My first consultation with Dr. Allen took place the day after I returned to Chicago. Subdued elegance summed him up: each piece of furniture in his waiting room was handsome and comfortable, like the office behind the cream door, and the man opening that door. He was slender, his posture good, his facial features regular. I liked his navy pinstripe suit, his shirt white, crisp and neatly divided by a navy silk tie.
I greeted him and was drawn to the armchair near his desk. “In looks, you’ve styled your office as you have yourself. And a needed relief from the old beige-on-beige Geltzer, whose pompous litany never changed.”
“Do you usually relate human nature to colors?”
“When people connect to something within me, I see colors before faces.”
“Do you paint?”
“I did, until 1978 . . .”
“What happened in 1978?”
“I lost my future, gave up on marriage, lost the artist in me, and then for a week, it looked like my father had six months to live. But his information was outdated.” Our blind acceptance of a twenty-year-old encyclopedia’s prognosis on anything made me smile and shudder. Sudden tears slipped from my eyes.
He asked why I’d come to him. As I told him the story of Marv and my hat, he maintained a relaxed pose and kept eye contact with me. I was surprised that I could speak of this experience without anger, without any emotion.
He said he was moving to New York City in June and would be willing to see me until then. He also knew of a number of good psychiatrists who didn’t focus on goals and would give me a list of names and numbers.
“What’s going on now?” His voice was soothing and inviting.
“My father has cancer again. They're pumping him with poison every other week — in the hospital."
He leaned toward me, concern shadowing his eyes, urging me to continue.
"They have to inject the antidote twelve hours later or the stuff will kill him before it gets the cancer."
"How are you feeling about it?" He rose from behind the desk and walked to a window, adjusted the curtain, turned back to me, his eyes questioning me in the silence.
"My mother looks terrible — the chemo she's getting is pretty rough on her . . . I can't think about either of them. Too much fear . . . I'm writing a book about my experience with madness to warn people how easy it is to lose your mind. I feel okay when I'm writing. I'm glad I can work on the book again. A literary agent agreed to read it! It should be ready for him in a week or two."
"It sounds like you're keeping your balance.”
He gave me the name of a psychologist who tested people to help clarify diagnoses. I went and had fun with the Rorschach section.
I saw Dr. Allen every other week. As far as I knew, my parents were both doing as well as could be expected.
* * *
At Dr. Allen’s office again, I blurted, “You’ll be leaving soon — ”
"Patricia, I think it would be unwise for you to return to Dr. Simon."
“Why did it take you so long to reach the same conclusion I came to last fall?”
"Because I needed to get to know you better before I could give you the best of my judgment.”
“Thank you,” I said and smiled. “And I’m relieved that you agree with me.”
“Good.” He produced a sheet of paper. “Here's the list of doctors that I promised you. Until you find one you like, please consult me whenever you wish."
"Thank you." I lit a cigarette.
“Don’t forget, I'm available only until June. You'll find the right doctor. Everyone on that list is good, none has a set of preconceived goals for patients, and each is a proponent of antidepressants as needed. Let me hear how your search progresses."
"I wish you weren't leaving town, but I’ll see you until then. Thank you."
We shook hands warmly.
* * *
"When you make an appointment with me, you’ll be billed for it whether you show up or not. Advance notice doesn’t change that." After two interviews at eighty and ninety-five dollars respectively, I asked that question by phone. I went to Florida at the last minute too often to risk payment for unrendered service.
Time was limbo, waiting for acceptance or rejection of the book, waiting for updates on chemo versus cancer, waiting for the next doctor on Dr. Allen’s list to return my call. Limbo was a stress-loaded grandstand.
Familiar pain gradually numbed speculation, projection, hope. I made myself describe the weather and out came a story about a man dying of cancer in a red house above a valley in the Catskill Mountains. His seduction by death was romantic. It returned him to the kiss of memories and the wonder of the natural world that faced every window in the house, except for the garage.
Anxiety hummed within me while I wrestled with his views on death, while I sketched the physical nature of the man and his mountain.
He was eighty-one. Sitting in a rocking chair on the porch looking out, he felt at one with the wind, the earth, his heart and his spirit as one in one of nature's finest sites. His horizon gave him peaks that man could climb, the sky that man had conquered, and the weather, the one we humans had yet to control.
During occasional meetings, Dr. Allen questioned me about my activities, my sleep patterns, my weight, my writing, and at the end of each session, he'd conclude I was taking the right amount of lithium, and that I was doing as well as possible under adverse conditions.
He also questioned the fact I had yet to find a doctor from the list he'd given me. He understood my financial circumstances and was sure that there were doctors out there who let people make up missed appointments.
In three weeks he'd be gone.
Each time I rejected another psychiatrist, Jess would shrug and change the subject. We had less and less to talk about, less and less contact.
* * *
Susan Iser's invitation to dinner was unexpected. Phone calls had been our only meeting ground for months.
She handed me a glass of wine at her front door and led the way to her living room.
Seated across from her, I raised my glass and said, "I’m glad to see your face, it goes so well with your voice . . . except that you've lost weight — Did you want to?"
"I'll gain it all back too soon . . . How are your parents?"
"They're going to Italy — Florence, my mother’s most favorite place in the world. They’ll leave as soon as they're done with chemo."
"Mother has six weeks to go, but my father . . . I don't know, at least three more months."
"Italy sounds worth waiting for . . . How's the book coming?"
"It's with an agent in New York. Susan, if he doesn't want it, I'm not sure what I'll do."
"One man's rejection is another man's prize. My mother has a cousin in New York who is a literary agent. I'll call her tomorrow! See? You have back up already!"
"Susan, you’re a magician. Thank you. You probably have no idea what this means to me. Thank you." I searched my purse for my cigarettes and lighter. "In two weeks I'll be shrinkless. Maybe someday I'll be able to trust myself again, but until then my mind needs psychiatric supervision."
"Why can't you find another doctor?"
I summed up my recent attempts.
She nodded encouragingly. When I finished, she said, "I know a wonderful psychiatrist who never charges for missed appointments, given sufficient warning. She's with the Illinois Institute of Psychiatry, so if she can't take you, she'll know someone who can. You can stop worrying!"
"Thank you! I’ll call her tomorrow — why have you lost weight?"
"Susan, you never said . . . "
"No. You've had more than enough to deal with." She took one of my cigarettes and lit it, a surprising gesture. "When things with Phil turned sour a few months ago, I realized I hated my job, my life . . . " Smoke poured from her mouth as if never inhaled. "After listing my positives and negatives, I realized I hated myself. I turned into a hermit for a while, then I found the doctor I just told you about. I'm getting to know myself, even like myself — a task made easier by a job with supportive people who respect my judgment." She flashed a wicked grin. "A far cry from the corporate mentality we used to work with!"
"Hallelujah! Respect makes the drudge bearable, doesn't it?" I didn’t wait for her answer. “I wish I'd known you were having trouble, I would've given your self-respect a boost in the right direction."
"You always do, but I needed time to get to know myself through my own eyes."
"How strong of you to stand up to yourself."
"You stand up to yourself."
"Not anymore. I — have you figured out your relationship with Phil yet?"
"It's been painful, but I now understand why I've picked married men like Michael and misogynists like Phil. They were excuses for failure. I didn't think I deserved better. But Patricia?" She put out the half-smoked cigarette, looked up and smiled. "I'm trying to rid my life of every negative possible, and I'm trying to learn to live with the ones I can't change. My attitude toward men needs a lot more work . . . "
The sun was a white hole in the western sky, its heat blocked by layers of cuneiform clouds, the day neither hot nor cold, not atypical of June. Through the window of the bus heading into the Loop, humid air blew back my hair and brushed my face, cooling, almost chilling after each breathless stop along State Street.
Like the day, my emotions were nebulous, waiting for a shift in wind.
In four days, Dr. Allen would be gone. The psychiatrist Susan’s doctor recommended was three blocks away.
His waiting room was a spare small space with straw-colored walls and furnishings. A view of the sky and lake through a large unadorned window invited a sense of freedom from the box I was in.
Before I could sit down, the connecting door opened. Dr. Ronald Moline smiled, swung the door wide and invited me into his office.
The door latched quietly behind me.
A wheat-colored couch stood against the long wall, seeming large in the long, narrow room. I sat at the end of it facing the door and withdrew lighter and cigarettes from my purse. I lit one.
The doctor settled into an armchair like a stalk in a pulse of nature. He was long limbed and lean, his sandy-colored hair a sparse crown above his narrow long nose that centered his oval face, gold-rimmed glasses a frame for his light eyes. His wear was subtle and tweed, unobtrusive, like his surroundings, like his manner. I felt comfortable facing him.
His desk backed into the far end wall and it was heavy and oak and stacked with neat papers and books. I turned back to our end of the room and found his eyes.
"As I said on the phone,” he said in his comfortable voice, “I don’t bill for emergency cancellations if missed sessions are made up. And given a week's notice, there's no charge, and no makeup required." He was easy to listen to, no indication of doc Geltzer’s arrogance; his voice was dry, his demeanor reserved. And he was fair, not greedy, like so many in his profession.
Bony knees pushed against his trousers when he recrossed his legs, the s-curve of his body sliding to the other side of his chair. His appearance evoked in me the image of an “absent-minded professor.” Not all of them were gentle or decisive, but Dr. Moline showed me these qualities immediately, underscoring them as time continued.
"I’m so glad you feel that way. Thank you. What percentage of your practice includes manic-depression?"
"One hundred percent when I worked with inpatients at the University of Chicago Hospitals." His tone was light, his eyes alive with interest. "I've been in private practice roughly ten years — half my professional life — and schizophrenia and some neuroses account for a good many of my patients now."
"Not enough mania on the outside to keep you busy?"
His smile was immediate.
I was afraid to believe that he was who he seemed to be, someone I could like. I needed him. Our lengthening silence urged me on. "I've been told that antidepressants can stop the swing into suicide."
"Indeed they can. You're receptive to that form of treatment, I take it?"
"Lock me up if I refuse! I don't want to go through that again." Self-consciously, I moved back from the edge of the cushion and put out my cigarette.
His smile faded and his features evened in his pale oval face. He nodded and made no effort to speak.
"Shall I give you background information now?"
"Please tell me anything you wish."
"But every psychiatrist I’ve seen has wanted mental, physical and medical data before we talked about anything else!" Take it easy.
"That information will keep. What's happening right now is more important. But please, tell me what you want me to know."
"Whatever you're thinking about now, if you like."
"I need psychotherapy, not psychoanalysis. At least that's what this feels like vis a vis the movies."
"I'm an analyst. Perhaps that's why."
"I need direction, not analysis! I need feedback and explanations . . . I need instructions. Now, not in years from now! Can't you do this?"
"If you like," he said mildly. "I'm also a psychotherapist. No rabbits out of hats, though. I leave that to my patients."
"I need a hat for my rabbit . . . "
His smile was inquiring, encouraging. His eyes drew me out.
"I'm coming out of a depression I didn't know I was in. Mania didn't lead into this one like the other times.
My last doctor had dissected my first two bouts with depression, but he never mentioned this one until I fired him. After that I saw Dr. Allen, who’s leaving for New York any minute." Self-consciousness vied with need for understanding. "Had I known I was clinically depressed, I would've felt better about feeling so rotten."
His laughter was strong and immediate, in contrast to his appearance. "How long has it been since you were first diagnosed?"
"How many psychotic breaks?"
"One. But the depression cycle was — I wasn’t sure I’d survive it."
"And now you're winning another battle against depression. If we decide to work together, you can tell me how you think you're doing, and I'll give you my opinion. Will that work?" His vigilant repose also was comforting, reassuring.
"You'll analyze my analysis? That sounds good.”
“Good. So how are you feeling now?”
“But seriously, don't we have to go backwards to go forward?"
"There's no time limit to history. It'll keep until we get through the present. What’s going on now?"
He listened to my doubts infested by fear for my parents, and for my book, captives of cancer and a literary agent. He encouraged the telling with occasional nods. When I concluded, the sympathy in his question, "What's good in your life?" rushed tears into my eyes.
"Writing my story to warn others of how easily madness seduces people who, like me, know nothing about its symptoms and thus could fall over the edge."
"Are you working on anything now?"
"A short story. But it's a struggle and I have no idea how it ends."
"What's it about?"
"An old man dying of cancer on an autumn mountainside."
"Is your struggle with style or content?"
"I can't get past the beginning."
"Your parents have cancer, you said."
"My father's fine! It's my mother who scares us."
"I'd like to read the story — when you've finished it, of course, which I know you will." His confidence built mine. "Do you feel depressed now?"
"I'm scared . . . I can't sit still for long, but I'm not speeding, I don't feel hyper."
"How are you sleeping?"
"Thirty milligrams of Valium give me four, five hours a night."
He prescribed Dalmane rather than another tranquilizer. My palms itched while he wrote the 'script that would insure me against future need. He gave it to me and eyed me carefully. "You appear calm. How much do you weigh?"
"A hundred and fifteen, give or take . . . I'm a small-boned five-nine."
"Get to a hundred and twenty-five. You'll feel better. Do you exercise?"
"If hauling furniture and circling the block three times a day counts."
"That's a start. You're not exhibiting manic signs, but your brain could be fighting depression with a dose of hypomania, and the depression is there, below the surface. See if the new prescription works. Seven hours of sleep a night should help. Are you employed?"
"I'm a freelance writer, but I haven't been doing much about it lately. My parents ... the book. I'm afraid the agent will hate it."
"Writers need a strong constitution to overcome the rejections inherent in publishing. It must be difficult not to take them personally."
"Acceptance of the book would justify my existence these last few years. My parents would stop worrying about me if I published . . . The book has to be accepted. Soon." I desperately wanted my parents to know I’d be safe before they died.
"You can send it to another agent if this one doesn't take it."
"Maybe it deserves rejection. I fall in love with everything I write — I used to fall in love with every painting I began. Not until months after I think something's finished do I discover its flaws."
