by Zarah-Ann Alba
I had a friend in high school who took 99 sleeping pills one night before going to bed. She'd used a pestle and mortar to crush them into powder, and then mixed it all into Sharkleberry Fin Kool-Aid. They had to pump her stomach. Her mother took her out of school and put her in Sunshine Valley Sanitarium so that she could "rest for a while. my surprise, her hospital room was actually pretty nice. nothing white or rubber in it. The carpet was plush blue. The walls were pale pink, and there were two blue lamps on either side of the room. She had an oak dresser and a closet to hang all her black clothes in, on plastic hangers attached to the rack. A floral comforter with little yellow butterflies on it covered the bed, where she was propped up on butterfly-covered pillows, looking at me with her usual cheerful smile and sad, guarded eyes. "Hey. Meg," she said.
Her hair had been cut off as close to the scalp as possible, so that she reminded me of those PBS documentaries on the Holocaust. I asked her what had happened. She said that she'd given herself a terribly uneven haircut with the kitchen shears, and when she got to Sunshine Valley, they cut the rest off. I'd always loved her hair. It had reached down to the end of her back and was black, black, black, and shiny like pearls. She never tied it back or braided it, even when we had to run the mile in gym class, but kept it free-flowing like a mane. She would only wash it once a week, on Sunday mornings, and used no towels, letting her neck arch back from the weight of all that wet hair. It took an entire day to dry in the summertime. But now it was gone. How do you feel, I asked. She smiled, showing straight white teeth that had never needed braces. "Completely emasculated." she said.
I noticed she was wearing pink pajamas with tiny pictures of country western boots on it. Out of each little boot popped the head of a fuzzy gray cat. The pajamas seemed faded, and there was a hole above the chest pocket, exposing a spot of skin, blue-white, like skim milk. She looked like skim milk. "It'll grow hack," I said.
My parents think I'm depressed and alcoholic. I tell them not to worry, it's just a phase, everyone in college is depressed and alcoholic at one time or another. They make me seek help anyway. After only two months of sessions, Dr. Bleeker can safely confirm that I suffer from mild depression and alcohol dependency. Usually I drink at night, after waking up from bad dreams. Not dreams, exactly, because I don't really remember what they're about. But sometimes, while sleeping, I feel pressure on my chest, as if something heavy is sitting on it. I can't breathe, and my arms are pinned to my sides, like I'm being held underwater, so I struggle to move my arms, to free my head out of the water so I can breathe air again. When I feel my arms actually reaching up from my sides and I'm gasping for breath, I realize that it was just a dream. I can breathe and move if I want, and I am awake.
The thing about being awake at 3:30 in the morning is that no one else is up. It's a very lonely time, especially when I can't get back to sleep. In complete darkness and with hardly any distractions except the occasional passing vehicle, thoughts come into my head that I wouldn't be thinking at any other time except 3:30 in the morning. One time I started crying into my pillow because I was thinking how sad it was that in L.A. gangs, little kids of nine and ten were already hardened killers. For a while that night, I contemplated the feasibility of becoming a teacher and moving to L.A. so I could help the children, and then was becoming more depressed as I realized how useless I was, that I never would do anything so selfless.
Sometimes I watch TV, just to know that my asthmatic breathing isn't the only sound in the conscious world. But TV is not very quality at that hour. I tried watching the Home Shopping Network once. I actually wanted to buy something, but I only became progressively bored and finally changed the channel when they were offering a pair of limited edition porcelain gnomes for only $119.35. Clicking through the channels, I inevitably catch a glimpse of an impoverished Filipino child whom Sally Struthers wants me to support. Or else she's advising me to take correspondence courses in refrigerator repair. Sometimes there are these talk shows hosted by people I've never seen or heard of before. Yet they're doing a monologue in front of an audience, so they must exist. The guest usually looks vaguely, annoyingly familiar, and you wish you could remember what you'd seen him in before. He had probably played some bit part in an episode of Magnum, P. I. or something, so it's even more frustrating that this person has become such an enigma, that it has become a mission in life to know who it is. If it were at any other time except 3:30 in the morning, you could call someone up so they would tell you, yeah, that guy starred in "Manimal," remember? Or maybe they could even just be comforting company in misery. But it is 3:30, and no one else is even alive, it seems like. So, like some people would make a ham sandwich at this point, I make Kool-Aid and Everclear.
