When you call me from the payphone outside your room in the Massachusetts State Hospital in Tewksbury I never tell you about the men. We talk about medications and whether you feel high or low or flat and dead inside and what kind of cereal you eat at breakfast. “You should get out there—you’re an attractive girl,” you advise with a chipper vigor. If you only knew. How are you so callous after breaking my heart? I don’t tell you about the men I’ve been sleeping with since your mind deserted us both because I don’t want you to judge me—the thing is I don’t think you could if you wanted to. But I’ve been thinking that people should not be judged on how round their tits or by their IQ or even what dosage of anti-psychotics they are prescribed. Five months ago you left me alone in a city I didn’t to live in and now they all want to sleep with me—architects, moving men, artists, bass players—they call me a gorgeous creature, a man killer, and I’ve been playing the role.
Visiting days are Tuesdays and Thursdays and so all summer after the lunch shift at work I drive north on the twisty highway because there is no one else coming to see you. The handwritten badge pinned to my chest says Visitor No 9. A bored guard buzzes me through a steel door on the sixth floor and you are waiting on the other side. You pad towards me wearing someone’s red bathrobe, worn slippers two sizes too big, and a vacant smile. Your flap flap across the linoleum squares and the hum of halogen fills otherwise silent halls.
“It’s you!” You pull a greasy string of blond hair behind your ear. The stubble on your face tells of strict rules about razors and other sharp objects.
“How are you?” I ask. I want to embrace your shrunken body. I take a step towards you, close enough to see your cracked lips, close enough to see that your dilated pupils make your eyes almost black, close enough to smell an unfamiliar moistness about you. The side effects from your cocktails are a changing mystery to behold. I am awkward and you take a step away.
But your eyes brighten slightly. “Have you seen Marl? My darl’, my Marl? She hasn’t visited me here. I don’t want her to.” That each time you talk to me about her, before anything else, stings.
You rhyme to me your lust, the rust on the door-hinge, the red robust of your robe—pointing out and repeating the inconsequential. I watch the exposed tops of your pale feet in the dingy polyester slippers while you gather speed in your speech. I focus on the tendons as you shift your weight from one foot to the other.
Yes, I have met Marla. She is the undergraduate student you left me for five months ago. Five months ago you announced that because of Marla we were over, despite living together for three years and moving to this city so you could go to graduate school. I waitress endless shifts, while I look for office work because I followed you here. Four months ago, it was Marla, not me, who you attacked on a beach in the middle of the night, and it was Marla who watched the police drag you away screaming at the top of your lungs at the height of a bio-polar seesaw.
“Marl” is the gobble-gook that first comes from your mouth when you see me. You once told me that if you died before I did you would be forever around me, dancing and blowing kisses to me. For a time I clipped and meticulously painted my nails, wanting to be prepared for when you gave me a diamond ring. I choke on this sort of thing while I try to focus on who it is you are these days.
Fidgeting and glancing up and down the dimly lit hospital hallway you say, “You can only stay for half an hour because I’m on my schedule and the nurse will come by with pills.” I’ve learned that Manic Depression is a whore to Depakote and Risperdol.
You look at your watchless wrist. “It’s almost time again.” The nurses—or was it the police?-took everything from you when you were brought here.
I want to tell you about the men. I want to tell you about the Irish architect I picked up last month. He was charming, smattered with freckles, and sensed that I was supple for anything. We talked and flirted in a humid, close bar for half the night. At closing we left and his friend said, “See you later, Ger,” and when we reached the apartment he asked, “Is this presumptuous?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But what the hell.” I wasn’t drunk that time. I wanted respite from the life I peel through each day. The lonely mornings of waking to the endless sound of the cars below the window aren’t as bad like this. And so I took him to our empty apartment, and I let him walk on our lovely hard wood floors and kiss me in the front room.
He kissed roughly—lapping at my chin and my nose. I kicked my shoes off, went to the tiny kitchen—do you remember our kitchen?—and I poured a glass of ice water. This is my favorite part: When I came back into the room he took my hands in his and drew my arms out to my sides, and then above my head like they were wings to spread. It was as if we could intertwine and fly up into the night and not hit our heads against the plaster ceiling.
I met with Marla about a week after you were arrested. She called me because she wanted to make sense of it, and thankfully, she had decided not to press charges. We met at an outdoor café on the edge of the university campus where you were a TA for her English class. At first I was nervous, caring about what she thought of me—but she wasn’t competition; she was just a sweet, skinny nineteen-year old who chain smoked Newports and swore to me that you two had never slept together and only kissed once. To her you were an intense, sexy graduate student who wanted to date her. Like me, she didn’t know you were already unhinging.
Shell-shocked the afternoon we met, Marla remembered only pieces of that day with you. What she did not recall I fill in, like caulking between the cracks. She wore a white blouse with tuxedo ruffles down the front and a red silk skirt. You took her as a date to your friend’s wedding reception—a reception you and I had been invited to—it was held at a museum on the north shore, and there were guards lingering in every room to watch the guests, lest one of you point a finger too close to an oil. The guards made you nervous. “They don’t like my kind,” you told Marla . By your third cocktail, although not drunk, you began to stalk one of the younger guards until he said, “May I escort you from the building?” You fussed your hair, untucked your shirt and your gestures grew wild until your arms stretched out like a man being crucified. “I can see that you’ve had it in for me since I walked through the door!”
