by Rebecca Townley
I am in here but I am not crazy. This is not for lack of effort. I have tried over and over again to get crazy with no result. This includes numerous adjustments to my behavior that went entirely unheeded within the Company no matter how outrageous. I recognize that my position renders a certain deliberate blindness to employees vis-à-vis my foibles, but this was still remarkable. In desperation I turned to Freud but found him to be no help whatsoever. I was more impressed by the existentialists and underwent what I believe was a greater than average existential crisis, but even this went unnoticed. In the end I took to performance art. I rent my garments and stood on the edge of the subway platform with a sign that read “goodbye cruel world.” I rubbed glue all over my arms and let it dry and then I sat on the bus all day long peeling it off. I stared obviously and with abandon at strangers. I received some very satisfying looks from people who believed I was crazy, but deep down I knew the truth.
It was very disheartening, this failure. I was not accustomed to it. Finally I knew I had to take action. I developed a plan to come here, because then I could observe crazy people in their natural habitat and emulate them. It would be difficult to gain entry however, as normally they do not let sane people in. Therefore if my plan was to work I had to look sufficiently crazy. So what I did was I grew a beard and let my hair become long and tangled, and all the time the beard was coming in I wore the clothes of a prophet. I never took them off, not even to bathe, which I did not do very often. When the first holes appeared in my garments, I walked all the way from my penthouse in the city to here. Here is Connecticut. It took a long time. When I arrived my feet were bleeding. I had ten thousand dollars in my pocket. The bills were soft and damp from my sweat, and they smelled of my body. I laid them out on the desk and the receptionist became extremely discombobulated. She tried to turn me away at first, but then she thought better of it.
So if crazy is catching, I am going to get it. I am very determined.
Once, several weeks ago, I became catatonic for two days. This was extraordinarily difficult. I had to sit in place and stare straight ahead, even when I was hungry or remembered an excellent joke regarding three-toed sloths that I longed to tell someone. Especially troubling was how I was supposed to sleep. I ended up dozing in my chair. I have no idea whether catatonics sleep or not. We have one here, an unfortunate gentleman named Richard, but I don’t see him at night.
Another time I became a dog. This was when I first arrived. I crawled around on my hands and knees and wagged my butt and barked like a champion. I pretended I was a schnauzer because I adore schnauzers. They are so small! I ate all my meals on the floor and lifted alternating legs to pee. This irritated everyone. They refused to rub my stomach or even scratch me behind my ears. It was unbearable. No dog can survive being ignored. Therefore I was forced to become human again. I shaved off my prophetic beard and paid Rosalba, an orderly who is also a talented stylist, to cut my hair. Also I began to bathe regularly. After that no one could ignore me. That is because, though I was a small and homely child, I somehow grew tall and developed Rugged Good Looks. Stuart tells me people are always surprised when they see me. This is understandable. No one is more surprised by my Rugged Good Looks than I am.
There was a volunteer here who was my friend. She wanted to look good on her college applications. She was the daughter of Somebody Important in Management, so she was able to work here even though it was technically not allowed. Her name was Nancy, and she was seventeen, and often she played chess with me. I let her win approximately one out of every ten games, but otherwise she required no intellectual concessions on my part as she possessed a fierce if slightly juvenile intelligence. For instance I never told her I was sane, but she knew. We never spoke of it. As it happens Nancy was also extremely beautiful. If I never become crazy I plan to leave this place and invite her on a date.
The last date I went on was with a woman named Emily. She was older but all the same an ingenue. I took her to a movie. Then I took her to coffee. Our conversation went like this:
“Have you ever found a serial killer sexy?” This was me.
“Excuse me?” This was her. Coffee cup halfway to her mouth.
“You know,” I said. “Someone with a touch of sin.”
“Are you saying a serial killer only has a touch of sin?”
I flapped my hands about. “Fine, not a serial killer. A lunatic, then. Someone dark and sinister. Someone just a little bit evil.”
“I think you watch too many movies,” she said, and smiled.
“Sometimes I wish I were a little bit evil,” I told her. “Evil is so interesting.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Evil is too common to be interesting.”
We did not have intercourse that night, or any other night. I grew bored of her cheerfulness. It was incessant! Also she laughed at all of my jokes, even when I told bad ones on purpose to trick her.
