Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 107 in 2004.
"Do you mind if I use my debit card? I don't have any cash on me." The woman at the register looked at the woman who was stocking shelves nearby. The woman stocking shelves shrugged,
"If it goes through." I handed the woman at the register my debit card and punched in my pin number. Ding. It worked. I smiled. She handed me the plunger in a black plastic bag. I waved and then left.
It was drizzling outside. Everyone had umbrellas except me. I hadn't unpacked mine yet and didn't feel like buying a new one. I put my head phones on and began walking home. I couldn't help but think how ridiculous I must look, or maybe pathetic would be a better way to describe it. Bedraggled wet red hair in bad need of a dye job, blotchy skin, leather jacket over mismatched pajamas, carrying a discman in one hand and in the other, a small plastic bag with what was obviously a bathroom plunger poking out of it. At first I tried to hide the handle of the plunger, but gave up. There was no way I could get the bag to fit the whole thing inside of it. As people passed me by, I wondered what their impression of me was, if they had one. I decided if one existed, whatever it was, it was most likely not a favourable one. I avoided looking at anyone's eyes. My own self-debasement was enough, I didn't need to see anyone agreeing with me.
I turned up the volume on my discman and tried not to think about my ex-boyfriend or the people walking around me, and instead tried to think of things outside of myself. Thoughts about imaginary people with imaginary lives much more interesting and exciting than mine. People more vivid and unique than me, destined for greatness, if not in reality, at least in my head.
By the time I saw the lady in the blue car, or heard her honking furiously on the horn, it was too late.
"Am I dead?"
Apparently those are the first words I said when I came into conciousness at the hospital. I don't remember saying them at all, which I blame entirely on the copious amounts of morphine they've been giving me. Anyway, my not remembering having said those words doesn't seem to matter to my doctors or to my parents. I said them, so I must have meant them. They think that I purposely stepped out in front of that car. I know this because I can hear them talking about me while they think I'm asleep. There's no use contesting it, not with my past history, so I just pretend I'm asleep and listen to them discuss me in worried, tense tones. I'm so convincing in my feigned sleep that sometimes I even convince myself, meaning, I actually fall asleep.
On my third day there everyone realizes that I am not as hurt as originally thought (or in their minds intended), just a concussion and a few bruised ribs. I'm getting antsy. No one is listening anymore to my requests for morphine or for anything else for that matter. I hear my mom whisper to one of the nurses, "She tried to overdose on pain killers a couple of years ago." That's when I realize something is afoot and that I am in trouble.
"Mom!" She turns around and walks over to me.
"Yes sweetie?" Her voice is overflowing with fake cheer, it's depressing me.
"When do I get to go home?" Though I cannot actually see the transformation, I picture in my mind my mom's face growing pale.
"We don't know yet," she answers, tucking strands of my hair behind my ear. This sign of affection and the use of the word "we," further indicates that I am in trouble so, like any irrational human being, I begin to panic. "What do you mean we? I want to go home. They said there was nothing else they could do, remember?" She strokes my hair and takes a deep breath, like a true Florence Nightengale. I remember, briefly, that they now think Florence Nightengale had been a manic depressive. For some reason this information hadn't surprised me. I bet she had a daddy complex too.
"We think you should stay here a little while longer."
"In the psychiatric ward."
"What!" I'm incredulous. She flinches. She knows me well. "I got hit by a car, what does that have to do with being put in the psych ward?" My mom's expression now is positively pained. I almost feel sorry for her, but I don't see her as my mother anymore. I see her as my wannabe jailor and must be dealt with as so.
"We know you've been depressed lately..."
"I'm always depressed." I cut her off.
"Yes, but..." She pauses, "You seem worse than usual."
"You don't really," I make sure to put a lot of emphasis on 'really', "think I stepped out in front of that car on purpose, do you?" She doesn't say anything. "Do you?" In the movies I'd be shaking her violently by the cuff of her blue knitted sweater.
"You called me the night before, sobbing uncontrollably about how much you hate your life."
"I've done that before. I didn't try to kill myself after any of those times, did I?"
"So why is this time any different?"
"You just..." She pauses, "you hardly ever leave your apartment, you never call people, whenever I talk to you, you sound awful..." Again she pauses, "you've lost weight. Your skin."
"So I have acne, big fucking deal."
"You usually have such beautiful skin." She touches my cheek, I push her hand away.
"Everybody gets acne. You get acne. I bet nurse what's-her-face gets acne. You cannot commit me because I have a couple of god damn pimples. That's lunacy in itself."
"Alise, lower your voice."
"No, I will not lower my fucking voice! You are going to put me in the looney bin because I have bad skin! You..." She cut me off this time.
