintendo DS he was playing and asked “Which war?”
“Both wars. They’re the same war anyway over there.”
He limped his way to the seat between me and the bearded lady. He could hardly sit down and I though he’d cry at any moment. He was wearing boots, a baseball cap and an open leather jacket with a zipper that trembled by my knee as he trembled. I was surprised at how much I wasn’t annoyed by him or anyone else there. Even with the mouth breathing and smelling and loud cell phone talking, I sort of liked them all. A lot of people were pacing the small space, and people would come up and ask if they needed a separate room to wait in.
I looked up at the caned man next to me. He didn’t turn his face to me. I could tell he was attractive, or had been attractive before whatever happened to him. He had an angular jaw line with some facial hair and clear blue eyes. I had never seen anyone so broken looking. I want to put my arm around him or give him everything in my bag. I thought of them calling me before him and trying to give up my space for him.
Someone came out and told him “They’re working on a game plan back there for you right now.”
They left and I could feel his relief relax his stiffened, shifting in pain body next to me. “A game plan. Sounds like they got a whole team of warriors in there for me,” he said with genuine hope.
The bearded woman looked up from her knitting and said to him in a voice that has spent a lot of it’s time screaming and/or smoking: “The warriors are all out here.”
Then we all started talking about how long we had been waiting. Not in a complaining way, but in a bragging way. We tacked on how long we had waited here at other times, too. All our waiting. At this point the mother of the young man with the Nintendo was in the hall crying loudly to a doctor about how she was just trying to make it everyday and they had no right to… It was hard to make out what she said but her despair was genuine. She was very heavy, with bleach blond hair with dark roots pulled back in a scrunchie and a black hoodie that said “MJRD.COM” in giant letters. I thought of how if I had an iphone I’d find out what the website was right then. She reminded me of my mom in a way that made me really sad for a second.
Anyway, it appeared the caned man had been waiting since morning for about 3 or 4 hours and everyone else was about the same. The bearded lady again leaned over with another wise knitter one-liner: “Sometimes patience isn’t a virtue” She looked up at me when she said it and I smiled. Then, I was with them. The caned man looked at me: “Studying, huh? Good.” I was glad to win their approval. For some deep seated reason I will work out at a later time, these crazy people all in a room accepting me, smiling at me with solidarity, gave me real relief.
To the joy of us all they called the caned man back finally. When he left he actually said good bye to the waiting room. I looked up and said “Bye!” in the chorus of everyone else saying the same. “God bless ya” he said, and I felt truly as if God had.
After two and a half hours they called me, my name never sounding so sweet (and certainly sweeter than it had when I first heard it that morning in the middle school). “So I read your file and it looks like you’re going to teach in Philadelphia soon? That’s great!” I told them how the drugs changed my life and they wrote it all down and told me to come back any time I wanted.