Talking to Damian and Richard and cigarette boy, three days and twenty one hours after the last time, Damian sinks onto the bed and lets Anorexic Richard sit between his ankles, his knees up and his forearm strewn across his forehead like honey. Talking to Damian and Anorexic Richard, and cigarette boy who feeds his claim to fame up to Richard's asking palm, I wake up my living dreams and grip my joints from the veins out, ordering them not to move.
Damian's hidden eyes move anyway, writing scripture on the inside of his eyelids, and cigarette boy looks up at me. "You want one too?" he asks, just as Anorexic Richard opens his thin lips and his black voice box and says anxiously, "I still think you need a plan."
Anorexic Richard is the puppet master in this scene, the puppet pretending to be something more. His stringed hands looped just right around the cross of Damian's controls, he reels back into Damian's knees and Damian's jaw unhinges for a better place to fit the loudspeakers.
"I think you need to stop trying to think about a plan. You don't have one," he says, throat arching to meet the demands of his voice, "and you're never going to have one. You don't know where you go when you're not here. You don't know what you do when you're not watched. You don't know what you do when you have nothing left, because you don't have nothing." Damian sits up, his arms folded across his knees and sucking the body warmth from Anorexic Richard's unsteady spine. "You have too much," he explains, and his eyes turn to pills to prove that we don't need to look at him. Richard and I, we want to be strangers, but our glances are like dew on this spider web thread between us, and the more we look, the harder we are to break.
Richard and I, we try to little to break this connection, and somehow end up friends and strangers in the impasse.
"Don't tell me you're done thinking about this if you're not, but I can't listen to you talk about this. This isn't your brilliant plan, Richard, this is your brilliant suicide, because the only ones who know you're kidding are fucking crazy. You don't leave your evidence behind with someone who's touched in the head. You say this plan out loud like it's Ryan's salvation plan, like it's this five step program that will get him out of rehab and back on his feet. You say this plan like it's going to fix anything, but you're hungry. You're selfish."
Anorexic Richard, with his caved in stomach and his canopy ribs, shoves his elbow into Damian's shin, but Damian only flicks the back of his neck, trying to wake up some comatose neuron. "I'm not hungry," he drawls unhappily, and Damian reaches around him to take the appetite-killing cigarette from his smoky teeth.
"Oh, you're not," Damian challenges bitterly and he leans back to drop the fag in his undrinkable glass of water. "I didn't say I was talking about food," he corrects. One eyebrow raised below his hairline, above the thick layer of his mask, his face looks uneven, and I struggle to draw it right on a half-filled thought board.
Anorexic Richard takes a shallow breath inward, then another, because his too tight skin leaves no room for his lungs to expand. He takes a shallow breath inward, then another, and all eighty five pounds of him fill with oxygenated blood before settling down for another inhalation and another disaster.
When you're me, you, Richard, Damian, here, there is always another disaster. They come like trains, and if you wait five minutes, fifteen at the most, you can probably catch another one. They screech to a halt, or they slide on oiled tracks, slick with premeditation and planning, but either way you'll find them, either way they are here, unable to hide.
When you're here, disaster comes every ten minutes, on average, rolls in and watches people come and go before taking off again, but you know it'll be back either way, so no one says goodbye. You don't say goodbye to people you can see when the doors open again. I promise and I think, mind flashing with disaster just like Anorexic Richard's, and Damian's, stuck in his addled brain, but you know what promises mean.
When the door doesn't open, when our eyes don't all shut and the bells don't ring cry call, some of us peer down the track both ways, afraid of what we'll see. Some of us read the paper, read the scriptures printed on our eyelids, and pretend we're not waiting for the train to screech in again. Some of us, like cigarette boy, strum their fingers over the happy, curling strings of our most inexpensive guitars, and don't look at the crowds that pass. We wait for their money, for their charity, and don't give them a second thought, or so we pretend. Stuck in our mental hospital minds, we pretend we don't need society or that we're better off here, but the illusion's broken like your mirrors. Without the taxpayers and the states, their fucking generous budgets, we're just those homeless kids you never want to see or be or know, the ones whose faces turn their poor parents into stone, spectacles for the neighbors. Some of us, sitting in this train station, we're not even waiting for anything specific, we just don't have any place better to be.
