“If you look a dog in the eye too intently, it may recite an astounding poem to you. You might have been mad for a long time and have realized it only at that moment.”
—Jean Genet, Funeral Rites
Sick. lazy. fuck.
Three small words.
Like “Get a Life.”
Or “Sick of You.”
Or “I’m Moving On.”
Or “You Should, Too.”
Like “I Hate You.”
Or “I Never Really Loved You.”
Or “I Never Did.”
Or “Thank God We Never Had Children.”
But those three small words, they cut the deepest. The first two, like the blade of a double-edged knife. The last one, the handle she stuck in with a twist. Three words: three exclamation points ending the sentence that was our marriage.
* * *
I was terribly nervous, agitated, desperate. Found it impossible to think, to concentrate, beyond those three small words that wound like a tight spring in my head. I stared at the television screen for hours, days, I don’t know how long. Three, four, five? I can’t be sure. Even when I shut my eyes, I could still see those flickering images: people in furious flights, flashes of intense emotion, distorted faces or faces expressing nothing at all. Brief words, news of death, more destruction, daily struggles, the entire spectrum of human experience and behavior, alongside the latest antacid and haemorrhoidal cream. And always, her face. Those three words.
I had become periodically insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity, during which time all I wanted, all I wished for, was to fall asleep, drift off into a beer-fueled oblivion. The blue light from the television illuminated the small flat, now seemingly larger for its emptiness. The room looked exactly as I felt: empty. Hollowed out. No matter how much I drank, I couldn’t get rid of that feeling, nor could I erase those three words from my mind. Strange how we only really notice things by their absence. A Renoir print, a china cabinet, a coffee table, a person. Now it was only my easy chair, the TV, the coffee table and me. She took the rest.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had reached R.E.M sleep. Insomnia was relentless. It all seemed absurdly cruel. The same thoughts ricocheted about my mind like shrapnel, sometimes not even thoughts at all, and always about her, about us. It was like I was obsessed, addicted. And I was going through really bad withdrawal.
After four, five days of little or no sleep, I began to hallucinate. Tiny bugs. Faces popping out of the television, out of the walls, then disappearing. Quite disconcerting. Sometimes it was as if my eyeballs were functioning independently of each other, and the longer I remained awake, the worse it got. All I wanted to do was to sleep, to get out of my exhausted body, my burnt-out mind, for eight or ten hours of uninterrupted unconsciousness.
Then the idea came to me.
How my earliest, most pleasurable memories were of being in warm moist places. I went to the bathroom and ran the bath. Without undressing, I stepped into the water, sat in the tub. But the tub wasn’t big enough. When I tried to bend my legs to fit inside, my knees stuck out of the water. When I tried to submerge them, my chest stuck out. It seemed hopeless. No matter what I tried, some part of my body was always exposed to the air. Then the water cooled down. I added more hot water, yet that cooled as well. Frustrated, I twisted the hot water faucet and left it running. That did the trick. I laid back, victorious. The tub filled to the brim and began spilling onto the bathroom floor.
After four, five days of little or no sleep I began to hallucinate. Tiny bugs. Faces popping out of the television, out of the walls, then disappearing. Quite disconcerting.
Almost immediately, I could feel my body getting lighter. The water made me feel warm and safe, like a baby in a womb. At some point, I had no sensation whatsoever. It was as though I were floating weightless in a universe of pure peace and tranquility, interrupted only by a faint and distant knocking which I ignored. I chuckled as I watched the tiles around the tub change colors, from white to orange to yellow to copper to magenta. An entire kaleidoscope of colors, mixing and blending and bleeding into each other.
Then the knocking returned again, much louder and closer this time. An immense thud, followed by a crash, then footsteps. Several people were standing above me. They all seemed very angry. One of them was the building manager, Louise. She was really livid about something. Someone turned off the faucet and pulled the plug in the tub, and the water began sinking away. This made me very angry. I attempted to turn the water back on, but several people grabbed me and yanked me out of the tub and onto the floor. I’d never felt so cold before in my life. Strange hands kept grabbing me, touching me, I don’t know how many. Their fingers felt like icicles as they cut off my shirt and jeans. I remember one icicle in my backside before everything went suddenly black.
