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It was Valentine's Day, but fortunately, this year, I was going to do something fun. A business opportunity suddenly presented itself and I was off to sunny California. Finally, I'd be leaving my loneliness behind and forgetting about my ex-girlfriend by taking a trip to the West Coast. I haven't been there in ages and I was excited. Instead of hanging around my apartment, missing my ex-girlfriend and feeling sorry for myself, I was going to do something positive this Valentine's Day, even if it meant I'd be doing it alone, again.
Who knows, maybe I'll meet someone on the plane or after I arrived there. I was tired of watching this neighbor pickup his girlfriend with a limousine to whisk her off to dinner or watching that neighbor greet his girlfriend with flowers and candy. Then, when Valentine's Day was over, I'd have to relive my loneliness by listening to all my friends and relatives ask me what I did for Valentine's Day before excitedly telling me what they did, what presents they gave, and what gifts they received. It was depressing. I hate how I feel so alone when I'm not with someone to share my life, especially on Valentine's Day. It was time that I got up off the couch and took control of my life again.
As excited as I was about flying to California, I was more excited about making some money with my business. Only, my business trip ended abruptly earlier than anticipated, when the principal investor, who was to attend my meeting, had taken ill. Alone with my bad self, suddenly, I was depressed again. I couldn't leave my loneliness behind. I couldn't run from it. It had followed me and now, it was here with me in Los Angeles. I don't know which is worse, being alone and lonely in New York on Valentine's Day or being alone and lonely in Los Angeles on Valentine's Day.
I was going to return to New York until the familiar sights and sounds of Park Avenue, Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, and Central Park suddenly chilled me to the bone with boredom. An exciting city to experience when sharing my life with someone, it is sad to walk the city streets alone while watching other couples having fun. Instead of returning home, I figured, what the Hell, I'm here. I'll rent a car and see some of the sights. It was a nice driving the busy freeways of California instead of negotiating the gridlocked streets of New York.
After buying a map and taking the celebrity home tour and quickly becoming lost in Bel Air, Beverly Hills, and Hollywood Hills, and not seeing anything more than high, locked gates and no trespassing signs, I decided to drive north. I was fortunate enough to have the time to make a visit to wine country in Napa Valley, California. Even though it was quite a distance from LA, 360 miles to be exact, the trip was worth it and I recommend it to anyone who loves wine.
You don't have to love wine or to be with someone special to have a good time touring the vineyards, even though it would have been more fun had I had someone to share the experience. The people who toured the vineyards with me were friendly and I had a great time. On the way there, I took the coastal route north and enjoyed the view of the Pacific Ocean most of the trip. Looking out at the ocean as I drove was relaxing and both my ex-girlfriend and Valentine's Day were distant memories.
I stayed at a beautiful place, a quaint little inn along a winding country road. Only, especially on this special day of days for lovers, the charming accommodations made me wish I had someone with me to share it. All of the guests staying at the inn were couples and the inn was decorated accordingly with Valentine's Day colors of red and white. Even my room had Valentine's chocolates and red and white carnations. I ate the chocolates and dumped the flowers.
There'd be no way that I'd be going downstairs for dinner later. I'll buy a couple nice bottles from the vineyard and order up room service. Celebrating Valentine's Day alone here should be better than celebrating Valentine's Day alone at home. I'll make my own memories and maybe one day, I'll have someone to share this memory with by telling her about the time I toured wine country. Who knows, maybe I'll revisit this place with my special someone, one day.
They gave me a map of the vineyards and directed me where to go to receive the best experience in the shortest amount of time. I had a great time and with every sip of wine, I felt more relaxed. Some of the wines I tasted were on par with some of the best from France and Italy. Only, every time I drove from where I was staying and back again that evening, I couldn't help but notice three very large brick chimneys in the distance. It's funny how, because I was so enjoying the beautiful countryside that I hadn't noticed them at first. Now, they intruded upon my scenic view and much like a very tall person standing in a crowd of very short people, I couldn't help but focus on them while wondering what they were.