Nancy knows a good joke from a bad one. She has an excellent sense of humor. Due to this we were friends right from the start. After a few weeks, we had already developed a routine. She would come find me and say, “Let us go on a walk.”
“A walk,” I would reply. “Oh, Nancy, not today! I simply cannot walk today!”
“Oh, but you must,” she would say, retrieving my jacket, for it was late autumn.
I would jump up and grab her by her thin shoulders. “I am extremely wealthy,” I would say.
“I know that Steven.”
This hurt me immeasurably. I could only reply in a voice that adequately displayed my pain something along the lines of: “My name is Eduardo.” If she acted surprised I would add: “It is true, I swear it. I am a Spanish prince and a musician of some renown. I once played guitar in a tuna band for hundreds of swooning women.”
To which Nancy might say, “Then I insist that you play for me.”
“Alas,” I would balk, “I cannot, for I am vexed with a palsy these many long months. Instead, let me recite for you Vega, the greatest of our Spanish poets.”
“But what of Cervantes?” she would ask.
(Dear Nancy, so young! so innocent!)
“That scoundrel? Leave him to his duels.”
If Nancy displayed sufficient patience I would then proceed to perform my favorite scenes from Vega’s excellent El Perro del Hortelano. Poor Diana, was she not such a prisoner to convention? I could have performed all night her haughty folly. But Nancy, who does not speak Spanish, would become bored and make me stop. She tolerated Shakespeare for much longer, for instance when I was Francis the Elizabethan pauper who yearned for fame upon the stage. Francis favored Hamlet and played Richard III gay.
Once Nancy said, “You know, if you’re going to be delusional, you should probably settle on one delusion.”
I walked with her that day anyway, because it was good advice.
Friday is group therapy day. There are five of us who meet every week, and Dr. Weber to guide discussion. I admit to an ongoing uncertainty as to the rationale behind it as a modus operandi considering none of us has the same problem. However my immense enjoyment of every session precludes a full investigation of my misgivings. I love group therapy as I once loved silent films. Which is to say I attempt to temper my enthusiasm but it often erupts nonetheless. I owe a great deal of this to Dr. Weber, who is very kind and who loves getting us to Open Up and Share. He is patient as well, when I was a dog and catatonic, and when I was Henry VIII and kept shouting “Off with your head!” It has therefore become something of a custom for myself et al. to goof off in group therapy. Davey in particular has embraced it. I like Davey enormously. I can only aspire to the level of craziness that Davey has attained without effort. He is fantastic at being crazy! I don’t understand why they bother trying to cure him, when he is demonstrably happy with his lot. He is constantly in motion, bouncing up and down, singing woeful arias, cartwheeling down the hallway or jumping on tables. When he is not flailing about he is standing on a chair delivering important lectures on a variety of topics. The most intriguing thing about Davey is that in spite of his penchant for lecturing he never actually says anything intelligible; he simply babbles a never-ending stream of nonsense syllables. That alone ensures that he is my favorite person here. Besides Nancy, of course, when Nancy was here.
But anyway Davey and I are always behaving like children in group therapy. We like to pretend that we are the doctor and attempt to cure everybody, which is especially funny considering Davey never ceases babbling and sometimes I am a dog. Everyone thinks it’s funny, even Dr. Weber sometimes. The only person who ever gets annoyed is Hugh. This is because Hugh is not crazy at all. Hugh is merely depressed. He is in the throes of a crippling midlife crisis and is therefore a terrific bore who only cares to talk about his sad and unfulfilled life. Needless to say he does not like it when Davey and I are his doctors one bit. Still, it is nice to have him around so that Dr. Weber has at least has one of us to Open Up and Share on a regular basis. That way Dr. Weber can feel helpful.
Not that I never talk, mind. In fact I talk quite a bit. I like very much to tell stories. Most of the time I make them up, but once in a while I surprise myself by telling a true story. Everyone with the exception of Hugh likes my stories pretty well. This one girl Jenny is always asking me to talk in fact. She’s seventeen, like Nancy, and fairly normal aside from the fact that she keeps trying to kill herself. She has tried something like seven times! Personally I think if you botch a suicide that many times you must not really want to kill yourself, and it is actually a Cry for Help. I would never tell Jenny that though, because she is extremely nice and I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings. Also she loves my stories. This is because of the time I talked about my family. I was telling the truth at the time. Like I said, normally I preferred to make up an appropriately crazy story i.e. my family consisted of gypsies or jugglers or something equally implausible to make Davey laugh (even though he laughs at everything, even Hugh), but this time I felt compelled to tell the truth. So I talked about my rich family and this delighted Jenny as she is from a rich family as well.
