[Trigger warning for frank discussion of mental illness.]
Without books, my phone, or my laptop, there wasn’t much to entertain me. So even though I didn’t love talking to strangers, I went into the lounge where other patients were hanging out, talking and watching TV. One guy–clean-cut, dark-skinned, super fit–was talking about how things were in Germany.
Immediately I noticed the bookshelf full of paperbacks, including lots of romances. Excellent. I could sit in the corner, have a cup of coffee, and read until lunch, which I assumed would be offered, although if there was breakfast, I missed it.
When I tried to fill a styrofoam cup with coffee, I slipped and dropped the carafe. I yelped as hot coffee and broken glass exploded everywhere. Everyone in the room stared at me. Fuck. The doctor warned me the Klonopin would mess up my balance, but I hadn’t realized how immediate or bad it would be.
As I bent down to pick up the shards, the guy in the wheelchair–stout, with a graying beard, his pale legs wrapped in bandages–said, â€œHon, are you all right?â€ The lady with stringy dark hair sitting nearby, who had seemed to be catatonic, turned to me and said, â€œOhh, I’m sorry.â€
A young man in a polo and shorts, handsome in a Risky Business-era Tom Cruise way, swooped in, saying, â€œDon’t worry, I got it,â€ with such surety that I stood back and let him pick up the glass and mop everything up. Once he was done, he said, â€œAnd you still didn’t get any coffee. I’ll get them to make some more.â€
As he left to do this, I asked the guy who had been talking about Germany, â€œWere you in the Army?â€
â€œNo, I spent some time in Germany because my dad was stationed over there.â€
A teenaged boy asked him, â€œHey Anthony, did they ask you if you were from Africa?â€
â€œDid they ask me if I was from Africa?â€ he repeated.
â€œThey have black people in Europe,â€ I said.
â€œExactly,â€ Anthony said to the kid. â€œYou need to stop this shit. I’m black, you’re white, that’s it. We don’t have to talk about it every damn day.â€
â€œI thought you were a soldier for some reason,â€ I told Anthony.
â€œNot a soldier,â€ he corrected me. â€œA Marine. You never call a Marine a soldier.â€
The man in the wheelchair, an elder statesman type–later I found out his name was Dave–asked him, â€œWhere were you? Iraq or Afghanistan?â€
â€œI was in Afghanistan.â€
â€œI always want to ask you about it,â€ Dave said, â€œbut I figure you might not want to talk about it.â€
â€œNo, I don’t mind talking about it,â€ said Anthony. â€œYou know everybody thinks it was easier than other wars, but they’re full of shit.â€
â€œI don’t doubt that.â€
â€œYeah, like for instance, over there–they made little kids stand out in the street to stop our trucks so they could ambush us. So we were told to not stop. We ran right over a boy maybe five years old. You tell me that’s not going to fuck you up.â€
The preppy young man brought me a fresh cup of coffee and introduced himself as Tom. He seemed so ridiculously well-adjusted I wondered what the hell he was doing here. Maybe he was undercover for a story for his college newspaper or something.
I found out later that several inpatients had thought the same of me. The young women called me â€œthe Stepford wifeâ€–not with malice–because I wore dresses and smiled all the time. You can’t always tell who is seriously messed up.
One of the hospital workers, a guy with amber-colored skin and a bit of a moustache, came into lounge. His employee badge read Marcos. He said, â€œOK, fresh air time!â€
â€œAghghgh, thank God,â€ said a young woman, and when I asked what was up, she said, â€œWe finally get to go out and smoke.â€
â€œFive minutes of fresh air first,â€ Marcos said. He swiped his card next to the back door and everyone starts filing outside, so I go along. A tall brick wall surrounded a tiny yard with some garden chairs.
â€œBut we’re all smokers,â€ the young woman complained.
â€œAnybody here not smoke?â€ Marcos asked. Tom and I raised our hands. â€œNobody complains,â€ Marcos warned the rest of them, â€œor no smoking.â€ We spent five minutes breathing in clean air before everyone lit up and I went inside.
Later we lined up to walk single file to the cafeteria, like first graders. One of the patients ahead of me in line passed out plastic trays to the rest of us. I was starting to understand that it was like I was in a prison with mostly nice people.
â€œThis is great,â€ another college-aged guy, with glasses and a hipster vibe, said to Tom. â€œWe get silverware!â€
I looked at the plastic fork in his hand. â€œHow else would we eat?â€
â€œOn the dark side, we don’t get any silverware.â€
â€œThe dark side?â€
â€œIntensive care,â€ he explained. â€œThe other wing? You go there if you’re really bad, if you don’t know where the hell you are or if you’re dangerous.â€
â€œBut you weren’t like that,â€ Tom said.
â€œEh, I was pretty fucked up when I first came in. But no, I don’t think I belonged over there.â€
Ahead of me in line, my roommate Beth said, â€œI’m getting two pieces of cake.â€ This seemed excessive to me. Then I saw all of the slices of cake available and they looked incredible. Lemon, chocolate mousse, and my favorite, carrot–I couldn’t resist.
And this was the weirdest thing about the hospital: the cake was fantastic.
Writer’s note: I can’t vouch for the veracity of anything fellow patients said, only that they said it.