Anorexic Richard's greatest disaster is his voice, thinly barking, "Neither did I." On the sides of my mind, rushing down a set track, I see friends I thought I had disappear into the walls. They are the true wallflowers.
In one-on-one therapy, you're supposed to talk about whatever the problem is, but when you have this many problems, when your mind is just as trapped as you are and they won't let you see it, it's easier to keep track of your pretend problems, the ones you don't even wish you had unless they were the only ones. In one-on-one therapy, you're supposed to talk about the little glitches that bother your mind and eat away all your time.
In one-on-one therapy, they don't tell you that you're supposed to be their fucking spies. They don't tell you that they write everything down in their steno notepads not because they're keeping tabs on you, but because they're keeping tabs on everyone, waiting for you to slip up and tell them something you shouldn't.
Doctor Quard's office is filled with coffee and pictures and wires. Doctor Quard's office is built like communism, trying to keep one person, one group holding all the information. Everything Quard knows, they know. His room is built around communication, sure, he just won't tell us what kind.
This is why we have roommates, except they don't tell us that. This is why they give us those notebooks, hoping our complaining minds will catch someone else's blood and disease so they can test out their operation game again. This is why they give us our minds back, piece by piece, just so that they can take them again when they need them.
In one-on-one therapy, we're supposed to explain group therapy in our own words, and explain all the fucked up lives of everyone else we know. Doctor Quard, with his ugly yellow steno pad, doesn't lift a finger when I complain of Andrew, but pauses with his beard in his fingers once, murmurs, "Who, Ryan?" and I repeat I repeat, "Cigarette Boy." His fingers work like a squirrel across the page and I sigh into sleep, this one-on-one my extended kindergarten naptime. I repeat I repeat, and I revert a dozen years. Watch me through your black and white televisions.
The clock tick tick tocks and chimes on the hour, the sun barely setting outside our fake windows and stained glass apostles only glowing in their haloes, and when we are all in one place, when Doctor Quard's breath reeks, "Cigarette Boy," we are all asked to empty our pockets.
Damian, one night, tells me when he's dreaming, what he's dreaming. Asleep, he moans out his narration and asks me if I'm listening. "I don't ever want to be this tall again," he tells me pointedly, and I make a note against the roof of my mouth that I am supposed to remind him of this later. Helpful hints. Little facts. Stories of his past. (The ones he never tells me.) "The police don't carry their weapons in plain view if they know they're going to need them." I nod, chin hitting my bare chest in slumber and hair scraping my flattened pillow. "Richard's favorite food is blueberry flavored anything." They don't fill his I.V. with that, but he still gets sick off it anyway. Mental bulimia, Richard likes to joke with his toothy vampire grin. "Ryan, you can't leave," he says finally, muffled into his rolling side and his sticky summer sheets.
"I won't," I say after my minute is up, after the minute I don't need finishes another dreary song in my record player brain. I look over to watch his hair stick to his forehead and pillow like wet straw, but Damian's eyelids are painted closed and my headache groans of sleep and forgiveness.
In the summer heat, we don't even pretend to take our sleeping pills, but the nurses never care.
At breakfast, next to Cigaretteless Boy and Anorexic Richard, Damian's feet resting at my own, we pour sugarless syrup onto our cardboard pancakes, and I reach for the soggy blueberry waffle underneath my tasteless roll. It sags in my plastic fork, painting remnants of syrup in lines down my finger and forearm, but I hold it over as a peace offering and wait for Richard to look up.
His eyebrow raises and his eyes roll down to my chest, narrowing, waiting for me to look at his and see the way his shirt clings around his ribs, the space too empty to be filled with anything else. "Ry, I appreciate the effort," he explains, and the syrup starts to reach my elbow, "but I don't exactly…" Anorexic Richard tilts his head to the side and raises his eyes to mine, his lips twisting calculatingly as he reaches for the soggy waffle with his unused plastic knife. "I'm gonna get the tube anyway," he sighs, stabbing the food lightly with the smooth edge of his plastic utensil. "So. This is kind of useless, you know."
I avoid looking at Damian or the jigsaw puzzle around his mouth and eyes, and relax my thigh to press against Richard's barely there one, just for a second. I shove my fork into my cardboard puzzle piece pancakes and pull it free, fixing the syrupy slick bites against my teeth.
Missing the pieces as they tumble down my throat, Damian remarks, "It's blueberry," and Anorexic Richard stares, stomach wishing it was alone.