“I think rich people make their children crazy,” she said after I told the story about how my father once took me to a homeless shelter to show me the long chain of human misery. My mother and I had just returned from a weekend in Paris. She told my father that I gave my whole allowance away to a man in the street. I have never seen anyone so incensed. My father took me by the hand and drove me to a homeless shelter and made me sit and watch the people there. “See these people, Steven,” he said to me. “These people will be here ad infinitum. They will be born, they will reproduce, and then they will die.” I was staring at a large family eating at a table, a dirty mother with five dirty children. I was ten years old. My father looked me in the face and said, “Son, never be afraid to take what you want. Don’t let anything get in your way.”
Jenny said her family was rich and she couldn’t stand it. She said she started wearing all black when she was thirteen, and tried to kill herself for the first time on her fifteenth birthday.
“Were they cold to you, your family?” I asked her, and she said kind of. Dr. Weber began prodding her to Open Up and Share, but she had lost my attention. I rarely have sympathy for people from families that are only kind of cold, even rich ones. Maybe Jenny would have had a Breakthrough that day, but just then Davey started laughing hysterically and all was lost. Dr. Weber finally called it quits for the day when Randall, who is afraid of everything, started trying to blow the germs off everybody again.
The next day I decided I wanted to be afraid of everything too, so I started carrying around Kleenex and wiping off everything I touched before I touched it, including Nancy. She thought it was very funny until I got carried away and started rubbing Kleenex all over her head, messing up her hair.
But we were on a walk and everything was very nice.
“See that tree over there?” I asked her, and she turned and saw the tree over there.
“What about it?”
“I am afraid of it,” I told her.
“Is that so. And why is that, Steve?”
“Pierre,” I corrected her.
“Ah, yes, the French midget.”
Nancy did not think much of Pierre. That is because Pierre, when provoked, could invoke a litany of poetic complaints against our modern age. For example, Pierre had quite a bit to say about the breakdown of contemporary social fabric due to our ceaseless adherence to predetermined roles and our constant inauthentic existence on the Internet. He could go on and on about alienation and the Internet! Given free reign he might wax iambic anti-Internet couplets for hours.
“This tree has provoked me,” I-as-Pierre said to Nancy, “therefore I fear it.” I then began a litany. Did you know it is very easy to rhyme in French? All the words end the same practically! My litany regarded Fear and Nausea. Nancy pulled the last leaves from the tree and tore them into tiny bits while I spoke. When I was finished, I remarked again to her in English that I was afraid of the tree, as she may have forgotten.
“Is it only trees that you fear?” she asked.
“Of course it isn’t only trees! I am afraid of everything. But as I have said, this tree is particularly fearsome.”
“Why this tree?” she asked, clasping her hands behind her back.
“Because I do not like the look it is giving you,” I told her. “However, for you, afraid as I am, I shall fight the tree.”
“You mean armed combat? For me?” Nancy laughed. I liked her laugh.
“For you, yes. But not armed combat.” I started running towards the tree, screaming: “For you I shall fight this tree with my bare hands!”
And I carefully wiped the tree with my Kleenex, turned and smiled at her, and then I punched the tree. I punched the tree so hard I broke my hand.
“Mauvaise foi!” I shouted, even though this was an embarrassing anachronism.
Nancy was forced to scold me for being a very silly goose.
After I broke my hand, I decided I did not like being afraid of everything, because it was very difficult. I began to feel a lot of respect for Randall, because he was afraid of everything, and he seemed to handle it so well.
Unfortunately now I had a broken hand and was still very much in my right mind, which of course was disappointing. So imagine how terrible I felt when Stuart came to visit that very afternoon. Stuart’s visits are always disappointing. They tend to be emotionally fraught and involve an embarrassing amount of imploring on his part. This is because Stuart is very worried about the Company. Stuart is obsessed with the Company. He is always going on and on about it. It is exhausting! He began with the Company the minute we sat down together in the lounge.
“This can’t go on, Steven,” he said.
“Pierre,” I corrected him.