It was odd to see such a large building commanding the skyline of this beautiful countryside landscape. It didn't belong. About a mile away, the building was situated atop a high hill. If it loomed this large from a distance, I couldn't imagine how big it must be up close. It was a haunting sight that made me curious enough to want to learn more about it. Actually, all that I could see of it was the roof and part of the top floor. The roof, once copper, now showed its age with a weathered green patina. It was obvious that it was an old building built, probably, in the late 1800's.
"What is that building in the distance," I asked the person at the front desk of the inn.
"Mama Mia. Loco, mucho loco." he said making the sign of the cross. "We don't talk of it," he said. "The patients have taken over the asylum."
"It was once a state mental hospital," said an elderly gentleman sitting with his wife on the couch in the front parlor. "Then, when Governor Schwarzenegger took office, slashed the budget, and the state could no longer afford to keep so many of these places operational, they sold the building to a private party, a rich psychiatrist, who is said to be as crazy as his patients. No one goes up there. No one knows what goes on there, but from the screams sometimes heard in the distance, it's not good."
Now, my curiosity was peaked. I had just started writing for Writerotica and needed inspiration for a good story. Certainly, a mental hospital that was now a private sanitarium would have plenty of stories to tell. I wondered if they'd let me interview some of the patients, the non-violent ones, of course.
The next morning, I drove the steep hill to the hospital. The view from up here was incredible. I could see the entire valley. I wished I had taken my camera, but I left it in my room. No doubt, having such a beautiful view of the valley every day would help cure those who were patients of this hospital.
Once at the top of the hill, my first thought was that there was no security. The front gate was rusted wide open. The grounds and building were in disrepair and judging by the few vehicles in the parking lot, there weren't enough employees to staff such a large building. Even with the Valentine's Day decorations that dotted some of the windows, I had a foreboding feeling of uneasiness and felt as if someone was watching me.
Hotel California by the Eagles was eerily playing in the background on my car radio as I neared and after seeing the building close up; I couldn't help but make the connection.
"On a dark deserted highway...I saw a shimmering light...I had to stop for the night...this could be Heaven and this could be Hell...there were voices in the corridor, I thought I heard them say...Welcome to the Hotel to California ...such a lovely place...and still those voices are calling from far away, wake you up in the middle of the night, just to hear them say...Welcome to the site of Writerotica...Happy Valentine's Day. Last thing I remember, I was running for the door. I had to find the passage back to the place I was before. Relax said the night man, we are programmed to receive. You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave!"
The last line of their song, "You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave," stayed with me. It was a haunting line. I imagined all those patients who were signed in by a relative, who came here against their will, and who were never allowed to see the outside of this building again. By the appearance of the grounds, I imagined no one coming to see them.
If I thought I was alone and lonely on Valentine's Day, after breaking up with my girlfriend, I couldn't imagine being locked up here. How awful was that? I couldn't imagine being locked up day after day. Certainly, being kept in a mental hospital is worse than being in prison. I should have a problem, I thought. Isn't it funny how someone else's sad little life, when it is worse than yours, can sometimes make you feel better about your sad little life?
I parked my car in the guest parking space by the front of the building, walked to the front entrance, and opened the door. Gees, even here, a Happy Valentine's Banner decorated with red and white balloons greeted me, as I climbed the dirty stairs. If I wasn't depressed before, I was depressed now being reminded how alone and lonely I was at Valentine's Day. An older, albeit still beautiful, blonde woman of fading beauty, resplendent in a starched, white uniform, walked around from her desk and met me by the front door.
I was so lonely that I wondered why she was doing tonight. I imagined asking her back to my room at the inn and polishing off the bottles of wine I bought at the vineyard today. I could always return there tomorrow to replenish my supply of wine. Only, as I got a better look at her, she looked better from a distance...of about a quarter mile.
Her hair was matted to one side of her head. It looked as if she had slept on it after applying too much hairspray and didn't take the time to brush it out. She was wearing a bit too much red rouge and her lipstick was smeared a bit above her lip. All she needed was a big bow in her hair to remind me of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. From a distance, she could have passed for someone in her fifties but, upon closer examination, she was probably in her seventies. Her nametag read, Flaurel. It was an uncommon enough name to make me wonder if it was just a coincidence.