He pushes the plate away with a brand new spider web glittering from his tongue to his plastic fork. "I don't want to eat right now," he apologizes, fingers stuck in syrup against the edge of the plate. Damian reaches a hand out for the plate and cuts it up into pieces anyway before handing it back to him, and Richard spends the rest of breakfast pushing the morsels around like soldiers in his battlefield breakfast.
"Hey, thanks," Anorexic Richard says as the clock strikes the hour. I blink, and I pretend I don't hear him.
Visiting days, those days when parents take time out of their important lives to act as though they're still good parents, are, for the most part, quiet. We don't want to talk about who arrives and who doesn't. We don't want to talk to the counselors about how not seeing daddymakes us feel. We don't want to talk and they don't want to listen, busy with their guests of honor, busy treating us on stage only, when someone's watching. They smile and bribe us with their hissing through their teeth speech, and on those days, Andrew is everyone's friend.
Visiting days are, for the most part, too quiet to breathe in, because no one wants to talk, not even the visitors. They sit in panic, wax pillars of support, hoping to God that their all-important friends won't hear their voices and trace them to these waste of space rooms filled with their broken waste of space kids. This hospital, in all its long drivewayed glory, is society's locked closet. Visiting days are, for the most part, dashboard silent.
My spine bends at both ends, neck and legs parallel and sagging, and the chair catches me when I fall through it, resting in the hide and seek nature of my own body. I take the notebook from my lap and open it to a new page, a new heading and a new idea. My pencil, thick in my hand like a first grader's, breaks with lead and my hand slips across the words, smudging them into illegibility.
"Ryan," the old saint says smiling, entering the scene again at a different time. His arms are like clock hands as the window watches and waits for his care. My neck aches with the pressure of keeping it tilted, so I let it loll against the chair, looking ridiculous in a new suit of insanity. We are all just for show, the souvenirs you keep in your closet for a rainy day. A visitor's day.
"Am I supposed to smile too?" I ask, staring at the window with its beady society eyes and its fussy babies, the parents pretending to care when they don't. My hand keeps moving with the pencil, yet nothing drops onto the page except my unhappy noose, and I frown at it because it feels like I'm supposed to frown.
Andrew tilts his head and crouches down next to my chair into this role that he leaves like cookies and milk for these fake parents' Santa Clauses. To my ear, hissing gently, he smiles, "Unless you want them to see exactly how we treat misbehavers, I would."
My lips peel up into a waxy grin but my eyes stay unfocused. "Don't touch me," my tongue mutters between my open teeth, and he places a hand reassuringly on my knee.
"What are you writing?" he asks. It's the same script as last time, only with the first actors fired.
I look up at him, my upside down frown molded into place, and slam the journal along his fingers. "I'm sorry," I beg, toes sliding against the floor in their socks like scared kids into their beds, and add again for good measure, "I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to do it, please don't - "
When his eyes flash scared under their golden halo of hair and open wide, the power hits the back of my eyes before my mind can catch it, and I reel with it for too long.
I take that minute, that minute I shouldn't have even been considering, and my fingers with their unlit halo rings, their imaginary class rings engagement rings smoke rings, shove against Andrew's shoulder too fast, a different road for a harsher screenplay to take. Andrew shakes on the balls of his feet and the crushed saint fingers breaking veins in my kneecap steady him long enough for him to fall on his knees, to take my resting hand from the cover of the earthy notebook he swore they would never read.
I take that minute, and in that minute I lose myself just deeply to stay lost.
"Ryan," he says, and pushes his hidden thumb deep into my palm, the cotton candy thread breaking as fast as it's spun between us. "Ryan, come on, can you stand up for me?" he asks, setting aside the journal, a delicate baby that makes the parents coo and aw around the aquarium windows.
I stand on metal feet, a robot versus the popular puppet brand, a cowboy versus your science man dilemma, and my mechanical breathing hitches into Andrew's shirt. He presses my head to his chest, one great actor arm slung around the top of my vertebrae and the other an inchworm that contracts and relaxes to the ends of my fingertips.
"Where are you taking me?" I ask, loudly enough for the audience behind their safety glass to hear, and move my bolted feet one by one towards anonymity. I'm no longer just that kid who got in trouble again, but that one you spend the rest of the day trying to describe. 'The mop-headed kid with his useless hands and his pretty baby face. No, the other one. Yes, I think so, the one who hit the counselor. Sweet boy, the counselor, had the prettiest golden hair…' I'm no longer just that kid you watch get in trouble, waiting for their spanking like you would wait for a drunken car crash, with morbid appreciation and an overused air of I told you so.
