Sanitorium

William Orrow drew a gate pass from the pocket of his lab coat without breaking stride. He flashed it before the card reader and acknowledged the electromagnetic click that released the seasoned oak door to the vestibule. He always acknowledged the click as though it were a human nod, a welcome to the office.

Lochhaven Green is the oldest member of our community. Once the home of the banished and unthinkable, it was almost literally at the end of the world. But its third century of duty saw restoration, reconfiguration, and reconsideration. The facility now boasts the highest level of contemporary implementation of psychiatric care in the region. And the city has swollen such that Lochhaven is currently well ensconced in the central boroughs. William Orrow is one of the vehicles of that implementation. Certified, registered, and no doubt a recipient of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, Bill knows his shit, so to speak.  He’s not a shrink. He’s a patient care facilitator. The sharp end of the stick.

Bill squinted when exposed to Lochhaven’s inquisitorial lighting. He returned the gate pass to his pocket and snagged the light-sensitive reading glasses that hung by an arm onto the neck of his shirt. His work glasses were Bill’s procedural opus, his administrative masterpiece. The sunglass portion darkened just enough to take the edge off of the oppressively bright illumination of the patient facilities. The bottom half of the lenses were progressive readers. With his armour so installed, Bill waved to the nursing station and nodded to the second and third electromagnetic clicks that heralded his entry to patient lounge C.

“It’s the doc, the doc, the doc. Click clock bipity bop, it’s the doc, the doc, the doc,” Happy Harold mumbled to himself as Bill secured the door behind him and smiled at the tall brunette nurse with the funny teeth. The one with her finger on the button.

“Hello Harold,” Bill said with genuine pleasure. “It’s good to see you too.” Bill paused to take in the surroundings as he had been trained. This was his opportunity to size up the environment. How many patients are in the immediate area? Are they in groups or are they solitary? Is the mood elevated? Depressed? Angry? Are there any potential dangers within view? What objects could be used as weapons? The Scrabble Board? The tiles? Harold’s flannelette belt? The nurses are present and alert at the station and monitoring the door. They know he’s in there. Seven patients: Harold, Henry, Tiffany, Erik, Solomon, Sunburst Plum, and Dr. Liu. Bill was particularly interested in Dr. Liu.

“Hey Dr. Liu. Hello!” Bill shouted. He raised his hand.  Tiffany and Solomon watched Oprah on television. Henry and Sunburst Plum sat at the Scrabble table. Henry had his hand under the table on Sunburst Plum’s knee. He smiled heartily toward Bill in search of a reaction. Bill shook his head and let the minor contravention go. Was it a contravention at all?  Bill considered the rule: If the purpose of the touching was to elicit a response from a patient care facilitator it could hardly be described as being with sexual intent. Hmmm. Bill erupted in a broad smile when he visualized his logic exonerating Hank and Sunburst from intercourse on the Scrabble table if the purpose was only to get a rise out of him. Happy Harold held a jelly-bean up to the light of a wire-reinforced window. Erik read aloud. Thomas the Tank Engine. Lee Liu was working in a thick notepad with a faux reptile cover.

“Doctor,” Lee Liu said quietly.

“Doctor,” Bill replied as he pulled up a chair.  “How are you today?”

“Not Loo. Liu,” Lee corrected. He used extra syllables to emphasize the correct pronunciation.

It took Bill a second to remember using Lee’s last name.

“Your hand was in the air.”

“Yes, I remember now. Dr. Liu.” Bill mimicked Lee’s exaggeration.

“No need for sarcasm, Doctor.” Lee said. He turned his attention to his workbook for a moment. Then having apparently completed a task, he closed the book and laid the pencil gently on top.

“What are you working on, Doctor?” Bill asked.

“An interesting question.”

“How so?”

“We’re all one. Yet one part of one does not know what another part is doing.”

“Yes, I see,” Bill said. He noticed Sunburst trading in her whole set of tiles and made a mental note to revisit the rules of the game with she and Henry.

“You see what?” Lee asked.

“That we’re all one.”

