I take my shoes off, and empty my pockets into a small wicker basket. The metal detector is a free standing door frame. It reminds me of the floating door in outer space from the opening credits of The Twilight Zone. The female guard hands me a pair of nylon ankle socks and a piece of paper for me to sign, which waives my rights. There are two other patients in the waiting area—an overweight woman with unpicked hair watching a talk show on a television mounted high up on the wall, and an older man with tight, wiry grey curls, and wild eyes bulging above a sunken, toothless mouth. I grab a seat on the far side of the room, and keep my eye on the curious couple. The man oscillates his attention between the TV and the woman, rocking back and forth in anxious anticipation as if something exciting is bound to happen. To his delight, it isn’t long before the woman suddenly erupts, throwing her hands up to God in obvious disbelief over whatever story is being told on her program. The man roars in hysterical laughter and stomps his stockinged feet against the linoleum. The woman hoists herself from her chair and turns toward the man. She tosses her weight around, mirroring the people on the talk show over her shoulder.
“You do not fuck with me, motherfucka’! The last nigga’ did left in a body bag, and I ain’t tryna end back up in the penitentiary. I done did eight years already!”
I expect to hear applause from a live, studio audience, but it's just the man’s shrieks of delight at her suddenly evoked animation, as if this were a game they often played, until the security guard tells them to shut up, and they’re surprisingly obedient.
A girl my age steps through the metal detector, and it buzzes. The guard tells her to remove her jewelry, and the girl loses it. She says, “It’s not going down like that! This is not my status!” She says, “I only came here ‘cos I need my medicine. I haven’t been to sleep in three days, and this shit is buggin’ me out!”
The older couple lapse into a sort of parental mode, as if they’re a married couple wanting to console the girl, cooing at her like she's a bird caught in the rafters looking for an open window. I suspect if they were to get a hold of her they’d accidentally smother her the way a child might squeeze a baby kitten to death. The security guard walks to the television, threatens to turn it off if they don't calm down. While everyone's distracted, I motion for the girl to sit next to me, and as if in a trance, she does.
“I got a baby, man,” she tells me, but more to herself. “At home, and I gotta get outta here…”
“It’s ok. I’m here just to get refills too. You have to take off your gold, though, or they’re gonna keep you.”
She bows her head and slips off her chain.
“This ain’t my status.”
When the psychiatrist finally comes for me, I’m escorted down a hall, and into her office where she’s apparently been looking over whatever paperwork of mine she has, and based on her expression, she's unable to understand any of it. She takes a seat behind her desk, cluttered with the medical mystery that is my case.
“Wanna tell me why you’re here?” The question sounds more like a dare. She moves a pair of bifocals from the bridge of her nose to the top of her head, folds her hands and leans back into her orthopedic chair, readying herself for my best shot.
“I’m here to see about getting a refill,” I reply, and the tone in my voice suggests I'm unclear as to why that’s such a hard thing to figure out.
“No, do you want to tell me how you ended up in the ER three weeks ago?” She shuffles some paper around, looks underneath them as if the answers were simply hiding.
I point to them—the papers.
“I mean, what do my records say?”
“So far? Nothing,” and to prove her point she retrieves her glasses, quickly scans for any and all relevant information her documents might provide, and verbally processes her discoveries, clicking her tongue between each bit of particular import:
“Admitted to Emergency Room November 5, 2008,” clickclickclick. “Blood/alcohol level acute,” clickclickclick. “Benzodiazepine toxicity. Undetermined degree of suicidal intent.” She’s used up that resource, roves over her desk, cherry picks a pink carbon copy:
“Activated charcoal orally administered. Patient blows acceptable .07,” she looks at me directly, and with emphasis on the next statistic: “sixteen hours later.”
She continues from a different document:
“Transferred to psychiatric department November 6. Diagnosis Major Depressive Affective Disorder. Twenty milligrams Paroxetine daily, three-week trial. One hundred milligrams Quetiapine Fumarate daily, three-week trial.”
Again, she looks at me directly, and returns her glasses to their resting position on top of her head: “Released on same day.” She waits to see what effect this might have.
