In my first memory, I’m standing on top of a long, wooden dining room table, and I’m screaming. The table’s huge, and not just because I’m so small; even when I’m older, it will be the biggest piece of furniture we own. Standing on the table, I’m screaming so hard my throat hurts, and the pain only makes me want to scream more. I’m crying, the sort of crying where you have to gulp for air, where you’re choking. With every sob, there’s a V of pain that spreads from the back of each side of my skull, meeting in a point in the center of my forehead. I’m shaking, I can barely see, I’m sweating, I’m nauseous, and as I stand there and scream, I can hear my parents and my brother nearby, calling out to me, panicking, begging me to calm down, dialing the phone, starting to cry themselves, and all I do is scream and scream and scream.
One night recently, coming home from work, I have to stop and gas up my car. I choose a particular Citgo that’s positioned halfway between two busy intersections, next to an empty lot with tall grass, right after an overpass. I like it because it’s not a heavily trafficked area, so there’s never a wait. Also, the clerk is always the same young Arabic man who is always talking on his cell phone in another language. But when I approach the counter, he pulls the phone away from his mouth and says, “How are you doing today, miss? Is that all for you? You have a nice day now,” which is sadly more politeness than I’m used to on any given day. I usually gas up outside with my debit card in the machine, but then go inside to buy a candy bar with cash.
On this occasion, I pull up to the gas pump, put my debit card in, and pump twenty-five dollars’ worth of gas, enough to get me to my next paycheck. As I’m pumping I notice that there’s already a receipt in the slot on the gas pump, and I take it out so that my receipt can print. But before I throw it in the trash can, I look at it.
CITGO NO. 00028971003-01
205 ROUTE 120
KOSAKOWSKI / ARKADIUS
REF # 5101500089
PUMP # 03
PRODUCT PREMIUM UNLD
FUEL SALE $75.00
HAVE A NICE DAY THANK YOU
The name catches my eye. Arkadius Kosakowski. I think, What a perfect name. I tuck the receipt into my pocket as I go into the store to get a Three Musketeers and say hello to my cashier friend. And I think, I have to make a person worthy of the name Arkadius Kosakowski.
After I’m in the hospital this last time, they assign me to a doctor. I have to go there once a week, talk for an hour, and get a new prescription. After a month I stop going, just to see if the hospital is monitoring my progress. Apparently they’re not, because the time of the appointment comes and goes, and no one calls, and I get mad at them for this, because it’s obvious they’re running a shoddy organization, which is insulting to me as a patient. Finally, after three weeks, the doctor herself calls and asks me to resume treatment, which I do without arguing, because all I really wanted was to prove a point.
The day after the Citgo incident, I’m talking to the doctor about how my neighbor downstairs was making so much noise the night before that I almost had an episode. But I was able to calm myself down, I say. Just by, you know, thinking of some of my people.
My doctor looks at me blankly.
You know, I say. The people who live in my head.
One of my doctor’s thin, shaped eyebrows rises into a perfect architectural curvature, and she makes a note in my folder.
This is how I learn that not everyone has people who live in their head.
The dining room table is important. It’s long, and heavy, and costs a small fortune. It was my parents’ first piece of furniture, the first thing not handed down or bought used, a symbol that they had risen from their immigrant beginnings and were now making a better life for their children. I know this because my mother tells me this, and my mother tells me this as I sit at the table, staring down at the cracked edge, the scratches, the deep gouge, and the bite marks, the faint reflection of my own face, and as I listen she is so calm, like she can’t even hear me crying, but I guess she could because afterward that was my first time in the hospital, and as I listened I wiped blood out of my eyes, and as I listened I swallowed a tooth.
I could do a lot with Arkadius Kosakowski. He could be a young, dark-skinned man, prone to walking around with his shirt unbuttoned, smelling of clove cigarettes and muttering to himself in a foreign language, possibly French. One day he meets a teenaged blond woman – no, a teenaged blond man – and they have a fifty-dollar Mimosa brunch at an outdoor table at a small café in Los Angeles. No, New York.
He leans over the table, his musky scent intoxicating his dining partner, and in a richly accented voice says, If you would come with me to Paris, together we could find unimagined wealth. The blond, whose name is probably Steve, sets his glass down, wondering if it’s the alcohol or if he’s been hypnotized by this alluring man, and says, But I don’t even know your name.
Arkadius, he says. He leans backwards, takes a pack of cloves out of his pocket, lights one, and blows the smoke out through his nose. Arkadius Kosakowski.