* * *
There was a burning sensation in my right arm, and it hurt when I tried to move it. I glanced down to see a long transparent worm snaking up my arm, then disappearing into the crook of my elbow. A progression of white uniforms fluttered in and out of the room as if out of the walls themselves. The room had the distinct odor of disinfectant. I wasn’t sure where I was or even how I had gotten there. I felt hands touching me, fingers probing. Strange faces glanced down at me, conversing with one another as though I wasn’t even there. Some people stood around as if waiting for something to happen, something bizarre or violent. All of them spoke in hurried tones about blood samples for this or that test. They filled up vials with my blood. I was poked and prodded, yanked and tugged. At some point I tried to say something. Someone abruptly rolled me over onto my side and stabbed my ass with something sharp.
There was a strange taste in the back of my throat. I dozed off.
When I reawakened, a woman in a white uniform was sitting in a chair beside my hospital bed. Her lips were smeared with bright red lipstick. Her blonde hair was pulled tightly into a bun at the back of her head which made the skin on her face look taut and unreal, as though the bones were suddenly going to poke out through her thin, extremely white transluscent skin. She was reading a paperback. On the cover was a large man with a mane of flowing hair and a bare chest and impossibly long arms holding a petite woman. I couldn’t tell if the woman on the cover was trying to get away from the man. I watched the crimson-lipped woman’s lips move as she read. I thought I might get sick. My throat felt raw. It felt as though I hadn’t swallowed anything for days.
* * *
It was like a bad dream. Or some kind of sick joke. At least that’s how I recall those first few days in Metro-Mercy Hospital’s psychiatric security ward—the wing reserved for those patients deemed a danger to themselves or to others. Most new patients spent at least couple of days there for observation. It was the only ward in the hospital with a locked door. The lock was electronically controlled from inside the nursing station. Its constant shrill was a reminder that I was an inmate here, considered dangerous, if only to myself. I still had no idea what crime I had committed.
There were usually no more than ten patients on the security ward at any time. I had only counted six. Most were completely sedated and numb as zombies. Their reddened, bloodshot eyes, staring out into nothing. Was this how I looked, I wondered? Probably. There didn’t seem to be any mirrors in the security wing. And what magazines there were had had their dates blackened out, and any violent imagery removed altogether. Of course it didn’t matter. It was impossible to read with all the drugs they had us on. Even if I managed to read a passage or two, I soon forgot what I had read.
There was nothing to do on the security ward but watch TV, await the outcome of our daily early morning visitations with the Chief of Psychiatry, Dr. Soza, and wait to be transferred to the regular psychiatric ward. During those consultations, none of us were allowed back in our rooms except to sleep. We were brought to a central common area where everyone could easily be observed by the nursing staff. The nursing station itself resembled a kind of fortress. Sheets of Plexiglass rose up from the station’s counter to the ceiling and completely encompassed the station, except for a two-part Plexiglass entrance door, the bottom of which was constantly closed. On the top half of the door was a sign written in large bold letters: “No Patients Beyond This Point.” The staff inside always looked nervous, as if half-expecting something to occur, something violent. If someone strolled too close to the nursing station, a voice would boom through the intercom: “Please stand back. Someone will assist you.”
There were two long couches and several padded chairs in the common area surrounding the sole TV which sat on a shelf high on the wall, out of reach. The nursing station had the only remote. It was constantly tuned to a public television station. No one ever thought of asking to change the channel. The programs were mostly documentaries about wildlife, the environment and air pollution, in the afternoon, and game shows in the early evening. Nothing remarkable. I suppose it didn’t matter, since very little of it registered anyhow. I could barely concentrate long enough to finish a cigarette, which we were allowed to smoke once an hour if we had been admitted with them. Patients were constantly bumming them, or got suddenly friendly when you lit up. Never seen so many people so eager to share someone’s secondhand smoke.