“Most attempted suicides are not released on the same day. Attempted suicides become properties of the state for at least three days’ evaluation. Upon further review it is then determined whether or not the patient is a threat to himself or others. You must have impressed your evaluating counselor?"
I think I know what this lady’s problem is. I have teeth in my head. I should not be in this hospital. More importantly, I should not be living somewhere that would make this hospital the place I would go to in an emergency or to simply get a prescription refill. I do not have any obvious disabilities. I do not hear voices, see things or fear somebody is out to hurt me, all of which was asked of me by the admissions nurse, so she knows this already. If I really wanted to die, I would have. If I really wanted to take my own life, the nurses would have needed to force a tube down my throat and pump me full of charcoal, but it would all be too late. Instead, they handed me a Dixie cup and politely asked me to swallow, which I did, and now here I am.
“Tell me a bit about yourself, please, if you could.” I feel like she’s wanting me to try to prove her wrong, even though we both know I can’t. It’s embarrassing to admit I’ve been morbidly depressed my entire life, but it’s true, and she probably already knows this, or expects me to say it, so I won’t. I’ve watched my mother lose her mind many, many times. She was a tyrant, violent, and hysterical, all dry, hot breath and cortisone, all sharp edges and pointy features. Everything about her was always poking and prodding, clawing at my shirtsleeves, my face. She was abusive to everyone, not just me, both physically and emotionally. She was forever screaming, the type of screams I now realize most humans never have the occasion to make, save for once in a lifetime emergencies, like a house fire or broken bones, the type of screams I don’t think I’d ever had the audacity to make myself, too afraid I’d scare the neighbors, burst blood vessels. Instead, “I want to chop my head off, I want to chop my head off,” repeats over and over somewhere deep in me, an obsessive tic throughout the years, for as long as I can remember. That is just one example; I have many compulsions. I was a sensitive boy with a bully for a mother. Pathological mothers hate sensitive boys and will try to kill them, but I wonder: if my mother wasn’t a monster, would I have been so sensitive? It’s mortifying to tell someone I spend so much time trying to reconcile all this inside me. Whatever I have, it’s in my very DNA, it’s been transcribed, translated, replicated. It would be there regardless of my relationship to my mother, and I certainly don’t want to blame her—something she loves to accuse me of doing anyway. My father has it, and his father had it, and his father’s father. My father is a mumbler, and he married a screamer, and had all mumbling children. I’m the oldest of four. We are all depressives, and all of us whipped into a sort of shocked submission by our mother’s hysterics. I wish you would just die. I think I remember those words the most, they were said so often.
Another compulsive thought, as ridiculous as it sounds: a squeegee, floating in the center of my mind’s eye, illuminated and shining like baby Jesus in a cradle: angels sing, “Aaaaahhhhhhh.” I can hear the satisfying sounds, that windshield squeaking noise, from all those errant neurons neglected by broke-down synapses left to rot like tree fallen fruit finally being wiped clean away, leaving behind something sparkling, and new, instead of tar-stained and heaving like an emphysemic lung. Sometimes it’s a straight edged razor, and if I could just harness the powers of telekinesis, I could drag the sharp edge of the blade across my frontal lobe in systematic, neat rows, shearing to the membrane, revealing something glistening and pink. It’s a delicate procedure, and the concentration I dedicate to it feels like being in a dream, trying to run, but your limbs don’t work, or are uneven or paralyzed or stumps or made of braided wet hair and teeth so you gallop in crooked circles, slowly moving closer to the very thing you’re trying to get away from. Do I mention this? My eternal psychic struggle to visualize a life not lousy with depression until it becomes real, if I could just do it hard enough? I think about the man watching the woman in the waiting room. I wonder how long they’ve been sitting there. I don’t have a baby, but I gotta get out of here. I know what I’ll say:
