Friday, March 23, 2007

Previous Chapters: 1, 2


When I was twelve I spent a month in a mental hospital. I try not to remember much about what actually happened during that month – lots of jigsaw puzzles and television. We were forced to participate in long nature walks through the surrounding wilderness. There was also therapy and there were tests but mostly, in between torture sessions, I remember being very, very bored.

I learned very quickly not to talk about those things I feared. People think you’re crazy when you start talking about red walls and purple nightmares – its best to avoid such discussions altogether.

It was an old building, I remember that, a very nice institution set on a sloping green estate in a quiet rural town many miles from the city. There was well-maintained but rarely-used playground equipment in the building's front yard. Only the windows betrayed the building’s deeper motives: dark and furtive, laced throughout with metal wire to prevent them from shattering when crazy people tried to break them with chairs - which they would try to do in order to escape the intense pain of "treatment".

When my mother sent me to the hospital I think she was relieved. It’s not hard to see why. Ever since I had been three she had been afraid of me, casting suspicious glances in my direction every so often as she became increasingly convinced that not only could I see more than she could, but that I saw things which would forever be invisible to her. I also saw things inside her of which she was ignorant.

The painful outbursts decreased in frequency as I grew older. Partly this was due to the growing realization that I had to normalize my behavior to survive unmolested in the mainstream, and partly this was due to the fact that I grew inured to the chaotic and daily betrayal of my five senses. The event that precipitated my first and final institutionalization was my last major episode before puberty, as well as the last major episode I had the weakness to share with the world outside my mind. Also, it should be noted that the medication I was given succeeded in preventing these outbursts as well, but not without extracting a cost.

(I can only imagine the relief my mother felt as I left for college. In the space of eighteen years she had traversed an emotional gamut the likes of which I could never hope to understand – from maternal affection to cold disdain to naked betrayal. For much of my youth she regarded me as a coiled snake held close to her bosom, and she would probably have had more consideration for the snake.

But eventually she softened. Trauma and anguish change a person. I would never say she warmed to me, but perhaps she grew accustomed to the idea that I was eventually going to leave. This allowed her the luxury of feebly attempting to recreate the sensations of her initial maternal affections. I appreciated the attempt, even if I knew it to be specious.)

The walls of the hospital were made of gray bricks, stacked one on top of the other and whitewashed over throughout the long subterranean hallways of facility. The dormitories were made to appear warm and welcoming, with friendly colors on the walls and picture books on the tables, but the hospital was still as uninviting an institution as could be imagined. I remember the gray-white walls and the blue metal doors that swung shut behind the orderlies and doctors with loud swooping thuds. It was harsh and loud because there was so little atmosphere, it seemed as if we were eight miles high and the air was thin and brittle, but we were really underground, deep beneath the surface of the earth.

To my disdain I would later discover that the hallways in my college dormitory were whitewashed gray-brick as well. Only, the atmosphere at school was as far removed from that of a hospital as could be conceived: the air was heavy and jellied, caked around the doors and windows. It was not a new building and the rot and mildew of previous tenants hung in the air like meat on a hook.

Of course it goes without saying that I despised my collegiate peers. Once you’ve been in the mental hospital and seen the clouds melting around your mother’s face you learn the lesson that life is a painful bitter and redundant struggle. You work hard and your soul becomes callused. You fight and you fight against the prevailing winds to gain a footing on what you have no choice but to call your own "achievement".

But you’re surrounded by privilege and affectation. Everywhere around you are reminders of just how callow and disproportionate the world your peers inhabit actually is. Had any of them been in the mental hospital? Did they understand what true, profound privation and suffering were? I doubted it.

There’s a world that I will never inhabit. The inhabitants of this world believe that art and literature are fashion accessories, and that having fine prints from the Met on your wall and Pablo Neruda on your shelf somehow absolves you of having to struggle. Well, art is powerful for exactly the reasons that these people will never understand.

It’s powerful because it can destroy as easily as it can create. It’s harder and harder to appreciate beauty the deeper you explore misery. That’s why its so important, so vitally intrinsically important that people have their conceptions of beauty and truth, so that we can somehow manage to keep living even when we’re seeing three thousand people die on the television in our living room in real time.

If you don’t understand this, if you’ve never suffered, how can you claim any appreciation of beauty? It’s callow and selfish and delusional to pretend at depths you cannot fathom.

So I spent a great deal of time in college sitting behind the dorms near the garbage dumpster and chain smoking. I would sit against the fence and read my books in the shadows of the streetlight and pull my jacket closer to my skin because it was getting chilly outside but I didn’t’ want to go inside because they would all be sitting around playing video games and listening to MTV. It seems petty, doesn’t it? But I don’t want to have to pretend I care, that would just be needlessly unpleasant for all concerned.

I’m already a loner with a reputation for sullen disrespect. My mother calls every few days and we actually have long meaningful conversations. Perhaps she misses me – if for no other reason than that I was the closest thing in her life to a constant? The closest thing in her life to an actual living breathing confidant, based on the fact that even if we didn’t like each other we still had a shared background of distrust and codependence?

She missed my father, I could tell. When she had been thinking about my father I would come home late in the day after high school classes and find her sitting in the kitchen in front of a cold cup of coffee and staring at a half-finished crossword puzzle or possibly a romance potboiler that she had placed before her and simply forgot. She had loved my father and she regarded me strangely as her only link to him, a mystifying mixture of keepsake and indictment. He was gone, she was still here, I was still here with her, why was this so?

