[Untitled Project A]
A Beginning Chapter
They want me to know what day it is. They’re insisting it’s Wednesday, it’s Wednesday, Trudy, say it back, and I say, “which one,” and they say Wednesday, Trudy, today is Wednesday, like I’m five, and I’m trying to ask the date, “which day,” but they’re not listening, they’re getting agitated with me, not knowing that I don’t care if it’s Wednesday, it could be Sunday, I just care if it’s April or May.
Actually, I don’t. But now I know it’s Wednesday.
Wednesday means meatloaf.
Meatloaf means brown puke by the plant by the window. It’ll probably look like dirt spilled over, or like a nurse dropped her coffee, or like the plant shit itself. I wonder what plant shit would smell like. Maybe it would smell bad, like regular shit… or would it smell earthy, like truffles? Truffle pigs sound cute. Georgie should’ve gotten a truffle pig. The farm.
I haven’t been here long. I came in at night, on a weekday, sometime recent. Maybe last Wednesday (since today’s Wednesday). It was dark.
But then I woke up the next morning and there wasn’t any dark for miles. It was like stepping into a bulb. And then stepping into the bulb again and it hurting your eyes a little less. People wear all kinds of clothes here, but nobody wears black--nobody wears anything darker than the brown of a tree--and my eyes are still adjusting. No trees here. No trees, no black, no truffles, and no days except Wednesday. Today.
I’m sitting with girls today. There aren’t enough tables for an island, so I sit with girls. One of them throws up after dinners, one talks like a radio, one hears angels, and the others sit. Today, Casey Kasem is talking about her time on the road. She probably listened to a lot of the radio. She probably cranked it so high the angels in the other girl’s head could hear it. The angels probably didn’t like that.
“So there I am, in nothing but a turtleneck and the guy’s briefs, holding both my thumbs up like a retard. You know, it’s a wonder--”
“Shut up, Jean. Nobody’s listening to you.”
“But to who?”
“The angels,” Jean pipes in.
Everyone laughs then. I stare at my meatloaf and wonder where the flavor went.
My dad would say it walked off in protest.
He protested once.
Someone should protest the meatloaf.
“What were you like before all this?”
“Shit, I rode horses and pretended--”
“Shut up, Jean. I meant Rose.”
“I was a criminal justice major… I ate, slept, and breathed it, too… I wore sweet dresses that were almost too short, but never were, and I ate lots of fruit… And my mom was so proud of me, every day.”
“And then shit hit the fan.”
“Can you stop with the ‘shit’ already?”
“I had a boyfriend.”
Everyone turns to me.
“I had a boyfriend and a job and the world.”
There’s a beat where the girls just watch me watching the window.
“And then shit hit the fan.”
I echo, “It hit the fan.”
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
It doesn’t look like dirt, coffee, or shit- it looks like puke. And a little like Rocky Road ice cream, but mostly just puke.
We’re in our after-dinner slump now, everyone on the ward packed in the den like sardines. I’m on the floor. There aren’t enough couches and there aren’t enough chairs and I sit on the floor. Far away from the puke by the window.
The TVs are on and something’s playing. There are some men, some women, and everything moves fast. Fast and fake and fictional. And so far away. I can’t watch. My head spins.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
Trudy, do you know what day today is?
My favorite day used to be Sunday. Everyone in town was at church, but not me. I was too busy and important to go to church. I had things to do, people to see, places to be. And I did, I saw, I was.
Trudy, are you listening?
I’m listening to the wolf cry to the blue corn moon.
“Can you paint with all the colors of the wind…”
Is that the song from Pocahontas?
It’s Thursday. I don’t know why he needs to hear me say it, but “it’s Thursday.”
Thank you, Trudy. That’s right.
Why can’t anything be black?
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
We’re sitting in a circle, eight women and three men and one lady, and we’re the lasso of truth. It’s Saturday, and it’s Group Talk day. We’re Group B. We talk.
The lady says, Today, we’re going to talk about Why.
“Z!” shouts the man with the beard, raising his arm.
“I wanna talk about Z too. I’m sick of Y,” Jean says.
Another girl pipes up, barely above a whisper, “Y can go fuck itself.”
