A short story by Smiler
She’d slept in until 10:20 that morning when the phone rang. It was a nurse from the outpatient clinic she had contacted calling her back to give her an appointment. Tara, nervous and easily upset these days was having difficulty expressing herself on the phone, and finding herself tongue-tied, started crying and blubbering into the receiver. The nurse grew very concerned “Unfortunately we can only give you an appointment next week, but in the meantime I strongly suggest you get yourself to emergency care as soon as possible.”
Her family doctor and her closest friends, her relatives, had all insisted she go check herself into the ER, but Tara was terrified of going there. She had an irrational phobia of hospitals and to add to it, was worried they’d keep her there indefinitely. Even more scary to her were the serious nut cases she was likely to encounter there, and be forced to spend several hours with, before being seen by a doctor. But then again, she couldn’t go on like this. She’d been crying day and night for nearly two weeks now, and the thoughts plaguing her were very likely to drive her to desperate measures imminently. Since no outpatient clinic could give her an appointment any sooner, and since she’d been trying to see a good doctor for over six month months now, she finally made up her mind: She would go to the ER. As much as she hated to admit it, this was now what could be considered an emergency situation, she could no longer hide that from herself.
She tidied up her apartment, cleaned the dishes, put her papers in order on her desk. She didn’t want to come back to a messy place after the impending ordeal, which she suspected might last for a good while. She took a shower and brushed her hair for the first time in days, a week, or more. She wanted to look at the very least somewhat presentable. She didn’t put on any makeup, since she couldn’t stop crying anyway, though she did think of putting on a light classic cologne to spruce herself up a little.
There was a rainstorm raging by the time Tara called a taxi. As she was making her way out the front door and juggling a garbage bag, recycling bin, umbrella, her purse and house keys, her phone rang. It was her most recent lover calling from rehab. They hadn’t spoken for a couple of days and she hurriedly told him where she was headed to.
“Don’t go! What if they decide to keep you there?”
This annoyed her greatly, and raising her voice to a shout into the receiver:
“I’m a danger to myself—I can’t cope anymore!”
She managed to take the trash, recycling, and all her personal effects down the perilously shallow stairs, while still holding the phone to her ear without a glitch. Her lover S, having recanted on his objections to an emergency room visit, was now in the middle of telling her how much he missed her. She was getting into the taxicab when she inadvertently pressed the keypad, cutting him off suddenly. He can only make one call a day. Now he’ll think I’ve hung up on him and won’t ever hear the end of it! She was already very upset about going to the ER, and now this too. She started crying and sobbing even harder.
Between her sobs, she managed to tell the taxi driver the name of the hospital she was going to. It was the only such hospital in the city. The taxi drivers know exactly who it’s for: crazy people like me, she thought. She felt deeply ashamed of how desperate her situation had become, and as she looked out the window at the grey day and the pouring rain, she was glad for the rainstorm. It seemed especially fitting. The talkative taxi driver quickly expressed concern for Tara in his heavily accented English. He tried to convince her that a girl like her didn’t need to go to a place like that. “All you need is to think happy thoughts, look at yourself in the mirror, see how beautiful you are, such beautiful eyes, such beautiful lips, how can such a beautiful girl like you cry so much? Even with all the tears, you are still beautiful. I take you for coffee, we talk and you will feel better, you will see”.
She thought this man had good intentions, but what was meant to be an uplifting sermon and a not so veiled pickup line only made Tara feel even more alienated. She carried this perceived beauty, which was quickly vanishing anyway, indifferently. She knew it was a double-edged sword, and never quite knowing how to wield it without harming herself in the process, she pretended it did not exist. And since when has beauty or money or power or any of those external trappings equal with happiness?
The car entered the hospital grounds. It had been several years since Tara had been there last. She was surprised to see how green and pretty everything looked on this July morning, even through the driving rain. Trees everywhere, nicely groomed grass, flowerbeds, the two-story buildings all set a good distance away from each other, almost like a posh university campus. But she wasn’t reassured. They only make it look that way to get our defenses down. The taxi driver dropped her off at the emergency pavilion with one last plea “You don’t belong here. I will bring you anywhere you want, you are too beautiful for this place”. The tears started flowing more insistently now. She wished he hadn’t kept bringing up her looks that way, as though looks alone were the solution to all her problems. It was insulting, she didn’t appreciate being objectified like that. All he sees is an illusion; he can’t begin to imagine all this pain and ugliness I carry inside me.