I’m sorry; that’s just awful.
I’ve been taking Lithium, at one dose or another, since I was six years old. Lithium comes in small pink pills, smaller than aspirin, painless even for a child to swallow. For my entire life it worked in a cycle. The doctor would give me a high dose of Lithium. I would take it for a few days. I would become so dehydrated I would have to be hospitalized. I would be taken off the Lithium while in the hospital. I would have an episode. I would go back on the Lithium.
I learned to drink as much water and Gatorade as possible, and while I still had near-constant diarrhea, I got by. But the dosage went up and up, and my episodes came back and back. By the time I was fifteen I was on Lithium, Depakote, Paxil, Celexa, and Buspar. Since then they’ve dropped a few and added Seroquel, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Klonopin and Lexapro. My Lithium blood level is at the maximum before toxicity and organ damage. I have every medical side effect you could imagine. I have dry mouth and tremors. I have stomach aches and headaches. I must always use care when operating a car or heavy machinery. I am never supposed to drink alcoholic beverages while taking this medication. I am supposed to take this medication with food or milk. I cannot use this medication if I am pregnant, suspect I am pregnant, or am breastfeeding. I am in a constant state of drowsiness.
The man is in his forties, but you’d never guess his age, even after he crosses the dance floor to where you’re sitting, and you can see the sunburst of fine lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. You’re sitting on the side of the stage drinking a Diet Coke out of a can with a straw, and you don’t stand up, because you’ve been standing all day for men, and even though this one is more attractive than most, he’s still just another fool in a world full of them. Or so you think, until he sits next to you and says, I know who you are.
I’m the singer, you say. Every night, ten to one. Care to request a song?
He tilts his head to the side, gesturing to the rest of the club almost imperceptibly. Which ones are double agents, Erica?
That’s the signal. You nod toward the mayor, sitting in his usual reserved booth at the far wall. The redhead with the mayor. She’s from Estonia and she’s packing two handguns and a recording device. The man sitting alone at the corner table is a spy from Turkmenistan, and his briefcase has a dirty bomb in it. And that young man in the silk jacket dancing by the stairs? He’s a cyborg from Saskatchewan.
He nods and says, When the bullets start flying, go out through the back; I have a car there. I can take you anywhere you want to go, Erica.
You place your soda down and lean closer to him. I might just be interested in where you’re going, Mister –
Arkadius Kosakowski, he says. Then he stands and heads towards the mayor’s table, and I watch him walk the whole way.
It’s not like I hear voices. I’ve been evaluated plenty of times, and no one’s ever accused me of being delusional. At most of the hospitals I went to, Bipolar Type One’s wouldn’t even associate with schizophrenics. I certainly never did. So when I say I have people in my head, it’s not like I hear voices, like I’m really insane.
I guess it started when I was a kid, and I usually didn’t have other kids to play with. Lots of kids have imaginary friends; mine were just more involved. I’d have imaginary people interacting with each other: groups of friends, families, schools; epic stories that spanned generations, mysteries that followed an ancient relic from one continent to another, people being born, living full lives and dying, all as I sat in a classroom, or at the dinner table, or in the backseat of a car.
One of my favorites who’s been around for a while is Susan Bahr, a strawberry blonde telecommunications executive based out of Chicago, and Terry Green, her strikingly handsome Caribbean neighbor in their fashionable high-rise apartment building. Just as she was about to receive the promotion of her dreams, Susan finds out she has terminal breast cancer. Without a family or any close friends, Susan suffers with her fear in silence, until Terry accidentally receives a piece of her mail containing test results and learns her tragic secret. The two become friends, then lovers.
Coming up with the actual story was nothing. The real fun was in telling it over and over, and in different ways, during times when I needed a distraction. During a slow period in between customers in the bookstore I could quickly cover the scenes where Susan has to ask her boss for a leave of absence. But then later that night, alone in my bedroom, when I was covering my eyes, breathing heavy, trying so hard not to have an episode, that’s when I’d have Susan knock on Terry’s door, tears streaming down her face, desperate for someone to hold her. The moment when their eyes met and Terry put his hand to her cheek for the first time, I could relive that for hours. And when Susan fell asleep in Terry’s arms, sometimes I could too.
The term, at least in online BSDM communities, is h/c, for hurt-slash-comfort. The idea is that a person is injured and made vulnerable, and then comforted, and this brings about some sort of emotional or sexual pleasure for both parties. Or one party, in cases where some involved parties may be invisible.
