Read an Excerpt from Justin Chrestman’s “Astronaut House,” Winner of the 2015 Annual Award in FictionPosted: June 20, 2015
From “Astronaut House” by Justin Chrestman of Houston, TX, 2015 National Fiction Winner
Then suddenly it was like the world had stopped its spinning and left us going forward and I could hear the tires catching against the road gripping for grim life. The seatbelt held me like a strong arm as the cigarette flew from Bonnie’s mouth and exploded in sparks against the windshield. Nash had stopped right in the center of the highway. He unbuckled and got out of the car and stood in the road. He lifted up his pant leg and I saw a gun holstered to his ankle.
Bonnie looked out the rear window searching probably for the lights of the car that would at any minute come over the horizon and crash us into oblivion. Her long hands grabbed at her belly as though the baby might at any minute fly forward and out and away from her forever.
You’re doomed, Nash said. But he wasn’t talking to us. He aimed his pistol into the night. I expected to hear a loud bang but when he pulled the trigger there was just a whisper of sound. It looked real but it was only an air gun.
About this time Bonnie began to curse. Low words spoken so close they all wrecked into each other and became one big four letter pile up. Nash ran up the road and picked something up.
Before he got back in the car he threw the dead jackrabbit next to me in the back seat. It had a little bald spot on its head where the pellet must have hit. One of its legs twitched a bit but it was pretty dead.
Bonnie’s curses became louder.
It couldn’t be helped, Nash said. Nature is my sworn enemy.
Creative Nonfiction Finalist Michael Palmer of Lubbock, TX : What Else:”
“I lived in a tiny basement apartment in Orem, Utah with one roommate. The place was enough of a shithole that even my rosy vision, enhanced by the excitement of living away from home for the first time, wouldn’t allow me to spin it as anything else. It had stained, maroon carpet, and the “walls” that made up our two “bedrooms” were flimsy beige dividers, similar to the cubicle dividers at Western Wats. We shared a bathroom; it looked like there had once been a medicine cabinet in there, but it had been ripped from the wall. Otherwise there was a loosely secured sink and an old bathtub with a showerhead that had been installed by hobbits.
The upstairs of the house was rented by a group of four guys who were in a Christian (“NOT Mormon”) metal band called Adjacent to the Lord. They practiced in the garage, and when they would play, the cereal bowls on our coffee table would shake and vibrate, Godzilla-style.
My roommate was a transgendered woman named Erin. We’d grown up together, and when we first signed the lease, she still publicly identified as a man and went by Chris.
One night, drinking coffee at the Village Inn up the street, just as the caffeine fidgeting started and I thought we were ready to leave a tip and walk back home, she asked me if I’d ever heard of gender dysphoria.
The answer was no, but since the question wasn’t about our usual topics of girls, possible road trips, or hypotheticals about who would win in a fight, I didn’t even say that. Sensing something was coming, I just looked at my speckled mug half full of coffee. In the two am diner light, the coffee looked like grease. I stirred, as if that was a response.
First Place Winner in Creative Nonfiction: “The Particulars” by Rosemary Jones of Seattle, WA:
One summer when he had gone mad with drink and despair, he found me in my flat on a long straight city road where the smell of trucks replaced the smell of hops. I complained of an aching back. He cupped his hands around my skin without touching me. Heat pulsed from his palms, as if he knew how to heal everyone except himself.
I am not where I should be with all this. He liked giving presents. He gave me a small wooden box I don’t have anymore. He gave me a large pewter Celtic brooch when I was about to leave overseas—to be married, as it turned out. Later he sent me a care package of tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil. Two Australian essentials. I still have the bottles, it takes more than a decade to use them. I didn’t give him presents. I listened. I did not listen enough. I am sorry, sorry, ever sorry. Before I left, I mentioned I hoped to have a child. Heavens, he said, you need to run up and down hills for that. He was being helpful, funny, full of kindness. He had stopped drinking, cold turkey, a new permanence. And a lonely one. In the end, my husband and I found our children in a different way, there was no need to run up and down hills or gullies. Back in my old world, I met him with one of them in tow. She was as tiny as a present. We went out to lunch. Asian fusion. He asked if I’d like a glass of wine. I declined. I didn’t want him to be tempted, but I needn’t have worried. He sniffed wine with his mates, he said, but never drank it. I ordered dessert, and that pleased him. We should have done this again, but in the future that was to come, we—not him—had another child. When we visited, we were always taking them in and out of grandparents’ gates, balancing our irregular, double-hemisphered boat. For years I did not contact him. I had my own particulars. I forgot about his.
