Undiscovered Country, page 1
In the waiting room of Dr. Shapiro’s office is a stack of books and magazines on grief. What it is, how to manage it. How to cope, how to move on. The people on the covers look somber, usually dressed in cardigans: apparently, cardigans are the official clothing of grief. Leafing through one of these tomes, you inevitably encounter what the experts call the “five stages” of grief, a series of phases mourners pass through to come to terms with tragedy. When I picture these steps, I always see a grave-looking medieval knight atop a black horse, successfully completing the challenges in his path. Only instead of slaying the dragon and saving the princess, he’s meeting the milestones some well-meaning psychologist set out for him back in the seventies: Denial and anger. Bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
These five steps annoy me. Human experience is not neat and orderly, ready to be coded into predetermined categories. Real life is messy, and grief is even messier. What if you feel depression right away? Or if you continue to feel anger long after you’ve accepted the death? Why wouldn’t you, really, feel an eternal sort of fury if someone you loved was snatched from you prematurely? But then, Dr. Shapiro long maintained that my response to grief wasn’t normal. I had, he intimated by way of ominous diagnosis and multiple prescriptions, crossed the line between grief and madness. I’m glad he’s so sure of himself. I guess he has to be, in his profession. I’m not sure of anything. Where does grief stop and madness start?
Ironically, Dr. Shapiro’s office was also where I found the crumpled pamphlet for Students Without Boundaries. I guess another patient had left it behind, because there was only the one, abandoned on top of a tattered copy of The Healing Journey. Ordinarily, it wasn’t something I’d look at twice. But after the funeral, after I watched the earth swallow her and take her from me irrevocably, I picked it up and smoothed out the creases. I read it through, and all I could think was one thing: escape.
That’s not what I told people, of course. When people ask you why you’re deferring college to venture into poverty-stricken, war-torn South America, you give them what they’re looking for. You toe the party line, demurely tossing out comments about “helping people” and “giving back,” because that’s what they want. People want to hear I was inspired to join Students Without Boundaries because of my poor dead mother and my desire to lessen the suffering of starving orphans. No one wants to hear the truth. The truth is uncomfortable and awkward. It makes demands, it yearns for the respect of a truthful response—or even, perhaps, action. No one wants that responsibility, so they deal in equivocations and half-truths, white lies and niceties. So sorry for your loss and what a noble endeavor and all that crap.
The truth is, when I signed up to go Calantes, to escape the prison of my own grief, there was a part of me that never believed I’d actually go. I kept waiting for my dad to step in and forbid me to leave, that it would rouse him from the emotional coma he’d been in since Mom died, but he just sort of blinked at me and was like, “That’s nice, Cat. Good for you,” and went back to pretending to write. I knew for a fact he hadn’t written a word in months, because I hacked into his computer one night and there was nothing there, nothing at all, not even a title or “Chapter One” or anything. And since St. Mary’s gently put him on some kind of leave when he blanked out and started sobbing in the middle of a lecture on the Modern Novel, I know he’s not grading papers or anything, either. When he’s not sitting in his study staring into space, he wanders around the house clutching a battered old copy of The Great Gatsby. It was my mom’s favorite, and Dad used to call her his Daisy, which if you ask me is kind of an insult, because Daisy was a bit of a bitch. But maybe there was something more to it between them. I don’t know.
The only person who tried to talk me out of going was Tess, who seemed legitimately alarmed, because my rushing off to Latin America was out of character.
“You cannot go live in a tent in South America.” I can picture it clearly. We’re in my room, Tess lounging on my yellow bedspread wearing one of my St. Mary’s sweatshirts because she’s always freezing at my house; my dad has never let our thermostat climb above sixty-eight. He claims humans function better if they’re slightly cool, but since he’s an English professor and not a biologist, I’m not sure it’s really anything other than his personal preference. I’m flopped on the cold hardwood floor on a bean-bag chair. We’re studying for the physics final, which seems irrelevant (a) because we’ve already been accepted to college, (b) we graduate in less than two weeks, and (c) my mom just died, rendering everything else in the universe meaningless.
“You won’t even use the bathrooms at the mall,” she points out.
“This is different.” I toss my textbook aside. “I have to get away. I have to do something. I want to help people.”
“You could just volunteer at the Children’s Hospital, like a normal person,” Tess suggests reasonably.
“No, this is something I really feel I need to do.” And maybe it will wake up my dad. I don’t say the last part out loud. If Tess clues in to what’s really going on, she’ll do what she’s been threatening to do for months and call my Aunt Caroline in California to stage an intervention of some kind. I like Caroline and everything—she’s ten years younger than my dad and pretty cool—but I can’t deal with her or anyone else swooping in right now. I can take care of myself.
“This is crazy.” Tess narrows her eyes. “You couldn’t even go to camp. You remember? You tried to sneak home on the food truck!”
“It’s not the same,” I insist. “This isn’t sitting around the campfire in the dirt singing ‘Kumbaya’ or whatever. I’ll be doing important work.”