"Has anyone else read your book?"
"Family and friends. They said it's much better than the first few versions." I lit another cigarette. "But then, as my father will sweetly tease me about my hopeless tennis game, 'you can improve a hundred percent, but zero times a hundred is still zero . . . ' The agent's opinion will be the first truly objective estimate of the book's value."
"It already has value: writing it was quite an undertaking. Be proud of that accomplishment, and of the fact you've received positive feedback."
"It did take a few years to get that far."
"Would you let me read it?"
"I'll bring it next week . . . That is . . . "
"Let me check my schedule for a day and time."
* * *
"Jess! I've found my doc!"
"The last one on Dr. Allen's list?"
"Susan Iser found him."
"What's his name?"
"Never heard of him. I'll check him out with Stan."
"I didn't know you were speaking to Stan again — what about you and Albert?"
"Albert and I are fine, and Stan and I have been on speaking terms for a while now. I'll ask him about this Moline man."
"Don't bother. This doctor has the right credentials for me. Also, he wants to read my book! Have you been writing?"
"Wait a minute. I want to know more about this doc Iser dug up."
The familiar candle-lit room at Eduardo's held only one occupied table other than ours. The tuxedo dressed waiter approached us, quelling the bitterness rising in me over Jessie's disdain for the doctor Susan had found.
After ordering, I proudly if defensively described my meeting with Dr.Moline.
"I'm asking Stan about him," she said when I finished, needling the ire filtering my feelings for her.
"There’s no need to bother Stan. Dr. Moline wants to read my book."
"Why's that so important to you? He's not a critic."
"No. Better! He's a psychiatrist. It is actually possible that I’ve misinterpreted some things over the years and I don’t want to cloud the reader's view of manic-depression and its treatment."
"You should have told me that. Stan would do that for you. You should have told me."
"There was no need to tell you." It felt good to say that; it felt good to resolve issues without her help.
"Did this Moline man say anything about nutrition and exercise?"
"You're never going to let me off that hook, are you," I said, forcing laughter. "And yes, he said moving furniture and hiking the Fly were a start."
"Moving furniture? You never said anything about that. What've you been doing to what?"
Relieved to arrive at a neutral subject, I felt my tone lighten. "It was too bright, too distracting to sit facing the bay windows — all those people milling about outside, all that sunshine. I finally put the desk against the wall on the near side of the fireplace."
"I can see the fire, a far more favored light in my eyes than the sun."
"What did you do with the armchair and end table that were there?"
"Moved them closer to the sofa . . . it's much cozier this way. I like it this way."
Jess seemed as relieved as I was when dinner finally ended in a state of civility. Neither of us mentioned continuing the evening.
Jessie's arrogance was wearing. And I didn't care for her attitude toward Dr.Moline. I thought it stemmed from the fact I'd found him through Susan, not Stan.
I worked on “The Red House,” polishing, refining, fleshing out the sketch of the past, the future simmering in a stream of my consciousness. I seemed to write the same way I used to paint. Even if I knew the subject, I never knew how it would unfold until I stepped back and looked.
Sometimes phrases sent me to the moon and back, electric thrills that flirted with my original spirit, giving it life in the joy and freedom of creation. I also was lucky that writing had become the second art to engage my passion. I needed black and white definitions to chart my thoughts and take me away from the fears that owned my mind. It was okay that I couldn’t paint. The language of color was subject to a variety of interpretations and words usually were not.
* * *
Suddenly it was winter in Chicago, yet no logs burned in my hearth. The fire in my heart creating “The Red House” took what energy I had.
The man in my story didn't have a name yet, but now he had a daughter. His cancer was terminal. He had no interest in chemo and nursing homes. Treatment might prolong his life, but it would diminish its quality, he believed. He wanted to die in the barn-red house his great-grandfather had built, surrounded by the artifacts of family, and by the majesty of nature's art, an ever-changing festival in its purest form.
I was still sketching this man while his daughter formed in my mind. Her impending visit to her father's preserve emerged in my thoughts as the grounds of her childhood developed on paper.
The daughter was a writer; she could work anywhere. She would go to her father, stay with him, challenge him to favorite games, spelling time with silence and accountings of memory. And together they would mourn his wife, her mother, lessening the pain of grief still intense for them although two years old.
But I couldn't translate the daughter into words. I was afraid to tap the well for her.
I created the forests that ringed the land through which a creek flowed, the wind's song, music for the soul.
Soon he would share the forest with his daughter.
The windows rattled in my home, leaking temperatures well below freezing. I didn’t have the energy to seal them and kept the thermostat at fifty-five to defray the cost of heat, donning long underwear, two cotton turtlenecks, ski sweater and corduroys.
Over and over I edited my short story, unable to decide if he should be alone when he died. I couldn't decide when he would die, or precisely how.
Winter came to his mountain.
Nature wore snow with an elegance missing in the blooming-season of pale then vivid colors, adding to the rainbow begun in spring, changing palettes for the fall, a bold and brash herald to winter. I loved winter skies footed in snow, silvering grays polished by clouds.
Snow drifted by my windows periodically; it didn't stay, it didn't cloak the stark sullen skies and stripped trees, it didn't hide the grime.
Walks with Flyer were brief.
Father and daughter were together on the mountain; he was slipping, growing weaker.
I put “The Red House” away.
The chemotherapy my father was enduring was more sapping than previous treatments. Yet he went to the office twice a week, and he worked at home a few hours most days. And then he remained in the hospital ten days after an injection. Nothing serious, my family told me. I didn't find out till long after he was home how near he'd been to death after he was given an overdose of poison.
That information took my breath away for days. Every night I'd tell myself he was okay, he was back at work and golfing and socializing. But I couldn't rid myself of pounding fear.
Mother rarely played golf anymore. Her shoulder hurt, she said, referencing an old problem, never mentioning the lethal spot in her lung. Whenever I thought about her, an image of the black hole of death hovered in her chest, its size unchanging, its threat constant.
Dr. Moline returned “Journey,” nodding his head, his eyes and mouth smiling. He said, "You can be proud of writing this. And if a major publisher doesn't take it, I hope you'll send it to a university press. I think it should be mandatory reading for psychiatric residents who tend to see patients as textbook cases rather than as human beings in crisis." He offered to write a letter of praise for potential publishers.
His support spun me into a manic-like whirl that lasted several days.
Jess said Dr. Moline sounded like a nice man.
Nice?! She never seemed happy for me anymore.
Any day I would hear from the agent; it had been three months since Journey left home.
Romantic thrillers occupied time once spent writing.
The bed was more comfortable for reading than the green velvet sofa, but tobacco walls and the dark brown rug soon struck discord and took me down. The colors were boring, depressing, hallmark of my state of mind after giving up on Gary, the man who'd changed my mind about marriage. I laughed aloud when it occurred to me that tobacco was better than black. I hadn't been that unhappy when I'd bought this place.
This apartment had become my nest, my fortress, a husband for my future. I'd been at home, in the true sense of that phrase, for seven years now. I hadn’t been at home in any place after leaving my parents’ house at eighteen, leaving college three years later for Manhattan and art school. Other than not having a fireplace in the bedroom, my Victorian condo was perfect. The furnishings of each room furnished me with pleasure and validation. Each piece had been selected or accepted with love. I still cherished each, each conjuring better times.
Too bad I couldn't pick men as well as I could pick furniture.
The paintings on the walls were tangible expressions of the best of me, a thought that returned my book to mind. It was as good as any of my paintings. When would I know its fate?
The delivery of mail became all important, each post a source of anticipation and anxiety. Relief and despair tore through me when nothing came from the agent in New York.
Waiting was killing.
I wrote a letter to friends in New York City and somehow launched a story about a woman divorcing her husband and Manhattan life. She moved to the northwest and rented a cabin as far away from people as she could get. The cabin sat amidst billowing long grasses laced with wild flowers, brilliant primary colors fronting the last stand of firs backed into the base of the mountain’s peak. The east side of the cabin was banked by green and yellowed grasses and shrubs that swayed and cast shadows against the steep rise of sheer rock and shale. The view north was that of a cliff, The Shelf, as the rental agent called it, at which the road spilled into a parking lot bordered by guardrails. Even behind closed windows, she heard water plunge from a fall over cliffs out of sight, its roar a muted rush that returned to her the underlying sound of Manhattan’s traffic flowing along the East River Drive.
I left New York for Chicago ten years ago — ten years. Right move, wrong reason, given my inability to love wisely.
Writing about Myrt led me into new territory, plumbing old experiences for new versions that sprang from my imagination. At the end of the day’s work, I was as excited to read what I’d written as I was whenever I stepped back from a new painting to see what had appeared on canvas. I still didn’t know how Myrt’s story would end, and curiosity brought me back to the typewriter again and again, eager to find out more about her life.
“Myrt’s” husband was trying to block their divorce, and although her attorney was countering each move, Myrt’s novel stalled. She had a dream. It was a nightmare.
Three days later, the horror she’d faced in sleep still eluded me.
I devoured paperback mysteries. Sleep, mysteries, occasional phone calls and play with Flyer subdued my sense of impending panic; cigarettes also helped me to breathe deeply. My book would be published and the fortune that this would bring diverted me from fear now and then. I didn’t need to die anymore. My parents would be with us until they were at least in their nineties.
Visions of my bedroom in different colors, lighter colors, began to occupy me. My choice narrowed to the deep pink of dusk for the walls and bleached oak floorboards, metaphor for white sand beaches.
Susan’s appreciation of my plan excited me. I now had something interesting to focus on, and this goal was attainable.
When the dust settled and I saw the reality of my vision, my heart sank; it raced and beat erratically. The room was too pink-and-white and my body reacted as if chalk had just struck the blackboard the wrong way. I shook myself and went to the green velvet sofa in the living room, Flyer right behind me. She came into my lap when I sat down and rode me as I swung my legs up over the south arm of the sofa and put my head on the opposite pillowed arm. I closed my eyes and envisioned a floor lamp, lampshades and new sheets, all in black; three black throw rugs and black enamel paint for the rattan bureau and mirror would help balance the space.
My “must-haves” stretched my credit to the limit. Guilt coursed its cold way into my consciousness. Paying interest on debt was a cardinal sin in my father’s book.
I spent too much time in that room to be upset by a scheme of things that I could fix. I loved my new room and invited Jess over to see it.
"Hey! You’ve made major changes," she cried, checking out my latest design, her chin at a haughty angle.
"It's brighter — what's this?" she asked, swooping over the bed to pick up a paperback. "How dare you aspire to be a writer while reading this dreck! Read Hemingway and Bellow and Fitzgerald. Take a look at Rebecca West and Colette. Learn from them. You get your bad habits from this shit."
"Your heroes make me wallow in the negatives I need to escape." I whirled away from her without words and went to the bathroom, relieved to put a door between us. When I was calmer, I emerged and found her in the living room.
She looked around as I entered, lit a cigarette and, before I could settle on the sofa, she said: "So now you’re accepting handouts from Jake."
The condescension in her tone infuriated me, but I was careful to sound casual when I said, "Why would you say that?"
"You've been crying poor for months and that room must have set you back plenty."
"How kind of you to remind me. However, your thinking is flawed. I haven't been thinking about Jake and so haven’t asked him to help me yet, but I will. Are you still accepting expensive gifts from your married Englishman?"
"Gifts. Not support. I'm not his mistress. There is a difference. I work at the ad agency for my money. I always have and I always will. I can't wake up when I feel like it and write what I want when I want to. I don't have rich parents. And I'm not jealous, if that's what you're thinking."
"Jealous! Why would you be? You've made a success of your career and you always attract interesting men. Jealousy could claim me, but it doesn't. I'm glad for you — Oh, and by the way, my parents are comfortable, not rich, which is why I need Jake’s help. And if you think that's wrong, then let me remind you, my dear, that you shunned me when I first let Jake into my bed, and now look at you . . . Nor have I ever considered ‘mistress’ a dirty word. But then, neither do I change my moral code to achieve my purpose. No doubt that, in time, you'll change your mind about mistresses, too."
"You're way off."
"Who are you to sit in judgment from that high chair of yours? Who put you on that bench? And where are your black robes and gavel?" My hands fisted at my sides and my blood rushed through me, chilling and scalding as it raced along its path. Our eyes were locked, but I seemed to see both of us, as if my body belonged to the composition of our exchange.
"I don't need to justify myself to you," I heard my voice saying. "But F.Y.I, I don't judge people by their friends or parents, or where they come from, what schools they attended, which books they read, how much money they have. Nor do I disparage your friends, as you so often do to mine."
"Perhaps this is the crossing we've never bridged before," she said quietly.
My body felt like cold steel; my fingernails felt like sharpened metal driving into my fisted palms. I took a deep breath and as I slowly exhaled, I said, "You're still in the dark age of hypocrisy, and, it's finally coming home to me, of jealousy, as well — thank you for pointing that out, Jess. You know I dearly wish you could have parents like mine. I wish everyone could be so blessed. I also think I'm glad we've finally crossed that bridge."
"You've changed. You're not the same person you were when we met — "
"How observant of you and, I might add, you also have done a one-eighty."
"You've changed in the last few months."
"You've been holier than thou for months. I thought maybe you were trusting your new psychiatrist and absorbed by feeling better about yourself. But I'm tired of your telling me what to do and how to do it, as well as your anger when I don't jump. And I don't have to read Hemingway to be a good writer." Quickly I drew in air and expelled it in another rush of words: "But, Jess? The biggest difference between us is not the books we read, it’s the existence of your need to judge. And if my choice of reading matter and my feelings for Jake are cause for your condemnation, then girl, you better throw out that wardrobe and don those black robes and get your seat on that bench. Lucky you to be so black and white, and so blackly pristine pure."
She lit a cigarette and stared into my eyes, her own of a glinting blue. "We’ve crossed that bridge and maybe now we need a break from each other."
We stood. I waited for her to put out her cigarette and approach the door.
