The day room air hung heavy, dense with the body odor that comes from waiting for bad news. As all twenty of us settled in, the atmosphere was hushed. Even Ellen, who ordinarily spoke loudly to anyone who would listen and usually ended up talking to herself, was silent. Lori and May weren’t poking each other or rolling their eyes. They huddled on the small rust-colored sofa, legs folded under them. Their pale faces echoed the sallow walls. On the floor near the larger green couch, at the edge of the circle of patients waiting for Miss Riley, our head nurse, to speak, I sat cross-legged with my arms locked around my chest, rocking.
“Some of you may be aware that Bella has not returned to 6-South following her medical stay at Presbyterian across the street,” Miss Riley began. “Because you may be wondering where Bella is, I called this community meeting to let you know that that she has been transferred to Rockland.” Several gasps and at least one person’s sobs, along with subdued murmurings of “Oh God,” and “I told you,” and “Shit,” broke our silence, but that didn’t convey the way the room reverberated with fear. I felt as if I were watching a large gasoline can slide toward an open flame. Something terrible was about to happen.
Last month Bella had swallowed poison at her lab job up on the 8th floor. She didn’t tell anyone, which gave it hours to work before she collapsed at the end of an early evening bridge game. As her partner, I had noticed that she was very quiet, and that her skin had an unusual greenish sheen, but I never guessed what she had done.
Her plan almost succeeded. Bella spent a week in ICU before it was certain that she’d live. After that, the doctors didn’t want her. here. I’d sensed that the transfer was coming, but I still couldn’t believe it.
Bella had been one of my two closest friends on 6-South, the kind of friend who saw things the way I did: I didn’t have to explain myself to feel understood. Marie had been the other.
Marie had been a student nurse at Bloomingdales when I was there, someone I’d appreciated as an individual. She’d been quiet and blended in with the other students, but she’d been kind to us patients. Respectful, too. She didn’t treat us like dumb animals to be herded around, or poisonous snakes that might bite.
One day after I’d been at PI a few months, Miss Riley told us to expect a new patient. I was stunned when Marie walked in. It took me a few seconds to figure out where I knew her from, and by then she had recognized me, too. We ran and grabbed each other with happy squeals and hugs, the way girls do. I was so glad to see her I forgot that this was, in fact, bad news: Marie was being admitted to a mental hospital.
Most of the time she looked darkly troubled and kept to herself. Patients had an unofficial rule on 6-South not to ask each other about problems. Marie never volunteered personal information, so I didn’t know what made her so unhappy. When we talked, it was about our cats or our favorite books. Or what kind of birds we’d be, if we could choose.
In February, Marie killed herself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. She had run away – “eloped” was the hospital term for it – and never returned. The police found her body downstream. Even though I’d known other patients who had done that before her, it was hard for me to accept that Marie was gone. I’d felt weighed down, as if a heavy shadow had grown over my heart, but after a while I just went numb when I thought of her.
I felt my heart beat faster in my chest. What if I never saw Bella again?
I followed the last stragglers out of the day room and into the hall. Grotesque images of gargoyles and monsters flashed before me nonstop. I moved closer to the nurses’ station, as if proximity to those in charge would help hold me together. I began to hop from one foot to the other, unable to stand still. I was trying to stay ahead of the enormous energy racing inside of me. Faster and faster I hopped. Then gasoline hit the flame. I blew.
Exploding bits of mountains, trees, dogs and cats, rivers and buffaloes, dead faces with arms and legs came raining down on me. I dug my fingernails into my cheeks. Stinging scratches, speckled scarlet where the nails cut through, streaked down my face. Blood glistened on my fingertips. I clenched my teeth into my skin, leaving marks.
Still the explosions wouldn’t stop. I threw my head against the wall with all my force to counter the flaming assault. Through the fire, hospital staff appeared, two male aides and a nurse. They grabbed my hands and shoved me into a large canvas jacket that opened in back. The men wrapped my arms tight across my chest so I couldn’t move them and tied the sleeves behind me – I was forced to hug myself and hug myself with no end. The nurse pushed me down the hall. I resisted, but not for long. I couldn’t breathe. Deflated lungs made me collapse in on myself, and I ended up curled into a ball on the floor.
I was inside the quiet room. Shabby white quilted pads covered the walls. A rubber mat lined the floor space. It smelled like sneakers, rotted from stinking feet. A mattress lay on the floor on the far side of the room, away from the door.
A crowd of staff people stood outside the door looking at me. They were talking among themselves in words I couldn’t make sense of. Then they moved aside for the Doctor on Call. It was Dr. Roberts. He spoke to me, but I ignored him. I stayed in my ball.
He spoke again.
After a long wait, I looked up. I felt desperately unreal, untethered in space, reeking with shame.
“You know, Annita,” he said, “I think you must be enjoying this.” The doctor’s words ricocheted inside of me and would have set off another explosion, except I had nothing left. I was empty.
I have to make this not be happening, I thought. I will stop time. I can do that. I held absolutely still – if I didn’t move, perhaps I would be absorbed into another dimension.
Summoning my very last piece of breath, I made my voice calm. “Please, go away.”
Dr. Roberts stood, thinking, then turned to leave. The staff people stepped out of the way as he walked out. The lock on the heavy metal door, with its little wire-embedded window in the center, clicked shut behind him.
