The flight was uneventful.
Getting off the plane, however, turned out to be a Major Deal.
When I’d gotten on, I was “escorted” to my seat by Samantha. She made it a very small deal. But in Anchorage: whoa. Two big gigantic hard-bodied guys in orderly outfits got on the plane before anyone else was allowed off.
A state trooper came with them.
They walked down the aisle towards me.
I kept hoping they weren’t there for me.
They stopped at my row, stared at me. “Violet Knight?” The white orderly asked.
I acquiesced in order to get out of there. The black orderly grabbed my small carry-on and walked in front, followed by me, then the other orderly, then the trooper.
I stared at the narrow carpeted aisle and pretended to be invisible. Everyone was totally silent, watching our little parade.
When Samantha had said, “People will meet you,” I had envisioned something a little less gestapo-esque.
A tall blonde in black slacks, black turtleneck, and black ski-parka stood at the gate entrance. She stuck her hand out to me and grimaced.
“Sorry about the storm troopers. State insisted since you’re their ward.” She grinned and we started walking through the terminal. “I’m Stacy Parker. I’ll be your caseworker in town. Have they explained much of what’s going on?”
I shook my head, ignored the humming in my ears.
“Okay. I figured as much. If there’s one thing the system sucks at, it’s telling people what the hell they’re up to.”
She launched into talking about whatever the fuck she wanted to talk about, and I was like, whoa. All this fucking shit was so off the wall. A few hours ago I was locked in the Fairbanks psych ward thinking it couldn’t get any worse. Hah. Guess again, babe. Seemed to be some kind of weird snowballing effect happening here. No way was I gonna be able to continue to handle all of this. So I told myself I wasn’t actually in the situation; I was above it. Hover, hover, breathe deep, look at the floor and count the tiles as you walk. And for fuck’s sake, forget you’re surrounded by people controlling you.
“Gonna puke,” I said to no one and everyone.
Stacy looked forward and back, said, “Bathroom thirty feet back.”
We all turned around and hustled. Only Stacy went in with me, though, which was a very good thing. I rushed in, grabbed the first toilet and knelt.
Nothing. Wave after wave of nausea, but no puke. Nada.. Where had my lovely routine gone? When exactly had it stopped? I was a bit disappointed and a little relieved. There at the end, it had begun to be the puking in control of me, not me in control of the puking. So this was better, I supposed. Healthier, right?
Which made me think of Adam asking me if I thought I was healthy on that ride back to the house one day. I’d thought, healthy? Why should I care if I was healthy if I was gonna kill myself? And what did that mean, anyway? ‘Health.’ Yoga for hours a day? Running? Dieting? Who decided what healthy meant? Was it the same thing for everyone? A set minimum, or a standard for the masses?
But I guessed I’d agree that not puking six times a day was probably closer to healthy than I’d been in a long time.
I got up, washed my face and hands and the back of my neck. Stacy hovered to the side, gave me a modicum of privacy, which I appreciated.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Hadn’t done it in awhile. Not since I’d tried to kill myself, day before Thanksgiving. It was almost Christmas. Wondered what Christmas would be like at the Grants. Better to be out of there. Away from nice people. Away from normal. Bet they were happy to have me gone. Which made me sad, thinking about them.
I refocused on my reflection, pale as skim milk, but not gray. Not waxen. My hair had gotten longer than it’s been in years, maybe even a third of an inch. I looked startled. Didn’t know why. Was I pretty? I couldn’t possibly be. Mother had been beautiful, but I always thought one of the reasons she was so disappointed with me was because I was so unattractive. Uncle Stephen was beautiful, too. So was Dad. But I couldn’t be pretty. It wasn’t possible, was it?
Just then a girl came out of one of the stalls behind me. She looked at me; our eyes met in the mirror. What did she see? She came up to the sink on my left, far side from Stacy, and turned the water on hard.
I surreptitiously studied her out of the corner of my eye. She was taller than me, wasp thin, probably three years older than me. She looked like one of those cool hard-core anime babes; black knee-highs, short pleated black skirt, white button-down rolled up to her elbows, black sweater-vest on top. Her hair was dark blue, cut in a severe chin length bob with a fringe of tiny bangs. Black fingernail polish and a fistful of rings rounded off the ear project she had going on.
She said, barely audibly, “You okay?”
I wondered if I’d started to hear things.
Had she just asked if I was okay?
She said, loud, “Who’s your dog catcher?” nodded towards Stacy.
Stacy pushed herself away from the wall and said, “Okay. Let’s go.”
I stood there for a moment, mystified by the bizarreness of it all. What were my choices? Did I have choices?
Yeah. Two choices; the hard way and the easy way. I could’ve gone with this girl. We could’ve escaped from my entourage, if we’d really wanted to. I could’ve been free. Ran away. Far away. That would’ve been the easy road. The hard way? That was sticking with it; working on getting better.
