“This is your last chance.” That’s what the wife told me when she made me this appointment, and you know what? I believe it. Usually when someone tells you that something’s your last chance they’re lying through their teeth. This is your last chance to get in on this magnificent condo, your last chance to party before you start your new job and you’re an old man. You’d better clean your room Timmy; this is your last chance. All that’s bullshit. The frustrating thing about life is that it’s full of chances, usually meaning chances to do nothing because you tell yourself you’ll get ‘em next time.
This isn’t one of those times. Rebecca’s right, this is my last chance. I’ve been to literally (and yes I mean literally) every therapist in the city except one. I’m sorry to say that I burned those bridges pretty good too. I’m not the easiest person to work with, as Becks would be all too happy to tell you. I mean, I suppose some new shrinks could pop up or I could move and then technically, yes, that would constitute a new chance but come on, don’t be a dick about it.
I’ve got a condition. Don’t worry it’s not contagious. I’m not gonna go patient zero all over Eugene or anything like that. I’m happy to report that my relationship with monkeys has always been strictly platonic. I have a fear of heights. Acrophobia is the technical term but my case is a little different.
A few months back I was working a job; I do construction by the way. Me and my crew were building a new addition to the gym for the university. It was a real good gig actually. When you work in the private sector, you never know when the money might dry up or the landowners might get cold feet and you’d be out of a job. The school’s always growing, they pay on time and best of all, they handle the paperwork. As for the job itself, I don’t know if you know much about Oregon but it rains here, a lot. Between that and the school’s timetable, construction always goes down in summer. Now we’re used to that and, to a certain degree, we’re used to the heat too but this year was different. Three straight weeks of upper hundred degree days. I was raised here man. I wear shorts when it hits sixty. We tried to start earlier but it was hot at night too so we were sweating buckets by 9 a.m.
I’m not here to make excuses. We should have been more careful. We should have checked, triple checked and fucking quintuple checked every goddamn beam we put in that building. I wasn’t the foreman but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t of known better. I was putting a second coat of paint on the outside when the building collapsed under it’s own weight, leaving me stranded on a scaffold until the fire department showed up with a cherry picker. In the end we were lucky it collapsed when it did. It could have gone down with a few dozen students inside. As it was, there was only one casualty. A kid named Jenny who was on the student council that got to decorate the walls. She was a business major but she had a flair for painting and took classes she didn’t need for her degree. She didn’t have a boyfriend but there was a guy she liked in the theater department. At the funeral, her roommate told us about her plan to paint sets in summer dresses until he noticed her. She liked the way flowers looked but didn’t like the smell. Her favorite food was eclairs.
So now you’re wondering, what does this depressing shit have to do with me being scared of heights? Hold on to your britches, I’m getting there. You see I’m not exactly scared of heights. I’m fine on a mountaintop or a rickety ladder but I can’t go on the second floor of any building without having a crippling panic attack. That would be a problem for anyone but I’ve spent my whole life in construction. Do you know what a construction worker who can’t climb a flight of stairs is good for? Fuck all, that’s what. This appointment is me giving one last shot at fixing myself.
I park my truck right our front in the two hour. The building’s painted a vibrant purple. It shares walls with a bakery on one side and a feed store on the other. The front door has a piece of paper taped to it that reads,
“Brighter Days Therapy
Cynthia Monroe, Ma.”
Out of curiosity I lift the sheet of paper to find that it was covering a bronze plaque that said Mitchell and Dern, Attorneys at Law. I shrug my shoulders and walk inside, thinking she probably just bought the building and probably hasn’t had time to replace the sign yet. Maybe we can even make a work for work kind of deal. Lord knows I can stand to hang onto the money.
The Lobby’s air-conditioned. The smell of Freon mingles with that burnt odor that tells you it was recently vacuumed. A young woman sits behind a stainless steel counter, painting her nails electric blue. She’s wearing a silky turquoise blouse that gives just the vaguest hint of cleavage. A polished gold locket draws the eye to it.
“Can I help you with something?” she asks.
“Um yeah, I have an appointment with Dr. Monroe. My name’s Mark.”
“It’s just Ms. Monroe. She’s got a masters, not a doctorate.”
“Fine, I have an appointment with Ms. Monroe then.”
“Go ahead and let yourself upstairs Mark.” She points to a rubber-laminated
stairwell that runs along the right wall.
“I can’t,” I say, a little annoyed. I know for a fact that Becks told them about my situation. I was standing right next to her when she made the call. “That’s part of my condition. I can’t go upstairs.”
The woman behind the counter screws the lid back onto her little bottle of nail polish and looks me up and down.
“You walked in here fine, I’m sure your legs will carry you the rest of the way.”
“Are you fucking deaf? I just said I can’t. That’s why I’m here.”
The woman stood up, she was taller than I expected. Long legs stretched from a pencil skirt that didn’t quite reach her knees.
“There’s no call for you to be rude,” she said.
That really got my blood boiling. I might have mentioned that I’m not always the easiest to get along with but nothing gets under my skin like a woman accusing me of being unreasonable when I know damn well that I’m in the right. Becks does it sometimes when she’s trying to get my goat and she knows she’s doing it when she does it, they all do.
