The Center sent me to him and I happily went. This was during the time when I slept too much or not at all, didn’t eat, listened to late-night AM talk radio about aliens. I took one medication and then another. No effect or too much. Fatness. Weight loss. The distinct feeling I was in a waking coma. Visions of my impending death. Help me, I pleaded, so they scheduled an appointment with Dr. X.
His house lay in the outskirts of town in a subdivision that hugged the side of a mountainous hill. There were two doors to his house. The front one I imagined was for the middle-aged ladies he unsuccessfully dated. They would have blown-out salon hair and doughy faces made all the worse by acute cosmetic beauty. The other door—the side door—was for the troubled girls, me among them. This was his business door, off the porch, that led into a modified kitchen and living area. Dr. X’s decor tended toward hawk feathers, dream catchers, polished rocks arranged in piles. Green plant fronds twittered in the breeze next to open windows. Native American flute music was piped in from somewhere in the house. I signed in at the kitchen counter, his form of a reception desk, and waited on the uncomfortable armless sofa. Only the worst cases were sent to Dr. X, those with the mysterious glooms. I was full up with a weird sort of pride.
Dr. X emerged from his office in his sock feet, the picture of professional bachelordom in wrinkled khakis and a silk camp shirt draped over his lumpy silhouette. He shook my hand and ushered me into a small bedroom, which he’d converted into a sparsely furnished office. After introductory pleasantries, he asked about my woes and I told him I had a love sickness, that I was obsessive, sleepless with desperation and ruined want. My heart was broken, like a toaster is broken, or a shoe, I told him. I had a hard time finding the will to live, much less get out of bed. He nodded kindly. Yes, he understood. He had gone through a similar sickness.
He rifled through an unwieldy stack of thick manuals teetering beneath his desk and emerged with an oversized tome in which he found his way to a deeply buried passage. He studiously ran his fingertip to a precise point on the page and then turned to me.
“I’ll need to ask you some very specific questions to determine your remedy,” he said, then started in with a long list printed on the page. Spicy or sweet? Coastal or inland? Coffee or juice? Humid or dry? “Interesting,” he said as I noted my proclivities. “Yes. Good.” Sometimes he would stop to clarify that I was quite sure of my leanings since they didn’t align with the emergent pattern of diagnosis.
“Would you say you actually like both cats and turtles,” he asked, “rather than just cats?”
Once he was done, he shut the book and looked at me seriously, explaining he would order me a remedy specially designed to vibrate on the particular energetic level of which I was in need. “I think the remedy that best suits your particular disposition is made from crushed doves’ wings,” he said, then explained that no doves would be harmed in the making of the pills, that no dove’s wing was actually contained in such pills, but rather that all traces of feather or quill were distilled out until all that was left was their beautiful, pure energy.
“Wonderful,” I said credulously.
He placed the order right then on his office phone and told me the pills would arrive via refrigerated courier later that week. I was not to touch the pills with my hand but rather to pour the appointed dosage in the cap and dump them under my tongue, then wait until they melted away. We scheduled a follow-up appointment for four weeks hence and he called a cab to chauffeur me back to The Center.
“Don’t drink coffee or caffeinated soda,” he instructed finally as the cab pulled to the curb. “It interferes with the homeopathic energies.”
The remedy soon arrived and I obediently fed myself pills as prescribed.
Days at The Center were languorous and fraught, with the sounds of faraway sobbing floating down shady hallways in between scheduled sessions of therapeutic rock painting and group songs. There was always a sense that behind locked doors there was someone crying or throwing up, cutting herself, masturbating, remembering molestation or her mother’s funeral, obsessively washing her hands. I performed all prescribed assignments, attended every session, no matter how deplorable. I journaled and prayed. I took daily exercise. I ate well. I told the unenthusiastic clinicians the truth to the best of my ability.
Behind my locked door I allowed myself exactly one daily session of despair, retrieving the shoebox from beneath the bathroom sink. Inside existed the memorabilia of our time together: three washed-white seashells, a red glass heart, ticket stubs, a heavy silver ring, a plastic egg containing a plug of flesh-colored putty. The familiar longing ballooned inside of me like an inflatable membrane and created a paralyzing pressure. I sat on the bathmat, transported to another place and time where he still was.
Days went by, weeks. I took my pills. The summer broke open and an orange yolk of heat seeped down over The Center and the entire town. I returned for my follow-up appointment with Dr. X and waited in the empty reception area, listening to unfamiliar birds sing outside of the open windows.
Dr. X ushered me into his office and inquired as to my progress. Would I say I thought about my lost love weekly, daily, hourly, or by the minute? And how was this comparable to three months ago? Had my longing intensified, stayed the same, or decreased? What about my obsession? My thoughts of self-harm? I answered as best I could, adding that perhaps my slight improvement had something to do with the passage of time.
I wanted this man to like me, to please him. I wanted his energetic vibrations to work. He wanted to talk and so we did, of relationships and love, of hopes for the future. It was a sunny, blue-sky day. The ivory carpet was very clean. Dr. X’s eyes lit when I joked and he laughed in a healthy, restorative way. He was nothing like the clinicians back at The Center, dull brunettes with dreams of private practice. He was Dr. X, a man fulfilled, living out his dreams of prescribing homeopathy in the comfort of his own home.
