– Fierce Fiction by Christine Heuner –
I’m shivering in a hospital gown and Hanes underwear. A nurse brings me another blanket, crisp with hot starch. I want to cry.
The wallpaper border of pink carnations clings to moss green walls; the flowers have floated up to the surface of an algaeic pond to comfort me.
The lights are dim. In the corner sits Jake, swallowed by shadow.
The young man who gives me a tetanus shot asks, “What happened to you?”
“I did this to myself,” I say quietly.
He catches my eye, his expression unreadable, and lightly presses to my arm a small bandage, much smaller than those I use to seal up my own messes, minor crises contained.
Next, the doctor. She stitches up my hip and says a cream will help the smaller cuts.
When I tell her that I don’t see an end to this, she, seated like a mother at her child’s bedside, says, “You shouldn’t have to feel this way. We’ll get you some help.”
And then I do cry.
Eleven stitches. I wanted more: twenty at least.
They send me to a place that, the nurse informs me, “has a bed,” suggesting that anything else, even food, is optional. It’s the same place I went two years ago, but only for three days. This time, I’m certain I’ll be here longer.
I have no extra clothes. Brenda, one of the staff, offers me scrubs and whatever clothes others have left behind. I find sweatpants too sizes two big and a zip-up hoodie with magenta flowers on both sides, outlined in gold beads, some of them missing, a few hanging by thin threads. The flowers announce Born to Love in bannersacross their chests. Oh, well. It’s this or scrubs. Years later, I will still have the hoodie. My daughter, age twelve, will find it in my closet and wear it everywhere. A friend will ask where she got it. “Target,” I’ll say. “Years ago.”
A woman leaving later today offers me her pajamas. When I protest, she says, “My pajamas need to stay here.”
I remember something I read about prison: if you leave your shoes upon release, you might return to walk in them again. I find a pair of shoes, newish slip-on sandals, just my size. I imagine their owner returning, cursed by her mistake. Cursed in general. If you’re not cursed with something, how do you end up here?
It’s Sunday, so there are no group meetings until tomorrow. Brenda tells me that it’s kind of dead around here on the weekends. A man calls me into an office and asks if I am having any urges to hurt myself or someone else.
“No.” But I know what I’d be doing if I were home. I won’t understand until much later that hurting myself is hurting someone else.
Looking down at his pad, he says another doctor will see me Monday. The top of his head is bald, shiny like polished mahogany.
The Monday doctor puts me on an antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, and a sleep aid; she suggests I stop breastfeeding. “It may be time to wean. You gave her eight months of good milk. Better to be safe.”
My first time here, more like a visit than a stay, my roommate turned her back to the wall and said nothing. “She needs to be in a rubber room,” someone said. To create balance, my current roommate does not stop talking. She’s here only for med management, a “little fine-tuning.” She asks, as so many do without expectation of privacy, what I’m in for. I tell her.
She considers this for a moment. “I pick my feet,” she says. “I pull the skin right off, sometimes until I bleed. I don’t know why I do this. I just… pick my feet.”
The intake nurse, after seeing my cuts, told me, “No picking.” It didn’t occur to me that someone would do that. I just cleaned them with the soothing hot sting of rubbing alcohol and bandaged them up. But, because she said it, I do think about picking, ponder it, my mind forever seeking new avenues of destruction.
I look forward to “group”: two sessions each day. They do more than break up the long stretches of dead time; I get to learn everyone’s names and stories, which I use to measure my own insanity. I’m at least in the fiftieth percentile.
I tell the group about the blades. (The intake nurse took all my “sharps” including tweezers and nail clippers.) I just want my story told, to have it heard.
“You can always find ways to hurt yourself,” my roommate tells me and the group. “You could pull the staple out of this—” She holds up the packet on depression, bipolar, and anxiety we’ve been given “—or get a bobby pin and take the little bead off—”
“Enough,” the counselor says. “That’s quite enough.”
Jennifer, who I meet at lunch, is probably mid-fifties, but I won’t ask. At home, she bangs herself against cabinets and other objects that won’t give. She shows me bruises I don’t want to see. They give me ideas. When we hang out in free time and share our stories, Jennifer tells a newcomer that “I bang, she cuts.” I don’t mind being introduced this way.