Order Alligator Juniper 2015 here.
Alligator Juniper’s Managing/Prose Editor, Skye Anicca, explores mystery and the muse with Peter Turchi ,”one of the country’s foremost thinkers on the art of writing” as described by the Houston Chronicle.
Turchi is the author of five books and the co-editor of three anthologies. His stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Story, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Puerto del Sol, and The Colorado Review, among other journals. He has received Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize, an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award, North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
In this dialogue, published in AJ 2015, we invite readers to learn more about this incredible educator and writer.
SA: Clearly, you are invested in the teaching of creative writing, though in your most recent book, A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, you’ve also written that “unlike a magical illusion, some of the most powerful effects of a story, poem, or novel actually do transcend rational explanation. Discussions of the writer’s craft, of conscious decisions, can take us only so far.” You also write that artistic “vision” cannot be taught, but it can be “cultivated.” How can the discussion-based workshop model support artistic mystery and the cultivation of vision?
PT: That’s a wonderful question. Madison Smartt Bell has written that workshops often become a fault-finding mechanism; consciously or not, participants (including the workshop leader) feel they haven’t done their job until they’ve found something “wrong” in the work up for discussion. More generally, many people, including Flannery O’Connor, have noted that workshops often encourage conformity to a conservative aesthetic, a familiar-looking story. It’s just as common to hear writers say, “If this story/novel by Alice Munro/Franz Kafka/Aimee Bender/Vladimir Nabokov had been submitted to a workshop, it would have been torn apart.”
So how do we avoid those pitfalls? We can try, always, to recognize the intention of the work on its own terms. We need to resist the impulse to turn a tractor into a Porsche, or vice versa. We can recognize what’s most interesting or intriguing in the draft, even if it seems unconventional, incomplete, or not yet fully persuasive. We should keep in mind that much of the poetry and fiction we most admire contains mysterious, even inexplicable elements . . .
SA: Your newest book points out that authors must distance themselves from their personal experiences in order to write about them effectively. Most writers have experienced the challenge of this deceptively simple advice. A Muse and A Maze offers strategies on how to do this, primarily directed at fictionalizing externals in order to preserve emotional power while allowing for distance. The book also imparts the following philosophical advice, applicable to all genres: our internal gaze must be intense, “as if we were foreign, like a scientist looking through a microscope at his own blood.” What does this aspect of the process look like for you—in addition to distancing exercises, what ways do you facilitate your ability to see yourself simultaneously inside and out? Are there some experiences from which you are unable to distance yourself enough to tell the story?
PT: While changing details of a person, event, or setting can help create distance between something from life and whatever it becomes on the page, most often the voice and tone I choose are enough to get me started shaping and re-imagining the material. Any event or response can be depicted in countless ways; as soon as I choose a perspective, I start to see the event differently, start to imagine its possibilities . . .
To read the rest of this incredible interview, please subscribe to Alligator Juniper.
Alligator Juniper is excited to announce the new
sponsors of our annual student contest, now entitled
The James and Judith Walsh Awards in Creative
Nonfiction, Fiction, & Poetry.
James P. Walsh of Oracle, Arizona is a member of Prescott College’s Board of Trustees.
James and Judy met 50 years ago in literary class, and both have active creative literary interests. Mr. & Mrs. Walsh’s generous donation will encourage talented student writers at Prescott College by awarding first, second, and third prize winners in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction monetary prizes. Each year, first place winners are also published in Alligator Juniper. For a sample of student talent, read the 2013 CNF student winner E.L. DeLeo’s memoir “A Fairly Quiet Hour.”
Alligator Juniper, 2013, Student Winner: Creative Nonfiction
After it appeared in AJ, “The Fairly Quiet Hour” was selected for inclusion in plain china, a national literary anthology out of Bennington College that showcases the best undergraduate writing from across the country.
The Fairly Quiet Hour by E.L. DeLeo
There is a liquid line between those who are called sane and those who are not.