That day Dr. X spoke openly about his own bout with lovesickness. There had been a woman, a petite blonde whom he could not shake the memory of. For an entire year he suffered through his leftover love.
“It was a very hard time in my life,” Dr. X said. “I find lovesickness to be particularly pernicious when we consider it among the array of modern afflictions. Particularly difficult to deal with and overcome. How does one heal from such a thing? While in the grips of lovesickness, it seems an impossible fix.” I nodded. Here finally was a person to coddle my pain, legitimize my suffering, identify with my deep pool of cool, crystalline ennui.
I told him about a number of nights before, when I’d been having trouble with sleep. I took a mug I’d purchased on vacation with my lost love out to the street. The air was warm and dark and smelled of distant tortillas freshly made on a hot griddle. I was crying horrible, indulgent tears and lofted the mug high into the air. It plummeted back down and shattered there on the asphalt with a satisfying display of destruction.
There sat between us a fat moment of silence. From it Dr. X burst into elated laughter, and I laughed in turn with surprise. Our laughter propelled each of us to greater and greater peals, until I was sore with the humor of my tragedy.
“Oh, my,” he said, drying his eyes with a tissue. “What a gem.”
Of course I liked this. Of course I was flattered. Flattered by the time he spent. Flattered by all of his questions. Flattered by the delight he took with my stories, the intrigue I saw blooming in him. He was becoming enamored of me, and why not? I was young and beautiful as only tragic girls are. I had a carefully practiced personality, self-deprecating, and ironic with an edge of flirtation. Always an edge. I had specifically designed myself to reel in men just like him without even trying.
We scheduled yet another appointment and Dr. X ordered another batch of pills.
“Carry on with your treatment as you have been,” he instructed, looking hale and young as he bid me farewell, standing there in the frame of the side door.
The Center grew tiresome. I did not have urges to eat entire gallons of ice cream and then quietly heft them back up into waiting toilets. I did not want to trace red lines in my leg with a paring knife. I took a waitressing job at a local establishment. My sleep habits slowly normalized. In between scheduled sessions I began tanning in the dusty dirt courtyard at The Center, shellacking myself with bottles of baby oil and then baking for hours beneath the carcinogenic sun. My neuroses bored even me by then, yet still I could not rid myself of the lurking sadness tucked in the folds of my bed sheets, whistling in the high white glare of early morning, encoded in the melodies of supermarket music.
On a Tuesday afternoon I found myself sitting in the snack aisle crying to the beat of a bad pop song. The grocer approached me, a man in bleached whites who brandished an authoritative gut.
“We can’t have you crying next to the Fig Newtons,” he said, taking my arm in his hand and hoisting me up. “Pull yourself together. Everything’s all right. Look,” he said, gesturing to the bank of windows that lined the front of the store. “It’s a beautiful day. Nothing to be sad about.”
He was right. There was nothing to be sad about. The sadness all lay in the past while the facts of my present daily life, taken at face value, amounted to nothing alarming, nothing tragic at all. I walked out into the sunlight carrying my modest purchases and took stock of current facts: sun, fresh air, food in my hands, money in my pocket, a job, a bed, the ability to walk wherever I wanted. That current circumstances suggested I should be happy and whole, that the day was lovely, that I had what I needed, only served to demonstrate all the more pointedly my failure as a person and the failure of my treatment. I had done it all, every single thing they suggested, and still all I wanted was to be with the boy who had broken my heart.
I entered Dr. X’s waiting room at my next appointment with a rich tan. He smiled hopefully.
“So you’re feeling better?” Dr. X asked.
While my longing had dropped deep into my belly, farther from the surface, closer to the guts than to the heart, this didn’t mean I felt better. If anything, the longing had become more profound, now a diseased organ as opposed to a gaping flesh wound. Moreover, a new sadness had emerged in addition to this old one, a sadness about my sadness. I mourned the person I had been, this stupid girl who had been so easily drawn into ruinous romantic intrigue. I lamented my tendencies toward fantasy and hope, toward feeling a feeling the whole way through. Those last days at The Center I was perhaps saddest that I was the sort of person who had ever had to come to The Center in the first place.
My sickness was turning meta-cognitive and self-aware. The Center’s therapists interpreted this as no more than another example of the overthinking of self-involved affairs. It was part of my sickness, they said. They were probably correct.
So was I feeling better?
“Sure,” I said. Sweet Dr. X, hocking his homeopathy. I admit even I believed, in that moment, that the crushed doves’ wings had helped in some small way. All of us were harboring fierce loyalties to hopeful delusions.
“The Western Association is currently compiling anecdotal data in an effort to legitimize our work,” he said. “Since you’ve been so successful, I was hoping I could briefly videotape you talking about your treatment and recovery.” Dr. X’s excited sweat darkened the chest of his shirt in a sporadic spray of dots. His cheeks were flushed feverishly and wisps of hair clung to his damp forehead. It seemed he was on a very high dose of caffeine.
As he set up his camera, I had the whispering sense we were doing something clandestinely dirty there in his bedroom-cum-office. I sat clothed in my youthful beauty and imagined a large, darkened conference room full of middle-aged men watching the movement of my glossed lips projected on a giant screen, watching as I fulfilled their dreams.