I followed her to the top of the stairs and watched her descend. At the door below, she looked back up at me and quietly said, "Take care of yourself."
The door closed soundlessly, as did the outer one. I heard the gate shut just after locking my home.
I felt lightheaded and hollow, but neither hot nor cold. I felt relief. I felt cleansed, purified, by the outpouring of feelings buried so long by the positives of my relationship with Jess, a rose now hidden by thorns.
I undressed, got into bed and couldn’t help smiling with pleasure as I gazed upon my new dusky pink walls, white floor and black furnishings. I nested into my pillows, picked up the paperback and immediately returned to East Germany and the hunt for Neo-Nazis, Flyer snugged into my side, sleeping for a change.
The absence of Jessie's nagging centered me in peace, maintained, when I wasn't writing, by pot, fudge and TV.
As days passed, the aftermath of our bitter fury receded and I began to miss Jess — until the grating of recent months replayed in my mind.
The literary agent sent back Journey. He liked the writing, he liked the story, but he wanted me to “novelize” it, give it color through dialogue and descriptions of time and place.
I vacillated between elation and despair.
I called Peter, the magazine editor who'd written an encouraging rejection of my story about the bus people.
Peter agreed to help me for a fee.
I thought about Jake. I saw him once. He raised my hostility, not my passion. I signed on with a temp-work agency and spent weekdays stuffing envelopes, answering phones, counting minutes until free. The tedium diminished me, but the bright side of this mindless work for my mindless being was the cash I needed to pay Peter. Jess might enjoy that irony.
Working with Peter challenged and stimulated me. "Describe this room,” Peter said. “What did he mean? She mean? Expand dialogue here; add dialogue there; why did C. do this?" he'd write on the pages of my manuscript.
I loved the directions he sent me into. After giving myself the name Claire Stark, incorporating my parental bloodlines, my history came more easily, and from a deeper place. Writing and rewriting my story brought Jess into my life for as long as I could last at the home typewriter every night and weekend.
When I'd turn out the light to find sleep, I'd miss her more than ever.
I wanted to share with her this experience of novelizing my story.
"A novel idea from the start," she'd no doubt say.
One day, I called her at work and left a message. She didn’t call me back.
I understand. The phone is an excommunication for us. Aural connections have become too painful, crowding too many negatives into a corner.
But for everything that's passed between us, I can never let you go, never stop loving you, never stop thinking about you.
Besides, you're in the book! I read about your deeds nearly every day . . .
You returned me to the womb, an embryo of madness that emerged too early, nursed by parents, not an institution, this fact crucial to my well-being and getting well.
You sent me to the only place that could fight the damage of ultimate loss that oozed layer upon layer of horror once the borders of reality reappeared to me through the veil that lithium and Thorazine produced.
And when I returned to Chicago three months later, clinging to the ropes my parents had thrown, you secured those lines at home-base.
You kept reminding me that I cannot kill my parents' child. You made me laugh at the bleakest of musings, making me remember better times past and to come, sharing the burden of a terror that no one else I knew had experienced.
We've come far down the road that we entered nine years ago; we've been in places few go, and now we have come to a fork, a weigh station, literally and figuratively. And in my mind your positives outweigh your negatives.
I miss you, though not the ruts we entered months ago. I hope you'll respond to this letter with a call or a note. But Jess, return it if it's an intrusion.
I signed the letter love, then added a postscript about the novelization of Journey. I mailed the letter.
The letter didn't come back, nor did Jess contact me.
* * *
I finished transforming “Journey Through Psychosis and Beyond.” The writing was good, the descriptions and characterizations were good. Peter, my professor of novelization, said so.
And my family liked it.
I sent the revisions of my book back to the literary agent.
The VCR was a miracle. Escape at any time, removing me from the agony of waiting.
"If you were a celebrity, I'd take it," the agent wrote at last. "You're a talented writer and I wish you success," he'd closed.
I haven't kept a journal since cancer claimed new sites in my parents. Nor have I recorded our break, nor the silence that emanates from you like the thunder of waves storming against the rocks of a cliff.
The story of the woman divorcing her life sits beside the typewriter untouched. I cannot formulate the dream sequence that begins where the story stops.
I need to write if I'm going to live. I have to put my burden down — it's your courage I need to inspire me. But Jess, I don't need corporeal contact in the vast void now between us. I don’t want it. It's safer here. I cannot bear to see your strength in the face of my weakness. I don't want to remember the days we fought anxiety side-by-side.
Somehow, addressing you brings you to me as surely as the phone used to do, checkpoint for thoughts too awful to explore alone.
Writing you somehow accesses your empathy, and your wisdom. And Jess, your estate in my heart is free and clear of ill will, if not of sorrow for our severance, a kind clearance for the foundering of our closeness.
No one could take my path through isolating desperation, that tundra too harsh for positive thinking.
Someday I hope you'll know about these unmailed epistles of spiritual contact, the only channel capable of releasing my pain. Someday our breach will mend, I believe that, Jess. I have to believe it —
My book was rejected, Jessie. My book.
The years spent writing it, revising it —
I didn't make the grade and there's no justification for using savings to finance failure.
I still can't earn my living from my art.
I know. He was one agent out of hundreds.
I'm sending my book to an agent Susan knows.
Susan stood with me at the mailbox, watching the brown-papered manuscript disappear into the jaws of fate. We went for a drink at Sir Loin.
Hope rode again within me, though not strong enough to eliminate my fear of rejection.
Rented movies, paperbacks, temp work, trips to Milwaukee and time with friends rolled the days over, churning the hours till sleep came. And always the little white dog, Flyer, eager, bright, loving, shared my hours of waiting, forcing laughter from me, bestowing unguarded love, getting me outside, sometimes even to the park.
Rejection took six weeks this time and it was in the form of another personal letter ("An encouragement in and of itself," Jess would have said).
I rolled a joint and smoked it, watching a movie taped the night before, hiding in my bed. I couldn't tolerate the burn of rejection. Twenty minutes into the movie, I turned on the lamp and reread the letter several times. I built plans for my death. Pills. I didn't have enough. I didn't really need pills to help me fall asleep anymore.
I fell asleep earlier, rising later on weekends, stumbling to let Flyer out the back door, stumbling back to bed. I counted the weeks till my next prescription for sleeping pills. Soon I'd have enough to leave this pain. I’d save enough to help Mother escape her pain, too.
Memory of my sister Maggie's words tormented me: "No one wants to read about you."
* * *
Flyer needed exercise, I couldn't keep letting her out the back door. One day, guilt made me take her into the raw March winds that blew through the park. I watched her rip in tight circles around me. Her joy made me laugh and stride on, the dog racing between me and hot scents. The agent’s "you're a talented writer" flashed into my thoughts. I'd forgotten that professional encouragement inside my need to die.
I reread my manuscript and before I finished the third sentence, I was compelled to edit, expand, polish it.
Days passed, weeks passed. When I wrote, life was good.
Time wove days through spring into summer.
Details of life after my hysterectomy came back to me. I reread my manic messages, sickened again by the knowledge I once had believed I worked for the “Messiah.” I incorporated some of those messages into the book. My would-be best seller would be published after all. After all, the psychic said I would be big-time famous. His prediction bathed me in the precious warmth of anticipation.
Working on my book to help others help themselves again gave me a sense of purpose and I hurried to walk Flyer, speeding my return to the typewriter. I resented the mindless, heartless time I had to spend to earn a paycheck.
I rarely felt like seeing Jake.
Susan and I met once a week or so.
There were movies to tape and occasionally to rent — I never saw them in theaters anymore.
I sent the book to another literary agent, believing its revision would sell it.
Typing envelopes, sorting mailings, answering other people’s phones dragged time no longer spelled by the plotting of Journey's new map. Neck and shoulder and back muscles burned; headaches blurred my vision. I lived on aspirin. And lithium.
I began to look for a full-time writing position. I needed money, and I'd rather be a creative whore than a clerical one.
Between interviews, although they were few and far between, I refused temp work that demanded more than three days a week. I coasted on the prospect of full-time pay and dedicated my time to writing and interviews.
Once in a while, I glanced through the story I’d started, hoping to unlock the mystery of Myrt’s nightmare. The untitled, unfinished story went into a box on the floor under the desk with the one about the old man with cancer.
I interviewed for a job that interested me. They wanted someone else to see me next week. Hope bubbled. I suppressed it. Rejection was too painful.
I took out my story about the old man dying on a mountain and reread it. I still couldn’t write about his death. “The Red House” also went into the box.
There were three more people for me to see at the agency. I saw more of their receptionists than I saw of my friends.
After five interviews in six weeks, they'd make a decision next week, they said.
I picked up a man in a store and brought him to my living room sofa. I didn't want him in my bed. I didn't give him my phone number. I never told him my last name.
I interviewed for two other positions: overqualified; under qualified.
Need to escape temporary work added desperation to my hope to find a new employer.
I couldn't turn another page of the book I was reading. I couldn't watch another movie. Fighting the tension of waiting was exhausting. This couldn’t continue much longer.
I didn’t get the job.
The whir of ceiling fans dominated music that sounded like Mozart.
I had to write something, even if only a description of the weather. I closed my eyes.
Mellow lilting strings and horns, free and open, conjured a country road wending its way through fields golden-green behind ancient trees, running like a worn tire through a small antiquated town, spinning out back into farmland sided by undulating telephone poles that divided clusters of farm buildings.
The blur of the countryside focused on a wood frame white house, and then another close by, a dower house, it became.
The next day, Tom Fowler came into the story. He was wakened in the night by the sound of the dower house exploding. Tom's brother George and his family were in that house; Tom's best friend and last blood relative was in that house, burning. Trapped. Dead.
Describing the inferno took me into a kind of intensity that relieved and calmed deep points of pressure within me, planting purpose and direction in my days, and a seed of self-respect. I was an artist again.
Tom's story should sell. It would give my book a better chance.
Again and again I read the description of fire, adding words, taking others away, finding sentences to replace paragraphs, improving my translation of destruction. At last I poured a glass of wine and sat with Tom's story on the green velvet sofa, reading it as a reader; pencils were on the desk.
Shards of metal sliced the ceiling, loosing flaming rockets to feed on aged wood and torch the first floor; flames licked lace curtains, doilies, rag-rugs.
Arms of fire lengthened, grasping the house, raiding its contents, its very structure, scorching then charring then turning to ash horsehair chairs and love seats, hand-hewn oak furniture. Papered walls blistered before they billowed into smoke.
In the heat of its night, the fire melted sconces and chandeliers, the pop of shattering bulbs nearly drowned by its blazing hunger. In a burning hurry, the orange-yellow light centered by red-edged blue raced up the stairs that fell before the onslaught. Streaking wild and voracious past the landing, the fire scooped the rug, table and chair into its maw, lusting for the soft flesh on the second floor.
Coils of smoke reached Christopher, three, and snuffed out his life before he awoke.
His sister Nattie, seven, wasn’t as lucky. Wakened by a sound mysteriously like rain storming inside the house, Nattie ventured from bed. In the hall and before she could cry out, a great fist of fire knocked her down and ravished her to the bone.
Crackles, hisses, snaps chanted songs of the underworld in a mad rush down the hall.
George Fowler's gasp woke Jenny.
Fire blazed into their room, lapped at the patchwork quilt; it reached for them with its deadly embrace.
A terrible scream ripped through the night and howled in the room where Tom Fowler had been sleeping a thousand feet away. The voice of torment dwindled as the hot flash fired nightclothes, searing flesh like a satanic caress before ravaging the rest. <|>
As I sipped wine, a cold sense of peace settled within me. The words vented feelings, made them tangible, made them control chaos and life and death.
Although I always fell in love with everything I wrote, to the best of my subjective and imbalanced opinion, Tom’s was a powerful story. Not once had I been tempted to change a word.
I took wine and cigarettes to the desk, turned on the typewriter.
Tom raced out of his house in his shorts and halted when he felt the heat of the fire. His friend Joe entered the story with the arrival of the fire department.
I was glad to have Tom Fowler to think about as my back bent to the drudgery of not temporary enough labor.
The fact I was creative again made waking easier.
I tried not to think about my life's work sitting in another agent's office.
Tom decided to leave home, against his friend Joe's advice.
The morning after the fire, Tom headed down Wisconsin toward Chicago.
The road to the expressway was dark in the country night, as was the sky behind the stars. Distant towns ahead lifted the shades of night along the horizon.
The expressway was near.
Tom was going to fall in love, I told Susan, and Dr. Moline. Maybe in Chicago, I wasn't sure. He might go west.
Awareness of the agent who had Journey, and of the cancers that had my parents, hung in my mind, a billboard obscured by writing.
Tom entered the nearly empty expressway and pressed his right foot down on the accelerator, pressing till it hit the floor of his sports car. He watched the revolutions as the speedometer pointed to eighty, ninety, ninety-nine.
He eased back his foot, not wanting to push the old car too far for too long.
He stared blindly into the paralleling cones of light from the car’s headlights tunneling into the darkness. He blinked his tearless eyes at the vision of charred remains superimposed on his thoughts.
Racing through the night, Tom again saw fire, white-hot red-tipped fingers shooting into the sky — dead ahead,
A once shiny petrol tanker had jackknifed across the expressway. Its blaze lit the scene like daylight.
Frost coated Tom's mind, his skin, chilling then freezing then numbing his body by inches.
Tom’s foot flattened the accelerator. His hands, veins rigid and protruding, locked onto the steering wheel.
"George!" Tom screamed just before impact. <|>
I hadn't known Tom was going to die.
I sat in the chair and stared at the black type on white paper. I'd never be able to crash my car. Pills were my way out. But Tom's way was faster and one hundred percent sure.
It wouldn't be long till my stash of pills reached a lethal dose.
* * *
Susan was shocked by Tom's suicide. Dr. Moline didn't express surprise, but he asked to read the story, and he suggested antidepressants.
I was fine, not happy, but fine. I was being productive, something Susan said antidepressants had kept her from being. Wait, I said. You'll see, I promised, agreeing to give him Tom's story as soon as I smoothed out its rough spots.