The night I am committed to this hospital, the intake woman leaves me waiting alone on a bench in a hall before beeping her way out through automatic locking doors. Feeling a confused mixture of boredom and terror, I watch normal-seeming adolescent girls approach the large desk to my right.
One by one, each girl takes a tiny paper cup in one hand. She holds it to her mouth, tips her head back, and then with her free hand, finds the clear, plastic cup filled with golden liquid in front of her. She throws it all back in one gulp, and then opens her mouth and lifts her tongue so that the slightly older, name-tagged person behind the desk can inspect inside to make sure no pills remain.
I watch eighteen girls go through this routine before a sphere-like woman with a nametag that says Ms. Lipsky emerges from behind the desk. She leads me into a tiny bathroom and instructs me take off my clothes. When I look at her wide-eyed, she tells me not to worry because it’s procedure. She has a clipboard hedged on her breast, which conveniently affords me some privacy. On the clipboard is a sheet of paper with a sketch of a naked humanlike creature on which she is supposed to draw every scar, tattoo, or other irregular marking she finds on my body.
Sensing my hesitation, Ms. Lipsky explains that cooperating with directives is not a choice. Refusal to cooperate results in a loss of privileges, and sometimes, physical force. I do not wish to know any more about this, so I pull my shirt up over my head.
A few days later, I am sitting on a couch in the common room looking up at Rene when she arrives on our unit. Other girls stand around craning their necks up at the television, which hangs from a high corner.
I am sixteen years old and it is November 2005. We are patients in Fairfield Children’s Hospital, located twenty miles north of the Brooklyn Bridge and situated on the edge of a twelve hundred acre lake, but I don’t know this at the time. The lake is not viewable from any window inside, nor even from our “backyard,” to which we are taken each day during the warmer months for “picnics” and “cookouts.” Our fresh air is contained by a twenty-foot high chain-link fence. Carefully mowed lawns, which few patients ever step foot on, surround the overlapping compound of tungsten blocks and passageways.
Someone asks Rene the ritual question of induction: Whatchu in here for? Whether she knows it or not, she is the newest player in our mad horde who constantly try to top one another’s stories. Her black eyes, set against a chalky pallor, scan us. She rocks forward, pushing hands deeper into baggy jeans.
“I jump off ze Brooklyn Bridge,” she says.
I do not believe her at the time. Jumpers rarely survive the one hundred thirty-five foot drop. On a home visit months later, I will Google her name and find two newspaper articles about her jump. I will learn that she was fished out of the East River by a police boat.
“Ze cops come when I am standing on ze bridge and say, ‘No, don’t do zat!’ It’s stupid! And zen, poof—” She lifts her arms, as if preparing to take flight. “I jump.”
The psychiatrist designates Rene a suicide and AWOL risk, so she is placed on CO (constant observation status). This means that she will be watched by a staff member twenty-four hours a day. Mrs. Lorenzo, a great, shuffling diabetic who lugs a purse everywhere, is assigned to be her primary CO.
Mrs. Lorenzo eats plain salads for lunch and PayDays for afternoon snacks, followed by diabetes pills and insulin shots. She wears thick glasses for her Reader’s Digests. Torn-up copies poke out of her bulging bag, which she is forever rummaging in for one pill or another, scrunched napkins and sugar free mints dropping onto the floor. Daily, Mrs. Lorenzo squats in a folding chair between Rene’s doorframe, squinting into the Reader’s Digest while Rene sits cross-legged on her bed a few feet to the right, filling the pages of a journal.
I am sitting dull-faced in a group meeting where patients may present concerns about community issues. I bring up the fact that the only channel ever on in the common room is BET, which plays primarily hip-hop and R&B music videos. The eardrum-grinding pulses permeate every sonic inch of the unit, preventing me from concentrating on anything useful I might do with my free time.
My comment is immediately rebuffed by the other girls. They claim I have no clout in the matter because I am the only one who dislikes BET. This is not exactly true, however. A tiny, enormously spectacled girl named Stephanie, who brought Neopets trading cards in her luggage, and who leaves each day on a highly exceptional exception to attend A Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsals at her high school, does not like BET either. She manages to raise a small note in my favor, but is quickly overcome by the others.
