"And you, I love you!" the prom queen said to Sylvia, who sat quietly, never looking up from the television. Sylvia was watching "The Price is Right" and she didn’t like to be disturbed. Every now and again, she’d yell out, "Four hundred and fifty-one dollars, idiot number two! Goddamn you, you’re losing, loser!" but mostly, she just sat slack-jawed until one of the nurses came by to give her another plate of mush or a cup of pills. I heard she was in for trying to stab her mom, which was probably true. With all the side effects and lawsuits, they hardly gave anyone Thorazine anymore, but they handed them to Sylvia like jellybeans on Easter.
We were on the high security floor of a private teen psych ward. Our section was called "Violent Suicidal Ideation and Attempt." It was very elite. I was in because the cops found me nodding out in an abandoned apartment with a hypodermic needle to the right of my arm. My mother insisted I was trying to kill myself, so she put me in the psych ward instead of drug rehab. Fine, I told her, easier to get drugs handed to you in a Dixie cup than to have to buy them on the street, but that Haldol paralyzed me. With heroin, you sit still because you want to. On Haldol, you’re trapped in your body. Some days you’re too stiff to move, other days your hands are like rubber and you can’t pick anything up, so I stopped taking it. They gave me the cup, I pretended to swallow, and then I spit the pills out in the toilet. After that, I’d go sit in the common room and drool on myself for a while so the nurses didn’t get suspicious. I was the only one who could color in the lines and I was the floor champion of foosball.
The story I’d heard about the prom queen was that when her boyfriend dumped her for a blonde girl, she swallowed a glass of bleach and called him up crying. He dialed 911, so she thought he’d saved her life. She wandered the halls all day and night professing her love for her boyfriend and every other object and creature on earth, except for me. Whenever I walked past her, she’d clench her little pink hand into a fist, stare at me and say, "I’m gonna kick your ass."
She was talking about foosball, but she never beat me once. No one did, not even the big girl I called Butch Jimmy. I found out later she’d been the champion of floor two. When someone finally beat her, she knocked the table over and kicked it until she’d decapitated six of the plastic guys, mangled two of the poles, and broken three of her toes. They transferred her up to high security and put her on an enormous dose of Haldol, so she just watched the ball roll around. Sometimes she looked a little angry when I told her she played foosball like a girl, but mostly she didn’t seem to know anyone was talking to her at all.
Then there was the pockmarked geek who tried to hang herself from a light fixture. The fixture fell down. She had a few little rope burns around her neck, but not much.
"That was stupid," I’d say in the middle of a game. "You should’ve hung yourself from the rafters. Everybody knows that." She never even scored one goal.
But the prom queen was the easiest to distract. "What are you, Mexican or something?" I’d ask her, the little ball rolling by all her little men. "Your hair is pretty dark for a white girl."
"SHUT UP!" she’d scream, running her hands over her scalp as I scored again. "YOU’RE UGLY ANYWAY! I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY!"
The only other time I had any fun was in group therapy. The doctor had a wide smile that looked like it hurt his face and when he got mad, his smile got bigger. He told us to call him Dr. Rick, but I called him Dr. Dick. He always asked Butch Jimmy why she was so uncomfortable in her "woman’s body" and she’d cover up her big tits with her big arms and go red in the face. The prom queen, of course, had a crush on the guy. She wasn’t allowed to wear makeup, but sometimes she’d convince the nurses to let her color before group and she’d scribble over her lips with red magic marker when no one was looking. Then, she’d sit in the bony folding chair closest to Dr. Dick and sweat and giggle and look like she was about to drop dead of sheer nervousness. Group therapy even got Sylvia worked up. The doctor didn’t ask her anything—he was afraid of her, I guess, but she’d growl under her breath, "idiots idiot fucking cockfucker idiot" through every session.
The geek, though, the geek was the best. For some reason, the doctor really had it in for her. "Anastasia," he’d say, "why don’t you tell us why you tried to hang yourself?"
"Because I wanted to commit suicide." She’d answer, like it was the stupidest question in the world.
"But why, Anastasia, why would a girl in the prime of her life want to commit suicide?"
"Because I wanted to fucking DIE! Jesus!"
To be honest, I kind of liked the geek, but she was so easy to make fun of, I couldn’t help myself. "If you wanted to die so bad, then why did you do such a half-assed job?" I’d ask. "I mean, look at those tiny little scars—what did you try to hang yourself with—dental floss?"
