Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV, No. |

Gila

1.

“Cheer up, girlie. Gila’s a diamond in the rough.”

The paramedic wore all navy—a wrinkled shirt tucked into slacks, punctuated by shiny black boots. His sandy hair was gelled into an impressive wave, reminding Serena of Johnny Bravo. His pointy nose gave his face a blunt expression, and he needed a shave. She watched him pluck away the skin of a clementine. He held it between his thumb and middle finger before inhaling the whole piece. Afterwards, his brown eyes darted from his palm to the syringes on the counter to her face to the oxygen mask to the front of the vehicle. An empty stretcher filled the space between them. Serena sat on a blue chair to the side, while the paramedic sat in a chair at the head of the stretcher. Behind him, another medic—unreadable thanks to her black sunglasses and unmoving mouth—drove, classical music blaring from the radio.

He had probably seen way worse than her: guts and shattered bones and little disasters. What impression could she make when compared to true calamities? Short and unassuming, dressed in an oversized T-shirt paired with high-waisted denim shorts and ripped sheer tights and ratty olive suede boots, Serena imagined people to label her, upon first glance, as the opposite of disaster. Her childlike voice and shy demeanor promised a bland, obedient presence: someone who always tried to do the right thing, who treated everyone and everything with cloying politeness.

Serena adjusted her yellow knit beanie until she was satisfied with its placement. Her short fro was tucked underneath, saturated with too much oil. She was still getting used to the length, to the seemingly constant chill around her head and ears, to the overexposure of her round, dark-brown face, a face she couldn’t fully bring herself to love, though she was obsessed with it, obsessed with picking apart its flaws—the bushy eyebrows, the cheeks dotted with old acne scars, the almond eyes obstructed by bulky glasses, which were now her most prominent feature after shaving off her shoulder-length hair during a maniacal fit of boredom.

The paramedic probably thought she was frightened. That she was a good girl who had strayed down the wrong path for the first time. Serena wanted to hold his square-jawed face between her hands, rub her skin against the sharpness of his stubble, and explain to him when the troubles really began. To watch his eyes darken as he realized she was not what she seemed. At least this time she was upright. During her first ambulance ride, she had skated in and out of consciousness, too high to function, the ride a blur of brief idling stops, half-moon turns, of spinning this way and that. She sobbed hysterically and flailed during her second ride, when she realized they were taking her straight to an inpatient program. In the struggle, she bit a paramedic’s hand by accident. Her skin tasted of coconut oil, and all of a sudden Serena was incredibly thirsty. She bit down harder. The medic groaned like a cat.

“Want a clementine?”

Serena nodded, less hungry and more wanting something to occupy her hands. He tossed it to her, and surprisingly, she caught it. The fruit was puny. She overly inspected a green spot, to check if it was mold or rot. She didn’t immediately rip into the fruit; instead she rubbed her thumb against its pockmarked skin, hoping that friction would be enough to suppress her hunger. The paramedic picked another clementine morsel like a petal, smiled at her, then wolfed it down. Why was this man being so nice to her? The paramedic with the black sunglasses barely acknowledged her. She seemed anxious to get the drop-off over with. The paramedic with the sandy wave and brown eyes, he took his time with her, clearing the rear area before she took her seat, offering her bottled water, making a funny face whenever the driver made a risky turn or stop. Had he read something aberrant about her in her chart? Or perhaps a nurse gossiped in his ear as he arrived to pick her up: Be careful with that one. What had he heard?

He hunched over in his seat and hadn’t buttoned his shirt all the way, leaving exposed a triangle of coarse, curly hair. Serena had an urge to lick the space between his collarbones, to leave a path of saliva. She squeezed the clementine. Eyed the stretcher between them. The paramedic finished his slice and licked the juice from his thumb.

“My mother died in a nuthouse. Treated their patients like dogshit.” He grabbed another clementine from a tote bag and began to unpeel it methodically. Was he warning her? Serena’s clementine was a hot ball of sweat in her right hand. She should eat. Not much effort at all. Just peel and pluck and inhale. How responsible she’d be! The act of someone getting better. She would tell the doctors and nurses at Gila her stay was unnecessary; she’d made a sane decision in the ambulance, so all was well. She’s cured! But her stomach constricted in protest, insisting her anxiety was more than enough. The jagged nail of her index finger pierced the skin, which let forth a burst of tangy steam.

“I’d rather off myself than die in a psych ward.” She stared at the paramedic, hungry for his shock. He returned her gaze, though his expression didn’t change at all. She pouted, hot from the perceived slight.

He said quietly, haltingly, “You and my mother both.”

He left a space for her to ask more, but Serena, her pulse quickening, made a show of not noticing. She watched the light dance across the ceiling, which looked like the roof of a tin can. This paramedic with the cold eyes and sandy wave could be an imposter. They could be kidnapping her. Perhaps he hired them to silence her once and for all.

