This year, I'm thankful
I'm not in NaNoWriMo.
Really, fuck that shit.
Bound at the Wrists
I’d never met anyone like Joel before college, and I haven’t met anyone like him since, either. And I don’t mean that in a “he’s one in a million” kind of way. By saying that there’s no one like him, I mean that he was a breed all of his own, unlike any other human being. If, in fact, that’s what he was.
Ours wasn’t what you’d call a small school; it’s ranked in the top ten of the entire state. But as far as extracurricular activities go, they didn’t have much to offer; only one fraternity and no dorms. Fortunately for those of us who weren’t born and bred in the city, there were nearby apartment complexes, which is where I met Joel Hopper.
I met him my sophomore year. He was a freshman at the time, but he was a year older than I was. I never asked him, but I suspect that his high school administrators just wanted to get the crazy son of a bitch out. He managed to keep a 3.0 GPA, but because of his behavior, he was constantly missing school. And that’s why he was so late getting out. But because he maintained a B average, he was handed a scholarship, which meant that he could go to college anywhere in the state and the government would offer financial aid. And lucky for me, he was local.
To describe our first meeting is a difficult task... it’s like trying to describe how something with a unique flavor tastes. We weren’t
introduced; we didn’t have any classes together, and even though we lived in the same building (which was large at three stories high with ten mid-sized apartments on each floor), we didn’t live close enough to each other so that we’d see each other on a regular basis. But then one day, he “got the twitch.”
People with bipolar disorder often have difficulty describing their ordeal to those who don't understand. My cousin suffers from the same ailment, so I know what it’s like.
Wait, that’s a lie. No one can know what it’s like to have a mental disorder unless they personally have it, but I paid her many visits in a hospital, so I have a pretty good idea. Many bipolars don’t give nicknames to their cycles, you can just tell by the way they speak whether they’re manic or depressed. And if they do talk about it, they don’t give what they’re actually feeling a name;
they just use the medical terms “manic” and “depressed.”
But as I said before, Joel Hopper was a breed of his own, even when compared to others who share his diagnosis. When he was manic, you could tell right away, even if he was a hundred yards away. You could hear him as well as the people he affected. During those periods, he’d say he had the twitch. And when he was depressed, you would think he was comatose. He called that being red. Yes, most people refer to being depressed as being blue, but the reason he called it being red is that he wanted to see himself bleed. And on days when he wore short sleeves, you could definitely tell from the numerous scars that he did that often. It was like he was two completely different men in one. I know that living that way would drive me over the edge, but it did the exact opposite for him. But I’m getting ahead of myself. How we met...
It being my sophomore year, I had previously been able to get to know everyone in the building, mostly fellow students, before the summer quarter started. And when a senior on the ground floor left, I moved into his apartment. I guess that pretty much sums up my entire frame of mind: I want a nice, grounded life; level and stable. But on the first day of classes that May, any
chances I had of being level and stable were gone. I guess you could say instability fell from the sky.
I was walking from my Jeep to my apartment with an armload of books, making it hard to manage my keys at the same time. So naturally, I didn’t see him from a distance. Even if I hadn’t been looking down at my hand, my long black hair as well as the rims of my glasses would have hidden him from view. I was standing in front of my door when, out of the blue, a sandal fell and landed on my load of books, knocking them out of my grasp. I must have looked like an idiot, standing there holding my arms out, gaping down at my books and the sandal beside them. Then I looked up, and there he was.
I could tell right away that he was crazy, or at the very least a bit of a wild child. He was dangling above me, clutching the top guardrail, of which there were three, of the balcony. Other than the sandals (well, sandal, now that the other had dive-bombed my textbooks), he was clad in a worn old pair of denim shorts that allowed the world to see the bottom of his boxer shorts’ crotch, and a plain white tee-shirt covered by one of the most hideously loud Hawaiian shirts I’d ever seen, a cornucopia of oranges, yellows and blues, unbuttoned so that it flapped in the breeze behind him. He was so tall that the bottoms of his feet were nearly even with the ceilings of the second floor; I was guessing about six-three. He was thick through the torso, but had scrawny legs and arms, and his slight double-chin was hidden behind a golden-brown goatee that matched the mop on top of his head.
Still hanging onto that rail, he grinned down at me and called, “Don’t worry, man, I’ll get that.”
Thinking he was about to jump, I waved my arms in the air like someone trying to flag down a cop during an emergency. “Don’t jump down here, you’ll snap your legs like twigs!”