During visiting hours, Jake brings me clothes, the necessaries, and the Chinese food I asked for on the phone but now do not want. Because my roommate’s obese visitors have taken up her space and mine in our room, Jake and I sit in the common area where others pull chairs in close circles. Some sit alone. Joe is one of these. Earlier in group, he shared that he has nothing waiting for him on the outside: no wife, no kids, no job. “I’ve fucked it all up,” he said. “Drinking. Drugging. You all complain about being in here, but I’m scared shitless about getting out.”
I’m not scared of getting out. I don’t want to go. I see ever-full laundry baskets, past-due bills, obsessive attachments to LinkedIn and my secret emails. At home, it’s his-and-her bank accounts. Even after five years of marriage, Jake and I divide the bills, or we did. Four months ago, I asked him to take over the cable and electric after I lost my job.
“It’s only for awhile,” I said. “I’ll be back on my feet soon.”
Jake asks me how much longer I’ll be here. “Not much,” I say. I don’t remind him that it’s been only two days; no need to start an argument.
I imagine my roommates’ family farting on my bed. When Jake tells me he loves me, I’m thinking about our own bed, him alone in it.
To the social worker who meets with me every other day, I insist that I’m not bipolar.
“I miss sleep when I lose it. I don’t buy impulsively. You know, Art said he bought two cars in one day? Kailey couldn’t get out of bed for nearly a month. That’s not me.”
“Stop comparing yourself,” she says. “Isn’t it enough that you’ve suffered? That you’re suffering right now?”
I really like this woman. She has a clutter of three crosses gathered at her throat, cross earrings, an ichthus bracelet. Maybe she trusts these talismans as a united force field against suffering.
“Remember, everyone else has suffered. Identify; don’t compare. You’re not meant to lick this thing on your own. You wouldn’t be here if you could.”
But my insanity didn’t throw me off a cliff, just pressed me to its threatening edge. It almost feels wrong to care for myself before taking that leap, leaving everything behind. That would truly earn me a seat at their table.
“What did you do?” This from Jennifer. She could mean anything. I must look confused because she says, “You know, for work.”
“I was a lawyer,” I say quietly as if ashamed, though I want to impress.
“The practice closed. I have to start all over.”
I don’t tell her that I wanted to leave, that I’d planned on leaving for years, but just couldn’t afford it. Before entering the office most days, I sat in my car for up to twenty minutes trying to force myself to go in. I considered other careers, but what else could I do?
When I was in college, a counselor, eyes on my transcript, said that law would be the best option for me.
“I was thinking about social work,” I said.
He shook his head, bald on top, hair fuzzed above his ears. He said, “Not a good idea, if you ask me.” (I didn’t.) “You’re too smart for that.”
So, I listened to him, my parents, and professors.
Here, I have more education than any of these people; I’ve just finished Anna Karenina and enjoyed it; I have multiple degrees from good colleges. I earned scholarships, awards, shiny plaques reflecting my face. But I am quietly weird, ashamed of my oddity. I love reading about slaves and saints, the energetic angst of Greek heroes. Full frontal tragedy, the death count high. Before I die, I want to hear monks chanting.
I want to be perfect, believe I can be, punish myself when I cannot. It’s such a pleasure to hurt myself. No one can beat me at it or force me to stop. There is certain comfort in contained crisis. I can get away with nothing.
On the third day, the sleep meds stop working. I roam the halls, then take my book into the kitchen area. I’m always hungry when I wake up, but a roll-top enclosure locks the pantry. I ask Brenda for some food; she puts her fingers to her lips and filches tiny boxes of cereal and school-sized milk cartons.
“I could make coffee,” she says, “but you don’t need no coffee.”
I thank her and read my book while eating, the same book I read last visit but didn’t finish or return to upon my release. I have to start over.
I am only a few pages in when a guy, hair mussed, shuffles in wearing fuzzy Superman pants, a John Deere sweatshirt, and loafers.
“Can’t sleep either, huh?” he asks.
“No,” I say, looking down at my book.
“Damn, I need a cigarette. They don’t open the back door ‘til six. Makes no goddamn sense. They wouldn’t close the bathroom door, would they?”
“Addictions suck, don’t they?”
