“Waiting Room” by Maggie Yuan

Reading by the author

It must suck waiting in the line to enter heaven.

The word “heaven” conjures up images of serenity: perfect white clouds, soft breeze, golden light streaming everywhere (from some unknown source—from God knows where) and flitting down into a breathless scene of rapture. Maybe there’ll be an angel or two—I don’t know all the details; I’m still working on getting through Genesis. I know at least that heaven is supposed to be that final destination before you attain infinite joy, that plateau that most people on this Earth aspire to reach, after spending their lives suffering in the myriad of ways we manage to suffer.

That’s a grand thought, but lots of people die every day. Lots of people go to heaven every day. It can’t be a video game where you die and immediately spawn in cloudy wonderland. There has to be some way to maintain order, to decide who gets to skip into the gated promised land first.

Cue the queue. There is definitely a line that you stand in before you’re granted entrance to heaven. A long, monstrous, God-awful line filled with grumbling strangers. They’re all holding the same ticket to the same show, and they’re all tired of waiting to get in.

Imagine dying, and then waking up at the back of the check-out line at Costco on a Saturday morning. I bet that’s what going to heaven is like.

Since I won’t be going to heaven anytime soon, though, I get to do my waiting here.

The waiting room of my clinic isn’t much better than a crowded line. It’s a prison at worst and a receptable at best. Dingy and cramped, the space is crammed with worn couches and chairs. Recent issues of Psychology Today are scattered across the tops of coffee tables, a light layer of dust visible on the covers under the dim light.

Now imagine the most abysmal, neutral tone of gray you could find in a paint store—the type of gray that gives babies receding hairlines and makes you worry about your retirement even though you’re only twenty—and put it everywhere. Everything in the waiting room—the furniture, the décor, the paint of the four walls—are the same drab shade of gray. Even the paintings on the wall show oceans and skies with a dominant color scheme of, you guessed it, gray.

It’s as if the interior designers wanted patients to walk in and immediately be sent into a depressive episode. Even one of those saccharine clinic waiting rooms—you know the type, with those posters of “Life’s a Beach” in bright pink font and upholstered couches that look like someone vomited Fruity Pebbles over it—would be better than this literal inside of a toilet.

There is one thing preventing the waiting room from being a full-on coffin: the fact that there are people here.

In the chair to my left is a middle-aged white woman with gray streaks in her hair (she matches with the room); on the other end of the room is a younger woman, also white, who looks to be in her mid-twenties or mid-thirties. After all these months, I still can’t quite pin her age, but in any case, she is older than I am.

They’re going through their usual rounds. The older woman next to me is frowning at her Kindle, while the younger woman is tapping through her phone. The younger woman wears a blank, bored expression, occasionally lifting her head up to look at the door in front, before sighing and returning to her mindless scrolling. I glance down at my own screen—no notifications—before leaning back with a sigh.

In front of us is an iPad that stands propped up next to the door. A sign printed in all-caps, “PLEASE WAIT UNTIL YOUR NAME IS CALLED,” is pasted over the glass panel in the center of the door.

Instead of talking to a receptionist, patients use the iPad to check in to their appointments. We are advised to check in at least five minutes in advance, but prior appointments frequently run late, leaving us to wait in this gray room.

The line to heaven has an average waiting time of 10-20 minutes.

Each time I come here, I come up with something new to pass the time. Silently raging at the funeral-worthy décor of the room is only entertaining for so long. I tried reading some of the magazines during my first few visits, but headlines like “How to Fix Your Depression Without Anti-Depressants” made me feel a little bit shitty about myself. People-watching was fun at first too, until I realized it was the same three of us showing up at the same time every week. There’s only so much you can take of looking at people who have their heads down for the entire 20 minutes you’re in the same room.