The security guard at the entrance searched Tara’s handbag and promptly took her mobile phone away. She’d managed to stop sobbing for a minute or two as she had made her way in, but at that moment she broke down again and started wailing: “But all my phone numbers and contacts are on there, what if I need to reach people to tell them I’m here?” All the while: Am I making a Paris Hilton of myself? She couldn’t help wondering as she pleaded with the guard. Then: Maybe, but I don’t really care. There’s no such thing as dignity in a place like this. She was panicked at the thought that they might keep her there and she would have no way of reaching anyone to tell them where she was, or how to get inside her apartment to feed her cat.
She was still crying when she signed in, and she continued to do so while they made her wait in the admissions room. This room was furnished with a dozen padded office chairs, most of which were occupied. Tara didn’t dare look around—she felt humiliated and she was afraid of seeing “real crazies”—the kind that talk to themselves with drool running down their chins. She was sobbing and sniffling so much that she went through a pack of Kleenex tissues within minutes. When she did look up briefly, she saw a young woman sitting in front of her. She seemed normal. Clean. Calm. Tara wondered what she was doing there. Visiting someone maybe? She quickly looked down again. Another administrator called Tara into an office, searched her bag again and took away her Tylenol and contraceptive pills. She informed Tara that it would be a while before she’d be seen; only one psychiatrist was on duty that day. A nurse would see her in a while to make an initial assessment. Tara asked about her mobile phone: “Could I have it back just to call a few people? I need to let them know I’m okay” She was told there was a payphone in the waiting lounge for just that purpose, and the calls were free of charge.
The waiting lounge wasn’t so much a lounge as a couple of intersecting hallways with chairs along the walls. There weren’t a lot of patients waiting—maybe half a dozen at most—but Tara knew that didn’t necessarily have any correlation with how long she would actually have to wait. Tara sat herself on the chair closest to the telephone to make calls. She could hear someone talking loudly in the adjoining corridor but she couldn’t actually see him from where she was sitting. She didn’t know if it was an orderly or a patient, and if the latter, she wasn’t entirely sure if he was talking to himself or if he had an interlocutor, as he spoke in a seemingly uninterrupted monologue. His voice was so loud that it was impossible to tune him out. After she had finished making her phone calls, Tara listened more attentively for a few minutes, and realized he was giving an oration about the dangers of cocaine addiction. She had not yet seen who was talking, yet Tara learned that this man had had a roommate who had held down a respectable position until he had developed a cocaine habit, accumulated enormous debt, fell into deep depression and finally lost his job. Apparently this roommate had deteriorated into a total state of decrepitude and was now living in the streets.
She eventually got a peek at The Orator when he walked past her. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, though he might have been younger. He had short graying hair and a short beard – which looked like a growth that had gone unshaven for a good while. He was wearing pants which must have been black jeans at one point. They were evidently too large, held together with a belt, and he’d cut them off a few inches bellow the knee. One of the pant legs was a bit longer than the other and had an uneven zig-zag cutting pattern. He had on black Doc Martens shoes which had been spray-painted fluorescent orange, though a good portion of the paint had rubbed off or been scratched away and chipped. His huge belly was spilling over—yet still contained—in the ochre-yellowish t-shirt tucked into his pants. He was not at all as Tara would have imagined him to be, didn’t match the voice at all in appearance, but at least she had no doubt now as to whether he was a patient or a member of the hospital staff.
The Orator kept pacing the corridors and finding people to assail with his knowledge, as new patients came into the waiting lounge. Every time he vaguely approached Tara, she turned away and kept herself busy in order to avoid him. At first she did this by making a few more phone calls. When she was finished with those, she moved down a couple of chairs away from the phone and attempted to read a magazine she’d thought to bring along for the wait. A stooped and unkempt old man shuffled past her and plopped his skinny frame into the chair Tara had previously occupied. He tried to use the phone, and after attempting to punch in his numbers a few times, he mumbled to himself unintelligibly. After a while Tara realized he was in fact talking to her:“does it work?” she was able to make out finally. “Of course it works, I just used it!” she replied tersely. She had a better look at him, and her heart sank. He had well over a dozen or so stitches above his left eye, apparently quite fresh. She also saw now that he was attempting to punch in the numbers with his entire fist. Oh Lord. Heaven have mercy on me. She offered to dial the number and handed him the receiver, but as he was talking on the phone, Tara quickly realized with dismay that he was talking about his stools, describing them in great detail; his most recent visit to the toilet had apparently been his fist in several days and was an event worth calling home about, as it were.