Serena should be on her way to work. Not here. She should be grinding roasted beans and wiping down tables and checking the dates on the milks and pouring her morning espresso over ice and finagling a bagel snack from Harrison, the bug-eyed cook. Bringing coffee—lightest cream, two brown sugars—in a porcelain cup with a matching tray to one of their regulars, an itinerant man called Mac. Not in a white MedStar van. Her mother had cried when she found out it was happening again. She said she’d left them no choice. Her voice, slanted and weepy over the telephone, crowded Serena’s mindscape. Is this what you want? To be hospitalized all your life? Serena wanted so many things, all of them rotten and wilting away.

“You smoke?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll have a cig when we stop. My treat.”

The clementine wrinkled under her humid grip.

2.

Serena had been awake for at least half an hour, absorbing the stillness of the room and dreading the moment when the nurse would come to announce the new day. A flurry of open doors, peering heads, and scribbled notes. New day, same shit, as the ladies would say. New day, same hot dreams, same tiny-ass room. The paramedic had become a familiar figure, a hazy phantom of desire. Serena spent too much static time replaying their brief minutes together, pausing to savor the electricity coursing beneath the surface of that man’s eyes, the stiff gel fingered through his sandy hair, the space between his chapped lips. The way he had passed her the cig, forcing her fingers to graze his.

Since arriving at Gila on the first chilly night of fall after the long boiling summer, Serena had only been touched the way she craved in her sleep. Last night she dreamed of the hospital, of arriving again and wandering the campus unsupervised. She wore a white linen dress. No glasses, and her feet were bare. And her bonnet was gone, revealing the dandelion tuft of her black fro. Shadowless, she floated down the spiraling path, each second leading her closer towards the rolling lawns and flower beds. She passed the stone statue, refusing to make contact with Dymphna’s beady eyes. Soon she faced the familiar ring of cottage-style buildings: the barn, the cafeteria, Indigo Hall. And beyond this manicured plot of land was the forest, dark and ever-present.

That’s where she saw the paramedic, standing in the space between the forest and her. She ran towards him, their bodies colliding. That same hand that had offered her a cig took its time combing through her overgrown pubic hair. The paramedic’s nails were short and manicured, and a thick gold band squeezed his pinky finger. What she remembered most from her dream was the ice-cold feeling of the gold band against her exposed flesh as they lay together on a bed of itchy grass. He said her hair reminded him of a Brillo pad, before yanking out a stray wisp to examine between his fingers.

“Do you remember your first cut?”

Lu’s voice, deep and sharp, slashed through the morning stillness, tugging Serena out of her reverie. If Lu hadn’t spoken, she’d still be lost in the space between dreams and the now, pulling blades of grass from the earth like they were rose petals, feverishly licking her dry lips, flinching whenever the paramedic’s gold band slid against her delicate hood. Serena sat up, removed her bonnet, and then pushed the scratchy blanket away from her body. Slats of sunlight appeared on the floor in the space between their full beds. Their room was modest: two dressers, overhead fluorescent lights, a door that didn’t lock.

When Serena looked up, Lu’s brown eyes were already pinned in her direction, as if they had been waiting for this moment, patient and anticipatory. The quiet intensity of her look sent a shiver down Serena’s spine. Instinctively, she rubbed the crust from the corner of her eyes, then wiped her face of last night’s drowsiness. Lu lay on her side, her muscular body curving like a bunched-up S under the maroon sheet. A gold bonnet hid her medium-length locs. She looked like she had been up for hours, but Serena hadn’t heard a thing. Their room had seemed frozen, only moved by her scattered breathing.

“I think I was twelve? Thirteen? However old you are in the seventh grade.” Serena’s side was the messiest, and she often received minor demotions for not making her bed, for leaving her clothes and handouts in a tornado swirl on the floor. In contrast, Lu’s side was neat and eccentrically decorated with shimmering projects made during art therapy and souvenirs from home. Her bed floated in open space—she didn’t shove it up against the wall like Serena, who liked sleeping close to the peonies marching in single-file rows upon their walls.

“What did you use?”

“A razor blade. My dad had a ton of them around the house. He used them for calluses.”

“Was it deep?”

“Just a scratch.” Serena laughed. “I was terrified.”

“Scaredy-cat Serena.” She had told Lu about how her parents would tease and call her their Lil Scaredy-Cat. Frightened of her own shadow. Tears so easily to her eyes. You feel too much. You make yourself skittish prey. She didn’t tell Lu about the blistering, accusatory children at school and her fibs about her mother being the daughter of a famous politician from the islands. Really, Serena—then and now—had no idea what her grandfather did. Unimpressed, the children shoved and prodded, shouting Hairy! Smelly! Crybaby!

“Then why’d you do it?”

