At 16, I was a mess. Never a great student, I’d figured out in junior high school how to eek out the minimum and not think about tomorrow. Whenever a new teacher would glance at my dismal student file and began the underachiever speech, I’d finish their sentences for them. School work was never that hard, just damn uninteresting. I’d much rather lose myself in Stephen King novels, David Bowie albums and WKRP in Cincinnati reruns. As for team sports, such physical coordination and feigned camaraderie was simply beyond my scope. I was much more at ease hanging with my juvenile delinquent friends, an endearingly ragtag group of outcasts and thinkers who spoke my own language of thwarted potential. Was it any wonder I went absolutely batshit at the first possible chance?
Well, I did. As soon as I passed driver‘s ed, I purchased my grandmother’s old jalopy for 500 dollars and promptly began skipping school. At first it was only a class or two - a math period here, a science session there. But soon my penchant for truancy grew into full blown dedication to the craft. I’d arrive at school a little early, hang out in the smoking area until I rustled up a group of aspiring hoodlums and hit the open road. The beach, the tobacco path, the vacant lot - I went everywhere that year. Everywhere but the tenth grade classes I was supposed to be attending. Through treachery and deceit, I snowed my parents into thinking all was well at school. In reality, I was running from shadows, projecting inherent rebellion among my buddies but cringing every time the phone rang at home. Near the end of the school year, that bell tolled for me. To make a difficult story short, I got busted. Hard. My poor mother, agog at her once promising son’s academic descent called an immediate conference with all my teachers. After the longest 30 minutes of my life, I left the school library for summer vacation with the unfathomable news that I would be returning to the tenth grade in the fall.
Aside from removing every semblance of fun from my 16 year old world, my Mother did something I’m eternally grateful for. She sent me to a therapist, a child psychologist of sorts who helped crack open my skull and sift around inside. Tall, animated and Midwestern, Doctor Tom first struck me as an insufferable doofus. Between his goofy grin and flat accent, I just couldn’t take the guy seriously. For the first two sessions, I sat in an easy chair in his office and rolled my eyes behind mirrored sunglasses while he spoke seemingly at random. After a while I began to talk back, mostly lies at first but then the occasional glimmer of truth slipped through my punk-ass façade. Dr. Tom seized on the details and in one ten minute period broke down my complicated web of excuses, delusions and alibis. I maintained my neo-gruff exterior, but inside I was amazed at the man’s mental dexterity.
It’s difficult to express just how Tom helped me. Never once did he produce a magic elixir or mulit-colored pill to ease my clouded mind. Mostly he just listened, chewing his lip and nodding at the ceiling as I struggled to explain how miscast and ill-equipped I felt to deal with the perils of high school society. You know - the same crap teenagers have been struggling with since the first cave kid popped his inaugural zit. Though he’d no doubt heard variations of my plight a thousand times before, Dr. Tom leaned in and listened. Whenever I’d run out of words, he’d encourage me to continue, like a late night deejay milking a distraught caller for every sordid detail. Just as I was spent, Tom would lean back in his worn brown recliner and walk me back through my diatribe, gently pointing out all the bad judgments and escalating foolishness along the way. Never once did Tom make me feel stupid, or childish or anything less than worthy of his admiration. Turns out, that was all I really needed.
Toward the end of our visits and my summer of exile, Tom presented me with a token of his esteem, two carefully labeled mix tapes of the new music he was listening to. Later, when I popped the cassettes into my beat-up player at home, the strange sounds that emanated from within seized my imagination. Weird bands I’ve never heard of before with names like the Talking Heads, the B-52’s and the Red Hot Chili Peppers blasted my ears and libido like only revolutionary music can. The Chili Peppers especially ran roughshod over my limited concept of rock and roll. Their staccato delivery, thump-bass funk and surf-frat bombast grabbed me by the t-shirt collar and shook every vestige of Classic Rawk fan out of my system. By the time I re-entered the tenth grade, my head was far from unscrambled. But thanks to Tom, I approached high school life with a bit more realism and a lot better taste in tunes.
Fast forward six years. Fresh from the Navy but still lacking any real direction, I took a job at the local hospital’s radiology department while I weighed my lack of options. At first my duties consisted of mind-numbing darkroom work, passing undeveloped x-ray film from one dimly-lit bin to another. When that quickly proved boring, I stuck my head out to flirt with all the pretty x-ray techs and nurses - a move that quickly brought me the female attention I yearned for all those many months out to sea. Pretty soon, I was one of the gang, pitching in with clerical duties and eventually patient transportation. I found I liked donning a white coat and ferrying patients back and forth to Radiology. It was in the hallways of Wayne Memorial Hospital that I refined some of the confidence I’d cultivated in the military. Who knows what the female staff really thought of the scruffy new orderly who liked the sound of his own voice. I was too busy talking smack to ever ask.
Hospital work was never anything I wanted to do long term, but it was awfully good for me. The wreck victims, AIDS patients and psychiatric ward residents taught me more about life than I’d ever learned in uniform. Though I still possessed no idea of how I was going to spend the rest of my life, I was growing more and more comfortable with the person inside me. I was feeling particularly good about myself the day I looked down at the patient card in my hand and saw a familiar name. When I knocked lightly outside the room, a voice from my past answered and I pushed open the heavy door to see Dr. Tom sitting up in bed wearing a hospital gown and his trademark goofy grin.
“Can you believe it? I was having dinner and just doubled over in pain. Someone called an ambulance and the next thing I know I’m here,” he said with no small amount of astonishment. “the doctors said my something ruptured in my gut and dumped toxins in my system. Dude ... I could have died!”
Tom chuckled as he said this and I couldn’t help but join him. He looked great despite the lack of color in his cheeks and tassled hair. Not quite forty years old, he was quite surprised to be sitting in a hospital room, staring at an old client who was starring back at him. Within seconds, we fell into deep conservation - something he was especially gifted at. I told him of my misadventures in the Navy, my stint as an on-board radio deejay and the girl named Michelle I found myself infatuated with. Tom nodded and laughed at the appropriate times, telling me about his own growing kids and flourishing psychiatric practice. Despite our sudden reversal of roles, we chatted emphatically until I had to get back to my appointed rounds. Though I didn’t come out and say it, I yearned for a way to thank him for his positive influence. Not quite sure how to do it without jeopardizing any of my young man machismo, I held off and told him I’d see him tomorrow.
On the way home evening, it came to me. I could make a mix tape for Tom, go through my own growing CD collection and cull a few new favorites to share. When I got home I did just that, working a dilapidated cassette deck to the limits of its discount store ability. When I left for work the next day, I had an eclectic collection committed to audiotape, Metallica, Jethro Tull, XTC and of course, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I couldn’t wait to present to him along with a low key thanks for helping me grow into the man I was beginning to pretend to be. Dropping the 90 minute cassette in the pocket of my white lab coat, I stopped by the radiology desk to confirm Tom’s room number. Once I found the right patient card, I held it up in hopes of deciphering the physician’s chicken scratch.
“Oh, that card’s outdated,” said a well-meaning x-ray tech, “the patient died last night.”
When I could move again, I walked to a nearby trash bin and with trembling hands, threw the carefully-crafted cassette away. Too bad all of life's regrets aren't so easily disposed of.