Susan wasn't helped by antidepressants, I kept telling him. She said they'd made her too groggy to think.
The agency job I wanted went to someone else.
Wasn't meant to be. Try again.
I called headhunters. They'd get back to me as soon as something came in, they said.
But the finishing of “Burned” went well, balancing the void in my future.
I polished the story until I was sick of it. I retyped it and gave Dr. Moline a copy. I sent a copy to a magazine.
Now I had two irons in fires that could burn me.
Without art, peace was impossible for me, locking the door to my soul, shallowing my sense of self and my trove of possibilities.
I counted my blessings: great parents, friends and lover, and a home owned, not rented, each room's color a component of my spirit, and a gallery for my artwork from better days, a daily reminder that what was may be again, that may never be again.
“Journey” and “Burned.” My art was at stake. My heart. My spirit.
I was losing my parents to cancer.
I rented four movies on days without work, filling the hours before judgment, inundated by guilt over spending money on entertainment.
"If you were a celebrity, I'd have no problem placing your book." The agent’s words were too painful, too familiar. They must, all of those lords of the publishing world, use the same rejection letter manual.
My mother said, "Keep at it. Rome wasn't built in a day."
Everyone urged me to send the book to another agent.
My sister Maggie's taunt: "No one wants to read about you" sounded in my mind. But full-blown manic-depression had the lead in Journey. I was a vehicle, nothing more. Why didn't Maggie understand that?
Once again my attempt to read my book for its content quickly had me finding still better ways to express events, finding that this unfolding of a brain chemical imbalance was structurally sound. Signs of mania, of psychosis, of depression were well marked; treatment was defined; the pros and cons of lithium were clear, as was the need to screen psychiatrists, to be alert for signs of malpractice. And the characters of the book had physical, psychic entities.
Maybe it was the ending that turned agents off. But there was no cure for manic-depression, only control, should one have the luck to respond to medication. I kept telling myself I was lucky that lithium kept me sane. Sane was the best I could hope for. In the dark grasp of loss, tears belied my denial of self-pity.
Tears made me feel so helpless. I couldn’t stop shaking until I climbed into bed, Flyer right beside me.
In the midst of yet another revision of my book, I received a preprinted rejection with the return of Tom Fowler’s story.
I can't write. I stay upright because I have so many drawstring defenses that I'm afraid if I loosen one, they'll all collapse.
But this unshared confession to you is letting me write, letting me touch the core of my feelings without fear.
I cannot tell my family that life has become an unending exhaustion from my desperate and constant fight for breath that tightens my muscles to a screaming pitch. I cannot tell them that it's always dark, an endlessly enveloping night as treacherous as the lock on my mind.
I cannot tell my parents I need to die. I cannot let them know I throw a coat over my nightgown to take Flyer to the curb.
If it weren’t for Flyer, I'd never get out of bed. If it weren’t for Flyer, I'd never feel the warmth of life, I’d never remember a thing called love. <|>
Dr. Moline suggested antidepressants again. I refused.
Each week, it seemed, Dr. Moline brought up antidepressants. I'd feel better if I took them, he insisted. "You wanted a doctor who believed in antidepressants when we started working together," he'd remind me.
They didn't help Susan, I'd repeat, and we'd talk about writing, as a source of rejection, as art, as my raison d'etre.
It was raining and cold when Sondra Bandini entered my life on paper. I didn't know where she came from, but she suddenly slipped into a bar on Michigan Avenue to escape high ninety’s heat and humidity.
I described the sultry layers of air that pressed against her, slicking her skin with sweat, dampening the white dress that clung to her. I wrote of the air conditioned pub that she entered.
When a lone man appeared hunched over a drink at the bar, I knew Sondra would pick him up.
I plotted her mission eagerly, intent on which words to use, unable to see what would happen when she met him.
I didn't know where the story was going, but I was writing, and that was all I needed to know. And when Dr. Moline mentioned antidepressants again, I explained I was once more scaling the joys of writing, escaping the depths of depression. I said antidepressants would interfere with my writing.
The beast that was boredom prowled but didn't attack on my days of clerical duty. Although I resented using time for menial toil, thinking about Sondra Bandini’s next step in the work waiting at home gave purpose to my days.
Flyer and I took long walks in the park, a better place to gestate Sondra Bandini's future than the offices that confined me.
Sondra was a photographer's rep. Richard Arthur turned out to be a lawyer, which delighted her. A married lawyer. He bought her a drink, she slipped onto the stool next to him and they exchanged their names, identified their careers and spoke of trivia, Sondra’s body language sexual, teasing, sensual. Before finishing her drink, she invited him back to her apartment.
The cab ride and a view of Lake Michigan emerged. Their dialogue was crisp, interrupted by sudden changes in Sondra's mood, making her mysterious, perhaps sinister.
Sondra's apartment building materialized and on its walls hung art by painters I loved, a race track scene by Degas, a Rembrandt sketch, two Larry Rivers, a de Kooning, and on a library wall, a Rauschenberg.
I called Jake and we made a date. It was the best time we'd had in a long while. He made me laugh so hard, I spilled my drink. He roused my passion to peaks forgotten.
I wrote the love scene between Sondra and Richard.
Another spot showed in my mother's latest lung x-ray.
It was cancer. I wrote Jess about Mother and sent it.
I added a scene describing Sondra’s bedroom, inserting it before the paragraphs of lovemaking:
It was the bureau that held his attention. Centered on the gleaming midnight surface was a graduated bank of lit votive candles set in seven brass cups, each engraved with erotic scenes and studded with precious stones. <|>
The candles were the only source of light in the room, their flaming tongues stretching toward the ceiling, spotlighting an imposing brass urn, its oval mouth grasped at each side by the head of a dragon, the eyes a fierce emerald. On the body of the urn, deeply etched lines formed a crown encrusted with jewels; two swords crossed above it, a gloved fist beneath; the design (or was it a family crest?) was encircled by an ornate laurel wreath. Who is she? Richard asked himself again, staring at the tableau on the bureau. It reminded him of an altar. He didn’t ask about it, he didn’t want to test the strength of her attraction to him. <|>
When Richard invited Sondra to dine the next week, she snapped, "You're high tea, not dinner." <|>
Flyer and I walked while the Bandini history evolved.
Dr. Moline and I talked about cancer and what it was doing to my parents. Once in a while he'd bring up antidepressants, but Sondra Bandini's story, “High Tea,” was going well and I didn't want to lose creativity to a drug I'd learned was numbing, and, according to Susan, ineffective. Dr. Moline asked to read the story when I finished it.
It seemed to me that it was very long ago that I'd accepted depression as my lot in life, alleviated only by the state of my art, which now was progressing well, and by the state of my relationships, the rare romps with Jake and drinks with Susan a few times a month.
Jess sent me a note, a beautiful card, a painting of a whale. She said she was sorry about my mother, that there seemed no end to my parents' pain, that she knew how I too was suffering. And she encouraged me to keep going with my book. She wrote that she believed that it was a story that needed to be told. She also said she needed more time before seeing me again.
The pain of our continued break sank into my warehouse of other rejections, which creating Sondra's adventure eased.
My parents saw their oncology specialist in New York again. My father was still in remission; my mother was given pills, not infusions that could strain her heart.
Sondra Bandini shot Richard Arthur before he could dress. She watched his blood run cold, then danced in the brightening glow of the urn. She sang the praises of her maternal grandfather, Godfather to many, the great Jono Barenetto, who had died serving a prison sentence for tax evasion, thus her hatred for lawyers.
Laughter burst out of me when Sondra removed her blue contact lenses and blond wig, letting the reader see for the first time the darkness of her eyes and hair, the swarthy cast of her complexion.
My grin felt wall to wall when she exposed a supply of body bags and a winch secreted behind a hidden panel in a closet. Ah ha! I cried when Sondra bagged her man, throwing in his briefcase and clothes before zipping it up. She tied a rope around the bag and knotted it, slipping it over the winch hook before hoisting the black bundle up and out of the window, lowering it into the dumpster below.
She must have lifted the lid with a fishing rod, I decided, adding that detail.
Once Richard Arthur was disposed of, Sondra Bandini turned to the urn glowing on the bureau, kneeling before it, jubilant. She made the sign of the cross in front of the urn and on her forehead and at her heart.
"Sleep with peace, my beloved, for I have removed another thorn from your breast," I recited, astonished by this story that had written itself. I truly couldn’t believe it. I had assumed that it was about lust.
I never liked violence in fiction, print or film. Yet now I was immersed in it.
I polished “High Tea.” When I was sick of it a few weeks later, I gave a copy to Dr. Moline, sent one to a magazine and turned back to “Journey.”
I revised the manuscript again, more fully expressing my feelings about mental disorder and cancer. I deepened my unresolved struggle to accept imbalanced brain chemicals and lithium. My disorder was blameless; it was controllable — to a degree.
I sent “Journey’ to a publisher, bypassing money-grubbing agents.
“High Tea” came back with a preprinted rejection slip. My stomach swallowed my heart and nausea and dizziness forced me to sit down. Flyer flew onto the sofa beside me and kissed my chin. I hugged her and used my fingers to comb her shaggy soft coat.
My book was with a publisher now, assuredly the right one. Rejection for a story about murder meant nothing compared to getting out the word on how to avoid the trap I had fallen into. No one in my circle knew anything about psychosis until I was swept away by it. My heart slowed down and the hollow echo of this latest failure faded. Flyer kissed me again, jumped off my lap and pounced on her destuffed bear, shaking it, grrring, throwing it into the air, catching it, bringing it to me.
“Let’s take a walk, you dear little girl,” I said, and we did.
Dr. Moline said that I was a talented writer, without question, but he wouldn’t let go of the fact I wrote one story about suicide, and then one about homicide, what did I think about this.
"Writing isn’t acting out. And the truth is that I'm working my way toward the mystery novel I've always wanted to write," I said and changed the subject.
* * *
The summer of 1986 was fading when my book came back with a letter of rejection that brought up my lack of celebrity, that praised my writing.
Everybody advised me to send the book to someone else.
I couldn't risk any more failure.
I counted my sleeping pills. Fewer than sixty. Still not enough for my mother and me. I couldn't get away from the anger that fact caused in me, unless Valium numbed me.
I started saving one lithium per daily dose, storing it with the sleeping pills.
Time continued in its “petty pace.”
Everything I touched felt clammy, the chill penetrating, dampening, withering.
Every time I tried to begin a new short story, I couldn't find a character to write about.
I thought about Tom Fowler. He was lucky. I thought about Sondra Bandini. Who could I kill?
September 3, l986
We're fellow victims of violence in terms of our spirits and emotions, self-inflicted and imposed. Our tyrannies
are different, but their rule is the same, cause for maximum empathy.
You know the order of mental concentration camps, you know the obfuscation of escape routes. You still have
hope of finding one in freedom and fresh air. Perhaps you’re already free.
There is no hope for me. I think that's the real reason we no longer see eye to eye, literally or figuratively.
But empathy is mandatory for survival in my solid solitary confinement:
Sympathy damns me. Time won't raise me from hell. Lithium subdues, it doesn't deny; it doesn't dam awareness, it doesn't make the future positive.
Wallpapering crumbling plaster cracked at the core is an exhausting futility, a labor necessary when talking to friends who would be hurt by the truth about my infernal internal incarceration, who might think it’s their fault that I’m not free. But they help me, Jess. They connect me to life like the roots they are and I will not strike them with my longing for death.
I've written four stories, finished two. I cannot keep returning to the unfinished works to refine their landscapes.
Both are set within forests on a mountainside, one of a powerful range of soaring peaks, protected, safe places of beauty harbored in isolation on the East Coast and the West.
Trees endure the lash of nature. They're frozen, they're whipped, they're beaten, they're flooded, but more stand than fall.
I used to be a tree. My living room still conjures a forest, but it's no longer Sherwood, so dubbed when I was manic.
My forest is no longer friendly. My forest is threatened, Jess. I cannot find peace here.
I cannot see the trees. But I feel them. Grasping, smothering unseen branches; obscene fingerings of truth skewering jugular freedoms.
I began listing the pros and cons of death. Heading the con list were my parents; heading the pro list was the fact I'd be worth more dead. "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," Bambi’s father said. I had nothing nice to say, nothing good to think about. Life hurt too much.
It hurt to look at the paintings of my twenties and early thirties. People had wanted to buy them, galleries had wanted to show them. But they made the best of my heart and spirit tangible. They were impossible to duplicate, I couldn’t let any of them go off with a stranger. Not so with my book. I was desperate to sell “Journey,” and no one wanted it. Nor did any magazine want the stories I wrote. I was a lot more successful as a painter than as an author, that irony twisting a grin from me.
I hated waking to the alarm clock, faced by a day of backbreaking tedium. Mindless work gave too much rein to negative thoughts.
I hounded the head hunters again. Nothing now, they said.
My father was in remission still. Three times cancer had invaded him; three times cancer had retreated from chemotherapy.
But not so for my mother. Every year, cancer added forces to existing troops. And chemo attacked her heart along with her tumors. I hoarded sleeping pills, never enough. I now saved two lithium a day, for Mih-therer and for me. Our supply was growing. I never told Dr. Moline that I’d stopped using medication to sleep, or that now, I no longer was taking four lithium.
I slept night and day, giving time to Flyer for walks and attention.
Does the light in the world seem darker to you? Or is it my imagination that seemingly constant clouds dim the sun even when it shines?
Perhaps it's the Greenhouse Effect and I don't need to get my eyes examined. But the lighting in the offices where I ply menial skills seems dull, and every place the temp agency sends me is gray, the most "in" of office decors, I assume.
It's almost October, Jessie. You'd think the light would be sharpest now. Wouldn't you?
I've worn the robes of depression seemingly forever, yet I've never felt this kind of physical pull toward earth before. Have you experienced this phenomenon?
The grave has never been this close before.
Oh god, Jess, I just can’t live anymore.
