Fiction: Benefits

By Matthew Betti

“Look, you know that we here at Hilltop University are committed to mental health.”

He was sitting across from me with his palms flat on his desk, as if showing off his fresh manicure. There was a thick smell of oak and bleach in the air. He was looking at me, waiting for a response. When I made eye contact, he’d shift his gaze quickly to his hands and back at me. Did he want me to comment on his manicure? I moved my own chewed up and picked at nails under my thighs, they’d be safe there. I looked to the corner of the room and nodded slowly.

“You see, as a school, we have to value mental well-being. It’s our main business after all. When I read your email, I could feel, very viscerally, the pain between the words. It spoke to me, and that’s why we’re speaking now. I wanted to ensure that you felt heard.”

“Thanks? But you see, I really just want –”

“I’m going to stop you right there, because I know what this is about. You know, I have my own issues too. Money, power, none of it makes you immune to feeling sad.”

“Sad feels a bit reductive.”

“There are times when I wonder if I could’ve done more for myself. Perhaps I could have been a great politician, or the CEO of a successful company. You see, sometimes thinking too broadly is what brings on these feelings of existential sadness.

What I’m getting at is that your feelings are perfectly normal and natural, and I don’t what you to think that I, or anyone else in the H.U. administration for that matter, think any less of you for any reason related to your mental health.

That being said, they – we – might think more of you if you found more economically principled and courageous ways to ensure yourself a sense of wellness.”

“So, you, the royal you, do think less of me because I have anxiety problems?”

“No, no, no,” he stood up so forcefully and suddenly that if I weren’t in a state of derealization, it would have seemed very intimidating. He reached his left hand out across his desk. I looked at him, he looked at me, he looked at his hand and back at me. Was I meant to take his hand? Did he want me to hold it, or just put my hands back on the desk so he could hold mine?

I started to raise my hand from under my thigh, maybe I’d put it on the desk near his and see what he does. Holding his hand would be ridiculous, but if he wants to hold my hand and it gets me what I need I guess I could live with it. It was all moot though since he moved around his desk and sat on it, closing the space between us. My hand was now awkwardly close to his ass and I had no idea how to move it without making it a thing.

“No one,” he leaned forward for emphasis, “no one thinks less of you. We just don’t necessarily think more of you. You can understand that right?”


“I’m glad we’re on the same page,” his hand was now resting on my shoulder. Was it my shoulder? It didn’t look like my shoulder, but I could feel the light-but-firm pressure of a hand on it so it must be my shoulder. Was that my heart I could hear, or his? It must be mine; the sound is coming from behind my ears, not in front of them. Wait, I have a heart?

He used me to lift himself off the desk back into a standing position and continued, “I’m really hoping we can come to an understanding here. Again, we absolutely do care about your mental health and would like nothing more than to make sure you feel heard and taken care of. We are committed to finding an effective, provident solution to your predicament.

“If I may wax poetic for a moment, there is an old saying ‘Healthy Body, Healthy Mind’. Have you heard it? It means that if you keep your body healthy, your mind will automatically be healthy too. Tell me, do you exercise?”

“I like to get out into nature and go on hikes.”

“I run marathons once a month and you know what I find? I have a healthy mind.” He looked at me knowingly and tapped his temple before walking back behind his desk. “So, if there’s nothing else, I think I’ve given you a few great action items you can take back with you. I hope that they help you with your mental health issues.”

I hadn’t even noticed that he had moved toward the door and was opening it for me, I was too busy watching the wall, wondering if I could move through it now that my body was a little less ‘mine’ and a little more just a rental space for the real me.

‘With all due respect, sir,” I said, hat in hand quite literally, “I’m not sure that what you propose is a solution to my problem.”

He smiled and leaned on the door so that it closed again. “Excuse me?”

“I sent an email to Human Resources –”

“You mean the Department of People and Culture. Names are important you know. We changed it to People and Culture because when people, employees like yourself, hear the word Human Resources they start to see themselves as a resource, to be exploited. Can you guess what that negatively affects?”

“Mental health?”

“Mental. Health. So, by using the wrong words, and by not going for runs, and focusing on the sad you are your own worst enemy.”

“Look, I really just want our health insurance to cover my medication. Without it, I’m positive I will implode into the vacuum of regret that seems to grow bigger and bigger every day inside of me, and I feel like that’s enough that it should be covered by our health insurance here.”

He sat back down at his desk and brought his hands, in prayer pose to his mouth. “And I want to help you, I really do. Like I said, we here at H.U., we believe in mental health.”

“Great, so is there some kind of paperwork I have to fill out to make this official? Or is it one of those things where the next time I go to the pharmacy the magic insurance fairies will just kind of take care of it?”

“Oh, there’s no paperwork. I’m going to offer you something better than money. I’m going to offer you an opportunity. An opportunity to think about the rest of the H.U. family and think about the fact that in order to add new coverage to the plan, we’d have to increase the premiums for everyone. Does that seem fair to you?”

“Couldn’t you just increase the employer contribution?”

He laughed as if a child just asked him where the sun comes from in the morning. “Oh, that would definitely be a possibility but as you know this institution just does not have the money to support the whims of each and every employee.” As he said the word whims, he fanned his hands back and forth like a conductor. The sunlight through his office window danced playfully off his fresh, perfect manicure.

“Whim feels like the wrong word here,” I countered, “we’re talking about medication to help with some deep-seated mental illness.”

“As you know, we here at Hilltop University, are committed to ensuring top-tier support for mental health.”

I was caught with the strangest sense of déja vu; I looked down at my hand and stretched my fingers apart thinking I might see a phantasmal echo of them as they moved. My own nails were dull, black and blue marker remnants rested behind my nails and along my cuticles. The backdrop was my right shoe of questionable integrity. It was begging to be put out its misery.

“And in order to offer that top-tier mental health support, we have to be accountable to the budget.”

“So that’s a no on the coverage? For the medication I need to get out of bed in the morning?”

“Think of it more as a yes on the opportunity to better yourself.” He was holding the door open, inviting me to leave.

I took my cue, getting up and walking toward the door. I stopped in the doorway, as a box in the trash bin caught my eye.

“Hey, that’s the same medication I take!” I said, “surely, you can understand how expensive it can be.”

“Oh, my health benefits cover it. I have no idea of the cost,” the President said as he closed the door behind me.

Matthew Betti is a professor of Math & Computer Science in New Brunswick, Canada. He is the author of a pop-sci book on math and data science, and about three hundred responses to people telling them they hate math.