by Emma Smith-Stevens, originally published in Subtropics (Spring/Summer 2015)
In that hospital there was a library. M discovered it while trying to eat a hamburger with a frozen center. She and the other patients ate under supervision, sitting at long tables. At the head of M’s table sat a dietician whose name was Darcy. After M bit into the hamburger she looked at Darcy, who wore a necklace made of heavy wooden beads. M said, “I can’t eat this.”
Darcy always tried to be cool. She would root her feet into a shoulder-width stance and try to talk regular, as if to say: What is sickness? I’m not afraid. The only difference between me and you is that I have a key and you do not.
The hamburger was thick with frost. Darcy was so sorry about that.
M looked at the other patients who were eating. Their sicknesses were hammer holes in drywall. M’s sickness was the stamen of a flower, that neon filament at a blossom’s center. Call it an accident, but what is an accident? Her fingers betrayed her to just touch that yellow pollen. That color gets on everything like a broken highlighter pen. You wipe and wipe, but still. She thought, I need to somehow be alone.
At another table, a lady made a scene. Darcy and all the techs and nurses rushed over to where the lady stood shouting, throwing handfuls of salad up into the face of a big man. The man peeled his shoulders back, balled his fists. Near the back of the cafeteria, M stepped sideways through a door.
The room was like a cave or tunnel. It was dark and to the side of things. Two benches ran along one side of it. A stack of USA Todays balanced on the floor in an impossible arch. Above the benches was a reinforced window: wires crisscrossed between two filthy panes. Through that window, the city looked like a charcoal sketch of a city, smudged and smudged, perfected into a big mistake. Although the venetian blinds were drawn, M knew this to be true. Every window in that hospital was constructed the same way; the city was always that city.
Against the opposite wall, three large bookshelves rose up. Each of the patients had a sickness but those books were not about sickness. They were about romance and aerobic exercise, criminal and sleuths, cooking with microwaves, the lives of great men and disgraced celebrities, learning not to sweat the small stuff. None of this was relevant in that hospital. M could not imagine any of the patients doing aerobics. Romance was disallowed. There was a microwave, but it was sequestered in the nurses’ station. Crimes on the unit—petty thefts mostly, but also the occasional groping or scuffle—were not investigated by anyone, let alone detectives, and certainly did not culminate in the perpetrators being brought to justice. These books were platitudes. They were indecipherable. Jokes.
For a long time, M stood in the library not wanting to touch anything—not the books and not the benches. People were supposed to sit and read on those benches. M couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t fathom a reason. There was a Plexiglas window in a door, a fluorescent yellow square. Sunlight came in stripes between the plastic slots of the blinds.
The sunlight was the same dirty orange as the dirty orange benches against the wall. The stripes of sunlight stretched across everything. If M could have seen herself, she would have been tethered by that light. She would have thought, How lovely.
Five months ago, M was supposed to be married in a church beside a lake. A thing had happened that day. The thing had nothing to do with the wedding. Things just happen on particular days. Doctors in that hospital had a name for the thing that had happened, and which was still happening now: an episode. M had hated the phrase ever since she had first heard it upon her arrival at the church, when a family friend who was not exactly a doctor, but some kind of counselor, warned that M was clearly having an episode. Beginning with the family friend’s proclamation, spoken in a hushed voice to M’s father in the front row, whispers traveled back through the pews. When the ripple of whispers reached the rearmost pew, the church went silent. As the wedding-goers filed down the aisles and out into the bright afternoon, every one of them looked almost, but not quite, at M.
In the library, M took a dictionary from one of the bookshelves and scanned through the Es: Episcopalian, episcopate, episiotomy.
a. an event or a short period of time that is important or unusual
b. a television show, radio show, etc., that is one part of a series
c. a developed situation that is integral to but separable from a continuous narrative
In that hospital the doctors had said that M might never recover from her episode. According to its definitions, episode implied impermanence or transience, a circumstance with an end point. It was now clear to M that the doctors did not understand the meaning of the word.
