Part Eight: Why Did You Decide to Move to Argentina?
It’s been more than a week and every day I think about my semester, the one I took loans out for, the one that’s being flushed away. Each day I’m missing class, missing assignments, getting further behind. I’m no longer psychotic. This level of stability is about as good as it gets for me. It’s my personality that’s inappropriate. There’s no other conclusion to draw for my being here indefinitely.
After breakfast one day, there’s Jason. He has dead eyes, a wry half smile and a huge schnozz. He’s mischievous and low key and has an East Coast accent. He moves in a loose jointed way. His drug of choice is speed which induced a psychosis he has recovered from, though not in the eyes of the hospital.
I sit on the couch in the TV room with him that night and we mutter invectives at the television. I bitch about my shoulder which is a constant pinching. It and my neck both feel like they’ve been used as a heavy bag. He gives me some change and I buy junk food for us.
I’m allowed off the ward now. Art therapy has low expectations of us. The materials we’re allowed to use are similar to those in a special needs class. Crayons, oil pastels, nothing we could make a mess or stab ourselves with. Substance abuse class is chaired by a bald guy with glasses who has it pretty on the ball. I sign up for gym. It’s a free for all of directionless wandering and medicated staring twice a week, but I try the weight machines.
To go to gym, we go outside to another building. We can see the unit for the criminally insane from there. After a couple of weeks of being fenced in, the sky is frighteningly large. The earth seems to wobble in my vertigo. It’s strange how quickly that happens.
I go to get a haircut. The style I’ve been favoring is a longish wolverine. I use brill cream to spike the sides and bring the front down to a point between my eyebrows. I explain my haircut and sit in the chair, and the barber makes friendly conversation, smiling and laughing at the things I say. My fingers curl over the armrest. He jacks up the seat. As he circles around me, he rests his cock and balls on the back of my hand. I sit perfectly still and once he’s moved, I shift my hands to my lap. I stare into his eyes to let him know I know what he did. He looks back at me as if to say, “Can’t hurt to try.”
In the bathroom, I discover blood smeared all over the toilet seat, the floor, the sink, the mirror. My roommate has been busy decorating with her menses. I go to the nurses’ station and immediately demand a room change which I am granted. I am placed with a quiet, schizophrenic woman who speaks of Jesus when she speaks at all and doesn’t snore.
We are fed steady diets of powerlessness by social workers, doctors and therapists who need confirmation that we understand that we are helpless over whatever it is that ails us. Videos are shown in which the overarching message is that we should accept we are fundamentally and chemically flawed, but it’s not our fault. “Get help” is the moral of these stories and we are institutionalized, surrounded by “help,” but the help is generic, is pablum, is a glass wall we walk into face first and then sit on the floor dazed and wondering what’s next. It leads nowhere, is an endless loop.
Jason and I are getting closer. I fight the urge to touch him, his hand, his hair. I struggle with these feelings in bursts of adrenaline until one day I reach over and his hand closes over mine.
We touch calves under the table, touch fingers. This sort of thing is forbidden. We are not allowed contact with anyone else on the ward and the thrill of in this atmosphere makes for palpitations. We have a miniature notebook we pass back and forth with secret messages and rudimentary cartoons. After orderly checks at 15 minute intervals, we immediately hold hands briefly to make the most of the temporary absence of authority.
Our first kiss is in the TV room and we are caught at it, jump apart like magnets at like poles, but can’t convince the orderly nothing was going on. We are spoken to individually. We are free to do as we wish outside the hospital, but we are being watched now and this sort of behavior will not be condoned. Jason is transferred to another ward, but we meet at mealtimes and grouse and touch legs and in the few groups we share, we sit next to each other. We make plans for him to come and live with me when we get out.
One day, leaning against the counter at the unattended nurses’ station, I see an excel sheet on a clipboard that lists every patients’ name on the ward. It’s upside down from where I am, but I can clearly read that I have been noted there as “homicide risk, suicide risk, risk of sexually acting out.” My heart takes off in a sprint of rage. I have never attempted suicide. I have never assaulted anyone in any sort of serious way. And this is the last place in the world I would choose to fuck anyone. I immediately confront one of the nurses, an old, thin woman with a dollop of white hair.
“You weren’t supposed to see that.”
“Well, I have. And don’t I have a right to know how I’m being categorized here?”
“You weren’t supposed to see it.”
“Shouldn’t someone have hidden it, then? I would just like to raise my objection to being classified this way.”
“But you weren’t supposed to see that. That information is private.”
“Not private enough, apparently. Who do I have to speak to in order to address this? Homocide risk? Are you fucking serious?”
“There is no need to raise your voice. You weren’t supposed to see that paper. We are going to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I have seen it. I want to talk with someone about my risk categories. They are untrue. No wonder I’m still fucking in here. I might fucking kill someone apparently.”
“Kate. Kate. Don’t use bad language. Don’t raise your voice. I know you’re upset, but you’re upsetting the other patients. Calm down.” I am spoken to this way often, told that I am an example and I have enough control not to shout. Not enough control to be released into the outside world, though.
At some later point, I am assured that the page has been edited, but as I am not allowed to see it, I will never know if I was being placated or if this was true.
This time I enjoy both Halloween and Thanksgiving in the institution. For Halloween we play bingo. Upset about missing my favorite holiday, I smoke on the patio, chatting with an orderly who is preparing for his GRE, quizzing him on multisyllabic words and laughing.
I see her coming from the corner of my eye, the schizophrenic girl with the beautiful face and round, sturdy body. And then she’s punched me in the jaw with a force that shoots pain through my face and up and around my head. Though the doctor I have to argue repeatedly to see says there is nothing wrong, I can feel something loose in my face which hurts for days into my temple and down through the (until then) pain free side of my neck. It will cause periodic problems for years afterwards.
I am reprimanded for yelling at the girl who is later forced to apologize to me, but it ends up being an apology uttered by a nurse which she nods her agreement with. Problem solved.
For Thanksgiving, we eat holiday themed institutional food: pressed, congealed turkey and canned cranberries. My mother brings me leftovers on visiting day and I share them with Jason in front of the cafeteria’s large picture windows that look over the ward for the criminally insane, an American flag and acres of uniformly cut grass.
Toward the end of November I am released, Jason following days later. I have student loan money, but it will be impossible to recover the time I’ve lost. I’ve got a little over $1000 to last until January starts. I’ve got no job, my semester is another series of Ws for withdrawn on my transcript and I’m sent back on my way to the shitty second floor apartment in Old Louisville, the crack house across the street, the whores on the sidewalk, the leaves starting to fall and nothing of purpose to do.