A fork plunges deep into the side of a full 32-ounce Styrofoam cup. As the prongs withdraw, they release four tiny steams. The fork stabs again, with enough force to cause a fountaining explosion of caramel-colored soda.
A gentle voice says my name, and I return to the present. The memory dissolves like cotton candy in water. I’m sitting crisscross, my legs tucked under me, on an oversized white chair in the corner of my new therapist’s minty-green office. The room is alive with a ribbon of thin fog. It visibly dances in the sunlight that’s streaming in through the half-closed blinds. Left-over incense lingers from the last cleansing session. The room is cluttered shelves of insignificance. The dusty forgotten treasures probably once felt essential to buy in a fleeting moment. I resist trying to make sense of someone else’s mess and allow my eyes to fall back to the person speaking my name. I feel my body vibrate, beginning from somewhere deep inside, and the feeling causes me to grip my hands until my knuckles turn white. I turn and lean forward slightly, indicating that I’m ready to begin. I know, to Dr. Cho, I appear to be sitting patiently with my hands folded in my lap. But inside – I’m seething.
She patiently repeats her question, “Can you tell me what brought you here today?” It’s the standard first session question. I’ve had over a dozen first sessions; it’s embarrassing to try counting them anymore. I take a deep breath and allow myself a moment to, ‘Dr. Strange’ the situation. In other words, I try to think of all the 14,000,605 ways this session could go and aim for one reality where everything works out. This conditioning method is how I enter therapy, a process that started over twenty years ago.
When I first ventured into therapy, others said I should think of therapists like magicians. These are the people I’m supposed to be able to tell anything to, and they help fix me. I quickly found out it’s not that easy. Many of the therapists I saw over the years did not like what I had to say, and none of them could genuinely fix me. If anything, my bi-weekly visits only made me feel crazier.
“I’m here because I’m required to complete mental health treatment in order to keep my job,” I reply robotically.
“Is that the only reason you’re here?” she probes. Dr. Cho’s dark almond eyes hold a firm gaze on mine. I feel my hands trembling from trying to suppress my already rising tension. I shove them into my lap and curl into a corner of the chair, concealing them. Maybe it was the intense way her eyes refuse to break focus, or because they resemble mine so strongly, I don’t know. But something inside me urges me to talk against my will.
“So…it was just a normal day at work. I don’t even remember what day of the week it was, but I was going to lunch with five or six co-workers. I was super on-edge because I hadn’t been sleeping, so I was living on Red Bull. We went through the cafeteria and got our food. I love the Chinese buffet, so I got that for lunch. But so did everyone else!” I explain hastily. “And for some reason, the dining area was dead. Most of the tables were empty. There are like twenty-five big, round folding tables in the space. And it’s always super loud from a million conversations going on, but today it was dead quiet. I got to the table and pulled out a
chair to sit down. My co-worker was already at the table, and he looks at my plate, smirks, and looks me dead in the eyes, and says, “Isn’t all the food you eat considered Chinese food?”
I pause my story and steal a glance at Dr. Cho to gauge her reaction to this comment. But her expression remains unbroken by any indication of empathy, so I turn away, slight annoyance pricking in my guts.
“Then what happened?” she prods me to go on.
“I don’t really know what happened. I just lost my shit, I guess. I must have dropped my food on the floor or something. I grabbed a fork, I don’t even know if it was my fork, it was just a fork. I stabbed my co-worker’s drink until the Styrofoam exploded. Then I just walked away, left the building, and went home. I didn’t say anything to anyone. I didn’t even think. I just had to get away.”
“Can you identify why you were triggered so strongly?”
“I was just super tweaked out because of all the Red Bull, I think.”
“I think the Red Bull possibly amplified the reaction, but it’s not the reason you became upset. Why do you think this comment bothered you so much?” Dr. Cho challenges.
Imaginary quills bristle down my spine. I’m instantly in defensive mode. I’ve been anticipating this turn in direction. Therapists’ questions are so impersonal and generalized in a way that leaves me feeling an instant disconnection. As though a line is now drawn between us, showing me she’s on their side, and I’m the only one on mine.
“So!” I snarl. “When someone embarrasses you in front of a bunch of people, are you supposed to just let that shit go? You know, no one is asking him what he did to cause this! It’s all about what I did wrong, just like every other fucking time!”
I stand up and rush to the door, fuming.
“I want to talk about what he did, Van. Please come…Van…” her voice trails away.
I turn swiftly into the brilliantly white hallway leading to the main entrance of the Recovery and Wellness Center, my assigned residential therapy locale. Keep Hope, located in sunny California, that’s what this place is called. With a name like that, anyone can become a believer. I make a sharp right, heading through the double doors and outside into the courtyard I’d passed through upon arrival.
My eyes dart around the concrete jungle, searching for my only refuge at this moment: a smoking sign. Several benches and picnic tables pepper the green park-like space, with towering gray buildings surrounding all four sides. Neat, slim lines of blossoming trees border the area. Each tree appeared younger than pre-school-aged children, waving their raised limbs like arms to the sky. Throwing tiny white petals to the wind.
A thin veil of vapor exudes from my lips, twirling above my head like smoke. I don’t smoke traditional tobacco cigarettes anymore. I quit smoking for about two years (that was five years ago), but I started smoking again. My exclusive secret, I began to use a Juul. The little e-cigs that look like flash drives to me but became popular for smoking among the kids since the vapor produces no cigarette smoke scent. Therefore, I can get in my nicotine fix without ratting on myself for smoking again.