He laughed boisterously and said, “Jump? You think I’m crazy?” With that, he quickly lowered himself down to the second rail, then the bottom, and then swung himself so that his feet landed squarely on the top guardrail of the second balcony. I was amazed as he crouched down, grabbed the rails and lowered himself in the same fashion, like a chimp crawling about a tree. Within seconds, he was standing in front of me.
All I could do was say, “Wow. How’d you do that?”
Arching an eyebrow like an intellectual revealing stock market tips, he said,“Anything’s possible when you’ve got a twitch up your ass.” I wouldn’t understand that he meant manic until later, but it struck me funny.
I laughed and said, “Seriously, that was really something.”
He grinned and said in his booming voice, “You wouldn’t be so amazed if I had slipped. It was luck.” I don’t know what was louder: his voice or his shirts. He then kneeled down and picked up my books, tossing them up to me one by one, one in each hand, like a child going through a toy trunk looking for something interesting. He paused at my copy of The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Tales by Edgar Allan Poe. He opened the cover and glanced at my name scrawled on the inside. He looked up at me and asked, “Michael Coronado? Is that you or did you steal this?”
I nervously snorted. “It’s mine.”
He smirked. “The book or the name?”
Picking up on his laid-back vibe, I let out a chuckle and relaxed a bit. “Both. I’m Michael Coronado.”
Standing up and towering over me by a good five inches, he nodded in greeting. “Nice to meet you, Michael. I’m Joel Hopper.”
I smiled thinly, and briefly considered making up some excuse to get inside my apartment and away from this guy who was quite obviously my polar opposite. But something inside told me that it might do me good to get to know someone from the other side, and he seemed willing to oblige me. So I smiled more broadly and said, “Most people call me Mick.”
He grinned and said, “Then you should have written Mick on the inside of your book, Michael.”
I shook my head, chuckling lowly. I knew right then that I was doomed to be called Michael every time he would speak to me. And I was just about right. Then I noticed the scars on his arms and I froze up.
He noticed my alarm and shrugged, saying, “That’s nothing. I just get red some days. Call it God giving one man a menstrual cycle, if you will.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I smiled anyway. Wanting to know more about him, I invited him into my apartment to chat. Looking back, I don’t really regret it. I mean, it seems like I’ve been downing him, but the sad truth is that the whole time, he needed someone. And he must have known that no one else would look past his wild antics and desperate grasping for the spotlight to see the true Joel Hopper and offer the outlook on life that he couldn’t get on his own. Or at least, that’s what I thought for a while. My whole perspective changed in November.
The summer quarter went by and passed into fall. Most of the time I spent with Joel was either loitering at the mall or crashing weekend barbecues at the lake during his twitches. He’d be loud and obnoxious, and I’d be his foil, there to tug at his arm and try my damnedest to calm him down. He had a ball trying to embarrass me, trust me. And he quite often succeeded. Then during his red days, he’d not bother putting on the loud Hawaiians, he’d simply sit around in his plain tees and boxer shorts and ask me to read to him from my Poe collection so that we could have discussions about the works. My other friends were intelligent, but they weren’t inquisitive like Joel. He would hear these stories and would want to speculate different opinions with someone as to what may have inspired the different tales and poems. His favorite was “The Raven.”Sometimes even during his twitches, he’d make jokes involving that poem. Whenever someone would say a word that rhymed with “door,” and a moment of silence passed, he’d chirp up, “Quoth the raven, nevermore!” and draw laughter from everyone within hearing range. I hate that an intellect and thirst for knowledge that strong was wasted.
To tell you the truth, I really enjoyed those days. I didn’t have any friends like him. My other friends were more grounded, like me, but like I said, at the time I felt that it would be good for me to have someone different around. And this someone different was actually two different someones. And you know what they say, opposites attract.
I really got used to being around him in those three months. But then one day, I walked up to the third floor where he made his home, and found no answer upon knocking. There remained no answer for over a week, and naturally, seeing how he was bipolar, I feared the worst.
On the seventh day, I walked into the school’s administration office and asked about him. I was directed to the counselor’s office, where I was seated in a cushy violet leather chair. When I asked where Joel was, the counselor, a fat balding man named Cary Tanner, said that a week before, a young girl majoring in psychology noticed the scars on Joel’s arms. She had mentioned it to the school’s psychiatrist, who consulted Mr. and Mrs. Hopper. They were aware of their son’s “ups and downs,” but had never sought any sort of treatment. They simply thought it was his way of dealing with his peers. But after being told of how he had been cutting himself, his parents, along with the psychiatrist and an ambulance, came to his apartment. Naturally, he didn’t want
to go. He was happy with his twitch, he’d try to convince them that nothing was wrong. And honestly, even if he had been on one of his red days, I still don’t think he would have gone. He would have simply wanted to stay in his room and not bother anyone, content to read a book.