We were never left alone, not even to piss. Who knew what could occur in that time? If anyone had to go to the toilet, they had to be escorted, one at a time, one after the other, by a member of the staff. The large quantities of watered-down coffee, combined with the drugs they had us on, meant all too often that more than one of us had to go at the same time. We would rock back and forth waiting for our turn. Sometimes someone didn’t quite make it. Long trails of urine and brown-yellowish blobs were scattered along the entrance to the facilities.
We were always within their sight. They sat beside our beds at night, waited for us just outside the washrooms, a step or two behind us at all times. Although I had this overwhelming desire to be left alone, I was never left by myself for more than a minute during those first few days. A nurse or an orderly was constantly nearby. A person can do a lot of damage in sixty seconds, I suppose, if they set their mind to it.
I was spending too much time taking a dump, and my nurse had already poked her head inside the room twice to see what I was doing. Maybe I was attempting to drown myself in the toilet. It only takes a tablespoon of water to drown oneself, or so say the experts on drowning. I was in the middle of wiping my ass when she poked her head inside for the third time.
“Almost done, pet?”
“Look for yourself,” I said, holding out the wad of soiled tissue for her inspection.
She winced and abruptly turned away. I dropped the wad into the toilet. For some reason I didn’t flush it. Then I washed my hands. I figured she’d think twice before poking her head in on me again.
* * *
the chief of Psychiatry, Doctor Soza, conducted his rounds between ten and eleven in the morning. During that hour, all patients had to remain in their rooms while Soza and his posse of interns interviewed patient after patient. I’d been in the security ward for two days, though it seemed longer. Since my arrival, I anticipated his daily morning visits with a distinct sense of dread.
Soza was the type of anti-human that made you feel worse by just being in the same room with him. Each conversation left me wanting to scream because I knew I was powerless against him. He controlled my fate and was the sole determiner of the length of my internment.
I sat on the edge of the hospital bed while he and his posse stood across the room from me. He was scanning a folder. Whenever I moved, or scratched my head, his posse would scribble on notepads they were constantly carrying.
“You’d be surprised what people are capable of,” the doctor said. “There’s always a first time for everything. Have you thought of taking your own life very often?”
“So, how are we doing today?” he asked in that monotone voice of his, not looking up at me as he spoke.
“Okay, I guess.” The posse scribbled.
“Just okay?” he asked, without inflection. He still hadn’t looked up at me. He appeared to be attempting to match the name on the file with the person in the room with him. I wondered if this happened very often. Mixing up patients, mixing up medications.
“Well, maybe more than just okay.” I said. “I’m feeling much better than I did yesterday.” I was lying. In fact, since my arrival, I had felt an increasing sense of anxiety building inside of me. I figured it was due to lack of personal control.
“I was hoping I might be moved to the regular ward. Then I could have regular visitors, maybe even a day pass.” Soza looked up from his file folder. His left eyebrow rose and curled.
“Yesterday we talked about the incident that brought you to Metro Mercy.” He was pointing at something in the file folder. “Do you have any more thoughts about it today?”
“I’m not sure. . . . I mean, some of it makes sense to me . . . but some of it still makes no sense at all. It’s like a dream, sort of, like I’m looking at somebody else’s life. . . .” Shit. I knew I shouldn’t have said that last bit the instant it came out of my mouth.
“Hmmm . . . what do you think it means, like you’re looking at someone else’s life?” he asked, scribbling something new into the file folder. His posse mimicked his scribble. “Did you feel as though your life is not your own but someone else’s?”
“Like whose?” I was confused. The posse looked first at me, then to Soza. They seemed confused, too.
“Why don’t you tell me?” he replied. The posse looked at Soza and then at me.