She’d start shaking and the prom queen would start whimpering, even though I hadn’t been talking to her, and Sylvia would swear a little louder, and Jimmy would just look nervous, like I was about to come in for her next.
"Darla," Dr. Dick would ask, "Why are you so belligerent to the very people who could become your friends?"
"Dr. Dick," I’d respond, "Why would a grown man like you be in love with a teenage girl like the prom queen over there? I mean, what would your wife do if she knew?"
Dr. Dick’s grin would get so big it looked like his jawbones were about to pop right through his cheeks. He was as easy to aggravate as the lunatics.
At first, I looked forward to group therapy, since it was different than every other day in the week, but after a while it got boring too. We always said the exact same things, over and over and over. Being in the psych ward was like living the same week twenty weeks in a row. Sometimes I thought of taking my medicine just to make the days pass quicker, but all I had to do was look around at the rest of the girls—Sylvia drooling on the couch and the prom queen giggling at the doorknob, and I’d spit the pills out again.
Even foosball was getting boring. It didn’t matter if I came up with new insults or not. The Mexican joke made the prom queen cry as hard the fiftieth time as it had the first. The geek had gotten so shaky she could barely hold on to the poles, and Jimmy would sometimes forget she was playing and just walk away in the middle of the game. The only way to get her back was to ask her what her bra size was, and she’d stumble back to the table, mad at first, but by the time she’d given her guys a few spins, she’d have forgotten all about it again. They were like a bunch of zombies, the walking dead, and no matter what I said or did, I couldn’t snap them out of it for more than a minute. I was dying of boredom.
One day, I waited until "The Price is Right" was on and plopped down on the couch next to Sylvia. It creaked like an old bed and coughed up a cloud of dust. I turned off the TV. Sylvia didn’t respond. This threw me a little, I expected at least some swearing, but I kept to my plan. I thought if I got her riled up enough, she’d yell at me, maybe start a fight, anything besides sit there like she always did. I just wanted one different day.
"How did you end up in Suicidal Ideation anyway," I asked. "I mean, what? They don’t have Homicidal Ideation in this hospital?"
She didn’t flinch. She just kept staring at the television like it was on.
"Why’d you try to kill your mom? She must’ve, like, whored you out or something. It can’t be the regular stuff. Even rape doesn’t make people as crazy as you."
A drop of drool leaked out of Sylvia’s mouth, but she didn’t move.
"Hey!" I said, "I bet you’re named after that crazy lady that wrote ‘The Bell Jar,’ aren’t you? You know, that one where that girl feels all sorry for herself and walks around with razorblades in her purse, but she’s too grossed out by blood to slit her wrists and then she ends up getting cured with shock therapy?" No response.
"She killed herself anyway, you know," I said, to myself more than to Sylvia. "The oven. I didn’t even know that really worked. I should tell the geek—she might even be able to pull that off, as long as she remembers not to use electric."
If Sylvia’s eyes hadn’t been open, I would’ve thought she was asleep, and if her chest hadn’t been moving, I would’ve thought she was dead.
"God damn," I said, "you’re the worst one here. There’s nothing left in you." And it was true. There was no life in her eyes—they were milked over like a dead dog’s.
I got up and went to tell the geek my new joke, and a nurse came by and turned the television back on but Sylvia’s expression didn’t change at all.
That afternoon, we had group therapy. Dr. Dick started off, as usual, by asking if anyone had anything to say. Most of the time, the prom queen would raise her hand real high in the air like we were all fighting to get a word in edgewise. Then she’d say something stupid about what a beautiful day it was or how much she loved the shrink’s tie. This time, even though her hand was in the air, Dr. Dick didn’t call her name. Instead he sat with his mouth wide open, like he’d taken all the Thorazine in the hospital.
"Sylvia?" he said.
We all turned to the corner, where Sylvia sat, and sure enough, her hand was up. Her head was cocked to the side, and she stared straight ahead as usual, but her jaw was clenched and her nostrils flared.
"Sylvia?" Dr. Dick asked again, "do you have something to contribute?"
I’d never heard Sylvia speak before, except to swear under her breath. I guess I expected her to stutter and hiss the way she cursed, but this time her voice was strong and clear.
"Darla doesn’t take her medicine," she said. "She spits it in the toilet."