My life will never be right. I headed down the hall toward the ward’s back dormitory, hoping to find privacy in my cubicle, where I could cry. I’d had a miserable week leading up to my birthday. Nightmares plagued my sleep, including one with my mother raging at me and another in which my brother tried to kill me with a baseball bat. I wasn’t looking forward to the pass on Saturday to celebrate with my family – at home I felt lonely and out of place. I hadn’t the heart to turn twenty-one.
As I approached the dorm, lost deep in a forest of demon trees with pointing fingers and scowling faces, lacking energy or will to tell myself it wasn’t real, I failed to notice what was happening. All of a sudden someone grabbed my waist and hoisted me from behind.
“Yikes!” I screamed midair. Judy, my cubicle-mate, twisted me around and flung me over her back. Her shoulder socked the wind out of my stomach as I landed on it.
“You’re coming with me, young lady,” Judy said, while I gasped. She carted me down the hall fireman style, as if she were a professional who did this every day of the week.
“I’ve got her,” Judy shouted as we bounced toward the day room, showing me off like a trophy to the others who appeared, as if by prearrangement, and joined our ragtag parade. I laughed and flapped my arms and legs.
“Save me!” I yelled, once I could breathe. “Come on. Please?” I jutted my chin toward Carol and some teenagers who had stopped to watch, then nodded toward my captor, “Can’t you see she’s crazy?”
Judy flopped me down in the day room next to the Ping-Pong table, where evening snack was about to be served. I was so dizzy I nearly lost my balance, but I grabbed the edge of the table and managed not to fall. I could see a pile of small items near the net, one or two with ribbons tied around them. A moment later Billy, a tall, handsome black man who was one of our favorite nurse’s aides, produced a large aluminum steamer tray of cinnamon toast and placed it on the end of the table with a grand flourish. To judge by his face, it was cake for a queen.
A tiny flame flickered on a small candle stuck in a piece of toast at the center of a sea of thin, sandy-colored, barely toasted bread. Streaks of warm brown spice, white sugar, and yellow margarine spread across it in uneven lines.
“Happy Birthday!” everyone shouted.
I took a moment to grasp what was happening. It seemed as if I were watching a movie without words play across a screen in disconnected pieces – nothing fit together to make sense. I saw my friends with smiles on their faces. In the distance, I heard sounds of their singing, “….Happy Birthday, dear Annita….”
Oh, I realized, this is for me.
Gratitude swelled through me. I started to cry, but my tears stopped before they could fall.
They love me.
You’re an unworthy bitch, how could they love you?
They’re being kind; they didn’t have to do this.
They had to do this; you’re arrogant and selfish; they should hate you.
But, they’re acting like they love me.
They’ll despise you when they see who you really are.
Clouds covered the sun. I knew I had felt joy, but it was gone. I was struggling not to cry again, this time from frustration, when a space opened in the midst of all the back and forth.
Maybe you don’t have to be worthy to be loved...
“Wake up, for Chrissake,” Rita pulled on my elbow and gave me a shake. “You’re not done.”
“The candle,” others yelled. “Blow out the candle!”
I blinked and shook myself. Inhaling a huge breath, I leaned way over the table to reach the middle of the tin of toast, and blew with all my might. The flame wavered, then gave up. Everyone applauded.
“Don’t forget these,” Leah said, as she helped Judy move the gifts closer to me.
Lori and May gave me a coconut with two round, dark spots on its pointy end that made it look like an enormous cute mouse with big eyes. Leah gave me a handmade mug in an artsy shape with a beautiful, teal green glaze. Carol gave me a set of colored pencils.
Judy gave me a tiny spiral-bound notebook. “It’s to help you keep track of your new year,” she said. Tina gave me a large cookie she’d probably bought for herself. Other patients didn’t have presents, but even Ellen said, “Happy Birthday.”
“Thanks for not saving me, guys.” I smiled at a clump of younger patients. “And, I highly recommend Judy for rescue if this place ever catches on fire.”
“Or if you need someone to sneak you out in a sack,” said May.
I laughed. “The perfect elopement for two with their hearts on fire.”
“Who’s crazy now?” Judy laughed, too.
We turned our attention to the cinnamon toast. I handed a napkin to any individual who looked vaguely in need of one, and offered sugar and powdered cream to each person holding a cup of warm coffee Billy had filled from the large metal pitchers that appeared every evening.
“It’s your birthday. You don’t have to wait on us,” Leah said.
“It’s the least I can do,” I replied. I meant it. They had been so good to me, and I wanted to make sure I gave back.
The happy aroma of coffee and cinnamon lingered, while the party faded away. Most of the patients moved on to watch television. I gathered my presents and carried them to my cubicle, where I arranged them on the bureau next to my bed.
As I prepared for the night, the quarreling resumed.
Don’t forget you’re hopeless.
I have friends. They care.
Hopeless and unworthy. Don’t think you’re so great.
Maybe you don’t have to be worthy to be loved. I think maybe they love me.
No, not you, not love.
Blah, blah, blah….
I lay in bed, but I couldn’t sleep. Battling thoughts still crashed and clattered inside my head. After a long while, to find distraction from the noise, I decided to focus on my gifts. I pictured each one in order, as I had received it. I imagined every detail – every texture, every color, every curve and corner. Somewhere along the third or fourth time through, I drifted off.
Annita Sawyer is the 2013 Literary Awards Program winner for nonfiction. Gargoyles, Saints, and Harold Searles is an excerpt from her book, Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass.