"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
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
"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
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
"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
"Sylvia?" Dr. Dick asked again, "do you have something
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
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?"
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
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
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
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