Stuart ran his hand over his face. He is always playing with his head. My brother is far too tall, his fingers far too long. His head is so high off the ground; perhaps he feels the need to check that it is still there. “Why are you doing this?” he said. He sounded very sad.
“Don’t be sad,” I said to him in French.
“The Board is getting impatient.”
I said nothing. Stuart knows I do not care about the Board. He played with his head some more. “I can’t keep dissembling about where you are forever,” he said. “You need to come back, Steven. I mean it. You can’t just disappear like this and expect—”
“Expectations only serve to define man as a broken dream,” I said. But Stuart did not understand. Even if he spoke French he would not understand.
“If they vote you out, there’s nothing I can do. Don’t you see that?” My poor brother. The weight of the world on his broad shoulders. The Company a burden he never wanted to bear. Stuart said, “My hands are tied over here.” Then he said, “Father made sure of that.”
This was true. Father was always Making Sure of Things. For instance, when I was seven years old and he caught me dancing before the mirror in my mother’s strapless Dior, he had to Make Sure it would never happen again. He had to Make Sure I learned a Valuable Lesson. A boy simply does not go around wearing his mother’s dresses, never mind prancing around like a schoolgirl. Such a boy would be a disgrace. And yet how could I resist my mother’s gowns? I tried to explain to my father my love for beautiful things. He said if I loved them so much I could stay with them for a while. Then he shoved me into her closet and locked the door.
I said to Stuart, “Smooth and smiling faces everywhere, but ruin in their eyes.”
My brother looked at me. He looked and he looked. “Christ, Steven,” he said. His face was not smooth and smiling. Worse than ruin in his bright blue eyes. He looked like he could weep.
All day long I remained in the dark womb of my mother’s closet, surrounded by her beautiful things. Only once did the door open and let the light in. It was evening by then, and my mother had to get dressed for an Event. She did not acknowledge me. Instead she spoke with my father about the Event, which was for the Company and which would of course be dreadful. My mother shoving hangers this way and that way on the rod, trying to pick something to wear. Me on the floor, watching. My father straightening his tie. Neither of them looked at me. My mother took the beaded Valentino gown from its hanger and closed the door. I curled up in her mink stole and slept. The next morning when she let me out she scolded me for making a mess on the floor. But I could not help it; I was in there so long. I couldn’t stop crying, and my mother grew impatient. “Tears will not help you in life,” she said to me. “Tears get you nothing.”
Stuart said, “I miss you, Steven.” When I didn’t reply he began to Remind Me of Things. He is always doing that, Reminding Me of Things. Things like my gifts and talents. Things like my superior brain. Things like my degrees from Harvard! (Stuart always adds an exclamation point to Harvard. Stuart did not get into Harvard. Stuart went to Princeton. Father never could discuss it.) I allowed Stuart to Remind Me of Things until he got to Harvard. Then it became too much. I stood up to leave and bid him au revoir. He grabbed my hand. “Tell me what to do, Steven,” he said. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
I squeezed his hand and then I let it go. I whispered, “Mauvaise foi.”
I went back to my room. I was deeply troubled. The whole encounter was both troubling and disappointing. I decided the most interesting way to handle such a negative state was to be listless. Nancy didn’t like that one bit.
“You’ve been very boring lately, Steven,” she said one afternoon while we were playing chess.
I sighed and turned my head to stare despondently out the window. “I guess,” I said, without interest.
“It’s your turn,” she said, rolling her eyes. I knew that she was rolling her eyes because I was playing close attention even though I was doing my best to appear disinterested. I turned back to the chessboard.
“So it is.” But I just stared at the board in front of me and did nothing.
Nancy stood up and put her hands on her hips and said, “Look, buster”—how I loved that she called me buster!—“just because you break your hand doesn’t give you the right to be all boring and sad. A girl has to laugh, you know.” Obviously she only said this because she knew I was sane; after all, when you volunteer at a loony bin you don’t go around trying to get the patients to act crazy just so you can have yourself a chortle. But she looked startled, and her eyes got all wide and brown, and she apologized profusely.
“Now you’re being silly,” I said, and was cured. We finished our game and I decided to be very charming for the rest of the day, and I was.