In another favorite, I’m in my late thirties, and I’ve just adopted a troubled fourteen-year-old boy named Shawn. After surviving an abusive father, he’s grown up in group homes, but easily adjusts to life as my son, admiring me endlessly as we play Monopoly, camp out in the woods, and go to baseball games where he eats pretzels with mustard. In his first week at his new school, he meets Jeff, a shy kid who always asks him if he can borrow a pencil, despite having a backpack full of pencils. One day Shawn brings Jeff home after school to play video games, and while I’m at work they reluctantly kiss each other.
In the months that follow they explore their burgeoning sexuality, falling blissfully in love, though they worry about what the rest of the world will think about their relationship. I’m a liberal mother, of course, and eternally kind, so when Shawn finally tells me that he and Jeff are more than friends, I’m thrilled for them. But Jeff is hiding a dangerous secret: his alcoholic mother, and her quick temper. One night he arrives at our door with third-degree burns on his face, and Shawn and I have to rush him to the hospital. Jeff is shattered, and in the hospital room Shawn puts his arms around him and promises to help him rebuild his flesh, his sense of self, his very soul.
I said they were h/c stories; I didn’t say they were good h/c stories.
I also have a baseball team. Nine starters, ten pitchers, six guys on the bench. Manager, pitching coach, first base coach, third base coach, batting coach. General manager, owner, front office staff, receptionist. Newspaper columnists, play-by-play announcers, beat reporters. At its height, I knew everyone’s name, age, and a brief biography. One of my reporters was dating an outfielder. The GM was living a double life and was really on the run from the Mob. The starting catcher had a feud with the best pitcher. The second baseman was sleeping with the shortstop. After a few years, everyone was just having sex with everyone else. It was like prison. But even now, without having ever written a word down, I could recite all their names, if you want.
Before that I had a small town in Maine. There were thirty-one waterfront homes with various types of families in them. There was a library, a dentist, a hospital, six hair salons, three physicians, a girl scout camp, a dump, a light industrial district, a woman who sold Avon door to door, a creepy old guy who collected Playboys in moldy boxes that filled the entire first floor of his house, an elementary school, junior high, and high school, a community college, a water treatment plant, three parks, some unused railroad tracks, three Chinese food restaurants, a McDonald’s, and a pedophile.
And those are just a few examples. Those don’t include all the ones I’ve forgotten, stories I’ve ended, or people I’ve killed off. Right now, just this week, I’ve been working on six distinct stories, with around forty separate people. When I go home tonight and my apartment is dark, and there’s something outside the window scratching against the side of the building, Emma the sixteen-year-old inner-city gang leader will be right beside me with her sawed-off shotgun, while her girlfriend Sherrie stands in the corner, lights a cigarette, and complains that they never shoot anyone interesting anymore. When I pick at my microwave pizza, Sergeant Matthew Fetzer will grin at me from across the table, wink one of his big brown eyes, and say, I can’t wait until this crappy spaceship lands on TerraUnda and we can get a good meal of CaroEquus meat. And when I lie down and can’t fall asleep, Terry will crawl into bed beside me, wrap his big arms around me, and whisper, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
The thing is, you have no fucking idea. I don’t care what you’ve read, or what you’ve studied, or what head-tilt empathy-face you can make. Don’t you say a goddamn thing to me that begins with “I” and ends with “understand”, because you have no fucking idea.
My brother used to say, You don’t know how hard it is to have to sit in the living room and listen to you crying hysterically and banging your head against the door. I’d say, Really? What an interesting perspective. Because crying hysterically and banging my head against the door is so much fun for me.
It’s called Mixed State episodes. It’s when, in bipolar manic-depressives, the manic and the depressive happen simultaneously. So I get suddenly, horribly depressed. Suicidal even. But at the same time my mind is racing. My pulse speeds up, my breathing gets shallow, and my whole body gets warmer.
And something trips. There’s an invisible line in my brain, and I feel myself moving toward it so fast, it’s like a train; I can’t imagine slowing down. Once I trip that line, there’s no going back to rational thought. Best case scenario, I’m going to be bent over double and inconsolably sobbing for about an hour.
When it’s really bad, I can accidentally hurt myself. But this happened more often when I was younger. When I was a kid, I could get to that trip-line in seconds. Zero to crazy in the blink of an eye. Now I can feel it building, and though most of the time I can’t do anything, sometimes I can make it less severe. I turn off the lights, I close my eyes, and I think as hard as I can about anyplace that’s not here, anyone who’s not me.