That’s enough, ladies. We’re talking about Why, as in W-H-Y, not the letter Y. Do you understand, Patrick?
“Yes. Yes. Whyyyy.” He drags out the last word like a whine.
The lady nods. Now, by Why, I mean Why are you here. What brought you here today? What brought you to this place at this moment in time? Please, anyone, feel free to share.
Everyone goes quiet. I can’t tell if they don’t have an answer or if they just don’t want to say it. I don’t and I don’t. I mean, I do. We all do. But we don’t. Do. Don’t. Do don’t do don’t do don’t. It sounds like a heartbeat.
Rose whips her head around to look at the door. Beard Man turns to see what’s there and hums approvingly. A couple others glance back. I don’t bother looking.
All the lookers readjust back in their seats.
Nope. Nobody. Nope-body.
The lady, unperturbed, just sits up straighter. Then we’re going to pass Simon around. Can someone explain what happens when we bring out Simon?
Simon is a white stuffed dog with one black eye. It’s his left eye.
“I’ll do it,” says Throw-Up Girl. “When we have Simon, we pass him around the circle. Whoever is holding Simon can either answer the question or pass. But if you pass, you have to say why you’re passing.”
That’s exactly right, Melody. We’ll start with Amanda, then go to Jordan, and so on.
She hands Simon to Amanda, who holds him silently and strokes his head. He doesn’t look soft. He looks matted, like he was in too many wet t-shirt contests. Amanda starts to cry. She pulls Simon into her neck and lets her tears mat his matted head. Maybe she’s the wet t-shirt contest. She could win a wet t-shirt contest if she tried.
Amanda, why are you crying?
Amanda closes her eyes and shoves her face in Simon’s belly, sucking the stickiness back up her nose. A minute passes. Someone starts tapping their foot and Amanda pulls Simon into her lap. “I’m sad.”
Why are you sad, Amanda?
She starts tearing up again. “I don’t,” she says, shaking her head, “I don’t wanna answer the question.”
“It makes me sad.”
Well, yes, but why?
“She said why. Let her be,” Jean says. “Just give Snot Simon to Jordan.”
The lady sighs, but not in an upset way- in a soft, defeated kind of way. She tells Amanda to give Simon back, and then she pulls out a blue dog. He’s blue, has two black eyes, and is clean as a daisy, but is otherwise the same as Simon. For those of you who don’t know, she says, this is Sal. We use him when Simon gets too dirty. She hands him off to Jordan and gestures to continue.
Jordan blames her dad. She says he left her and her sister. Her sister has some disability. I hope it isn’t the one that makes you look like the Elephant Man. Her mom had to work all the time. Or be with the sister. Who may or may not be the elephant girl. She was always alone.
“So then--surprise!--I’m diagnosed with Bi-Ped.”
She means BPD.
She tells us more, but all I can see is tall, skinny Jordan standing next to a short, stocky girl with a face that looks like a shoe. A partially-melted shoe. A partially-melted, partially-shredded shoe. Like the shoe from Jumanji.
We’ll talk more tomorrow, Jordan. Thank you for sharing.
Sal moves through the group, past one middle-aged man who points at each of us and passes because “it’s none of their fucking business;” past Melody, who shrugs and says very simply, “because I hate myself;” past the young guy talking rapid-fast and tripping over his words; past Beard Guy, who tells us he’s here because he can’t control himself; past Jean, who says, “what happened to Z?” and then, “well, I’m here because I took a wrong turn on the freeway;” past a pear-shaped woman who both looks and sounds like a pear, saying she likes pears too much or something; and to me.
Sal is soft. He’s much softer than matty old Simon. But then, Simon has lived. Has Sal?
“I don’t know.”
Think about it. You’re here for a reason. What is it?
I think. The reason is that I woke up one day with a different head screwed on my neck. I don’t know why. How can I answer when I don’t have an answer.
“I can’t pour tea from an empty cup.”
The lady hesitates, thinking of what to say next. But before she can, Jean jumps in: “Preach, sister!”
“Brother!” shouts the bearded man.
Rose stands up and turns to the window.
