I stole these stories. But, I don't think the people I stole them from will care. I'm a writer; they knew that going in. These people just love to tell their stories. I listen. Everyone needs someone who listens. Even regular people.
First, there's Sophie. She's my roommate. She used to be up on 3rd floor, but since she quit talking to herself so much they put her down here on 2nd with me. Now she talks to me. Wants me to figure out her story. She leaves little clues on Post-It notes all over our room. I say, "Sophie, I'm not a mystery writer. Mostly I do children's stories and stuff like that." But, the notes are interesting so I don't protest too much. Like the one on my pillow yesterday morning that said, "My brother killed a man. Ask me how I know."
Sophie has a funny habit she tries to hide, but I know she knows I know. I'm awake when she dresses and she lets me watch. Me breathing deeply into the sheets with one eye open just a slit. This is how it goes. She has a stuffed animal, a monkey, made from a sock, the brown speckled kind with the white toe and heel. Well, anyway, she takes this monkey and holds him face first against her stomach. Then she pushes his head up under her bra so he's right between her boobs, snuggled in kind of. Then she pulls her girdle on (she's one of those women who can't go anywhere, even down to the john without her girdle on. Feels naked without it, she once said) and as she pulls up the girdle she pushes the monkey's legs and butt, tail and all, down into the girdle. She puts her clothes on over this. Now, I don't know about you, but I can tell she's got something stuffed in there, but no one else seems to notice. I guess they just think, "Oh well, that's Sophie for ya," and let her walk around looking like a person with something to hide.
Me, I've got nothing to hide. Everything out in the open where it can breathe is what I've always believed in. Open as a book with a broken spine, that's me.
The first day I got here they brought me a life-size plastic doll with curly black hair. When the nurse carried the doll in it was wrapped in a pink striped blanket. So I knew it was a girl. The nurse laid the doll on my bed like it might break. "She's your responsibility now," the nurse said, "we'll be watching you." I named her Dolly and took her everywhere with me right from the start. Like I said, everything in the open is my way of doing things. She went to group therapy with me, sat on the sidelines during volleyball and waited on the dock while I did my mandatory water exercises in the lake.
At first Dolly's bath time didn't go so well, but I've gotten better and the nurses are saying they see a real improvement. Part of saying that is their job. It must say, "Be Encouraging" on a poster in the employee break room or something. It's like a motto here. "You're doing great. It's going to be okay." You know it's not always true because they even say it to Bob.
Don't get me wrong. Bob is just about the friendliest guy in here. He's tall and quiet and spends most of the day in the sunroom. The sunroom is painted a soft pink and the light coming in through the big windows turns the air fuzzy and sometimes when the light is just right, that room feels like a blanket and a bedtime story all cozy and safe. I've read about the psychological effects of the color pink on people with mental disturbances and they say that pink seems to have a calming effect and maybe it's because I read that article, but it sure works for me. I can sit in that room with Dolly on my lap and almost believe what they say is true. Everything will be all right. Everything will be all right.
But, I don't think the pink thing works for Bob. He has this routine. He plunks down in one of the vinyl chairs in the sunroom shortly after 10am. He picks one of the chairs in front of the TV. From there he can see the clock. And that's very important to Bob. Every ten minutes he pops up out of his chair and makes his way around extending his hand to every single person in the room. He sticks out his long arm and says, "Hi, I'm Bob," and waits for the other person to shake his hand. Most of us do. Sometimes someone just doesn't feel like shaking his hand for whatever reason, but that doesn't seem to bother Bob. He just waits a minute and moves on to the next person. You hear him saying, "Hi, I'm Bob," all around the room until he's back to his vinyl chair in front of the TV again. Ten minutes later he starts the whole deal over. The reason I think the pink doesn't always work for Bob is the other day after one of his routines I saw him walk slowly over to the wall, place his forehead on the plaster, hands by his side and begin to bump, then bang his head against the pinkness. His head kept moving like that, back and forth, back and forth, even after the day nurse ran out from behind the nursing station and put her hand between his head and the wall. The bobbing went on as she lead him down the hall, his hand in hers.
The nurses watch all of us pretty closely, especially me at Dolly's bath time. This little bath lesson is actually on my DTP or daily therapy plan. At first I just did what came naturally. I filled the little tub with warm water and submerged Dolly until bubbles popped to the surface of the water from the small round feeding hole in her mouth. The nurses watched but said nothing as I lathered up Dolly's plastic body with Johnson & Johnson's baby bath soap. Is there anything that smells better than a baby after its been soaped up with Johnson & Johnson's? If there is I don't know what it would be.
After the bubbles would stop rising from her mouth, I'd lift her out of the tub and watch as water tinkled out of her pee hole. I'd put my finger on the hole to stop the leaking, take it off to release some more water, give Dolly a shake to force the water downward and cover the hole again. I remember the first time I lifted her out of the tub. She began to drip water from her bottom and I quickly pushed her under the water and was holding her there, "bad girl, bad girl," I was hissing at her when the nurse put her strong, brown arms around me from behind, took my forearms in her hands and together we lifted Dolly out of the water.
