JACK AND EILEEN
“Their names were Jack and Eileen,” I tell the confused lady on the phone. I feel silly just saying this. Here I am asking a woman from millennial post-Obama America to remember who populated my golden 90’s childhood.
“I’m going to need more than just first names,” She says, “Because it sounds like this program was a summer program that was temporary. When was this again?”
“from ’94 I would say to ’97.” I tell her, feeling even more sheepish.
“And what was your brother’s condition?”
“He had brain damage because of a medical mistake when he was a baby, which affected the communication part of his brain…”
I’ve never known his condition to have a name. This was the best I could do.
“These two people, Jack and Eileen, were the therapists who worked with him.” I elaborate.
“May I ask why you’re looking to contact them?”
Why am I looking to contact them?
“I’m hoping to reach out to them and see if they would be interested to skype with him. I’m just trying to make his day, I guess.”
I knew it was more than that. But I could not yet tell what exactly I was looking for.
“Yeah, I’m sorry.” She says, “I’m trying to help you but I need surnames.”
Children sleep so well. The darkness is so complete and comes in one sweet chunk. But sometimes it’s interrupted.
“Mahmoud! Mahmoud!” she wailed, calling me back from sleep into a nightmare.
She was bending over him where he lay on the mattress, like the Madonna over her child, calling his name with the desperate brokenness of all the mothers in the world. His eyes were rolling back in his head. Blood was staining his lips because of his bitten tongue. A chilling visitor was coming to take over his body.
911. Paramedics storming in.
Mahmoud walking alongside my father in a parking lot. His legs begin to melt into the ground, his gait skewed. His body lying back on the hood of someone’s car. His t-shirt was red. Or maybe it was the car that was red. I think it was the t-shirt.
“Mahmoud! Mahmoud!” my father cries.
911. The ambulance streaking through the python-highways of LA, cutting through the night with its austere red light.
This is the word “seizure” written in Arabic letters.
“What happened to Mahmoud?” I asked my father. He was a doctor. He knew everything.
He described something to me called “سيجر”. I saw it like that in Arabic letters. It came with a ghostly chill because it was the word that took my brother. It was gray and crept like the hairy legs of a spider.
In my film Don’t Go Too Far, for the scene where the character has a seizure, I described my response to the word to Brandon Trapizona, our composer. The sound he brilliantly created for it was tinny, almost imperceptible, like invisible filaments of steel stretching, creaking as they reached across for you.
I find a lead. Paul. Mahmoud’s art therapist from back then. That’s what it said in the report that my dad dug up for me, at least. I repeat his name a few times. I realize that I vaguely remember Paul. A shadow of him at least. An inkling. There could have been a Paul.
I decide to search for him on Facebook. I type his full name in the search bar. A few options show up. Stalker mode: on.
Keywords: UCLA. Neuropsychiatric. Retired. Yes!!!
I write him a long apologetic text because I know it’s strange for me to be contacting him. Can he lead me to Jack and Eileen?
At 8:00 O’clock in the morning, my mom would drop Mahmoud off at Five West, at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, and then take me to summer camp. Around 6:00 O’clock in the evening, she would pick me up and then we would go back to Five West.
There was a buzzer that we had to ring in order to be admitted into the center, which was really a small ward in a mammoth-like hospital. I was always curious about what they did with Mahmoud at Five West. Everyone was friendly and cheerful but, somehow, protective of the space.
If you ventured inside you would be provoked by a strange smell of food – fried chicken and steamed vegetables it must have been – mixed with sterile linoleum and warm matted carpeting. You would occasionally hear Disney sing-along songs floating through the cracks. The therapy rooms were sinister-looking because the windows were glazed and the walls were white, akin to most psychiatric facilities in the movies. What did Mahmoud do in there? The doors were, more often than not, closed, until someone brought him out to meet us.
Once, there was a child standing in a time-out corner, whimpering. Did they make Mahmoud stand in the time-out corner like this all alone?
The place, while friendly, always felt strange and a little unsettling for me. Was it because our natural tendency to be voyeurs was not welcomed there? Or was it because no one really explained to me what these people did with kids like Mahmoud. What made Mahmoud happy here? Was he always happy? And why did it smell so strange?
A week ago, I decided to pay UCLA a visit so I could ask about records of Paul, Jack and Eileen in person. If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…
My skin tingled and writhed as I found myself naturally navigating in a hospital I haven’t visited for over twenty years. I did not realize how potent a mark this place left on me.
First, I found the main entrance and it was like seeing an old friend. I almost squealed in delight. There’s something so shocking about finding a place from decades ago like it was only yesterday. And then you begin to notice the changes. They reoriented the lobby. Were those vines always there? What about the fish tank?
There was no one at the reception. It was after hours. I hadn’t really looked at the clock. Didn’t we always pick up Mahmoud at 6:00pm? Well it was past 6:00pm. I was about to leave, dejected until a ghostly pull urged me to go to the elevators. What if I went up to the fifth floor and found Five West myself? They could close the building while I’m up there. It might be off limits. Only the janitors were around. And it was also very eerie.
I got out on the fifth floor. The orientation was very different now. Nothing looked familiar. Until I saw a sign on the wall that pointed to Five West. I turned around a corner to find it but it wasn’t there. Was it this hallway? I kept going, through a doorway, meaning to make a left turn around another corner until I realized I was in Five West. I had walked right into the past, unknowingly, or it had snapped forth and swallowed me.
The tight entrance hallway. The glazed windows. The row of chairs underneath the window across from the doorway. It was all there, like a movie set after the crew and the actors had left, right before it was about to be dismantled. It was strange to step into this after-hours world when everyone had gone home, like it was holy ground in some way. Distant creaking and rumbling sounds of people still in the building who could find me here played in the background, causing my spine to shiver.
A powerful surge of knowing, emotion, recognition, something rose up through my body and I stood there in the magnetic silence and wept, without really knowing why. I closed my eyes and mentally called in Mahmoud.
Where you happy here? Was there something we missed? Do you want me to stand here for a while…for you?
It’s lunchtime at my program and I decide, instead of heading over to UCLA again in decent hours, I would call, now that I have a US sim card. They could keep me for a lifetime on the phone. And they do.
Armed with a full name this time, I tell the operator I’m looking for the records of Paul *****, an art therapist. Used to work in the summer program at the institute.
“When was this?” she asks mechanically.
“Last we were in touch with him was ’97.”
“I can’t see him on record here. What was the name of the program?”
I look up the report that my father sent me. I read to her what it says.
“You literally just gave me the address of the Neuropsychiatric center," She says to me contrarily, "I need more information because he’s not showing up here.”
Did we imagine these people?
“This is all the information that I have,” I tell her, “The program was at Five West.”
“Five West doesn’t exist anymore.”
To be continued…