My first rehab was in Laguna Beach. My second one was in North Hollywood. I could see the ocean from my window at the first one. My view from the second featured a neon clown in front of a liquor store. The first time was in July. The second was in January. I got a tan at the first one, and a flu at the other. I could make out with chicks in my room at the first rehab. I was written up for making “sustained eye-contact with the opposite sex” at the other. You get it. Very different. Different results, too.
At the second rehab, my roommate was a Russian gang-banger from Montebello, who had gotten accepted into a hispanic gang. I’ll let you figure out how. He was a young guy with a shaved head, baggy pants, and lots of homegrown ink. His family moved from Russia when he was five, and he quickly adapted to his new environment. Boris from The Black Sea was a bad-ass little fucker, and as far as I was concerned, an immigrant success story.
Back then, the second place was full of people being diverted from prison into rehab instead. Most just did what they would’ve done if they were locked-up. I looked out at the yard while I was still in detox. There were guys in beanies and denim coats playing dominoes or walking the track, dropping now and then to do burpees or push-ups. They wore work pants and flannel, either house shoes or white sox and shower sandals, all de rigueur for the perennially institutionalized. I wasn’t in Laguna Beach anymore.
Boris and I became friends. He was a funny dude, and we connected. The laughs worked like Bondo on the more gaping fractures in my soul. One night while he was sharpening a toothbrush handle into a shank, I told him about the first rehab.
The irony was that while at the second place, I was surrounded by some seriously sketchy characters, it was at the fun-filled, beach condo rehab in Orange County, where I really worried for my safety. And, the danger came in the strangest guise.
It started with Granny. They brought her in on my sixth day there. She was a crazy, white-haired, 80-year-old woman, who the staff told us, stabbed her husband while she was drunk. “She didn’t kill him, so…” So what? So now she get’s to come in here and live with us for a while? Oh fuck that. An 80-year-old man wouldn’t get that kind of slack. His dentures would be soaking on a bunk in Corcoran. What gives?
“Dude, that’s fucked up,” Boris said. He took out his lighter and heated up the toothbrush. After warming up the plastic, he began pulling and flattening it, then went back to sharpening.
“Why don’t you just go downstairs and get a knife from the cafeteria?”
“I don’t know, it’s just something to do. Go on.”
She wasn’t the cute and cuddly kind of old woman either. She had mean eyes and sneered a lot. A Madame Defarge. She was cantankerous and crotchety, but she could put on her grandma mask when it served her. I saw her smile at one of the counselors and “Yes dearie” him, but as soon as he turned away, her face soured into glaring hatred. She was working the system, biding her time until…she could strike again.
I watched her carefully during meals. Why does she need a steak knife for cutlet? Give her a butter knife, or better yet, a wooden spoon. If this old bitty decides to go wide-o with a blade, it’s going to be hard to take her down. You can’t just run up and belt the old broad. Clobber her with a fire extinguisher, and you’re going to do time, whether she came at you with a knife or not. No, there’ll be a lot of dancing around, avoiding her swipes and pokes, while trying to grab for the shiv. I hate to depend on finesse. Things tend to get clumsy when the shit erupts. I had decided I would use my food tray as a shield, protect the vital organ, and just play defence until SWAT got there.
“I’d just tip the table on her and bolt,” Boris said. Crude, but effective. I had to admit his idea was better. That was a breakthrough for me, accepting the fact that somebody else might have a better idea. Of course, this nugget of realization was nestled in some insane thinking, but any realization at that point was a victory.
It turned out Granny was the least of my worries. I told Boris about Jimmy The Geek. One day, one of the counselors brought up to my room a google-eyed, belt-above-the-naval, dorkenhoffer with a Vicodin problem. I’ll call him “Jimmy.” He was going to replace the snoring pharmacist that checked out that morning. Good, I thought, maybe now I can get some sleep. Strange thing was, that although this guy was a Class A, textbook version of nerdhood, my body reacted to him in primal fear. I swear to you, the hair stood up on the back of my neck when I shook his hand. I had no idea why. It just did.