She shrugged. “I saw someone do it in a movie and became obsessed with trying.” Lu gave her an incredulous look. “What? You tell me yours.”

“I didn’t get the idea from no movie, I’ll tell you that.” Lu gazed at the ceiling. Her hands swirled the space around her into an odd spell. “I started when I was sixteen. Got into some dumb argument with my stepmom. I locked myself in the bathroom. I was so mad. I wanted everything to be red, just like I felt. So I filled the tub with hot water, got in, and cut the inside of my thigh. Straightest line I ever drew. My stepmom lost her shit when she saw me. Called me demonic.” Lu giggled to herself. “I can’t even remember what we fought about. Isn’t that funny?”

Serena tried to imagine her then, small and defiant, huddled over her hairless thigh in the cramped bathtub. Now twenty-seven, she still exuded an impish quality, which softened the rougher edges of her angular features. Whereas Serena was short and thin, Lu was all lines, tall and athletic, a former high school basketball star. Her voice was warm and melodic in contrast to Serena’s halting shrillness. She wasn’t afraid to tell a dirty joke or act a fool or flirt with a crush. She didn’t have to beg for attention. If anything, things seemed to flow the other way around. Attention followed Lu. The ladies, the staff members, random visitors, they all naturally gravitated towards her, sensing that she was always down for a good time. If Serena had to nitpick a flaw, it would be Lu’s teeth, a mess of crookedness and gaps. But even her imperfect teeth cast a spell, adding to her allure, making her face a strange collision of fluid lines and rattling chaos.

“My mom didn’t look at my cuts when I tried to show her. She called me a monster.” The words came out in a rush. Lu had that effect, lulling Serena into revealing more than she meant to. The memory—her mother talking to her up close during a noisy family function, her eyes still and commanding, her face twisted into a mask of confusion and repulsion—materialized for a few seconds before Serena buried it in the back of her head.

 “And now look at us. A monster and a demon chilling together, stuck in a psych ward.” Lu’s smile sent another shiver down Serena’s spine. She tried to drown out the feeling with an extra-loud laugh.

 Lu rolled out of bed and let out a long yawn. She spread her limbs and began her morning stretch: neck turning right then left, arms crossing, torso bent at the hip, fingers reaching for toes. “You were so loud last night.”

Serena froze. She saw the paramedic’s hairy hand, the mound of torn grass. “Was I snoring again?”

“You were making noises.”

“What kind?”

“Hard to describe. Sounded like little whimpers.” Lu snapped upright, an odd twinkle in her eyes. “Who were you dreaming about, hmmm?”

Serena shook her head, staring at her hands instead of Lu’s devious grin. “I plead the fifth!”

Their door swung open, and a nurse with a clipboard emerged into view. “Checks.” Her voice was light and airy. She peered at each of them and scribbled away on her clipboard, the pen making a slurred tap, tap, tap sound.

“Breakfast in ten.” She was gone the minute her presence registered. Serena wondered if she’d get good marks for friendly socializing. Or if the nurse had noted her lack of movement when compared to Lu’s stretching. Could she tell Serena’s head felt like a red balloon and her body a string snapped in half?

3.

This was Serena’s third hospitalization. Following that one time at the psych unit at Beth Israel, a place with no windows. And the longer stay at Bournewood two years later, another claustrophobic ward—but at least they were allowed to congregate in the tiny, fenced-in cement area for cig breaks.

Her official diagnosis was severe major depression comorbid with substance abuse. To Serena, depression sounded less glamorous than Lu’s bipolar disorder or Fredi’s BPD or Iris’s anorexia. But wasn’t her file littered with alarming facts, incongruent with her slight frame and shrinking demeanor? Self-harm, multiple suicide attempts, alcoholism, risky drug behavior, numerous outpatient programs, a list of discarded therapists.

She spent hours every day scrutinizing her behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. Gila promised this would bring her back to her center. Back to wholeness. Serena felt like she was breaking herself to pieces. Which piece mattered most? In therapy she talked circles around herself, getting bored, then ambivalent, then hostile against the usual questions. Why is that the first reaction? Why do you believe so? How does it feel? Each question led to a further crack.

This time, she took over a dozen Klonopins. She had swiped the prescription from her ex, her idea of sweetest revenge. She kept the bottle in her jacket pocket for two weeks before working up enough chaotic fury to swallow them voraciously as if they were Skittles or Peanut M&M’s. She’d hovered over her laptop, scrolling through her iTunes library until she found what she was looking for, the song she needed to hear on repeat: “Never Is a Promise” by Fiona Apple. She’d felt an urge to lie down between the viola sighs. She had tidied up the mess of her room, finally, as it had devolved into several heaps of clothes, a perpetually unmade bed, and dirty dishes. It took her all weekend to clean. Serena waited two days and swallowed the pills on Wednesday. She sang along to Apple’s fever. The tidal pianos. The falsetto crack in who I am. After hearing the same song for two hours straight, her roommate huffed to her door, simultaneously knocking and yelling her name. When she got no response, she barged in to find Serena crumpled by the foot of the bed, her body turned away from the door.

