I’m standing in the hall, hoping no one can see me. How many groups must I endure?
A skinny man points to the ceiling and shouts, “I don’t care what you assholes say. I’m gonna make the final cut. I gotta date with Betty Ward because I’m the worst one here!” He has a few hairs clinging to his scalp, bathrobe untied, shorts and t-shirt askew, and a purple-red line across his neck.
“You should listen to your ‘assholes’. They’re right for once,” a pasty three hundred pound woman says.
“They’re always right!” says the gaunt man of few hairs.
“Please! Your stupid voices just tell you the most useless details about the stock market. Like anyone cares about cattle futures.” She folds her ham hocks over her chest.
“My demons don’t talk to me…”
“We know, we know, they appear in your alphabet soup and jump out of the toilet when you try to sit on it,” says Mr. Few Hairs.
“What about Charlie?” asks a punk kid sporting a green mohawk.
Most everyone in the therapy circle turns and stares at Charlie, who has a tic, jerking his head to the right whenever he gets excited or realizes he hasn’t done it in awhile. His grooming is impeccable. I suspect that he was an overindulged only child. He blinks excessively when people look at him.
“Not me. They’d never pick me,” says Charlie with a shy smile.
This wing of the hospital is low security: for recovering suicides who promise not to kill themselves while under treatment. Another batch of pathetic losers, like myself. I yank up my sagging “one-size fits all” pj bottoms, and roll the waistband over a few times, the drawstring long since removed. Under orders from the head smock, I enter, taking a seat in the crooked human circle: a lifesaver of folding chairs and bright pink wristbands that declare our inmate status.
The obese woman looks my way. “Who’re you, sticks? My name’s Faith, but everyone ‘round here calls me Princess.”
I examine her, slippers to neck rolls, my eyes settling on the camouflage green XXXL shirt. I try not to imagine what she’d look like with a tiara and a star-tipped wand.
“Lydia,” I mumble.
“Wrists, pills, or rope?” Few Hairs asks me. I fix my eyes on his neck’s rope burn.
Palms up, I extend my unscarred wrists. “Don’t do blood.”
“Gary here,” he says thumbing to the man on his right whose arms are bandaged fingers to shoulders, “don’t got no problem with blood. Do you, Gary?”
Gary’s catatonic face suggests he’s more drugged than the rest of us. I think I saw him once up on level five. Hard to tell when you’re on sedatives and bound in TPR straps.
“Let’s get back on topic,” says the baby-faced shrink, who I branded ‘Peach Fuzz’ during a previous long-term visit.
“Topic, schmockic, I wanna know the competition,” says Princess.
“This isn’t a competition. We’re here to learn coping skills,” Fuzz says in his annoyingly calm shrink voice. “By the way, everyone, this is Lydia. She’s been in the hospital for six weeks. Why don’t you tell them what brought you here this time?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Don’t leave us hanging,” says Few Hairs, with a noose yank gesture.
The mohawk kid chuckles.
“Is this required?” I say to Fuzz.
He nods. “Group is for talking things through. It would help you to…”
“Okay. Jesus. Water, alright, it was water.”
“Details!” shouts Princess, like the hippo wants to take the plunge herself.
Feels like an inquisition. Fuck. I look at Fuzz, who flashes an encouraging smile. No help to my left either. Just a white haired-woman crocheting some odd shape. She doesn’t seem to be listening.
“Look, I just want to get out of here so I can try again,” I say.
“Again?” Princess is piqued.
“Fuck,” mumbles the old lady. “Fuck, fucking, fuckey, fuckety-fuck.”
I turn around incredulously to look at the granny. They’re still staring at me.
“How many times?” asks Princess.
I sigh. “You don’t want to know.”
“Yes we do,” says Few Hairs.
“Like I said, my latest involved water.” I shrug.
“Fucker!” Granny blurts out, eyes still laser-fixed on her crochet project. No one gives her a second glance but me.
“Bathtub?” asks Mohawk gleefully.
Feeling no way out, I volunteer, “Bridge. I’m sitting on one over the Hudson and thinking, ‘What could go wrong?’”
“Which one? George Washington?” asks Few Hairs.
“No, Bear Mountain.”
“Out by the military base?” asks Princess.
“That’s the one.”