I ran into Charlie on the train. He told me about some guy he’d just been with for money, some famous architect. Loved poppers. When we got above ground I had to piss, so I took a leak on 6th and A. Right on the curb, because I had to go so bad. Charlie leaned over and put his face into the stream. He stood up, then did it again. He said it tasted like the ocean. At the bar I was looking for somebody I might know, but there was nobody, so I left Charlie and went to The Hose over on 2nd. I ordered a drink and ran into a man who noticed a large tear in my shirt, and he asked if he could fix it. I said yea, so he ripped the whole sleeve off like pulling a tablecloth right out from under a dinner set. He grabbed my other arm, and put the cuff in his mouth. His teeth were tight on the hem, and his eyes looked up into mine. He chewed out a small hole and, with his finger, he split it straight down the seams length, then tore away the now-splayed fabric at the shoulder. Suddenly sleeveless, I jokingly flexed my biceps. Porn was projected on the wall behind me. It was a double-penetration scene. A guy with a tattoo of a ship’s mast on his neck asked me if I wanted a bump, and I said no, but before I knew it we were back at my place. We did blow until the next morning. I woke up to our bodies fucking. It was the first time he was able to keep an erection, and he came inside me—reminding me of methadone patients I'd noticed on the train, after taking their morning doses, feeling so satisfied they’d sprawl out the random contents of their bags and pockets onto the seats next to them, taking up as much room as they could, making a mess, the world finally and rightfully theirs to use after they’ve felt like shit for so long. After we had sex, I went back to sleep, and woke up to a note: “Come over tonight? I’ll make fried dinner. XXX, Travis.” When I got to his place, there was a chicken soaking in buttermilk. He had diamond tattoos on every finger, every type of cut. He said I was exactly what he’d been looking for, and over the next six months we spent almost every night together just like that. Oktoberfest. Liter mugs the size of skulls. I was with some friends, and we were accidentally punching ourselves in the face every time we drunkenly brought the heavy glasses to our mouths. I ended up with a bruise on my cheekbone where the thick rim kept pressing against it. Travis came and met us. I went with him back to his place. He called for drugs, because he always did after we’d been drinking, no matter how much I protested, because he knew once it was there I would do it, and in the end he would lick his finger, and drag it across the last little bit of crumbs, and stick it in me, go down on me, then come up and bring his lips to mine, and everything would go numb. That night, I was already in bed, spinning, when his delivery guy dropped it off. It was in a pile on the desk, not even broken up. I was too drunk to get it in my nose without it falling right back out, so I ate it instead, crushing the rocks between my teeth. He pulled me up by the shoulders and told me to leave. He was suddenly paranoid, said he knew I'd been sleeping with so and so, but I wasn't. I begged him to believe me. I couldn’t go outside like that—like I might swallow my tongue. He pulled me by my ankles right out the apartment door. He texted me a couple days later: "i'm lost w/out u. i just saw what i wrote on the wall. meet me at my place." He’d carved my name with a switchblade above the urinal at the bar, carved out how I was the love of his life right there above the toilet. I didn’t text back. I met some friends in the city at a dark bar with concrete floors and a long metal urinal where guys jerked each other off. We found a skeleton hanging up in the back, next to a booth. I lifted it off the hook and sat it upright next to me. It was real bones from a real dead person, some science class relic. I kept putting my hand up underneath the ribs, right where the heart would be. I put my arm around it, and we hung out for the rest of the night doing rounds of Jäger. Like best friends, like we knew each other better than anybody else ever. Like original gangsters. Before we stumbled out, I broke the arms off at the elbows and shoved them down my pants. I woke up with them next to me in my bed, and for some reason seeing those stolen bones, I knew all of this had to stop. I met up with Travis and we went out for burgers. I could barely face the sun, my eyes swollen shut, my whole body ached—how much did I drink last night? I felt a little paranoid, I needed sugar, something greasy, a Xanax. I told him I couldn’t handle the partying anymore—that I didn’t want to do it or be around it. I told him I thought it was making me nuts, and it’s time for me to make a change or something bad was going to happen. I said it’s me or the drugs, ‘cos I’m done. He told me it’s gonna be hard, and that’s not what I wanted to hear. Suddenly, I noticed one ear was higher than the other, right eye bigger than the left, as if he was split right down the middle, two people that didn’t quite fit where they met. I told him that’s what I saw. He said, “Great, should I get a bucket and mop from the back so I can be just like the toxic avenger now?” I said I was sorry, and he cried. He cried because we both ate our meat with fork and knife, and both our mother’s smacked us on the heads for not using our hands like better men. He cried because he knew we weren’t going to be able to make this work. Election night. Everybody was talking about hope and change. All I knew was I couldn’t get Travis to answer his phone. I relapsed, I guess that’s what it’s called. I’d had too much to drink. I was coming from a catering job where I ended up getting so drunk I climbed on top of the bar, but it seemed like people were