from The Memory of Light
I’m lying in bed, looking out at a sky that has turned dark blue, when I sense someone breathing behind me. I turn over.
“Hi, I’m Mona. Your roommate,” the girl says, and when she grins, I see a gap where one of her front teeth is missing. She’s bony with wild uncombed black hair streaked with faded pink. “My real name’s Domonique Salas but everyone calls me Mona.”
“Hi. I’m Vicky,” I say in a way that I hope will discourage her from talking.
“You don’t have any stuff?” she asks as she comes over to my bed. Her whole body twitches and squirms like an electric wire wriggling on a street after a storm.
She’s not going to go away, so I sit up. She fluffs my pillow and fixes it behind me. “Thanks,” I mutter. Then, to fill the awkward silence: “No stuff. I’m only here one night.”
Mona looks shocked. “One night? That’s nuts. I don’t care what your home life is like, you can’t go back to the same place you did the deed after one night.”
The deed, I repeat to myself. I glance quickly at Mona’s wrists and see the scars there. Some are new, some old.
Mona walks over and opens one of two doors in the room. She fishes around inside and comes out with a pair of jeans, a V-neck men’s T-shirt, and a black sweater. “Here you go,” she says, bringing them back to me. “They have this little room in the hospital full of clothes people leave behind. You’re gonna need the sweater because it gets freezing here at night and all we got is this blanket, which is nothing more than a glorified sheet.” She points to her bed and grins.
“Thank you.” I place the items at the foot of the bed and slide down onto the floor. The bed comes up to my chest.
“The jigamajig that lowers it is broken,” Mona explains. “The girl that was here before used one of the chairs to climb up and down. I could’ve taken that bed when she left, but I don’t like being near the window.”
I put on the clothes she gave me. My head still hurts. I notice that the pain increases every time I talk. “Do you mind if I open the blinds?” I say. The “blinds” are these grayish cardboardlike slabs that twist open when you crank a lever.
“Not one bit. But once you get them open, you won’t be able to close them. Jeannette, that was the name of the girl that was here, she had to get someone from maintenance to come with pliers to close them. She couldn’t stand the light first thing in the morning. Me, personally, I like the light. Heck, I’m usually awake a couple of hours before the sun comes up. When I can’t sleep, I turn on that light over my bed and read. I tried to get a lamp put next to my bed when Jeannette complained, but they wouldn’t give me one. They don’t like things with cords here on the mental ward.”
The mental ward. That’s where I am. I open the blinds. At home, I always kept the window in my room open so that Galileo could come into the house after a night of gallivanting. He climbed up the mesquite tree and leaped into my room from the nearest branch. The few times I fell asleep and forgot to open the window, he meowed desperately until I woke up.
“They moved Jeannette to the other side on account of she upgraded. This side of the mental ward is the low-grade side—us mentals who aren’t an immediate danger to themselves or others. Of course, we can get like Jeanette at any moment. That’s why the windows don’t open and there’s no mirrors anywhere and two to a room and a nurse checking in every half hour. One night I woke up to these grunts, and when I looked under the bed, there was Jeannette, butt-naked, chewing her finger off. She upgraded.”
I close my eyes. I feel like I stepped off the moon and am dropping through space, and I grab on to the side of the bed. When I open my eyes, Mona’s there beside me. She holds on to my arm as if to keep me from falling.
“It’s gonna feel weird for a while. Like you’re not really here.”
“Yeah,” I say. That’s right. I’m not really here. I died last night and this is just a dream. That’s a good way to put up with life while you have to. It’s just a dream.
“Take a snooze. I have to work a couple of hours at the beauty shop, but I’ll come get you for dinner. You coming to the GTH tomorrow?”
“Group Therapy Healing, or as I call it, Gripe to Heal. Who knew complaining could make you sane?” She grins at me. “There’s three of us, plus Dr. Desai, and we just talk about stuff.”
“Oh,” I say, grabbing my head. Dr. Desai mentioned group therapy earlier, but it is not only actual talking that hurts. The very thought of listening and being polite, of having to say “please” and “thank you” to others, makes me cringe.
“I know what you mean,” Mona says. She pats my arm a few times. “But you got to force yourself to talk even if it’s hard. Don’t worry about what you say. For some reason that I’ve never been able to figure out, talking helps, even if it’s nonsense.”
“What’s there to say?”
“There’s all kinds of talking going on in your head. Just let some of that junk come out, who cares what it is. Look at me. If it’s in my head, it’s out my mouth.”
“I noticed,” I say.
Mona laughs. “That’s good. So there’s a little humor in you. You were trying to be funny, weren’t you?”
I shrug. I’m not sure I was.
“You think my watching TV will bother you?” she asks. “I like to watch reruns of old sitcoms at night before I go to sleep. There’s this guy in the cafeteria who says he can get me some of those remote control earphones. You watch much TV?”
“Some. When I can.”
I can tell by her face that she understands what I mean — that there are times when nothing works to numb the pain, not even mindless TV. “Nice thing about sitcoms — you can watch them while you’re mental.”
“Mmm,” I say. Maybe sitcoms are like the poems I liked to read when things got really bad. Even when my brain stopped working and words were hieroglyphics, the images and rhythms kept me company.
“You cut your own hair, didn’t you?”
Mona’s look is serious, professional. She tilts my head left and right. “I could maybe even it out a little if you want me to. I’m a cosmetologist. You wouldn’t know it by the way I look right now.” She pulls a strand of her hair and examines it. “Yuck.”
“Who cares?” I say. “We’re mental.”
We look at each other for a moment, and then she grins at me again. I have a feeling that our backgrounds are very different. My family is wealthy and hers is probably not. I’ve lived a life of ease and comfort and she hasn’t. But right now we have at least one thing in common: We are both here at Lakeview, failures at the thing called living.