I can't live on ifs. Time is bloodied by rejection. If I could write, if someone would publish my book, if my parents would beat cancer, if I could earn a decent living as a writer again . . .
If I could kill my parents' child, I'd take a suite at the Drake Hotel after taking Flyer to my brother. I'd order caviar and lobster from room service and watch Lake Michigan. And then I would sleep and a stranger would find my body.
Since it's always darkest before it’s completely black, I guess I'm indigo blue.
This wasn't me, this weak hurting flesh, this fear.
Everything I did was worthless. Suicide wouldn't kill my parents' child. That child died in 1981 once reality returned and it became clear to me that I had lost my mind. Been insane. Psychotic.
Fear owned my thoughts and reduced me to nothing that I could identify as human. Anger overwhelmed me.
I couldn't eat. I couldn't swallow the life I was living. Every time the doctor harped on my gaining ten pounds, fury almost threw me out control. Too thin, too rich, aspirations of multitudes. I had it half right — there were no riches in hell.
Life always could overwhelm me with feelings and yet now I couldn’t feel anything. I hadn’t known this kind of cold before.
The light indoors, outdoors, when I closed my eyes, was a brown more black than gray. Not dark enough to hide in.
Oh yes. Sleep filled bankrupt space, leading surcease. My horde of suicide pills grew.
In sleep there was no defeat, no crushing failure, no self-loathing, no searing fear. In sleep there was no fever, no burning dry acre of flesh above the aching sore muscles that constricted my stomach and throat, layering the chill that bored into bone, into the marrow of thought. Always my hands and my feet were icy, warmed neither by socks nor gloves nor the heat of my electric blanket.
Out of bed, the ceiling felt too close to my head, tilting and pushing me toward earth. Out of bed, my shoulders rounded inward, iron weights dragging me forward, dragging me down, tempting a fall. While I waited for Flyer to finish outside, I needed to sit on the curb, no longer able to stand, not even braced by the front gate. Inside I sat on the rug to toss toys to Flyer, preferring the bed above all, but wishing the mattress was on the floor for even greater security.
Life was easier wrapped in the comforter stationed on the bed. I never opened the curtains. I rarely turned the light on. Dozing took consciousness to a sense of blind comfort. I knew I wasn't asleep, but the images floating like dreams through my mind were ushered by a past that felt safe.
Once a day, Flyer raced down the living room length, all the while growling furiously, shaking the stuffed animal I’d throw for her. The sight of her brought me a pleasure too soon violated by reality, returning my need for sleep.
I forced myself to play with Flyer longer than I wanted, compensation for her lack of outdoor exercise, salve for my conscience. Her exuberance was exhausting. Our games grew shorter.
Always the sweet little white dog hugged my side.
She'd miss me, but she adored my brother Michael. She'd be fine. And I'd be free.
Something clicked inside me. I felt it lock into place, grounding me. Next came a jolt of physical energy, electrifying a sense of well-being.
Standing created the sensation of diving, of telescoping vision. Rocketing down, down through clouding black and gray, gaining speed. I couldn't wait to land. I couldn't wait till the violence of my dive ended the ague of body, of mind, releasing me at last into ultimate freedom.
At the typewriter, words came to me with an inexorable slowness:
I died long before my body did and you cannot know the hell that consciousness of this fact raises. My best wasn't good enough. I couldn't resurrect my career in advertising. Nothing I wrote was accepted, my book, my short stories, always rejected.
The cost of hopeless failure is too great.
Please know that there was nothing more you could do for me. Stuffing envelopes leaves me too much alone in my mind. You must be happy for me. I’ve made it out of intolerable pain. I'm safe now. I'm free. And you're free. And you have the best of me, the written and painted pieces of my soul, that part of me that died first. And please, in your happiness for me, remember me as I was before madness changed my mind.
I read the letter.
Once. Twice. They would understand. My release would be theirs.
I signed the letter and put it in the center drawer of the desk to review later, ensuring that my farewell said everything it should.
Flyer and I went to the park, winds tearing our coats, lashing the limbs of leaf-losing trees, clouds gray like tarnishing silver twisting above our heads, rushing across the sky, deepening the green of mid-October.
I called my brother and invited myself and Flyer to Milwaukee for the weekend. He agreed to keep her while I “visited friends in New York.”
I called the Drake Hotel and reserved a suite for the following Monday night.
To answer his question about the lightness of my mood, I told Dr. Moline I'd broken through my writer's block. When he asked which project, I paused a second and then could answer, “The Red House,” pleased by my quick substitution.
“How does the story end?” he asked.
“The old man’s daughter saves him.”
"How?" he asked again.
"Sleeping pills. No more torment." I couldn't restrain a smile.
"Did the daughter take the pills, too?"
"The daughter buried her father in the backyard under a sapling oak."
Alarm filled me. I couldn't let the old man die.
“The Red House” filled my mind as the bus headed toward home. Finishing it would make me an artist till the end of my time, now just days away.
Flyer’s welcome was dear but tiring. I hurried to bed. Flyer hugged my side as I counted my capsules of Dalmane, lithium and Valium, enjoying the sound of them as they cascaded from their vials and slid into my palm, then back into their vials, which I carefully returned to my night table drawer. More than enough for Mih-ther and me.
An image of cancer in her lung stabbed pain in my back and breast. I'd send her share to her tomorrow. It would reach Florida by the time my parents returned from New York with fresh appraisals from their oncologist. I found a bottle and filled it with pills; I nested it with cotton in a box, taped it, addressed it. I put it with my keys so I wouldn't forget it.
Around two in the morning, I was watching a made-for-TV movie when the phone rang. To my scared "Yes?" Cindy announced that my brother would be at my door shortly.
"No one," she soothed. Then she said that Dr. Moline had called to say he didn’t want me to be alone, he hadn't been able to reach my parents.
I let her know what I thought about this invasion of my privacy. I slammed down the receiver, shaken by fury.
Rage, iced and insistent, drove my pacing. How dare Moline. How dare Michael come without invitation.
I wouldn't let him in — serve him right.
I turned on lamps and added a sweater, socks and bathrobe to my nightshirt and cotton turtleneck. I poured a glass of wine and drank it quickly, poured another, paced the rooms, Flyer matching my stride.
I couldn't hate Michael when he arrived, a bright force within the shaggy curls of his dark hair and beard.
"Your doctor thought you were in pretty rough shape, so I thought I'd come down and see." His gaze coursed my eyes, my body. "You look a little rough." His laughter was spontaneous.
A smile took my face and just as swiftly left it. "How the hell do you expect me to look at this hour?" It felt good to voice my livid response to his intrusion.
He marshaled me into the kitchen and scrambled eggs, put bread in the toaster. "What's going on?" he said.
"Nothing! I'm nothing. A reject."
"Give it time. You'll get a job, a good job," he said with infuriating assurance. "As for publishing, it may not happen in your lifetime — "
"You can be damn sure of that," I snarled, again finding release through voiced expression.
"But it could . . . Here, eat." He handed me a plate and fork, took his own and headed for the living room.
If one more time someone said "Give it time," there would be homicide before suicide.
"Want a fire?" the object of my anger sweetly asked, setting his plate on the coffee table.
The fire reminded me of Tom Fowler's flaming oil tanker. I'd given him courage I didn't have. I shuddered. Pills were the coward’s way out. But a way out, nonetheless.
"Sit by the hearth if you're cold," my brother recommended.
I stayed on the sofa, half listening to him until he raised the impending report from New York, detailing the stages of our parents’ cancers. He was firmly optimistic about both of them.
I didn't share his view of Mother, my little Mih-the, first soul mate, original best friend. I feared she was dying, I could feel it, I knew it. I was keeping my promise. She'd have the pills when she got home. Our suffering was almost over.
Michael asked what I was doing to find work. He badgered me, I thought, desperate to change the subject. Unable to stand anymore, unable to defend myself, I retrieved the letter from the center drawer of the desk, letting the power of print speak for me.
He read it, slowly and more than once, it seemed.
Eventually he looked up and at me and grinned, and in his teasing mirth-drawing way, he sang, "Rejectionnn, Rejectionn, Rejection . . ." And then he hugged me, his arms holding me together against his heart until an uncurling of warmth inside me screened my raging sense of doom.
We sat in silence for a while, staring into the fire.
"You're going to have another visitor in the morning," he said.
"Our father who art in New York arrives at ten a.m."
I dashed to the bathroom. Our father had spent Michael’s years in a commune trying to talk him out of it.
I washed my face before the water warmed. I brushed my teeth, ran hands through my hair.
Mih-therer, my little mother, was well enough to fly home alone.
I returned to the living room and closed the curtains to cancel the street light’s competition with the fire.
We opened a bottle of wine at four. And we listened to songs from the Sixties, running back in time to burgeoning passions. When “Sounds of Silence” ended, Michael asked if I wanted to sleep.
Yes, I said, needing to get away from him. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't bear the thought of facing Father, Daddy, dear Daddy-O. I hated him for coming. I hated him for making me hate him, and myself even more.
Why couldn't they let me be?
And yet I was drawn back to Michael, unable to sleep, unable to lie alone in my thoughts.
"You're off to Florida for a while," he said when I reappeared. He said it casually, and as if there had been no break in conversation.
"I won't go. I can't go. Please understand. Let me alone. Just let me alone."
"No, we're not going to let you alone. And we won't let you reject us. We won't let you punish us because no one's hired or published you yet."
"You of all people should understand my need to escape."
"You can't do it to Mom and Dad."
The eternity of mornings yet to face overwhelmed me. I retreated to my room. I was cornered. There was nothing I could do about a trap more confining with the passage of each tomorrow. No sin of mine could warrant this hell. Unfair. Unjust. Malign. I hid in my room till nine-thirty a.m. and hurried Flyer outside.
My father opened the door when I returned from the winds gusting on La Salle Street. He hugged me. He kissed me.
I couldn't look my father in the eye. He was a block to freedom I couldn't remove. I took a nap after lunch. Behind the closed door, I called the Drake Hotel and canceled my reservation. I cried. I would have gone out in style.
Shut away in my room, I opened the night table drawer and took out the pills, counting them one by one, a telling of my beads. I'd take them to Florida and give Mother her share.
I remembered the box sitting beside my keys. I retrieved it, ignoring Michael and Father playing chess by the fire. There was a violence in my feelings for them that scared me by its intensity, I who hated violence, who shut my eyes against it in movies.
And yet I’d written about violence, twice.
Fury toward my father and my brother, the two men I loved most in life, forced me back to bed.
I was so torn by love and hate for them that I had to void them from my mind. But then the future loomed, once again changed by external forces.
I'd lost control of my last control. This was the final hell. I couldn't believe I'd thought I'd been there before. Hell had so many faces, but only now had Satan entered, and He did not have horns. He did not have a tail. He was an endless hole, the coldest, most vile radiation of violation in the blackest, most devouring darkness ever witnessed. And always His message was a knelling of failure.
I thought about the messiah conjured by my full-blown mania. But I wasn't psychotic now: Satan wasn't controlling me, he was merely symbolic of this hell-hole called life. I wished I were psychotic. I'd rather not know this reality.
As I realized I wouldn't have to stay in Florida forever, calls from the fraternal, paternal front drew me back to the living room.
That night I went to sleep dreading my brother's return to Milwaukee. I still couldn't look my father in the eye.
Michael left around eight the next evening and my father and I discussed the morning's flight to Florida. Quickly I said good night. We'd exhausted the topic of his trip to New York and I couldn't bear to hear again that the two spots of cancer in Mother's lung were growing, and that she had little respite from shingles, her latest additional affliction.
That wasn't really why I couldn't stand being alone with him: I couldn't handle the animosity he aroused in me, and the conflict. I could say nothing to him. The silence between us hurt more than I could have believed possible.
I missed Flyer. There was little comfort in the fact she'd be in Milwaukee according to plan.
On the flight to Florida I was groggy. My father and I discussed plane food and when our trays were taken, I closed my eyes and curled up in my seat, facing away from him.
"Your hair," my mother exclaimed when she found us beside the baggage carousel. "I'm sure Charlotte can fit you in tomorrow."
"Hello, Mother. Yes, Mother. How are you, Mother?" I was furious until I realized that she was round-shouldered, bent-inward. She was terrifyingly thin. Pain and sleeplessness colored her eyes. I stumbled toward her, the wound of her criticism healed by my fear for her.
We kissed and she gently squeezed my shoulders.
"You shouldn't have met us," my father chided as he leaned down and kissed her.
"Jonas drove. He's outside in the car, circling, no doubt."
She couldn't drive.
On the road to their home, I could hear my mother moan every few minutes. "What is it? What's wrong?" I cried, then gasped when a sudden pain in my chest sucked the oxygen out of me.
“It’s the Shingles.”
"And painkillers don't help?"
"They make me woozy."
"Woozy's better than pain, and I know from experience that one pain killer every four hours absolutely helps."
"She's right, dear," my father said.
"I took one before I came to get you," she allowed. "Maybe I'll take another one later."
Over roast chicken and salad at the kitchen table, my parents told me I had a date with Dr. Richard at eleven in the morning.
"I don't need to see him. I won't see him. Why waste the money?" I cried, flailing against these new odds.
"We want you to see him, dear," my mother said, her warmth soothing me, deflecting fear.
"Patchey," my father said, "it's hard on your mother and me to see you so unhappy, and Dr. Richard can help you."
"Oh? You mean he can get my book published? And get me a job?"
"Dear, as soon as you're well, you'll find a job," my mother said gently, firmly.
"I'm not sick, life is. I'm over the hill at forty-three. No one will ever hire me."
"But you'll see Dr. Richard in the morning, for us, won't you, Patrick-a," my father said, using that tone I'd never bucked.
"I'll call Charlotte now, see if she can cut and shape your hair tomorrow sometime after lunch." My mother smiled on her way to the phone.
"Daddy, don't tell Dr. Richard about the note — "
"He already knows about it, Patchey."