He turns his smoldering eyes to the parents behind the glass where the ladies swoon and mold their views of me into disapproval rather than sympathy. That messed up kid, look what he did to the nice young counsellor man.
To me, he casts his Bible Camp leer and utters, "Where do you think?"
Visiting days are, for the most part, quiet, except for the stolen minutes when you try to live by your regular schedule.
In the Quiet Room, without the pencils to stab out your eyelids or the belts to hang yourself, you slam your head into the wall, you scream, you throw temper tantrums. You wake up.
In the Quiet Room when you think you're done being a fish in this sick aquarium, the caged glass window fills with fresh eyes and you play Guess Who? until the eyes shrivel in confusion. The only place you can scream, you can punish, you can hurt, and you sit there in your boring fishbowl and do nothing.
Damian, he folds his eyes into hurt and I close my own so I don't have to see them when I look up. It takes me a minute I don't have, a couple tick tick tocks, but I school my face into something more hollow than human. Damian on the other side of the glass glances around for staff members and counselors, for nurses and traps. He glances around so long that by the time one actually comes around with her clipboard and her psychopath friendly food, he is standing with his arms by his side and his feet turned desperate to leave. She asks him hush hush if he wants to see me, quiet me, the good Ryan with his rules tucked under the next layer of skin as a reminder, and he shrugs, but really she just doesn't want to come in here alone.
"Richard ate your blueberry waffle," he says in his serious indifference, the expression melting off his own wax face. Folding his legs beneath him and falling to his heels, he hardens his eyes and accuses, "You said you were done." And, before the nurse leaves, Damian stands on his own, leaving his puppet strings behind for me to try.
In the Quiet Room, with you being the only tool you can use to create your own misery, with you figuring out just how miserable you make yourself, how screwed up your little mind actually is, you kick and scream and throw temper tantrums. You do whatever you want, but you wake up, because then you have to.
"You said you were done," Damian repeats when I walk into the room and my feet fall into lines, my eyes into dotted casualties of another torn page. "You said you were done and you weren't, so if you're not done now, can you just let me know? If you're going to act up and search for attention, if you're going to be one of those, then fucking let me know. You said you were done, but you lied." My lips straighten above my chin and my eyes close like a snowman's on the ground and my lungs curl up into my throat, choking me.
"Damian," I groan softly, and Richard's tattooed shadow clings around his shoulder, trying to calm him down, to keep this hero down on Earth.
Here on Earth, we don't need God or God's saints. We're self-sufficient, dramatizing to make ourselves sound more humble. The thing about fearing God, I once learned, is that you never really finish fearing. Here on Earth, with our fear of collapse and ticking clocks, we don't need God or God's saints, but for the hero of this story, Damian, we have to live to see his happy ending. We have to live to see his thoughts settle around his feet. We have to live, here on Earth.
One hand falls down woodenly against his shaking head, against his, "You said," and "You promised."
"Damian, I didn't say I was done. I never promised, but I'm done anyway. I'm not leaving unless you want me to. I'm not leaving unless you tell me I have to go. I'm done, and you know that, so what's the problem?" Promises are words that mean nothing to the right people. Promises are words invented by television programs and card companies. People to people endorsements. You're going to love me, I promise. You're going to be just fine, I promise. And you will, you do, you are, but your stupid brain now thinks that it needs someone else to tell it what to do. Your stupid brain thinks it needs someone else to tell it how to feel. This is why we learn how to control our emotions, so no one else can shift it into something new without telling us.
Damian's eyes open like the sky, his irises lined with stars and his pupils lit by our little golden room, our little not home. "If you crash and burn, don't come crying to me," he says, and lights his cheeks like a cigarette warrior. "If you crash and burn," he begins bitterly, slowly, "keep me out of your sight. If you're not done with this life, and if you're not done with everything you said and agreed to, then let me know, so I can get the fuck out of here, Ryan. You want diversions? I can get you out of here too. I can get you anything you need."