The day the cast came off, I had a session with Dr. Cohen, the Big Doctor. We meet every other Wednesday, and he asks me about my family and my childhood, and your other standard questions for the Less Mentally Competent. Unfortunately when it comes to psychoanalysis Dr. Cohen is not worthy to touch the proverbial hem of Dr. Weber’s superior garment. He possesses neither patience nor a sense of humor. His sessions are private ergo there is no Hugh to take the pressure off me which has led to a string of various contretemps. For instance when I was a dog he sent me straight back to my room. When I was a little teapot short and stout he became visibly upset to the point I feared he would suffer an apoplexy. On this day however I was content to be Steven so Dr. Cohen was refreshingly serene. He asked me about my family again, because he had never made much progress with me in that area.
“I have a younger brother named Stuart,” I offered amiably.
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
I grinned. “He doesn’t like it at all when I call him Stewey.”
“Is that so.”
“How does one spell ‘Stewey?’ What would you say?”
“Steven, I don’t think that’s relevant—”
“Oh but of course it is!” I nodded my head for emphasis. “I mean, what if I were to mail him a letter—more importantly, a mean letter, a letter he wouldn’t like at all—wouldn’t it be smart to address it to Stewey? Wouldn’t that be extra malicious, considering his feelings for the nickname? And in that case, wouldn’t I want to spell it correctly?” I sat back in my chair. “Think about it, Dr. Cohen.”
Dr. Cohen sighed. He steepled his hands on the desk. He pursed his lips. He unpursed his lips. He sighed again. “Mr. Long,” he said at last, “don’t you know we want to help you?”
I said, “Well, I guessed as much—I mean we do pay you a pretty penny.” I grinned again. This was all very fun.
Then Dr. Cohen said, “Don’t you want to be helped?”
I was taken aback. What a remarkable thing to say!
When I was fifteen my father gave me the silent treatment for four months. This was because of Jamie Heard. Jamie was a scholarship student, which of course meant that he was Not From A Good Family. Mother said she was pleased Philips allowed the less fortunate a chance to attend such an excellent school, but that perhaps they should stay in separate dormitories. This was not the case though. Jamie lived on my floor. He was the tallest boy in our class. He was like a giant! When he smiled, his eyes turned into half moons. He smiled a lot. Everyone tried not to like him when he first got there, because he was enormous and because he called a creek a crik. He even said “y’all” on purpose! Can you imagine? He should have been a pariah! But he was not. That is because Jamie had Personality. He had wit like a rapier, sharp and shiny, and everything that tied the rest of us in knots rolled off his wide shoulders. The headmaster was always after him to do something with his hair, which was red and stood straight up in the morning and listed to the side by the afternoon, but Jamie could not be bothered. Nothing bothered Jamie at all. He became extremely popular.
And yet Jamie took to me. How small I was then, how very pale! Jamie could cup me in his massive palm. What did I have to offer such a boy? Nevertheless he smiled when I entered a room, bade me sit beside him. We would sit together for hours, exhausting all our stories. Eventually I learned that he never went home, not even in the summer. And so it was that the summer before our junior year I managed to secure him an invitation to the family cottage in Martha’s Vineyard, only for a week, in late August. It wasn’t until he opened his mouth that my mother realized he was poor, and country to boot! It was priceless, because by then it was too late. She could not send him back. We swam all day long until we were brown as nuts. My father was away. The days went on forever.
But then my father came home, and at the worst possible moment. Jamie and I were in the library playing Escape. What happened in Escape was one of us would wrap his body around the other and hold him tight, while the other tried to work free. We had been in the pool; our suits were barely dry. Jamie’s skin was warm from the sun. He had me in a death grip! I was powerless against his strength. It was pointless to try to break free. Eventually I gave up the struggle, pressed my face to his sun-hot neck. The scent of sky and summer. My hand in his damp red hair.
Such terror when my father threw open the door, found us there on the floor! He became enraged. Jamie’s arms and legs went slack around me. I was free but my face was still in his neck. I could not remove it. It stayed there until my father grabbed me by the hair and yanked me to my feet. Jamie too. He was big but my father was bigger. We stood there, the three of us, my father in his suit and tie, and Jamie and I in our swimming trunks, staring at the floor. I stole a glance at Jamie, trusting his smile to be there, his easy way to set the world to rights. But his face was aflame. My father pulled his belt from its loops with a thwack.