“Son of a bitch, that’s where I would’ve picked too! It’s so beautiful up there with the park,” says Few Hairs. He eyes his ‘assholes’ in the ceiling for agreement.
“Had bricks I found…”
“Cinder or red?” Implores Mohawk.
“Kind of yellow. Like butter leather chaps,” I say.
“Hmm.” He grimaces, twisting one of the little pierced hoops at the top of his right ear. They probably supervise his getting into and out of the metal blowfish look.
“So, I jumped.”
“Go on,” says Princess.
“I was thinking of Virginia Woolf. She put stones in her pockets and walked into a river. I thought I’d double my chances by combining it with a bridge jump.”
“You put the bricks in your clothes?” asks Mohawk.
“No, tied ‘em around my ankles with panty hose. Figured they’d help me sink faster. Should’ve thrown one in the water first for a test.”
“Shit, I think I know these bricks,” says Mohawk.
“Uh, yeah, some bricks are buoyant. So much for bulky-junk-day. My feet cut through the water like dual periscopes. Was dragged down current and passed out.”
“So, who found you?” asks Princess.
“Homeless guy in the state park. They say he waded in far enough to grab hold of one of the bricks. Spalding Gray jumped off the Staten Island Ferry and the Atlantic took him, just like that.”
“Fuckers,” says granny, as if to dispel my musing.
“You’re very lucky that the EMTs got most of the water out of your lungs,” says Fuzz.
“Sure as hell my kind of luck,” I reply.
“What about before that?” asks Princess.
“We don’t need to go there,” says Fuzz.”
“Why not?” asks Few Hairs.
“He means, you don’t want to hear all eight,” I say.
She and Few Hairs gasp. Mohawk says, “Cool.”
“Without blood?” slurs Gary. I’m shocked he can even talk in his condition.
“Dammit, you’ll be picked for Betty Ward’s island paradise, I just know it!” Few Hairs pounds his right fist into his left palm and curses his celestial ‘assholes’.
“Who the hell’s Betty Ward?” I exclaim.
“Puleez, you must be joking,” says Princess. “Everyone knows about Betty’s Anonymous rehab center near Fiji. Absolutely free to a select few AA’s, NA’s, GA’s, and SA’s each year. You of all people should know…the endowment for chronic incurables.”
“GA’s, SA’s?” I ask.
“Gambler’s Anonymous, Suicide’s Anonymous,” she says.
“Ya gotta be yankin’ me. Doc?” Fuzz nods another patronizing smile.
“C’mon, how else you try?” asks Mohawk with morbid zeal, his nose ring moist with enthusiasm.
“Yes, tell us,” says Princess.
Even Gary, the slashed arms, is pleading in my direction with his dilated eyes, as Charlie jerks his head and smiles.
“Fine. But I don’t want to go to this Betty Ward island thingy.”
“Why not?” says Princess.
“Sounds like another prison.”
“Hardly,” says Fuzz. “More like a resort clinic.”
“Yeah, I’m still not going. I’m not a fuckin’ loser. I’m going to succeed.”
“At what, Lydia?” asks Fuzz.
“Duh. At dying. Am I the only one still trying?” Am I the only sane one? I scan their faces, which confirms my theory. “Life’s not a bowl of cherries; it’s a tray of shit sandwiches. I’ve told the smocks, the therapists, but they don’t listen. They keep fucking rescuing me.”
“Right on,” cackles granny, still crocheting. “Fuck heads!”
Gary nods his drugged head in agreement. Princess twists her lips, her eyes sweeping up as she chews on the mixed metaphor.
“Now Lydia, we’re here to find healthy ways of coping with life’s difficulties, not to run away from them,” says Fuzz, lowering his clipboard to launch a shot over the bow.
“Difficulties? Difficulties!” I laugh.
He continues with his nauseating empathy. “Why don’t you tell the group about your first time?”
“First time? Get outta here.”
He scribbles on his clipboard and says, “I mean your first suicide attempt.”
“Oh…you sure?” Unrelenting stares of anticipation prompt, “Well, I’m in fifth grade.”
“Fifth grade?” says Princess.
“What, kids are immune to pain?”
Mohawk and Gary shrug in agreement.