The first time I ever got drunk, I was with her. She and I were in her bedroom with two bottles of wine, one me and one for her, worth four dollars total, that her brother had bought for us. I was disappointed by his alcohol choice, thinking it much more dignified to get drunk off vodka or whiskey or something. Instead, we were drinking peach-flavored Boone's out of plastic tumblers with Smurfs on them. She had Papa Smurf and I had Brainy Smurf. Anthrax screeched and pounded from the stereo speakers. The wine tasted good, not like beer, and before I knew what had happened, my bottle was done, and I was tripping around the room, thrashing my head like it was May Day, laughing at Brainy Smurf. whose eyes were closed behind his horn-rimmed glasses and whose index finger pointed up in the air because he was saying something important. I was terribly happy. She was jumping on the bed, saying over and over that she couldn't believe she was buzzed after just one bottle. She'd always believed she'd had a higher tolerance. To me, she looked more puzzled than drunk, even as she did somersaults on her bed like you would on a trampoline. Finally, I felt wobbly and hot, and the room would not remain still. I had to lie down on the bed and close my eyes. She crashed on top of me, laughing, but I barely felt it, I was so numb and my head was reeling so crazily and we were fourteen and I was so happy there with her. The next day, in the shower. I saw the amazing bruise on my thigh where she must have fallen. It was blue and green, the size of a cantaloupe and the shape of Wisconsin. She didn't think it looked like Wisconsin at all; she said it reminded her more of Jesus when he was dragging the wooden cross on his back, with the procession of women crying and praying behind him, and the Roman soldiers moving things along. I do not know how she saw this.
Her room in Sunshine Valley had no windows, just pink walls. She asked me if it was nice out. I told her it was hot. She asked how my job was going. During summer vacations, I worked at my parents' restaurant, beside a laundry mat at the end of a strip mall. Fine, I said. Busy. She looked at me a moment, then reached over and fumbled in her nightstand for a cigarette. Finding one, she asked for a light. I wondered if she was allowed to smoke as I searched for my lighter. I found a box of matches, and even though I had the box right there, I struck the match on my shoe. She had shown me to do that.
Upon the nightstand sat her Mickey Mouse clock. Mickey Mouse pointed with white gloved hands to large black numbers, indicating that the time was 4:10. Protruding from his belly was the second hand, moving in slow, marching circles. Tick, tick. Tick, tick. This clock had been given to her by a guy she'd dated a year ago, who taught courses about the Beats at the junior college. He'd given her a poem to go along with the Mickey clock, something about time and dying and some other thing. "She fares in the stark immortal fields of death" was the first line of this poem that went with Mickey Mouse. The guy was thirty-seven. After two months it was over. He broke it off, saying she should go hack to live with her mother and he would try to work things out with his wife. I guess he was right in trying to keep the families together, but she took it hard and slashed her wrists. That was the first time she tried to kill herself. I couldn't even understand why, because from the impression I had of him, he didn't seem so wonderful. I saw him one time when I came to pick her up at his house. He answered the door wearing only a pair of decades-old jeans. I saw, reluctantly, the sparse smattering of hair on his narrow chest, and a soft white belly that reminded me of marshmallows in hot chocolate. Except for silver-rimmed glasses perched on a straight nose, his face stretched bland and colorless from his receding hairline to his stubbly chin. He had no lips. For this, she has left her mother, I thought at the time, and even while I admired her independence. I thought she was being stupid, stubborn. And when she tried to kill herself, I didn't understand. All I could think was For this. For this, she wants to die. He didn't even come to visit her at the hospital, and all she had to remember him by were the Mickey Mouse clock and pink scars on her wrists.