I shook my head. The path of least resistance beckoned me.
Violet, it said.
Violet. Be smart. Just breathe.
I walked away from the girl, followed Stacy out of the bathroom.
Could I fight? Like Adam wanted me to.
We picked up our entourage and made our way through the airport toward baggage claim.
Paintings hung on the walls; all of them Alaskan themed. Alaskan artifacts in Plexiglas boxes along the walls. The absurdity of trying to diminish the practicality that was the very nature of an airport struck me as we walked. It echoed the absurdity of my own quest: to climb from behind my mother’s will into the starkness of being utterly alone.
No family to call my own.
No one to remember and celebrate my birth.
No one to say they were glad I existed on this planet, at this time.
Stupid airports. They weren’t friendly. They were horrible places of leaving and loss.
At baggage claim, our unlikely group was openly and covertly stared at. How bad did they think I was? A murderer? A bad seed? A thief? A druggie? The woman who’d sat next to me on the plane kept glancing over. Was she thinking about being that close to someone who might’ve been dangerous? An illicit thrill she’d tell her kids about.
I had one bag. We grabbed it and got out of there, leaving a bit of my pride on the industrial-grade blue carpeting. When we got to the parking lot, the cop got in his police car, and Stacy, me, and the two orderlies got into a white unmarked van next to the cop car. I stared out the window as we drove through Anchorage towards the hospital.
In Fairbanks, everything had been blanketed in dry, glittery, white snow. Here everything was gray, dismal, and wet. It promised to freeze at night, leaving the roads dangerously slick and black.
Stacy kept up a steady chatter about nothing and I let her words pass through me, unchecked. I felt so strange, trapped in some surreal dream.
I had a choice here.
Follow this insane twirling spinning downward rushing that Mother had set out for me.
Or try life, for a change.
The problem, then, was that I existed.
I was Violet. So strange to repeat it again and again, until it meant nothing.
Until I meant nothing.
To be so afraid of my own mother and then to be utterly, horribly wanting.... needing her love.
Which she could never give me.
What did it mean? This waiting for acknowledgment. Hoping with all hope that I’d wake up and find out that it’d all been a dream. My entire life a dream and my mother really had loved me. Really did want me.
Why couldn’t it be simple? Everybody loving everybody, nobody getting lost between the cracks or going unwanted.
My mother had wanted the exact opposite.
Why? I’d probably never know the answer to that. Maybe why didn’t even matter.
What should I choose?
I could choose to try to get better. To paint again. Maybe even stay with the Grants again, if they’d have me.
I stared down at my left hand, curled into a loose fist on my thigh, gauze still wrapping the forearm from just beneath the palm all the way up to the elbow. Not pretty. Could the hand get better? Did I want to try, to want something, knowing there was a possibility it might not get better? Was trying and wanting to try more difficult than just letting go?
Admitting to myself that I wanted something, desperately needed it, had been destroying me. Eating away at my soft will.
I almost didn’t even have a say anymore, being led about by people who seemed to think they knew what was best for me. Should I follow them? How could they possibly know what was best for me? They’d known me for, what, five seconds? Mother had known me my whole life and I thought I could say now that what she’d wanted for me wasn’t in my best interest. It had been in her best interest. So.
What did I do with all that?
Wait, perhaps. Go with the flow for a while, until I could figure it all out.
Find a soft place to fall. Isn’t that what that song said? Find a soft place to fall. I again thought of the Grants, but I kinda figured that way was probably cut off. Why would they want me back, after the stunt I’d pulled, day before Thanksgiving?
Not the nicest thing for me to have done, after they so generously took me in.
Well, there went Violet, mucking it all up yet again. I wished I could express how sorry I felt that I’d betrayed their trust. That I’d betrayed some unspoken promise that I would stay there, instead of flying off into some nebulous afterlife.
Suddenly I wanted my pillow, that bit of familiarity. The comfort it contained. The secrets it could tell to me at night. My scent, my memories, my wishes and dreams. I stared at the wet black streets and tried to not think, but Stacy’s voice kept getting in the way. I missed the sound of my mother’s voice. It was always so dry and cold, like it came straight up from her belly instead of her throat. Her voice seemed more solid than my body, like I was just some hungry ghost blowing through her house of perfection.
I thought about the last time I’d thrown up in the hospital. How I hadn’t quite made it to the toilet and I was so embarrassed by that I didn’t tell my nurse, even though I was supposed to. I cleaned it up myself and pretended it hadn’t happened. Now, days later, as I realized it was The Last Time, the last time I threw up, I felt strange about not telling someone. Like I’d lied about it. The Official Last Time was wrong and it gave a false picture of my progress. I wondered if I should say something about it now, but that seemed just a little stupid.
Past that point, now, right? It didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter.
My name called me back to the interior of the van.
