Eating turned out to be the hard part. I tried, but I could hardly keep anything down. The days ran in to each other even though I tried to pay attention.
I kept thinking about Uncle Stephen, and Santa Fe. It was like a part of me was there, the sun close and warm.
Once we’d gone walking, just the two of us, out into the scrub. Sage and Joshua trees. We climbed a hill and sat up there until night fell and then we watched the sky, all the stars so near. There was a meteor shower, so many falling stars. We sat there for hours, getting colder and colder. It was wonderful. So wonderful.
And another time when he let me watch him paint. I must have been in sixth or seventh grade. He never let anyone watch him paint, but he let me. I sat there all day, still as I could be, watching him dab a bit of red, step back, dab a bit of yellow, step back. It was like a dance, so strange and separate from me. What he saw was all in his head, that shaping with color. The next day he gave me my own little stretched canvas that he had made and five brushes and tubes of paint; red and blue and yellow and white and green and purple and orange, all of it mine. That day I painted my first painting, a picture of his cat. I gave it to Uncle Stephen and he gave me another canvas, nodding his approval. He thought I could do it.
Mother accused me of stealing the paint and brushes and made me give them back, made me tell Uncle Stephen I didn’t want to paint anymore. I didn’t know if he believed me or not, but he took them back and wouldn’t let me watch him paint ever again.
I didn’t understand why Mother didn’t want me to have the paints. It hadn’t hurt her, had it?
He sent me a package before he died, a box with that cat painting and the brushes and paints. It was good, the little painting of Java. Innocent and untutored, but the colors were interesting and the gesture of the cat was perfect, her lying there in a bit of sun, eyes half-slits, watching me as I painted. He sent a note along with it. It said, “Don’t let her take from you what is most important. I’m so sorry I let you down. I love you so much.”
So had he believed me then or did the realization come later, after we’d left and he’d thought about it for awhile? That I really did want to paint, that I loved to paint. Why didn’t he let me back into his studio? He must have known I loved it, to send that parcel and that note. Could he, perhaps, have been protecting me? Protecting me from...
Shut up, idiot brain.
When I gained ten pounds and was up to a whopping eighty-five, they sent me upstairs to the fourth floor, a.k.a. the loony bin. Check-in was a hassle. Locked door. Bag search. I stood there with Samantha, tried to breathe, as she chatted with the check-in people about a book or a movie or a play, I never could figure out what. They took my comb, my electric razor, my toothbrush and left me with nothing but clothes and books. No pencil for my sketchbook. Useful sketchbook. And then I got herded to an office while being stared at by a bunch of people loitering in the hallways. Nice place. Great atmosphere. Like hell.
Samantha trotted along beside me as a guy bigger than Tuesday opened a door for us. I slouched in, Samantha not far behind. Bookcases lined the walls, and an elaborate desk took up the floor, but nobody was there so we sat in the two chairs in front of the desk. I stared out the window at all the snow, felt like I’d been plopped into The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath me, baby.
Samantha said, “So how are you holding up?”
“Great,” I said. “Fab. I’m a lab rat and have been since October.”
“That’s not true and you know it.”
Yeah. “Whatever.” I stuck my good hand into my pocket and felt a round, flat, metal object. I pulled it out, turned it over and over. A brass pill box with a cut swirl on the top. Uncle Stephen had given it to me. I couldn’t remember why. Inside it had a rock in it. A small brown rock with flecks of green and red. From Santa Fe. I’d seen it one day outside the house, lying on the ground and I’d picked it up, made a treasure of it. Strange, the little things we held on to. The things that meant so much.
When the door opened behind us, the smell of White Shoulders hit me, made me jump up and out of my chair.
Nobody’d told me my mother would be here.
I suddenly felt horribly queasy and dizzy.
I could feel my balance teetering, so I tried to focus on staying upright, but I couldn’t.
The world went distant and strange, and down I went.
“Violet? Violet? Wake up. Come on back.”
Had I been sleeping?
“Violet. Come on. It’s Samantha. You’re perfectly safe. No one’s going to hurt you.”
I smelled the perfume again. Realized I lay on the floor and then I remembered everything. The day before Thanksgiving. Adam. Trying to kill myself. Waking up. Failing again. And now this. Virtual incarceration. Loon city. Maybe I really needed to be locked away from the normal people. People who don’t faint from the smell of perfume.
“Violet?” Samantha said.
“I’ll call her doctor,” another voice said, distinctly feminine and southern.
“No.” My voice a little raspy and hollow.
Samantha leaned over me. “Are you all right? What happened?”