“Remind me where Carnitas is again?” Tess wrinkles her nose, her freckles bunching into a pattern resembling the Big Dipper. “Is it the one with the natives living at crazy high elevations?”
“It’s Calantes, Tess. Carnitas is a Mexican meat dish. And no, that’s Bolivia.”
“Sorry. I’m trying to think back to fourth grade here. I’m drawing a blank.” She tucks her fine strawberry-blonde hair behind her ears, looking pensive.
“Calantes.” I grab my iPad from my bedside table and pull up a map of South America. “There. See? It borders Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. It’s tiny.”
“It looks a bit like a sheep’s head.” Tess leans in for a better look.
“I would have said dog’s head, but fine. Anyway, it’s in the Amazon rainforest. See the green area?”
She shoots me a look. “Even I could figure that out.” She pinches the screen and enlarges the image. It really does look like some sort of animal head, menacing jaws open wide.
“I remember now!” Tess snaps her fingers. “This was Matthew Finnerty and Jessica Wong’s country.”
I stare at her. “You have the most incredible memory for inane detail.” Tess remembers things no one else can—or would bother to. She can tell you what I wore the first day of school every year since second grade.
“Come on, you don’t remember stuff like that? You had Peru, which is cool and interesting. I got stuck with French Guyana and I had to work with that weird kid who moved to Florida.”
“See? You do remember!” She grins at me, then her smile fades. “What does Dr. Shapiro think of this?”
“He thinks it’s a good idea,” I lie. I haven’t told Dr. Shapiro, because I’m positive he would end up using it to somehow bolster his ridiculous Bipolar II diagnosis. I didn’t know this before I was forced to see a psychiatrist, but apparently there are two kinds of bipolar disorder. There’s the one everyone knows about, with the big manic episodes where you go to Neiman Mar
I haven’t said any of this to Dr. Shapiro, though. I’m not stupid. The more I push back, the longer he’s going to want to see me. I don’t tell him I stopped taking the Abilify he prescribed, either. It made me feel like a zombie. A vampire zombie, actually, because all I wanted to do all day was sleep with the curtains drawn. When I was on it, I didn’t feel like crying when I thought of my mom, and I want to feel that way. I want to miss my mom. You can’t just magic away life and all its ups and downs with a pill. Also, the packet insert said it could cause weight gain, and let’s face it, how was being fat going to help me?
“Well, I guess if he thinks it’s a good idea…” Tess still looks worried. “Does he know about your irritable bowel syndrome?”
“Yes,” I say. That part, at least, is true. He does know about it.
“And he thinks that going to live for nearly a year in a tent in the middle of a war zone and digging your own toilets is okay?” She sounds deeply skeptical.
“We didn’t really get into the toilets,” I admit.
“Cat, you spend half your life worrying about toilets. How could you not get into the bathroom issue?”
“I figure I’ll just pack a lot of Imodium.”
“So basically, your plan is to try not to poo for nine months?” Tess’s expression is growing increasingly alarmed.
“Very funny,” I say. “Look, this is something I feel I need to do. I want you to support me. You’re my best friend.” I pick at the seam of the bean-bag chair. Little bits of Styrofoam spill out onto the floor like fake snow.
“I’m just worried about you.” Tess hesitates. “You know your mom would have thought this is crazy.”
“Don’t do that,” I snap, bristling. “She was my mom. She would have wanted me to be happy.” I avoid meeting her eyes, though. She isn’t entirely wrong.
“She wouldn’t have wanted you to defer a year at Stanford to go traipsing around in the mud,” Tess persists. “She had all your grass torn up in the backyard. She was hardly the outdoorsy type.”
“She took a year off after high school.” I stare at the wall across from me and count the daisies on my wallpaper. I’ve had the same decor since I was a toddler.
“She went to Paris! Why this, Cat? Are you punishing yourself or something?” Tess has resorted to waving her calculator around angrily for emphasis.
I roll my eyes. “Great. Now I have two shrinks? Give it a rest. Anyway, back to vectors. What did you get for problem number three?”
We must have replayed that conversation weekly over the remainder of our senior year, and all through that summer. Each time, Tess would painstakingly point out all the reasons that going was a Really Bad Idea and, each time, I’d ignore her and change the subject. The strange thing was, the more Tess tried to talk me out of going, the more resolved I became to actually go. It was the same with my dad, and his lack of response. I kept waiting for him to intervene and stop me—even just to comment that running off to the jungle seemed out of character—but he never did, not once. And the less he seemed to care, the more I convinced myself that it was the right thing to do. More than just a way to escape, to leave the misery and the memories behind. I began to buy into what I had been spouting to others. This was my chance to give back. To do some good.
“But what if something happens to you?” Tess tried to talk me out of it, right up until the day I left. “What if you get, like, shot, or something?”
Who cares? I didn’t say that out loud, though. No need to set off alarm bells. Instead, I acted dismissive. “I’m not going to get shot. Don’t be melodramatic.”
When I finally told Dr. Shapiro, he responded exactly as I thought he would.