"Are you here to see someone," she said with a smile that showed a bit of lipstick on her teeth.
"Actually, no, I'm here from New York enjoying a mini-vacation after my business plans fell through. I was just curious what this place was," I said. Nervously uncomfortable, when she stared behind me without responding, I turned to see what she was staring at, but there was no one there. Feeling pressured to say more, I turned back to her and smiled. "I'm staying at the inn down the road and every time I drive to and from my inn, I notice your chimneys. I couldn't help but wonder what this place is," I said with an uncomfortable laugh.
She stared behind me again without saying anything. It was unnerving. Then, she started chattering in a loud voice. Much in the way of a demented teacher who has taught children all of her life and who sometimes reverts to acting like a child when she is dealing with adults in the real world, I figured she's been around these patients too long. Then, I wondered if lunacy was contagious. I took a step back, just in case it was.
"Yes, well, we are MHEOW," she said lifting her hand and swiping the air with it in the way that a cat would meow and swipe at someone or something. I couldn't help but think her behavior was more than a bit odd.
"MHEOW? What does that mean?" Again, when she stared behind me and didn't answer my question, I felt pressured to elaborate. "Does that stand for something? Is that an acronym for something?"
When she just stood there and stared at me without answering my questions, I suddenly had the feeling to just leave. And in hindsight, I should have, had I known what this place was and what was to happen to me in the immediate future.
"We are a mental health establishment for older writers, MHEOW," she said again and again motioning another swipe with her hand. Her delayed responses and mannerisms were disconcerting to say the least and, by her behavior, I wondered if she possessed all her faculties.
"Really." Hey why not, this was California after all. I heard they have a nursing home for retired actors, so why not a mental institution for crazy, old writers. "So, you only care for crazy, old writers," I said with another nervous laugh. "This place must be jammed to capacity," I said with another laugh expecting her to laugh at my joke with me, but she didn't. She just stared. Gees, stop frigging staring, I wanted to say.
"Well," finally, she said with a chuckle. "We don't refer to the writers as old and/or crazy. And if you want my advice," she said looking over her shoulder before returning her attention back to me. "I wouldn't call any of them old and crazy to their faces. It makes the old writers a bit crazy when someone does that."
"Sorry, I meant no offense."
"I'd be happy to give you a tour of the facilities," said a dignified and stocky appearing man wearing a long, white coat, sporting a full beard, and wearing glasses."
"Oh," said Flaurel turning to acknowledge the man standing behind her. "This is Dr. Chartreuse, one of our patients—"
The doctor took me by the arm and whisked me away before Flaurel could protest.
"Pardon me, Doctor Chartreuse, but did Flaurel say that you are a patient?"
"Patient? Don't be ridiculous. That's silly. Patron, she said patron, no doubt, as I am a patient patron of this facility to give it so much of my time, money, and effort. Actually, Flaurel is the one who is a patient here," he said touching my arm. "She thinks she runs the place, but I do. I allow her to play dress up in her white uniform. Truly, there's no harm in that. Besides, she's a good influence over the rest of the inmates, especially when they've been bad and it's time to spank them."
"Spank them? Okay, whatever. I see, I think. So from what Flaurel said, this place cares for emotionally disturbed senior writers?"
"Yes, that's a more delicate way of putting it," he said looking at me. "I like that," he said with a smile, "and I like you."
"Thank you, I think. So, tell me, why a mental health establishment for older writers?"
"I do it for those who have unselfishly given so much of themselves with their words and their work," he said bowing his head and putting a hand to his heart before wiping a non-existent tear from his eye. "It gratifies me that I can give something back to them, if only in the form of good mental health care," he said with a sniff before removing a crusty, old handkerchief from his back pocket and blowing hard enough to wake the dead.
"I see. It's cold in here," I said wrapping my arms around myself and shivering.