The last thing Serena remembered was turning up the volume in order to better hear the dueling violins.

She didn’t think about her ex. It was difficult to concentrate on his image, though details flashed by like lightning strikes: average height, round, thinning black hair. They worked together at the café; she was a barista and he was the well-liked, wisecracking manager. At first, they bonded over their bitter could-have-been jokes—she could have been a professor, he could have been a lawyer. Ten years between them, but they both ended up in the same predicament, as the option to live the life that you thought you could or should dwindled. They dated on and off for a year. Their fights were the live wire igniting their union. Once, while on their way to a bar, she collapsed to her knees, staring defiantly up into his hooded black eyes, asking over and over, “Is this how you want me?” as passersby made a show of avoiding their gruesome duet.

Following Serena’s accident, he claimed they’d never dated, only hooked up, and that this non-relationship had lasted three months. He had an overworked, drugstore-blond fiance who did something in finance. Fucking asshole. Not that she didn’t know he was with someone; she knew and secretly relished her role as the usurper, but she couldn’t understand his denial of their affair. He called her a stalker. The nerve! He’d been the one who blew up her phone with passive-aggressive texts and missed calls whenever she tried to end things (a fool’s errand—she’d leave him during a rare moment of clarity, a.k.a. sobriety; or block his number and social media accounts during one of her frequent spontaneous breakdowns; sometimes she’d threaten to dump him as a way of slinking out of a dead-end argument). The one who broke a ceramic mug in response to her confession she had slept with another coworker. Look at you fucking gloating, he had seethed during his verbal thrashing, and maybe, yes, her face had settled into a wicked grin felt only in the deepest core of her being.

Stalker. He’d just needed a “plausible” reason for firing her, which he did two weeks before she swallowed the pills.

Before she did, Serena fantasized about him finding her, finding the Klonopins and putting two and two together. She would fill days, ignoring texts and hygienic responsibilities, with dramatic stagings of what would happen next, intoxicated by his imagined guilt and regret. He would rush over after receiving a disturbing phone call, her last. Bursting into her bedroom and slowly realizing what had happened, he would throw himself upon her body. Crying. Flooded by memories. Panicked. He would call 911, bark at them to arrive immediately. In one version, she is revived and at once they have humid, raging sex. She rejects him right after he tearfully cums, berating him with awful names like monster and creep. In another version, she comes to at the exact moment he arrives. Her first act upon waking is spitting into his face, spittle that singes his pale skin raw.

4.

Gila left nothing to chance or surprise. Every second of their day was accounted for. Morning checks, breakfast, wake-up hour, recovery skills, fresh air walk, CBT, lunch, safety skills, communication skills, therapeutic games, dinner, optional second fresh air walk, TV time, wind-down hour, night meds, pill-induced sleep. Awake by 7 a.m. (if not earlier) and in bed by 11 p.m. at the latest. Weekly meetings with your assigned therapist. Biweekly meetings with your assigned psychiatrist. Visitations sprinkled here and there, if you were lucky to have folks willing to make the trek from the city or the suburbs or the outskirts or out of state.

The ladies gathered in what they called “the classroom” for wake-up hour. Like most of the rooms in Indigo Hall, the ceilings rose high and the tile floors gleamed. Though—unlike most of the interior rooms, which were extensively wallpapered with floral designs or painted a calming shade—the walls of the classroom resembled the sky: a baby-blue gradient embellished with cotton-candy-puff clouds. The room’s layout transported Serena back to kindergarten and preschool: garish primary colors, storage containers stuffed with useless activities (affirmation blocks, emotional-play puppets, bingo cards), and the vague smell of ancient, dried-up vomit.

 Serena slunk into the classroom, agitated to start her day here once again. She could tell them this when it was her turn, a dispiriting spotlight, to share her present mood and goal for the day, but she kept such feelings buried in a bubble near the bottom of her throat. Instead of popping that bubble, she did her daily survey, taking stock of the familiar objects that were always in their place. Three large windows overlooked a stretch of yard leading to the mouth of the forest. Chunky snake plants, edges outlined lemony yellow, stood potted in wicker baskets in the corners near the windows. A whiteboard on the left wall marked the front, but the assortment of molded armless chairs (boasting colors like lime, orange, violet) were always assembled in refutation of that arrangement, arranged haphazardly in a pointy oval in the middle of the classroom.

Serena spotted an empty chair near one of the windows and made a concentrated beeline for it, eyeing nothing else, as if her gaze alone signaled that the spot was taken, hers. She didn’t unclench her jaw until she had settled with finality into the chair, crossing her short legs into a tight snap.