The first thing he did, after shaking my hand and introducing himself, was hand me a piece of paper. It was a Xeroxed copy of an old Newsweek article. “You need to read this,” he says. “Yeah, sure,” I say. “No really, you NEED to read it!” “Okay,” I tell him. I didn’t feel like reading Newsweek right then. It’s old news when it comes out fresh, so a Xerox from the 80’s was really going to be stale. I glance down at the article. It was something about a little kid who stabbed his parents while they were sleeping. He didn’t kill them. So what? Who cares? I folded it up and put it in my pocket.
There was something odd about this bug-eyed dweeb, something beyond his looks, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something menacing about him. Ah, I was tripping.
“Dude, that’s the guy! He’s the one in the paper, as a little kid. He’s the sleep stabber!” Boris was excited. He was now listening wide-eyed. He had his knees up to his chin.
“Yeah okay, you’re fucking up my story, dude.” I told him, “I didn’t snap to this yet, alright?”
I continued to tell him about how during some of the meetings that day, Jimmy “shared” about some of the bad things he did. I’d rather not say here what, but they were disturbing. Even Boris was a little shocked. Enough said. The meetings took on a heavy vibe of disgust as Jimmy let us get to know him better. So, this was my new roommate. Jolly good.
During one of the breaks, I remembered the article and pulled it out. It was about some parents suing the psychiatrist that prescribed their son’s psych meds. The kid stabbed them while they slept, and they had to blame someone. In the article, the shrink claimed that the kid didn’t show any danger signs before this incident. In the margin, written in pencil, someone wrote “Oh yes HE DID!!!!!!!!” Hmm. There were other annotations, all made by someone with an apparent personal involvement with the events reported.
Okay, this was a little kid…but… the article was almost ten years old. I wasn’t delighted in the way things were adding up. I looked at the name of the kid. It was “Jimmy.” Interesting. Same name as the sick psycho fuck who handed me this Xerox telling me I NEED to read it. Could there be a connection? Boris started howling.
“I fucking knew it!” he laughed, “No sleep tonight for you! Your bunky might get stab-happy. Did you stick him first?”
“Dude. I’m in rehab, not Pelican Bay. I can’t shank the dude because he creeps me out. I was tempted to puss out and complain to staff, but how would that look?” He nodded. “So I tried to become his best buddy, that is, after I secured a huge cake knife under my mattress.”
Unfortunately, as Jimmy and I became buddies, he opened up more. He shared more, and I got scared more. Personally, I thought drugs were the least of his problems, although I’m sure they didn’t help. At lights out, Jimmy informed me that he also had a condition that made him unable to sleep for days at a time, which he warned might make him crankier when he started to kick. He said he would probably just spend the night sitting up, “trying to maintain.” Great.
“I’ll be here for you, brother,” I said, my fingers tucked under my mattress.
Neither of us slept a wink that night. Jimmy was sitting up cross-legged, talking to himself while listening to something over his headphones. Recorded instructions from Satan, I imagined. His Coke bottle glasses made him look like a mumbling locust. Meanwhile, I kept one eye open the whole night. I remember trying to get God to forgive me- for a lot of stuff. I was really pleading my case.
“I even prayed,” I confessed, “Oh God, I’m so scared, please help me!”
“Yeah, standard stuff, but fucking heartfelt. The next morning I was a wreck. I was still detoxing and raw, and now hadn’t gotten any sleep. I didn’t know how I was going to go another night with this ghoul sitting up next to me. ‘Ok God,’ I finally said, ‘I can’t deal with this shit. If you’re out there, and you’re not too busy, I’d love for you to take care of this thing.’ What the hell, right? What do I have to lose? I’m out of ideas at this point. I give up. I put back the cake knife, and go to my morning group session. During that session, Jimmy gets pulled out of group, and I never see him again. His insurance didn’t go through so they bounced his ass out.”
“Where did he go?”
“He got into a taxi and drove to Montebello.”
Boris laughed. “Ah man, I would cap his geek ass.”
“How could you? He only comes when you’re asleep.”
“Do you think it was the prayer? I mean, do you think that helped get rid of him?”
I couldn’t say for sure. It seemed like a coincidence, but who says those don’t count? I just know I felt better thinking that it was. We were getting sleepy and decided to turn out the light. Boris put away his crafts project. We laid there in the dark for a while.
“Hey Boris, maybe there is something out there that we can tune into that will help us.”
“I fucking hope so, dude. Buenas noches, carnal.”
I turned over and went to sleep. I slept well that night, the glow from a neon clown bathing us both in its protective light.