He nods. “Ah. You gotta get through life somehow, you know? Pick your poison.”
“What if it picks you first?” I want to ask. “Then what?”
In group, Rose, painfully thin, sits outside the circle, in the back beside the game, book, and VHS collection. (There is no VCR.) She shrinks into herself, shoulders curled in, arms wrapped around the legs she’s gathered on the chair. The counselor asks her to sit with us. Rose does not speak, not even when asked. But she comes up to me after one session, says softly, “I know what you mean when you say you don’t feel like you’re worth it. I feel the same way. I don’t want to get help. Why try?” She leans into me and whispers, “I hate myself.”
At night snack, she says that she can survive on one coffee roll and eight cups of coffee a day. In a voice husky from years of nicotine, demure from decades of pain, Rose tells me her ex-husband beat her, cheated on her with floozies; her grandfather used to molest her. One day, he took her and a friend out for ice cream. The friend sat in the car’s front seat while Rose sat in the back. It didn’t matter that he had his hand up the little girl’s skirt. “I was jealous,” Rose says, “because she got the front.” Years later, Rose told her mother and aunts about the grandfather. “Who cares?” they said. “He did that to all of us.”
At another table, a group of guys defend their favorite bands: Nirvana. Floyd. Skynard. Joe shouts: “Zeppelin beats fucking all!” Another group plays Monopoly with Parcheesi pieces. And here is Rose, telling me the deepest part of herself over white bread-and-cheese sandwiches.
“I used to cut myself, too,” she adds, detaching the crusts. “I’d cut here.” She makes parallel motions on her forehead with her finger. “I used a paperclip.”
“How did you stop?” I visualize blood running into her eyes, down her cheeks like a horror movie poster.
“I kept getting sent to the ER. And because Johnny used to beat me I was already a regular there. They knew me better than the Number One Bar and Grill.” This will be her only attempt at humor.
Many here have suffered like Rose. But I’m not broken beyond repair. It’s simple: my parents preferred my golden sister, a natural gymnast with a taut body, luminous skin, ivory teeth. (Someone, I don’t know who, wrote in my ninth-grade yearbook: Amy, You need a face lift REAL bad. I did, too. Acne. Underbite.)
Boys and men took me to their rooms, made unkept promises. Friends spun rumors behind closed doors. I don’t touch the edge of victimhood. But I’ve played the martyr.
I finally call my mother. Jake has been talking to her, telling her they don’t allow calls, which is not true. They take your cell phone upon arrival, but pay phones are available. I call collect.
“My God, I’m so worried,” she says. “We’re all worried. Daddy is just sick about this.” As she talks, I touch the word Fuckmuncher, carved into the wooden chair’s seat back in jagged letters, filled with black ink.
My father used to tell my sister as she practiced for hours and hours on beams, bars, trampolines: “You can do it. Fight like a tiger. You’re a warrior.”
But he said nothing of tigers or warriors to me.
“You can’t lose,” he’d tell her before every gymnastics meet. Most of the time, she didn’t.
He doesn’t come to the phone.
We get art and music as bonuses. I draw a body striped with cuts, words written above the red slices. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. I write I’m sorry instead of a mouth. Jennifer sees it and touches my arm; it’s silly, but I imagine she’s putting a tiny bandage on a sorry or erasing it completely.
In music class, the counselor plays a song from a 1990’s CD player then asks us our feelings about it. We’re only three in attendance. In the first song, the singer tells us over and over that we can start all over.
Art says that it’s bullshit; who can really start over? “My wife is dead. There’s no starting over. What’m I going to do, go to Match-dot-com? Who the hell would pick me?” He has a point. Even his fingernails are ugly.
Kailey says it’s a good song; it’s a nice thought, to start all over; she’s going to do just that when she gets home. “I’m going to look for a job, too,” she says. “And stick with it this time. And lose all the weight I gained on fucking Depakote.”
It’s my turn to speak. “I’ve tried starting over, but I’m not sure how. This is my second time here, so… I don’t have much practice in doing the right thing.”
Though days are short, life seems long, cluttered with tasks undertaken with dreaded obligation or boredom. The past grips me in its fist while the other hand points a bossy finger toward the future.