Coming home from work one afternoon I walk through the park, and someone calls out, Excuse me? Excuse me? I look over and it’s a young woman with dark hair. She’s sitting in the grass with a light brown puppy playing between her legs. As I approach she looks up at me with striking green eyes and says, You work at the bookstore over there, don’t you? Do you know if they’re hiring?
They take applications all the time, I tell her. And they always need people before Christmas. I look down at her dog. Can I pet him?
Sure, she says, and she makes the puppy sit by patting him on his rear. I run my hand over his soft head and he responds immediately, leaning into my touch, pushing his face into my palm, licking my fingers. I look up at the woman, not even trying to hide my smile, and she’s smiling too.
It’s amazing, she says, how they can make you feel so loved.
I scratch behind the puppy’s ear and it closes its eyes.
My name’s Amy Kosakowski, she says. And my puppy here is named Arkadius.
I lift the little dog into my arms and look into Amy’s green eyes, wondering if perhaps it’s not just the dog who can show me such unconditional love.
No; this isn’t going to work.
It’s funny how you have to hide it. It’s almost like how Shawn and Jeff have to hide being gay at their high school; I have to hide being crazy. My pill holder is the size of a paperback novel, separated into AM and PM, one row on each side, extra-big because the Depakote only comes in huge pills. Once a week I refill it, spreading all the bottles on kitchen table and dropping the pills in down the row. Lithium: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Zoloft: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I keep it with me all the time, just so I don’t have to worry about being asked to work a double shift or deciding to go home with someone and then missing a dose.
Once Debbie at work asks me, Why don’t you get a smaller purse? I push my purse further back into the shelf under my cash register, and I can hear all the pills in there, rattling like a cartoon snake. I like my purse, I say.
Jillian overhears and says, You know what I think? I think that when you get a big purse, you automatically fill it with stuff. But when you have a small purse, you’re forced to carry less stuff. And Debbie says, Wow. She blinks and says, Wow, that is so true.
And I think, My imaginary people are so much more believable than you people.
One night, at home watching TV, I turn to my right and see Shawn. He’s not really there, of course. I don’t hallucinate.
Shawn’s wearing an old pair of jeans with worn-out cuffs, and a faded t-shirt with the logo of some band I’ve never heard of. I offer to buy him new clothes all the time, but you know how teenage boys are. He smells like Irish Spring, so I know he’s cleaned himself up today, though his hair is a mess, like he’s just woken up, but I guess that’s the style. He has his legs pulled up to his chest, and he’s smiling softly, as if this is just the position his face falls into when he’s relaxed, as if his default state is at peace. I wonder how anyone could have abused such a beautiful child. I think about how I will protect him. How he protects me. H-slash-c.
Do you want to watch a movie? Shawn asks.
What will happen to you, I say, when I’m gone?
Shawn reaches out and picks up the remote control. I’ll be fine, he says. You always take care of me.
But if I wasn’t here, I say.
Then you would leave behind something to make sure I was okay, Shawn says.
I nod, and we watch some crappy medical drama together. Then I send him off to bed, and I go lie down in my room. I want to cry, but instead I close my eyes and think of Shawn’s high school graduation. Then he and Jeff go to the same college. Shawn gets a degree in Architecture and Jeff in English Literature. They buy a house in Connecticut and adopt a baby girl named Ada and a golden retriever named Sylvie. In the evenings they sit around their fireplace, Shawn clumsily plays songs on his guitar, and they all laugh and eat brownies and no one is screaming from the dining room.
There are moments when the medication helps. There are even moments when the medication is miraculous in its ability to keep me calm and in control of my emotions for days, weeks, months. Those are the worst moments.
I’ll be walking down the street after a long shift at work, during which a customer called me a stupid bitch for not giving her a refund without a receipt and Jillian told me that Debbie was talking about me behind my back. The guy I met at the bus stop who seemed nice never called me, and my landlord still hasn’t fixed the light in my kitchen.
And I’ll be singing. Walking to the store and singing some crappy pop song I’d just heard on the radio. When I get to the store, I’ll fill my small basket, thrilled to find a sale on tampons. And when I stand in line behind some loud obese woman arguing with the cashier over a coupon, I’ll keep humming my tune, look down at her dirty-faced little kids, and wave at them.
And those are the worst moments, because I know it’s not real. In the back of my mind I know the grocery store isn’t a happy place, the children in front of me aren’t adorable, and when I get home there won’t be anyone there waiting for me. All my happiness is fake, caused by little pink pills, circular red pills, big oval blue pills. Like the schizos in the hospital, like the people in my head, none of this is real.
