Eastern Standard Tribe – Day 28 of 64

“Art, it’s not appropriate for me to discuss other patients’ histories—”

“Don’t you publish case studies? Don’t those contain confidential information disguised with pseudonyms?”

“That’s not the point—”

“What is the point? It seems to me that my optimal strategy here is to repudiate my belief that Fede and Linda are plotting against me—even if I still believe this to be true, even if it is true—and profess a belief that they are my good and concerned friends. In other words, if they are indeed plotting against me, I must profess to a delusional belief that they aren’t, in order to prove that I am not delusional.”

“I read Catch-22 too, Art. That’s not what this is about, but your attitude isn’t going to help you any here.” The doctor scribbled on his comm briefly, tapped at some menus. I leaned across and stared at the screen.

“That looks like a prescription, Doctor.”

“It is. I’m giving you a mild sedative. We can’t help you until you’re calmer and ready to listen.”

“I’m perfectly calm. I just disagree with you. I am the sort of person who learns through debate. Medication won’t stop that.”

“We’ll see,” the doctor said, and left, before I could muster a riposte.

I was finally allowed onto the ward, dressed in what the nurses called “day clothes”—the civilian duds that I’d packed before leaving the hotel, which an orderly retrieved for me from a locked closet in my room. The clustered nuts were watching slackjaw TV, or staring out the windows, or rocking in place, fidgeting and muttering. I found myself a seat next to a birdy woman whose long oily hair was parted down the middle, leaving a furrow in her scalp lined with twin rows of dandruff. She was young, maybe twenty-five, and seemed the least stuporous of the lot.

“Hello,” I said to her.

She smiled shyly, then pitched forward and vomited copiously and noisily between her knees. I shrank back and struggled to keep my face neutral. A nurse hastened to her side and dropped a plastic bucket in the stream of puke, which was still gushing out of her mouth, her thin chest heaving.

“Here, Sarah, in here,” the nurse said, with an air of irritation.

“Can I help?” I said, ridiculously.

She looked sharply at me. “Art, isn’t it? Why aren’t you in Group? It’s after one!”

“Group?” I asked.

“Group. In that corner, there.” She gestured at a collection of sagging sofas underneath one of the ward’s grilled-in windows. “You’re late, and they’ve started without you.”

There were four other people there, two women and a young boy, and a doctor in mufti, identifiable by his shoes—not slippers—and his staff of office, the almighty badge-on-a-lanyard.

Throbbing with dread, I moved away from the still-heaving girl to the sofa cluster and stood at its edge. The group turned to look at me. The doctor cleared his throat. “Group, this is Art. Glad you made it, Art. You’re a little late, but we’re just getting started here, so that’s OK. This is Lucy, Fatima, and Manuel. Why don’t you have a seat?” His voice was professionally smooth and stultifying.

I sank into a bright orange sofa that exhaled a cloud of dust motes that danced in the sun streaming through the windows. It also exhaled a breath of trapped ancient farts, barf-smell, and antiseptic, the parfum de asylum that gradually numbed my nose to all other scents on the ward. I folded my hands in my lap and tried to look attentive.

“All right, Art. Everyone in the group is pretty new here, so you don’t have to worry about not knowing what’s what. There are no right or wrong things. The only rules are that you can’t interrupt anyone, and if you want to criticize, you have to criticize the idea, and not the person who said it. All right?”

“Sure,” I said. “Sure. Let’s get started.”

“Well, aren’t you eager?” the doctor said warmly. “OK. Manuel was just telling us about his friends.”

“They’re not my friends,” Manuel said angrily. “They’re the reason I’m here. I hate them.”

“Go on,” the doctor said.

“I already told you, yesterday! Tony and Musafir, they’re trying to get rid of me. I make them look bad, so they want to get rid of me.”

“Why do you think you make them look bad?”

“Because I’m better than them—I’m smarter, I dress better, I get better grades, I score more goals. The girls like me better. They hate me for it.”

“Oh yeah, you’re the cat’s ass, pookie,” Lucy said. She was about fifteen, voluminously fat, and her full lips twisted in an elaborate sneer as she spoke.

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