She loved Sylvia Plath and Stephen King. She wanted to be a poet. Most of her poetry was about dying, being dead, and overall contemplations on death. She had this one poem, though, about vampires: how blood was like this bad drug that they couldn't stop taking and how they could only exist in darkness. They were neither fully alive nor fully dead, all the time they wanting to be one or the other. At first you sympathized with the vampires, because they had such tortured souls; but then you wanted them dead, because they were gorging themselves on your arm. Her style was staccato and impressionistic. It got published in our high school literary magazine. I had a poem published in there, too, some paltry four-line thing about shyness. But she was the one who had talent; she had the poetic soul.
Against that bluish-white face, her eyes were blacker than I'd ever seen them to be. When I looked into them, I noticed a darker shapelessness in her two pupils which I realized was me. I sat up on the bed, trying to see my face in that reflection, but there were no details, just formlessness that moved when I did. I'd gone to see her because a part of me was like one of those gapers that hold up traffic in rush hour, slowing down at the site of a gruesome accident, seeing the crushed-up car overturned on the shoulder, searching for where the body may have landed from the impact, or maybe the corpse was still inside, its chest contorted to the shape of the steering wheel. I wanted to ask her how it felt to be dead, because she must have been a little bit dead before the doctors brought her back; could she hear angels, or was there just nothing? Was it good? Did she see Jesus, or Sylvia Plath? Did she wish she had stayed? And why 99, why not 100?
She stamped out her cigarette on the nightstand, and I watched the bright orange sparks dance around, then settle into white flakes of ash. some of the light bounced and flew into the air, falling silent and weightless, disappearing into the plush blue carpet below. And I couldn't speak. The ticking of the Mickey clock was giving me a headache, and all I could do was watch as silence pressed against my chest like a slow-filling, persistent balloon. I felt like an intruder with all my stupid questions, but I should have said something to kill that sweaty silence. I should have told her to stop trying to die: if she left me, I would be alone, I would never have the guts she had, I would cling on to this pathetic existence for another fifty years, until I died naturally, from a heart attack or lung cancer or something. Why couldn't we he depressed together forever? I stared at my formless reflection in her eyes, flashing forward through my pitiful life and death, wishing I could be brave like her and just say, "No, thanks, I think I'11 take a pass this time." Then, confined to the space of one or two neural firings, and never again afterward, it came to me that I loved her and I wanted her dead. She had to get it right sometime, so all I said was. "They're waiting for me."
"OK. Well, take care of yourself, Meg."
"I'11 see you soon. Get some rest."
She died with her head in the oven, like Sylvia Plath.
It was not long after Sunshine Valley, during which time she'd gone to try and live with her father downstate. Everyone came to her funeral: all her old friends and boyfriends (including the Beat professor), high school teachers, relatives from all across the country, even elementary school teachers from Philadelphia, where she grew up.
Her hair had grown back a little since I'd last seen her. The mortician moussed it or something to give it fullness. She looked like she belonged in the sixth grade. Gazing at her pasty, opaque face against the mauve satin, I couldn't stop thinking about dying with one's head in an oven. I'd always thought it to be one of the least romantic forms of suicide: it was so. .domestic. I tried to stop thinking this, mentally searching for a prayer I could say. but I couldn't push out those thoughts as I looked into her face, waiting for the eyelids to open and reveal my shapeless form in their pupils. I tried thinking about her vampire poem, but couldn't remember the words. I thought how she would've rather been cremated and scattered in a forest preserve, instead of being trapped in a dark, hot box for eternity, not even being able to get up at night like the vampires. But then I resumed thinking about the mundane-ness of one's head in an oven, and before I could push this out again, my feet were shuffling slowly away from the coffin. and I was making the sign of the cross on the way back to my pew. I thought about the pink scars on her wrists, and how they would eventually disappear, just like everything else. But I couldn't stop thinking about the oven, and her head in it, and the hair growing back, black as night, shiny as pearls.