I offer MTV as a possible compromise. They play hip-hop on MTV, I point out. The staff mediator, Ms. Brien, explains that five years ago, a girl on our unit watched Linkin Park’s “In the End” video on MTV and later reported suicidal thoughts, so the channel was banned.
“That was five years ago,” I say. “She isn’t even here still.”
Ms. Brien sighs. “Guess what. This ain’t the Holiday Inn.”
Each day in Fairfield, we have a Quiet Hour. This is the only time of day when the television gets shut off. We must remain in our rooms during Quiet Hour, not speaking or sleeping. When I got here a few weeks ago, my dad brought me a thousand-page SAT study guide to keep me busy during this time of day.
My dad comes to see me every weekend, and his visits offer a rare kind of relief. Instead of asking me how I am doing and then listening with the kind of vigorous head-nodding credulity of so many well-meaning aunts, he educates me on life matters, things I’d need to know whether or not I was a mental patient. He tells me about nutrition, like the benefits of fish oil in brain function, and says he will bring me some the next time he visits. He says that my eight-year-old sister won’t stop asking where I am, and telling her I am on a private vacation is suspicious even to her, so it would be best if I came home soon.
I take the study guide from my night table this Quiet Hour and open to a sentence completion section.
A dictatorship ________ its citizens to be docile and finds it expedient to make outcasts of those who do not ________.
(A) forces . . rebel
(B) expects . . disobey
(C) requires . . conform
(D) allows . . withdraw
(E) forbids . . agree
I circle “C.” After sentence completions, I do analogies.
ALIENATE : ESTRANGEMENT ::
(A) discommode : inconvenience
(B) sequester : monasticism
(C) palliate : boredom
(D) orchestrate : symphony
(E) aspire : enthusiasm
I circle “A,” then pick up my dictionary to look up palliate. As slowly as possible, I copy the definition into a notebook.
(pal ē āt), v.t., 1. to conceal the gravity of (an offense) by excuses, apologies, etc.
- to relieve without curing, as a disease.
A one-by-two-foot west-facing window sits over the head of my bed. Each day during Quiet Hour, a slab of light slips through it and creeps onto my blanket. This is the signal for my ritual. I place my journal inside the slab so the words gleam on the page. Sunlit words make me feel optimistic. As the sun arcs downward, the slab slides toward the foot of my bed. I inch my journal along with it so it stays inside of the sun while I write. In order not to block the path of light, I have to kneel on the floor, but I do not mind because this makes it even more of a ritual.
After Quiet Hour, we go to the recreation room where I arrange my study guide, dictionary, and definition notebook in front of me on the table. Others, including Rene, sit around a card table, playing Spades. Ms. Brien, who is supervising us this evening, notices the books I have brought. She says, “You are here to engage in social activities, not isolate yourself with those books.”
“But I’m studying for the SAT.”
She says if she sees me with the books in the rec. room again, she will take them away. A new girl named Korin saves me from having to respond to this just then by strolling out of the rec. room and into the hall without permission. When Ms. Brien orders her back in, she shouts, “I’ll do whatever I want!” and continues down the hall. Ms. Brien picks up the telephone receiver on the wall.
When someone is considered out of control or unsafe, a team somewhat like mall security is called to regain control of the person. These bulky, rote men occupy a part of the building unknown to us, and can arrive onsite within seconds.
The age range here is eleven to eighteen, and Korin, being twelve, is our youngest. When asked the ritual question, she talked about being left alone by her parents for weeks in her house with her siblings, and about an older brother who took advantage of her during that time. She is here for hitting other children in school.
The security staff arrive and order Korin back into the rec. room. When she refuses and swings at them, they pile on top of her. From inside the rec. room, I hear her voice beneath the pile.
“You can’t stop me from calling my Mom! Please, I want to call my Mom! Please!” she says, cheek to a square of speckled linoleum.
“Tell me you’re safe! I want to hear you say that,” one says.
“Okay, what? What do you need to say?”
“Okay . . . I—,” and then she can no longer speak because she is howling.
During Quiet Hour the next day, I sit on my bed brushing my hair and thinking of what I would do if they took my things away. I know I could kill a number of hours counting the glossy-white cinder blocks that wallpaper my room. I make a mental note to reserve this activity, should such a time come. I arrange the strands of fallen-out hair in neat rows on my bed. If it ever got so bad, I think, I could braid these strands, and then braid those braids, and so on, until I had a rope. With this in mind, I place the strands in my night table drawer.
