WEDNESDAY, JULY 22nd, 1998
Under the peeling tabletop, a foot tiptoes over to mine, lifts up my pant leg, and strokes my leg hairs. Autumn’s neck is laced with a smile of a fresh scar. She missed her jugular by centimeters. There are some amazing survival stories in here.
My favorite psychiatric technician looks like Snow White. She squeezes Autumn’s shoulder. “Why don’t you come sit over here?”
I sit at the round table closest to the dual swinging doors and the upright piano we’re not allowed to play during meals and visiting hours, the only times we’re allowed in the dining room. I tap at a key.
“No piano,” says Carl, another psychiatric techinician, his skin pleated with a deep tan.
A boom box plays top forty with the volume duct taped to level three. I sit with Victoria.
“Does Superman look at you?” she asks.
“Sometimes.” Dizzy always said sometimes.
On the wall is a poster of Fellini directing Indiana Jones swinging on a vine along the colonnade as E.T. points a glowing finger at Superman.
Victoria and I wait in front of the sneezeguard for our turquoise trays. The food is different every day but the same every week. We’re always called for dinner first, because our food would congeal if we waited for the other patients to calorie count.
White rice balls up inside my mouth. I put down my fork and walk over to Cynthia, who chews on her upper lip as she adds up the girls’ caloric intake. “Will you come sit with us in the boys’ reading room?”
She nods as she thinks. “See if anyone’s in the nurses’ station first.”
I reach for the doorknob, and Joanne says to me, “Where do you think you’re going?” Her bloodshot eye from a cat scratch watches me. “I haven’t handed out meds yet. Sit down until everyone finishes her dinner.”
As I sit I notice Victoria’s leg trembling. She calms it with her hand. “Can you do anything for very long?”
A muffin sheet of pills settles on the table. Two plastic cups in each recess, one cup for water, the other for reds, blues, liquids, gelcaps. I look up at Joanne’s burnt perm.
“You may not discuss those matters with the other patients,” she says to me. “Go to your room,” and places a cup of pink pills the size of baby carrots in my hand. I walk over to the water fountain.
“I meant for you to leave right now.”
The girls look back and forth between us.
Cynthia taps with a pencil on the table. “Let’s finish our dinners while minding our own businesses.”
The girls turn back to their plates and whisper.
I tilt the four horse pills into my mouth and swallow on the sticky coating. They cling to my tonsils. I let the heavy door slam and stand in the hallway trying to gather spit. Down the hall on the other side of the glass paneling of the nurses’ station, Berta talks on the phone. She files her lavender toenails, pausing every so often to flip through a patient’s chart.
* * *
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15th, 1997
The car fishtails. I think I almost crashed into a wall, but I can’t tell because of the dust. A skirt of haze falls down around a gray wall. I open the door. Rumblings from a cracked muffler reverberate into a roar too loud to talk over. I measure from the fender to the wall where concrete flaps over the bricks like syrup on a pancake. I hold up the length for Dizzy to see. I get back in the car and laugh so hard I don’t find it funny anymore.
The night hangs over us. We’re looking for our way home when we roll up to the gate of naval base. A guard with his hands in his pockets walks out of his glass box. I’m not able to pay attention to his map, because I’m squinting so he can’t see my pupils.
While I drive, Dizzy reads to me from a legal pad so filled with scribble it isn’t yellow anymore. I feel sick with her right then, with the scars up and down her arms. Any other time they are beautiful in the way only imperfections can be.
The highway runs along cliffs. A flock of birds, as if pieces of the night had flaked off, fly across the road. I try to breathe past the knot in my throat. Under a moonless sky the ocean is blank like her look when she turns to me and says, “You’re in the oncoming traffic.”
Headlights. A horn. I swerve.
“Sometimes I think people in passing cars are people I know,” she says.
“I mean I see myself in other cars. I see myself at different ages, if I had eaten more vegetables.”
The tires crunch into gravel.
“You’re on the shoulder.”
* * *
WEDNESDAY, JULY 22nd, 1998
Berta leans against the door and blows on her lavendar nails. “What’d you want?”
“We’ll stop by the bathroom on the way to poetry hour.”