While doing one thing, I plan for what’s next, look back with regret, fear tomorrow; now, right now, is lost in the haze of penumbra. In soundless surrender, I sink into this space, pondering actions, consequences. Fate. It’s all dark to me; I cannot connect what I’ve done with who I am, cannot see what I’m meant to do or where to go.
If promised immortality by an ostensibly kind deity, I’d probably kill myself.
Dying by age forty-five, a decade away, is just fine by me.
The social worker tells me that children of suicidal parents wind up in here. That’s something to kick around in your head.
One of the doctors says that my brand of cutting isn’t a suicide attempt. “You’re just trying to relieve tension. But it fills you with shame.”
“So, it’s not that bad,” I tell the social worker. “I’m just coping with stress.”
She says, almost yelling, “If it’s not that bad, why are you here?”
“I don’t know.”
But I do.
“I can’t stop.”
Yael, who I meet seven days in, says she is a fortune teller. She’s sitting across from me in group. I put my hands in my lap, look at my palms, wondering what she might find in the creases, what kind of story hides in the lines of wrinkled skin, if there is a story at all. I don’t believe that skin or cards or stars reveal or predict, or that anything but our will steers the wheel. I believe in God, but not as a rescue squad. Here is the problem: I don’t know the right avenue to prayer. I don’t believe in miracles.
I go to Sunday mass in the tiny chapel. Amanda’s baptism was the last time I visited a church, but it was all for show, a formal, tight handshake and quick release. In this chapel, the Bible reading is about love, forgiveness, charity. Hope. I cry so much it’s embarrassing. The reading speaks to me, but I know that any selection would. It could be about building the ark or fathers killing sons and I’d still find a voice there, speaking like God to a prophet.
Later, I will read about a prophet hearing God’s voice not in furious wind or earthquakes or raging fire, but encased in tiny whisper. This will make sense to me.
I finally tell the group about Mike—not his real name, of course. Someone asks, “How did you find the time?”
“On the internet. E-mail.” A slight, polite laughter circles the room. The counselor tells them to hush and me to keep going. “It’s an old friend from high school. We reconnected on Facebook. It got pretty intense.”
“Like e-sex and stuff?” Kailey asks, perking up. I nod; she smiles.
“How’d you end it?” the counselor asks.
I shrug. “I haven’t, I guess. I just wound up in here.”
“What about Skype sex? That can get pretty hot, let me tell you. Once, I met this guy… Okay, fine, I’ll shut up,” Kailey says to the counselor.
“If you’re unhappy in your marriage, end it before you shack up with someone else,” Art says.
“She’s not shacking up. It’s on the internet,” says Kailey.
Art waves his hand at her. He’s right: what’s the difference?
Through e-mail, the guy I call Mike told me I was beautiful in Times New Roman, bold. His only basis for judgment: a Facebook picture and skewed recollection.
“What did you see in me, back then?” I asked. In tenth grade English, he sat beside me, though we barely spoke. He read Banquo’s lines in a deep voice whose resonance he tried to hide. Someone told me he liked me, but I was into someone else.
He said, “You were cute, had a hot little body, and, I don’t know, you just seemed comfortable in your own skin.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” My skin felt tight like those teenage dance costumes and itchy like little tags that nip at your neck. My mother chose my wardrobe: pastels, pleats, collars. In the hallways at school, I admired others girls’ fashions, borrowed their image, carried it away with me like my backpack, only much lighter. I didn’t want to walk in someone else’s shoes, only wear them.
Jake and I sit on the bed whose weary springs moan whenever we move. My roommate left yesterday, so we’re here alone. He says that everything is okay at home. His parents babysit; he’s taken over the laundry, has even tried his hand at a few meals, but says mine are far better. Is this what “okay” means? The unspoken hovers like the ghosts I imagine hide in these closets, the spirits of patients past, all haunted by what was and will be, haunting me now. Jake and I are seated closer than we’ve been in awhile; at home, Amanda comes between us, even sleeps in our bed, horizontally, pushing us to opposite poles, the three of us a capital H.
At our wedding, someone snuck a photo of us seated at the table of honor, our backs facing the camera, our hands beneath the table deleting the small space between his chair, my chair, our fingers intertwined, threaded in gentle intimacy. This shot, its taker anonymous, testifies our affection. We didn’t make a big show of it; at the same time, it sustained us, then. No his-hers, but ours. Now, his hand on mine cannot touch me.
