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it's just medicine

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He’s felt like this before.

This directionless, empty ache. He’d just been kind of hoping he’d be past it by now—that getting into business school would somehow jolt his life onto a track full of success and his parents’ approval and maybe lifelong happiness, though that was a stretch. In a way, it had. But in another way, there was still this directionless, empty ache.

Sometimes, it feels like he’s falling, and he can’t stop.

He sits in a diner on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri, with his car loaded up full of whatever he can carry to take back to his lackluster apartment with three unbearable roommates in Chicago, Illinois, and feels like his world is caving in around him. He sucks down black coffee in a stained mug and pokes at a plate of waffles he knows he won’t finish.

He’s felt like this before.

***

He’s seventeen. Figure out your life! They all say. How is he supposed to do that with a handful of disjointed interests and a family breathing down his neck to succeed, succeed, succeed?

He’s seventeen and he’s depressed. That’s the word, isn’t it? He decides on English, though he doesn’t know what he’ll do with it and he only picked it out of the vague sort of appeal he convinces himself fuels every student’s inevitable, life-altering choice of what to do with their lives.

He starts college on an antidepressant and with the weight of his parents’ expectations heavy on his shoulders like rocks.

***

He pays his bill and leaves behind a half-eaten plate and a mug with the few black dregs of coffee left behind to add to the stains and cracks in the surface.

In his car, his fingers grip the steering wheel, white knuckled, and he decides on a whim he’s not going back to business school, not going back to that stifling apartment and those onerous classes and the heavy eyes of his parents, whom he loves so much but can’t help but feel with every day he’s letting down, someway, somehow.

Out of the corner of his eye flashes the whiteness of a cloud, a blue backdrop. Start your career at Cloud 9 today!

He gets out of his car and pulls out his phone and sets the address into his GPS.

Then he gets back in and drives.

***

He’s twenty and he has a problem. A big, nagging problem that really, he won’t admit to.

His eyes flash with unbridled energy, his body vibrates with untapped potential. He can see everything and nothing and it’s beautiful, all so beautiful.

He gambles, and drinks, and gambles, and drinks, until one day he gambles too much and drinks too much and he ends up too in debt to know what to do.

He calls his brother. They sell the Camry. He pays off the debt.

His brother calls their parents. They say, “You need help!”

Maybe he does.

***

His first day at Cloud 9, he feels a sort of relief he didn’t know possible.

His parents think he’s at medical school. He’s fine with that. They think he’s dating Natalie Portman, too. That one, he hadn’t intended.

Cloud 9 is a fluorescent haven in the darkest depths of his mind, a fresh start, and with his business school days planted firmly behind him he decides with a new kind of clarity that he can be happy here. He will be happy here.

And he plasters glowing stars on the ceiling just to see the woman who wore the name Ramona across her blue vest smile in the same way.

***

“You’re bipolar,” they say, and his parents watch him like two hawks of prey and pay for his medications and he digs himself out of the hole he’d found himself in and graduates. That starts another aimless, wandering litany of poor choices that leads him to business school.

His parents sing their praises, how he’d overcome.

He feels in his heart this isn’t what he wants.

***

When his parents rocket back into his life, all on one unsuspecting Thursday at the place he’s worked for almost three years, the place he’s lied about working at for almost three years, it’s like getting jolted back into the ice-cold depths of his old reality.

When he tells them the truth, they wail in the middle of the store like they’ve been told he’s been dead for three years instead, communicating to them via a Ouija board and a translator with his old Apple iPhone.

Later, in the car, in that stifling silence, his mother leans back from the passenger side and tangles her hand with his, her eyes full of that smothering concern.

Do you need to see a doctor?

***

It takes time, time to explain, and his parents leave not entirely satisfied he’s not in the grips of a major episode or suffering from delusions or even on the brink of a catastrophic meltdown. But they leave.

He shows up at Amy’s with a bottle of wine and a box of Italian food and decides with a sickening certainty he’ll tell her today.

He’s been hiding it, sure, as much as he’s been hiding the rest of his past, the ups, the downs, letting everyone piece together their own versions of his backstory, all rose-tinted and pretty and better than anything he could ever put together himself.

But he tells her, he does, as they’re sitting in her living room with an episode of mindless television playing over the light sounds of their chewing and occasional, offhand comments.

“I’m bipolar.”

It slips out from his tongue like he’d meant for it to, which he hadn’t, not yet, at least. He clears his throat, and pushes his glass of wine to the center of her coffee table, surprised at himself.

“My parents, they, I guess they—you know, they’ve always had these expectations, but then I got diagnosed, and it was all about overcoming, and I guess—when we were in the car, they asked if I needed help. Like I’m—like all this is just because of my brain chemistry.”

She seems shocked into silence, but she chokes out his name. “Jonah—”

“They’re just—they’re worried, you know? I should have told them sooner. Now they think I’m going to ride off and gamble everything away. Not that I have much to, you know, gamble away anymore. They don’t understand how I could be happy here, not off—aweing the world, graduating business school in the face of adversity. I guess I just—”

He breaks off as her lips collide with his, gentle, tender, and she rakes a hand through the back of his hair. When he pulls back it’s to look at her lips, at Amy’s lips.

He feels like he couldn’t be luckier.

“You didn’t have to tell me.”

“No, I wanted to.”

“Would you have told me if your parents hadn’t come?”

He takes a moment. Ponders it over, and squeezes her hand with his.

“I would have. I trust you.”

She smiles.

And he tells her everything.