From what the counselor told me, the medics had strapped him to a gurney (which means it was during the twitch, if he was fighting) and hauled him to a behavioral clinic in an ambulance. His books and tests would be sent to him while there, that way his grades would not be affected. That was the theory anyway. So as I sat there talking to Tanner the counselor, I learned that Joel would be returning the next day, September 26.
He wasn’t the same after that. I don’t know everything they did to him, but they took something from him. He was prescribed four different kinds of pills, and the side effects were awful. He gained a good fifty pounds within two months. His chest and sides became saggy, and the double-chin was no longer slight. The goatee did little to hide it now. Tanner had been instructed by Joel’s psychiatrist to check in on him at the scheduled times to make sure that Joel took all of his pills. And as reluctant as I was, I also did as I was told; the counselor had me manage Joel’s pills if the two of us were going out somewhere and wouldn’t be at the apartment when the counselor came by.
I hated it. I was watching the one great thing in my ever-so-ordinary life deteriorate. There were no more twitches, no more red
days. He didn’t want to have a discussion about any of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems, not even“The Raven.” He didn’t even try to embarrass me in public anymore, mainly because he didn’t want to go out in public anymore. He stayed in his room, studied, and watched TV. And, of course, took his medicine. This continued until November 30.
I had just returned from Thanksgiving at my parents’ home, which was awkward enough, but I had no idea what awaited me back at my apartment. It was after two in the morning when I got back, and I immediately crashed onto my bed after that three-hour drive. Not one full minute goes by when I hear a pounding on my door. Needless to say, I knew it was Joel, but I didn’t know what the problem was. I thought maybe one of the side effects of the pills was driving him up a wall. Still weary from the drive, it took me a minute to get up, but there was no way I was going to leave him hanging, especially after the past couple of months.
Groggily, I walked to the door and opened it. And he stood there in one of his loud Hawaiians, grinning at me. “And did you have a happy Thanksgiving, Michael?”
I smiled. “How long’s it been since you’ve taken a pill?”
He smiled back. “My parents don’t wait for me to swallow like that jerk Tanner.”He then narrowed his eyes at me. “And you. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to turn me into one of your dull chess-playing buddies, Michael.”
I shook my head, still grinning. “And lose the only excitement in the whole school? No thank you.”
He chuckled, but then the humor left his face. “Tanner comes back tomorrow. He’ll be watching me like a hawk, and if I don’t take those pills, the shrink will most likely convince him to have me permanently removed from the school and shipped back to the nut farm. Come on, let’s go for a drive.”
I perked a brow, not liking his serious tone. “I just drove for over three hours. Where do you plan on going?”
Joel smiled again. “It’s my last night of being fun. Let’s go cow tippin’!”
I laughed heartily at this. “Cow tipping? In the city?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, goober. The only cows around here are the plastic ones on the Chick-Fil-A billboards. We need a good long drive, out to the country. You drive.”
I thought I understood his intentions. I thought this was going to be a road trip filled with bonding between two close friends before it was too late. I was only half-right.
He insisted on our taking his rusty black El Camino as opposed to my canary yellow Jeep, as his car wouldn’t be as easily seen from the road. I gave in easily. I might as well be honest: if we were caught breaking the law, I didn’t want my car involved. That’s the real reason I rolled over. If I hadn’t, perhaps Joel Hopper would still be alive today.
He was his usual boisterous self, telling me all about his escapades while I was gone, how he had flirted with the girls at the pizza place in new suave ways and how he taunted the mall security as he usually did. But I noticed that the further into the country we got, the lower his voice was, as if he was getting choked up about something. And that was definitely not like Joel. Not red Joel, not twitching Joel, not even the dull “stabilized” Joel. It was new, and it made me nervous. But what I failed to realized what the fact that he was the nervous one, and not because we were going cow tipping, which, according to Joel, is something he’d done hundreds of times.
Finally, when we were in the middle of nowhere, he licked his lips and asked, “What time is it?”
Resting my forearms on the steering wheel, I pressed the button on my Indiglo watch to see the time. And it all happened so quickly, I don’t even know where the hell the handcuffs came from. But even if they materialized out of thin air, the fact remains that he had them on me, both wrists. I looked from my hands to the stick shift back to him and said, “Man, this is so not funny. Get these things off of me right now.”
He took a deep breath and said, “Just wait.”
I moved my hands toward the gear shift, but then the car started veering to the right, toward a ditch. I quickly grabbed the wheel and secured our position on the road. “Are you crazy?!”