"No. No, Alise, we're putting you in the psychiatric ward because you need help." Her voice is beginning to get stern, reminding me of steel, the kind they put cadavers on in the morgue.
"How is locking me up, imprisoning me going to quote-un-quote 'Help me'?"
"You'll be under supervision, they'll be able to find the right medication for you. Monitor you, and see if it's helping at all. They'll be able to work with you, intensively, one on one." Images of Jack Nicholson at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest pop up in my head. No matter how much my saint mother pleads, I refuse to let Louise Fletcher come near me with a needle.
"Remember, we've been down this road already. Locking me up in some psycho ward is not going to help. It didn't help then, it's not going to help now. Anyway, there's nothing to help! And I'm the pill kind of girl, remember? I don't like pain. Being squished like a pancake on the pavement does not appeal to my suicidal inclinations. I did not step in front of that fucking car on purpose." She sighs and shakes her head a little.
"I wish I could believe you."
"But mom!" She stands straight, turns around, and starts walking away. "Mom!" I keep on screaming at her retreating back. Then I hear the door open and close, and I am all alone. All I can think is, can they do this to me? I'm over eighteen, they can not commit me without my consent unless... unless they, they being the doctors and my family, unless they are convinced that I am a threat to myself and/or others.
I am royally fucked.
"I did not get hit by that car on purpose!" I yell to no one. I cry.
I cried non-stop for a good ten minutes, at Ieast I think so. I am horrible with time. I have absolutely no sense of it, it might as well not exist. It's a concept my mind has yet to muster up any sort of recognition of.
When I stop, and all that is left is some sniffling deep breaths, I look at the room around me. I notice my leather jacket hanging on the back of an ugly brown straight back chair. On the chair's seat, I see my pajamas folded very neatly and my sneakers on the floor are peeking out from underneath. In a fit of sudden delirium I begin to search frantically around the bed for the plunger. When I can't find it, I start laughing hysterically. A nurse walks in while I'm still in fits of hysterics. I try to stop when I notice her presence, but I don't quite succeed. I do manage succeeding in bringing it down a notch, so it's just a consistent giggle. She gives me a strange smile. "What's so funny?" She asks.
"I'm being sent to the looney bin because of a plunger... and it's not even here!" This has me hysterically laughing again. The nurse doesn't ask any more questions and I laugh the entire time she's checking my vitals. "Can you believe it? A plunger!" She gives me a weak smile. I continue laughing until I hear the door shut behind her as she leaves. Then I stop, immediately, as if I had never been laughing to begin with. Which, when I notice, has me laughing again. It takes me a while, and my bruised ribs, to make me calm down.
My mind is racing. My mind is screaming at me. I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here. I have to, have to, get out of here. How the fuck do I get out of here? "Well...." I say this out loud, "I'm not locked up yet." I stand up and take off my hospital gown. I'm naked except for my underwear and socks. It's cold. Even though no one can see me (I think?), I cross my arms over my chest as I tiptoe over to the chair where my stuff is and quickly put all of it on. I walk out the door. If I wasn't so scared, I would have slammed it with true angst-ridden rebellion pizazz.
I know the nurses' station is to the left, so I start walking to the right. My chest is still hurting from my laughing binge, but I ignore it. I avoid looking at people and start praying even though I do not believe in God, that I will make it to some form of an exit before anyone notices me. I might be shaking, but I can't tell. I need to find an elevator. There has got to be an elevator. I can't find a fucking elevator. Where the hell is the elevator?
And then, and then it was as if angels started to sing. As if I had found the gap in the barbed wire, before me stood the gaping red maw of an open elevator. I tried to walk a little quicker but a piercing pain near my rib cage made that impossible. Slowly the elevator doors began to close. I felt like I was in a movie, an action scene where I'm trying to get away from evil robots or aliens, with everything going in slow motion. I think of Jim Carrey in that pet detective flick. I extend my arm out in front of me. Thank God for motion detectors or heat sensors or whatever the fuck, but the tips of my fingers, just reaching the inside lip of the elevator doors, made them open wide again, and I enter.
As the elevator descends, I try to calm myself. I don't want to look suspicious, and looking like a furtive, hunted rat, is looking suspicious, which is of course what I look like. If my nose could, it would be twitching.
The doors open out on to the hospital lobby. I don't look anywhere but straight in front of me at the glass sliding doors leading out of the hospital.
And I am outside, and it's really bright outside. Too bright. I can't see a damn thing.
My chest is hurting. I don't have a plan. My eyes are only slowly adjusting to the light. What am I going to do? My first impulse is to go home, but the stupidity of the idea becomes obvious pretty quick. That would be the first place anyone would look for me. No, I can't go home.
