She gives birth to frogs on the bed next to mine. Evergreen and poinsettia red, they erupt from her womb in bursts. She is young, her name Delia on Tuesdays, Jennifer the rest of the week. Her breathing is not heavy, nor does she pant. She croaks, much like her progeny, the tens of frogs settled on the blanket, waiting for an errant fly. My eyes are struck temporarily blind as her chocolate brown skin gleams with perspiration. She is beautiful in her agony. I roll over and ignore the cacophony.
Our room is brightly lit, we have to be seen. They tell us it is for our own good, to keep us from hurting ourselves, but really they could care less. A woman was left in the corridor on suicide watch days before I got here, and in the morning they found her battered and raped. The lights are to protect them, not us. They no longer use the corridor as a guardian.
The box closes over me, deep, completely dark, the sides slick and unclimbable. I can gain no purchase, I can’t get out. There is no light, the darkness sucks the breath from my lungs. My senses are useless, my mind too blank to control my fingers, my limbs. I desire to crawl into the bottom of the box, cradle myself womb-like, to sleep forever, but the effort of closing my eyes is too great.
We are co-ed, men and women brought together by long term illness that society shuns. I’ve been here for months, dodging questions. I have to to survive. They keep trying to send me home, but I don’t want to go. My husband and his money keep me here. He tells the doctors to let me heal, and they won’t argue with him. He visits every week in his thousand dollar suits and perfect hair. He looks like a movie star and he is a performer, convincing everyone that I am the fake. Everyone but Delia.
I know the pain is coming. He holds his hand over my breast for just an eternity, long enough for me to anticipate the pleasure that slides down my body. His caress over my cheek is pain, sharp needles against every nerve in my face. His lips cover my brow, angle down my neck. He holds my stomach, its small mound full of a life I don’t feel.
There’s a definite hierarchy on the ward, a crazy person’s gauntlet to travel through and overcome. The big man in our section is actually a woman, Gina. She is crafty, surviving on the streets for years, brought in here at irregular intervals when she acts crazy enough to get caught in order to get three meals a day. There are rumors that she is only thirty years old, but looks sixty, her sun-darkened face permanently fixed in a squint, a calculated glare always present. She holds power on the ward because she has the cigarette supply. No one knows how she gets them, whether she steals them somehow from the locked up cases that the hospital keeps, or if she somehow smuggles them in. It doesn’t matter. She barters them away for the things that are hard to get in here such as toothpaste, extra desserts, and a book once in a while, since the ward library consists of the Bible, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , and a tattered copy of Where’s Waldo.
Cigarettes in this place represent freedom. Their value does not lie in the nicotine rush, but in the opportunity to go outside in the exercise yard. If you don’t smoke, you are not allowed to visit the small square area which is surrounded by chain link fence covered in razor wire. I sit in the navy blue, faux leather chair at the intake desk, which is cluttered with syringes, pens, patient folders, and one of Delia’s frogs. I am not surprised by the frog, and it looks at the nurse, its tongue flicking in and out at her. It waits for her to notice it, but she is too interested in my folder, writing something on the lined paper, and turning away from the desk to file my life away. Gina has told me about smoking almost immediately upon my arrival, sneaking up to my side at the desk and whispering at me to tell them I smoke. I look at her in disbelief, not understanding why this little old woman wants to talk to me. She’s just crazy, I think, but Gina is persistent.
“Just fucking tell them you smoke, rich lady. Believe me, you want to.”
I decide to tell them I smoke, not because I do, I have never inhaled anything into my lungs, nor taken an unprescribed drug before, but something in her eyes makes me believe her. I tell the intake nurse I smoke..
When I learn the power of the cigarette, I think that Gina has told me this to get me addicted, to get my dessert that I never eat anyway in an effort to stave off the weight gain that always comes with the anti-depressants and mood stabilizers that they have placed me on. It is only much later that I find that she has taken an instant liking to me, feels an inexplicable need to shelter me. She can’t figure it out herself she tells me, but there is something she wants to protect. She gives me “free” cigarettes and I give her my dessert, even though she says I have no need to.