“Listen you… miss. I need to see Monroe. I have an appointment, on the books and everything, Mark Lynch, but I can’t go up those stairs. Would you please go up there and tell her that I’m here, or do your nails need another coat?”
She looks at me the way you’d look at a waiter who just sneezed on your dinner, staring, mouth open and crinkle nosed. Then she picks up her bag and heads toward the door.
“I’m going on my lunch break,” she says. “Good luck with your appointment.”
The door clinks shut behind her, leaving me alone in the lobby. Have you ever been alone in an office building? It’s an eerie sort of feeling, like trespassing, like any second someone’s gonna walk through the door and you’re gonna get in trouble just for being there. The stairs sneer from the corner like jagged teeth.
Slowly, I grip the handrail with a sweaty palm and take the first step. Even with the other foot firmly on the ground I can feel the hollowness of it. I close my eyes and take another step, and then another. It’s like walking on air with nothing beneath your feet. Have you ever had that dream where you can fly and then all of a sudden you stop being able to fly and go plummeting to your death? It feels like the split second between flying and falling where you’re just kind of there.
In a moment of what I can only describe as fierce personal stupidity, I open my eyes to se how far I’ve made it. The ground appears miles below. A bout of vertigo sends me clinging the banister, attached to the loose drywall with half-inch screws that I wouldn’t trust to hang a painting. The steps are thin shells like the candy coating of an M&M but without the structural support of the chocolate. The slightest shift in my weight will fracture them, sending me hurtling into the concrete. I’m three steps away from the top.
Still clinging to the wall, I place my foot on the next step. Then, bracing myself like an Olympic gymnast going for the gold, I throw myself onto the landing. It creaks…
I can feel the… bones… of the building. Rotten wooden boards masked in carpet… termite ridden beams… lashed together with corroded… joints and rusty nails… all settled in the mud, sinking and shifting… leaning.
It’s a long moment before I realize that I’m not breathing. The edges of my vision blur. My chest is tight. It doesn’t want to let the air in. I collapse on my stomach arms spread out like a skydiver mid fall. I try to focus on slow, deep breaths like I was taught but it comes in tight pants. The carpet smells like shampoo and cat dander.
Someone pushes me onto my side. I blink the water out of my eyes until I can see who it is, the receptionist from downstairs. She’s crouched beside me digging through her purse. Her skirt’s ridden up so I can see her upper thigh. It’s a little stubbly.
“Here,” she says holding a white pill in her hand. “Take this. If you can’t swallow it just let it dissolve in your mouth. It’ll taste terrible but it’s better than choking.”
I swallow the pill and we sit there for a minute waiting for it to kick in. Slowly, so slowly you almost wouldn’t notice, the vice on my chest loosens. Bigger and bigger rushes of air come back giving me a tingling in my fingers.
“Why’d you come back?” I asked. “Not hungry after all?”
She gives a small smile. “No, just thought I’d make sure you made it up the stairs.”
“I suppose I deserve that,” she says.
“Damn right you do. Where’s Dr. Monroe?”
Her smile fades into a guilty grimace. “Promise not to be mad?”
My chest started to seize up again. “She isn’t here is she?”
“Oh no, she’s here. She’s me. I’m Cynthia Monroe and also, not a doctor as I mentioned before. I’m not even supposed to be giving out medication so I’d appreciate it if we’d keep that little pill between us.”
“You’re Monroe? You’re my therapist? What the hell lady? You think this is funny?”
“No, it isn’t funny at all. This is part of your treatment.”
“What, did you think I just needed to power though and get up here? There we go! All fuckin’ cured!”
“That’s part of it. Come on, get up. I have something to show you.”
“No way in hell I’m going anywhere with you. I’m leaving.”
“That’s fine but I suggest you take the path back down.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Come here,” she repeats standing up.
I get to my feet. The pill’s helping a lot but my legs are still shaking like it’s my first night on a cruse ship. I’m acutely aware of how much empty air there is between me and the ground but I try not to focus on it. Monroe leads me past an office door with frosted letters spelling the name Paul Mitchell, LLM. Around the corner is a big window letting in a warm wave of natural light. It overlooks a small garden, with trees growing out of the firm ground not three feet below it’s sill.
“What is this?” I ask.
“This building is built into a hill,” Monroe says. “You can’t see it from the front but there is no second floor here. At least, not one that rests over the first floor. This isn’t even my office. It’s my lawyers. He let me use it since he’s closed on weekends. I gave your wife this address because I felt like it might help you to see it.”
“How’s tricking me supposed to help?” I ask, looking at the cobble stoned path leading around the side of the buildings back toward the street.
“You needed to see that the paranoia you experience climbing stairs is entirely in your head. I’ve read your files; your wife had them sent to me. That emptiness you felt, it wasn’t real.”
“Not this time.”
“No, it never is. We have just proven that this is an irrational fear Mike but I think you already knew that?”
I’m starting to get angry again. “Of course I did, stupid me. Should have just realized it’s not normal to be scared of stairs. All cured now. Thanks for the memories.”
“I think you’re holding onto this because you feel guilty. You know your fear is irrational. You’re holding onto it because you think you need to be punished.”
“The fuck do you know about it?”
“Like I said Mike, I read your file. Feel free to take the path down today and give Rebecca my best. We’ll meet here again, same time next week.”