I realize I am standing, frozen, right in front of the hospital, like a drugged lab mouse. I pick a direction at random and start walking. What now? What am I supposed to do?
It hits me, like one of my favorite cliches, like a ton of bricks, that my beloved discman was not on my person. Not only was it not on my person, but I did not remember seeing it at all in the hospital room. Did it get destroyed in the accident? I really liked that CD. That discman might as well have been my child, or eleventh finger. I never went anywhere without it. Maybe, maybe I remember seeing it crushed next to me, the silver top lying a couple of feet away from my arm, the CD itself broken in half. Maybe I am making this up. I feel like crying.
I can't help myself sometimes, my mind, it just wanders, at the most inopportune times and someone bumps into me. A shooting pain goes through my chest and I double over, putting my hand out on to the side of a building for support. I stay like this for awhile waiting for the pain to subside as much as possible. That fucker didn't even say sorry. God damn New York.
When the pain stops being as bad, I slowly straighten up, and look in wonderment at the building before me. This must be my lucky day. Fleet Bank was staring at me in the face.
I go inside and take my debit card out of my coat pocket and go up to one of the ATM machines. I withdraw everything I possibly can, a whopping five hundred and something dollars. Then, on impulse, I throw my card into the trash.
Now what? I can't dig my card out of the garbage, it landed in someone's half eaten hot dog bun. I can only imagine the way people would look at me if I tried to swipe the mustard and relish off with the sleeve of my leather coat, let alone how they would look at me while I tried to retrieve it. I really don't need that kind of attention right now, or ever.
Outside of the bank again, the sun is still too bright and I still have no idea what I'm going to do. I'm scared as well, scared they have noticed that I am gone, and scared what will happen to me if they find me. I do not want to be put behind a glass box, I do not want thorazine, I do not want to talk about my 'feelings'. I have no fucking 'feelings'. Feelings? Want to know why I feel like this, Ms. Psychotherapist Bitch? Because I'm stuck in a Hell hole with a bunch of crazy, violent psychopaths. I don't hear voices, I was just buying a plunger. My feelings? Rage. Anger. Bitterness. Is that what you want me to talk to you about? How much I hate you because I am stuck in here, with you? There are your fucking 'feelings'. Maybe I'd even stab the bitch with a pen in her aorta.
Back on track. No more murdering imaginary people in my mind, the imaginary captors who might not be so imaginary. I need to do something. I need to disappear. I need to go away so that I will be able to make my own decisions for the rest of my life. Am I being melodramatic? Probably, but fuck you.
I start walking down the street and come across a clothing store that is having a going out of business sale. I go into the store and get weird looks from people as I walk by them. Have I bathed since the accident? I can't remember. Have I brushed my teeth? Have I brushed my hair? I keep my head down and grab random items of clothing. I hate feeling like I'm being watched, and yes, some of them are watching me. I'm not always just paranoid and delusional. I'm usually pretty good at spotting the store detective, a trick an ex-roommate of mine taught me. I want to take the wad of money that is in my pocket and wave it front of the bleary eyed woman who is following me and thinks I'm too dumb to notice.
I end up at the register with a red tank top, a black bra, a package of three tacky colored pairs of underwear and a pair of tight flared jeans that I would never buy under any normal circumstances. I pay. The sales girl barely looks at me while she rings up my new clothes. "By any chance, can I use your changing room? I want to change into what I just bought." She gives me the receipt and makes a jerking motion with her head which I interpret as a signal that the changing rooms are to the back of the store and to the left. "Thanks."
I come out of the store wearing my new clothes and carrying my old ones in a plastic bag. I buy a pair of sunglasses off the street nearby and a handful of toiletries at some mom and pop pharmacy on the corner. A plan is beginning to form in my head. It might not be the most coherent, but it's a plan.
I get off the subway at Penn Station. I go over to one of the Long Island Railroad ticket booths and buy a one-way off-peak ticket to Ronkonkama. Lucky me, I only have to wait a couple of minutes for the train. Since I have nothing to entertain myself with, I go into one of their bookstores and buy a Chuck Palahniuk book. I almost feel guilty as I go to pay for it. Do I really want to be associated with everyone who reads his books? (Which turns out to be basically my entire generation. People I don't want to be associated with.) Oh well, who cares. I get my change back. I like his books. Honestly, would it make a difference if I bought a Thomas Hardy book instead? In the scheme of things?