The first time I smoke the day is cold outside, but the sun is obscenely bright. They have lined us up to give us our quota of two cigarettes, the orderlies holding the cartons in front of us like Nazis holding bread in front of starving Jews. They taunt us, malice in their faces. The group swirls around me, wild eyed and frantic, the smell of want oozing from their pores. One woman reaches out to grab at the nearest orderly and he swats at her impatiently. There is a scent of rebellion, a perfume wafting on the air among the patients. Bugs Bunny paces, his face animated for as he waits to go outside, his long legs beating a rapid tattoo against the industrial tile. He has asked me to become Mrs. Bugs, that we can have a warren full of children. I tell him I am already married.
They give each of us two cigarettes. We have a half an hour to smoke both, and if we don’t light one we are taken back inside. The first day that I smoke it is a Tuesday, and Delia is cradling her stomach. She becomes pregnant on Mondays and Tuesday is the day she gives birth. Her hair stands and waves to me, it knows I am watching her. It knows I want to be like her.
Others stand still and smoke one cigarette after another, the two given them by the orderlies, and whatever they have managed to barter for with Gina. Bugs has Gina in a corner, looming over her. He is telling her how Elmer Fudd hid in the jungle and killed his entire family, the gun surprising them as they traveled from one rabbit hole to the next. After his family was killed he lived alone until he found Elmer’s quaint thatch house in the jungle and burned it to the ground, killing Elmer’s wife and children in revenge. His arms wave around Gina’s face, and she listens intently, nodding her head in agreement.
I sit in one of the few chairs, hard plastic with no padding. I look at the cigarette for a long time before I put it to my lips. We are not allowed to have lighters or matches so the man in charge of the lighter makes his way to me holding it in front of him, a shield to protect him from us. He stops in front of me and flicks the lighter on, its flame dancing in front of my eyes. I don’t know how to get the cigarette lit, poking it into the flame and waiting.
“Suck on it.” The man whispers. In his face I see a minute kindness, hiding under bitterness. I suck on the cigarette and it lights. The acrid smoke hits my lungs, an alien invasion of immense proportions, and I begin to cough, not able to stop. The man shakes his head and walks away.
Every day I am here, after hours of repeated questions that I refuse to answer because I’m a horrible liar, I sit on the long bench that is surrounded by a large open area. We have two such benches, and they face outward toward the open space. These seats are what the hospital calls our day room. Off the hall are two small rooms. One is the library with its three books, and the other is the TV room which we can’t use without supervision and is locked. So far, as long as I have been here, we never go in there. So the bench is where the entertainment is at. I watch the twenty or so other patients walk in circles around the benches, some stumbling along, others running at a frantic pace. Every so often the duty nurse yells from her cubicle for them to stop running and they slow down for a fraction of a second only to start running again as soon as they can. I watch them and begin to get dizzy. The usual suspects are all here.
Bugs doesn’t hop, he paces with the rest of them. He looks at my bench, his crooked smile a reminder of flirtation, things I’d rather leave in the past. You look beautiful tonight, Olivia. I want you to be my wife, have my children. I will take care of you, love you like you’ve never been loved before. Bugs dark hair and long limbs remind me of my husband, his hands never still. I wonder why I am here and my husband is not.
I feel a presence and turn to see Delia sitting on the other bench, her back to mine. She picks at the plastic mauve covering that shields the seat from our disease and I see the warts erupting on her body. They explode under her hospital gown, razor-like, cutting strips into her skin. I can see through the holes to the hospital green walls on the other side of the hallway. Day after day, we sit at the bench. Delia and I, Jennifer and I. She is my shadow, my ghost. I watch her so that I do not become her. Bug’s eyes watch us both as he circles, as if he cannot decide who is more invisible.
On a Tuesday, Gina walks slowly to the bench. I see her coming and want to hide, but I have nowhere to go, since our rooms are locked during daylight hours unless it is visiting day. I do not want attachments, especially not here.
“You can’t watch them forever, you know. It’ll fuck you up more than you already are.” Gina tells me this out of the side of her mouth. She holds an unlit cigarette in one hand and a book she has bartered for in the other. We can’t smoke inside. Time moves slowly here, and I think the doctors are afraid of the time themselves, their optimism at the beginning of their careers exterminated by the presence of people with no hope. Time is the enemy for all of us.