"I'll have Manual turn up the heat," he said walking to a door marked boiler room, opening it, and calling down to someone. "Manu, crank it up! Hey, Manu, turn up the heat. God, damn it! Where is that man? No one ever sees or hears from him. He disappears all the time. Manu! It's almost as if he doesn't exist. Manu!"
"Sorry, boss, I had to rewire the program, but I fixed it. You'll have plenty of heat now," replied a faint voice from below.
"I'm sorry, but you have the advantage over me," said the good doctor extending his hand.
"Oh, sorry, I'm Paul, Paul Thomas. My friends tease me by calling me PT because I'm a positive thinker."
"Positive thinker, eh," said the doctor taking my hand and shaking it. "Tell me, do you write?"
"Write? You mean stories and such?"
"Yes," he said eying me in the way that only a psychiatrist would note my every word.
"No, not really, I'm more of a reader than a writer, although I have written a few pornographic, I mean, stories of erotic literature for a site called Writerotica. Have you ever heard of it?"
"Writerotica, yes, I think I may have heard of that site," he said with a sly smile and pulling out a small pad and pen from his breast pocket and making a note and then closing it and pocketing them.
Suddenly, he reminded me of comedian David Steinberg when he played a crazy psychiatrist in a comedy skit that he did years ago. In the skit when he greeted a new patient to his office, there were three chairs in front of his desk.
"Have a seat, any seat. It doesn't matter which one."
"Ah," he'd say as soon as the person was about to sit in a selected chair. Immediately, the person jumped up from the seat and chose another chair and he'd say, "Aha!" Finally, the person picked the third chair and he'd shake his head saying, "Tsk, tsk, tsk."
"I don't know which chair you want me to take, Doctor," the person finally said in exasperation.
"Just have a seat, any seat. It doesn't matter which chair you select."
And as soon as the person relaxed enough to chose a chair, David Steinberg started his routine all over again. You had to be there. It was funny to see.
"What was that," I said pointing to his pocket.
"What was what?"
"That," I said pointing again. "You took out your pad of paper and made a note of when I said that I've written a few stories for Writerotica."
"Oh, that. That's nothing. Don't be so paranoid, Paul. For someone who thinks positively, you appear a bit tense." He put a fatherly hand on my shoulder. "Take a breath and relax. Now, stick out your tongue and say...ah."
It was then that I wondered if the good doctor was really a doctor or one of the patients here.
"I noticed there weren't many cars in the parking lot and with no homes in the immediate vicinity, it's too far for employees to walk here. I didn't see a sign for a bus stop either," I said.
"Most of the staff has left for the day. We only have a skeleton crew in the evening hours when patients are sleeping."
"Sorry, this place gives me the creeps," I said taking a breath and looking at him. "Why writers? Why do you care for only mentally disturbed writers, as opposed to mentally disturbed musicians and mentally disturbed artists?"
"Well, writers hold a special place in my heart," he said with a wry smile. "As an avid reader, I've always been a good student, so to speak, of their talent. Much like you, Paul, I'm more of a reader than I am a writer. Yet, when you think about it, as I often have, anyone who spends hours at a time, day after day, week after week, and month after month, in total solitude writing stories is a bit crazy. Don't you think? Hmm..."
When he said Hmm...like that, he leaned in and loomed over me, as if he was personally analyzing me. He made me feel uncomfortable by his stare. He made me feel defensive with his Hmm... and I felt pressured to respond to his silent inquiry.
"Yes, I imagine that would be reason for some who were of a mind to go mad. Yet, by reading their impressive works, many writers have demonstrated not only great sanity but also great insight into the human psyche."
"Really," said the doctor with a jaundiced eye. "Perhaps, you could enlighten me with a few names of the more famous."
"Certainly, Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton, James Joyce, O. Henry, Sara Teasdale, Theodore Roethke, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Truman Copote, and Sinclair Lewis."
"Well, I see without realizing it, you've proven my point, as every writer on your list were either an alcoholic, addicted to drugs, and/or committed suicide."
"Seriously? I mean, I knew that about Poe, Hemingway, and Copote, but I didn't know that about all the others."