“Violet,” Stacy said. “What did your caseworker go over with you?”
I thought back to the nicotine stained, gravelly-voiced, brassy haired woman who introduced me to the Grants. I’d seen her twice since then. She’d come to the house and all the Grants and I lined up on the couches in the living room, like criminals lined up for a shooting squad.
I honestly didn’t remember what that woman had talked about. She had always asked how each of the Grants were doing. She said a period of adjustment could be difficult for every one involved. And don’t be shy about calling her if anyone had questions or concerns. Her name was Gloria Himm.
I didn’t trust her smelly censures, her frank bitterness. But at least she’d been honest in her cynicism.
I didn’t trust Stacy’s good will.
Could I ever trust anyone?
“Violet? she said.
“Nothing important.” Nothing worth repeating.
“Okay, then I’ll just start from the top, I guess.”
She talked about Mother giving me up. She talked about my burns, my hospital stay then, which ran into my hospital stay now. I watched buildings and houses slide by, let her words wash through me, unchecked. Tried to be one of those houses, but empty and still.
I was just so tired of my own head.
For one of my classes, last year, when everything seemed to make sense, we read a short story by Margaret Atwood. It was called ‘The Age of Lead.’ It was about this frozen guy some people found in the Arctic. One of those guys who died during one of those stupid expeditions. They did tests on him, to see why all of them had eventually bit it on that particular expedition; lead poisoning. They’d used lead to seal the new invention of tin cans. But the story was really about consequences. Being killed by consequences. Consequences to actions and decisions we’re not even aware of doing or making. Consequences of simply just being alive. Of forging on in this expedition called life.
Interesting stuff. Margaret Atwood rocked. I liked to read. I almost smiled. Violet the head case liked to read. I wasn’t an intellectual, or anything. I probably wasn’t even that smart. I guessed I’d always gotten good grades, when I did the work and showed up for classes. Good grades kept you low on the parental radar, right?
“Violet, we’re here.”
I turned my head to nod. I started to feel cold down to my bones.
We all climbed out of the van and the cop waited, watched us unload in front of this new loony bin.
It appeared smaller than I thought it would be: just four stories. Gray stone walls, small windows. The harder to jump out, my dear?
We weren’t at the front of the building, which might have been friendlier. I didn’t know. I hadn’t paid attention. This side entrance was a fixture of necessity, unconcerned with trying to calm parents and passersby.
Suddenly I remembered a building in Santa Fe, a place like this that my uncle and I drove by quite often when we visited him. He called it the local funny farm, which always struck me as delightfully silly; the place had been surrounded by cacti and Joshua trees, not exactly a farm.
Now I wondered what Uncle Stephen would say.
“Violet? In a funny farm? How incongruous.”
Because I wasn’t funny and I certainly wasn’t a farmer, nourishing the masses.
I followed Stacy into the building, one of the orderlies beside me, carrying my bag, and the other behind me. I felt like taking off just so they could feel useful.
We entered a small room, with a low window opening up into an office/reception area. Plants everywhere; whoever read the research on green plants keeping people calmer went wild in here. Not that I minded. I liked plants.
Were the Grants taking care of my plants? Hoped fervently so.
Stacy turned to me and smiled, led me over to the reception desk. A middle-aged woman looked up and smiled. Smiley place. I didn’t smile back.
“You must be Violet Knight. What a sweetheart, flying all the way down here by yourself. Just take a seat there and we’ll call you back when we’re ready to do your intake.” With a long salty Texan drawl.
I didn’t like people calling me sweetheart or dear or any other endearments. It seemed like they assumed something personal about me.
The woman smiled again and said, “My name’s Truvy Lynn Whipple. You come to me whenever you’re in need, dearie, and I’ll try to set it right.” Then she turned her beaming smile back to Stacy. “Will you stay with her until we’re all ready for her back here?” Without waiting for a response, she turned her attention to the orderlies. “And you boys can leave Violet’s bag with me and get on with your days.”
They grunted enthusiastically and disappeared into the woodwork faster than I would’ve guessed they could move.
Stacy and I sat on surprisingly comfortable chairs across from each other. She ended up with her back to Truvy Lynn Whipple and started chattering about something. I surreptitiously watched Truvy Lynn.
She had a comfy, lived-in look about her, like someone’s young, hip gramma. Her desk flourished with pads of paper and cups for pens and a poinsettia. The set up was that she had a window open on to this little waiting room (it barely had fit all of us before the hulking orderlies split) as well as a wide ledge on the other side of the wall. And that window was open to a much larger waiting room, or lobby, in which I could see, from my position, bonified crazy people.
It creeped me out to the core.
I knew I’d been in the psych ward in Fairbanks, but this was different, somehow.
If I decided to go to Truvy Lynn, it’d be to try to get me out of here.
Because I wasn’t crazy, right?