I pull the bed sheet up over my head, and her dark outline sails over to me, then yanks the sheet out of my hands.
“Don’t test me,” she says.
Wes leads poetry therapy. He spent much of the Korean War playing chess. He walks with his hand outstretched behind his back, waiting for someone to give him five. His hands are dusted white from the chalk. He asks us to recite the poems we worked on the night before. “Why don’t you go ahead and present your poem, Arthur.”
A few girls clap. I stand up from behind the couch and open my composition book. “My sock got caught in the teeth of an escalator, eating, then repeating eating me.”
Joanne stands up while I’m reading. “You know you’re not allowed to talk about eating.”
A patient traces her lips with a bony finger.
I flip the page. “Joanne, the mean psychiatric technician, I don’t like her.”
“Arthur, that’s enough.”
“I think she knows she can’t help us. I think she should change her profession.”
Joanne stands at the opposite end of the pool table. I pick up the cue ball and chuck it.
SUNDAY, MAY 3rd, 1998
I want my records back. People come and go but a person’s record collection is immutable. Somewhere in your heart is a scratch, and you’re broken.
My car door gives way to outstretched arms. A trumpet blows a crackle through a blown speaker. A bag suctions my mouth. Someone taps at my cheek. “Stay awake. Can you tell me you home phone number?”
“Let me die.”
Velcro rips. “We can’t let you die until we know your phone number.” The worry of machines turns on overhead. A tube snakes down my throat.
The room is dark, but I can make out row upon row of incubators. At a desk three babies down, two nurses chatter. One turns and walks towards me.
“How do you feel?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t mind the babies. There wasn’t any room in the Adult ICU.”
Later, my eyes open to Dizzy hovering over me. Her black hair is matted along the seam of her eyebrows. The bump near the bridge of her nose, from when a kid threw a rock over a fence and no one reset the break, is wet.
She backs up into a folding chair.
“You’ll wake the babies.”
Inside the incubators babies sleep in snow hats and mittens.
“They gave me your suicide note.” Her makeup is falling down her face. “I don’t have your records.” She turns and winds her way through the aisles of glass boxes and out the automatic door.
Later a nurse finds an envelope on the floor next to my IV. It reeks of Dizzy’s cheap perfume. The letter, written in red crayon, reads:
I had the strangest day of my life today. I woke up on an L-shaped couch, next to a girl’s head, asleep in a strange apartment. It was so lonely being so close to someone whose name I didn’t know. Then my ear started bleeding. Art, I never told you this because I was jealous, but you’re a wonderful bowler. I miss how you would comb your hair different everyday. I can’t stop thinking about you, and I can’t keep telling people that there’s something in my eyes.
* * *
SUNDAY, SEPT. 24th, 2006
While standing in line at the supermarket I reread Dizzy’s letter. It smells of the shoebox it’s been kept in. The line shuffles forward. Finger taps on keys wind through people’s sights. Blood leaks into my mouth. My wisdom teeth were removed this morning.
I stopped going to supermarkets because of the beeping. That and the lights make people look blood-sucked; zombies pushing their zombie children caged in shopping carts. The bouquet wrapped in plastic crumples as I lay it on the counter. “I’d like to return this.”
In the car and down the road, I remember I left Dizzy’s card tethered to the stems. She used to spend every day with me, sitting next to me, legs neatly folded under her, holding my hand till sweat dripped between our palms.
Last week an invitation came. “Please come to my birthday,” was all it said.
We met in the shower. She said she fell in love with me because I drove her home without saying a word. When I finally did speak, I took my hand out of hers and said, “Nothing personal, but my hand’s getting uncomfortable.” We drove aimlessly as the sun filtered through the clouds. She teased me about my sharp bone structure, the point in my chest plate, my rocky shoulder blades. She could never rest her head on my body.
Pepper trees clutter her sidewalk, their knotted roots swelling out of the cracks in the pavement. Her glass-block fence melts the flora behind it. Saplings sway in the bushy grass, and stone steps lead up to a metal door.
I wish her a happy birthday and tell her I like her coat. I don’t like her coat. The stiff collar encases her neck and the arms flare out. She has a child’s hands, grubby and small.