A week later, in the middle of the night, I am awoken by Ms. Davy, a staff member. She flips the light on. “Let’s see your cuts.”
A few days ago, my Mom came to visit. She brought my five-year-old brother, who ran through the hall like he owned the place, like he thought this was a summer camp. I said, “Hi, baby!” plucked him up and kissed his face. My Mom told me that since I’ve been away, he started taking photo albums off the shelf and sitting on the floor by himself, flipping through them, looking for pictures of me.
In the visitation room, my Mom gave me a gift—a necklace strung with large, colorful glass beads. She asked me how things were. I told her what I had been saying since I arrived at Fairfield—that the staff weren’t honest, the rules contradicted themselves, and things were disorganized at the expense of the patients. She said, “Keep your chin up,” which was her standard advice to my problems that she could do nothing about.
Later that day, while idly chewing on one of the necklace beads, a chip of it came off in my mouth. This gave me an idea. That night, I lay in bed with the covers over my head, placing beads between my front teeth and cracking them in half. Before long, I made the necklace into a pile of loose shards. I sat on the end of my bed, and with the light from the common room, I cut myself. Many people are perplexed by NSSI (nonsuicidal self-injury). There is no single answer to why people harm themselves, but I liken it to the feeling of waking up the first morning after a persistent cold. The exuberant vitality you feel upon waking is something like what a self-injurer feels just after they cease harming themselves. The contrast between pain and the removal of it creates a sensation of wellness.
I do not argue with Ms. Davy. I show her the cuts. She tells me that the following day I will be placed on CO status like Rene, plus body checks and clean room. This means that I will be watched while I shower (no curtain allowed) and use the toilet (door open), and that each day I will have to stand in front of a staff member and remove all of my clothing while they check me for new cuts.
Clean room means that a staff person will come into my room with a large plastic bag, search every corner, open every drawer, and dump all of my things into it. Then they will lock the bag in the nurse’s office. Each morning, I will have to request an outfit for the day. Eventually, I can earn back my clothes, the study guide, and everything else, if I refrain from harming myself. Ms. Davy flips the light off as she leaves.
I begin to punch the wall, and I intend to keep doing so until the pain in my hand feels worse than being locked in this place. After five minutes, Ms. Davy comes back in and asks if I want Benadryl to fall back asleep. “I do not need anything from you,” I say.
Minutes later, she returns with two male overnight staff members. She is holding a needle in her hand, point-side-up. She says if I do not stop punching the wall, she will give me the needle. I say, “Go away,” and continue to punch. The two men jump on top of me while Ms. Davy pulls down the back my pajama pants and injects the tranquilizer Thorazine. Pressed on my side, I am immobile and stunned.
They shut off the light as they leave the room. I remain on my side for several minutes, taking shallow breaths. They will not control me, I think. I rise and walk into the common room where a staff member sits on the couch, watching the news on mute. I walk toward a couch on the other side of the room. Before I get there, a rush of heat seeps into the back of my skull; I see black, and then I am kneeling on the floor. The staff person helps me back into bed.
The next day, after they have taken everything and I have put on a strip show (this is actually how they refer to it, to lighten the mood, I think), I begin to scratch my skin with my fingernails. When scabs form, I scratch them off and make new scratches on my arms, legs, hands, and feet. My CO is ever-present, warning me not to do this.
At one point, a group of staff pin me in an armchair. Four hold me down with all their body weight while one, disconcerted, goes in with nail clippers and does a thoroughly ragged job. While concentrating on a pinky nail, he says, “I wish I didn’t have to do this to you.”
Within a couple of days, my fingernails have grown enough to start scratching again, and I do. The staff says, “That’s it. No more chances.” They tell me to go in the group meeting room, and that if I don’t, they will put me in there, and that I won’t like how they do it. I go to the meeting room, climb onto a couch, and pull my knees to my chest.
The group meeting room is separated from the common room by a hall so long that I cannot even hear BET. A doorless threshold behind me leads into an approximately ten-by-ten-foot room that is hard not to notice while sitting in group meetings. This bedroom-like space is empty save for a thin, vinyl mattress set in a wooden bed frame in the center of the floor. The mattress has no blanket or pillow. At the bed frame’s corners, four slots are carved into the wood.