I try to ignore Gina, but she is relentless. She looks at me, looks at my hair and fine clothing, and starts to laugh loud and brashly, her mouth wide open showing how many teeth she is missing. I stare at her, trying to give her the icy glare that scares away unwanted suitors at parties, but this just makes her laugh more.
“Oh man,” she says, “ Ain’t you just the fine princess? So what, your fancy husband sent you here so that he can divorce you without a problem?”
I turn my face away from her, I do not want her to see into me. She is just another crazy person, with her ratted gray hair, and her toothless mouth. What could she know about me?
“Look, sweetie,” she tells me,” you ain’t gonna survive in here if you don’t learn a few things. First off, the doctors? They don’t give a shit what happens to you. This ain’t a place to get better, so if that’s what you’re hopin’ for, forget it.”
See, I think, she doesn’t know me. Because I don’t ever want to get better.
I say nothing to her, and she gives up for the day. It becomes a pattern, every morning I sit on the uncomfortable bench, watching the other patients, a stew of unwanted flesh swirling around the ward, and she comes and tells me a new way to survive. I can’t help it. I start to listen to her.
“See, what you gotta know is that this place is Hell. You know, like that guy, Dente or Dinte or whatever, talked about.” This is when I discover that she is not what she seems. She knows about Dante and his vision of Hell. And I am almost sure she knows what his name really is.
“We did something to deserve this. At least the big ol’ world out there thinks so.”
I look at her and try not to think about it.
Things had been nice in the beginning. He was a handsome man, wealthy, had it all. He ran his own business so he would have time for the kids they wanted to have together. They had bought a nice house outside of town, one with gates and security locks.
I will take care of you. You will never need anything.
My husband meets with the doctors monthly, ostensibly for them to “touch base” with him, to let him know what my progress is. In reality, the meetings are tattle-tale sessions, long drawn out productions in which the assigned doctor makes excuses, and tells him how I do not ever speak, which is creating difficulties in my treatment, they say. They speak as if I am not even there, never looking either me or my husband in the eye. He smiles at them, his face pointed. He is a bird of prey, his nose a predatory beak, his fingers talons. He is circling them from the air, a hawk, waiting for them to give him the answer that he really had come for, that I can go home. He is never satisfied with their answers.
C’mon, Olivia, come to bed. The doc said we could have a kid anytime now. I want to make love to you again. It’s been so damn long, come look what you’ve done to me.
He waves perfectly manicured hands at the shrink who tells him they think I have a disassociative disorder, and that they will need to change my medication again. Last month it was a personality disorder, and the month before that my chemicals were imbalanced in some way that baffled them. Whatever it takes, he tells them. I just want my wife back.
I wish for the security of the darkened box. I want to hide.
After the monthly meeting, my husband comes with me back to my small cell with its flat mattress on a box frame. There is nothing personal. There are no curtains, clocks, picture frames, and only a dresser for our clothing. We are not allowed dental floss, neck-ties, belts, shoelaces, or jewelry, anything that we could use to hang ourselves with or swallow. There are paper posters on three of the walls, behind heavily bolted plexi-glass, happy things like puppies and kittens, and one mirror fastened to the wall with the same Frankenstein bolts that hold the mirror.
He looks at me every week, and tells me that he misses me. He wrings his talons, their sharp tips manicured to look human. Delia doesn’t know to stay away, but Jennifer avoids him. Days blend here, we never know when it is a Tuesday, and Delia sits on my bed when we get back to the room this week. Her time is coming, and she clutches at her stomach, the croaks forming in her throat. I sit on her bed and stare at her spread legs, waiting for the first frog to appear.
My husband will not sit on the bed with me, it may dirty his clothing. He stands by the door and asks if I need anything, his fists clenched, a cold smile on his face. I say nothing to him, continuing to stare at Delia. I see the anger building in him, and his teeth grind together.