“Have you been taking the Abilify?” I’m sitting uncomfortably in his stuffy office, which is designed to look like a living room, only it doesn’t feel like a living room at all. It feels exactly like what it is: a doctor’s office awkwardly pretending to be a family living space. Dr. Shapiro sits across from me, trying to look approachable in his scruffy jeans and T-shirt, his beard wild and scraggly. It’s not like it is in the movies, where you lie on the couch and the psychiatrist asks you how you feel about things. There is a couch, but I don’t lie down, I just sit on it. It’s faux leather, and it sticks to my thighs when I wear a skirt.
“Of course,” I lie smoothly.
“I’m thinking we should switch you to something else.” He stands up to rummage around his desk, pulling out a prescription pad. “Maybe Seroquel.”
Dr. Shapiro’s solution to everything is drugs. The talking part is all a ruse, a way for him to get me in here so he can proceed to drug me some more.
“What’s wrong with the Abilify?” I ask politely.
“I’m not sure it’s working.” He gives me a condescending smile, the kind you give to a small child or a grandmother with Alzheimer’s. “Caitlin, I think you’re having a hypomanic episode.”
That word again. Hypomanic. It freaks me out, calling to mind images of shrieking inpatients bound in straitjackets. I’m not claiming I’m normal or anything like that. I’m not completely delusional, but bipolar just seems really crazy. And I think I’m more of a regular kind of crazy.
“I don’t agree,” I say firmly, staring at him hard. I don’t want him to see he’s unsettled me. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“Is it?” He blinks down at his notes and frowns again. “Didn’t you once have to come home from camp?” He turns a page. “It says here, ‘I asked my parents to come and get me because I hated it. I hated being away, I hated the dirt and the bugs and sharing a bathroom—’”
I feel my cheeks redden and I cut him off. “I was twelve then,” I say, trying to look five years older and infinitely more dignified. My bare thighs squelch on the couch, and I blush deeper, because it sounds like I’ve farted. I move around, squelching some more so that he knows it’s just his stupid fake leather sofa and not me breaking wind in public like some kind of social misfit.
“What about your irritable bowel syndrome?” Doc Shapiro pushes his glasses up. He’s always doing that. He sweats a lot, so they’re always sliding down his nose, like tires skidding on a wet road. He uses his middle finger to do it, so I always feel like he’s trying to tell me to f– off, even though I know he’d never actually say that. You can tell he’s the type who doesn’t swear, who yells ‘Oh, sugar,’ when he stubs his toe. My dad’s parents are like that. My mom used to call them emotionally constipated.
“Why does everyone keep asking about that?” I irritably dig my nails into the sofa. “If I have to go, I’ll go, and then I’ll take some drugs. It’s fine.”
“Who’s everyone?” He leans in, genuinely intrigued. “Your father?”
I guess there’s enough Freud in this pill-pusher to still get him worked up when I talk about my dad. But I won’t. Not that there’s anything to tell, anyway. My dad is still hanging out exclusively with Gatsby.
“No,” I reply shortly. I won’t give this jerk the satisfaction of talking about my dad. “Tess. My best friend.”
“Oh,” he says, disappointed. “Well, it’s something to think about.” He pauses, looking thoughtful. “Why are you doing this, though? What do you plan to gain from it?”
I frown at him. “I
He gazes at me intently, as if he knows the words “war-torn” were lifted straight off the Students Without Boundaries website. “And you want to be the one to help.”
“Yes,” I say, trying not to sound irritated. Did I not just say that?
“You’re trying to save them, then.” He gives me a penetrating stare. “Because you couldn’t save your mother.”
I don’t know whether to be impressed at this uncharacteristic stab at actual psychoanalysis or exasperated and annoyed. I don’t say anything.
“Because, Cat,” he goes on gently in that maddeningly slow voice of his, “nothing is going to bring her back. You don’t have to do this.”
“I’m going,” I say resolutely. I meet his gaze until he looks away, scribbling something on his notepad.
“Are you hoping something will happen to you?” he asks, switching tactics. “Because it’s normal, after losing a loved one. To think about death. About joining them.”
“Joining them? Really?” It’s all I can do to keep from rolling my eyes. “Joining them, where? In heaven, with pink fluffy unicorns?”
He sighs. “I don’t necessarily mean in an…afterlife. But it’s not unusual to have those sorts of thoughts.”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t thinking about killing myself. If I happened to take a bullet in the jungle, that would suck, but it didn’t scare me the way it might have a year ago. I wasn’t afraid of death or seeking it, either. I was indifferent to it. If I saw the Grim Reaper coming for me, I’d probably give him the finger and go back to checking my Twitter feed.
“Caitlin?” The doc leaned forward, stroking his beard.
I sighed. “I’m not suicidal, okay? This is just something I feel I need to do.”
“Well, I can’t stop you,” he says reasonably, glancing at his watch. For all his expansive concern, he’s quick to put an end to things when my hour is up. “But I would like you to give the Seroquel a shot.”