Sit down, Rose. There’s nobody there.
“But why,” Rose says to herself.
“A,” says Jean.
That’s enough. Rose, sit down. Jean, stop entertaining Patrick. Patrick, please remember your practices.
They don’t listen. We end up back in our rooms until dinner.
I still don’t know my Why. I don’t think I ever will.
But maybe I’ll know my Z one day.
A Middle (Partial) Chapter
It’s him. He’s across the hallway, standing where my parents should be, looking anywhere but here. At anything but me.
I’m nine again, hiding behind a fencepost, watching him in the field. He’s ten, and knows I’m here, but doesn’t mind being watched. His family moved into a farm near town, and within days I stole one of their goats, back before I even knew who they were. Now, I know. I see him, with his cows in their field, round and warm-looking and calmer than I’ve ever seen a person. He never lets on that he sees me, never says a word or moves any faster than an old dog, and I know that he’s it. Everything I’m not, everything I’m missing, the string to my kite.
But now, looking at him, I know he saw me that day. And I wish, like then, I could think myself invisible- it’d be easier to see him if I didn’t know he sees me back.
I’m at the table I’m at every Friday, where I wait for my parents to visit, and he’s there, where I last expected him to be, walking down the hall towards me.
I’m lying at the edge of their property, flat to the grass, listening to him wrangle the cows. It’s the stillest I’ve ever been, every time I’m here it is, and it’s a stealth mission; I’m investigating the boy’s technique, ready to report any mishandling; I’m all in black and a ninja; I’m with the FBI, the CIA, NSA, the president; I’m watching and I’m listening. That is, I am until I open my eyes and see him lying, flat to the grass, on the other side of the pasture. In the exact position I’m in. Looking right back at me.
I wish there was grass beneath me now. I wish I could sink into it, grow roots and age with the dirt. But I can’t. It’s too late. He’s standing behind the chair across from me. Looking right back at me.
I sit there. He stands there. We stay there, neither one of us moving… until the nurses begin to get agitated. They shuffle, eyeing him and eyeing me and waiting for something to happen. Whispering to each other.
Eventually, I tell him, “sit down.”
He nods and sits. The nurses calm. I’d forgotten the way he moves. Like water on silk.
“I didn’t know it’d feel like this.”
His voice is just as smooth and tangy as it ever was, swallowing like sweetarts after a long day. I blink at him, forcing the words to come: “Feel like what?”
We’re a year in, and by now I’ve settled onto their fencepost, sitting or tightrope-walking the line of it, playing Keep Away with the Hurren boy. I’ve yet to talk to him, and he’s yet to talk to me, but I’m ten now and I refuse to be the one to break first. If he wants to hear my voice, he’ll have to ask kindly for it. Elsewise, I’m not saying a word.
He doesn’t. I break first. He slips in the cows’ manure and I laugh. I find myself trying to say things between the laughs, but can’t figure what they are. And it’s the first time I’ve seen him stumble, let alone fall… and he doesn’t react at all… so I’m in tears. The boy stands from the ground and brushes off his pants, then looks up to me. “That suits you,” he says.
I pause for a minute, calming my laughter, “What does?”
He smiles. I know what.
“Like coming home.”
I close my eyes. I know.
I know because the minute I saw him, I felt it too- this feeling, that’d been balled and ripped and scattered in my stomach, suddenly settled.
The Final Chapter
Should we be running? No, it’d be too conspicuous to run. This is right. Walking, waddling, paddling.
Since my room is the closest to the door and Jean’s is the farthest, she’s leading and I’m tailing. Meaning: if something goes wrong, she and I are the first to go down. Maybe that should scare me more.
I hardly remember what air feels like when it’s still crisp, before it starts to brown and sag from cheap conditioning. I remember loving it. I remember feeling the difference when I first got here. I’ll get to feel crisp air again tonight.
We left all our clothes behind, partly as symbolism and partly because they were itchy as hell. Now, we’re just five women in our underwear shuffling through a dark ward. Thrilled to be free.
It’s 11:00 and the day nurses are packing up. They head to the back around now to discuss the day (and presumably us), comforted after doing their rounds that everyone’s eased in bed, and the evening nurses step in around 12:00. We have one hour.
