SHADES of GROUCHO
As I stood outside the imposing front doors of New York City's Hospital for Joint Diseases, I bounced up and down on the balls of my feet in a halfhearted attempt to keep warm. My eyes were watering from the wind, and I could feel ice crystals forming on my eyelashes and the ends of my still shower-damp hair. For ten minutes I'd been trying intermittently--and desperately--to convince Bryant that we should not, after all, go in.
"Is it for diseases of the joints," I asked, trying my hardest to make the question sound provocative, "or for people who've got two diseases, like leukemia and, say, diabetes?" Bryant rolled his eyes.
"Five past," he said.
Now we were late.
A man swallowed by his enormous overcoat walked by us and into the lobby, and I scanned his profile as he passed. Was he with the Tourette Syndrome Association, I wondered? Was he in fact a regular at the monthly meeting that had seemed like a much better idea back in the relative warmth and familiarity of my apartment uptown? Was I minutes away from learning his preference--even numbers or odd?--and bearing witness as he blinked or sniffed or jerked his limbs akimbo in ways that I would maybe know all too well? Impossible to tell. He looked normal, what I could make of him under that coat, but then again, so did we.
I could see my breath--it was that cold--and Bryant, for some incomprehensible reason, was lacking in hat and in scarf. He wouldn't last much longer. It was time for the big pitch. "What do you say we just go out to dinner? My treat."
For the first time all evening, Bryant looked mildly intrigued. I imagined us splurging on a bottle of red wine at the Union Square Cafe's welcoming bar and laughing conspiratorially about our lucky escape. A nice cabernet or the loony bin: It seemed as simple as that to me then, in spite of the hours I'd spent imagining all the fascinating people I'd meet in the group who also just happened to have Tourette's, people who with wit, eloquence, and engrossing personal histories would dispel my deepest fears and serve as living proof of the theory I'd been touting in public for a while, since I'd perused a book on the subject at Barnes and Noble, that many great artists--Van Gogh, for one, and Sylvia Plath--had suffered from what the world called "madness" but what was really just a blessed surplus of creativity.
My reverie came to an unceremonious halt when Bryant swilled the dregs of his soda, deposited the can in the garbage can on the sidewalk, and turned and walked inside without a backward glance, leaving me alone in front of the hospital. I watched through the glass, shivering, as he exchanged words with the receptionist at the long front desk and headed over to an elevator bank. When he pressed the button to go up, I buckled. "I'm with him," I told the woman he'd spoken with as I rushed by her, wincing each time my heavy bag smacked into my semifrozen hip. I wasn't suddenly, miraculously, ready to face the unknown quantity of the meeting, but the thought of standing there alone slowly freezing from the outside-in was by far the worse of two evils; it seemed urgent suddenly, a matter of life and death somehow, not to let Bryant out of my sight.
"Floor thirteen," I heard the receptionist call out, as the elevator doors slid shut, but Bryant had already pushed it. In the elevator, the number glowed ominously on the panel, and it occurred to me that I've always heard most buildings don't have a floor thirteen because people are "too superstitious." The irony was almost funny. I knew what floor we were supposed to go to anyway; I'd practically memorized the instructions the group's facilitator had left on my answering machine in a too-warm tone that fell just short of its desired effect: to make me think I was being invited to an exclusive party, a ceremonious event of some prestige. Great--now she knows, I couldn't help but think of the receptionist. A hospital is just the kind of place in which I like to "pass." In my experience, most people feel relief, not compassion, most intensely in a hospital; it's certainly true for me, and even when I am seeking treatment of some kind myself and not just visiting, I always experience inevitable self-congratulatory pangs at my own generally good health. I thought about asking Bryant his opinion on the appropriation of "passing" as related to Tourette's, but when I looked over it was clear that panic had rendered him incapable of semantic debate. His eyes were blinking worse than I'd ever seen, forcefully and rapid-fire, and his sniffing was worse than the blinks. On most days, his signature tics are taken for allergy symptoms; no allergy could have provoked these movements. My sinuses veritably ached for him; sniffing that intensely and rapidly results in piercing pain leading directly to disorienting light-headedness. It was also true that group therapy, as a concept, was even more alien to Bryant than to me; I would have bet my savings account he didn't know a single person in his Alabama hometown who'd ever been to see a shrink one-on-one, let alone with a bunch of other would-be wackos. When the bell dinged, signifying our arrival, I set all thoughts of Bryant's certain culture shock aside, however; on the thirteenth floor, there would be no passing for either one of us.
AT SIX, BRYANT had shown up at my place and made polite conversation with Ben and Nicole, my then fiance and our roommate, both of whose interest in our intended destination had become a little too prurient for my liking over the course of the preceding week. Alone on the sidewalk I breathed a sigh of relief, free at last from the specimen tray. Bryant, whatever his faults or neuroses, was guaranteed not to ask me idiotic questions about group therapy in general and this group therapy in particular, questions like: How are you going to talk to each other if you're all ticcing at the same time? And, more annoying, Will you try to remember the good tics so you can do them for us later?
Generally, I am good about jokes. Sometimes I even encourage them, as a simultaneous means of diffusing tension and appearing well adjusted. Ben and Nicole, and Caroline and Alison, my oldest friend and sister, respectively, take it for granted that my tics are open territory and accuse me of princess-posturing at the slightest complaint. As much as I hate to admit it, they've each developed and fine-tuned an ability to distinguish between manipulative self-pity and genuine despair. But I'd stopped asking them to help with my behavioral therapy because they clearly derived an excess of pleasure in serving as the human equivalents of rubber bands on my wrist. I gritted my teeth when they provided frequent "helpful" status reports and unsolicited constructive reminders--"It's pretty bad tonight (Thanks so much, I wasn't aware of it), did you take your medication?"--or called me Twitchy or Sniffy as if it were the cleverest thing they'd ever thought up. I mustered up a reasonable facsimile of a smile when they held contests to determine who was best able to imitate particular tics, scrunching up their faces and thrashing their heads and hands around in what I considered a travesty of an impression at best. But somehow they hadn't seemed to realize this was different. Different from talking about Tourette's with them or our other close friends, different from discussing it as subject matter in a writing workshop, different even from writing about it, guardedly, in a national magazine, different from anything I'd ever experienced.
Excerpted from Passing for Normal by Amy S. Wilensky. . Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.