There’s a silent agreement among the patients that we do not talk to each other in the waiting room. (The “no-fire zone” of southern hospitality.) I don’t know the names of the two woman in the room with me, haven’t even made eye contact with them before. All I know is that each of us have been coming to therapy here for at least four months now. Clearly, we were not able to resolve our problems within 12 weeks of therapy.

Despite our distance, it’s comforting to be in the presence of these women, these familiar strangers. I’ve learned that they each react differently when their therapist calls them in for their appointment. The older woman nods curtly, before placing her Kindle into her tote bag and primly smoothing down the sides of her hair. The younger woman flashes a quick smile, all white teeth, and shoves her phone into her back pocket. Both walk into the office with their heads dipped downwards, posture slightly slouched.

Though we remain separated by the space and the silence between us, we are united by our failures to get better.

When I find myself depressed again, I say that I am “sad.” It isn’t the best descriptor, but it’s easier than telling the truth. This anxiety leaves me floating through space, untethered to my body, boneless. My intrusive thoughts are shape-shifting devils that wear a new mask every time they return to haunt me. I could sink into this ground at any moment, and still, it would not be deep enough.

Yep. “Sad” is a lot easier to say.

Initially when I returned to therapy, I imagined that things would be different. Every week, I nodded rigorously at my new therapist’s suggestions and added each cognitive strategy to my detailed checklist. I journaled, jogged, meditated, socialized, breathed in and out, my frenzied efforts fueled by the hope that eventually, I would feel better.

Every week, that hope fizzled out when another bout of sadness crashed into my plans. The cycle became routine. Upon feeling sad again, I’d become paralyzed with disappointment that my new strategies hadn’t worked. I’d retreat into myself—like a disgruntled butterfly attempting to squeeze back into its moldy cocoon—and reacquaint myself with all the things I despised about myself. After slogging through the week, I’d slink into my next session more dejected than before.

Everything is exciting at first, then the shiny exterior flakes away, leaving it dull and boring. Sometimes I want to say aloud, fuck it. Stop going to the therapy appointments, chuck my journals into the fire, throw my arms up and let my defected neural pathways take the wheel, as a giant middle finger to my mental health.

If “eventually” probably isn’t going to come, why wait around?

The light glints off the surface of the painting in front of me, the one I’ve stared at for so many months that I have the scene memorized. A drab sea with churning waves, surrounded by an even more ominous sky.

I sink into my chair and close my eyes to the infuriating gray that surrounds me.

The older woman is called in for her appointment, then the younger woman. They slip out of their seats—one gripping a tote bag, one slipping a phone into their pocket—and slouch into the office. A familiar sight, one after another. Predicted, repeated. Mindless.

Alone in the waiting room, I am next in line to be called. Tapping my feet on the ground, I wait to hear my name.

The door next to me swings open, and I jump in my seat.

A stranger steps in: someone I haven’t seen before. An elderly white woman—teal tunic, worn jeans, leather boots. Her silver hair is swept elegantly into an updo.

Her face is kind; I know this because she’s looking right at me.

Immediately, I straighten up and give her my best deferential smile. Closed lips quirked upwards, slight crinkle in the eyes, happy but not too happy. It’s that smile that gets white women to like me, or at the least, not actively despise me.

The elderly woman smiles back, radiant, and I notice that she’s carrying a magazine in her hand. There’s a photo of handsome man on the front; I can’t get a good look at his face, but I presume he’s handsome because he’s on the cover.

She takes a seat in the chair next to mine, where the woman on the Kindle was sitting only moments ago. I can see the magazine now—it’s an edition of People magazine, with Michael B. Jordan on the front cover. Handsome indeed.

The woman turns and sees me staring at the magazine. A mischievous grin dimples her cheeks.

“Handsome, isn’t he?” She winks as my cheeks flush. I laugh, embarrassed.

Maybe she feels bad for catching me eying MBJ, because she asks how I am (“Doing great, how are you?”), if I’m a student in the area (“Yes, I’m in college”). I wait for the pleasantries to stall, for the silence to resume, but she continues talking.