He gulped, licked his lips, and took another deep breath. “Yes. And apparently the world has a problem with it.”
“That’s no reason to cuff me in here! Dude, shift it to neutral so I can stop!” I pumped the brakes, but that’s when he stuck his foot over mine and hit the accelerator. “Joel! Stop it; you’ll get us both killed!”
He sighed. “That’s not what I want, Michael. I just want you to know why. And this was the only way I could think of to make you
I kicked him hard in the shin so that he’d let off the gas, and I hit the brakes again. But while I was occupied with my feet, he reached over my hands and switched off the headlights. I screamed, “Jesus! What is it you’re trying to prove?”
As I leaned forward to turn the lights back on, he hit the gas again and leaned to the right so that his leg was in a position I could not trample out of place. If I tried to switch the gears into neutral, I’d lose control of the steering, and if I didn’t slow us down, we’d speed off the road and most likely into death. And then I understood. With two hands, all is safe; with only one, chaos.
Joel looked at me and his eyes lightened. He nodded. “You get it now, don’t you? You see what they’ve done to me. I was two parts of a whole. I had my twitches and they were great. And then on my red days I got my rest and put no one in any immediate danger. And then they took me to that damned hospital and doped me up to turn me into one being that didn’t feel good, yet didn’t feel bad. So I feel nothing. Do you understand that, Michael? I feel nothing.” He chuckled bitterly, tears rolling down his cheeks. “And the doctor says that’s a good thing! He says that’s ‘stable.’ I’ve been going back and forth for so long now that I’d much rather feel bad, like killing myself, than to feel nothing at all.”
Also with tears, I shouted, “But this is no answer. There are other kinds of therapy.”
“I don’t need therapy. I need my twitch and I need my red days, and those Fascists took it from me. My parents, the school, the doctors. You’re the only one that ever understood. That’s why I had to do this. I’m sorry, but I hope you can someday come to forgive me and take it for what I’d intended it to be.”
I would later regret it, but I selfishly decided to play the sympathy card. “What about me? What if I don’t want you to take me with you?”
He grabbed the shift stick and pushed it back to neutral, then took his foot off of the accelerator. “I never intended to, Mick.”
Mick. When he called me that for the first and last time of our seven-month friendship, I knew he was serious. He was going to die tonight.
He reached over and opened my door. “Go on.” Once I was standing in the middle of the road, he slid over into the driver’s seat and tossed me a small key-ring.“Make me a promise?”
I took off my glasses to wipe off a few tears, then nodded. “Anything.”
“Use those handcuffs after my funeral. Explain it to my father in the exact same way.”
After my funeral, he said. I hated it, but there was nothing I could do about it. He wasn’t himself anymore, and he wanted to kill this new being that was wearing Joel Hopper’s skin. I nodded. “I promise.”
He nodded back. “Thank you.”
I smiled thinly. “What are friends for?”
He laughed. “I’ve been a real lousy friend, that’s for sure. Take those cuffs off and flag down a car. There’s a copper mine about five miles down this road. That’s where this car is going over. So the police will know where to find me.”
I nodded. “Give my regards to Edgar on the other side.”
He smiled. “You got it.”
And with that, he shifted gears and peeled rubber from the tires as he sped off toward the copper mine. An hour passed before a car came by, but I didn’t mind. I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to stop crying.
I did keep my promise, in my own way. I gave Mr. Hopper the handcuffs and told him the story, though I didn’t force him to drive one-handed in a car designed for two just so he would learn. That entire situation of constraint is something no one should go through; not Joel, not me nor his father, no one. I think he understood the depth of his son’s spirit well enough just by hearing the story.
By writing this account, I’m extending that promise I made to him. Because not only does his father know, but now everyone who reads this knows what happened inside Joel Hopper, a man born both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde who felt that he was forced against his will into solely becoming mild-mannered Henry Jekyll.
Speaking of which, after the funeral, Cary Tanner paid me a visit. He told me that suicide was not the only answer to Joel’s problem. That pissed me off in the worst possible way. I had understood Joel’s reasons for wanting to die, and now a man who had played a part in Joel’s taming was telling me it was for nothing? I shouted and sent him away (I believe I actually told him to go fuck himself). In spite of the anger I felt then, now I know that he was right. Joel could have kept fighting his demons, but he was content to play one last crazy trick on both me and his family. I guess when you’re sick for that long, you don’t see the sensible treatment options.
I think Ozzy Osbourne is credited with originating the quote, “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” After having
known Joel Hopper, I wonder which is worse: losing your mind, or being used to living without it and suddenly getting it back? I honestly hope I never have to find out about either.