"Then I can't see him. He'll hospitalize me."
"We won't let him. Don't worry, Patrick-a, you're stuck here with us." Oh how sweet his smile was as he leaned over to kiss me.
Mother's moans sounded more frequently, louder and louder, the volume of her pain intolerable. I told her to take a Percodan. My father told her to take a Percodan.
No, she said, the pain wasn't that bad. "You wouldn't be moaning at all if you'd take the damn pill," I snapped and stormed out of the room.
Breakfast the next morning was silent but for the turning of newspaper pages, but for the nearly suppressed whimperings of intelligible shingles.
We talked about the weather, family and friends on the way to Dr. Richard’s cream and brown office. But he'd moved. Now he shared space with other psychiatrists. This waiting room was chrome, glass and gray, and in its center stood a four-foot gray Formica wall circling the receptionist's desk. Gray, like the places in which I stuffed envelopes.
Patients filled most of the chairs and banquette, leaving no three seats together. I was relieved to get away from my parents, but I didn't like sharing the waiting room with strangers — I wasn’t free to stretch out on the floor, as I had done five years ago.
Dr. Richard finally came out and invited me, and my parents, into his office. I was angry yet glad he had included them.
His office was pale gray, spare and contemporary, the desk planed like a Parsons table in lacquered white.
He'd lost weight and more hair.
He was quieter than I remembered, and far more serious. As time marched, his voice grew demanding. Why did I think I'd never get another job? Didn't I know that getting a book published was one of the hardest things to do? Why was I so thin? How was I sleeping? How did I spend time? How was my love life?
I laughed at the last one.
"I want you on an antidepressant," Dr. Richard said, concluding his interrogation. "And I want you in the hospital."
"No. Daddy! Tell him he can't!" I rushed to my father, clutching his arms resting on the arm of his chair.
"We want her to stay with us," my father said.
"She needs Mellaril and she needs twenty-four-hour supervision."
"It's an antidepressant."
"Antidepressants never helped my friend Susan."
"Then it's unlikely that her depression was chemical," Dr. Richard judged. "Mellaril will help you."
I argued. Tears flooded my face.
"Honey, if you take Mellaril, I'll take Percodan," my mother offered softly.
I left the arm of my father's chair for my mother's.
"Let's check the book to find time on Thursday," Dr. Richard said as he escorted us from his office.
"That's the day after tomorrow! You saw me only once a week when I thought I was the ‘messiah's’ vessel!"
“You didn't want to hurt yourself then, Patricia."
His explanation gently, carefully, exposed a nerve and rubbed it raw. Death would save me, not hurt me, I argued in silence.
At lunch, Mother and I took our medicine. The moans sent across the table might have been mine.
Father went to the office and Mother took me to her hairstylist. "Cut it all off," I said to Charlotte before I could stop myself.
Mother and I took the next set of pills together after dinner and went to the set of comfortable twin hospital beds she shared with Daddy-O. Proximity made visible the subtleties of her beautiful platinum and silver hair, glorious shadings in a lovely short flow of waves. But her face was too thin, too tight, too pale but for the dry darkness beneath her hazel eyes. Her frame was gaunt and swallowed by last year's dress. She showed me the chart my father had created so she could remember to take what pills when.
There were so many capsules and tablets in an amazing range of colors and sizes, some for her heart, others for her cancer, her frozen shoulder, her shingles.
"I guess you don't need my help," I whispered, waving to her collection. "You can go anytime you want."
"I'm going to get better. And so are you."
In my recoiling from her anger, her words repeated in my mind until I said, "For sure you will, Mih-the." I kissed her and went to my room, the bed taking me dressed for the street. She could get well. Her pain could get better. Mine couldn't. There was no pill for rejection.
But if she needed chemotherapy, it would kill her. The last round almost did.
Oh Mother, Mih-therer, my dear little Mih-the, how will we get through this?
When I tried to get out of bed the next morning, an invisible weight slammed me back. I sank into the mattress, gathering energy. I levered myself off the mattress and staggered to the bathroom, using walls for support.
"I've been hit by a ton of bricks," I said when I stumbled into the kitchen and found my parents at the breakfast table.
"Do you hurt? Are you dizzy?"
"What is it, Patrick-a," my father asked, setting down the paper.
Mih-the came to me and pressed her palm against my forehead. "You don't have a fever . . . Come sit down.
You'll feel better after you eat."
"I don't know. I just feel . . . heavy. I have to concentrate really hard on mustering the strength to move any part of my body."
"It's probably the medicine, but we'll call Dr. Richard and check," my mother said, rolling her chair to the phone, restoring our connection.
Dr. Richard said that my reaction was indeed due to Mellaril, and nothing to worry about, it was a temporary side effect.
Mother and I headed for the room she shared with my father. While we adjusted the hospital beds for optimum comfort, and began to doze, my father retreated to his computer, his new passion. Not long ago, after surgery fixed a shortening ligament in his hand, he regained some but not all of its range of motion and the only keyboard he now could play to his liking was that of the computer. He rarely played the piano anymore, and when he did he played mostly scales, while I was around, anyway. I knew this fact troubled him, and that playing the piano had linked him to peace, and I hurt for him. Life was taking so much away from him, Mih-ther, even me.
My father was in his element when he gave me lessons on the computer, which fared only slightly better than our old sessions with my arithmetic, algebra and geometry homework. His enthusiasm for the computer accelerated every time he figured out how to do what he wanted without consulting the manual. My father always loved to exercise his mind, his heart and his body.
Mother’s moaning response to disease hurt too much to hear. I couldn't stand it. I went to the guest room, the pink and white space that had housed me for three months five years ago. Even as I shivered, I gasped for air, suffering from the press of humidity, even with the air conditioning on high. I turned on the overhead fan, kept my sweater on and climbed into bed, breathing through my mouth, trying to forget the sights, sounds and smells of my lengthy stay — five years ago.
Now Satan, the Beast, tormented me, the antithesis of everything my messiah had represented. But Satan was the right umbrella for all that was hideous in this world. Too bad I was so sane. I wasn't writing twenty-four hours a day. I was sleeping well. And eating. And I was fully conscious of every thought, every feeling, every direction. Too conscious. I turned over and slept as soon as I realized that Mellaril was good for something.
The next day, my father rented “A Trip to Bountiful” for Mother and me to watch while he turned to tennis, football or golf on the TV in the library.
In my mother’s shades-of-blue and white bedroom, we boarded the beds, adjusted them to our liking. “We have the best seats in the house,” Mih-the said as she operated the TV remote control. Our hands clasped across the pale blue blanket-cover as the old woman's journey home began. Her dying was peaceful, it was sad. It wasn't brutal like cancer, a different kind of heartbreak. Mother and I tightened our grip on each other’s hand as the pain of life lightened on the screen, the sadness of this portrayal uncontaminated by fear or
My mother gasped as if from shocking pain just as the credits rolled.
"What is it?" I cried, leaning toward her.
"The tumors rub the nerves of my spinal cord," she rasped, averting her eyes from mine.
"You said the pain was from shingles!" I was horrified.
"It is, but the cancer . . . "
"Mih-the, we can both get out. We can do it together. Mih-the — "
"How DARE you think like that," she lashed, drawing away from me. <|>"I'm<|> going to get better, and so are you."
"Yes Mother." I kissed her forehead and said goodnight, kissing my father in the library before going to my room. I couldn't relax my guard with either of them. We'd come to a new state of being. This fact also hurt.
The following morning brought further reduction in my energy, as well as nausea and constipation. It brought thick black spots to my vision and it made thirst unquenchable.
"You'll drown," my father said, startling me as I drank from the bathroom sink faucet.
By the time we got to the kitchen arm in arm, his more weighted than mine, I was thirsty again. And glad to delay facing Mother.
She casually asked how I felt. Fine, I said, hating our tone. I wasn't sick. But she was. Her body was killing her.
My parents read the newspapers. I took a few sheets to hide behind.
Mother's moans slipped into flights of classical music on the car radio on the way to Dr. Richard's. I stared out the window, despising the glaring sameness of Florida, seasons marked by run-on shopping malls vibrating in the heat and the radiation of holiday neon displays. How could my parents live in such a tawdry state I wondered for the zillionth time.
My parents stayed in Dr. Richard's waiting room. I didn't care.
"What do you weigh?" the doctor asked after greetings.
"Maybe one-hundred and fifteen." Why care about my weight?
"You need to gain a few pounds," he said mildly.
"What's the story on this bomb you've loaded me with?"
"It'll take a while to regulate. You're bound to feel constipation, perhaps nausea, possibly a little dizziness, but then you're going to feel much better."
"I'll be on my hands and knees by tomorrow," I snapped.
"How are things going with your parents?" He leaned closer, brown eyes encouraging confession.
"Hostility breaks out now and then between Mother and me."
"From your side or hers?"
"She's condemned me for choosing suicide and my back burns with her pain. She doesn't deserve to hurt so much. It's not fair." Sudden tears cut off my voice. Submerged in the torrent I whispered, "She can't tolerate this much longer. And they'll start talking chemo again, and then the chemo will kill her."
"Patricia, you believe that now because the chemicals in your brain have unbalanced again. By next week — but I can't promise that," he interjected lightly. "At some point in the next few weeks, it’s likely that you’ll see that chemo will help your mother — if that's what her doctors decide."
"Chemo’s already given her congestive heart failure, it made her immune system fail. She won't survive it again. She's dying now, and she's dying in hell! You're not there. You don't have to watch her suffer, hear her suffering." Cancer was taking her by inches, the raking of its coals more cruel than flames.
"It isn't easy for any of you," he said, his sympathy drawing more tears from my eyes. "Besides feeling weighted, are you having any other reactions to Mellaril?"
"Look, this drug you put me on makes it too hard to talk anymore today, so let's wrap this up."
"No. We still haven’t talked enough about your relationship with your mother."
Relief filled me and I said, "We can't be together without my father or a movie between us."
"That sounds like a good way to go for now," he summarized, reminding me of the amenable nature he'd shown years ago.
I looked at my watch. Twenty more minutes. "What made Dr. Moline call my family?”
“I’ll give you his exact words if you wait till I find his letter in your file.”
Why did I ask him that?
“Here it is,” he said, sliding out a white sheet of paper from a manila folder. “He said you presented extreme agitated excitement the last time he saw you, in sharp contrast to the deep depression you’d been exhibiting for months.”
“I told him I’d finished a story I’d been working on. Why wouldn’t I be excited?”
“When people in a long term deep depression suddenly swing up, it usually means they’ve lost their ambivalence about suicide.”
“Don't you want to talk to my parents?" I cried.
"They can come in if you want."
No longer the point of discussion, I tuned out conversation, overwhelmed by the weights of my own flesh and blood.
We had roasted chicken again for dinner that night, still warm from the store, and a salad that Paula, their housekeeper, had made. We retreated to separate rooms when we left the table.
The next day, afternoon late, I was on top of the pale pink bedspread in the guest room, trying to read the book by Colette that Jess had given to me shortly before our break. I saw black spots instead of print. And then the black spots merged.
Breath caught on a feeling erupting from my belly, surging upwards, gushing, spinning upwards to a site behind my eyes. And then I was — I was falling. Falling.
Falling. Vision telescoping, blinding me. Faster, faster, hurtling down, down, heart-in-throat, no control, no stops, diving, diving through space, ohmygod, I could feel the crash coming. I was falling, no brakes, no ledge, no holds, pressure building, compressing, sightless black and spinning down.
I hurtled faster toward impact, faster; ground seemed to be hurtling upwards to meet me, winds screaming, tearing flesh, eyes streaming, breathless.
The bed! I was on the bed. The pale pink spread bit the flesh of my palms. The supple support of the mattress beneath me felt solid.
But again I was falling. Diving. Rocketing down down, spinning out, my stomach dropping, falling end-over-end through a screaming endless hole, speed dizzying, crushing, blinding, and in my ears was the heated rush of its passing.
"Honey, Honey! What's wrong?"
My mother was beside me, my father right behind her.
"Patrick-a, tell us, we can help you," he said.
"I'm falling. I know! I know I'm on the bed, but it's collapsing! I can't stand it," I cried, or screamed, or whispered, clutching the bedspread on either side of my knees.
Suddenly my father had his arms around me, my back against his chest, and my mother stood beside me, holding my hands.
Their voices murmured, indistinct and soothing, pulling me out of the dive.
"Come into our bed, honey," Mother said. "There's a program on TV we’ll all like. Come on, we'll be a lot more comfortable in our room."
I stood up. I fell back to the bed.
I could not stand alone.
There was no feeling in my legs. And my head was too heavy for my neck.
The bed heaved when my father got off it. And then he was pulling me up, putting my arm around his neck, circling my waist with his strength. "Okay, Patrick-a, let's see how this works." And we began walking, dragging down the hall toward the room he shared with my mother.
The spots before my eyes were dense, the hall so long, so narrow, so dark, the door to my parents' room so far away.
And then I was on their bed, a blue sea of spring sky. My father stretched out beside me and took my hand; my mother sat on her side, hovering over the night table.
"What are you doing?" I asked her.
"I'm calling Dr. Richard, honey."
Relief entered me like soft rain, washing away panic roused by fear of another fall.
She told him what had happened and gave the phone to me. "No, no, I can't . . . " I gripped my father's hand, hearing but not deciphering the words she spoke into the phone.
"You're to take Valium, honey. I'll be right back." She reappeared from her bathroom and handed me a blue pill, then a glass of water. "He said if the falling feeling doesn't go away within thirty minutes, you're to take five more milligrams. I've already broken a few tens in half." She patted my head, brushed hair from my eyes. "It's anxiety, dear, Dr. Richard said, probably caused by Mellaril." She lay back on her pillows and took my free hand in hers.
Within a reasonable time of unreason, I was parachuting from the cliff, not diving free-form toward earth. I couldn't bear the thought of free-floating in space. I felt terror at the thought of skydiving for fun.