I take a long drag, inhaling deep. I take my time on the exhale. As if all of the emotions I felt a moment before could eject from my body with a single breath. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a bright orange figure coming closer. I pretend not to see, turning away slightly and focusing on the furthest thing in my view. A star, faded by a wisp of clouds in the sky but visible in the daylight, catches my attention. Footsteps approach behind me as I squint up. The next thing I know, orange was by my side. He’s so close that his body pushes me over as his shoulder presses against mine. He mimics my body language, lifting his eyes to the clouds, searching.“What are we looking at?” he asks, nonchalant.
“A star,” I say.
I start to point where I’m looking but quickly drop my hand as he exclaims, “Who cares? That’s boring!” and turns his back to shelter his lighter flame from the wind to spark up a joint.
‘You’re my new best friend,’ I think.
I always feel more comfortable around people who move through life in a way that completely disregards the usual social standards of courtesy. Untethered to other opinions and free to exist unapologetically, these people embody a quality that I wish I could somehow take into myself. I’ve always been this way since childhood. Drawn to the outcasts in movies and books. The misfits. The rebels. The ones who misbehave.
Orange takes a wide, exaggerated step forward. He lifts his leg straight in front of him before planting his foot down, stepping forward, and spinning on his heel to face me full on.
“Why are you here?” he interrogates, nose wrinkled and eyes squinting in full inspection mode.
“Why are you here?” I retort, mirroring his intense questioning expression.
“I ran away from therapy,” he says with his voice muffled from holding in a hit of weed.
“Me too,” I say, “First sessions suck! But I thought you were referring to the bigger question like, why did the universe send you here?”
“Ah,” he shrugs, “I’m taking a much-needed retreat from life.” He points a finger gun at me and then jerks his hand back, indicating he’s just shot me and it’s my turn to fess up.
“Well, mine’s more of a forced break from life.”
“Who forced you?”
“My work,” I explain. “I lost my shit and caused a scene, so the hirer ups say it’s either this or termination.”
“And you came here?” he laughs while choking on smoke, holding the joint out to me. I pluck it from between his fingers, “My only stipulation was to go to one of the most diverse treatment centers in the U.S,” I pull the smoke deep into my lungs and hold the perfectly packed pre-rolled joint back out to him.
He waves it away and points at me to take another hit. “You’re in the right-center then,” he responds. “Out of the eighty clients here, they only allow like twelve of them to be white. Right now, there’s only seven, I think.”
“What about mixed-race people?” I ask, taking another draw and holding my breath.
“If you’re mixed with white, you’re considered the race that you look like to the world. You know that.” he asserts, grimacing.
Caught off guard, I simply stare back at him as seconds tick away inside my head before I realize I’m still holding in my hit and explode with a smoke-fuming coughing fit. I was considering all the people I knew who were mixed-race and was aware they don’t have a box on formal documents to mark multiple races. Those individuals would have to mark the box that represents the color the world sees them as without regard to how they personally identify. I was ashamed of this flawed system. And more ashamed I had let the question slip out of my mouth.
Unable to think of anything sarcastically defensive to say, I dab at my watering eyes for a moment while taking him in. He’s wearing a plain, bulky orange hoodie with black jeans and blue Chuck Taylor high tops. The sweatshirt is more of a burnt orange than a caution tape orange. His hair is raven black with wild tufts like feathers sticking out all around his head. Taller than me by a little over tiptoe reach, his eyes resemble mine, but his lids seem less heavy and sleepy- looking than mine. Sprinkles of stubble cover his narrow chin. And although he seems like nothing more than a stick figure in his oversized hoodie, I figure he can still take me in a fight.
“Can you get a weed prescription in here?” I ask, changing the subject.
“Dude, this place uses weed for everything. They hate big pharma and only keep a limited supply of actual pills here, for like sleep and migraines and stuff. You can even do Tripnotherapy, where you trip as a form of therapy. People say it works.”
I’ve heard of that. Psychotropic Therapy. Yeah, Gwyneth Paltrow had an episode on Netflix about it. Not super interested in that. So, this place is like hippie central? Love, acceptance, and drugs? I guess I don’t know anything about it here, really. I just wanted to get away from home because nobody there gets me. And if they don’t, ‘get me,’ how the hell can they be expected to be able to help me? So, I decided to try my luck someplace I’ve never been, someplace different and super diverse. But I didn’t know that also meant weed for everybody! I like that better than being put on meds, though. None of the drugs they gave me ever worked anyway. They just made me crazier.”
“This place is super cool,” he says, “I’ve come here before and always take a lot away, but this new therapist they gave me is just so intense.” He pauses, thinking. “Why did you leave your session?”
“I honestly don’t believe in therapy,” I explain. I’ve had so many therapists over the years. I have a complex about trusting them.”
“Who’d they give you?”
“Dr. Cho,” I answer.
“She’s a miracle worker,” he claims. “You don’t know yet, but she’s already fixed you. You must be a Korean adoptee then; she only works with other Korean adoptees since she is one. She was my therapist the first time I was here.”
“You’re an adoptee too?” I ask, my eyes widening with excitement.
“Yeah, I guess I should have started with that. It’s kinda standard around here,” he straightens his back and squares his shoulders.
His head lifts as he recites his memorized opener, “Hello, my name is Moon. I am a twenty-eight-year-old adoptee from South Korea. I am an only child, raised by a barren white family from a suburb of Missouri. Please allow me to tell you about my trauma,” he smiles and trails off.
I smile back. I’ve never met another Korean adoptee who was raised by a white family from the Midwest and with trauma.
‘We’re the same!’ I think. And I feel like I will never stop smiling.