Our first stop is Canderwal’s office. Jean swiped a bobby pin from Lady earlier in the day, so she pulls it out now and jiggles the door open. We all shuffle in and I close the door behind us. Knowing we’ll be waiting for a minute, we all take a seat- Rose and Melody in the chairs, Jean with her back on the floor and legs against the wall, and me cross-legged with my back to his desk. Canderwal was my therapist too. Rose, Melody, and Jean all had Washington, but Jordan and I had Canderwal. I’ll miss the guy. I wasn’t extremely fond of him, but so it goes. I wasn’t fond of cereal either, until I was locked on an eggs-and-toast-only floor. Now all I want is Fruit Loops.
Jordan offered to shred my papers too, and she’s offering again now, but both times I pass. I don’t care if he keeps them. And like before, she presses: “Why should one small man have a copy of your life in his desk?” I say, “Why shouldn’t he?”
“Because it’s your fucking life, Trudy.”
Jordan can’t see me shrug from behind his desk, so I raise my hands up, palms open.
I can’t see her either, but I’m willing to bet she’s rolling her eyes. “Whatever. He doesn’t deserve to have my life, that’s all I know.”
Jean tilts her head back, so it’s facing me upside-down, and sticks out her tongue, mocking Jordan. I laugh. Rose looks where I’m looking and laughs too. Melody just smiles and shakes her head at us.
Jordan finds her file--”aHA”--and wiggles over to the shredder. “Drumroll, please.”
I start rolling my hands on the floor, Jean joins in with her feet against the wall, Rose with her feet on the floor, and finally, with some teasing, Melody joins with her hands on the chair arm. Jordan lets go. We stop our noise to listen to the papers shred, one by one, hearing as this section of her life dies. When she’s done, there’s a silence.
“Stick it to the man,” says Jean.
“The man’s been stuck,” says Melody, “let’s go.”
We all stand up and head out the door, back in our orderly little line. Jordan, right in front of me, is looser than she was before. She already looks free. I close the door behind us. Bye, Dr. Canderwal.
Jean passes the bobby pin to Melody, who passes it down to Rose. We stop at the corner, look, and round it. There it is: the infamous padded cell. Jean opens the door, which is kept unlocked, and stops. I’ve never been in the cell until now, nor has Melody, but neither of us squirms the way the others do. We don’t know how it feels to be alone in here. Everyone walks in, slow and cautious, and finally, I shut the door. Melody and I back against the right wall, and Jean and Jordan follow. Rose stands in the middle of the room, facing the opposite wall, steadier than I’ve ever seen her.
“This cell,” she says, stepping forward, “is cruel” she drags the bobby pin along the top of the left wall, slicing through the padding, “and unusual punishment.” Rose turns the bobby pin to go down the right side of the wall, “it’s solitary confinement,” she cuts along the bottom crease, “and it’s unnecessary, and it’s degrading,” she curves up through the left side, “and it’s inexcusable.” Rose finishes and rips out a fat square of padding. She opens the door and tosses it outside the room.
She moves to the next wall, still talking, and I wish we could record her. If there was a God, if there was any justice or fairness in the world, Rose would’ve never been here. She would’ve never heard angels, never left college, never ended up in this padded cell with a bobby pin in her fist. She would’ve been a criminal defense lawyer and “she would’ve kicked ass out there.” I look at Melody, who said it, almost reading my mind, and she looks back at me. I smile a watery smile, proud but sad, and she nods. We all watch Rose, and listen, and envy the person she could’ve been.
Finally, she finishes with the walls and the ceiling, and we step out to let her carve out the padded floor. When she’s done, she throws it at us and we lift it above our heads like warriors, opening our mouths in silent screams of victory.
Leaving the padding in the hall, we line back up and Rose hands the bobby pin to Jean, who kisses her hand and mouths something. I close the cell door and we round the corner. Two down, three to go.
We’re in the group room. It’s in the heart of the floor, only partially contained, so I keep near the outer walls. Everyone follows me but Jean. This is hers.