I must have fallen asleep. The news was on TV when my father offered to help me back to my room. He staggered beneath my weight, then righted himself.
I took another Valium when I took lithium and Mellaril before turning out the light for the night. In the days that followed, I took ten milligrams of Valium every time I fed my mind lithium and Mellaril, insurance against falling.
I didn't dress until it was Tuesday again and I had to see Dr. Richard.
"I'm sorry, Patricia," he said when I dragged myself into his office. "I had to give you enough antidepressant to get the chemicals in your brain to swing the other way. It would have been easier on you had you entered the hospital."
"You mean you gave me too much on purpose?"
"You were too deep. You're still too deep, but the worst side effects should subside soon."
"Sure, as long as I shovel in Valium along with the rest of the junk you've got me on." But I was thankful for the safety Valium unfurled. And I was furious with him for drugging me into near oblivion. "All those pills you want me to take deny me the one reason that makes waking up worthwhile."
“We have to change your mind about killing yourself. How do you feel today?"
"Terrific, can't you tell?"
"Are you experiencing nausea? Constipation? Dizziness?"
"Verging on all three, thanks to you."
"That'll pass soon, I promise."
"For what that's worth."
"Have you given much thought to suicide lately?"
"How can I when you've got me too drugged to think?"
The sky was swollen with unspoken thunder, purple with unshed rain. The air was thick, it was close, it was still. Sweat rolled down my face, my chest, my back as I trudged beside my father, circling the island in front of his home.
"Patrick-a, I’m glad that you’re exercising more. Are you feeling stronger?”
“I’m ready to go home so I guess that means I’m strong enough, and as balanced as I can be — under the circumstances.” I tried to laugh.
“I’ve got something to tell you that I don’t want you to be upset about. According to the best medical technology, there's nothing wrong with me. Every test came back negative."
No. He’s not —
“However, I've lost ten pounds in less than a month, and my energy isn't what it used to be."
My legs trembled and my eyes stung; my breath came in shallow, short and sporadic bursts; something shrill sounded in my thoughts and chilled me to the marrow. “And?”
“I’ve finally attained my lifelong ambition to eat anything I want without gaining weight,” he said.
I gagged, I heaved, only bile rising.
When the house reappeared, I veered toward it. My father grabbed my arm and said, "Hey, you can't quit yet, we've got four more laps to reach our mile."
"You go on, and I'll go in, check up on Mother."
The sun burned ever hotter as I retraced my steps.
Mother was sleeping when I looked in her room. I shed my shorts and sneakers and hastened into bed, the upheaval of emotion churning nausea and fear inside me. Glad for the dazing buffer of drugs, I drank seltzer slowly, shivering helplessly in new knowledge, my sweat-drying flesh chilled by the air conditioner set on high to rid the room of strangling humidity.
He said he was fine. But he was losing weight and energy, and he was distracted, like last night. He didn't have cancer. He was fine. All his tests were negative. Last night was an exception.
We had dinner with a newly widowed friend of my parents. Her husband piloted their plane. Flying home from their last trip, he suddenly slumped over the controls, his death rattle muted by the throaty whine of the engine.
She’d had only one flying lesson but, with her husband dead beside her, she landed the plane with the help of wing-side instruction from a friend who'd flown up to help her down.
From the moment Mih-the told me how her friend had lost her husband, I couldn’t get her flight out of my mind. The very thought of it made me feel like I was falling through panic, like the dive I was shoved into a few days ago. That fall had felt like I’d been pushed out of a plane without a parachute.
That thought made me struggle for breath. It sucked me into the vortex of falling. I clutched the sheeted mattress, afraid to open my eyes.
I forced myself to sit up, to stand.
I stumbled to my mother's room, passing her sleeping form on my way into her bathroom for Valium. So as not to disturb her, I carefully shut the door before turning on the tap, scooping water into my mouth, swallowing the pill then and there. Every second counted when bridging the abyss.
The fact the drug was already in my system fostered a sense of security. Soon it would sheer the edge off my terror, soon I would be safe.
Reaching my bed was a triumph. My sense of security strengthened.
In the stilling of Valium's influence, last night came back to me in vivid color. I almost felt again the car’s motion as my father drove us to Boca Raton for dinner.
We’d picked up the widow and, before she settled into the back seat of the car with me, I'd blurted: "How could you have brought that plane down alone?"
"I had no choice. Nor did I have time to think about it," she said quietly.
Once we were on the I-95 heading for the restaurant, the words no choice, no choice, no choice revolved in my mind. I couldn’t look at the widow and stared out the window, passing cars blurring my vision. Oncoming headlights suddenly blazed, blinding me, coming fast up the lane my father was entering, the vision of our convergence paralyzing me. I screamed “Watch out!” My father swerved, narrowly avoiding collision.
I’d never known him to be careless behind the wheel of a car. He was slipping. It must be age. He'd be seventy-eight on November sixteenth. Two days away. We were celebrating at Chambord's in Miami, a forty minute expressway drive, a trip we might not survive. That thought comforted me.
In bed tonight, steeped in the darkness within the trancing of drugs, the image of landing an airplane alone spun my thoughts and wouldn’t stop. Mother was thrown out of a plane without a parachute, to continue this unrelenting analogy of terror. She was in agony. Cancer flayed her spinal nerves, and shingles seared the flesh above them. Despite medication, she was too close to pain. And I was part of it. She was jealous of my fatal dedication. Yes, that was the source of the friction between us.
The image of being in a plane alone engulfed me yet again.
My father would have no trouble getting the plane on ground if he were ever in the widow’s position. His patient, thorough logic and quick assimilation of technical, mechanical instructions, and his rock-solid stability, would return him in one piece. My father possessed practicality as well as a quick and sweet sense of humor, corny as it was now and then. Always he'd vowed that he wasn't King Solomon, but the last nine weeks proved that he was. Undeniably. He kept my mother and me from each other's throats while he barred the door to my death. But he couldn't save Mother and that fact was killing him by inches. That was the root of his exhaustion and weight loss.
But his fatigue was my fault. For nearly six weeks, he'd waited on both of us. Mother was too much for him, let alone adding me. She was bedridden still, except for meals and brief strolls through her house. Now and then she'd feel well enough to dine out — like last night, when Daddy almost crashed the car.
Mother wasn't strong enough to be a backseat driver.
Daddy-O had to be stopped from driving when I left for Chicago. Michael would have to deal with that. I couldn't tell my father not to drive anymore.
Guilt felt like fear, and it was heavy, like despair, driving back the curtain of medication. I couldn't stand this awareness.
I wasn't used to fresh pain, new pain. I had to stop thinking about my father. I considered Valium. I closed my eyes and the sedation already inside me made itself known. But it wasn’t enough to knock me out yet. I took half a Valium.
Mellaril had disabled me, an insidious aggression inflicting heavier losses the longer I took it, until I was incoherent and prostrate, and then falling through space despite the mattress beneath me.
Only now could I get through the day without fearing mental or physical falls. Only now could I see past the end of my nose, the phrase Dr. Richard had used to explain why I'd lost sight of my parents in the grip of suicidal intention.
My father's diminished weight and concentration provoked self-censure; my mother's agony probed the imminence of life without her. We were kindred spirits. I'd have to live with that loss too.
I couldn't think about either one of my parents without escalating fear. I couldn't think about myself for the same reason.
I couldn't let myself look beyond the moment. I read or watched TV or visited. Or else I dozed or slept, the only cure for my turmoiling mind, heart and body barely moderated by medicine.
Still I was dizzy, and it took an exhausting effort to haul myself around. I felt like I'd been shot everywhere with Novocain. But death scared me again, so I was no longer suicidal. Or else I was too numbed to know the difference.
I preferred numb to the full force of anguish.
I wasn’t too numbed to miss the home suicide had built for me.
Mellaril had combined with my parents to shove a shield between me and my urn. I'd been too ill to think about that until now.
I thought about downing the bottle of lithium. My parents would find me too soon. They'd know I'd overdosed on purpose. No. I couldn't do it. My death would weaken their resistance.
Doom was my destiny, guided by my genes and my own mistakes. The future loomed in endless years in mindless jobs that would keep me from practicing my art, keeping passion from rising inside me, installing an eternity of boredom and fear and isolating desolation.
Peace came to me now only through sleep, at least I assumed it came then.
I couldn't look at my parents without feeling guilt and fear. I couldn't look at myself without horror. Through every cell of my being ran the knowledge of my failure, a threat ended only by brain-death, the only event worth hope.
Never would I go off the medications. Life would be inconceivable without them. Never would I ever be me again.
The fact my mother and I were disconnected on every level but each other's death throes made me long for Chicago. But I was still too weak to live without help, and desire to be home again in my city would fade, to be retrieved in the presence of only my mother.
We couldn't have a civil conversation without my father, unless one of us was in crisis, a stage I passed through perhaps last week. She refused to wonder why life had turned on us.
Incarceration took the life out of living. I was bound to the house of my parents by physical instability, and I was desperate to leave. Never had I felt so alone with my creators, my original best friends. I could share none of my thoughts with them. Our meetings were stilted and strained by the need to gloss reality.
We were strangers, and yet the past was so vividly present that I couldn't forget we once were happy together, another wound rubbed raw.
My father's birthday was a rare evening, not one wrong moment. Like children we drank wine beyond the limits our doctors had set, celebrating another year wrested from cancer.
It was the last meal of undisturbed unity.
My poor father. I didn't want to live and his wife was dying. We were basket cases in mental, physical and emotional terms. No wonder he was losing concentration and weight. He was exhausted. And it was my fault.
Turkey and trimmings at the Tower Club passed for Thanksgiving in Florida. My parents talked about going to Key West for Christmas. "Not me," I'd cried. "Michael and Cindy can't be burdened by Flyer that long.
I have to find a job. I . . . "
The subject was changed to a current event.
The following Tuesday, I begged Dr. Richard to let me go home: "It's my Mother. We can't witness each other's pain anymore. I'm not going to kill myself, or stop taking medication. I won't, I promise . . . "
"I believe you."
"I cannot face Mother anymore. We fight. Too long absorbing each other's pain makes us crazy enough to hate each other. Why can't I go home now? I'll live. I promise."
He looked at me warmly. "I believe you, but right now, let’s talk about what's happening between you and your mother."
"She asked me to help her die when cancer entered her lung a few years ago. I saved pills for the two of us for months."
"Dalmane and lithium."
"What do you mean by 'saving' them?"
"Once I didn't need Dalmane anymore, I kept filling Dr. Moline's monthly prescriptions. And I dropped the daily dose of lithium from four to two — I used good old Valium to find sleep when necessary."
"Did Dr. Moline know that you lowered your lithium?"
"I never thought to mention it. But I didn't need to save so many. My mother has more than enough to kill both of us. She doesn't want to die, and she's angry with me because I do. Did. I'm afraid of death again. Really, I don't want to die anymore. But life here in Florida is impossible now."
"Did you increase your lithium again?"
"Are you aware that cutting down your lithium cuts down your protection against depression?" Hot roaring fear burst inside me, distancing his next statement: "Start taking a third pill today. We'll see how you are next week."
"But I want to go home before next week." I was afraid of what could happen between my dear little Mih-the and me should either of us lose control of anger. I was afraid to tell this to the doctor. I didn't want him to think my hold on myself was that tenuous. I needed to get away from Florida.
"I'd rather see you more stabilized before you go home. But, Dr. Moline's been updated on your progress and I'm not worried about you anymore. Will you wait till next Thursday's session?"
I agreed when I recalled the letter Dr. Moline had sent the first week I was in Florida. It had been a caring explanation of his act that had taken me south. He'd concluded with the hope that I'd want to see him upon returning to Chicago, but that he understood why I might not wish to do so.
I'd been furious with him when his letter arrived. I'd forgotten about it till now. Yes, I'd call him and make an appointment — right after I reserved a seat to Chicago. I didn't hate him anymore, but I wasn't going to thank him for calling my family. I'd be dead if he hadn't intervened, not doomed to life. And murder by reason of insanity was a lesser charge; suicide was better than homicide.
There was joy in my voice when I told my parents that Dr. Richard had given me permission to go home. Freedom was at hand.
"Make your plane reservations, and why not fly to Milwaukee?" my mother suggested. "You can visit and get
I kissed her for the thought, the feeling of love again strong between us.
* * *
My father and I took a last walk around the island in front of the house. We went around five times this time, and as we walked, he told me he wished that my sister Maggie and I would communicate. "She's your sister, Patrick-a. I'm not asking you to be friends, but you're family. And I'd like to be able to think that you'll be there for each other . . . It's unrealistic to think your mother and I will be around forever."
"Patrick-a, I'm seventy-eight, your mother's almost sixty-eight. Our numbers have to come up sometime."
He reached out, drew me into a hug.
We didn't stop walking.
"You've got a good doctor, Patricka, but you still need family. And your mother and I'd feel better about you knowing you were in touch with your sister."
"The anger between us is too strong. Our common ground is too limited." Tears seeped into my eyes as a begging note crept into my voice.
"Your mother and I don't want you to be alone . . . Why don't you sell your place in Chicago and buy one of the condos here, around the corner from us? If you lived down here, we'd be able to keep an eye on each other."
Sudden, sharp claustrophobia stabbed me. I loathed Florida. I couldn't imagine living in sunshine and humidity. I couldn't bear the thought of losing my Victorian home, of living in a charmless modern box . . . I couldn't bear the thought of seeing my parents die daily . . . I couldn't bear to turn down the suggestion he'd made from love. "I'd never find employment here. I'll be fine, don't worry about me. I have wonderful friends in Chicago, and Michael and Cindy are but ninety minutes away."
He shook his head, sadness settling his features, and acceptance. "I've also been thinking about your financial future. If you learn to use a word processor, you'll always be able to get a job, and while the dollar isn't almighty, it's necessary. Would you take a course when you get back to Chicago?"
"Yes," I said, happy to be able to meet one of his wishes.