The group before must have left in a rush; the notes from yesterday’s session were still scribbled in fading purple on the whiteboard. “I AM GRATEFUL FOR . . . ” took up the length of the board in big, stocky letters, bold against a cloud of past erasures. No matter how hard you rubbed, no matter how much spray you used, the residue of old writing and drawings remained, giving the board the sense of having been trampled.

Serena turned the prompt over and again in her head. She couldn’t escape it, she faced the whiteboard, tucked into the pointiest part of the oval, sinking into her chair. The phrase put her on edge. Rattling off a list of appropriate answers, she thought: her intelligence, her family, her health, her . . . shit. She didn’t see the point in continuing. The words rang hollow in her head: family, health, brains. More and more, the phrase appeared to be misleading; gratitude could be a leash. Before Gila, she had often felt grateful for not vomiting after binge-drinking beer and whiskey on an empty stomach. Or for making it through a shift without bursting into hot, angry tears at the useless fraud of it all. Or that he kept calling, even after she’d peed in the backseat of his car while blackout.

Two orderlies, arms clasped behind their backs, inconspicuous as ants, patrolled the outline of their oval. Some of the ladies made faces at them in an attempt to break their stoic masks. When an orderly passed by, Serena averted her eyes, only boldly looking when they couldn’t see her. Do they get dizzy like she got dizzy from watching them boomerang?

“How’re you feeling today?” Arlene managed to inject her question with spontaneity and empathic charm, despite the underlying feedback loop. She sat in a violet chair with a perfect view of the entrance, her full figure framed by a window and sporting a new style: black-and-red ombre crochet curls. In her hand was her trusty clipboard and pen. As Indigo Hall’s head nurse, Arlene presided over the daily activities and general treatment plans of the twenty-five residents housed here, managing staff, family, administration, and the PK University researchers to create a seamless healing environment, as she had explained to Serena on her first day, her Antillean lilt stretching the syllables and sounds into elastic putty.

Serena braced herself as she surveyed their merry-go-round of faces: fidgety, demurring, pinched, rehearsed, undone, weepy, accusatory, glazed. Her group, Group B, had a range of disorders and afflictions: psychosis, bulimia, OCD, panic, schizophrenia, opiate addiction, PTSD, dissociations.

Gloria demanded to see Hitch Dean. “He’ll understand,” she pouted as she gripped Kimbie, a stuffed elephant, a gift from her daughters and son. Whitney, her brown hair sopping wet, had been seven days sober, blessed be to the most-high sweetest lord, and was awed at the clearness of everything before her. As she spoke, her moss eyes seemed to swallow Serena in their glassy, cold embrace. Patty provided a gratuitous description of her shower, prompting Arlene to cut her short before marking something on her clipboard. Iris recited seven lines from a Lucille Clifton poem about wearing new bones, her voice chopped and swirled by the sputtering heater. At eighteen, she was one of the youngest residents at Gila. Diane woke up missing her bones. She spent her morning getting used to the gelatin. Her ash-blond hair was up in pink foam rollers. Winking, Not-Dottie interrupted to declare she adores the sensation of no bones.

Serena let out a snort before quickly cupping her palm over her mouth, feigning a rogue cough. Even though she told herself not to, she gazed at Lu—spread and slouching in the chair, her left knee pendulum swinging, Gila’s gooey errant prince—as a way to steady and regain her composure. Lu’s brown locs were pulled into a low ponytail, bringing out the harsh heart shape of her face, skin of deep umber. A baggy yellow camo sweatshirt-and-pants combo swallowed her form. When their gazes met, Lu crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue before flashing Serena that impish grin.

Not having bones isn’t funny, but Serena found their exchange to be absurd. It gave her a dark thrill to know that Lu felt the same way. Not-Dottie just wanted Diane’s blobbiness. She was turned on by anything that breathes, a certified triple-X FREAQ, as Lu would say.

“Ms. Dorothy, let’s not popcorn. Make sure Diane has a chance to finish what she’s saying before jumping in, hm?”

“You must be my mouth, ’cause you love telling me when to talk!” Not-Dottie burped from the corner of the room, swaddled in bright lurid quilts, her round body held gently by a wheelchair. She must have been close to (or over) seventy. She could have been Serena’s grandmother. Onion-faced, with thick charcoal lines ringing her deep-set eyes. Stringy, long silver hair fell like waves down her dark-honey face.

Where could the bones be, then? That would be Serena’s follow-up question if she were Arlene. Perhaps they are in a mouth, being slurped and sucked up by tongue and teeth. No. She must resist stepping into another lady’s delusion. Gila called it “sponging.” As Hitch Dean, shining-star psychologist, explained, Being in such close proximity, although fortifying and necessary, can, if the patients are left to run amok, cause severe overlaps, a blending of moods and traumas. Most of the ladies saw sponging as another one of Hitch’s fictions masquerading as psychiatry, and although when in their presence Serena laughed derisively along with them, she couldn’t help the moat being drawn, going on guard whenever she dipped too close to another resident’s waters.