The room descends by steps that light up at the pressure of my feet. Inside jokes are scrawled on the wall. I know because she used to write them on my glove box.
Wiley sits on their suede couch, and when she sits next to him, he begins to walk his hands along her legs. He asks what I’ve been up to. I can’t look at them when I say not much.
Dizzy says, “We’re infested with roly-polies. We could never keel them though.”
The we is killing me. “I have cockroaches.”
“Those you can keel.” She’s developed a Spanish accent, sometime when, I don’t know.
* * *
TUESDAY, APRIL 22nd, 1997
Parties, I don’t understand. I always end up hiding in the bathroom. Wiley drags in this girl. He throws his arms around me, and we stumble backwards into the shower. Water drips onto my head. His girl with the pond-water eyes steps into the shower and lights a cigarette. She kicks over a bottle of shampoo. “I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”
* * *
SUNDAY, SEPT. 24th, 2006
The creak of hinges, and moonlight settles over us. In the backyard a ladder leans against brick walls. Dizzy sets her glass on the concrete and climbs up the rungs. “Bring my drink, please.”
She waits for me on the rooftop, leaning over the ledge. I stretch the glass out to her. She pinches the rim. I let go. She lets go. I hear the glass shatter, and Wiley go, “You missed.”
“Sorry,” she says. “My hand did the opposite of what I told it to.”
Dizzy put the trampoline on the roof for a daredevil rush. We sit on the trampoline and bob for a moment.
“You’ve gained weight,” Wiley tells me.
“No, I’m just puffy. I had my wisdom teeth out this morning.”
“I may have something that’ll take the edge of that.” She takes a pill out of her pocket. “Remember the yellow pill party that doctor’s daughter threw? Fifty kids passed out all over their house. I took pictures of Art standing next to them like they were landmarks.” She takes the pill herself. “Art, what would you want your name to be if you could be someone else?”
“I’d like to be Paul.”
“I’ll be Violet. If we could live anywhere, where would we live?”
“Minneapolis.” The moon sits on his shoulder like a scythe.
* * *
This is sometimes about Paul and Violet. The airport. Black seats bolted together. The smoking atrium, tropical trees in a deadly mist. Paul sits languidly, his leg propped up by the armrest. He considers shifting to a better posture but can’t muster the energy. He wants to appear less like a corpse to the girl stumbling up the Jetway. Violet drops the carry-on with wheels that go every which way but forward. Headphones dangle around her neck. The hood of her sweatshirt obscures her face. Violet hugs him like she would have fallen if he weren’t there. In the car she tells him how close she came to dying. How she wears her headphones through the city, into the subway even, sticking her head out to see if the train is coming and—whoosh—gray steel blows across her cheek.
“Twice it’s happened.” She shakes form the plane ride. There was lightning in the clouds.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” she says. Paul asks if she’s eaten. She stole a bag of salad for lunch. “Carlo stole a whole shopping cart. He put the groceries in and walked out.” She shows Paul the bruise on her thigh. She tells him how she’s never going to fly again and how she thinks she has tapeworm from a hamburger Carlo made. She won’t stop putting her head in her hands.
She shows him the bruise on her thigh again. “From the armrest.” The headlights shine on her sister’s garage. She never took her hood off.
* * *
Paul was about to get into his car when he saw a shooting star. He learned a lot about himself by what he jumped to wish for. It’d been seven years, the number of death in Japan, since Violet’s porcelain face last graced his pillow. He said her name when he saw the star. But stopped himself from saying more.
* * *
Violet laughs between words. “Sorry to call you at so boring in the morning.”
Paul places the phone between his head and the pillow.
“Are you going to pick me up at the airport?” she asks.
“I didn’t know you were coming. What’s that noise?”
“I’m seeing how fast I can type.”
“Are you making words?” His jaw cracks from grinding his teeth all night.
“I don’t mean to always call so early. It’s just the time that I’m awake.”
“Do you sleep during the day?”
“How can anyone sleep during the day?”
“People seem to.” The early sun slips into Paul’s window like too much milk into a cup of tea.
The typing stops. “People seem to what?”