©2001 Leslie R.
so glad Bill gave me your number! Can you be here by seven?” Amy asked.
Amy,” I said. I hung my phone up firmly, as if from now on, I’d really never
answer it again. Then, I put on shoes and picked up my keys. I passed my
roommate Sarah, a modern dance instructor with perfect posture. She sliced
uncooked tofu in our kitchen.
was Amy,” I said.
Is that the girl I met? That gorgeous young thing? She and Bill came over here
looking for you last week. I guess you were out that night.”
but Amy wasn’t exactly with
Bill,” I clarified. “And
Bill fixed it up so I’m the one who gets to go see her tonight.”
Well, excuse me,” Sarah said, raising an eyebrow.
course!” I called over my shoulder as I left.
Tudor General Hospital, I walked a corridor long enough for a small airport to
get to the psychiatric wing from the main hospital. Amy had called me from Unit
4, a holding ward where doctors observed patients and made further
recommendations for them. This temporary ward looked like the furniture
department at Sears. It was a far cry from the blood and bones of the mental
health care system.
nurse and two aids catching up on paperwork at the front desk greeted me with
smiles. During visiting hours, responsibility for inpatients’ care informally
fell back to the people who had brought or sent them here in the first place.
But I wasn’t family. For all anybody here knew, I was neither victim nor
perpetrator—a bona fide innocent.
approached Amy in the unit’s model kitchenette. She drank grape juice from a
paper cup. “Hi,” she said, as tears welled in her eyes. I grasped her hand
and led her to the TV room.
smeared her tears across her cheek, wetting a sensuous lock of dark hair by the
soft lobe of her ear. “What is it, Amy? The food? The service? The
lighting?” I teased. She giggled and looked away.
sorry I called you…” Her lips quivered and turned down. “I shouldn’t
have had to come here,” she insisted, her palms open as if in appeal. The scar
on her slender left wrist had closed up days ago. “My mom’s boyfriend hates
me. He went off on her, and I said something about it, and…” Her voice rose
to a pained squeak. She inhaled sharply. I hugged her. She slumped against me
with weary relief.
young doctor carrying a clipboard eyeballed me sternly as he passed us. With a
smile of encouragement for Amy, he kept walking.
Dr. Gunther!” Amy murmured. Her face softened. “He was here the first night,
when I couldn’t sleep. He’s the best doctor. They wouldn’t assign him to
already has too many patients. They have to give a certain number of patients to
the other doctors. You know what? Dr. Gunther used to manage a band for a while
in college, before he worked with the mentally ill. Can you believe it?”
yes,” I said. I looked around the ward. “Do you have a roommate here?”
said Amy. “She’s pretty nice. She’s just reads a lot of mystery novels and
waits to use the phone, to call her family. She doesn’t say much to anyone.
Her name’s Evelyn. She’s over there.”
nodded toward Evelyn, a petite woman with curly auburn hair who blissfully
cradled her toddler in her lap. The baby reached toward a wall covered with
pieces of construction paper that heralded unit activities: “Monday 3:30,
Exercise,” “Monday 4:00, Group,” “Monday 4:45, Meds.” Meds?
Administering medications apparently counted as an activity. Perhaps the
patients had made the schedule for the staff.
Amy. You mainly wanna get out of here, right?”
She tucked one foot under her leg. “They assigned me to Dr. Neel. He put me on
Wellbutrin. He goes, ‘We’ll try this, Amy, and see if there’s a shift.’
I said, ‘Ohh, yeah. There’s gonna be a shift.’ But I don’t have any of
my records, and he doesn’t even think I’m bipolar. I haven’t seen a real
doctor in years.”
group of people at a nearby table applauded loudly. The table held a large,
square chocolate cake. The party’s honoree wore a baseball cap backwards.
“That’s Fred,” Amy explained. Fred sat next to his mother, a rotund woman
with short, curly blond hair, and a sister. “Hey, everyone, get some cake!”
Fred called out. “You too, Vince.”
swaggered toward the group. He was a youth in his mid-twenties with
shoulder-length dark hair and a strong chin. Vince wore only a bathrobe knotted
neatly around his waist, but he wore it with a certain distinction. “Thank
you, Fred. We’ll miss this guy, you know,” Vince told Fred’s mother and
sister, patting Fred’s shoulder.
Vince,” Fred thrust a slice of cake toward him.
set the cake on a dusty, unused grand piano and took a seat. He folded his hands
in his lap. “Fred’s a good guy,” he pronounced, indicating Fred with a
a great guy,” Fred’s mother agreed with forced enthusiasm. She wiped a cake
crumb from her small puckered lips with a survivor’s poise. “Oh! Here,
you’ll need this.” She offered Vince a plastic fork.
Vince doesn’t use plastic forks,” said Fred casually to his mother, as if he
expected her to know that by now. He kept one eye on the news broadcast playing
in the background.
he doesn’t’ use plastic forks! Because of the environment, or
something…?” Fred’s mother inferred, nodding politely. She set the fork
at all, Mrs. Morgan,” Vince replied. “I’m not one of those nature freaks,
you know. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I simply take umbrage to eating with
breakable utensils.” Vince’s eyebrows puckered in a stormy frown. “We all
face our demons here, Mrs. Morgan. But, your son Fred is really quite
well-adjusted, in my opinion.”
