Each time, I cried and begged them to take me home, promised I would be the daughter they wanted. But when visiting hour was over, they walked out the door and watched it shut on me and went back to their lives. I wanted so badly to be driving off with them that my state of longing began to feel like perspective. Maybe it really had been me, maybe my mother really was just trying to help, maybe if I could fix myself, they would love me and take me back.
I posed this possibility to James one day when he sat beside me at the window as I watched my parents’ car pull out of the parking lot.
“Cass,” he said gently. There were tears in his eyes too. “I don’t know much, but I know you don’t belong here. Don’t believe the lie, okay?”
I looked one last time at the station wagon retreating out of the long driveway. “Okay,” I said, and in that moment my tears stopped instantly and finally because someone saw and understood and said out loud what I knew in the tiny, quiet temple of my soul to be true.
After that I stayed away from windows. I accepted the sentence I had been given and waited for the day that it would end.
James tried hard to resuscitate me with laughter. In the dining hall he sat beside me and stuck packets of ketchup into his breast pocket and then pretended to stab himself with his plastic knife, throwing the nurses into a panic. During visiting hours, he introduced himself to everyone’s guests and then casually mentioned that he was in for murder. “It only happened twice,” he said, and then winked at me as the visitors’ eyes bugged out.
When Dr. Meeks encouraged him to speak about his upbringing in group therapy, James was near tears as he relayed the time he was kidnapped by carrot-colored midgets from a chocolate factory after he turned into a blueberry. Another time, he raged with bitter indignation over the merciless teasing he got at flight school for having a nose that was too red and too bright. When Dr. Meeks suggested that James was afraid of letting us know who he really was, he jumped to his feet, thrust his arms into the air and sang, “I gotta be meeee!” Then he looked my way to see if I was laughing.
Eventually, I did begin to laugh again. It was all there was left to do.
BACK ON THE ward, Nurse Mary and I part ways, and I go seek out my friend Trish as I always do after my sessions with Meeks because it’s the hour when our favorite soap opera, Malibu Dreams, is on. Today is the last time we will ever watch it together. I find her in the room next to mine, poised in front of her warped plastic mirror, applying foundation to her cheeks with one hand and smoking a cigarette with the other. Impressively large smoke rings float above her head before they break up and disappear. I pause in the doorway, taking in this scene so familiar, soon to be a memory.
“What’s up?” Trish says without looking at me. She has been avoiding eye contact for the last couple of days, and I know it’s because she wants to make me matter less now that I’m leaving.
I shrug, a sudden lump in my throat. I always imagined that leaving here would be the best feeling in the world, but these friends are like war buddies, all of us deeply bonded because we have survived the worst of our lives together. Once I walk out that door, I won’t be allowed back to visit.
I notice the small hole above her bed and laugh. “Remember that?”
Years back, when I first discovered that pea-sized opening in our shared wall, I would occupy myself at night by sticking raisins through it and waiting for Trish to notice. For weeks, I amused the hell out of myself by imagining the small pile of fruit accumulating on her bed. Then one night, I had my face up to the wall, preparing to squeeze another raisin through it, when a sudden blast of lotion squirted through from the other side and nailed me in the eye. “Gotcha!” Trish had said, and the two of us laughed until we were sobbing and the nurses came running to see what was wrong.
“I taught you early on not to mess with me,” she says now, allowing a small smile as she takes a drag off of her cigarette. I pull one out of my own pack and light it off of hers so I don’t have to track down a nurse to do it for me. On occasion, I have seen a nurse let Trish light her own cigarettes even though it’s against the rules. They won’t let me anywhere near fire.
I sit down on her bed and ash into a small plastic cup on the windowsill. Technically we aren’t allowed to smoke in our rooms either, but I think the staff is secretly afraid of Trish. Actually, we are all a little afraid of Trish, who is tall and blond and strikingly beautiful but carries herself with a streetwalker’s edge. She has been here longer than any of us, but I have no idea what she’s in for, what label of crazy they have tagged her with. I suspect there was some pretty major shit in her past, because despite her toughness she jumps about six feet if you surprise her from behind, and she doesn’t like anyone to touch her. Even if you just accidentally brush her arm as you’re passing by, she freaks out.
Trish is the one who taught me how to properly smoke a cigarette, as well as how to score an extra ice cream cup at dinner and which nurses will let you stay up past curfew to watch the late-night talk shows. She has a boyfriend named Van who hops the fence to visit beneath her window. So many nights I have spent listening to their whispers, my ear pressed up to the screen, trying to make a study of the way they flirt with each other in case I ever get the opportunity to flirt with a guy myself. They tell each other about their day, and Van pretends to climb the hospital wall and jokes that he’s going so crazy without her that soon he’ll be locked up too.
I have tried to make sense of the fact that he’s still around after all this time, that he stays with Trish even when she is at the bottom of her life and the whole world thinks she’s crazy. Trish says it’s love and maybe it is, I’ve just never seen love that looks like that—so entirely unselfish and without judgment.
I’ve daydreamed about having a boyfriend of my own someday, and now that I’m getting out of here, it’s weird to think the opportunity might actually present itself. The thing is, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to act, and the fact that I have no experience at all makes the whole idea seem daunting. I’ve never even kissed anyone, which is humiliating considering that I’m eighteen, but it’s not like there are a lot of prospects on a psych ward.