“I think you do not see. I think you subscribe to the contemporary and attractive theory that all life is connected. That all matter comes from a single origin at the commencement of time, the beginning of the universe. I believe you have failed to fully grasp my position,” Lee explained.

Bill listened carefully. He knew better than to offer Lee less than his complete attention. “So what exactly is your position then?”

“We are all one. Not of one, or from one, but one. As a thumb is to a forefinger, are you and I. Parts of a single organism.”

“And why don’t I know what you are doing in that workbook?”

“Ah,” Lee said. He monitored Bill’s attention for genuine interest.  “I am not in the workbook, as you and I, components of this single unity, are aware. But if your question is why you do not know what I know, the answer is simple: You have not learned how to see through these eyes.

“How would I do that?”

“As any part of a living organism must learn to communicate with another part. By experience. By experimentation. By will and practice.”

“That sounds very difficult,” Bill said.

“Have you ever tried to see through these eyes, doctor?”

Bill considered the question. Lee was entirely unschooled in science or philosophy but incredibly scientifically persuasive. More so than even Bill. The inescapable truth was that Bill found Lee’s ideas compelling, logical, and enlightened. Bill spoke of Lee often when outside of Lochhaven. Bill thought through Lee’s theories in the quiet of his dreams.

“No. I suppose I haven’t,” Bill conceded.

“Do try,” Lee said.

“To see through your eyes?”

“Counterproductive,” Lee snapped.

“Come again?”

“It is counterproductive to label them my eyes. They are eyes. They cannot be seen as your eyes, as you have already established neural patterns for control and reception through those. You cannot see them as my eyes, as you have long ago accepted that you cannot see through the eyes of another. See them as eyes only, and try to establish a connection with these eyes. Set aside what you have learned. Accept willingly that you may have missed a lesson or two. Work to see through these eyes.”

Bill lost his need to contain Lee’s theory and reinforce to Lee what he knows to be fact. Bill did as Lee asked. Bill tried to establish a connection with those eyes.

First, Bill tried to find an irregularity in his own lab coat. An irregularity visible from the opposing chair. A stain. A wrinkle. A thread amiss. Then Bill saw his effort, correctly, as a potential parlour trick. The goal was not to prove the theory by identifying a physical trait that could only be known from an opposite point of view, but to live the experience of another vantage point. Bill tried to establish a connection to those eyes. Eyes not previously thought of as his own, but his own nonetheless. And for a moment, for a brief and fleeting moment, Bill saw himself hunched over in deep concentration, brow furled, eyes closed to eliminate confusion, brain plying avenues of instinct and intuition for a pathway to a new perspective. And then it was over.

“I think I saw,” Bill said.

“What did you see?”

“I saw me. In this sanitorium. Trying to find a way to see through new eyes.”

“Yes,” Lee said. “I believe you may have seen. And were you, the you observed through your new sight, competent? In control?”

“I was trying to comply. Trying to follow your instructions. To see things your way.”

“As was I,” Lee said. And he opened his notebook once again.

“Are you writing about me in there?” Bill asked. Lee smiled and continued writing. “I see,” Bill continued. “We’re part of the same organism.”

“Yes,” Lee spoke without interrupting his note taking. “We are one.” Lee closed the book one more time and placed it on his lap. “I am tired,” he said.

“Until tomorrow then,” Bill replied. He pushed back the chair and rose to his feet. He paused to consider the other patients in the room. For a moment, he tried to see through Oprah’s eyes, and Harold’s. And the nurse with the funny teeth.

That night at home with the television on and his paperwork in front of him, Bill thought about the thin line that separates the patients at Lochhaven Green from you and I. Bill thought about the events that precipitated the incarceration, indoctrination, or involuntary commitment of his patients. Bill thought about seeing through Lee Liu’s eyes.

That night at the sanatorium, with neither television nor paperwork, Lee thought about the thin line that separates the patients at Lochhaven Green from you and I. Lee thought about the events that precipitated the incarceration, indoctrination, or involuntary commitment of the patients. Lee thought about seeing through Dr. Bill’s eyes.