I watched myself kiss my parents goodbye, enter the plane, feel its upward thrust, its kind ascent to the next gate. I watched myself kiss Michael and Cindy, hug Jacob and Eta.
If they felt warmth from me, then I was a good actor. I couldn't generate emotion, I couldn't return their love from my heart.
I couldn't shake the sensation of standing outside of myself, watching myself through the panoply of Mellaril. It wasn't a new feeling to me, this observance of self, yet never before had the distance between my selves been so great, and never before had the signals of my own intent taken so long to register and then to enact.
But it was winter when I arrived in the north, the cold air bracing, lung releasing, fine contrast to the suffocation of Florida, the cold that burned inside me made tolerable by external cause.
Climbing up the long narrow stairs to my brother's second floor apartment, I wondered why Flyer wasn't barking. Fear for her seared my insides. But there she was: stretched out at the head of the stairs, peering down over her paws, which jutted over the first step.
The distance between us was closing, but she remained inert, and kept her silence. "Flyer, Flyer, it's me, aren't you happy to see me?" At last I dropped to her side.
She rose and slowly extended her nose to my proffered hand. And then she whimpered. And then her whimperings came in a fast-singing sequence, building into cries. I picked her up and hugged her and her cries became hysterical as she covered my face with her sweet pink tongue, her compact little body quivering in my arms.
"She didn't believe it was really you," Cindy said, laughing, stroking the wriggling ecstasy of dog.
"Three months plus is too long," I said. Flyer's reception made me feel happiness.
"Maggie gave her a haircut when she was here for Thanksgiving," said Cindy, pausing for breath. "Do you like it?"
I stiffened in the race my heartbeat launched at the mention of my sister. Maggie's favors came with strings; I didn't want her connected to my life, she never had anything good to say about it, and I couldn't hear again her rejection of my book, the only decent thing about me. "She looks different, but she's Flyer," I said, shrugging off Maggie, and my book.
"Flyer liked Maggie. She spent good time with her," Cindy went on.
"Did my father ask you to promote Maggie?" I accused, refusing to apologize for my abrupt interruption, tightening my hold on Flyer.
"No. Come, sit down, let's get comfortable," Cindy urged.
Seated on the sofa with a glass of seltzer by my side, a cigarette between my fingers, and Flyer under my arm, I asked Cindy to get the Maggie dialogue out in the open and over with.
As she talked about my sister's visit, Jacob and Eta drifted into the room and dropped down on the floor beside Maia, the homeless dog they’d adopted. Michael joined us just before Cindy said, "Maggie wants to be friends with you, Patricia. Why don't you call her?"
"No! I won’t risk her rage again, which I always seem to run into."
Friday passed into Saturday slowly, but not uncomfortably. We talked about my stay in Florida, about the disintegration of my relationship with Mih-the, about the fact her anguish consumed her, about the fact her tumors were growing. "They're going to give her chemo," I said, shuddering.
"I hope they do," Cindy replied. "It'll go after the cancer and stop her pain."
"It'll kill her," I cried, unable to prevent more of my tears from falling, rolling off my checks to the back of my hand.
"Patrick-a," my brother interjected, his use of my father's nickname heartening, "I thought the antidepressant put an end to dooming and glooming. Chemo will help her."
It didn't pay to argue, as our father always said, and we spoke of other things, like the fact our father should stop driving, and why. Like the fact he was seventy-eight now, and showing it. About his losing ten pounds without dieting.
The story of the new widow’s unexpected and horrific solo flight fascinated everyone. Jacob wanted to know if she was flying now. I said I didn’t know, but that I sure wouldn’t want to.
All four took me to Chicago; we ordered pizza for dinner at my place. They left.
"Just you and me and the walls again, Fly," I said, leaning down to pet her after locking the front door.
My own bed. And heavy piles of mail to wade through.
I took Flyer out at eleven, in bed by eleven-twenty and soon asleep, aided by the night's medication.
The next day I called Susan Iser and made a date for dinner. She said she was feeling better about herself, owing much to the job, she claimed, and owing nothing to romance, that fact eased by terrific comrades at work.
I also called for information about word processor courses. One began the first week in January. A three week grace period.
I got the car and went to Treasure Island, loading bag after bag of groceries into it to haul into my home. Exhausted by the effort, I showered and went to bed with peanut butter and red raspberry jam on whole wheat toast.
It felt good to be alone. No one would prod me, or probe, no one to smile for or answer to. No one moaning in pain down the hall.
That night, a TV commercial touted injections in the face as a sure-fire method of quitting cigarettes. Needles in my face were a horrifying thought, but I made an appointment and kept it.
Scaling the stairs to the second floor office, I stumbled, I fell, my right foot twisting beneath me. Pain swelled inside my boot. I couldn’t think about anything else while waiting for the shots. And then it was my turn.
The first injection was a hideous stinging jab that seemed to sear a line straight through to the back of my head. I tried to leave, but nurses on either side of me held my arms, keeping my heart in my throat the whole time it took to receive three more needles in the thin flesh of my face.
Hobbling down the stairs and out to the car, my face and my foot flamed. I lit a cigarette without thinking; I didn't put it out when I realized what I'd done. I'd worry about cancer later — if I lived that long.
One of my favorite boots was so tight around my injured foot that it hurt too much to get it off. No ER and a ruined pair of boots for me, I thought, and called my downstairs neighbor.
Travis got the boot off after several grunting attempts. My foot bulged, three times, six times the size of the other ankle. And the skin was red, and rapidly bruising, its greenish cast a reflection of the inside of my stomach.
I soaked it in cold water. I raised it with pillows set on the end of the bed. Aspirin may have muted the pain, but an extra five milligrams of Valium dulled its reception in my mind, enabling me to sleep.
The next day the ankle was worse, but I refused to spend money on a doctor, bitterly renouncing health insurance companies that required more than four hundred dollars a month to insure individual manic-depression.
I gimped my way to the drugstore on the other side of LaSalle, using the railing to keep off my bad foot to go up and down the concrete steps to the Sandburg Village Mall.
I bought everything and did everything the pharmacist recommended. And I dosed myself with aspirin and extra Valium, staying off the foot as much as possible.
My parents were sympathetic, and disappointed that four shots in the face hadn't made me quit smoking.
But Mih-the and I were connected again. Long distance gave room to positives, allowing a sharing of interests unrelated by death. We never spoke of pain.
I hadn't been home a week when Mih-the announced that, starting next week, she would undergo new chemotherapy scaled to the weakness of her heart, but with enough power to reduce her malignancies. She was confident; my father was confident. Michael and Cindy were confident.
I came to the typewriter, adding the story of Mellaril to Journey, and as I wrote, tears streamed from my eyes, nonstop tears interrupted by only sleep.
"But why are you crying," my brother Michael asked on the phone one evening. "She's going to get better."
"Chemotherapy's going to kill her! She's going to die this time, Michael. She won't tolerate chemo more than a month. You're an ostrich if you don't see that. History counts."
I called Dr. Moline and told him about my tears, about my foot — I couldn't wait four more days for our standing appointment. He increased my lithium and he asked for the number of the pharmacy to call in a prescription for Motrin.
Within two or three days, the tears decreased, but they cradled my eyes, ready to spill at the slightest thought of Mother.
I sobbed through my sessions with Dr. Moline. He said I was grieving, and that it was natural.
"But I can't write and cry at the same time. I'm like a baby — only this time, I know I’m helpless." I swore under my breath, angry, futile, embarrassed.
"You forget you're still in depression, Patricia," he responded gently. "A condition that magnifies negatives . . . How are you feeling physically?"
"Still constipated, still nauseous, still dragging. And my foot is still killing me. It's still too swollen for shoes," I moaned, showing him the bandaged and sneakered offender.
My foot was a visible cause for complaint.
He sympathized over my sprain and then he said, "I'm going to switch you to Norpramine. It's not as strong as Mellaril and it should alleviate those symptoms, though I can't say it'll help your ankle." He rose from the chair and went to his desk, writing out a prescription. Handing it to me he said, "What about thoughts on suicide?"
"It's wrong to make suicide a crime!"
"Taking your own life injures everyone who cares about you."
"So I have to die by inches, is that it? Very Joan of Arc-ian. But, there's something very wrong with that kind of thinking. A person ought to and should be able to end life when it's impossible." Defeat was savage.
"Murder is a crime whether it's self-inflicted or not," Dr. Moline said, and I have to admit that the matter of factness of his tone soothed the stir inside me.
“But it’s my life and neither you nor anyone else can possibly know what it’s been like to be me since the end of 1981.”
“You’re absolutely right. But I do understand why you feel this way and we both know that medication lifted you out of a suicidal depression.”
Heading home, lurching on the smooth fiberglass bus seat at every stop and go, I wondered why my fellow passengers bothered living. It was a sorry lot I rode with, ragged dirty people escaping the cold, their possessions toted in bags beside them.
Homeless people, I thought.
At least I had a physical home, and food.
Back in my second floor condo, tears welled in my eyes and overflowed until I fell asleep.
Tears were exhausting. Writing was exhausting. The pain in my heart and my mind burned in my foot, still an unsightly blue, black and green, still swollen, still swaddled in a sneaker.
Sleep took the better part of day. But the writing continued. An hour one day, thirty minutes the next, perhaps three hours upon occasion. And the week of my mother's first treatment slid into history without incident.
As did the next. And the next.
My ankle was still swollen. It was still the source of my pain, but I no longer felt nauseous, I was no longer dragging. I was still constipated, though — Norpramine wasn't perfect.
I looked up Mellaril in my prescription drug book, curious to know how it differed from Norpramine. I was shocked.
"Drug Family: Tranquilizer, Strong (Anti-psychotic) . . . "
With deepening distress, I looked up Norpramine: "Drug Family: Antidepressant, Tricyclic (Anti-psychotic) . . . "
Mellaril was in the same league as Thorazine, and Norpramine was right behind it.
The plunge toward suicide had been psychotic; the visualization of Satan had been a site of derangement, a seat in psychosis, the one place I never wanted to be again.
There was no safety in psychiatry. Why waste money on treatment?
But Dr. Moline had tried to put me on antidepressants months ago. And I had dropped two of my daily lithium dose.
I looked up the side effects of each drug. Mellaril and Norpramine both could cause dry mouth and dizziness, and weakness and nausea ad nauseam.
There was some relief from the fact I hadn't killed my parents' child, altered though that child was.
Irritability raged within me when I wasn't at the typewriter. Poor Flyer. She didn't deserve the lash of my tongue. Nor did the clerks in the grocery store. I hated the petty, mean-spirited thoughts that lodged in my mind. Faults flawed everyone, everything.
Writing took more of the day as time marched. Devoted dog and devout work, the pulls that drew me through time, enabling my tolerance for life.
The word processor course began, five to eight Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I hated heading into the Loop when everyone else was leaving it. And the first class amassed confusion within me. I didn't understand the language, and the machines, "dedicated word processors" the instructor called them, were monsters, three times the size of my father's, their keyboards overwhelming me in confusion. I'd never learn to work one. Never.
The second class wasn't any easier, but I talked to the woman at a companion machine and her fears were no less than my own. We agreed to work on assignments together and coordinated our lab times.
I felt better about the course knowing I wasn't the only idiot in the class.
The hot throbbing of my foot was most punishing when I waited for sleep to take me. Depression's push was stronger then, pressing me down, magnifying negatives. I knew this intellectually, but knowing didn't make despair go away, knowing didn't make life easier.
When I wrote, the power of creation made me feel alive, generating pride in the progress of my words, feeding me belief that my book would publish and help others to get help before their fate became mine. I knew of no physical pain, not even peritonitis, that came close to the pain of losing my heart and spirit.
Which returned to me when I worked on “Journey.”
I believed in my book. I wished I could believe in myself, but my mind now was subject to insanity without notice.
My parents called and said a friend of theirs knew a literary agent in New York who'd expressed an interest in reading my book. Soon Journey would be on the front line again. Soon.
The word processor course became easier, then more difficult again, as the complexity of assignments increased. It helped to have a friend in commiseration, and it felt good to report progress to my father.
I tried not to think about a future spent at a machine, recording the thoughts of others.
But my book would sell; it would save me from the backbreaking, mind-killing boredom that laboring for others entailed just to feed, shelter and clothe myself in order to go back to work the next day. How could people stand such tedium day after day after day?
Another year has turned over, for me and the calendar.
Forty-four is too old. And 1987 has the ring of the future, not the present. Does it to you?
Forty-four is an age I'd planned to miss. But you don't know about the last run with suicide, you don't know the story of Mellaril.
Perhaps you'll never know. This thought makes me cry, but then, everything makes me cry these days.
Are you still on red alert?
The stress of that condition is wearing me to the bone.
I can't get my weight past one hundred and fifteen no matter how much fudge I eat. I'm fueled by pure sugar, pot, pizza and prime time TV when not writing or fighting with the word processor I struggle to master.
I feel nothing but resentment that I'm neither beast nor fowl, a picture I'm trying to capture on paper, turning failure into art, doling out my only supply of ease within solitude.
Why Jess, tell me why, suicide is wrong. Why can't people understand the ultimate freedom that death is? But no. I must live to spare my family a grief that would free me from this unbelievable pain.
Have they once thought about me? Have they once thought about the pain life inflicts on me? Have they once considered the absolute tyranny of a brain chemical imbalance that drugs can curtail but not cure?
Suicide prevention is communistic, totalitarian, fascist — it's against the American way. Is everybody blind?
I feel better. We’re still connected, you and I, whether you know it or not.
As I edited my story from beginning to its latest last chapter, I drew a comparison of my first psychotic episode to the last, hindsight maturing their corollaries. Both encounters had answered my prayers; each had given me a mission: The first, to save the world with love; the second, to save myself by suicide, opposite forces of liberation that answered all my needs and all my desires.
Both ventures had been blinding, the first by light, the second by shades of black. In writing I vented my longing for death and I recaptured its arms, if not its eternal escape.
I sent my book to yet another literary agent in New York who was a cousin of a friend of my parents.