In the habits and attitudes of those who come into money late in life, I have come to recognize a certain mortified stiffness of demeanor, a pallid rigidity that reflects an inherent uncertainty. My mother was never comfortable in her own skin after the day she became a millionaire. Her mind, the body which imprisoned that mind and the world around that body became perfect strangers, reflecting only distrust and anxiety. There is a constant fear that the sky will open and God will descend to Earth flanked by a chorus of angels in order to explain in very reassuring yet firm tones that the money was a mistake and he’s going to take it all back.

So the money became a burden. If the wealth had been intended to ease the suffering my father’s passing had left, it was a total failure. My mother would have been happy to be poor in his presence – now that she was rich in his absence she felt shame.

Of course, all of these things appeared in my thoughts in the duration of a mere instant as I sat uncomfortably in that dry and stuffy cell, with my inebriated friend for company and those two anonymous criminals with whom my fate had become temporarily and inexplicably tied. It had been a busy night for the campus police. There were drunken and disorderly frat brothers and sexually assaulted coeds running everywhere, it seemed, and the cops were just too busy to actually do anything about any of it.

As we had been booked there was a girl in the front of the station begging and crying and screaming for help, claiming she had been raped and that a group of boys at one of the fraternities had ganged up on her when she was drunk. She had been wearing the remains of a nice outfit, a short plaid skirt and a white blouse that she had sweat right through. She had been drinking and was still somewhat drunk but there was a fevered hint of sobriety at the edges of her voice, a hysterical glint in her words that betrayed a deep and portentous suffering. Of course, she was ignored.

So the ceiling is low and the lights are flickering. It’s late at night and its pretty hot outside because I’m sweating underneath my coat even through its supposedly air-conditioned inside the jail. I’m going to be sweating for hours tonight, even when I’m back in my apartment I’m going to feel my body sticking against the sheets. Nervous shivers rack my body. I am calm.

There’s a girl down the hall in my apartment building who I initially found attractive but who has since fallen in my estimation. She’s rich and comes from a background of privilege and license, and I find myself unable to mask my sarcasm when I’m around her. She seems functionally intelligent but lacks the kind of essential hunger that is necessary to succeed in this world, unless you have already achieved success by virtue of your birth.

Of course, this is the same problem I see all around me. Everyone seems recklessly intent on squandering their advantages and wallowing in their own concupiscence for mediocrity. It’s a depressing world to have to live in because no one seems at all worried about what they’re going to do with their lives.

These thoughts are still bubbling in my head when the action occurs.

I had been nodding myself to sleep in the quiet interim when I was woken by the struggle. The two men who shared our cell, the two shadowy figures who had killed the police officer as I watched in horror, who I had later seen to be punk kids little older than myself, were speaking in loud and agitated voices. They became increasingly angry as the minutes of captivity passed into hours, and finally the agitation erupted into desperation and violence.

The smaller one stands and runs to the opposite end of the cell, trying to stand out of the larger man's reach. The larger one leans down and pulls something small out of his sneaker, I can’t quite tell what because I’m trying very hard to seem like I’m totally ignoring what’s going on even though I can’t look away. It’s a small cell so my attempts at ignorance go unrewarded.

The small man is wailing like a cornered animal as the larger man strides confidently across the cell. There’s something in his hand and his eyes are fixed, like inanimate objects, rocks or stones set against the pasty backdrop of his face.

The small man is screaming louder and louder for help, for any kind of help but there are no answers. Everyone in the jail is looking at what’s going on in our cell but everyone is strangely quiet: all the petty crooks, all the drunks, all the hookers and all the brawlers. I get up and move across the cell to where my inebriated friend is laying, the only person in the cellblock oblivious to the drama, pursued by his imaginary demons.

On the opposite end of the cell, nearer where I had been sitting, the larger man has the smaller man backed into the corner and he’s holding him against the wall with the collar of his dark leather jacket balled in his fist. Suddenly there’s movement and then there’s blood everywhere, like he had reached into the smaller man’s chest and turned a faucet, because it’s on the man’s jacket and splattering on the floor.

The larger man turns away from the victim and tosses the knife away, into the hallway. His hands are covered in grimy, dark black-red blood and he’s got a strangely distracted look on his face. The smaller man slumps to the floor, his hands limp and his face ashen. His blood is everywhere it shouldn’t be and he can’t put any of it back where it’s supposed to be and he seems mildly amused by the irony as he starts to quietly cough and the blood drips down his chin.

Finally, after what seems like an eternity the police respond to the commotion and move into the cellblock en masse, opening the door to our cell and pushing the larger man to the floor and running to the smaller man but he’s already dead. Of course, my friend and I are overlooked and that’s for the best all things considered.

The smaller man dies before they can do anything and the larger man is mute, he seems tired and he doesn’t want to communicate anything, he just wants to go to sleep from the way he acts. He’s still got blood all over him and even some spurted on his face, shading his mouth and his eyes so that it looks like he put on war paint. He’s on the floor and he’s handcuffed and the police are yelling and shouting at him but he just looks like he’s about to fall asleep right there in the jail cell as he's being held to the ground.

And of course I never found out what any of that was about, not until much later.

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