They’ve bought a new dining room table.
Visiting hours are from 2pm to 4pm and 7pm to 9pm weekdays and from 10am to 1pm and 3pm to 6pm weekends. I’ve been here so long I have it memorized. I explain it to the new patients, show them around, give them the tour. My father visits from never to never weekdays, from never to never Saturdays, and from 4pm to 4:11pm on one Sunday.
Standing in the hallway, right between the locked door and the small room where the nurses put the medication into tiny white paper cups, my father says three things: They’ve bought a new dining room table. They’ve found a more permanent facility for me. He needs to use the restroom.
Behind me a voice counts out, Lithium: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
I tell him down the hall, last door on your right. I’m the tour guide around here, because I’ve been here so long.
Tuesday, when I’m standing at the cash register at work, I think about Alfred Costa, the alcoholic first basemen in my baseball team. After they’re knocked out off the post-season in the first round, Alfred goes on a binge and gets in a fight with a police officer. His batting coach, the legendary Ned Balkin, bails him out of jail and brings him to an AA meeting, where he meets Milagros Torres, a smart and beautiful professional softball player. Alfred takes a year off to recover from his addiction, and he joins Milagros on her journey to the Summer Olympics in Rome, where the United States softball team wins the silver medal, and Alfred learns what it feels like to be loved by another. Would you like your receipt in the bag?
I think about Emma, sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, smoking a cigarette, giving herself a heart tattoo on the inside of her arm with a sewing needle and a broken ballpoint pen, a towel wrapped around her fist. She’s on the corner of two busy city streets, but she’s not paying attention to any of the hurried commuters, groups of loud teenagers, or the trio of muscular young men approaching her in a V formation from across the street. They walk up to the back of the truck and the biggest man, the clear leader, reaches into his jacket.
You’re gonna fuck up my tat, Emma says without looking up. Then she drops the towel, revealing a handgun. She shoots the gang member in the chest, and makes an attempt on the other two as they run away.
Sherrie arrives a moment later, jumps up into the truck bed, and drops a paper bag on the floor. I got you French fries, she says.
Emma stands. I love you, she says. She shows Sherrie her arm. I’m gonna put your name in the middle of it.
Sherrie kisses her. Who’s the dead guy?
Who cares? Emma says. Let’s get the hell out of here.
That night they sleep in the back of the truck on the side of the highway halfway between the city and the mountains, just north of nowhere. It’s a warm night, and they wake up to a misty rainfall. They end up in Vermont, running a farm that trains seeing-eye dogs, and hosting barbeques almost every summer weekend for their circle of friends from local activist organizations. Every once in a while, when they’re at a library benefit dinner or a Habitat for Humanity job site, Sherrie will come up behind Emma, wrap her arms around her, and whisper, Do you remember when we were kids? Emma will close her eyes, smile, and say, We’re still kids. Remember that all our bestsellers are buy one get one half off.
I think about Sergeant Matthew Fetzer running onto the deck of the SP6 Brown Thrasher and shouting, Corporal Smith, we cannot let those filthy Worellians board this vessel!
Sergeant, I’m sorry, the Corporal says, But we’re trapped in their Neutron Web.
Staff Sergeant LaGrange hits a button on the console above his head. Attention all personnel. Code orange. Proceed to emergency locations and remain armed and ready.
The ship rocks violently, and Sergeant Fetzer falls onto the floor.
Matt! Corporal Smith yells out.
Tracey, I’m fine, he says. Stay at your station.
Corporal Smith ignores the order, rushing to his side and helping pull him to his feet. Matt, she says, They’re not boarding us.
Sergeant Fetzer looks up at the visual display screen, where the enemy ship’s nuclear blaster bays are beginning to glow a dark red.
They’re destroying us, Corporal Smith says.
Sergeant Fetzer grabs her hand and says, I’ve always loved you.
Corporal Smith turns to look into his eyes and says, I’ve always known.
The red blaster bay lights flare, filling the deck with their burning glow. Sergeant Fetzer closes his eyes, and waits for the roar that will drag them both into oblivion. Would you like to save ten percent by signing up for our discount card?