M believed that no time in a hospital was a short period of time, i.e., an episode, because time did not exist in hospitals. Patients hovered in the space between fluorescent lights and linoleum floors, gliding silently down corridors. They floated near the meds window waiting for the meds nurse to dispense pills, played checkers and solitaire and Uno, watched America’s Next Top Model, Cops, and live coverage of national disasters. Eventually—after days, weeks, or very occasionally months—they were discharged. Often, anywhere between a few days to a few weeks later, the discharged patients returned. As once again they were strip-searched and checked for drugs and weapons and self-inflicted wounds, and as they handed over their shoelaces and drawstrings and pens, they gave no indication that anything whatsoever had happened between then and now, no sign that they perceived themselves as having failed or been failed; they were not back so much as still there. Wearing hospital gowns and sweatpants and blue ankle socks with rubber no-skid treads, they moved through the ward. Life did not exist except inside of that repetition—up the corridor, down the corridor, on and on. The patients’ slack jaws, dilated pupils, chalk-dry lips; their delusions, resentments, and dietary restrictions (Kosher, lactose-free, vegetarian, diabetic); each of their subtle variations on the neuroleptic gait, a shuffling M thought of as ambulatory rigor mortis—all were the same as before. Given that nothing had altered between the patients’ comings and goings, their discharges and intakes, how could M be sure whether they had ever left at all? And how could she be certain that the returning patients, the so-called frequent flyers, weren’t actually brand-new patients who happened to bear uncanny resemblances to former patients? And if no one ever came or left—and no one ever did, not in any real way—how was M to believe that time was linear, that there were such things as before and after? What proof was there, really, to contradict what all of the evidence clearly supported? That M’s stay in the hospital was not a period of time, i.e., an episode, but a single point, a dense little dot marking the precise location of an eternity in which fluorescent lights glared and linoleum floors gleamed and patients roamed like ghosts?
M’s life since her wedding day in no way resembled an installment, i.e., episode, of a television show or radio show; and certainly it did not constitute a portion of some ongoing etc. She herself was now the ongoing etc., the thing in its entirety. It might seem, then, that she was like the whole of a television or radio series, an accumulation of all the episodes, but that, too, seemed false to her. M’s existence expanded without interruption, was not divided into segments, was not shaped by a narrative arc or rising action or dramatic tension. M was a protagonist behind whom various backdrops flitted: the backseat of a Honda Civic, a church, her parents’ house, a doctor’s office, and now a hospital. The settings whirred by but the star stood still. There was no way to change the dial. There was no possibility of M being canceled.
It was true that on her wedding day a continuous narrative had begun, but it was a narrative from which she believed she was not and could never be separated. In other words, the narrative was not part of M’s life, i.e., an episode; it was the whole of M, a reverberation of the life that was and always would be hers.
With her bridesmaids and maid of honor in a car on the way to the church, M said, “Stop at this gas station.” The door to the TravelMart was hooked up to an electronic chime. Inside, M passed rotisserie hot dogs and candies and drinks, making her way to a restroom in the back. The restroom was tiny and dirty, illuminated by the irregular flickers of a naked yellow bulb whose filament was on its way out. Upon reentering the store she began to walk toward the door. She moved slowly, placing one foot very deliberately onto a tile and then placing the other foot onto the next tile and so on. She could not explain to herself the meticulousness of her progression toward the exit. Later a doctor would postulate that M had been nervous about getting married and wished to avoid it. Another doctor would conclude that M had been overwhelmed by the magnitude of her happiness, her mind revving until it broke down—her neurons like billions of overheated engines. Both doctors would be wrong. M had forgotten about the wedding completely.
A tiny girl reached into the frosty depths of an ice chest and withdrew an ice-cream sandwich. Beside the girl a round-bellied, stick-legged woman yawned. She said, “Let’s get going, hon.” A man purchased one—“No, make it two”—packs of cigarettes. M remembered her bridesmaids and maid of honor sitting outside in the car. She wished she could stay in that TravelMart forever. “Let’s get going, hon,” she said under her breath. “One step—no, make it two.”
The sun shone on M as she neared the door. In the middle of the doorway she halted. There was the smell of gasoline and cigarettes and grease. The light of the sun was layered over those smells. Then the light of the sun blocked out all other things. M stood outside of herself, 10 or 12 feet away. It was the perfect distance from which to see herself. In that doorway M was hard and resplendent as winter. The sunlight stretched over everything. Bands of light wrapped around and across her. People muttered things, pushed past her. They said, “Excuse me.” The door could not close because M was standing in the middle of the frame. “Miss,” said the cashier, “you’re blocking the door.” The door chime kept sounding. M watched every part of herself become illuminated until everything old was gone. “Hello?” said the cashier. Beneath the layers of sunlight M thinned and frayed, flickering, about to burn out. The cashier said, “Can you hear me?” It was in this moment that the thing happened. It was a transformation—not the repair of faulty mechanism, but a revolution of its design. M’s maid of honor shouted through the car’s open window: “What are you doing?” M began to generate her own light, which emanated from her and tangled with the ribbons of light from the sun. In the doorway, the Honda Civic, the church, and that hospital, the door chime sounded off: bing, bing, bing, bing.