Four men twice my size step through the doorway behind me. My head is between my knees, and I have compressed myself into the smallest space possible. I lift my head for an instant to check the wall clock. It is 4:30 p.m.
Before it happens, one of them says “Okay.” I feel a hand touch my shoulder. For a moment I think they might let this go. Maybe they are about to say, This is unnecessary. Look at her. She’s not doing anything.
Then the hand squeezes my shoulder, but not in a forgiving way. It squeezes as if to lift me by my shoulder. Until this moment, I was plotting an escape route. I forgot why men open jars.
I begin to scream.
More hands grab wrists and kicking feet. They lift me from the couch and force me into the room. I hit the bed like a car accident: that moment when you become acutely aware of your velocity in the world and how startling it is to be stopped.
Each man has a tan leather cuff dangling from his back belt loop. With these cuffs, they fasten me to the bed like you would a mattress to the roof of a car. Out of the top of my left eye, I see sweat on a wrinkled forehead. “I think you just need a little TLC,” he says.
The way they all lean back now makes me realize they are pressing their toes against the wooden bed frame with the strap ends in their hands. “It’s too tight!” I say. “The straps are too tight!” No one responds. I screech obscenities at them as they finish buckling the straps. As they leave, one says that if I am quiet, they will let me out soon.
I am left by myself for a moment, heaving and aghast. The leather cuffs pinch the undersides of my wrists into folds. My arms and legs are diametrically opposed, and my shoulders nearly touch my ears. I cannot bend my knees or elbows. I try moving up to relieve pressure from my wrists, but find that my body is being pulled equally hard in both directions.
A woman carrying a folding chair and an Ebony magazine appears in the doorway. “Who the hell are you?” I want to know. She says she is there to watch me. “Watch me do what?” I want to know. My own lucidity surprises me. I always thought that in traumatic situations the human mind flies away, in a sense, to block its own perception, to protect itself. It can do anything, right? It got me here.
“You better not look at me,” I say.
She sets the chair down facing the door and seats herself in it so that what faces me is her profile. Her hands reach up and carefully draw a curtain of dreadlocks across her cheek.
“Look, now I can’t see you,” she says. My arms are stretched so far back that it is a strain to lift my head to look, but I do, and I see what she has done for me. Her face is entirely obscured by hair. I ask her how long it will be. She says it depends on how I do, but they aren’t allowed to keep me in this for more than an hour.
The thought of an hour progresses me into a deeper phase of hysterics. I am the kind of hysterical that suffocates itself, that floats to the ceiling and cocks its head at itself, at the unrecognizable thing it has become.
The room has no clock. I know well enough that time in here will slow to a magmal pace, and to account for the difference, I will need a strategy. In a back corner of my mind, I create a clock and hide it there. Then I look up at the overhead light bulb and begin to tell myself out loud not to cry. I say it over and over again with breaks as long as I can manage in between. I continue to repeat the phrase more times than I have ever repeated anything. After a time, my lips remain moving, but I am silent. My eyes close. An idea occurs to me: If they think I have fallen asleep, I will have won.
I cannot feel my fingers or toes, and I bring this to the attention of the woman who watches me without watching me. She calls the nurse, who comes and takes my blood pressure. During the velcroing and unvelcroing, the nurse carefully avoids my eyes. I stare at her, unblinking. She says my blood pressure is fine.
“But I can’t feel them.”
She gives no response and makes for the exit.
“How much longer, then?”
“When you calm down.”
I ask her if she can loosen the cuffs.
“No, I cannot,” she says, and walks out.
Before I resume, I allow myself a thought that many people who find themselves in situations like this (cornered and helpless), are bound to think: I want my Mom. Then, I say it out loud: “I want my Mom.” This makes me start crying again, and I sort of knew it would. I want someone who will do something about this to hear me. If my Mom were here, she would stop this. Nobody but the faceless woman can hear me though, and she is busy with an article, so I look straight at the overhead light bulb and resolve not to take my eyes off of it until this is over.