“Olivia,” he says to me, his voice barely above a whisper. But I can hear him, I can see the words floating over to my ears. The sound rushes into my brain, tidal waves full of sharks. “What the fuck are you staring at? Listen to me, God, there’s nothing there!” I ignore him and watch Delia. Her skin stretches across her face, her tongue flicking at the corners of her mouth. Her face shows no pain and I pray that she will not have the first frog while he is there. His stomach is weak. If he vomits, Delia might be distracted and give birth somewhere else. I do not want that to happen. The frogs are beautiful, their long lashes settled against their green skin, Sleeping Beauties that cannot ever be awakened. .
He wants me to cry, to feel. Words have no effect and he leaves only after he has given me my hospital approved care package, straightening his tie and smoothing his pants as he goes. The books my husband brings I pass on to Gina, and the chocolates to the duty nurse. I have found that I am left alone if I treat the nurses to the chocolate.
You could go to the other place, you know. What the fuck do you want to stay here for? You know you can’t hide from it forever, Olivia. You will come back home, and you will be my wife again. I haven’t had anyone since you’ve been in here, you know. Just think what kind of homecoming that will be.
The thin cover on the bed does not shut out the light.
The walls, floor and door are all the same color that was meant to be an eggshell white at one point, but has dimmed with age, dirt, and various unknown stains. On one wall there is a faint residue, a word spelled out, but unrecognizable. I suspect that it was written with feces, and I have stared at that three foot memory night after night as the dim light that they force us to leave on reflects off of it. What does it say? What does it mean? It is better than thinking of other things.
Gina always knows when he has come. On those days she leaves me alone, and I stare out at the moving patients as they weave and bob through each other. I think that it would be so much easier if I could be one of them, not knowing or caring where I am. I cannot pretend well enough.
On the days that Gina is gone, when she has had her fill and escapes out into the world with the people who claim to be sane, I begin to find myself missing her. Her short, clipped speech flows over me like wine, my head dizzy, her voice strokes my hair, and I miss it when she is gone. I flip through the books she has loaned to me, but can’t concentrate on them. New patients come and go, and some like Gina return off and on, either too ill to actually function on the outside, or those who get caught on purpose, like Gina does, in order to get a bed for a few nights, or a warm meal.
I am vulnerable when she has vanished. The men bother me much more as if they sense a victim, one that they can hunt at will. I run from them, joining in with the walkers, hoping to blend with them, but it never works. They follow me, trying to touch me. Some of them just like to touch my clothes, especially when I was first admitted wearing lush velvets and soft silk.. I only wear plain sweat suits now in order to fit in, but it doesn’t work, they still follow. I have strange experiences when Gina is gone, the other patients feeling free to grab my hands. She has been gone a week when Joshua, a permanent resident, traps me in a corner, well away from the duty nurse.
“I’m gonna put my thoughts into your brain,” Joshua says, stabbing at me with his grimy thumb, the jagged ridges of his thumbnail rushing toward me like a serrated knife. I look away from his crazy mad eyes, fearful of seeing myself reflected there. His clothing is ragged, filthy, clinging to his bloated body, his jeans torn at the knees and hanging well below his protruding stomach. His breath is rancid, close to my face, a mixture of antiseptic, unbrushed teeth, and our lunch of meat loaf and industrial mashed potatoes. I watch his thumb as it spirals in front of my eyes, and see the filth under his fingernails. I want to vomit. His thumb is hypnotic, and I wonder if he will erase my thoughts when his are in place. I begin to shudder, the fear of having my back to the wall overcomes my will to remain silent. A slow and quiet sound emerges from my mouth, a keening for help. No one hears me, least of all Joshua. My knees weaken, and I slide down the wall, crouched in an upright fetal position, while he looms over me. I open my mouth to scream, but his thumb comes close to my tongue, so I clamp my mouth shut again. I have no room to escape, and I close my eyes. I feel the touch of his thumb on my forehead, and wait.
His fingers touch my breast, pulling my heart from my chest. He tugs at my hair, pulling at the zipper of my Wal-Mart sweatshirt. I see his erection forming in his grimy jeans, and I scream.
Olivia, darling, it’s natural to not want to make love for a while. I understand, take your time. I will always love you.
