As a kid, I was happy.
Dad and Mom were good to me and always bought me good things to eat, like fruit leather and astronaut ice cream and Famous Amos cookies, which I would eat at the marble-looking kitchen island in our peach-colored house. Me being a very good student and getting all A’s made them happy, too. The only bad thing was that when I was eleven, my older brother Philip became incurably unhappy and had to be sent off to a special school, so I never saw him.
Then I became a teenager, bones creaking, voice thickening, and I suddenly got unhappy too. No reason why. Like my brother at the same age, I just all at once staggered under the weight of a heavy unhappiness that seemed to come out of walls and ceilings and wrap itself around me. People’s faces looked like masks carved out of old knotted wood. They seemed not to have eyes unless I looked very closely. I saw shadows everywhere that didn’t exist, and I thought thoughts like: WHAT’S THE POINT and IS LIVING LIFE WORTH HAVING TO BE ALIVE?
Dad and Mom became concerned because I had lost interest in school and I wasn’t eating right. So we had a meeting with the Principal and a Counselor. The Principal’s many-doored office was located in a catacomb of administrative offices near the back of the school.
“Let’s talk about how you’ve been feeling,” the Counselor said while Dad and Mom and the Principal stared hard at my face. “You’re unhappy but you can’t say about what. And you don’t enjoy any activities or food anymore, and you stopped doing your schoolwork.”
He leaned in, showing sincerity with his eyes: ”This happens to lots of boys your age. Most of them snap right back to normal. The important thing is to remember how fortunate you are.” He listed things I should be happy about, like my mom and dad who loved me, and my brain that would guarantee me a good future. He talked for a while. He counseled.
“And let’s not forget your studies,” the Principal said. “Your grades which have declined. We all know what you’re capable of.”
On the drive home with the windows open and the breeze completely unenjoyable to me, Dad and Mom said they would start paying me one-hundred dollars for every A.
But the unhappiness didn’t go away. Time passed and nothing improved. Someone had turned the lights off. My brain didn’t want to tell my body to do anything. NOTHING GIVES PLEASURE, it thought.
So we had another meeting in the Principal’s big, clean office with its multiple doors.
“You’re stuck in an unhappy ditch, I guess,” the Principal said. “And let’s not forget your grades, which are stuck in the ditch with you. You know, the PSATs aren’t too far away.”
“Let’s try something else,” the Counselor said. ”Since this seems to be a longer-lasting problem than we hoped.”
Dad and Mom watched me closely with their brows furrowed. Lately they’d been looking at me like someone who was holding their son for ransom. I felt awful about disappointing them, like my brother Philip had.
The Counselor said, “We’ll get you on some meds. Pills you take every day like vitamins. In a few weeks, what they’ll do is scrub out this unpleasant feeling. Just scrub it out.”
“You’ll be able to enjoy things again,” the Principal said. ”Games. Friends. Schoolwork.”
So I was taken to a Doctor, and the Doctor gave me pills. After a month, they’d had little effect. Dad and Mom insisted that they were working, but I knew they weren’t. Faces stayed dark. Shadows crawled on everything. My brain continued to mutter.
Dad and Mom stuck to their hopeful opinion until I took the PSATs and scored wretchedly. I felt like shit knowing I’d disappointed them again. But during the test, I had seen shadows fall across the pages, covering the questions, and the shadows said: THIS IS USELESS.
So we had our third meeting.
The Counselor sat leaning forward in a chair, head down, fingertips pressed together. Dad and Mom had their heads down, too. I didn’t want to look at them. The Principal stood in front of his desk, looking serious and decisive.
“We’ve tried,” the Principal said. “We’ve tried the things that usually work. Now it’s time for the next step.” He took me gently by the arm and led me from my chair to a door in the back corner of his office. I had never been through that door before and didn’t know what was on the other side. Dad and Mom and the Counselor followed us through the door and down a long cream-colored corridor that led into a second corridor. One wall of the second corridor was clear plexiglas, and on the other side of the plexiglas were little pale cells, like an indoor zoo. Most were empty, but the Counselor took my arm and led me down to the cell at the end, within which a giant rat beast was crouched, doing schoolwork.
The giant rat beast didn’t look up at us. It was the size of a dog. It had black, wiry sprouts of fur and an open, panting mouth and hairless pink hands shaped like an ape’s or a man’s. One hand held a black pen and wrote methodically in a spiral notebook. A textbook sat open on the floor and the rat beast was transferring information from the textbook to the notebook. Sometimes a thread of drool fell from its mouth to the pages below.
“That’s your brother Philip,” the Counselor said. “We tried all the usual things with him, too. But ultimately we had to take drastic measures.”
“Look at him working,” the Principal said.
“Philip?” I said, uncertain. The rat beast didn’t look up. I looked at Dad and Mom, who were nodding.
“It doesn’t hurt,” the Counselor said. “We just take you right into the other room.”
“You want to do that to me?” I said.
“Only if it’s what you want, of course,” he said. “We already talked to your mom and dad about it. You’ll feel so much better after the change. Look at him in there. His exterior is disturbing, but inside, he’s actually very, very happy right now.”
The rat beast drooled, scribbled.
“And let’s not forget how much schoolwork he gets done,” the Principal said.
“Or his grades now,” Dad added.
“It’s an unfamiliar idea,” the Principal said. “It does take getting used to. But at this stage, it’s what I would recommend.”
Dad and Mom were nodding at me. Dad took Mom’s hand and squeezed it. She bit her lip.
The Counselor patted my shoulder.
“Be changed,” he said in a kind voice. “You’ll be… so happy.”
And that was the day I became who I am.
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