Even though I could see people move their mouths, I couldn’t hear anything. The prom queen’s lips were rounded into an excited "oooh." Jimmy’s mouth had melted into a slow, wide grin and the geek was clapping her hands. Sylvia sat there vacantly, like she hadn’t said a thing.
I noticed that Dr. Dick had lost all trace of his smile, which meant that he was very, very happy.
"Well, Darla, what do you have to say to this accusation?" he mouthed.
I wanted to ask what he cared what I had to say. The nurses would check behind my tongue now, they’d watch me to make sure I didn’t puke the pills up because as soon as Sylvia had said it, everybody knew it was true.
My own voice sounded like it was coming from behind a thick door. "You’re as crazy as the rest of us, if you believe a nutcase like Sylvia." But he had me and he knew it.
We went back to the common room and the nurse came around with her tray of pills. She was tall and skinny and had frizzy red hair. I called her Nurse Ratchet. I called all the nurses Nurse Ratchet, but this one took it particularly personally. Whenever I said it, she’d scratch something down in her notebook and say, "one more comment like that and you won’t have television privileges for a week," which of course she never followed up on.
The shrink must’ve told her what had happened, because she came straight for me, smiling. The prom queen squealed, "She doesn’t swallow her medicine! Make her swallow it!" All the other girls gathered around. The nurse handed me a cup of pills and another of water. After I’d put both in my mouth, she grabbed me by the jaw, tilted my head back, and squeezed hard enough to leave a bruise.
"Swallow," she said, tightening her grip. So I did.
It’d been about two months since I’d taken it, and the Haldol flooded over me and hardened. I was stuck in my chair. When I could finally open my eyes, I saw Sylvia hovering over my head.
"Price is Right!" I insisted, trying to get Sylvia to go back to the television. "Idiot number two! Idiot number three!"
She opened her mouth and reached behind her crooked teeth. She pulled out a small yellow capsule, partially corroded by her spit.
"Nuh- no, never did anything to you." I pleaded. My fingers dangled like they were hanging from my palms on hooks.
"Swallow," she said, grabbing my jaw and mimicking the nurse. "You lose, you loser."
She stood over me until the Thorazine kicked in, waved her hand in front of me. There was a thin lengthwise cut on her wrist—just an attention-getter. She couldn’t have lost more than a spoonful of blood. This seemed funny to me at the time, but I didn’t feel like I was laughing. She picked me up. My body seemed like it should’ve stayed frozen in the sitting position, but my feet fell to the floor. Sylvia and Butch Jimmy walked me over to the foosball table. The prom queen had her face right up near the plastic men, like she was introducing herself to each one individually. Butch Jimmy patted her on the back. Sylvia sat down in front of the television, but didn’t turn it on. She stared at the blank screen and watched our reflections in it.
Jimmy put my hands on two of the poles. I didn’t do anything, so the geek pinched me hard, twisting my skin a little.
"P-play!" she said. "You can’t d-do anything right without ch-ch-cheating!"
I spun the poles. I was surprised to find I had any strength left in my hands. It was funny to watch the plastic men’s paddle-feet in the air while they got smacked in the face with the ball, but it was too much spinning for me. I felt like I was going to puke, like my head was going to roll right off my shoulders and my eyeballs were going to tumble out of their sockets onto the table. The foosball men looked like they were wearing little straightjackets. The paint had worn off their faces, leaving nothing but a black dot for an eye or a red line for a mouth. Other than that they were blank.
I must’ve stopped playing, because the geek pinched me again. It hurt less this time, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she didn’t pinch as hard, or because the drugs were really starting to work. I twirled the nearest handle and watched the ball drop down into the cave of the prom queen’s goal. I wanted to go with it—it would be dark in there and quiet. Empty. The prom queen let out a little cry, and I thought maybe the game was over and I stopped moving my hands, but the geek pinched me again. I could barely feel it at all. After a while I couldn’t feel anything. I wasn’t anywhere.
Later, I found myself sitting in a chair next to Sylvia. She was staring at a closed book that was lying on the table in front of us. I couldn’t move. The prom queen was on the couch, crying. Butch Jimmy patted her on the back. The geek said, "Darla che-ated, she cheated. She c-c-couldn’t have w-won without ch-ch-cheating."
I sat there until the nurse came by to give me another cup of pills. She stood over me while I swallowed, and I opened my mouth without being asked. A few hours later, she came over to give me more.