After 50 minutes of undirected wandering, I have to piss. I walk down Sunset Blvd. past the Church of Scientology. It’s an old hospital that houses their West Coast headquarters, nicknamed “Big Blue” because of the way it seems to be covered in Berry Blast Powerade. It’s either this or the Rite Aid in Little Armenia. They each pose a unique danger but I figure the Scientologists will have better air conditioning and less urine near the entrance.
Nate is there to welcome me. I tell him I’m from Guam and that I have to pee. I agree to submit to a tour before I’m allowed in.
The bathroom is dimly lit in an about-to-be-kidnapped way. Still, it seems safer than whatever is on the other side of the door. I walk out into an even darker room to find Nate waiting for me. He starts a video and leaves me with myself. After 30 uninspiring minutes of, “The world is bad but it could be less bad if you gave us money,” Nate asks me if I have any questions.
“Yeah” I cross my legs and lean forward as if I have a film crew behind me, ready to capture the moment that will dismantle his entire belief system.
I don’t know why I’m being confrontational. I don’t know why I told him I’m from Guam; I haven’t lived there in over 25 years. I feel as if I’m taking something out on him but can’t seem to stop myself.
He’s unfazed by my idiocy and shares his story of addiction. Drugs and alcohol and a rented lifespan. For reasons I can only assume come from their rampant religious panhandling in Los Angeles, Scientology is where Nate found his salvation. He received treatment via The Purification Rundown, a program that claims to reverse the effects of our “chemically-oriented society” through, “a tightly supervised regimen of exercise, sauna and nutrition.” Nate tells me it was a challenge to complete but leaves details sparse.
Same shit, different savior.
As the next in line to inherit the family business of repetitive compulsion, I am troubled by the idea that recovery relies on a belief in something that doesn’t exist. Seems like an even trade of delusions.
I wonder if he senses this when he says, “Some people just aren’t committed to improving themselves. We can’t force it. That’s not what we want.” I congratulate him on the subtlety of his accusation and stand up to leave before thanking him for his time.
But, walking back out into the sun, I catch myself thinking, “Whatever works, I guess.” Because if Scientology could’ve been the thing to help my mom make her way through the stage curtains of her alcoholism, I would’ve been in the front row every single night.
Yeah, that’s how bad it was.
She was more of a case file to me than anything else. Grapefruit juice in the fridge meant there was vodka under the sink. A surprise strawberry sundae signaled that she’d pre-gamed in the nearby McDonald’s parking lot. Repeat plays of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was a premonition for a tumultuous night.
But before I was capable of collecting clues, I had Patches. One of many strays in Guam, Patches was the only one who never left. We were both around five years old, wanted to be held, and liked chicken. It was an effortless bond.
I’d give him cans of Fancy Feast but he usually preferred lizards indigenous to the island, leaving only their tails to posthumously writhe on the sidewalk. As soon as my mom would go to her room to drink, I’d sneak him into the house in my old Graco stroller. Once, while trying to hit a whiffle ball I’d pitched to myself, I fell backwards into the grass and Patches immediately trotted over to my side. His closeness made my mom’s distance seem irrelevant.
Most of the time we’d sit in the front yard, staring dispassionately toward the road like a Duane Hanson installation. Neighborhood kids would stop by to pet him but I’d cut the visits short once they started pulling on his ears or tail.
It was better when it was just us, anyway. But he never reacted, he never let it show that it bothered him.
A year after he showed up, we packed our things in preparation to leave Guam.
Stuffed in the backseat with our suitcases, I ask, “What about Patches?” as we back out of our driveway forever.
“He can’t come with us.”
You know, like he got a job offer or couldn’t find a buyer for his house.
“He can sit on my lap.”
There’s only silence as we drive away and I watch him laying in our usual spot as if nothing is happening. “He’ll die without me” is the only thought I allow myself before packing it away like a set of broken Christmas lights that somehow never get thrown away. I don’t react, I don’t let it show that it bothers me.
Until, decades later, when I transfer my hostility to Nate for having the nerve to seek help instead of allowing his addiction to punish everyone around him.
Weeks after my visit to Big Blue, I start seeing a guy who comes from a loving family. One that didn’t outsource his emotional development to a stray cat. He tells me about how they play board games and go on trips and make pasta from scratch. I know this can never work.
On what would be our last night together, we’re approached by an elderly man who needs help pushing his wife’s wheelchair up the hill towards Hollywood Blvd. We won’t know it for another three minutes but our destination is a Scientology center. They invite us to stay for the movie night. “A Western!,”they chime. More people shuffle in behind us as they try to corral us into the theatre.
He’s polite about declining because he has a family that hugs each other. However, my skills prove useful here. I grab his arm and silently walk through the crowd, creating as much distance as possible.