“So, I’m inside my room, door closed. Tied together couple of sheets and fixed ‘em to a hook in the ceiling beam. It usually held the parakeet cage, but he’d died that morning. Took him from home to home until…their fucking cat killed my only friend.”
“Damn,” says Mohawk.
“This is also the day I flunked a pop quiz and was humiliated by a popular girl, who ripped the buttons off my shirt in front of everyone on the playground. Showed my naked chest to the whole world.”
“What a cunt,” says Princess.
“I know, right? Least I didn’t have anything to show. So, at the end of the sheet-rope, I fashion a noose, like in the westerns. I’m standing in a chair on top of the bed, saying my last goodbyes to some raggedy toys. There’s a letter stuffed into my shirt pocket.”
“Cursive or printing?” asks Few Hairs.
“What? I don’t remember. Probably cursive in fifth.”
“Pen or pencil?” Few Hairs badgers.
“And then?” says Princess.
“So, I jump, but the ‘rope’ is too long. I scream. My right leg is broken. I hide the note.”
“Who found you?” asks Mohawk.
“No one. Had to drag myself into the living room and shout at the drunken ‘foster’ assholes.”
The group gives me a pained, pitying look. They’re actually listening to me.
“Bonnie Lisbon got hanging down pat.”
“Virgin Suicides,” says Princess. “But she’s a fictional character.”
“Doesn’t matter…she had no way out either,” I say.
“Know that feeling,” says Mohawk, wiping his nose.
Some of the group members mutter an affirmation. Charlie jerks his head and blinks. Granny crochets, mumbling “rotten fuck bastard.” Few Hairs wraps his bathrobe tight around his bony body, as if chilled by a draft.
“What came next?” asks Princess.
“Um, the second…?” This group thing is getting way too invasive. “Can I pass?”
“Come on, please?” asks Charlie like a kid wanting another page from a bedtime story.
“Pretty please,” says Princess.
“With a hang man on top,” says Few Hairs.
“Shit, fine, but after this I’m done.” I draw in a breath. “I’d read about Ross Lockridge…”
“I knew it!” says Mohawk.
“Knew what?” I shift in my seat.
“Knew you’d tried car exhaust. That’s how…”
“Shut up, you’re ruining the story,” says Few Hairs.
After a suffocating silence, I decide to continue.
“So Lockridge, he had his own car. I’m thirteen, sitting in my foster dad’s ’88 Seville, engine on, windows rolled down in his sealed “off-limits” garage. Jimmied the lock. I don’t even think to look at the gas gauge. My left eye is bruised and swollen thanks to the bastard.”
“Bastard fuck!” says granny.
“I start to get sleepy…the engine dies. Out of gas. Figures…the cheapskate, mother fucker.”
“Really?” says Princess.
“Really. I am the world’s biggest failure.”
“How can you be sure of that?” asks Few Hairs.
“’Cuz they say I’ve set a record, but only Guinness or some freakazoid’s blog gives a rat’s ass.” This is my fifth time in Westchester County Medical Center alone. I’m doomed to live. “I’m cursed, but the smocks call it a miracle.”
“Whoa,” says Mohawk. “Not just anyone gets a miracle.”
“Miracle? Lived in and out of this place since I was seventeen. Ran away from my last ‘home,’ hitchhiked, panhandled, and Greyhounded across the country so the bastards would never find me. But they came along for the ride…inside my head anyway.”
The group is staring at me. I’ve revealed too much.
“Alright everyone, I think Lydia is talked out for now,” Fuzz says, finishing up with his clipboard.
Few Hairs stands up. “But what about the other…”
“Another time. Your assignment for tonight is to think of a time when you were happy and write about why you felt that way.” Fuzz walks over to the nurse’s station.
It’s an impossible assignment for me. I pick my weary ass up from the chair and sidle over to get my meds.
“Good to see you looking better,” says Fuzz, smiling sympathetically.
I don’t know why, but his cheerfulness always pisses me off. “I’m looking forward to a very long nap that sadly won’t be permanent, Fuzz…er…”
“It’s nice to see you too,” he replies. “Fuzz, huh? I’m not as young as I look either.”
I almost blush. “Why do you put up with us?”
“If it weren’t for the hospital, I’d have some issues too,” says Fuzz.
“As you’ve already figured out, nobody’s perfect.”
