I have problems with anxiety. That’s why Mom has me see Dr. Chandelier every Friday. She’s hoping that, through a series of high-priced idle conversations, he’ll figure out what it is in my well-to-do life that has me so darned worried all the time. So far he seems to have his money on some sort of deep-seeded childhood memory. Me, I think my brain just likes to fret. I think it likes to make itself feel useful. If it doesn’t have anything to worry about it makes stuff up. Like right now: I’m sitting here in Chandelier’s office and waiting for him to arrive so that our session can begin; I’m surrounded by leather and mahogany and the faint smell of cigar smoke settling between the quiet ticks of this giant antique-looking grandfather clock that’s supposed to be steady, soothing. I feel perfectly fine, I can see perfectly fine—yet I’m worried that at any moment the too-good-to-be true nanobots swimming in my eyes will suddenly malfunction, leaving me blind. Or worse.
Wednesday morning, I’d gotten back from Beta’s Enterprise replica and, despite my newfound 20/20 vision, had found myself preoccupied with the notion of discovery, the possibility that if Mom realized I had New Eyes she’d find out that I’d gotten them from a stranger—and that the stranger had downloaded into my bedroom via a program that was going to keep me connected to the Internet whether or not I wanted to be. On the way out the door I’d hurriedly knocked the lenses out of my glasses. I’d then spent the entire car ride to school staring out the passenger window, sure, so absolutely sure that Mom was going to catch on, ask me what had happened to my lenses, ask me why I didn’t need them anymore. Somehow she’d ended up not noticing, which had made me feel slightly more confident—until Ernie had caught me at my locker and asked me point-blank where my “bottle-ends” were. I’d told him the lenses had fallen out when I’d accidentally dropped my glasses on the sidewalk; he’d shrugged, called me a klutz, and asked to borrow a dollar; I’d ignored him and gone on to first period. Again, my confidence had welled slightly. But during roll call it had occurred to me that the accident explanation was only going to be good for a few days, at which point people were sure to start asking why the heck I hadn’t stopped by LensCrafters.
By lunch my self-doubt had complete control. I’d decided to hole myself up in the library. I don’t feel too bad about pulling a disappearing act, though, because on the way into the library, I’d peeked across the quad and spotted Ernie sitting alone at our table. I may have been ditching him—but Jan had evidently ditched him first. That’s how it’s been for the rest of this week. Ernie, Eva, Jan, and myself: apart.
I squirm in my chair. Chandelier’s office enfolds me. All the leather and mahogany and faint cigar smoke is suspiciously comforting. I slip my hand into my pants pocket; I press the bottle of Old Eyes into my palm. I’m seriously thinking of restoring my defaults. The alternative is too risky. It’s already bad enough that I’m using SuperMegaNet behind my parents’ backs, and it doesn’t help that I’ve let Beta take over my bedroom.
Chandelier breezes into the office, closing the door behind him and seating himself across from me in his usual armchair.
“How was your week?” he asks, removing his wedding ring. There’s a small table beside his chair; he sets the ring down, then picks up a small portrait of his wife, gazes at it, frowning, sighing, frowning some more.
“Okay,” I say. I wonder if this is anything like a fortune-teller asking me my name—if he’s good at what he does, shouldn’t he already know? Shouldn’t he be able to tell from the bags under my eyes, the way I’m constantly nibbling on my lip that I’ve got major weight on my shoulders?
“I see your glasses are missing their lenses,” he says in an off-hand way.
Already my pulse is racing. “No, I…I got contacts. I…I’m just not used to, er, not wearing my glasses, you know?”
“Maybe you feel exposed without them? Vulnerable?”
Chandelier chuckles wistfully. He’s still looking at his wife’s picture. “That’s good. One less thing for us to have to work out. Any other news?”
I think back, grasping for something he’ll want to hear. Something cliche. “I made a girl cry,” I say.
Presto. His interest is piqued.
“Girl, you say?” he asks, setting down the portrait and looking at me.
“Well, do tell! What’s her name?”
“Ah. Eva.” He leans forward in his chair, smiles. “Cute little thing?”
“Bright eyes? Sweet smile?”
More like bug eyes and, as of late, broken smile. “Sure.”
“Mm-hm. Always having to politely remove your hands from her darling little bottom?”
Chandelier leans forward even further. “I don’t tell this to all my young male clients, but between you and me—and only between you and me, because I know you’re a sensible, responsible young man—you know what’s good for two-thirds of your everyday worries and anxieties?”
I shrug my shoulders, shake my head.
“Regular interaction with the Fairer Sex.”
Here we go…
“You’re in high school now, right?”
“No doubt they’ve taught you the difference between a condom and a water balloon?”
I nod again, this time blushing.
“Superb. That’s the first step of many. You’re forging new relationships, exploring new territory, and, yes, engaging in certain specific kinds of experimentation. The beauty of it? No wedding ring. Why, you can get away with things during your adolescent years that you’d never ever be forgiven for during adulthood. Now, I’m by no means advocating casual physical intimacy outside of a monogamous relationship, but stick with this girl, this Eve, see where she’ll let you go—I’ll let you take that however you like, since you are a responsible young man—and chances are you’ll find yourself far more interested in her various aspects than in your silly little worries.” Chandelier leans back again, clasping his hands and looking satisfied. “In a mutually monogamous relationship, of course.”