I assume she’s a new patient—she’s breaking the unspoken rules in here by, you know, speaking—but then she tells me that she’s here today because of a rescheduled appointment. Usually, she comes in on Mondays, but last week, she was visiting her son in New York. Her son is a musician, and at the pride that glows on her face, he’s a successful one.

If my quietness is an invitation for her to speak to me, I don’t mind at all. She talks a lot, words spilling out over one another, like someone who has so much to offer to the world and is graced enough to know it.

Her name is Meredith. Like her musician son, she is also creative. She tells me what projects she’s working on—gardening, acrylic painting, reading. She reads lots of books as part of a local book club she runs, and in part out of habit, as a former English teacher. She is a therapist too.

I don’t ask why she’s in therapy, but she seems to see the question in my face. “There’s always more to learn,” she states with a shrug. Casual, unbothered, as if saying, it’s no big deal to be here—to still be here.

I let her voice, a soft, lilting Texan accent, wash over me. Her colorful stories, cheery remarks and detailed tidbits here and there, breathe space into this tiny room.

We can’t be chatting for longer than 10 minutes, but it’s the first conversation I’ve had in this room in months. The last time I spoke to someone here was when my mom accompanied me to my first appointment. After that, I quickly grew used to waiting here, alone.

Meredith nods approvingly when I tell her about my art and my writing. Her response is a pleasant gift; I’m used to adults wincing when I tell them what I major in. By the looks of their faces when I tell them that I study “Visual Arts” and “English Literature,” you’d think I sent them into another mid-life crisis.

“You’re young,” she muses, before another smile peeks out. “And so am I,” she guffaws. The implication is understood by the two of us, two strangers connected by shared creative joys, the shared experience of wanting, waiting, to get better.

We both have time. There is so much left to do: so many more undiscovered books to fall in love with, so many more creative trades to practice, so many more sights to see and hear and feel and touch and behold. There is so much more to learn. There is so much more to live for.

The door cracks open, and we look up to see a therapist smiling at Meredith.

Just like that, my wonderful conversation with this wonderful stranger comes to a close.

Meredith stands with an exhale, sweeping her tunic out behind her like a cape. “Well, good luck with your art,” she beams at me. We smile at each other, grateful to have passed by each other by in the queue of serendipitous meetings.

Before I can thank her, she extends a hand. I look down to see the edition of People magazine she’s offering to me, at Michael B. Jordan smiling suavely up at me. Meredith’s eyes glimmer with humor.

“For your artistic inspiration.” We both snicker.

“Thank you,” I finally say, and I mean it. With a final wave, Meredith walks into the office for her appointment.

The door closes. I’m alone again, but the room doesn’t feel as empty as it did before. For a moment, the stupid gray of this waiting room—this waiting—feels a lot less stupid.

I’m ogling over glitzy photos of stars dressed up on the red carpet and marveling at the wacky responses that men can get away with (“What was it like playing this character?” the interviewer asked. “Interesting,” the bad-boy actor responded. Profound.), when I hear my name.

I look up to see my therapist in the doorway, her familiar smile a comforting sight. It’s my turn at last.

Before I follow her to her office, I pause. “Just a minute.”

I walk over to the coffee table, littered with magazines. With a hand, I sweep the dust off the covers. Then I grab the edition of People—the gift from vibrant Meredith, the task that has held me over until the end of this waiting period—and place it on top.

Michael B. Jordan smirks up at me from his gleaming cover, prepared to dazzle the next patient that walks in—for however long they may need.

I grin back. Then I enter the door to take my place.

Maggie Yuan is a writer, visual artist, UX designer, and Animal Crossing enthusiast. Currently, she studies at Rice University, where she double majors in English and visual arts. Her work is published or forthcoming in Sine Theta Magazine and Random Sample Review. She can be found on Instagram at @maggiekyuan.

Image: “Fjord” by Jonathan Silverman

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