Editor’s Choice Award
BY MOLLY WADZECK KRAUS
You are sad, but a different kind of sad than I am. Your arrival two days after mine revealed the imposter syndrome I’d been concealing under my extrovert’s skillful sleight of hand. This inner voice tells me I’m not sick enough to be here; I’m just weak. You reveal nothing about yourself, long legs crossed tightly, sinewy dark hair framing your angular face. Your brand of weariness mirrors mine. If we’d met on the outside, I think you would be laughing at my jokes by now. Why are you here? I know I’m here because I swallowed a handful of Klonopin, drank two bottles of wine, and gave up. Still, you seem like the version of myself that actually deserves to be here. I am a fraud.
I answer every question; the stories pour forth from my mouth so expeditiously it feels like I might choke. The nurse offers a smile, clicks her pen, and writes in her notebook (probably) that I’ve been a “Very Good Girl.” Even when I’m telling the truth, it feels like lying; everything is a performance of some kind or another. You have to say key phrases in the proper order so they can recommend your release. I still can’t understand how locking mentally ill people in a dimly lit box with no access to nature offers us healing. Draw the right card, or be sent back to square one – I’m the red game piece in Candyland, are you the green?
You sit. You decline to move your body in ways that might draw attention. You’re always in the same chair, to the right of me, three seats down. I pace, I count calories as I log step after step. Thirty-six laps around the corridor is a mile. Sometimes I feel like throwing chairs into the TV set. I mean, what kind of psych ward lets their patients watch marathons of Law & Order: SVU? I’m afraid of Aaron, but you like to sit next to him. I wonder if danger makes you feel safer.
It’s July, and I’m sweating. I’m always sweating profusely in summer, but the fluorescent lights pull double duty as heat lamps here. I wonder if your voice is deep like a crooner’s or if you are the type that communicates with an affected upspeak, insecure about their opinions, framing everything like a question. It’s day three, and you’ve still not said a word.
“Sir, I’m bleeding out of my butt. If I don’t go to the ER, I’m going to bleed out!” Shelley screams and then eats three mouthfuls of Trix. Why does everyone eat cereal at 9pm? I notice you never eat anything, a fact that beckons my dormant anorexia simmering beneath the surface. I think I’m not crazy enough to be here. There’s so much I want to do, but I still don’t want to wake up in the morning.
Betty says her niece, Whitney Houston, is coming to visit her and that every man in here looks like Cassius Clay. You never look at Betty; I wonder who she reminds you of. Betty has long silver hair and eyes that look through you, not at you. She doesn’t walk; she shuffles. She says all the food is wonderful, everyone is a sweetheart until they need to shut up and get the fuck out of her face. She says bananas grow in gardens.
The bathrooms always flood when someone takes a shower. There’s too much time to think; there are no clocks. Back at home, time gives meaning; it organizes and repairs. Here, time is determined by a loudspeaker’s announcements for meals and group meetings. Or by how many times I’ve thought about slapping Amanda.
Amanda, my new roommate, is an incessant talker, testing my patience bemoaning the countless people who’ve wronged her. She told me her sister showed her abortion videos, so she decided she could never have one. “What do they do to the baby when it’s over?” she asked me. I tell her if she gets pregnant, she should almost certainly have an abortion.
Your eyes don’t light up at anything, but you are drawn to Bianca like I am. Bianca only wears pink clothing, accessorized with ruffled socks and an oversized hair bow. She dresses like my six-year-old daughter and speaks in muted anticipation of a long-coveted surprise. The nurses have her name as Brady on the whiteboard. I erased it and changed it to Bianca. They didn’t like that.
Betty keeps sauntering over and whispering how ya doin hon I love ya in my ear. Amanda is still talking. There is no peace.
I’m not better than anyone else here, but I’m worse than many people in general. I try to call my sister, but she doesn’t answer. Betty answers a phone that doesn’t ring, has a conversation with no one, and then leaves it dangling off the hook—a humorous ode to all the former residents with suicide ideation who’ve haunted these halls before.
It’s your turn to meet with Dr. Roberts now. Dr. Roberts thinks I can go home, possibly Tuesday, if I continue to do well on my new medication, stay active, and go to groups. Dr. Roberts also asked me three times if my son or daughter was older. She told the nurse to save snacks for me because I hadn’t eaten yet, despite having told her when I first entered her office that I, in fact, had just eaten. Perhaps Dr. Roberts needs to be a patient here instead. I’m not sure how she can diagnose and treat me in a week. I want to scream, If you give me more pills, I will just take all of them again. But I do want to go home. So, I smile and strip emotion from my voice to say Thank You and Absolutely, Doctor.
My wedding anniversary is today. Betty says she likes her showers to be personal. Don’t we all, Betty, don’t we all.
I got my release order before you. We exchanged glances when the nurse told me to pack my things. I’ll go back to my husband and children, to a home that is safe, but perhaps not safe from me. What awaits you when you leave after this bizarre weeks-long slumber party? I think about asking you to take a Cosmo quiz with me. Are you a summer or a winter girl? Which muzzle looks best with your skin tone? Which plastic cup of pills brings out the sexy, flirty you? I think, in a different life, we would have met in a bar bathroom, you’d lend me your eyeliner, we’d laugh about the creepy guy who tried to get your number. Later, we’d be at Brighton Beach with margaritas in our plastic cups instead, with no shortage of sunlight and fresh air. When I close my eyes, I picture us lounging, reveling–your dark hair, stringy now only from the saltwater, and your voice soft, not because you’re sad or dying but because it’s overcome by the sound of the waves and seagulls. I think, I don’t know if I’ll survive back out here, but I hope you do.