Dr. Gunther added cordially. He had stopped at the table long enough to enjoy a
slice of cake with the rest of the group.
different from some of us, Fred. You can be normal,” Vince said, dropping his
gaze. There was silence for a beat.
looked up. “Thanks, Vince. You could be normal too, you know. Just wear some
damn clothes!” Everyone laughed. Fred folded his napkin and wiped his mouth.
“Hey, Amy? Get some cake.”
stood and went over to Fred’s table. Even from six yards away, her copious
dark eyelashes jumped off her alabaster face in sensuous detail.
“Congratulations on going home,” Amy said. She kissed Fred on the forehead.
Anxiety flashed across his face and his body tensed. Vince watched them.
gestured toward the cake, as if yielding a prize to a competitor. “Take a
piece for your visitor, Amy,” he said, looking at me. Amy took two slices, and
came back over to where I sat.
can you still leave this ward voluntarily?” I asked.
But, if Dr. Neel doesn’t approve the release, then I’d be leaving against
medical advice. My mom would flip out. It’d be worse for me than staying
here.” Amy shook her head slowly.
considered that as chocolate icing melted on my tongue. “Why would she flip
would mean they wouldn’t admit me into this ward again, for one thing.
That’s bad. This place is a lot better than most of the others. Plus, my mom
might not help me get a good doctor if I don’t follow Neel’s advice. I can
still get coverage under her insurance plan. I do need a good doctor.” Amy
leaned her head on the back of the sofa and looked around. An orderly had
cleared away the cake. An LVN was stocking a cart with juice and medications.
“But, I have to get out of here first.”
Then, of course, there’s the hard part,” I said. “Like, not getting high
with people like Bill.”
eyes came sharply into focus. She looked uncomfortable, as if I’d threatened
to search her room for drugs. “What do you…mean?”
do I mean? Bill knows me from the machine shop where he used to work,
Amy. We don’t hang out together. He came over to my place with you to try and
borrow money from me again. He didn’t tell you that?” I was asking a
rhetorical question, but I looked straight at her anyway.
came over and sat next to Amy on the sofa with a sketchbook under his arm and a
paper cup of herbal tea in one hand. “Good evening,” he addressed us both,
lifting the cover of his sketchbook. Vince had filled the first page with
multidimensional trees sprouting skeletons, gaping wounds and contorted faces.
The thick black ink seeped into the backs of pages like dried blood.
had an argument with Dr. Gunther about my artwork,” said Vince.
is pretty grotesque,” Amy pointed out, eager to change the subject.
Gunther didn’t object to it,” Vince scoffed, adding, “He’s a man of
aesthetic as well as scientific discernment. He just thought I couldn’t draw
realistically. But, see? I proved him wrong.”
turned to a charcoal pencil sketch of clear, strong proportions. Amy peered at
it. “Oh, wow, cool! That’s Evelyn and her family!” She looked at me.
fidgeted with his robe, clearly pleased. I leaned over far enough to see the
drawing. It showed Evelyn, her husband and her baby, rendered almost perfectly,
except that they were smiling and sitting in a living room. “Where are they
supposed to be?” I asked.
supposed to be at home together. I can also draw from description. Not just
memory,” Vince emphasized. “I drew another portrait like this. Dr. Gunther
thought it was so good that he posted it on the bulletin board. Then Evelyn
asked for it. So, I gave it to her.”
great, Vince,” Amy said.
good,” I conceded.
noticed the silence and moved off to display his artwork elsewhere. Amy
nervously pushed her cuticles down with a thumbnail. “I haven’t really known
Bill that long. Actually, we’re just…we’re not dating. We’re friends, I
Bill’s high on coke all the time. It’s not worth cutting your wrists and
landing here. Right?”
course not. I wanted…” Amy stopped. I waited. “I wouldn’t hang out with
Bill, but at least…See, my last boyfriend wanted a steady relationship. But,
what he really meant was he wanted me to wait on him? And, like, be with him
every spare moment of time. I just want…to be a separate person,” she said.
“Because, most guys think they’re different. Like my mom’s boyfriend. They
think, ‘This woman would be happy if she just devoted her life to me.’
And Bill…at least he doesn’t think that way.”
he doesn’t think at all,” I said. She laughed.
you see what I mean?” Amy asked.
sighed. “Bill’s not really any different from any other guy, Amy.”
do you understand why I want that?” she insisted.
So, Bill’s not Ward Cleaver. So what? How does that make you independent?” I
said nothing. Dr. Gunther passed by again and announced that the visiting hour
was over. I looked toward the door, where Evelyn was seeing off her husband and
have to go,” I said, standing up.
for coming here. Thanks for everything,” Amy said. She walked with me as far
as the exit. “Is it…” she hesitated by the door, clasping one of my hands.
“Do you…think you could come here again? Do you think I could see you later,
when I get out?”
you need help, you can call, Amy,” I told her.
I guess I meant…?” She was moving in on me now. The hospital entrance felt
claustrophobic. I took one last, long look at her beautiful face.
a separate person, Amy,” I replied. Amy laughed again. I gave her a big hug.
I went out through the thick glass doors, turned around and waved at Amy. I
walked down the long corridor and went home.