You know…you’d think I’d be surprised, outraged, even, that my head doctor is recommending me and Eva explore the therapeutic effects of sex—but I’m not. My high school guidance counselor chain smokes in her office and says “shit” in front of students. She revels in the stereotype that all teenagers are delinquents who don’t give a damn. Consequently, she doesn’t give a damn. Dr. Freud, on the other hand, does give a damn because it bothers him that his clients’ problems aren’t so easily categorized. He’d rather I become sexually active at age twelve and therefore slip into a well-documented emotional dysfunction—it’d be easier for him to treat that than the generalized worries I’m throwing at him now.
“Actually,” I say, “it’s not going too well between me and Eva. I sort of upset her, and now she’s not talking to me or my friends.”
“Oh? Tell me about that.”
I explain the situation, outlining how I basically screwed Jan and Eva over. Naturally, I replace Jan with myself—and I make sure to leave out any mention of my plush mini-devil Theo doll. When I’m finished, Chandelier sighs, pays his wife’s portrait another glance. He looks tired.
“Welcome to the Paradigm of the Sexes,” he says. “The Great Joke, the never-ending struggle between male and female, see? We need it, women have it, and they’d rather lose a mammary than give it away for anything less than two kids, a house in the suburbs, two-car garage, joint bank account.”
Too much information. Way too much. I squirm in my chair, unsure of what to do or say. I want to politely excuse myself, but my hour isn’t up. Or maybe it’s Chandelier’s hour that isn’t up. Either way, I’ve reached a conclusion regarding doctors: they need more help than do their patients. I may need CBT, a highly-specialized diet, afterschool Yoga and calisthenics with Mom, bathtime aromatherapy, and chamomile tea before bed just to give me a fighting chance for sleep each night, but I still think I’m better off than the guy sitting across from me. At the very least, I’m better off than Thrill-Kill.
Freud eventually stirs in his chair, scribbles something on his clipboard, hands me a piece of paper. “I want you to start keeping a blog. Here are some links to get you started. Blogger, Facebook, WordPress—it’s all the same. I want you to post in your blog once a week. It can be about anything: school, friends, family, computers—your mother tells me you’re into computers?”
“I design web sites,” I say.
“Fantastic. Tell people what that’s like. Invite them to comment by posing a question of some sort at the end. Bring the URL for your new blog to our next session. Okay?”
I nod and look at the clock on the wall as Chandelier closes his eyes, settles deeply in his chair, and asks me to relate my earliest childhood memory.
* * *
It’s later than usual (half past nine) when I walk into my room and set down my gym bag, take off my backpack. It’s been a long day at the end of a long week. A sudden, unexpected dinner date with Mr. Nakayoshi at P.F. Chang’s only prolonged the suffering. He likes to do that, by the way: swing by the gym and insist on chauffeuring Mom and me to dinner. Really, he’s only after an excuse to ogle Mom in her sports bra and spandex boy cuts (has she no modesty?). This can be a good thing, though, as it usually means I get ignored. Mr. Nakayoshi is too busy ogling, my mom is too busy pretending not to notice, and all the while I’m keeping my head down, I’m working through my Buddha’s Feast with nary a peep.
I’m tired enough to actually get to sleep on time tonight. I grab a shower, return to my bedroom, spread my sleeping bag out on the floor. I lay there for a while staring at the ceiling, Beta’s bottle of Old Eyes clutched in my hand. I think to myself that the adult world is more dependent on make-believe than its inhabitants would care to admit. Dr. Chandelier makes believe that I’m four years older and in desperate need of carnal knowledge; Mom pretends she’s not an object in the eyes of her husband’s boss; Dad pretends he doesn’t care; I try to convince myself there’s a chance in hell Eva will notice me if I become less of a geek (do you suppose that’s an early warning sign of impending adulthood?).
I hold up the Old Eyes. There’s just enough light from the front LEDs of my computer that I can read the instructions. I place the drops in my eyes and settle in for the night. Just as I start to wonder if I’m going to fall asleep, I suddenly jolt awake, realize I’ve been out for at least a couple of hours—
—there’s someone kneeling beside me.
“Wake up, Theo.”
It’s dark, and my eyes have crusted over, so I can’t make out who it is at first, though there’s evidence of soft bulk, a beanie, the sound of an annoying coo.
“Wake up,” he says again, and jokingly tickles my nipples through my T-shirt.
I swat his hands away, sitting upright in my sleeping bag and trying to open my eyes.
“Hey,” Ernie hisses. “My grandparents locked our fridge again. Can I grab a midnight snack from yours?”
“I thought Becky was your supplier,” I say, offhandedly. I’m starting to freak out. It’s probably not the best thing to do, but I press my fingers against my eyelids and force them open. My vision is swimming with little squiggly flecks. I can make out the details of my room for a moment before everything goes black.
Ernie’s oblivious. “She’s being a bitch lately. Says I’m just with her for her snacks. Personally I think she’s letting her fat make her paranoid—”
“Get out,” I snap, stumbling to my feet.
It’s quiet. Then:
“If this is about the nipples thing, I was just playing around.”
“Ernie, leave. Now.”
He snorts, tells me off under his breath. I hear him go over to my desk, click the mouse. In a moment he’s gone, and I’m alone. I don’t know why I need to be, but I do. Maybe I can deny my worst fears if there’s no one in the room with me to confirm them. Oh, but the darkness is real.
It surrounds me.