I closed my eyes. My father shouted at me to open them. The slap of the belt on the back of my knees for two long minutes. I would not bend my legs for days! Jamie with his fists clenched. The tiny hairs on his arms like spun gold, radiant with sunlight from the window. Light can be both wave and particle. I was wave, Jamie particle. Dust beneath my father’s feet. I never saw him again, Jamie Heard. How easily he was reduced to his poverty! The Georgia in his accent at full sail as he stammered to me goodbye. Folded his body into my father’s Rolls Royce, the driver not looking at either of us. Gone from Philips like a fly swatted from a picnic.
After that, my father would not speak to me. He would not look at me. Not until I returned from Philips for winter break did he acknowledge me. He never called me son again.
I told all this to Dr. Cohen and he sat back in his chair and exhaled. Clearly he was pleased at his progress into my highly guarded psyche.
“And Stuart?” he said at last.
(Stuart, my brother! His long body, graceful as a cat’s. Hands that stretch more than an octave on a grand piano. The mantle of our father’s affection passed from me to him that summer. My father calling him son. Stuart’s face dog-earing as he glanced at me, pained to be in sunlight while I was left in shade. He still hugs me with such ferocity, Stuart does, says: You’re the strong one, Steve. You have always been the strong one.)
“Maybe I won’t write him a mean letter after all.”
Dr. Cohen asked more questions, but I had grown tired of talking. I just wanted to have a little fun. I went and found Davey so that we could have a conversation. He was in the lounge talking animatedly with the television, which was off. I sat down next to him on the couch and he ignored me, so involved was he with the television. Finally I tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to look at me, mid-babble, and continued on with me as if the poor television had never existed. We spoke to each other for ten minutes, jabbering on with English accents, and it was all very fun. I will reproduce it here, translated from British babblese:
“I say old chap, how is it that the weather is so frightful these days?” This was from Davey, looking very prim and English in his bathrobe.
“I must say I find the weather quite irritating myself.” I pretended to puff on a pipe. “It’s a terrible time for it, you know, what with it being polo season and all.”
“Yes, yes, I agree. It isn’t very sporting now, is it?” Davey became contemplative. “Those poor chums, think of them, galloping around on their horses in the rain.”
“Oh, and the mallets!” I added, cleverly.
“Of course, the mallets!” We had a great laugh at this. Davey said, “But really, the mallets? What about any mallet? Why not every mallet!”
“That Bertrand,” I declared, “Such a cad he is!”
“Great God in Boots indeed!”
My, but Davey was on a roll! The humor was very English, very upper-class. You wouldn’t understand. Of course we didn’t really understand each other either; the whole conversation was nonsense. And yet how lovely to pretend that we had made some sort of connection. How lovely to imagine there are people in this world who actually speak the same language.
Plus I very much liked being English.
I went back to my room feeling very English and fine, but when I got there I started feeling listless and grave. This was not pleasant at all. I wanted to find Nancy, but she wasn’t coming in until the next day. So I was very normal for the rest of the day, except for the fact that I put on a bathrobe and messed up my hair and sat in my rocking chair and wouldn’t speak to anyone, anyone.
On our walk the next day, I took Nancy behind a tree. She was laughing but I was very serious. I pressed her up against the tree and I looked her in the face, and she stopped laughing and started breathing faster. Her mouth was open just a crack and she looked up at me with eyes wide as if afraid. I was feeling very crazy. I kissed her. I kissed her on her white neck, where her bones made a teardrop. She let her head fall back against the tree and made a noise in her throat. I couldn’t hear it, but her little white throat vibrated underneath my lips. Then I kissed her on her mouth. She tasted seventeen years old, like chewing gum. I kissed her very hard, the way I figured dark lunatics kissed. She was trembling. I was still holding onto her shoulders, so tight I could imagine my handprints fading from her skin when I released her, if I released her. I put my lips against her ear. “Let’s go find someplace dark,” I said. Her cheek moved; she was smiling. “Let’s be clandestine lovers.”
She hesitated, but only for a second. She was seventeen. I took her hand and we tiptoed into the building, giggling like children. Not a soul saw us enter. We made our way through the hallways unseen and unheard. We were very discreet. We laughed into our hands.
“I know a place,” Nancy whispered; I squeezed her small hand. We made our way to a broom closet on the third floor, one that she told me locked from the inside. I asked her how she knew that. She said she used to smoke cigarettes there. There is no smoking anywhere here, not even on the grounds. I adored that she smoked cigarettes on the third floor. We locked ourselves in and felt extremely naughty. Nancy turned on the light—a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling—and before we could look at each other and grow awkward, I grabbed her.