The orderlies finally come and pull Joshua away from me. I am too shaken to walk, and they carry me to my room, where they sedate me. I sleep until the next afternoon.
As I begin to come awake, I notice a shadow in my doorway. It appears bent over and crooked, and at first I flinch away, and then I realize that it is Gina. This is the first time she has approached my room. I wave tentatively at her to let her know that I am okay. She smiles toothlessly and moves away, quietly shutting my door. I go back to sleep.
We are eating lunch the next day when she begins her barrage of twenty questions, questions that I never answer, but she thinks she knows anyway.
“One thing I don’t understand, Olivia.” Gina has discovered my first name, I have no idea how. I have not given it to her and I am called Mrs. Larson by the staff. She likes playing with it, rolling it around like a breath mint on her tongue. She calls me, Ollie, Vi, Olive, different names for her changeable moods. I know she is feeling tender if she calls me Livy When she is serious she calls me Olivia.
“See, what I don’t get at all is why the fuck you’re here. Not the crazy part, you’re a fuckin’ loon, but here. There’s a country club over in the next town. Your fuckin’ husband can afford it.” I look at her. Maybe this is true, but I don’t care anyway. I don’t want to go to the other hospital where the doctors might actually care.
Don’t leave me, Olivia. I love you, you know that. We can have another child, I promise. All I want is for you to get better. He looks at the small, stuffed frog in the cradle, the happy little frog pattern dancing along the sides, and begins to cry.
“See, I been there once. They serve prime rib on Saturdays and they have real beds. Course that was a long time ago.”
I look down at the plate in front of me. It holds twenty soggy peas, a rubbery breaded chicken breast, and the watery institutionalized mashed potatoes that show up for almost every meal, sometimes even breakfast. I pick up my fork and eat.
The pattern of the days blend into months and I wait for only two things. On Tuesdays, Delia gives birth. The rest of the days are filled with Gina’s voice as she tries to convince me that I am not special. I don’t tell her that I already know this.
Gina rambles around the hospital on her short legs. She tells me one morning as she visits me on my bench that it is her goal to know everything about everyone because its one of the ways she gets to keep coming back.
“See, Liv, if I know what the docs are up to, they let me come back. It don’t hurt them none.” I look at her, and know that she does not belong here. Hunger is what drives her to look for shelter amongst the shadow people that inhabit the hospital. Hunger and the desire for a bed softer than cardboard on concrete.
One Wednesday, when I am exhausted from Delia’s labor, Gina does not visit the bench. The Pastor has come for the day and is in a corner of the large room talking to Bugs and Joshua, and the other patients are waiting their turn to talk about an insane man who thought he could walk on water. They identify with him more than anyone else ever could, since they rise from the dead every day when they wake up. I become bored, the men and women are still, and Gina has disappeared. I decide to look for her.
Looking in the library, I see two doctors whispering about something. They look up quickly and I know they have been speaking about me as they attempt to greet me with the false kindness reserved for the victims of gossip. I do not care to listen to them and begin to turn around and leave the room, when I see a ragged, beaded shoe poking out from behind the miserable bookshelf with its three books. Now I know where Gina gets her information. I turn and leave and return to my bench. Bugs has finished with the Pastor and is back to swirling around the bench, his eyes meeting mine as he circles.
At lunch, Gina appears distracted and her eyes wander around the room as if looking for someone. She grabs at my dessert, today Jello with tiny bits of rotten pineapple jiggling in its depths. She seems to make a decision.
“You know, you need to get over yourself.” Gina says from across the cafeteria bench , and I look up at her, startled.
“ Does the pretty boy even whack you around? ‘Cause that’s what I thought, you know. All wounded and big eyes.” She peers at me with her ancient eyes, looking almost disgusted. I wonder what has made her so angry. I want to run from this, but I am trapped, hypnotized by the truth serum in her voice.
“Ain’t nothin’ new, is it? Some guy thinks he’s God and buys himself a nice girl to pretty up his life. And then she ain’t what he thought she was, maybe she has a brain, or maybe she falls in love with someone else. Maybe she don’t want to cook for him anymore. Maybe she just wants to sing in a band. But that ain’t your story is it? Tell me the fucking truth, Olivia.”
