“One, two, three, four, three, two, one. Heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe, heel. And spin left, then right, then roll to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe.”
Beads of sweat were now forming on Finn’s brow. He had to get the next part perfect, or he would have to start from the beginning. “Close eyes. Left hand. Thumb touch index ﬁnger, middle ﬁnger, ring ﬁnger, pinkie ﬁnger. No mistakes! No mistakes! No mistakes! Now right hand. Thumb touch index, middle, ring, and pinkie ﬁngers. Got it!” A nervous smile slowly spread across his face. He was almost halfway there. Now he just had to repeat it backward, and he would be at the bathroom door. Once there, it was simple—turn the knob to the right eleven times, take a step back, return to the doorknob, and turn the knob another eleven times with the opposite hand, which was the right since he always started with the left hand. Inside the bathroom, there was a game of hopscotch that spanned eight square foot tiles, leading to the sink.
“No Mistakes allowed, or I have to start over”
Mornings were the longest part of Finn’s day. They had to start off perfectly. He could only manage a day of uncertainties in the real world if he could shield himself with his carefully structured patterns. The patterns would be effective against accidents, confrontations, and surprises if his ritual included perfectly executed patterns that were in precise order. From the time he was a young child, he had only ever known chaos, fear, and disruption. Living with his parents, and later at numerous group homes, only added to his chaotic upbringing. The universe had always cloaked him in noise and panic attacks. He was convinced that he was meant to be lost in his own private hell, until Dr. Vincenzo threw him a life preserver. They had met at the Hilltop Diner, a greasy burger joint, which had been a ﬁxture in Birchwood, New Jersey, since 1929. It had been moved and renovated a few times, but it maintained its charm and history.
On October 17, 1986, the day that Finn turned eighteen, he ran as fast as he could to freedom. And freedom that day looked like a diner. He was compelled to turn away at the door, but he braved the jingle of the bell, as he opened the door and was greeted by the aroma of fries, eggs, and burgers —smells that attacked his senses. By the time he had shut the door, he was feeling light-headed, and he realized he had been holding his breath since he had opened the door, and he continued to do so. A kaleidoscope of colors and shapes zoomed in and out of his line of sight. The sound of utensils scraping against vintage ceramic plates, the buzzing of chatter from customers, and the orders being called to and from the grill swirled around his head and made him feel like he would faint. Not that he had ever fainted before, but he felt himself falling away into a safe zone within himself.
“Are you all right, sir? Sir! Let’s get him a seat.”
Slowly, things came into focus, and Finn found a petite gray-haired waitress hovering over him, looking very concerned. She was close. Too close.
“Can you please step back. I am ﬁne. Please step back!” Finn could hear the beat of his own heart pounding in his ears. Cold sweat ran down his back, and his knees shook so much that they hurt. Every muscle in his body was contracting, his mouth was dryer than a cotton ball, and his breath was shallow and quick. The petite waitress brought him a glass of ice water, and he surprised himself by grabbing it and drinking every drop, without a thought of following his usual methods for ingesting any drink that he, himself, had not poured. He realized that the diner had become very quiet, and all eyes were ﬁxed on his every move. The silence seemed to be relaxing him, and he had stopped sweating and shaking.
“Thank you. Thank you for the water. The water was good,” he said to the waitress, who had already walked away and was tending to one of her tables. Slowly, the diner was coming to life again, but Finn remained still and focused. The ice in the glass had begun to melt as it moved and cracked within the glass. He held up the glass and carefully moved it, swirling the ice around and around. As Finn sat there meticulously playing with his glass of nearly melted ice, he felt he was being watched. He whispered under his breath, “I won’t look up. I will not look up. I must not look up! They will go away if I don’t look. They will go away.”
But as Finn soothed himself, his mantra was interrupted by a middle-aged stranger who was wearing a geometric patterned sweater vest.
“Hello. Sir, my name is Dr. Massimo Vincenzo.”
“Don’t look up! Do not look up!” Finn was feeling very self-conscious. The man was not going away, and he had to get rid of him. Should he run? Should he stay, listen, get the uncomfortable conversation out of the way and then go? As if reading his mind, the strange man in the ugly sweater vest said, “I know you probably would prefer to be left alone, but I may be able to help you.”
Without looking up, Finn Replied, “I . . . I . . . I don’t . . . I don’t need help. I do not need help.”
“Here is my card.” The man placed a business card in Finn’s hand. “When you are ready to talk, you call me. Would you please tell me your name?”
Name. Name. Name.
“Finn. F-I-N-N. My name is Finn.”
As soon as he said it, he ran for the door, still holding tightly in his right ﬁst the stranger’s business card, which was now all crumpled up. He hadn’t noticed when the man had placed the card in his hand, but for some reason, he just knew he had to have it. He needed it. He wanted it. He could not leave without it.
He kept that crumpled business card in the right front pocket of his jeans for two months, while he went from a shelter to cardboard boxes and then to a group home. He moved from place to place, struggling to ﬁnd somewhere that he might belong. But he was not surviving as well as he would have liked. Freedom was painfully noisy, uncomfortable, and awkward. He fought the urges to rock back and forth, let his arms ﬂail wildly, and talk to himself. He felt like he was ﬁghting the devil himself with a plastic sword. Finn started to wonder if the doctor in the ugly sweater vest could really help him somehow.
“I need to talk to Dr. Vincenzo.”
“Are you a current patient, sir?” the receptionist who answered the phone asked.
“I need to talk to the doctor with the sweater vest. He gave me his card. He told me to call him.”
There was a long silence before the woman simply replied, “Yes, sir, one moment.” Finn wanted to hang up.
“This is dumb. I should not talk to the stranger. I should not have called. I should hang up. I should really hang up.
His geometric shapes did not follow a pattern that made sense. It did not make sense!”
But he could not hang up. It had taken two hours for him to ﬁnd a phone that he felt comfortable using. He then had to disinfect it with alcohol swabs, which he had swiped from a hospital. And he practiced dialing the number to call the doctor exactly eighteen times. He had already invested too much time to hang up now. But as he waited, an unnerving piece of music started playing, letting him know that he was still “on hold.” A voice would occasionally come on to let him know how important his call was and that someone would be with him in a few minutes.
“I have to wait.”
“Excuse me? Mr. Finn?”
“Finn. Just Finn. No mister.”
“Thank you for being patient, Finn. This is Dr. Vincenzo. I am so glad you ﬁnally called me! When can we meet?”