For the second half of my shift, they put me on the floor, which I hate. Standing behind the cash register is quiet, the rhythm of it almost relaxing, the simplicity of it leaving me with time to think. But I hate straightening shelves and having customers talk to me, ask me questions, grab the sleeve of my uniform shirt. I walk to the sitting area, where there’s a sofa, a few soft chairs, and a low, wooden table. It’s getting late, so there aren’t many people left. There’s a girl sitting on the couch reading a novel, and two men talking. One is sitting in a chair, the other on the table. The one on the table is wearing a dress shirt and jeans. He has on a silver wristwatch and clear nail polish. His facial hair is shaped into a stylish goatee, and his lips are slightly chapped. Next to him on the table he’s placed two books: The Great Philosophers: Volume One, from Plato to Augustine and Computer Networking for Dummies. There must be a metal button on the back pocket of his jeans, because on the table next to him, there’s a long, faint scratch.
You have to use Premium Unleaded, the man on the table is saying. You spend that kind of money on a car and fill it with regular, it’s like dating a supermodel and taking her to McDonald’s. I’m not gonna lie, it’s expensive. I drop seventy-five bucks at the Citgo every four or five days. But it’s worth it.
Excuse me, sir, I say. You can’t sit there.
He looks up at me. What?
You can’t sit on the table, I tell him. You can sit on the chairs, but you can’t sit on the table.
He looks over at his friend and smiles slightly, then looks back to me. What does it matter? he asks.
And I feel it start.
Noise in my ears, something separating me from the world, sucking me into a place where everything moves too fast and I can’t slow it down. I feel my heart racing, my breath caught in my throat, and there are tears running down my face and into my mouth before I’m even aware that I’m crying. It’s too late, nothing can stop it, no matter what I think, Susan Jeff Sherrie Alfred Arkadius Arkadius.
I slam my fists against the bookcase behind me. It wobbles twice, then falls to the ground with a deafening bang. I scream. The man is on his feet, off the table, and shouting at me. His friend is shouting at me. The manager is jogging over. I cover my eyes with my hands and scream again. I sit down on the floor so hard it knocks my breath out of me. I lean my head forward, hit it against something hard, and there’s going to be blood I know it, and no one can help me now, and I open my eyes and see the table, and I scream and scream and scream.
When I get home there’s a man sitting at my kitchen table.
Normally, this would be distressing. I haven’t had anyone in my apartment in months. I get nervous when I hear the neighbor above me walking. I turn off the lights when someone knocks on the door. I have panic attacks when I hear the wind blowing outside. But this time I just stand in the entranceway and watch him.
The man has dark hair, like Amy. Pale skin like Shawn. Five o’clock shadow like Alfred. Big hands like Terry. He’s like if every person I made had children together.
He’s sitting on one side of the table, hunched over his work. My kitchen table is small, one of those that has leaves you fold up to make it bigger. But even when it’s completely open, it could only sit two people at the most. It looks like wood, but really it’s plastic, and if you scratch at it just with your fingernail, the wood covering comes off. On the edges of the leaves it’s completely torn away, revealing something black and sticky beneath. I found it on the sidewalk one trash day.
When I move a little closer, I can see what he’s doing. He’s got my pill holder, the big rectangular one, and he’s filling it for me. I wait for him to look up, but he’s intent on what he’s doing. I sit down across the table from him. Our knees are almost touching. He’s got all the bottles open, and he begins counting them out in a soft whisper.
Lithium: Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday. Klonopin: Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday. Xanax: Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday.
The slot for Tuesday is so full it’s spilling onto the table. A few pills are even on the floor, but he keeps on counting. After he’s taken from each bottle, he finally looks up, and his eyes are brown, like mine. Take this, he says. You’ll be okay.
Hurt-slash-comfort. I ask him, Are you going to hurt me?
He smiles for the first time. No, he says. I’m going to wrap up your story.
When I lie down in bed, I close my eyes and try to think about some of my people, the way I always do before I fall asleep. But they’re all gone. I can’t remember a single name. I must’ve sent them all away. Yes; there’s one in Vermont, one at the Olympics; some are old now, some are dead. I open my eyes. The man is gone. Everything’s blurry, there’s a dull pain in my chest, and I can barely lift my head.
I remember the glow of the overhead light and the faint reflection of my own face in a shiny wooden table. Around me everyone is eating, talking, laughing. Their forks and knives are clicking together, their glasses being lifted, their dishes filled. And I wonder how they can do this, how they can eat and drink and talk and seem happy, when inside they’re miserable, they want to cry, they’re panicked, they can’t stop shaking. And I realize it’s just me. I’m the only one. So I close my eyes and go to a world filled with all the people I’ve imagined.
Valerie Z Lewis is a writing professor in New York.