As Bill fell asleep in a featherbed in his loft, he listened to the hum of the distant air circulation system at Lochhaven, studied the exquisite cornice moldings and dished ceiling of the patient residence wing, and pulled the state-issued course sheets up under his chin. And he flipped through Dr. Liu’s notebook with interest.

The next day, Bill approached the facility with a spring in his step. He flashed his pass card and virtually skipped into Lochhaven’s Thursday wing, as he called Patient Lounge A.  He nodded to Nurse Teeth and bound into the room without the requisite contemplative scouting and patted Sunburst Plum on the shoulder on his way to Lee Liu.

“Oh, that was nice,” she said. Bill paused for a moment, then continued on.

“Dr. Liu, I would like to speak with you if you have a moment,” Bill said.

“Of course, Doctor,” Lee replied. He sat quickly at one of a pair of facing square fabric chairs with a wooden block of a table between.

“Last night, I felt I was looking up at your ceiling. Here. At Lochhaven.”

Lee considered this news. “And how did that feel?” he asked.

“It felt, well, freeing.”

“That’s very interesting,” Lee said.

“Yes, I know, and, well, I want to see your workbook, if you would let me.”

“I don’t know that you’re ready.”

Bill thought for a moment. “When will I be ready?” he asked with caution.

“This workbook contains nothing more than the random thoughts of an insignificant mind recorded from a somewhat restricted perspective.” Lee looked around the room as though demonstrating the terms of his incarceration.

Bill acknowledged the gesture. “I understand,” he said. “And my review of those thoughts will be through the unremarkable eyes of one sharing your limitations.” Bill mimicked Lee’s visual acknowledgment of the relevance of their surroundings.

Lee considered the contents of the workbook. He fingered the glued spine and pressed paper cover, ran his fingernail audibly over the embossed alligator finish. The fluorescent lights dimmed perceptibly. Lee looked up. The lights returned to their oppressive level. “I’ve been here a long time,” Lee said. He stared at the workbook.

“What is a long time?” Bill asked.

“Exactly,” Lee replied thoughtfully. He unceremoniously handed Bill the workbook.

“Can I return it to you tomorrow?” Bill asked.

Lee smiled as he rose from the blocky chair with the aid of a push off of the heavy coffee table. He hesitated as though he was about to reply and then turned his back and shuffled off toward a locked metal door. He stood gazing through the small wire-reinforced window at the pale painted non-descript hallway beyond. Bill held the workbook tightly as he watched Dr. Liu’s back. He felt the embossed finish for the first time. His fingertips were surprised by the depth of the embossing, the complexity of the cover’s texture. His conscious mind didn’t leave Dr. Liu’s back. The mind that saw only a thick workbook had no part in experiencing the book’s cover. The fingers that probed the workbook’s physical features took no notice of Dr. Liu’s resigned demeanor.

Late that night Bill turned the pages from his featherbed, three pillows propping up his head and shoulders. His thumb and fingers addressed each page as though consecrated material. As he read, his bedside lamp dimmed, the brownout common in his rented heritage loft. The soft light bathed him in warmth as he absorbed Dr. Liu’s thoughts. He smiled occasionally. And then, having completed his first review of Liu’s treatise, Bill closed the book on his chest and fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.

The next day Bill sat with Lee in Patient Lounge C. The square chairs sent hard sharp shadows into the institutional-grade linoleum floor. Happy Harold sang a loop of one verse of Oh Christmas Tree. Tiffany, Solomon, and Henry stared vacantly at a game show on television. Sunburst Plum worked to set up the Scrabble game. Erik filed his nails with a plastic emery board. He wore furry slippers with squirrel heads on the front. Bill experienced himself standing at Sunburst Plum’s side. “You can’t trade in all of your letters. You have to keep one back,” he said. And then he was seated across from Dr. Liu again. He didn’t know if his experience with Sunburst Plum was real and he didn’t much care. He saw Lee standing by the metal door, then sitting before him. He lowered his glasses and told Lee that he wondered if maybe Lee should be outside of Lochhaven and himself inside.

“It is already so,” Lee said, and he smiled contentedly.

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