by David Whelan
[ fiction - december 12 ]
If you need to know where I am, and when I am, then you’ve come into the wrong mind. The world is burning, that’s all I know, and people stoop on street corners to collect tiny fragments of year old newspapers and lift them up to the sun to read the writing cast down onto their faces. We read each other’s faces, but it’s the words we’re after. I am inside the Home for the Helpless, inside where I have been put, and I pop out my grey tongue every ten seconds to make sure it is still there. I am worried it has been stolen.
The Lost dance around like any film you’ve ever seen, from London to Manchester and Liverpool to Norwich to Newcastle and Boston to New York to Los Angeles, and the threads in between. These are the places that I have been taught and the dance is always the same, we’ve all seen it: the limp arms pulled up as if by an invisible string, heads curled onto their shoulders like living Pez dispensers, eyes peeled back white to the ceiling, feet tapping the floor with the rhythm of the void and then, all together now, the groaning of the Lost to the beat, and then me, in the background, crunching pills for percussion. Tommy watched us from the door in hallway, his broad shoulders stretched like a conurbation, looking like a column of sand in his scrubs, that twitch on the left hand side of his face made him appear almost human, but I know better.
And Andrea, that being me, small and shrunken like a pumpkin left over from the harvest, sat there and watched Maria juggle that damn remote from her skinny right arm to her hairy left one as if it were a new born child, like she’d ever get a man to slide between her, not with personal hygiene as it was anyway, Tommy called it a smelly clam - the worst he ever had -, as Kim, emerald eyes a little dimmer now that she’d been off the Fuckin’ Fizz for three days, fourteen hours and twelve minutes, lectured the room on the benefits of intermittent fasting. Five pounds gone in three weeks, shed like a second skin, plump slithering snake, and damn she could use it, almost too fat to fit within the doors when she arrived a month ago, frothing at the lips and face in patches and spots like a ladybird, a box of doughnuts stuffed with godknowswhat wedged between a flabby bicep and her sagging chest.
I ignored her, or tried to, but it’s hard to ignore anything at the moment, even though Psych Sue tells me that ignoring things, the little buzzwords between the slogans and images, is the first step to recovery. I focused on Tony. Tony was upstairs in his dried mango orange Nike tracksuit and faded copper trainers on the treadmill that wasn’t plugged into anything and had no electrical power whatsoever to speak of. Tony the Hamster, we called him. Critically skinny Tony who fixed up Tommy with a constant supply of weed in return for access to the gym so that he could run off all the food they shoved down his throat every five hours. Kim, her face now right in front of mine, breath bulging and splitting like a baked potato, buttery to my flesh, sez they should stick him in a human sized exercise wheel, rig him to the generator, and be done with it. Save the fucking planet one anorexic at a time. Outside, glimpsed between the bars, the day is cold and icy. The exact opposite of this hothouse.
I think they turn up the heat to keep us all moving around, to keep us sweating it out, so that when the time comes to eat, or sleep, or talk, we’re too tired out to resist. They inject me with things that they say will keep me from picking at my scabs. They give me hot-pink pills to keep my mood up; Tommy sez I smile too much, anyway. I feel the heat of the television behind me and feel the pain in Maria’s awful wrist as clearly as I could smell the sweat dropping off of Tony’s body upstairs and as brightly as the electron beams crackling within the skin of the cathode tubes inside the television. I think there are lice within the sofas, chomping away at the moon yellow flesh of the soft insides.
* * *
I am not allowed to watch television because the last time I did I stayed up for two days straight and watched three seasons of Gilmore Girls, eventually at 1.5 speed, because, once you get used to it, the girls don’t really talk that fast and don’t they realise that people think faster than people talk and once you’ve watched enough you can pretty much guess what they’re going to say anyway, two years ago to the day I think. Tommy found me lying in a C shape on the floor, tugging at my sawdust hair, and screaming at the screen to finally let Lorelai man the fuck up and suck Luke’s dick already. It was hot and rubbery, and not at all what they make it out to be in the romance novels Kiki and I read to each other over the shallow end of the duck egg blue pool her parents rented each summer between her first period and the time they decided they no longer loved each other enough to spend a minute in the kitchen together let alone share the same chlorinated water, but anyway, I took his cock in my mouth and almost gagged, I’d hoped he’d cleaned it but of he hadn’t and it tasted like an armpit rung through a salt shaker and smelt of a curry left sitting on the counter. This wasn’t Luke’s, of course, and neither was it Tommy’s, or the Dick Himself’s, but it felt like all three, at the time, on the floor, when I was last allowed to watch television, the blurring of the men and me into one and anyway he sez if I swallowed then he wouldn’t tell my mama what I had done.