“Qué linda eres, princesa,” I said to her.
She called me Eduardo and laughed a short laugh like a hiccup. There was a low shelf in the closet and I picked her up and sat her on it. She was wearing jeans and I unbuttoned them. I ran my finger around the lining of her underpants and snapped the elastic. We both thought this was very funny. In fact we both thought everything was hilarious. Her underpants were white cotton with the word Tuesday printed all over them. It was Thursday. I thought that was just wonderful. She was wearing a thin green sweater until I took it off. It pleased me to no end that her bra didn’t match her underpants. It was purple satin, with lace around the edges.
“Mijita tan joven,” I whispered into her neck. She laughed. I kissed her on her flat adolescent belly. I said, “Beso a beso recorro tu pequeño infinito.” It was Neruda. It was all I could think of. Kiss by kiss I move across your small infinity. I felt very crazy.
Then, in the back of my head, just as if I really were crazy, came the voice of my father. My father saying, This isn’t you. My father saying, You weren’t built for this. And behold, my father, he was there! In the closet with us, standing in the corner, arms folded across his thick chest. I ignored him of course. He wasn’t really there. He was golfing or berating an intern who would cry if he did it right. No, that was all wrong. My father was gone, these six months or more. He was in the ground, rotting. My mother, rotting. Only Stuart and the Company left. Still, my father’s voice, loud and clear: You can’t do this. This made me very angry, my father’s voice, coming out of nowhere and without my permission. I pressed my forehead into Nancy’s chest to hold her still, hooked my fingers into her jeans, and yanked them down to her ankles. She was laughing and saying things like, Te quiero mucho, baby. Her hands were in my hair. She was having fun. She was seventeen.
I undid my pants as fast as I could and Nancy kicked her jeans to the floor and shimmied out of her underpants, watching me fumble with my zipper. Her white skin multiplying before me. Out of nowhere like that voice. I shuddered with something not unlike disgust and Nancy grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me to her. Kissed me hard. My father’s voice in sing-song: You can’t do this. You can’t do this. But now I felt very crazy and I was going to do this! I was going to do this hell or high water but not with all that hot white skin so visible. I fumbled for the cord dangling from the light bulb and flicked the light off. Nancy giggled.
“Speak Spanish to me, Eduardo,” she said. Nails scratching down the side of my neck. “Hasta la vista, anything.” My father’s voice was louder than hers. It said, You’re not my son. It said, You’re not a man at all. I pulled her bra straps down over her shoulders and yanked the whole thing over her arms and down to her waist. I grabbed those two seventeen-year-old breasts and hung onto them for dear life. And then she reached down and I felt her hands on me and I heard the short intake of breath, the little gasp of surprise.
Nancy said, “Steve?”
And my father said, I told you so.
I told you so, I told you so, I told you so.
So I grabbed him and I shook him. Yes I did! I shook him like a man possessed! I was laughing bitterly, because this was it, wasn’t it? I was having a Moment! I was finally Losing It! So boy did I ever shake him. I shook him and I shouted, “Look how crazy I am!”
Then I slapped him, hard, across his angry face.
Suddenly it was very quiet and I realized it was dark. It came to me in the darkness how wonderful it would be to tell my story in group therapy. Davey would be so pleased for me. Here I’d been toiling away at delusions or disorders when all the real fun was in hearing voices. Oh yes, I would be hearing voices from now on, that much was certain. I found the cord dangling from the ceiling and the light came on. I was standing there with my pants at my knees. Nancy was sitting on the floor. She was naked except for the purple bra around her waist. She was shaking with sobs. I had another Moment whereby I broke into twin selves each observing as if from a distance. It lasted the length of a breath before it resolved, and there I stood ipso facto the cause of Nancy’s distress. How rotten I felt in that moment. I couldn’t bear to see her cry like that. I pulled up my pants and knelt down beside her.
“Are you okay?” I said, ever so gently.
I put a hand on her shoulder and she shook me off. Then she grunted something that sounded like go away. I thought about finding Dr. Weber, but I didn’t want to embarrass her. I picked her clothes up off the floor and handed them to her. She took them from me. She looked extremely cold.