so happy about the election they didn’t even notice, at least that’s what I told myself. Hope and Change. The streets in Brooklyn were crowded with people celebrating. I called at least ten times, texted nonstop. When I got home I called once more. Finally, he picked up, but it sounded like he left the phone in his pocket. I could hear his voice, could hear him laughing with some other guy. I hung up, plopped two Alka Seltzer into a glass of water, reached for my Xanax, and before I even decided to do it, I poured the entire bottle into my hand, swallowed them, called my boss to tell him I wouldn’t be coming to work later that morning. The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital. I don’t remember getting there or signing in. I was in a bed, and a nurse was giving me liquid charcoal in a cup to drink, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, a man in a white lab coat asked me if I was trying to kill myself. I thought I might have been dreaming, but I knew enough to say no, then fell back to sleep. The next time I woke up, I was told to breathe into a tube. The nurse was pinching her nose and fanning the air in front of her. She said I still smelled like alcohol. I had to blow a certain number before I could be transferred. “You have to blow sober before we can transfer you, sweetie,” she said. “You know, I have a boy at home just like you,” and she parted the hair on my head, away from my eyes. It would be years later until I thought about what she might have meant. After detoxing, I was escorted to the Psychiatric Emergency Room, and the doctor there said he’d never let anybody go home on the same day, but could tell I didn’t really want to die. "Try to enjoy your life as best you can, young man," and he wrote me some prescriptions. When I left the hospital, I walked the few blocks back to my apartment not believing or understanding anything that just happened, except the words "YES WE DID!" tagged everywhere with dripping spray paint seemed to try and to convince me otherwise.
But before I can say anything, she says:
“How old are you?”
“Have you seen a psychiatrist before this incident?”
“Do you have insurance or any health care?”
“Why do you think I'm here?”
“I’m trying to ask you that.”
“Look, I really just want to keep getting this medicine without having to take my shoes off,” but the truth is, I’ll do whatever it takes, like checking myself into a run-down, poorly funded psychiatric emergency room in the middle of a desolate stretch of Bushwick. Growing up in Michigan and then Alabama, we never saw doctors; we were poor, never had insurance. I have no idea how this kind of thing works. Self-help? I think about what my life would be like if I’d been diagnosed and treated earlier. Would I even be the same person, cutting my own hair, eating Portuguese rolls, tomato, and salt for dinner? Doing odd jobs around the city, occasional restaurant work, renting a room from a woman with two cats and a lizard, and a wall unit, and a papasan, and a futon, and all this stuff that is not mine? I can see into other people’s apartments from the street. The Puerto Rican families all paint their apartment walls cornsilk blue, and so that’s what I do, and I sleep on a mattress on the floor. There is a Pentecostal storefront church next door. I listen to them speaking in tongues from my bed. A white sheet is tacked over my window, but I have it tied in a knot so the breeze blows in a fine mist from the open fire hydrant outside, it makes my pillows damp, the pages in all my books curl. The Mister Icee truck goes by 100 times a day, “Hello?” it asks. I have nothing to lose. I drink far too much. I’m inappropriate in public, a wolf-boy, I have no idea how to be a human. Poor white trash from Alabama suddenly living in the big city. People have thought I might be autistic after meeting me. They don’t know.
I haven’t told anybody I have sex with several different strangers a day since the hospital. I quit my job catering and started a rentboy profile. I post things to Craigslist and join websites for men seeking men. I spend hours scrolling through profiles, responding and posting ads, the whole time trading pics back and forth: cock pics, body pics, ass pics, and finally, if it seems legit, a face pic. 27, 5'11", 150, gwm, fit, neg, bttm vers. I can host or travel. I’m asked every day, a dozen times a day, “What are you into?” And I whittle my response down to quick stats and modifiers. I have applications on my phone that tell me where a possible hook up might be, measured in feet. and it’s still not enough. I never stop to consider how the medicine is clearly making me manic and hypersexual in my mania, because I don’t feel depressed or anxious or sad for the first time ever. Is this what it feels like to be normal? To be happy? It’s only been three weeks, but I already know I want to feel like this for the rest of my life. I finally have a new brain, one that works free of hiccups and seizures, and all I have to do is take this one pill. I will devote my life to this one pill. I will go as far as I can with this new life. I will make up for all the lost time I spent so, so sad.