She decided to seek out another spot to pass the time. She found a counter at the end of the corridor. It was on a wall, in it’s own small alcove, lined with windows and overlooking the grounds outside. She sat on a stool with her back to the room and pulled out her journal. She wrote down her current impressions, made notes about some of the nonsense The Orator was spewing at any given moment. He was presently lecturing about the wonders of cardboard as a construction material. Tara found it hard to ignore him completely because everything he talked about was vaguely interesting and bore some elements of truth, but he somehow managed to make it all sound grotesque as well. Presently he was saying he had put together his very own “designer furniture” and that he had built his kitchen cabinets all out of… cardboard. “Cardboard can even be used as a weapon! Take martial arts for example…” then he segued into this next topic, talking about the various branches, techniques, history and myths about martial arts: “Did you know they once had only white belts, which the novices wore through their entire training period, and only once the belts had turned black from sweat and blood were the students deemed worthy of being considered as masters?” Even though it was a misconception, he did manage to make his argument sound convincing and Tara couldn’t help but wonder where The Orator got all his random information.
The old man once again made an appearance, this time holding a TV remote in his hand. He shuffled himself into a chair in the room behind Tara and proceeded to point the remote at a television that was hung up high on the wall at the furthest corner from him. When he landed on a decades-old rerun of a soap opera, he proceeded to raise the volume to what must have been the absolute limit. The sound was deafening now but Tara, intent on keeping her interactions with ‘The Freaks’ to an absolute minimum, tried her best to tune out the noise and with some difficulty kept writing in her journal. After a few minutes an orderly appeared and gently asked the old man to turn the volume down. The old man did as he was asked and then as soon as the woman had gone around the corner, immediately proceeded to turn it up even louder still. Again, the orderly calmly asked him to lower the volume “You know, not everybody wants to listen to your soap opera Mr Leblanc!” she said. Apparently he was a regular. This did not surprise Tara in the least.
She had brought Golda Meir’s autobiography to read that day and no sooner had she cracked it open that The Orator approached her and declared: “Tell me what you are reading and I will tell you who you are!” At which she buried her nose even deeper into the book and waved him away. She’d managed to read a few chapters of the tiny print iin this paperback edition, when the nurse called her in for the initial evaluation. After Tara had poured her heart out with the ensuing sniffles and tears, the nurse said: “If you don’t take medication, you won’t receive coverage, simple as that”. Tara did not like pills. She had resisted taking medication for several years, but at that point, she was willing to swallow any pills they were going to give her. She realized now that if she needed to be in a place like this with all these crazy people to begin with, then surely she must be crazy too. Once the interview was over, the nurse sent her back to the waiting lounge, informing her that it would be a few hours before the doctor could see her. Tara continued reading while awaiting this encounter with the one psychiatrist on call that day. The Orator was still going strong, but Tara had grown accustomed to his voice by now and was able to more or less ignore him. The old man had fallen asleep in his chair.
Eventually, the psychiatrist called Tara into his office. He seemed young and alert and willing to listen, empathetic even. Not an ancient drone or a drug addict, and without any visible tics or strange facial expressions, unlike many of the shrinks Tara had seen before. She explained her situation to him, detailed her medical history and related the tremendous stresses she’d been put under at work. The more she talked, the more she cried and the more agitated she became, and the psychiatrist’s seemed to grow more and more concerned about her condition. “I strongly suggest you stay here overnight, I am concerned you may be a risk to yourself”. Tara shook her head. “Can you force me to stay if I don’t want to?””I can’t force you but I think it would be foolish to let you go back to your house to spend the night alone.” However, there were no beds available he added, and they’d have to keep her in the emergency ward that night. That was the final straw. Tara imagined an entire evening, night and morning spent in the presence of The Orator and the sad bruised old man and God only knows who else, and she became even more upset now. She begged the doctor to let her go, she promised and solemnly swore that she would not do herself any harm. “I’ll start doing better as soon as I leave this place, I assure you! Hospitals make me anxious, and this place in particular absolutely terrifies me. Just please, just PLEASE give me a note that I can send to my insurance company so I can pay my rent next month and rest easy for a little while”. She was able to stop crying long enough to make herself heard. The doctor gave her prescription for all kinds of pills along with the note she needed. I’ll take the fucking pills if it means I never have to set foot in this place again” she thought to herself.
As she took her leave, her personal effects were returned to her and she was quickly buzzed out of the waiting lounge. Tara now walked out of the pavilion to a beautiful sunny summer evening, deeply savouring the freedom she truly believed she had come very close to losing that day, at the insane asylum.
Colour photographs: LSD photographers