After they removed you from the party, you wanted to drive to the beach on that June day when the air was sweet with salt from a breeze from the harbor. Smoking like a fiend, you drove for hours, and got lost in New Hampshire before you headed south. Then you shifted into high manic gear and jabbered and told Marla about this and that until you finally reached Duxbury beach at dusk. You pulled her by the arm down the sand and she kicked off her heels along the way. It was still all fun and games until you scooped Marla up and splashed into the Atlantic, threatening to throw her in. She threw her head back and saw lazy pink clouds above her. But your arms became tense and you hadn’t stopped talking and you spun around until she screamed for you to stop. Tumbling into the dark water, you landed on top of her. Her head hit the sand and she choked to breathe and you were slow to move away. In the darkness she pushed at you and you released. She coughed over the waves, the wet ruffles of her shirt mashed to her breasts.
“I am king, I am king of all I see!” you screamed as you thrashed through the water and back towards the car. She made her way to the beach and sat and waited in the silence that had closed in your absence. The sky grew dimmer and the water turned black.
When you returned you threw your shoe at her to get her attention, your left arm clutching everything from the car trunk: blankets, snowshoes, your dress coat and a small radio. Even in the dark, she saw that your eyes were not the same and she felt your mania like an electric pulse. “Let’s lay on this blanket and look at the stars until we can hear God’s voice!”
On the blue blanket, your fierce kisses scared her and she beat at your chest and threw sand like a dervish. But the flapping sound in your ears drowned even the ocean, and you hit her. Her mouth opened and closed like a guppy stranded on shore but you didn’t hear her sounds and your hand came across her face. You saw Medusa in her brown curls and smashed the snakes into the sand, hitting her head again and again. Then, dizziness, and you floated above her, your hands now clutching at your own hair, and you tore your wet shirt from your thin body and ran away from her crumpled form to the waves. You threw your wallet and all of your clothes into the sea. “I am cleansed” you roared, “I am naked before you.” A patrol car heard Marla’s screams and rescued you both.
“There’s that guy–” you point to another patient who has begun to pace towards and away from us, up and down the hallway. He moves a little closer each time. The world you live in now is slow and steady.
“That guy has been driving me crazy for the last three days. All he does is follow me around. Sometimes we play cards. His mother brings him Burger King. He eats things right out of the garbage cans—the rest of other people’s food. You speak of him almost affectionately, forgivingly.
I decide your smell is a combination of impending rain, fast food grease, and something unique to you—a scent that is perhaps carnal and basic but which I have never been able to detect beneath the deodorants and shampoos that were routine in your life.
I can’t stand it. “Can we sit down?” I interrupt. Suddenly the narrow hallways and your verbal clutter are closing in and I am desperate for I a window; I need to see the sky.
“We can talk in the Rec room, but there are ears everywhere. They’re always listening.”
I nod and follow you in your paranoia down the hall, a once-man transformed into a beaten child, swimming in grown-up clothes. You remind me of one of the child actors in that cereal commercial series—a lawyer shrinks into his ten-year old self, wearing the same ridiculous suit. Something like sisterly affection overtakes my rage in your initial talk of Marla—this happens a little more with each visit. You do not recognize me in some essential way. We sit at a table in a large room where the late afternoon sun spits Escher-like patterns across the floor.
I want to tell you about the moving man who went to Yale. We met at an outdoor concert at the racetrack you and I went to the first summer we came here from the West. You were excited to see your favorite band from high school and you fed me bites of a funnel cake. You wiped the powdered sugar off my cheeks with the back of your hands and kissed me. Two weeks ago I went back there alone to see a show and met a moving man who was tall and balding, in his mid-forties and exceptionally strong. I liked that his thick wrists were covered with delicate blond hair. After the concert we went to dinner at an Indian restaurant where I chewed gum wearing a trashy tank top. He rattled on about Thomas Pynchon books. Even after I insulted his impressive genius, told me I was the only intelligent person he had met who could pull off nice tits and bubble gum. At his studio that night, he gently picked me up off the loveseat like I was an exceptional vase, and he carried me to his bed. I didn’t feel heavy in his arms.
“How do you feel?” I ask it again.
“Mostly I sleep,” you tell me. “The stuff they give me makes me really tired. I can’t think and everything is slowed down.” You stare at your hands for several beats. You’re slow and quick, in fits and starts.
“I feel like this is where I had to end up—it’s the best place for me. It’s why all of that happened with Marl. My Marl. The cops were my saviors. They saved me from myself, saved me from surfing away on some big wave out into the ocean.”
You wax poetic like this every time I visit—you are unable to process the ways in which you have abandoned me. Lately I’ve decided that the judge who sentenced you here for evaluation is a wise man. An orderly announces that visiting hours are over. We say our goodbyes with an awkward half-hug and you flap flap down the hallway with me. The door locks behind me and I return to the world without you. I become flushed and dizzy in the parking lot—the grass is too vibrant a green, the car seat is too hot—textures and thought overwhelm me in relation to your gray flat world.
When I think too much I begin to fall apart. I smoke and I jitter and twitch. I nourish myself with responsibility and fear. After work at the fish restaurant I sit at the windows of our apartment and chain smoke to cauterize. I want to map you out. I want to connect events. I want to send you sanity. The men I bring home don’t wake me up shaking in the middle of the night because the black birds of death are flying outside the windows. They don’t plead like you did that last month we were together, before I understood the signs of your illness: “They’ve come for me, do you hear them?” When I fall back asleep the men don’t stare at shadows on the bare trees, and this is why I bring them home; they will never be you. Maybe you chose Marla knowing you were going mad—you chose her to protect me so that it wasn’t me you beat into the sand, so that it wasn’t me who saw you arrested. If I could ask you one thing it would be this: why couldn’t it have been me?