I make a face. Well I’ll be damned. He is human. Probably has a kid who hates him, so he rescues us to ease his conscience. I know way too much psychobabble for my own good.
“Nap time,” I say, slogging down the hall like a scarecrow jellyfish.
But it’s not in the cards. I open the door to my new room and…shit, I now have adoring fans. The whole group is there, chairs and all in a semi-circle around my bed.
“…the fuck?” I say.
Even granny’s there, crocheting on the bed next to mine. I guess she’s my roommate.
“You’re gonna tell us about three through seven,” says Princess ominously.
“Yeah,” says Few Hairs. “You wouldn’t want to hang us out to dry.”
“God, you people are impossible,” I say, stepping my way over them and climbing into my bed. “I just want to sleep and forget I’m alive for awhile.”
“We promise we’ll leave when you tell us the other five,” says Princess.
I pull the covers up to my neck, as if that will shield me from catching the crazies.
“Two,” I offer.
“Four,” says Princess.
“Three,” I counter.
“Done,” says Few Hairs.
“Which three?” I ask.
Princess’ face is filled with a child’s tension of only being allowed to pick one donut at Krispy Kreme, hoping it’s not the wrong one.
“Four, six and seven,” says Few Hairs, like a Keno junkie in a Vegas coffee shop. Princess is relieved of the dilemma, instead patting her growling stomach.
I begin, interrupted by their applauding.
“Enough of that. You know how the first question they ask when you’re taken by force to the hospital is, ‘Do you own a gun?’ It always pisses them off when I reply, ‘Of course I don’t, fucktard, or I’d already be dead.’”
“Dead like Hemingway, Van Gogh, and the vast majority of completed suicides. But even if I could get a hold of a gun, I probably wouldn’t be able to use it. I have hemophobia.”
“Homophobia?” says Mohawk.
“No. HEMO. Why I don’t cut. Pass out if I even see other people’s blood. Don’t want to leave behind that kinda mess. Guns aren’t an option in my ever decreasing repertoire.”
“Sucks,” slurs Gary.
“Next thing they ask is if you’ve taken any pills. You’d think they’d ask that first, considering you clearly don’t have a hole in your head.”
More chuckles. “Pecker fuck,” says granny.
“My fourth involved pills,” I say it like it’s an ex-lover. “There are plenty of famous and maybe accidental overdoses. My favorite is Herlihy.”
“Midnight Cowboy,” says Gary, eyes locked in a distant reverie.
“I was on level five at the time, where I just came from. I searched and had finally found a bottle of aspirin in one of the unlocked cabinets of the clinic.”
“Oh come on,” says Few Hairs.
“Let me finish.”
“Let her finish,” says Princess.
“So, I poured the pills into my mouth, filling the empty bottle with water from the nearby sink and greedily swallowing down every last one. There had to be at least two hundred in there.”
“Bah,” says Few Hairs. Princess gives him an evil glare.
“I was sitting on the examination table, waiting to join Herlihy. I stretched out, crinkling the tabletop’s sheet of sanitized paper. An orderly came by and asked me what I was doing in there. Then he saw the empty bottle of aspirin on the floor.”
“What happened?” asks Mohawk.
“Sadly, they weren’t even real aspirin. They were fucking placebos given to the hypochondriacs of the joint.”
Few Hairs smiles. “Told ya.”
Princess laughs. “I tried pills too. Ultram. My kid found me and called 911.” She is suddenly somber at the memory.
“Sorry if I’m depressing you all,” I say.
“No. Go on,” says Gary, still eyeing his private flashback.
“Sixth. This was when I had to start getting creative. I’m sitting on the toilet lid, taking a whiff of the opened Lysol bottle. Five without bloodshed are hard enough. It caught my attention that only two figures, both poets, had succeeded by this method. Charlotte Mew, a Brit, and W. Vachel Lindsay, an American, each checked out in the Depression era.”
“What’s it like?” asks Mohawk.
“Well first, your nose and lips do a slow jig as you imagine your esophagus melting with the shit. I don’t know what happens next.”
“Why not?” says Mohawk.
“The door burst open. Roommate. Forgot to lock the friggin’ door. She lunges; we wrestle, knocks the Lysol out of my grip, grabs it away, and rushes for the phone. ‘Fuck me. Not again.’”