I’ve never argued with myself and spun in a circle like that blonde girl did. I’d never rocked back and forth, staring straight ahead like that guy did.
I was perfectly normal.
I stared down at my ruined hand, the white gauze swathing the arm.
What was normal, anyway?
Truvy Lynn opened the door into the back and smiled at me.
“Well, sweetheart,” she said. “Get up and come on back.” She practically beamed. “Welcome to the rest of your life.” Her smile slipped a bit as she looked at Stacy. “You come on back, too, dearie. Got papers to sign.” She turned and walked confidently down a hall formed by half-walls, the kind with carpeting and metal trim, a sea of mauve. Yuck.
Welcome to the rest of my life? My life apparently would be the color of hotel rooms and loungy dives.
At the end of the hall, Truvy Lynn turned around.
I still stood in the doorway.
She shook her head and clucked her tongue.
Came back to me and actually put her arm around my shoulders.
She said, “That’ll never do, dearie. Hanging back that-a-way. Hold your head high and be proud of who you are. Even if you don’t know who that is, yet.” She winked, gave my shoulders a little squeeze, and marched back down the hall.
I shivered a little.
From being touched so cavalierly.
I couldn’t remember the last time someone hugged me.
I shivered again.
Wrapped my arms around my middle.
Tried to stop the shivering.
Why was it suddenly cold?
I remembered, now.
It was Mother, pushing me against the stove.
My teeth started chattering, I shook so much.
Stacy said, from a long way away, “Violet? Are you okay? Violet?”
Inside my head, Mother glared at me, my back on fire. I could smell it, my skin burning. Hate, real hate, held me there.
What made her hate me, so?
A culmination of everything I’d done wrong?
Or truly not me at all?
Mother pulled me off the stove, dropped me on the kitchen floor. I heard a strange sort of keening, mewling sound and realized it was me.
It had been me. And then, mercifully, I had passed out.
That day had been the first time I’d fainted. Weird that it happened again. Like I was stuck in a loop of that day; over and over again watching mother’s eyes despising my existence.
She had even pretended like I wasn’t her daughter. I remembered one day that I went to her work because I’d locked myself out. As I was leaving, I heard one of the women Mother had been talking with say, “I didn’t know you had a daughter, sweetie.”
Mother said, “Oh no, Paulie. She belongs to a cousin of mine. I’m watching her as a favor. Ilene went to Aruba with her new husband.”
Lies just dripped from her fingertips. But she was the type of person that everyone trusted. Her husband had left her, presumably for another woman. But she pulled herself from the ashes, became a highly successful chef with her own restaurant. Her only brother died after a long, horrible battle with cancer. She was beautiful. She was charming. She came from money, a certain amount of privilege.
When I was twelve, my mother gave me my first credit card. She said to me, “I don’t want to hear, ‘I want this, buy me this, please, please, please,’ ever again. Understand?”
It never mattered how much I spent. She never said anything about it, and I eventually stopped spending in order to try to get her to notice me.
Or maybe I learned that if Mother noticed me, I was in for big shit.
Better to be invisible than a smudge on the wall.
Where did Mother learn to hate so well? Could it have been the same place Uncle Stephen learned to skim over the surface, ignoring the truth? The truth can be worse than anything in the whole wide world. And why had mother been jealous of Uncle Stephen’s love for me? Was she so starved for love that she couldn’t share, even with her own daughter? And why why why why why did she hate me?
Something clicked deep inside of me.
Deep in my belly.
It said, “There’s no reason. No reason in the world. She hates herself.”
It said. “Let it go. Fly free.”
I remembered that first day at the Grants’. That feeling of it being okay, radiating from the house and all of them. Truvy Lynn felt the same, even with all her smiles and good cheer.
You’re okay, she said. You’re going to be okay.
My belly rumbled. Hunger? I’d forgotten what hunger felt like. Could I possibly be ravenous? Ravenous for truth or ravenous for food or ravenous for new questions.
I came back to myself, back to my belly and I was there with Stacy and Truvy Lynn.
Stacy said, “Don’t you have better sense than to touch these kids?”
And Truvy Lynn fired back with, “All the reports we get back say that touch is important, maybe more important than all the head shrinking.”
I tried to say something, to stop the avalanche of angry words, but nothing came out.
“And what’re you doing back here, anyway? We don’t need you sticking your nose in our business...”
“That’s just it, Truvy. It is my business. I’ve had about enough of you I can...”
“Guys,” I finally got out. “Chill.”
Their focus immediately turned back to me. Oh, yay.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m okay.” I looked them both in the eyes. “I’m okay.”
And I thought maybe I really might be.
For the first time.
Just a little okay.
I felt a little smile itch at my lips.
And I let it sit there.
“I’m okay,” I nodded my head.
I thought I might be a little hungry, too.
Just a little.