I board the train. Surprisingly, it's not jampacked and I actually get a row of seats to myself. I try to get comfortable but the leather (or is it plastic?) sticks to my jacket. I sort through my pockets and find what I'm looking for, a small scrap of paper with the names Kristen, Ronkonkama and a phone number written messily on it in pink ink that smells like bubble gum. I hate that smell. I remember when I wrote all of this information down, it was the only pen I could find that worked. I've always hated the smell of bubblegum. I think I was traumatized by bubblegum-flavored toothpaste as a child. Which could also explain my gingivitis and on-coming gum disease.
I found Kristen (if that's her real name) in some ad online. I called her a week or so ago. She either runs, or works for, an escort and phone chat agency out in Ronkonkama. I was depressed about not having money for bills, so I called her. I was supposed to go out and see her a couple of days before the accident but I chickened out. Now, instead of something that seems possibly degrading, if not worse, it appears to be my only chance of getting away. At least the only thing I can think of at the moment. So, she doesn't know I'm coming. So, I've never been to Ronkonkama ever in my entire life. No, I don't have my cell phone on me, I didn't think I'd need it walking the four blocks to the discount store. I hope there's a pay phone and a place to get quarters once I get off the train. I hope she remembers who I am and is not annoyed that I never came to visit or called her back.
Different scenes pop into my mind, one of a benevolent madame welcoming me with open arms, one of an overweight balding man with greed stamped on his face like how I pictured my old phone sex employer to look like, and another one, a combination of both. For some reason, in all of them, a door gets slammed in my face. I try to think more positively, but it's not really in my nature.
The train is moving and the conducter is at my row before I realize he is there. I apologize and smile. He does not smile back. I give him my ticket, but before he walks away I put out my arm.
"Excuse me, sir, do I have to switch trains at Jamaica?" The conducter gives me a blank look, then slowly shakes his head as if he doesn't believe I exist, that by shaking his head he can get me out of his vision and hence, out of his world.
"Where are you going?" He asks. His voice, which I thought was going to be a deep baritone, is high pitched and scratchy. I look at him puzzled, he knows where I'm going.
"Then why would you need to switch at Jamaica?" Now it's my turn to look at him in disbelief and ever so slightly shake my head.
"Well they keep on announcing about switching trains at Jamaica..." He interrupts me.
"But you're going to Ronkonkama, right?" I can feel my cheeks beginning to burn red. His voice is condescending and mocking at the same time. I slump in my seat. "Then why would you need to switch at Jamaica?"
"It's just that..." Before I can finish my sentence, he is on to the next row of seats. Suddenly, the red appearing across my cheeks is not from embarassment, but from anger. I grit my teeth. I feel the dull pain of a cavity, but all I can think is; it's not my fault your job sucks, that your wife is probably cheating on you and, I'm pretty sure that your kids hate you. None of this is my fault. All yours, buddy. All fucking yours. Sorry I havn't been on the LIRR in years. Sorry I asked a stupid question. I bet your wife's lover is an amazing fuck. Should I have asked you about that instead? So much anger.
A memory slowly begins to creep into my mind. A memory from the winter. It was really cold out, possibly snowing. My roommate and I are in a subway station. We're walking up the steps, about to leave, when an MTA worker, one of the many down there doing repair work, suddenly shouts at us, "Go to school kids, or else you're going to end up like me!" I turned around to see if he was kidding or even smiling, but he was not. My roommate and I ran up the last few steps. Of course, by that time, both of us had already dropped out of college.
The good ol' LIRR. I used to take it all the time growing up to visit various relatives. I was one of those little blonde haired, blue eyed hellions that bounced from seat to seat annoying as many people as I could. I was cute, stereotypically so, hence stereotypically annoying. I used to bite my friends.
I can see a little boy a couple of rows ahead of me. He is standing on his seat, resting on its back looking at me, or whoever, making funny faces. I can see his mom's hand trying to pull him down. I bet he bites his friends. I instantly feel repulsed by and bonded with the little brat.
I put the bubblegum smelling paper back into my pocket and look out the train window, slumping in my seat and thinking about my poor discman, may it Rest In Peace.
I try to read, but for some reason I can't concentrate, so I give up. I look out the window at the familiar landscape whooshing by me. The same landscape I saw years ago on the same train. Imagine if I had known then, what I would become now? I can't help but feel nostalgic and I can't help but feel disgust at my nostalgia because it's so cliched. I just keep on thinking about that 'lost little girl' and 'innocence forever gone'. It's enough to make me want to slam my head into the window but I don't, not because I'm scared of the pain but because I don't want the attention. No, that's a lie. I'm scared of the pain. I don't think anyone would notice, especially since the brat in front of me has started screaming. I'm probably not the only one thinking about self-injury at the moment.