1,8 - kevin
Something strange is going on at the Wellness Centre. It’s not a normal place, not at all—for starters there’s the sinister British spelling of the word Centre—but something else is happening, something beyond the everyday weirdness you get accustomed to if you spend some time here, which, if you do, it means you’re not so normal yourself. For example, I go to the Centre four times a week: twice for my transcendental meditation class; twice for therapy. That’s right, there’s actually an array of legitimate doctors and psychiatrists that co-exist here alongside the Eastern, Holistic, Alternative, and straight-up Bonkers health practitioners that compose the whole of the Wellness Centre. And I can say “bonkers” with some love. I’ve tried a lot of things to manage my depression. I should capitalize that. Depression. The big D. Flanked by its small-d minions, my low-grade disorders—anxiety of course, and there’s a brief catalog of compulsions that come and go as they please through my head. I’ve run through the available roster of treatments both traditional and esoteric, most of it useless for me, until I hit on my current mix-tape of meditation and psychiatry, which works, or it mostly works, or it works for now.
The disorders are what I inherited from my father, who had an OCD army of them, was more or less ruled by them, until he died. The depression, well in a way I got that from him too; at least, I’ve been diagnosed with it since he killed himself when I was Fifteen.
The Wellness Centre occupies a surprisingly large complex right at the base of Park Heights where Beech Boulevard terminates at the extreme western end of Sunset Boulevard. I’m not sure if the Centre is actually still in the municipality of Park Heights or is technically in the sprawl of L.A. or Santa Monica or whatever. There’s a concrete wall around the grounds and there’s a gatehouse: both are neglected, disused. The gatehouse has a lifted barricade that looks like it will never swing down again and blacked-out windows behind which someone might have been watching, decades ago. Here and there, rebar juts out from the low cement wall like exposed bone and there’s graffiti over a lot of it—I think I saw a Class of ‘77 tag once when I was walking around out there, smoking a cigarette.
The whole place used to be a movie studio lot, a long time ago. My history of it isn’t great, I think this was in the silent film era—a producer and millionaire, Sangster Quence, built up the grounds, yes I remember now—it was called Quenceland—there’s some photos of it in a display case by the front reception desk. Then Sangster Quence disappeared or something, his empire fell apart, and the buildings remained derelict for a few decades until the California Department of Public Health bought it and converted it into some kind of asylum—yeah, creepy, I know—which didn’t last that long either, I heard there were deaths and abuses, though who knows what’s urban myth and what’s not. Then the private holistic health consortium that now runs the Wellness Centre bought the place and the weird practices moved in and that’s where we are now. Why did I start to realize that something troubling was occurring at the Centre? It was because of Tess’s mom, Barbara. I saw her going out the door at the back of D Wing—that’s the main building across from the parking lot, where the doctors’ offices and x-ray rooms and blood labs are situated—and out of curiosity, I followed her to the door and watched her through the window in it. She hurried across the strip of brown and yellow dead grass that separates D Wing from a long, single-story outlying building I had never been inside or ever thought much about. Right before she entered that long, low building, she turned and glanced around furtively, as if she was hoping no-one was watching, though in fact I was watching.
At that moment I didn’t particularly care. I had just come out of an appointment with Dr. Carey, my shrink, and I was in a peculiar headspace of my own. It was just chance: Tess’s mom went right past me without really seeing me, opened the back door and slipped through it and went out to the other building.
A few weeks later I was at the reception desk talking to Nasrin about my appointment schedule with Dr. Carey. Nasrin is the well-loved main receptionist of the Wellness Centre. She uncomplainingly does the work of three or four people, I think they’re always trying to hire additional receptionists and they never work out, and it kind of seems like Nasrin has always been there and always will be. She’s a master of the art of putting you in your place with a sweetness that makes you thank her for the verbal slap in the face.
“Love your hijab today,” I said to her. She was hearing a sky-blue headscarf with a repeated pattern of iridescent butterflies that, frankly, hurt the eyes to look at.
“Instead of fake flattery,” she said, “you could just tell me what you need,” not looking up from her desktop PC where I’ll bet there were multiple open files she had to complete a few hours’ work on in the next ten minutes.
“Right,” I said, “you’re right, I do need to make a change to next week’s Friday with Dr. Carey.”
She sighed but she looked up at me with a worn, wan smile that still had warmth in it. “Let me guess, you’ve got a show that night.” This was almost always my reason to change appointments: I do the sound for the band White Mask, and yes they had a show at the Zenith, the club in L.A. where they often play.
“Yeah,” I said, “I gotta be out at the club in the afternoon to check the levels, but I could do a morning appointment no problem.”
It was then that someone else who worked at the Wellness Centre, I don’t know her name, an older lady who sometimes fills in for Nasrin at reception, appeared next to me, clutching a yellow, legal-sized piece of carbon copy, which she slammed down onto the reception desk, then whirled away and went at full speed back down the hall from where she had materialized. Nasrin looked at the carbon copy as if it was a poisonous spider.
“What’s that?” I said.
Nasrin’s scowl was profound. “It’s another request from 101 Wing.”
“Where’s 101 Wing?”
Nasrin gestured vaguely to her right. “Over there. It’s the building across the dead grass.”
I recalled that I had seen Tess’s mom more or less sneaking over to that building. “What do they want?”
“There’s a Men’s Health Group that uses the gym in 101 Wing,” Nasrin said, “for drumming sessions and tribal dances and that kind of thing. But the Circle keeps requesting that we relocate the Men’s Group into the gym in the Youth Wing. And management keeps telling them no and the Circle keeps on re-filing the request.”
“Sounds annoying. What’s the Circle?”
“They’ve pretty much taken over 101 Wing, except for this feud with the Men’s Group.”
“But what is it, the Circle?”
Nasrin looked up again from the screen of her computer. “I don’t know, actually. I assume it’s some healing or recovery group.”
On Tuesdays my appointments with Dr. Carey end about an hour before my meditation classes begin, giving me some time to kill. Usually I walk around the Wellness Centre complex, sometimes lighting up a forbidden cigarette out behind one of the buildings or out where the crumbling wall continues to lose its war against encroaching weeds the size of small children. Maybe I was bored. I found myself around the back of the 101 Wing building. I must have been thinking of my conversation with Nasrin as I went to the door that I’d seen Tess’s mom going into. I pulled on the handles. It was locked. I looked through the window in the door. It was lined with the criss-crossing wire mesh you find on the windows in the doors of all institutions—schools, hospitals, police stations—to reinforce an idea of security or privacy. All I could see through this window was a dimly-lit, empty hallway inside the building, closed doors staggered down either side of it.
I went around to the front of the building. The doors here were the same as all of the front entrances in the Centre complex, a set of double doors with a push-bar set at the height of your elbows. I pushed on the door to the right but the bar didn’t budge.