I consult the hidden clock. It says that fifteen minutes have passed. By now, the light bulb has morphed from a tangerine to a lion’s claw to a vampire bat. The people who call themselves my psychiatrist and my therapist appear in the doorway. They are accompanied by the nurse, who is now in tour guide capacity. (I am the exhibit). Psychiatrist shakes her pointy little head and makes a tsk, tsk, tsk. It is a self-congratulatory tsk, and she seems to relish how appropriate an opportunity she has found to make such a sound. The three crowd each other in the doorway, a few feet from the cuff on my right ankle. They utter comments to each other, such as “what a shame.” They land frowning glances on me in brief, repeating intervals, as if to confirm for themselves again and again that what they are seeing is real. Yes, this is the SAT girl who is in restraints. Yes, it definitely is.
I cannot imagine what purpose they might serve here, but I am open to possibilities. Maybe one of them will realize this was a mistake and order someone to let me out. I take a moment to collect a respectful tone before asking how long I will have to stay like this. They say they will go and check for me. I wait. No one comes back.
When I get the first urge to ask the woman by the door how much longer it will be, I wait ten minutes. After that, I wait another two. Finally, I speak. She startles from being lost in an article. She leaves the room and returns shortly with the nurse, who unbuckles me.
The first thing I do when I get out of that room is look at the wall clock. It is 5:35 p.m. I reread the clock several times before confirming that I have, despite being fairly quiet, patient, and polite, been kept in restraints for the maximum possible period of time. If I had not asked about the time when I did, they would have accidentally kept me in there even longer.
While walking back to my room, Rene leaves Mrs. Lorenzo’s side to intercept me. She puts her hands on my shoulders even though no physical contact is allowed between patients. With locked elbows, she tilts her head forward into my eyes. For the first time, I notice that her eyes are not black, but dark brown. “You okay?”
When I do not answer, she pulls me into an embrace. I want to respond, but my arms are stuck down in a wooden soldier pose, so I break away and walk into the common room. Stephanie is on the couch with a book. She heard my screams, she reports, and so did the rest of the unit, as a matter of fact. She can’t believe this would happen to me of all people. I give a slight shrug and walk into my room. I stop at the foot of my bed, tip facedown onto the mattress, and remain there until I fall asleep.
For many nights after the restraint, I wake up kicking, mashing, scraping, knees, ankles, toes against cinder block. While in half-sleeps, uncontrollable whimpers and shouts come out of me. On one of these nights, a grandmotherly staff member named Mrs. Rousseau is working. She calls me out into the common room, puts down her knitting and says, “Sit on my lap, young dear.” She is no bigger than I, but I do. She puts her arms around me, rocks me back and forth, and coos indistinct comforts in my ear for a very long time. I close my eyes and pretend I am in Haiti, where she is from. I am wrapped in a blanket on the beach. I am not a mental patient. I am sane. I am free.
In the two weeks since the restraint, I have not touched a scab and I have not punched a wall, so I am allowed to pick something from the plastic bag that holds my things. I pick the SAT study guide. Back in my room, I pick up where I left off in the passage-based critical reading section. The passage is an adaptation of a George Orwell essay called “Pleasure Spots.” This is what it says:
Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness. If one started by asking, what is man? what are his needs? how can he best express himself? one would discover that merely having the power to avoid work and live one’s life from birth to death in electric light and to the tune of tinned music is not a reason for doing so. Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognized this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human? He would then learn that the highest happiness does not lie in relaxing, resting, playing poker, drinking and making love simultaneously.
This is what I am able to read: Much of what…destroy consciousness…best express himself?…death in electric light…warmth, society…or less human? My mind swarms with static fuzz that prevents me from stringing written words into sentences or thinking about much of anything other than the restraint. I relive it during the day, the night, and when I am eating. It makes me want to vomit and throw my tray across the room. If I lived on the outside, I could shoot guns and smash china, but in here, extreme expression means bad reports, poor mental health, and a longer stay.
Two months later, after I have earned my way off CO, body checks, and clean room, I step from the shower room into the common room. BET is off. At least half a dozen girls are crowded in a doorway, looking into Rene’s room. I stand on my tiptoes, trying to see what is happening. In the V between two heads, I see Rene lying on her bed in the wrong direction. I watch as three EMTs lift Rene onto a stretcher and wheel her through the hallway past us. She appears to be asleep. I ask what happened. “Seizure,” a girl named Jackie says.