Jordan watches Jean scramble around the room, while the rest of us stare out the window. The windows here are much bigger than they are in other buildings. In other floors, even. I’ve gone back and forth, debated whether it was a cruel thing or a kind one- looking out windows only mocks you with beautiful things you can’t have; but at the same time, it reminds you what you’re fighting for. Freedom. Space. Life. I still can’t decide which fits this place. Maybe both.
“I hate those things. I don’t get why she wants them,” Jordan says.
“I don’t want them,” Jean says. “Just Simon.”
The rest of us turn, likely all ready to help, but just as we do, Jean finds him. He was under blankets in the chest-table. She picks Simon up, gives him a wink, and shoves him under her arm.
“Alright, my shit’s done. Melody, your turn.”
I look at Simon from the other end of our line and wonder, too, why she wants him. He’s not all that white anymore, and his fur is matted all over… and she has him squashed underneath her arm like a rag. What’s the draw?
But even if I wanted to say something, I can’t now- we’re in the living room, at the front of the ward. The only walls are the one against the outside and the one between the group room and this one. The nurses’ station is right there. The doors to the nurses’ lounge are right there. And the clock, saying we’re running out of time, is right there.
All of us freeze. Melody takes a deep breath and goes. She heads straight for the plant, the one by the window, the one she always pukes beside. None of us knew her errand, only that it was in the living room, so I think everyone’s as confused as I am.
Jean raises an eyebrow and Rose shrugs in reply.
That answers that.
Melody picks up the plant, pot and all, and carries it to the inner wall, placing it on the mantle. After placing it, turning it properly, and letting her arms fall, she looks at it for a minute and then steps away.
Everyone holds themselves until we make it to the last hallway. Then,
“What the fuck, Melody?”
“We could’ve gotten caught!”
“I thought my errand was batshit.”
“Look,” she says. “It’s just something I had to do.”
“It’s just something I had to do.”
The way she says it, the firmness in her voice, shuts us all up. We get it. Intimately, in a way most people never could, we understand. It’s just something she had to do. For whatever reason. It just is.
So we deflate and look at the clock. Five minutes until the next shift.
“Okay,” Melody says. “Who has the key again?”
The girls turn to me. I swallow. The next five minutes move like molasses.
I pull the key from my shirt pocket, pushing past the lint, and let it lie in my palm. I show them. They nod. It’s cold in my hand, the key, and I can’t remember the last time I felt cold metal. Maybe it was the last time I drove, or maybe at my last trip to Georgie’s farm, or maybe I never felt cold metal at all. Maybe this is a first. It feels nice in my hand. Heavy.
I hand the key to Jordan, who hands it to Rose, to Melody, and finally to Jean. She closes her fingers around it and digs both her fists in her hair. Sighs. I wonder if the key’s warm now. I wonder if it’s warm outside.
“Fuck,” Jean says.
“Preach, sister,” Rose says, smiling.
“Brother,” Melody says, smiling too.
Jean eases her hands to her sides and turns around, facing the door.
Three minutes. Molasses.
She presses the key into the lock and I can feel how the lock feels, being pressed into and spun. There’s a click. And then Jean pushes the door open to the stairwell.
We run down the stairs, bouncing under our bras and underwear and slapping our feet against the concrete steps and not giving a damn.
I give a damn.
The cold concrete against my feet is cold, like the key, and heavy all the same.
We reach the bottom and stop, heaving from excitement and adrenaline and six sets of stairs. The sign is there, the sign we’ve been picturing for months at our feet: the exit sign.
Jean leans all her weight against the door and it opens. She lets it go and runs out. Melody walks out behind her, then Rose, then Jordan. But it’s not warm outside. It’s cold, and it’s a parking lot.
Asphalt, not grass. Cold, not warm. Cars, not trees.
It’s ugly. It’s darker than I remember. It’s worse.
They’re jumping up and down and Jordan’s gone and Rose is holding out her hand to me and Jean is whooping and Melody is staring at the sky and I’m horrified.
I don’t know that place.
I close the door and hold it shut. There’s pulling from the other side for a minute, but it quickly stops. Time is up.
They find me there, sitting with my back to the door, five hours later.
Is today Wednesday?