“I think, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think I was trying to hurt myself. I wasn’t thinking about suicide. . . .”
“What makes you think you weren’t thinking about suicide?” Soza asked.
I thought about this for a while. Soza began clicking the end of his pen.
“I figure if I was trying to kill myself, I’d attempt something a little less painful than scalding myself to death,” I said, then added, “Can someone actually scald themselves to death?”
“You’d be surprised what people are capable of,” Soza said. “There’s always a first time for everything. Have you thought of taking your own life very often?”
“I don’t think so . . . I mean, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’m thinking. It’s all so confusing,” I confessed. Fucking bastard could convince a rock it was a blade of grass.
“I can see we’ve accomplished a lot today,” Soza said, first glancing at his wristwatch, then dropping his pen into the left breast pocket of his white lab coat. He closed the file in his other hand.
“We’ll talk again tomorrow morning.”
* * *
for days, i’d felt a vague sense of anxiety building up inside of me as if my nerves were being tugged and pulled taut. I had a corrosive sensation in the pit of my stomach, a muscular tension stretching across my chest and up the back of my neck, like my skin was wrapped too tightly.
I winced at every sound and felt the hospital tilt whenever I stood up. I staggered as I walked, moving as if some outside force was drawing me.
Then this vague sense became a feverish state. I sensed motives in the mundane, hidden purposes beneath the surface. I was sure that the doctors and nurses could read my thoughts. I knew the evil night nurse was poisoning me, so I refused to eat, or even fill out the menu.
She brought in a tray of food anyway. The food looked synthetic, inedible. “If you don’t start eating,” she threatened, “you’ll be fed intravenously, whether you like it or not . . . it’s entirely up to you.”
On the tray were individual servings of mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and a hamburger patty smothered in red sauce. Clumps in the sauce looked like blood clots.
The nurse brought her head close to the tray and inhaled deeply through her nose. Tiny black hairs stuck out of her nostrils.
“Mmmmm . . . it certainly smells good, don’t you think so?” she said, pushing the tray to me.
I pushed it away.
She pushed it back.
“Just a few mouthfuls, all right?” She cut off a piece of the hamburger patty with a plastic spoon and brought it to my mouth. I pursed my lips together and knocked the spoon away from my face.
“All right, enough is enough . . . either you eat it yourself or I’ll have to call Doctor Soza.” Her eyes were bulging and her face was turning red.
I looked at her, then at the food on the tray. I tilted my head forward and inhaled. The food didn’t have any smell. I spooned some of the mashed potato into my mouth and began to chew. It tasted like chalk. I spat it out in her face. Bits of potato hung onto her nose and chin. I lifted the tray and threw it at her. She stepped backwards. I began throwing whatever was in reach. She bolted from the room, shouting.
She returned with two large men who held me down on the bed while she emptied a syringe into one of my arms. This was followed by a sudden sensation of asphyxiation.
It wasn’t until the doctor arrived the following morning that I learned I’d been suffering a side effect from one of the medications they’d been pumping into me since my arrival.
The following night, I had just managed to fall asleep when I was awakened by a hand shaking my shoulder. It was the night nurse. She was pulling me out of bed.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered. “We need your bed. You are being transferred to the open ward. We have a bed for you there.”
* * *
jared and kristina were considered veterans on the open ward. Both of them had been admitted to Metro-Mercy so many times that they were on a first-name basis with the staff. For some reason, when visiting hours came around, we were the only three patients on the ward without any visitors. Perhaps it was the stigma of mental illness. Perhaps people thought we were contagious. Perhaps nobody knew we were there. I don’t know.