She stares at me for a long moment, waiting for me to speak. I look away from her eyes, and see her shrug her shoulders, the anger gone.
“Damn, Livy, it ain’t so bad. We all lost somethin’, once. It ain’t what you lost that’s the problem.”
My head snaps up, what does she know? I open my mouth to speak, clamping it shut when I see the look of hope in her eyes. I don’t want to give anyone hope.
The doctor says we can try again in a few months. To give your body time to rest, darling. I love you.
I see Delia eating at another bench, picking at the raisins in the rice pudding. Studying the shriveled fruit she has stabbed on her fork, her tongue lashes out and collects the three remaining raisins from the dessert. It happens quickly, and nobody else sees her. Flies surround her body, settling against her skin. She tries to shake them away, to eat them with her lightening quick tongue, but there are too many, and she runs from the dining room, chased by invisible orderlies.
Gina doesn’t talk to me for days. I see her looking at me, her face strange. Dirt streaks under her eyes, and her mouth is tight. She never sits next to me on my bench, and I begin to worry. For the first time since I have been here I feel anxiety. I want to listen to Gina. Her voice invades my mind and I want her to yell at me, punish me, to love me, and the pain of her loss batters my brain, shaving memories of my youth from my mind.
Come see Gramma Delia, Olivia. Oh, you look so much like your mother at the same age. Look, here, I have a gift for you. My Grandmother gave me this when I was thirteen, just like. Someday you will give it to your granddaughter, I know it.
It is Tuesday again, and Delia shambles along holding her stomach against the tide of people on their slow racetrack around the benches. When the screaming starts, the orderlies and nurses ignore her. Bugs looks frantic, he hates the noise that streams from Delia’s body every Tuesday, and I cover my ears, yet none of us can look away. Delia’s mouth opens wide, wide enough to swallow her body, the screams piercing the low mumble that never stops while the
human stew wanders around the benches. Her eyes pop from their sockets and fall on the floor and blood trickles slowly down her chest. I think I should run to her and help her find her eyes, but the bench holds me, its fingers grasping my thighs. I close my eyes, knowing that when I open them Delia will be fine, clutching her stomach and swirling with the rest of them, but when I open them, she is still screaming. Her hospital gown and her legs are streaked with blood, puddles forming at her feet. I scream for the duty nurse, who looks up from her People magazine, shocked that I have made noise.
She’s beautiful, like you Olivia. I think we should name her Tiffany. Beautiful and special. Say goodbye to her, Olivia, please. The doctor says it’s easier that way. God, why did this have to happen to us?
He holds the infant tenderly, cuddling her close to his body. I have been split in two, the bruises on my thighs burn.
Delia has been taken from my room to another hospital. At breakfast, I notice that Gina is gone, put out for the week until she gets hungry again. I wait. I know she will be back. When I go to my room that night, I have a new roommate. She masturbates frantically, her legs kicking against the thin blanket, and I turn toward the wall. The frogs were quieter.
I am by myself, reading books that Gina has left me since she has returned to the outside, unable to stay for longer than two weeks at a time. My husband comes again, and I speak quietly with him and the doctors. They seem to think that I need a new medication. They tell him that I have been calling out in my sleep, the only sound from my lips strange, like a frog. His eyes dart to mine, and I beg him stay quiet. I clear my throat to ask about Delia, ask how she is, but my husband grasps my hand. I laugh out loud. The doctor is startled. He can’t know that I am laughing because my husband is afraid that I will talk about the frogs, of what I will say. He is even more afraid that I will talk about Delia, and not cradles and bassinets, dead infant girls and lost stem cells. I have not laughed since I have been here, and the doctor thinks it is an indication that the medicine is working, and prescribes more. I never find out about Delia.
The day Gina returns, I try to ignore her but I can’t. I wait for her to approach my breakfast table, the powder from the dehydrated eggs still evident in the scrambled eggs I am eating. She slides into the daffodil yellow chair, her skirts trapped under her legs.
“Hey, rich lady. I hear you been mopin’ around here without me.” Her sun scarred face peers at me, her rictus grin somehow comforting without her two front teeth. “Ain’t no reason worry. I hear you had a problem the other day?”