“To be honest with you, Arrr-leen,” Fredi cut her name to pieces, a snarl and a snag. “Caca! You’re withholding my medicine! I’m ill and weak and no one seems to care in the slightest.” Whenever Fredi complained, Serena saw phantoms of the woman’s younger self, bucktoothed and freckled underneath a curly shock of flames for hair, dressed in green polka-dotted overalls over a peppermint tank top, croaking her beloved catchphrase, “We outta here!” As a child, Serena religiously watched Wyatt’s Place, where Fredi played Birdy, the precociously mischievous youngest child in the long-running family sitcom starring popular R&B singer Wyatt DeVyne as the doting patriarch. Now Birdy was thirty-three, sitting near her, reeking of stale cigarette smoke and maniacally chewing Big Red gum. Her toasted-almond skin was pockmarked and blotchy red, her hazel eyes hidden behind pink heart sunglasses.

Arlene recited a rote script: “Sorry you feel so, Fredi. You know to talk to Dr. Hasan or Sall about any medication issue. There’s nothing we can do other than give you what you’ve been prescribed.” While Arlene responded, Fredi clucked in disbelief, shaking her head until an orange blur replaced her features.

Lu let out an oversize yawn, punctuating the exhalation with a roll of the eyes followed by a swig from a Styrofoam cup filled with fat ice cubes, her snack. Crunch chomp crunch. Arlene purred a spotlight on her, “Lu—how are you this morning?”

“Arlene. Do you know anything about dreaming? Like what does it mean if you dreamed about finding a bloody elephant trunk in your bed?”

“Something phallic, obviously,” Fredi sneered.

“Of course it would. To you.” Lu sucked on a cube before crushing it between her teeth. “That was my test. Like they do. Those ink cards, asking what we see. And you, Fredi, all you see is dicks, apparently. Sounds like you’re projecting a need to get fucked. That right, Arlene? What your colleagues would call a ‘proper diagnosis’?”

The room erupted in bawdy hoots and whistles and earnest protests from the ladies and Arlene. An unloosening caused by her words. Serena felt the room sigh like a popped balloon. As Lu basked in her chaotic creation, some ladies glanced her way, hoping to be graced with her dazzling smile, throwing their eyes at her feet. Serena took in all their eyeless faces, one by one. She collected what they threw, wanting to see what she already knew in the pit of her stomach. She felt it whenever Lu sat down next to her, every time she cast an incredulous glance her way, whenever her name slipped through her velvety voice. Sir, reena, Sir, reena, her name became a yearning song.

Fredi, perpetually unamused, wailed, “Why not the warning bell for her?”

“Jesus. What a snitchy. It’s a joke, Frederique. Lighten up. Meditate on Hitch’s—”

“Settle, settle. You’ve had your fun and games.” Arlene rubbed her temples. “Let’s get back to our R’s: reflection and releasing.” Other ladies might have been given a demotion. Or had a privilege removed. Worst was being sent to decompression, a room with no windows and one twin cot. Lu had received all three, and then some, but managed to stay a favorite among the Indigo staff members. Even Arlene, usually quick to shut down any disturbance with a glare full of daggers and an icy toss of her pudgy face, was accused of giving more slack to Lu than most.

“How are you today, Serena?”

Although it arrived without fail every morning, the question remained difficult to parse. Serena’s mornings began in dread. A certainty of hate before the Rolodex of suffocating ills. Loser. Evil. Ugly. Worthless. Selfish. Dumbass. Bitch. The voice in her head had to be hers, but it sounded like corrosive bile, so different from her pipsqueak whisper. Why don’t you die already? Serena tried to empty her round face of emotions, to make her expression a glare of neutrality.

“OK . . . I slept fine last night . . .”

“Don’t answer them! They all want us to suffer!” Not-Dottie interjected, staring directly at Serena.

Arlene, stock-still, shot a covert look to an orderly sulking in the corner. When their eyes met, his body became needle sharp. Alert. “Ms. Dorothy, that is not appropriate.” She frowned as if saddened by the actions of a naive child who should know better.

“Ha ha ha, OooOh!! They want us just like zombies!! All up in our heads!!!”

“My mom loves that fucking song!” Lu exclaimed, nearly falling out of her seat. Using her hands to tap the melody on her thighs, Lu sang the chorus of “Zombie” by the Cranberries, her basso voice off-key and wobbly, straining to hit the soprano notes. Arlene made a feeble attempt to stop her, raising her pen in protest, as if that would lull Lu into obedience. In response, Lu grew louder, now clapping her hands in time to the song. She snapped up on words like head and crying, adding a staccato to her growl.