That was the first time I had to start going to Psych Sue. And I go to see her every day now, always the same time, always the same place. I wash my hair for her so she thinks I’m getting better. I smile at her so she can see my white teeth and how naturally ordered they are.
Psych Sue sez that I have something called geometric dislocation but I told Psych Sue that something awful must have happened in her childhood for her to want to fix other people so bad. She don’t know that I know. And, anyway, If I didn’t know where I was from then why would I talk in Swahili just to piss her off. She just stares at me through circular glasses as Tommy grips me on the shoulders from behind until I stop and declare that Tommy wants to fuck me. His hands disappear and Psych Sue grins weakly and asks him to leave for a moment to clear his head. In here you can come and go from anywhere. PS cranks up the heat even more in her tiny brown office so that it attracts the ants crawling around in the mud of the foundation so that they eat their way out of the soil and the foam floorboards and come up onto her desk in a little line, searching for freedom, but only finding the blunt underside of her scrawny thumb. I hear each and everyone of them cry out when they become roadkill and she knows this. Her hands, which I can smell from across the plastic desk, smell of a gas station, her shoulders of coconut shampoo.
* * *
I told her - my first mistake - about how Kiki and I were planning a huge trip. That we’re going to go to America and India and China and Japan, if we can afford to, and then Slovakia and Germany and Russia and Italy, where we must end.
‘Kiki is gone,’ she sez, lips peeling like the flesh from a banana.
I look at her as if she doesn’t know that of course I know that she is dead and gone. Kiki and I know that we are all dead and gone.
‘She’s here in the air, and there, on the sofa, and naked in the shower ringing out her purple hair, and there, in the space between my fingers, and in there, beside my lungs and in the alveoli within them and then, too, in the web of space between their cells, in the difference between the good air and the CO2. She’s inside you too, Silly Sue, inside your mouth and your gut and your colon, coming out of your…’
Time passes in the little office and the desk seems too small for either of us, Psych Sue cracks her fingers one by one as if she keeps track of the days by the snapping of her knuckles. Her eyes are yellow like sand and huge and sad. Tommy told me that when she was a little girl, her second attempt, a boy came up behind her at a birthday party and popped her big apple green balloon and tried to throw her into the pool and ended up breaking her hip when she cried out to a group of girls to help her, who ignored her and stared down their noses at their tartan scarves and puffy chests and kept on eating their candies with sticky fingers. That’s why she hates everyone, Tommy sez. That’s why she’s out to get us all.
Nervousness around authority figures. Mentally immature. Delusional.
‘Tell me, Andrea, who exactly is Kiki?’
Just the best girl in the world. ‘None of your business.’
She withdrew a manila folder from the second draw of her desk and shook her plastic hair and adjusted her silk blouse and rubbed her left hand over her dry face. There is no wedding ring. I put out my hand right before the glass of water is placed into it. I am refreshed before I drink. I thank Tommy by sticking my neck out like a giraffe, so he can see the pale skin of it, so he can refuel his imagination for later.
Two years on treatment, the patient shows little sign of …
To shut her up I started talking about damn Maria and her problems, that are, to be honest with you, far worse than mine. Maria is on the computer so much she hurts the keyboard with her blunt fingers, sticking them places where they don’t belong. At night the computer sends me emails telling me how he cannot stand being touched by Maria anymore, that he needs help, that the little people inside him are getting smashed to bits. And can’t she see how painful it is for everyone else to watch her lobotomise QUERTY like that? One time, I tell PS, she didn’t communicate to me for an entire week and can you imagine how annoying that would be for me, and just went about her prissy way by typing messages to me on the screen like I’m some sort of mute. LEAVE ME ALONE. STOP STARING AT ME. GET ME WATER. WHERE IS TOMMY, I NEED MY PILLS. TONY IS SUCH A FREAK. LIKE YOU. MUTE. RITALIN RAT.