I look at her then, realizing that she has never accepted Delia, that she sees the truth, and only the truth so help her God.
My voice croaks as I ask her the question that has been haunting me.
“What happened to De…Jennifer? What really happened to her?” I know the answer well before Gina tells me.
My voice startles Gina, her eyes squinted against the foreign sound from my lips.
You have such a sexy voice, Olivia. It warms me up. Come back to bed, I’ll show you how warm.
“Olivia, “ Gina whispers at me, her voice thick as the gravy they pour over the rotten meat they serve us. “God damn, Olivia, there is no Delia. Delia doesn’t fucking matter anymore. You saw her leave, she’s gone. You lost her, the doctors gossip about it, you know. Delia is dead.”
She is wrong, Delia is all that ever mattered. Delia was alive, in my arms. He called her Tiffany, but I knew her name was always Delia.
“Livy,” She tries again. “I don’t know what to say. Doll, you gotta face it, or you’re gonna be in her forever.”
“Gina,” I hesitate. What I am going to ask is impossible. But I can’t stay here, I need to go home and find Delia. She knows what I want, and folds her arms across her beaded chest, the shirt a cast-off from a much larger woman.
“Gina,” I start again. “How do I get out of here? Really, get out.? Go home?”
“Damn Livy, you know how. Tell ‘em what they want to hear.”
So, I set things in motion. I tell the doctors at my weekly meeting that I wish to see a patient advocate. They are shocked but my husband is elated. His claws sharpen on the wooden arm of the chair as he shifts around to look at me. He says he wants me to get well, that he will listen to what they have to say, like he always does. He is afraid I am lying. Maybe I am, maybe I always have. His beak pecks at the brain of the doctor, and I see the doctor falter. But, as the doctor explains, his hands are tied. The rules of mental illness state that you have forty-eight hours to supply a patient advocate upon request.
I go further. I tell the men in the office, one scrambling, shuffling papers, the other tearing out his tongue, that I feel much better, that the medication is working. I want to leave.
I see my husband smile, his eyes piercing mine. He is pleased, knowing that I will come home to him, that we can always try again.
The advocate arrives within a day. She is an egg, her hair a red trimmed fringe of broccoli atop her head. I answer her questions, saying that I know that Delia and Jennifer do not exist, even though I know it is a lie. I react to her prodding as she expects, and I wonder why it has taken me so long to understand that Delia will always be waiting for me. It is all very easy. The advocate arranges a hearing within a week. I tell the panel of doctors that I know there is no Delia, that she was my Grandmother. The frogs lie in the empty cradle at home, colored bright red and green to attract an infant’s eye. My husband sits in the corner of the office, his impatience to get me home making him change position in the chair over and over as the hearing continues. The panel asks him if he is willing to accept responsibility for me, and his smile almost shatters his face. I am to be released the next morning.
I search out Gina to tell her goodbye, to tell her that she is welcome at my home, but she is nowhere to be found. My stomach feels sick as I realize that my husband would never allow her into the perfect suburban home we inhabit with its white carpet and manicured lawn. As I walk out of the heavy metal door, I see Bugs wandering in his circles. His eyes meet mine one last time, and I wave, a slight smile on my face. I will miss Bugs and his family of rabbits, swirling around the desolate bench to avoid Elmer Fudd.
My husband is outside in his car. I stop at the exit, pull out a cigarette Gina gave me a week ago, and search for the lighter I have smuggled out. Lighting the cigarette, I pull the smoke into my body, breathing in heavily. The smoke curls around my lungs as I look into my husband’s eyes through windshield of the car.. Their sea-green depths look inviting, peaceful, once again beautiful, like the day we met at my aunt’s house. He had come to give her a quote on a bathroom remodel leaving with my number. I stare at him for minutes, hours, years, smile, and stub out the cigarette. As I open the car door, he says,”Olivia, you know you are going to have to quit that nasty habit if we want to try again.”
I look out at the hospital and see Gina’s wrinkled face peering out at me from the door. Her arm swings above her head, a final salute as we drive away. I am happy for the first time in months. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and Delia will be at home.