A few other ladies joined her, their slurring voices becoming a discombobulated sing-along. They all shrieked the last syllables of “Zombie,” turning the sounds into a feral chant: IE, IE, IE, IE, IE! Serena watched the oval of ladies, glad to have the spotlight off herself. Some clapped along, others closed their eyes, two or four mumbled noises instead of the lyrics. Fredi glared at Lu, who pretended to be a merry conductor. Serena had an urge to sing, but her lips stayed shut. She took the question literally. Her head felt at once emptied out and mutinous, real and unreal. Perhaps there was an undead force toiling away in there.

“You heard the girlies!!! Say NO to Gila!!! Get rid of the zombie in your head!!!!” The orderly, who had crept up silently behind the old woman while she stretched vowels into orgiastic sounds, grasped the handles of her wheelchair.

“Enough, you two! Before I ring the warning bell.” Arlene flashed Not-Dottie and Lu a stiff smile, before smoothing out the fury in her voice, “You know that isn’t appropriate.”

5.

Serena couldn’t figure out the woman’s expression. The focal figure in the painting that hung in Hitch Dean’s office was a woman lying down in a gold-kissed meadow dotted with clumps of baby’s breath. She wore a red sundress. Her shoulder-length black hair was pressed straight and brushed back, away from her oval face—a face cut in half by shadows, making it difficult to discern the full scope of her features. Sometimes, Serena thought the woman’s saucer eyes and bulbous nose mirrored her own eyes and nose. Her lips were the burgundy color of wine. Serena had a sudden urge to drink her up.

She sat on a brown leather couch. Hitch sat in a sagging black wingback chair. A modest room, Hitch’s office didn’t take up too much space. It felt darker than the other rooms in Indigo Hall. He wished to cultivate intimacy. His small, cluttered desk stood behind him, close to the narrow, latticed window. A medium-height bookshelf stood to the side, closer to Serena. Colorful spines teased sideways messages. On top of the bookshelf sat a pothos, its vines falling like rain down towards the floor. Above the pothos was the framed painting, the one Serena found herself returning to throughout their talks.

The woman’s pose was odd. She was spread out on the grass, caught in a moment of blurry action. Serena couldn’t tell if she was in the beginning stages of fleeing, or turning around to suss out the source of a mysterious noise, or falling after some unseen accident. A red fox ran towards her, a torpedo of thick fur in dogged pursuit. It ran from the upper-right corner, a diagonal slash. Although her body was turned to the fox, her neck twisted to face the viewer. Towards Serena. Serena wanted to know what she was looking at, what she saw that took her away from the advancing fox, his mouth wide like a black hole.

Hitch tightened his grip on his red pen. It hovered, at attention, over the yellow legal pad sitting in his lap. He reminded her of an unreachable tower at the top of a jutting hill. Today’s outfit was a cream knit sweater with brown houndstooth pants. A spongy black beard covered the bottom half of his face, and a silver hoop dangled from his right ear only. He wrote in a looping cursive. All the words looked like arches; it was hard to make out individual letters. Serena tried to read his notes, but his words resembled doodles, not language. Did he return to his notes or forget them the minute he committed the thoughts to paper? What had he written about her? Serena could only imagine. In the past she had been called irresponsible, stubborn, lazy, selfish, delusional. Would Hitch agree? Whenever he spoke, Serena had to remind herself not to look exclusively at his mouth, to make occasional eye contact. But all she wanted were his lips: puffy, stretched, unaware.

Should she read his constant eye contact as basic professionalism or a signal of something deeper? Lu dismissed Hitch Dean as a hack, said that his suggestive concern was all an act. If Lu heard any of these thoughts, she would shake her head sternly before wondering if everything was OK. She found the cult of Hitch to be over the top, and generally, Serena agreed. She would stink up her face whenever she caught a whiff of his followers’ devotion. But alone with him, and in the quiet of her thoughts, it was easy to drown herself in his big, black eyes.

“Let’s talk about failure. You said something last week . . .”

Serena went soft. He remembered something I said last week? She imagined him revisiting the phrase like scrambled porn. Something I said left such an impression that he’s bringing it up seven days later? Serena tried to remember what she’d said last week. All that came to her mind were his big hands and hidden tongue.

“. . . that I want to pivot back to. This idea of falling down the rabbit’s hole. You talked about this need . . . that the falling makes you feel alive. So you seek out failures in hopes of falling. Do I have that right?”

Perhaps Hitch wrote down only what he wanted to hear. Serena didn’t remember talking about failure or falling or aliveness. She remembered Hitch scribbling things down here and there; she remembered feeling unbearably hot in the room. She remembered the fox, noticing how its hind legs and forelegs crossed in a flexuous X.