The other voice sounded irritated. “She can’t have been lying about eating. They’ve been measuring everything that goes in and comes out.”
“I’m fine.” I managed to open my eyes. I had fainted. From the fucking smell of perfume. Starting to sit up, I got woozy again immediately.
“Take it easy,” Samantha said. “Go slow.”
How much slower could I go? I stared up at the institutional acoustic tiles, familiar and vapid from days of staring at the same tiles a few floors down. I tried sitting up again, more slowly, with Samantha’s hand hovering at my back.
I sat beside the desk, the chair I had been sitting on lying on it’s back beside me.
The Perfume Woman came around the desk to help Samantha get me and the chair up so I could sit again. I surreptitiously studied the new addition.
She was petite, slightly taller than me, with a delicate bone structure. Her hair was a pixie cut, bluish black against an olive complexion. Her eyes appeared huge, a cold blue behind tiny circular frames. Dressed in a man’s crisp white shirt and pinstriped wool trousers, she radiated efficiency and clinical perfection.
Not only did she smell like my mother, she dressed like her, too.
“Would either of you care for coffee or tea?” She glanced at me. “A soda, perhaps.”
“Is this a social visit?” I readied myself to keep her as far away as possible.
She smiled, an indulgent edge to it. “What a razor sharp wit you are. But if you change your mind, the drinks are behind you, on the table and in the mini fridge.”
Both Samantha and she sat, nobody taking a beverage. I felt like I’d wandered onto the set of some psychotic horror movie.
“I’m Dr. Emily Bower, but please feel free to call me Dr. Emily. You’ll find we don’t stand on ceremony here, preferring to engender a more homelike atmosphere.”
“We’ll get you out of here in no time. Just consider this to be a special gift. A home away from home where you can rest up and get your head screwed on straight, again, without all those outside pressures.”
Was she insane? She couldn’t be serious. I glanced at Samantha, who smiled and nodded. But the foot on her left leg, crossed over her right, bounced up and down double time, a sure sign of major brain activity. Maybe she didn’t like Dr. Emily-Can-Go-Fuck-Herself any more than I did.
“Let’s go take a look at your room, shall we?” Dr. Emily led the way down the hall. I stared at my sock feet moving over the beige linoleum. As we walked, Dr. Emily kept flapping her lips. “You’re lucky enough to be getting one of our single rooms, at least for the time being. If we get any more girls, we’ll have to start doubling up. It’s such an arduous process, trying to decide which patients will go together. Can’t start stacking people up, willy nilly. You’ll notice we’re coed.”
So that would explain the guys and girls roaming about. I resisted rolling my eyes.
“Of course, no fraternization between boys and girls allowed.” She glanced at me, my shaved head, and whispered, “Nothing allowed between girls, either.”
Now I rolled my eyes. Just loved being blindly typed.
We reached what I assumed would be my prison cell. It was bigger than I’d expected. I walked over to the window and pulled the blinds open. I could see the hospital’s helicopter pad and Lathrop St. where it turned into Cowles. It was dark and windy with a thin snow blowing down fast.
I turned back to the room. It depressed me. Narrow bed covered in another mint green thermal blanket and a sheet, pillow tidily tucked under the two. Built in desk with two open shelves above it. One molded-plastic beige chair. A blonde wood one-drawer night stand. Tall metal wastebasket next to a white porcelain sink. My own toilet in a tiny room without a lock. Painfully white bare walls. Two fluorescent tube lights flush with the ubiquitous tiled ceiling. Made me think of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club, that ancient ’eighties flick, when he got put in the supply closet by the crazy principal and then climbed in the ceiling back to the library.
Escape. That concept interested me. Held against one’s will. Unable to break the cycle. Headed for destruction.
I jumped, startled by Samantha’s voice.
I’m a little teapot, short and stout. “Great,” I said. “Super-duper.”
Samantha pursed her lips. A nurse stuck her head in the door before Samantha could say something.
She said, “Call for Dr. Emily on line three.”
The doctor nodded. “Be right there.” Looked back at me. “I’ll be back for an intake interview. One of the nurses will be here soon to fill you in on some details.” She smiled at Samantha. “You’ll keep her company ’till then, won’t you, dear?”
Her perfume lingered. It made me want to throw up or jump from the window. Take your pick.
Samantha cleared her throat. “She... uuuuh... She can be a bit... obnoxious... At times.”
I turned my back on her. She wasn’t my co-conspirator.168
“Violet...” She got interrupted by another woman bustling into the room. Let’s pray there was a lock.
The woman introduced herself as Betty, my nurse.
Oh, you didn’t know you got your own personal follow-you-everywhere-invade- your-privacy 24/7 fucking nurse?
“What?” I said, overwhelmed.
Nurse Betty said, “You’re on suicide watch.”
As if that explained anything.
I stared at these two women.
Trying to mold me into some preconceived notion of how I should act.
In the cloyingly sweet guise of trying to help me.
Wouldn’t Mother have just left me alone at this point? “Oh, she wants to kill herself, so I guess I’ll just leave her to it.” Except she hadn’t. She’d saved me twice before. Point being completely moot, now, though, seeing as how she had dropped me like a bad nectarine. Stupid me.
I started to get a little panicky, like maybe I couldn’t breathe. Like some kind of heavy weight sat on my chest and shoulders. I just wanted to run, but I didn’t think I’d make it to the door of the room, much less the doors out of here.
Which were locked, anyway. Fuck me.
This had gotten completely out of control.
“Why don’t you have a seat, Violet,” said Nurse Good Year. “We’ll go over some of the rules and expectations.”
So I sat. There was nothing else I could do. Sit. Be good. Try not to fly in a million pieces. I reminded myself that I’d kind of wanted to be saved. That a part of me wanted a little help. Saved from the land where I was nothing but a worthless wad of atoms. Saved from “Nothing’s ever good enough.” From the pounding in my stomach that beat out a rhythm of “I can’t do this any more.”
I couldn’t take it.
I just couldn’t take another minute of being hounded, hounded, hounded.
The nurse’s voice droned in the background, the lights suddenly got too bright. I couldn’t catch my breath. I looked at Samantha; she watched me, concern etching her eyebrows in a questioning frown.
Was I gonna pass out again? That whole show had gotten old the first time.
Samantha interrupted Nurse Nazi. “Put your head between your knees if you feel faint.”
I didn’t say anything. I just did it. Then one of them got a paper towel wet and put it on the back of my neck. It felt good; nice and cold. Samantha sat down next to me on the bed; I recognized her Birks. She held the towel against my neck.
She said, “Breathe, okay? Deep and slow.”
I was such a fruitcake. Give me two minutes and something to worry about and I’d be on the floor.
“I’m okay.” I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t. Too dizzy. Was I okay? “I’m okay,” again. Who was I trying to convince?
“What just happened?” Samantha said.
I rocked my head back and forth. I didn’t know what had happened; my own mind seemed to be my greatest enemy.
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing different than anything that’s happened before. Me freaking out. That’s all it ever is.” I hadn’t known I was gonna say all that shit.
Waited for the sky to fall in.
Samantha sounded sensible, matter of fact, but also concerned. “I don’t think it’s all just you ‘freaking out,’ Violet. You’re responding to a perceived threat. Living in a hostile environment, growing up there, taught you that you’re in constant danger, and that danger can hide itself in seemingly innocuous forms. So in essence, you’re at war and can be attacked at any time or place, by anyone; even those you had previously considered as allies.”
I didn’t move. I couldn’t breathe.
Could that be an answer?
I was under siege, like London during the second World War. The famous blitz.
Could it be?
I slowly sat up. Samantha took the wet paper towel and threw it away, sat back down beside me, but further away. The nurse still sat across from us, in the desk chair, blending in to her surroundings, waiting silently and patiently for whatever it was she waited for.
Did I consider these women to be a threat to me?
Because they were.
Both of them had power over me.
I was under their control until I turned eighteen, right?
Who knew what they could do to me? Lock me up? Send me to some horrible foster home? And in various lesser degrees they could certainly harm me. Samantha already had by telling Mrs. Grant she thought I was going to try to kill myself.
But then again, I had tried to kill myself.
And to be quite honest, everyone was a potential threat to me. That fact had been proven to me over and over. Everyone, if allowed near me, could and would hurt me. Wasn’t that the human condition? Weren’t we all in constant threat from those around us? So it wasn’t that simple, after all.
“Simple is as simple does.” I glanced out the window, toward the hills encircling Fairbanks. Away, far away.
At that moment the Perfume-from-hell Woman came back into the room with my walrus doctor close at her heels.
They hopscotched around the issue but finally came out with it: my “condition” necessitated specialized care and I couldn’t get it in town; they were flying me to Anchorage, to a special crazy farm where a heart specialist could look at the funny readings they’d gotten. Apparently not eating had stressed my body out, especially the heart. I’d also have a specialist take a look at my hand; the stupid thing could hardly do anything.
I told myself not to panic.
Chill out, I told myself. No need to flip out. They would simply move your body to a more convenient place.
Why hadn’t I just fucking died?
And then I really did faint. Again.