“Fuckin’ guardian angels,” mutters granny, and then “fuck, fucker, fuckety-fuck.”
“I was going to try that next,” Gary ekes out the words, locking eyes with mine.
“Don’t,” I say. “Awful stuff. Doubt I could’ve done it even if the roommate hadn’t walked in.”
“So, what comes before the bridge?” asks Few Hairs.
“Lucky number seven. You know Modigliani?”
Most of the group shakes its head, but Mohawk says, “Wasn’t he a painter?”
“Yeah. You’d know his work if you saw it. Anyway, his unmarried partner, Jeanne, pregnant with his second child, threw herself out the fifth story window of her parents’ Paris apartment. She was my primary inspiration for defenestration.”
“What?” says Mohawk.
“Means, window jumping,” says Charlie with a slight jerk.
“Oh yeah, Germans are cool,” says Mohawk. “I mean, their words,” he corrects
Everyone stops looking at him and returns their gaze to me.
“I check into a Manhattan hotel. Got a thirteenth floor room. I haven’t even done anything important with my life, you know. Just want the pain to stop.”
Gary nods, resuming his distant gaze. Charlie has completely stopped jerking and blinking. It’s strange to see him sitting upright and calm.
“I’m out on the ledge, since there is no balcony, scooting away from the window. A couple of pigeons stare at me as if to say, ‘Are you nuts?’ I nod and they fly away.
“You’re probably thinking, ‘No way could she screw this one up.’ Wanna bet? And no, it wasn’t a canopy covering the hotel entrance or a dump truck that broke my fall. I wasn’t looking down, just straight ahead at the building across the way. I squinted to read one of the banners flapping in the wind. What does it say…Concert in the Park July...? I feel the mortar and brick give way beneath my feet. I’m falling for a brief moment and wham!”
Most everyone in the room is holding their breath.
“There was a window washer platform on the tenth floor. Lucky for him, the guy was inside at the time. He managed to drag my dumb unconscious ass back into the hotel…broken arm, fractured hip, and a concussion to boot. Now I have a fear of heights.”
“Shit,” says Mohawk.
“Yeah. It was hell getting up on that bridge.”
“How come you know so much about suicides?” asks Princess.
“I’ve studied them. You have to be an expert if you’ve lived as long as I have.”
“But you keep screwing up,” says Few Hairs.
“I know that! Now can I get some sleep? You got your three already.”
“Sure thing, Eight Times,” says Few Hairs.
“Seeya, Eight Times,” says Princess as she follows him out, adding, “We’ll be back for more tomorrow.”
The rest of them get up and take their chairs with them. Only granny is still crocheting on her bed across from me.
“Eight Times Lydia.” I laugh when I hear myself say it out loud. I’m wondering if nine will be as funny. Debating between self-immolation and jumping in front of a train is a bit like debating pouring turpentine or peroxide on knife wound. And now I’m dizzy. Train’s quicker.
“Peter Pan ate it on a train,” I say to granny. She arches one eyebrow, but doesn’t look up.
“Oh yes. Wondrous childhood tale, J.M. Barrie’s boy, Peter Llewellyn Davies grew up and skewered himself on a cowcatcher. All his sons had inherited the often fatal Huntington’s Disease. They, most likely, would never have to grow up. The lucky bastards.”
“Lucky fucks,” she says.
I like her style. “What you in here for, anyway?”
“Me?” She is spontaneously lucid and flip. “Faked a suicide.”
“Can’t stand my bratty-ass grandkids. They were livin’ in my house, their parents droppin’ them off like I’m some dim-witted free babysitter.”
I laugh and shake my head. “So the Tourrette’s is an act?”
She smiles. “Bitchin’ free nursing home.”
“Hell, I guess we’re all dippin’ into the fed. I’m sleepy.”
“Storytellin’ does take it outta you.” She finishes her crocheting. It looks like a teal sweater for a wiener dog. “Whatchya gonna do when you get out?”
“I don’t know. Fuck it. I’ll hire a hit man. I seriously need a professional.” I turn over.
“Don’t waste your money, honey. Granny’s gotta humdinger for number nine.”
“But first, you gotta help me win a slot at Betty Ward’s.”
“Well shit, you’re gonna live forever, aren’t you?”
“Hell yeah! If you weren’t so goddamned determined, you could be my roomie.”