I’m already making more money as a rentboy than I ever did catering, and I hardly ever think about Travis. For the first time in my entire life, I don’t have a single negative thought, and I haven’t taken a drink or a drug other than the antidepressants prescribed to me since Election Day. I take pictures of myself, shirtless in front of the mirror with my phone. It’s like I’m seeing myself for the first time, something as silly and cliche as that. I have a flat but undefined stomach, a large covering of dark hair across my chest. My shoulders are bare and broad, my neck is long and slender. I touch the screen and enlarge my face with my thumb and index finger and quickly center, crop and send the image to anybody who wants it. My large lips are barely parted. I have a sharp nose pierced on the right with a delicate, silver ring, and two huge heavy lidded eyes, big and sober, yet in permanently dark, drugged-looking sockets. My brows are slightly arched, hair shorn short, except for a chunk left to grow just long enough to tuck behind my left ear. Occasionally, after sending my face, the other person suddenly stops responding. Once, a simple reply: “You look sick.”
She turns to her computer. It’s an old computer with a black screen and green text, like it’s 1992.
"It says here you tested for cocaine, benzodiazepines, and opiates."
There’s a pause. “How often do you use?”
“I don’t use!”
Her eyes widen.
“I hate cocaine.” The doctor’s eyes get even bigger. “I mean, I do drugs, did drugs, like everyone else does drugs!”
I tell her this is “textbook referential bullshit!”
“This is how it’s done here," and she makes some final notes in her computer with body language that suggests she’s ready to check me off her long list of things to do today. “I’m not going to take up any more of your time. You may have noticed on your way to my office there are many patients in this county’s public hospital that are in desperate need. I recommend you take a list of other available outpatient facilities on your way out. There are several that do not require insurance and charge based on need and a sliding scale. Be sure to make an appointment before your medicine runs out so I won’t have to see you here again.”
She tears off some prescription slips and hands me some papers with addresses for free chemical dependency programs.
When I leave her office I salute with fingers to my forehead. In the reception area the two arguing patients have been separated to opposite corners of the room. The girl with the gold is gone.
Walking through the revolving doors onto Flushing Avenue I toss the pamphlets into an overflowing trash can and shove the prescriptions into my pockets. I’m supposed to get up with this guy I met online who told me my ankles were gonna become real good friends with my ears when he sees me. He lives a block away from the hospital, and I’m buzzed into the building. He’s in bed wearing grey sweatpants and a white tank top, watching a skateboard video—shots of guys skating on city property, up and down steps and rails, and every once in awhile they fall, and that bit gets played again in slow motion on a loop. We take our clothes off. He has two wings tattooed on his back, but only the outline. The whole wingspan stretches from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. He tells me he’s going to have them filled in one day. He lays on his back, and I sit on top of him. I'm watching the video in the mirror above the bed while our bodies move together. Some kid’s face is smacking into the pavement and the scene keeps playing over and over and over, the same shot, different angles. He grabs me by the waist and flips me over onto my back. I notice the large gold chain around his neck now, as it sways just above my eyes, catching light from the window. I think about the girl in the waiting room, if she was able to get her medicine, if she got her necklace back, or if they kept her there like the couple watching TV. He puts his mouth over mine, I feel the chain puddle onto my chest, a furled cold weight I want to last forever.
Robert Smith has presented original material at New Museum and envoy enterprises gallery in NYC. He was a regular contributor to SPANK ZINE and was featured in Barney Rosset's Evergreen Review. Stories have most recently been published in Jonathan, Wilde Stories 2014: the year’s best gay speculative fiction, Spunk [arts] Magazine, and online at ducts.org, Neutrons/Protons, and Bird’s Thumb. He is a 2016 Lambda Literary Fellow, and lives and works in New York City.