As fast as they can, catering to someone else's needs and turning like an engine, like the heart and soul of the shitty car my dysfunctional family used to own, my bones dissemble into lines and lines, tight as soldiers. I become your Ryan, your page of empty notes, waiting. I become your Ryan, trying to open my eyes and only seeing the narrow tunnel vision of a single naked sheet. Still, I become your Ryan, the weapon of choice for your savior, this hero who doesn't even want to be a hero. I become your Ryan, your cheap knock-off Excalibur. I become your Ryan, and only whimper when I hit the ground running.
"You know it's not like that. You know I don't want your diversions or your cheap thrills, and you know you don't want to give them to me. You're Damian, start acting like him," I worry, wrapping ink around Damian's fevered forehead and boxing his unhearing ears. Here on Earth, we don't need your Godly punishments when we can play our own Heaven and Hell.
Damian shakes into a different Damian, one we can't bring back into this room onto these feet without breaking too soon in the process. Here on Earth, we're afraid of our sleepy mistakes and our closet children, our fuck ups and hidden evidence. Here on earth, we try to set everything up exactly like it should be, but forget that we're playing dominoes and trip over our own feet in panic. Here on Earth we break and kiss the sun every morning to apologize, standing on tiptoes and stretching our necks to keep our jaw in the right place for the familiar good morning.
Damian keeps his eyes dry and his head tilted to the ground, his jaw set. "You want to get out of here though," he confirms emptily, and Richard recites lullabies around his ear while my easel mind breaks and Damian throws ink against the tumbling page. He forces his head into the trap of his curled fingers and tears at the flesh around his Snow White cheeks until they are bloody and Anorexic Richard nudges his back with four long fingers, saying, "Dame…"
Sitting Indian style, that cross legged style you learned in elementary school when you didn't have anything better to do, when you were supposed to be listening, Damian shudders and explains, "I can't do this. I'll leave again, I swear to God, I'll leave. I don't care. I don't have to come back here. You don't know what it's like on the street. You don't know, Ry, but you want it so bad, you want to live out there and fucking starve to death. You're so tough, you're so serious, but guess what Ryan, you don't know shit. You're someone who can't keep his promises, can't keep his pretend sick story straight. You're someone who needs to be here because every day you just try to prove that you don't belong here. Or that you do, I don't fucking know. You can't keep promises to save your life now. You can't keep promises to save mine. I don't know. I don't know. You're the person I'm supposed to hate. You're the person I'm supposed to trick, but I can't. Ryan, pick yourself up because I don't know how to fucking do that anymore."
We wait for him to start crying. We wait and pretend not to be wasting this second. We wait for him to start crying and he disappoints.
"Damian, I don't know what's going on, but you have to calm down. Promises are nothing. Promises are empty lies that people tell each other when they want to feel okay, when they want to feel better about how messed up their lives are. Promises are still just words, Dame, and they don't mean anything. I don't promise things I mean. I broke my never promise and you weren't there when I woke up, so you broke yours too. Promises mean nothing if they're broken or not, because if you're not going to try in the first place, they're just words, stupid words. I don't know how to talk you down or pick me up, because I'm not here, and I think I never was."
We take a minute, and Damian, this expert actor who can't afford to screw up anymore bursts out of the room without a spotlight to follow him. I hear the nurses shout as I cling to his shoulders like a cape. Richard sprints to catch up and I tell him I can't hold on any more.
In his own script change, at the third floor window we knew we could reach, he stops, looking down at his feet, and us falling at his heels. We light a whole floor with this drama, with this superimposed fake life that people want to be living. You don't know what's real and what's not, but when something happens, you have to be there. When something happens, everyone wants to know what. Knowing a secret makes you golden. That's why we catch the light so well here. We light a whole floor with this drama, and Damian lights a cigarette under his siren shivering. "I guess you get your diversion," he says, and Richard reaches for his arm as the nurses stir up their voices.
We light a whole floor with this drama and Damian lights his mind awake for the first time. "No," I say, and as he looks up once, so he can really see, I see that his eyes aren't the color I thought they were, on fire inside his overheating skull.
Damian looks down at his feet and sees the ground beneath him for the first time. He sees the ground beneath his feet and breathes out of his mind, the new drama for another year. This is how we survive, we think, as a nurse cries out and Damian, with his Snow White cheeks and his sparkly spider web ties, jumps through the glass.
This is how we survive, we think, and disappear like strangers when the autumn cuts Damian's imagination short.
(HE WAS YOUR LONELY PRISONER.)