Jared was my roommate in the open ward. Unlike the security wing, where there was just one patient to each room, the rooms on the open ward contained two men, or two women. Day or night, Jared was constantly talking. He was a paranoid schizophrenic who kept hearing voices. The voices all said the same thing over and over: Kill yourself. His parents would find him hanging in the closet of his bedroom, dangling from the bathroom shower rod, or lying in a pool of his own blood in the kitchenette of their small apartment. It was difficult to find an apartment when your only child brought the entire emergency services department to your home every other month. Again and again, Jared would be rushed to Metro-Mercy’s emergency, then to ICU, then to psychiatry. It happened like clockwork. Each time he was admitted, he’d have bandages on his throat, or on his wrists and forearms.
Jared’s cogwheels were always turning. He’d talk nonstop, all day long, his voice becoming increasingly louder as he spoke, as if he were trying to talk above the voice of someone else. Then, suddenly, he would stop talking, and tilt his head to one side as if something had caught his attention. Then his ceaseless monologue would continue as if nothing had happened.
Kristina was a married mother of three in her early forties. She suffered from post-partum psychosis. She had lost count how many times she had been admitted to Metro Mercy in the past two years or so. Probably more than ten times but less than twenty. She’d already attempted suicide twice. Her previous psychiatrist had wrongly diagnosed her as a paranoid schizophrenic and pumped her so full of an anti-psychotic medication that she thought her husband was the Devil and her children, three demons. Instead of slitting their throats, she took all her sleeping pills. After a week in ICU, three days on the security wing, she was transferred to the open ward with the rest of the walking wounded.
While other patients visited with friends or family, we hung outside by the medical waste incinerator smoking cigarettes, or down in Metro-Mercy’s basement cafeteria. It was early Saturday afternoon and we were seated in the busy cafeteria. I was drinking hot chocolate, which was better than the watered-down crap they gave us up on the ward. I took a sip from the Styrofoam cup. The hot sweet liquid made my teeth ache momentarily.
Jared was counting off his scars again, as usual. It was like a complete medical history he showed to anyone whether or not they were really interested. He had scars up and down his arms from the time he took a box cutter to them. Scars on his neck from all of his attempted hangings. He had scars all over his body. Some were self-inflicted. Some were the result of attempts to save his life. The scar on his chest was by far Jared’s favorite. “That’s where they cut my chest open to massage my heart.” He said. “It stopped, you know.”
“We know,” Kristina and I said, almost in unison. We’d heard this before, many times. Jared just continued talking. Kristina treated Jared like the little younger brother she had never had.
“This one,” he said, pointing to the back of his neck, “this one’s from when I tried hanging myself from my parent’s shower rod last year. That’s where my head hit the bathtub when I fell. . . .”
Meanwhile, under the cafeteria table, Kristina had one of her legs outstretched with the sole of her foot between my legs, rubbing my crotch. I had an erection. She rubbed the outline of my cock with the toes of her foot. Her eyes stared into mine like some sexual predator focusing on her chosen prey. I could feel the heat of her body in the sole of her foot. I didn’t want her to stop but I didn’t want to come in these one-size-fits-all light-blue hospital pajamas we psyche patients wore, either. Might as well just piss my pants.
“Let’s go for a smoke, okay?” I say, stumbling to my feet.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were agonizing days for Kristina. Those were the days she had her Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). A few other women on the ward also underwent the procedure. It was reserved for those patients who were no longer responding to traditional psycho-pharmaceuticals. They’d each be given a muscle relaxant just before an anesthetic made them unconscious. Then their brains would be given an electrical shock. The hope was that the electric shock would change the patient’s thought pattern. Whether or not this worked for Kristina or any of the other patients, I don’t know. The treatment did cause her to lose all memory of her marriage, and to enter into a state of extreme horniness.
After shock therapy, Kristina took to masturbation like an Olympic sport, with whatever was conveniently at hand. She tried to hide her favorite bottles from the orderlies, but you can’t hide anything on a psychiatric ward for long, especially a makeshift dildo.
Soon, Kristina became the ward’s resident nymphomaniac. At least that’s how the male orderlies referred to her, after one of them was caught having sex with her in the bathroom, by her visiting husband, during a previous admission. Now the male staff just avoided her to protect their jobs. That left the other patients, most of whom were so chemically castrated by their cocktails of psycho-pharmaceuticals they could barely shuffle around the ward, let alone get it up. So, after ECT days, out of desperation, Kristina took to masturbation like an Olympic sport with whatever was conveniently at hand. Shampoo bottles, deodorant sticks, soda pop bottles, whatever—until the staff caught on and confiscated all the bottles on the ward and started dispensing shampoo and deodorant from the nursing station as required. She tried to hide her favorite bottles, but you can’t hide anything on a psychiatric ward for long, especially a makeshift dildo the staff is on the lookout for. The female staff made a point of interrupting Kristina’s self-abuse as often as possible. “Doctor’s orders,” they told her. “You’re disturbing the other patients.”
One time, we were walking along the first-floor corridor, with Jared about fifty feet ahead of us, when Kristina pulled me into one of the custodial rooms and closed the door behind us. Her mouth was immediately on mine, her tongue poking and probing my mouth as she tugged at the elastic of my hospital blues. The room was full of mops and brooms and various cleaning supplies. Any sound from the corridor outside was quickly muffled by the slurping sounds of me fucking her moist mouth. I held onto the sides of her head while she bobbed back and forth.
As soon as I was hard enough, she stood up, turned around and slid down her light blue hospital blues, grasped my cock and slid me inside her. Fuck was she wet. She held onto the door handle as I rammed into her again and again. She was a screamer. With each plunge, she moaned loudly. In the corridor, I could hear Jared calling our names. With one of her hands still holding onto the door handle for balance and leverage, she took my left hand and guided it up under her hospital blues to her engorged breast. I cupped her breast in my hand and felt her nipple hardening against my palm. Almost at once she began expressing into my cupped hand. I rubbed the liquid over her breast and stomach. By now, she was bucking against my prick. Her moaning had evidently brought us to somebody’s attention, because someone on the other side of the door was trying to get in. They pushed on the door. We pushed back with the combined weight of our bodies. This went on for several minutes, perhaps longer. When Kristina finally came, she was like a wild woman, bobbing her ass back and forth and from side to side. I slipped out of her and ejaculated across her buttocks. Maybe it was the meds I was on, but when I came, it felt like tiny razor blades running up the length of my urethra.
* * *
Later that afternoon, I watched as Kristina wrapped her arms around each of her three children in their strollers—first one, then another—then, lastly, tentatively, her husband. I could plainly see the dark blue stain on the ass of her blue hospital pajamas bottoms. I suppose I should have felt like a shit or something, but I didn’t. Thanks to the meds, all I felt was “blah.” No ups, no downs. Just “blah.” It’s hard to believe people live their entire lives this way.
Back in the smoking room, on the television, a large purple monster was singing to several small, smiling children. The children didn’t appear to be frightened by the monster, even though its tail kept hitting them when it turned from side to side or swept around in circles.
Nothing in this place seemed to make any sense. When people asked to bum a smoke, I let them take cigarette after cigarette until the package was empty. Fuck it. Fuck everything. I didn’t care anymore.
* * *
After twenty-one days on the psychiatric ward, it wasn’t the doctor or even the nurses who informed me I was being released, but the Metro-Mercy resident social worker. Apparently, someone was more in need of my bed than I was. The social worker gave me a large brown envelope with ten bus tickets inside, and vouchers for rent, food and utilities. At the nursing station, I was given a brown paper bag containing two weeks worth of psycho-pharmaceuticals and a card spelling out the date of my nearest appointment.
Before catching the bus back to my apartment, I threw the brown paper bag into the first trash bin I came across.
When I got home, what furniture had remained after the divorce was now gone. The landlady had taken the liberty of selling what she could to cover the overdue rent. All that was left was a dingy single mattress, a kitchen chair, and a television. I sat down on the chair and lit a cigarette. The apartment smelled of dirty bath water and aging mold. I bent forward and switched the television on.