“Put these on, Nancy,” I said. “Everything is alright.” I patted her shoulder and she permitted it without a word. She was calming down now. I turned around while she got dressed. When she was finished I turned back around and she was staring at the floor. She had her hands clasped in front of her.
“Will you be alright?” I asked her. I couldn’t see her face. Her hair was falling over it in knots. “Come now, Nancy,” I said, looking at my watch. “It’s time for you to go home.”
She let me walk her downstairs but didn’t say anything. We didn’t pass anyone in the halls. It was dinnertime. At the cafeteria, I turned to go in. Nancy kept walking down the hall, staring at the floor. I called to her goodbye. She turned her head partway, as if she were going to look at me, but she didn’t look at me. I went into the cafeteria before she turned the corner. I wanted to find Davey and tell him how much women confounded me. I knew him for an insightful man. I sat down next to him with my tray of turkey and gravy and said, “I tell you, Davey. Women.”
Davey looked at me and pursed his lips in agreement. “Ah yes,” he said. “Women with their tender mysteries. Women with their dark continent of desire!”
“Indeed!” I replied. “I mean, take Nancy—”
Davey gave me a knowing look. “Ah, Nancy. She is a marvel, that one.”
“Exactly,” I said. “The poor girl became hysterical!”
“A condition particular to young women, I must say.”
“I just don’t understand her,” I said. “I know what I want. Everyone knows what I want. But what does Nancy want? What does a woman want, Davey?”
Davey was cutting his turkey into tiny pieces. He wouldn’t even look at me! “You are talking about her,” he said.
Davey is extremely perceptive. Of course I was talking about my mother! Her pinched face an enigma. She would turn her back when my father took off his belt. Stare straight ahead at nothing, hands folded in front of her. Afterward she would pat me on the head. You must grow strong, she would say. This world is no place for the weak. She herself hard as iron. It hurt to touch her.
“Nancy is not your mother,” said Davey. This time he looked at me. It was as if he could see straight through me! I felt shame light up my face.
“I must do something nice for Nancy,” I said.
Davey said, “You could buy her chocolate.”
“Don’t you know? Women like chocolate. They go crazy for it.”
I smiled at him. Was there ever a kinder soul on this wheeling planet than Davey? I could not allow this kindness to go unacknowledged. I stood to toast him with my glass. But as I looked at my glass, I saw that it was half empty. And my, this grieved me so! Because at once the glass was both a glass, and also more than a glass. The glass was all the Anguish in the world! I squeezed my hand around it as tight as I could. I imagined cracks appearing in its clear hard surface. Saw it shatter into a million pieces too small to retrieve. But alas, the glass did not shatter. The glass was plastic. This made me furious. I hurled the glass at the wall. I wanted to cry for Nancy but I couldn’t.
The next day there was no sign of Nancy. It was her day off however so I was not unduly alarmed. It was also group therapy day and thus a time of celebration. I listened thoughtfully to everyone before I spoke vis-à-vis my Breakthrough. I sat very tall and sage in my chair and felt overcome by a Great Wisdom. With a lowered voice I spoke of hearing voices. Davey thought this was extremely funny. Hugh rolled his eyes. Dr. Weber made numerous attempts to get me to Open Up and Share, but his efforts were for naught. I felt secretive and protective regarding my Breakthrough. I wanted to let it come out in stages.
Sadly my happiness due to said Breakthrough proved to be short-lived. Because in a terrible turn of events Nancy never returned. Dr. Cohen informed me after I asked when I might see her again. Her mother called to say she was very busy with college applications and could no longer offer her services. I asked sotto voce if Dr. Cohen believed this to be a ruse on her part i.e. could there be another reason for her absence, but he did not seem concerned enough to pursue any lines of inquiry. I insisted he allow me to call her but he refused in spite of my persistence which lasted several weeks. I became despondent. The pain was great enough to make me weep and yet not enough to drive me insane in what felt like a cosmic joke at my expense. Even now when it becomes too unbearable, I have to trick myself. I think about Nancy’s underpants that said Tuesday and then I feel better. Unfortunately this never lasts for very long. I feel strongly that when I grow tired of this place I must find Nancy and ask her forgiveness, followed by Stuart et al. down the line to Jamie Heard. But until then I think it best that I stay here. There are so many things I haven’t tried yet.
Rebecca Townley is a writer and teacher from Shaker Heights, Ohio.