* * *
BANG. Tommy sez her tongue dried up from her new medication, and who’s fault was that, Silly Sue? No wonder she was so grouchy toward me, being jealous of all my words, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to speak, I’m sure you can guess, so I decided to rectify your little problem and be Maria’s mouthpiece until she got better. A person ain’t a person without being able to express exactly how they feel, so I thought I had enough words to go around so I gave Maria some to fill up the gap inside of her. And can you guess, Suey, how she thanked me? When her dried up old thing came back to life she sought me out in my room with this shit-eating grin and I thought that she was going to thank me for helping her out and you know what she sez? You know what she sez?
‘Shut the fuck up.’ And it’s all your fault, PS. For taking me off the Fizz and leaving me here to dry up like Maria’s tongue and cranking up the heat so that we all burn out before our families have a chance to pluck us like strawberries.
The patient shows clear signs of temporal, special and geometric dislocation. The patient has no idea who she is. Disembodied words, disembodied girls.
When I first got thrown in here, by the Dick Himself, I was normal and I swear I was normal and normal is as normal does and I was as normal as a double decker bus or a black cab or a child with a lollipop and a puppy in the park under a grey sun and as normal as the word itself. He told Slack Sue that I was a danger to those around me, a danger to myself, that my blood had been infected so badly that I wasn’t a human anymore, not the girl I fell in love with, Doctor, - oh puhlease, Mr Five-Doubles-a-Day - that the Fizz had got inside my heart and was killing my love and my pump at the same time. Sucker Sue looked at him with eyes like blackholes and told him that she understood him and that it was a common problem with the kids and that she’d seen more remarkable cases and that I would be out within six months, they performed a liars handshake in front of my face as Tommy, who I didn’t know then, wheeled me down the corridor and into what would become my world.
Projected desires of escape into the character of Kiran Shah, a colleague of the patient’s in her university days. ‘Would you like a sucker, Andrea? Something to suck on? To help with the gurning? A lolly-p-o-p? A c-o-c-k?’
‘I said - tell me about the night before the day you came here. Tell me about Kiki and Matthew.’
There is a silence. And then I, Andrea, begin.
It’s the words between the words that give me strength: the ands, ifs, buts, maybes and stupids erms and sad ohs. People like PS get too hung up on the meat of a sentence that they forget to look at the scenery, the valleys that hold the mountains together … The things Kiki and I did when we weren’t doing what they think caused me to be in here. It’s as if they don’t know that it’s the relationship between the things that keeps the world moving and stops the heart from breaking.
‘Stop building bridges to nowhere. Tell me what happened.’
‘You know the hows, and the whys, the facts of a life. They are in the paper in front of you. Pharm Party, one drink too many, psychotic break, Kiki in the drawing room with the unsheathed Dick Himself, and Andrea in the corner, watching and drinking and feeling her heart exploding and mind expanding all at once. Why don’t you ask me about the space in-between? The stuff you don’t know about? That’s why I’m locked up in here, having to stink your smelly breath every day. Because you want to know what pulls the tide.’
‘We still haven’t got down to you, Andrea. We haven’t uncovered your personality yet. You sit there like a mute, you never speak. How can we unscramble you if you don’t let us in? Let us in.’
I told her that my personality is, if anything, overly clear and it throbs like a gushing geyser, bleeds like a slit artery, screams like a fox in trap and I am what I am what I am what I am what I am what I am what I am what I am what I am what I am what I am what and it’s written on the walls and my arms because there is nowhere else that is as permanent or as moveable and I showed her my wrists, my forearms, bared my flat chest to her prying eyes, something I’d never show Tommy, no matter how much he begged, and I am not confused, in fact, I am a definite point on a map, my life is boiled down like an egg, reduced like a sauce, listed into numbers, names and places, cut out of a chunk of stone and projected into the sky, and I am not, as she seemed to think, defined by these details and that it’s the spaces in between all these things that matter, the places between the ink on my flesh.
When I was done she stared at me as if she hadn’t heard a word.