When we’re sitting in the common room during the empty time between dinner and night meds, Annette, who arrived yesterday and confessed she lost her kids to DYFS, shows us her tattoos. I don’t like tattoos in general—my mother always says they look trashy, and I believe her—but Annette has an emerging work of art on her back, a birth-to-death narrative she develops every few months when she has the cash. She lifts up her shirt all the way, unhooks her bra, folds her arms across her chest, and leans against the wall. The baby on her left shoulder is nestled between two hands, curled in like an embryo. Beneath it are two children, faceless silhouettes, shadows, caught in the act of playing, the ball they will never catch hovering between them.
There’s an odd gap in her mid-back as if someone rubbed an eraser across it. On her lower back, just above the tailbone: a skull in fine detail; you can even see tiny cracks in the forehead, the deep caverns of hollowed eyes. The skull’s mouth is a flower, red with green leaves, the expansive masterpiece’s only color.
I want to ask her why the flower is there, but I think I know. Death is sweet, an alluring reprieve from the trials of middle and old age that Annette’s back has ignored, for now.
Yael, the fortune teller, has a tattoo of a Tarot card on her upper-arm. It’s the High Priestess. At breakfast, Jennifer asks her what it means.
“It’s complicated,” Yael says. “It’s mostly about finding your inner voice. Balancing your light side and shadow side. You know, waiting for the answers to come to you.”
“The fuck does that mean?” This from Art; the doctors are still adjusting his medication.
“Well, like I said, it’s hard to explain, you know. When people get the High Priestess, I usually tell them she’s mysterious… it’s about channeling your inner voice, like I said, not about looking for answers outside yourself.”
“I bet that pays the bills.” Art again.
Yael gives him a smile punctuated with a dimple in one cheek. Her skin: a smooth cocoa, free of blemish. “You should come and see me when you’re on the outside. I’ll give you a reading for free.”
I expect Art to scoff, to tell her that she can take her mumbo jumbo elsewhere. But he doesn’t. He looks at her curiously, says, “You’re a real lady, miss… what’s your name again?”
My inner voice, in a word: treacherous. Evil thoughts recurrent as breath. I’ll be carrying Amanda through the house and hear Drop her down the stairs. When driving to work: Plow your car into that river. When cleaning: Lick the bleach cap. Lick it now. I didn’t lick it, but I did take twenty Klonopin because my inner voice insisted it was the best punctuation to my screaming argument with Jake. End with an exclamation.
God told Solomon he could have anything. Anything you want, just ask. Wisdom, Solomon answered. Understanding.
I’d trade all the wisdom in the world for one golden thread of peace, for an inner voice like the nurse’s from the maternity ward where I birthed Amanda. She pressed the liquid gold from my breast to my baby’s needy mouth, her hands a blessing upon me. She said with ignorant faith, “You have a good spirit. I can tell.”
“So I hear you’re leaving us,” Art says, touching my shoulder as we walk from the cafeteria back to our wing.
“Insurance gives ten days. What’s a girl to do?”
“You need Medicare,” he says. “Thirty more years or so and you can stay in this Club Med all you want.”
“That’s a scary thought.”
But it isn’t.
“Ah, well. You’re gonna be fine, little lady.” He puts his arm around me, squeezes my shoulder. I don’t mind. “You’re a little undercooked, but you’re gonna be okay. Take care of that husband of yours.”
The social worker asks what I plan to do when I get out.
“Look for a job,” I tell her. “End it with Mike. Start all over. Try to be good.”
When we hug good-bye, Jennifer releases a choked sob into my neck and holds on so tight I may need Brenda to pull her off. Earlier, she pressed me for my phone number. I wrote my area code and seven numbers. I still wonder how many times she tried those numbers before giving up.
Because I am sure it will be my last visit, I consider leaving something behind, but not clothes. I’ve fallen in love with my gifted pajamas and won’t curse myself by leaving shoes. I put a note in the top dresser drawer—I desire mercy, not sacrifice—quoted from the Bible I found in the common room. I’ve been reading it sporadically. I write the words without citation; some people are so twitchy about God. I also pen the sentence on a little yellow Post-It and put it in my wallet; it finds its way between credit cards, crisp and crumpled bills. I’ll keep it there for years until it disintegrates, but even then I won’t throw it out.
I imagine a kindred spirit with my note’s twin. It could be anyone: the asshole who double-parks at the Quick Check, the bristly pharmacy clerk, a felon reading alone in his cell, my note a book mark, both placeholder and comfort.
I’m home a week before I speak to my father, but only because my mother hands him the phone. I’m good; he’s good; it’s sunny here; cloudy there.
I try to pretend I don’t care. It will take years for him to tell me he’s proud of me, has always been proud of me, years for my sister to say that he pushed her to be like me. I will learn that love can’t always confess itself. For so long, I ate the bitter rind of blame and self-pity, chewed it to a pulp, refused to spit it out, when I should have searched for sweetness wherever I could find it. My father used to buy me coffee cake from the bakery miles away, make a big show of giving it to me. When my mother called me The Odd Bird, she said it with a smile, her voice light with affection. “Amy’s wiser than any of us,” she told family and friends, even acquaintances. “When I grow up, I want to be like her.”
Though I break it off with Mike when I get home, after two weeks I’m thinking of him again, relegated to the luxurious privacy of illimitable desire.
I’ve tried picking off the beaded ends of bobby pins, my roommate’s tip, just to see how sharp they are. But I’m too smart now; I know where that leads. Besides, the beads won’t come off.
So I go to the meetings, sharing nothing, just listening. Crying. Many are completely broken; they speak, sometimes whine, about jails, prisons, ravaged families, drug court. I don’t belong here, not really; even Jake says so. I leave before the final serenity prayer so that no one will approach me. It will take awhile, years, to know that it’s okay not to break completely. A clean, quiet fracture will do.
I can’t shake my father’s wisdom: Fight like a tiger, a warrior.
I’m tired of fighting.
Some things you can’t fight.
The hard part about getting better is when things get easy, or easier. Used to be I knew life by its polarity: magnificent or tragic. But now it’s calm by comparison. I’m trying to sit in these moments of stillness, not push them away. Like Yael and her High Priestess: waiting for answers to come, for darkness to pass. God will come to me in whispers, not the golden trumpets of angels. You’re okay now. That’s done now. Don’t look back.
I try to seek peace before wisdom. It’s a burden, wisdom is, deeper than knowledge, and I know too much anyway.
Maybe the skull’s flower on Annette’s back does not translate death as sweet. Maybe, after you go, a remnant of life remains: your soul, your spirit, every petal of it flourishing, vibrant while the rest of you rots.
I might get a tattoo on my hip: a flower like Annette’s, minus the skull; maybe a rose, the size a bathing suit will cover, not at all trashy. I tell Jake: only you and I could see it. He thinks it’s a good idea, kind of sexy, he says. We’re sitting on the front porch swing. He puts his arm around me, setting the swing in gentle motion. This simple gesture, rare for him, follows another. He tips up my chin and kisses me, not rough with impatient longing and careless desire, but with kindness. His warm hand, strong and sure, cups my neck, his thumb a calm caress on my cheek.
“I feel like you’re back,” he says. “Are you back?”
He searches my face for an answer. I nod, smile in appreciation for this moment of grace, this silent peace between us. But I know it will not last.
Oh, Amy, someone (the social worker, for example) might say. Give yourself a break.
But this is a kindness difficult to grant one’s self even when gifted by another.
When Jake and I were closest, he rationed his past, refusing to speak of lovers or fraternity antics, failures or indiscretions, maybe for good reason. When is silence loyalty, when violation? Half-truths are lies, and yet they protect, sustain us more than honesty.
“We’ll get you some help,” the doctor said over a month ago.
And help, some help, did come to me. So, yes, I am back, I tell Jake; truth or lie, for now I must believe it.
Christine Heuner has been teaching high school English for nineteen years in New Jersey. Other than reading and writing, she enjoys spending time with family and exercising before dawn. Her work has been featured in Flash Fiction Magazine, Philadelphia Stories, and is forthcoming in Scribble. She self-published Confessions, a book of short stories.
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