Sissy, a woman I would be glad to never see again, likes to sit next to me in the sunroom. She tells me her life story thinking it would make a great book. The only thing I find interesting about Sissy is her bathrobe. It's one of those chenille wrap- around things and Sissy is so small she can tie the sash of the robe around her waist twice and still have enough rope left to tie a knot in the front. There are big embroidered stars on the lapels and a huge yellow moon rides on her back when she leaves the sunroom wearing that robe. Sissy's ankles are knobs and show through her thin socks and you can almost hear her bones clang against each other when she sits down on the couch next to me.
We all spend a lot of time in the sunroom because the doctors think we need to learn to socialize. Well, between you and me, I wouldn't ever socialize with the likes of Sissy on the outside. But in here my options are limited. Still, I wouldn't trust me and Sissy in the lake together any time soon. For some reason she likes Dolly and sits close to us wanting to hold Dolly or rearrange her blanket. Always some excuse or another. Like today she says, "Why don't you let me comb Dolly's hair? You won't be doing it much longer anyway if you're getting out and all." I said, "No thanks," and held Dolly closer like she needed me. "I had a little girl once too," confides Sissy, letting part of her story slip out. I hang on to Dolly. "Well," Sissy whispered, "they'll never let you take her home, you know. You'll have to learn to live without her." I pull Dolly's striped blanket around her like a cocoon and give Sissy what I hope is a withering look. She can be such a baby at times.
The nurse rings a bell at the station and we all line up for meds. Almost everyone gets meds and I've almost got it figured out who get what kind for what reason. Bob gets one big white pill and soon he'll be napping in his chair and we won't hear, "Hi, I'm Bob" for a few hours. Sissy gets two small oval pills the color of robin's eggs. She swallows them with one gulp of OJ and is off to the volleyball court, temporarily out of my life. She's told me she feels a certain giddiness about one half hour after taking the pills. I don't know if this is good or bad.
Right in front of me in the drug line is Darlene. Sweet, sweet Darlene. She is one of my favorite people here. Her story could be a bestseller. She gets three pills and I've got that one figured out. One pill for each personality. Today, Darlene's Frankie is out and has brought along his guitar. I'm always in the mood for music and Frankie is just great with the country and folk-rock stuff. He could be a star, a real star. If he could stay Frankie long enough at a stretch to get through a whole show that is. Usually though, he's halfway through some sad old country song of lost love and his right boot heel just up and quits tapping and his cowboy hat slides off to show the thick ponytail that was tucked up inside. Someone has taken his place. Darlene or the other one is back. The other one is Lisa and she's a real slut. Coming on to all the guys, even the docs and some of the women too. I won't write about her when I get out. She wears slinky spaghetti strapped nightgowns and stilettos and dances in front of the TV in the sunroom, her arms raised over her head, her hair all red and wild until someone comes to take her back to her room. When Lisa comes out we all scream, "We want Frankie," or we start to chant, "Frankie, Frankie, Frankie," but that rarely works and just ticks off the nurses who can't stand all the fuss.
Me, I get one yellow pill. I've got that figured out too. It stops my fear of water. Can you believe it? I couldn't believe it either, but I noticed I could take the pill with a mouthful of water instead of mashing it into peanut butter or applesauce shortly after they started giving it to me. I overheard one nurse telling another how I was getting better because of the way I can wash Dolly's face with a washcloth and rinse it with my hands, ever so tenderly. She said it was great how I'd learned to shampoo Dolly's hair by gently rubbing the Johnson's into her scalp and rinsing it with a small pitcher of warm water that I keep waiting alongside the tub for that very purpose.
* * *
I'm a writer and I'm going home soon. Today my husband, my doctor and I sat down to talk about it.
"You're much, much better," my doctor said, his hands folded across his wide stomach, his fingers braided. He was wearing his smug "I'm the doctor" smile. "So much better, in fact, that we want to send you home. What do you think about that?" I sit up as straight as I can in the deep leather chair. I want to look like I'm better. I lean forward and say, "I'm a writer. I'd like to go home and write down some of the stories I've heard in here."
"That's fine, just fine." My doctor says and he leans forward too. Maybe he wants me to think he believes me. He looks over at my husband who is fidgeting in his chair trying to straighten the crease in his Dockers.
"Are you prepared to take her home?" my doctor asks. Very quietly he adds, "You know your insurance coverage is up tomorrow and she has been able to shower herself for the last ten days which is a good sign."
My husband is eager. He explains he's got everything under control. He'll personally supervise the children's bath time. He clears his throat and hurries on. He's laid in a big supply of the yellow pills and he's planned a vacation far away from oceans and lakes and rivers.
"What about swimming pools?" I ask, trying to lighten the mood. They both wince like I've pulled a Band-Aid off a sore that was just starting to scab over. "Just kidding," I quickly say as we get up to leave. We move out of the office and down the long hallway. In my room we gather up my things. We drop Dolly off at the nurse's station and leave the building. We don't look back.
The sky has a touch of pink in it today and I think it's a good day for telling stories.