Mrs. Lorenzo is in the hall, hands waving, explaining. “I just used the bathroom. No one could watch Rene. I only left for a couple of minutes.” Mrs. Lorenzo left her purse next to Rene, and now all her pill bottles are empty.
Jackie tells us she watched Rene force handfuls of pills down her throat without water. Jackie says she didn’t alert anyone because she believes Rene has the right to make that choice, and she thinks Rene will be better off dead than in Fairfield.
Rene spends six days in a coma before she regains consciousness and returns to the unit. Mrs. Lorenzo does not get fired.
Six years later, as a college student in Prescott, Arizona, I again become consumed by the same futile feeling that caused my incarceration at the age of sixteen. It is two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. I go to my closet, find a large duffel bag, and stuff it with vacation items. I get in my car and travel seven music-blaring hours to Cardiff-on-the-Sea, California. I scan the sides of the Pacific Coast Highway until I find a surf shop. I walk in and ask for a board and wetsuit. I yank the suit on in the shop’s changing room and run with the board across the six-lane highway and into the Pacific Ocean. I have never been surfing before.
A group of guys are gathered on the beach around a cooler full of beer. I do not realize it, but they amusedly watch me eat sand and get blown overboard by the waves. After thirty minutes of this, I come dragging despondently out of water. One guy approaches me and says, “Would you like some help?”
“Yes, I really would.” I say.
He takes me back out and tells me to hold onto the board tightly while a four-foot wave crashes over us. Just before impact, he lunges forward and pushes the board with all of his strength. In an instant, I am sailing. I stand up. The group of guys on the beach are clapping and cheering me with their beer bottles. All around I see the curling water chase me and disappear. I am surfing. I beam at the guys on the beach until I lose my balance and fall into the water.
E.L. DeLeo is a writer working in New York City. You can find her on Twitter @erikadeleo.
The Prescott schools are well into spring break now. While lots of students I know are out on fantastic road trips, skiing somewhere cold, surfing somewhere warm, or spending time with their families, I remain here at my desk, researching and writing, working on my senior projects. This morning, as I looked over everyone’s adventure updates and faced the reality that the highlight of my spring break may be as grand as meeting someone interesting at the dog park, I couldn’t help thinking about places I’d never been.
Alix Ohlin’s story, “Places I’d Never Been,” published in the current issue of AJ, recognizes far away, foreign countries as physical places the characters have never been. It also moves deeper into recognizing places of new emotional and psychological experiences as Kayla and her mother-in-law, Marilyn, deal with the grief of losing their husband and son. The majority of the story is set in the local zoo, which turned out to be, according to Alix, “an apt metaphor for the cage of grief.”
“It’s a tragedy, Kayla,” she said. “And it’s all our fault. Humans, that is.”
I nodded. We both stared guiltily at the bear, who ignored us.
“This guy looks miserable. Doesn’t he? He belongs on ice floes, not in this damn zoo.”
I glanced at her; she wasn’t much given to swearing. I could see she was shaking with anger. We hadn’t been so close, before—there’s an uneasiness in the triangle of an only child, his wife, and his mother—but now she was deeper in my heart than my own family, because she was the only one who understood. “I know what you mean,” I said.
“This is what the future holds for them,” Marilyn said. “They’re going to be totally out of place.” We stood there for a while, and I tried to picture the melting of the ice, the far northern landscape pale as the moon, snow giving way to rock, the contours of a disappearing place I’d never been.
The 2013 issue of AJ also features a thoughtful dialogue about the writing process of “Places I’d Never Been,” what it is like to be a professional writer, writing and academia, and Alix’s two novels. Here is a sample:
You have said: “I think fiction surrounds us … we are the protagonist in a given tale; politicians frame events in narratives that cast certain characters as heroes and others as victims. Stories are the way we understand the world.” Given this idea, do writers have a particular obligation to the world at large? If so, how do you see your work as speaking to this larger responsibility?
This is a hard question. I sort of think that as people we all have an obligation to the world at large: to be kind, to do the best we can. As a writer, though, if you set out to morally educate, you run the risk of turning didactic and wooden. So I guess I try to treat all the characters with empathy, to pose the questions in my work in a complex, deeply felt way, and hope that this communicates something about the world.
Alix’s story, “Places I’d Never Been,” and the full interview can be found in “The Gallery” section of the 2013 Alligator Juniper. Visit our website to subscribe.