She wanted to give Hitch the answer he was looking for. The one that would unlock the mysteries hidden in stone. But every time she got close to some vulnerability or truth, the belt tightened. She didn’t want to tell him a thing. He should bear it all to her. She wondered if he could hear her eyes pleading, Tell me, tell me, tell me.

“I don’t like to fail. Who does?”

“Do you consider yourself a failure?”

Serena paused, not because she wanted to fully consider Hitch’s question, but because she couldn’t tell if it was a trap. The line from On the Waterfront echoed in the back of her mind: “I coulda been a contender!” She would watch TCM with her grandparents, their ritual. Her granny would quiz her on names. Do you know who that is, honey? Bette Davis. That’s my girl. Now tell Granny who that is right there. Ava Gardner? No, baby, that’s Donna Reed. Marlon Brando was one of Stevie’s favorites. Whenever they’d watch On the Waterfront, Serena had the urge to smother Brando’s swollen eyes in kisses. She wanted to suck the swollenness up like venom. Granny and Stevie, Granny’s boyfriend, watched her often, convenient babysitters since they lived in an apartment complex a few streets away from Serena and her parents.

If only she could give it to him. A straightforward, uncomplicated answer. Instead, she shrugged. Hitch, ever the cheerleader, rattled on.

“Let’s switch gears. Have you been keeping up with your daily mood journal?”

Serena’s chest tightened. She felt like a student who had been called on by the teacher to discuss a reading assignment she’d forgotten to do.

“Yeah.”

“How was that experience? What came up for you? What did you notice?”

Serena could care less what had come up for her. What came up was what always surfaced if given the time and space: hatred, confusion, anger. It was exhausting trying to find the origins of each knotted emotion. The search always led her back to an elastic nothingness. Or an incident that could be rationalized as insignificant. Minor. No cause for alarm. But the alarms had been ringing for years, annihilating sounds that made concentration near impossible. Somewhere between the bloodcurdling alarms and the expansive nothingness, Serena existed, adrift in a sprawl of feelings. She was like the woman in the painting, lost in a sea of smudged greens, unsure where to look next.

“Where did you get that?” She gestured at the painting.

Hitch smirked. “Shouldn’t you answer my question first?”

“Will you answer my question if I answer yours?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“I didn’t notice a pattern. Day one, I felt sad all day long. Day six, I felt sad in the morning, better in the afternoon, and numb at night. So basically, a mess.”

Hitch jotted down a few notes without moving his gaze from Serena as she spoke. If Serena tried to do that, her writing would be all over the page, a scrawl of pent-up frustrations. Hitch probably wrote in neat, easily decipherable lines. “Sounds like a case of cycling moods.”

“I answered your question. Now answer mine.”

He made a show of going over the notes he had just written down, circling this and starring that. “My mentor, Dr. Lovelie, gave it to me. Now. Let’s go back to—”

“Were you and your mentor close?”

Hitch relented, aware of the obsessive shine in Serena’s eyes. “She gave me advice. Influenced my approach to psychiatry and therapy and treatment. I wouldn’t be here,” he gestured with his hands, as if to include not only his physical location, but the social heights he had also achieved, “without Dr. Lovelie’s guidance and support.”

“Sounds like she means a lot to you.”

“I feel like you’re purposefully leading us off-track, Serena.”

“Is it so bad to not talk about my mood once and a while? Don’t you get sick of hearing about my bullshit problems?”

“Not at all. That’s why I’m here. To listen.”

“You’re here because Gila pays you well.” Serena could hear Lu’s voice lining the halls of her own. Once she spat it out, she waited to see his reaction, eager to receive his repulsion. No matter what she said, though, Hitch remained neutral. He clicked his pen so that the tip returned to its sleek coffin and covered his notes with his left hand.

“I’m gonna take a wild guess and say that the mood exercise didn’t go well.”

Serena waved him away. “Can’t we talk about something else for a change? What’s the harm in that? Like, what’s so bad about learning more about Lovelie?”

“I told you all you need to know. Now it’s your turn to tell.”

Tell me where. It hurts. Tell me how. Hurting you. Tell me why. No. It’s your turn to swallow the words down, down, down. Serena sighed, turning her attention back to the painting and the blurry grass and the running fur. Back to the lips splashed with wine. She saw herself in that meadow, near the bottom, to the left of the woman’s twisting body. Stepping closer. Finally, Serena saw what couldn’t be known from the vantage point of the couch. It didn’t feel like gazing into a reflection. The woman seemed to be mocking her. Her face wasn’t confused at all—she was smirking. And her lips weren’t the color of wine. They were dripping red. Thick and relentless.

Photo of Allison Noelle Conner
Allison Noelle Conner’s writing has appeared in Rockhaven: A History of Interiors, Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, The Music Center’s For the Love of L.A., and elsewhere. Born in Ft. Lauderdale, she lives in Los Angeles. IG: @loosepleasures

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