Kiss me, and you will see how important I am. —Sylvia Plath
I sit on a worn chair in the waiting room of the local government-funded mental health center—our county’s Medicaid destination. Will comfort be found in such a place? The lone potted plant languishes, badly in need of water. A wall poster of a fierce-looking young woman with tattooed biceps admonishes victims of abuse to find a Safe Zone. Patients check in and quietly sit and leave the room as therapists summon them. They seem overly careful of every step, as if falling down is a contingency they are not prepared to handle. Most wear broken-down shoes and odd clothes. No-money-for-luxuries shoes and clothes. I glance into the streaming eyes of a young man with a red, oddly twisted face. My eye contact seems to wound him. Someone else implores his caseworker to understand how really fast he used to be able to run. An old man clutches multiple zip-lock bags of medications in his lap while a nurse asks personal questions within sight and sound of the entire room. The man’s face twitches at every juncture of orifice and skin. His mouth kneads his tongue as though trying to coax moisture from it—the incessant thirst of the medicated. I need more Lexapro, I can hardly function right now, he says. I lose interest in my book. I pray for the patients—for blessing, stability, something. What would Jesus do?
The tasteful outfit of one of the caseworkers catches my attention as she stands at the counter. She returns my look, a bit too long. A swell of panic hits my throat: She thinks I’m one of the patients. I look down. My Mary Jane flats are old and scuffed, my outfit mismatched. I got up too late to pay attention. Broken-down shoes, like the man with the zip-lock bags wears. My note pads and books are spread across three seats. Wads of paper, a caved-in water bottle—my morning life splayed out. Clearly, a patient without boundaries, the caseworker is thinking. I resist going to her and saying, I’m here because I drove a friend. I’m waiting for her. I was in the driver’s seat. I drive them and pray for them and feel bad for them. But don’t make me identify with them, kissing and mingling my healthy juices with their sick ones. Don’t think I’m a mess myself. God forbid I be a mess—lowly, disturbed, poor. One of those last and least who might one day be first and most.