Peanut hands me three white pills. She says it will help. She says better than nothing. We sit on the stoop outside her place. When we get high together inside her rundown apartment, splintered wood as walls, don’t drink the water, no heat or air, and sometimes electricity, she says this is my needle, don’t set yours down, I got AIDS.
The sun is out and the trees twist green around fallen down rows of houses and four-plexes. Her brother, Junebug, behind us, a bottle of champagne in his hand, lives upstairs. He sells heroin but uses it, too, and smokes crack. When he smokes, he thinks my glasses are microphones sending our conversations to cops. He thinks my bracelets are bugs. I stick out on Alston Street. I tell myself I can leave any time and never come back, unlike Peanut, stuck on Alston Street, hooking on corners, drowning in bathtubs when the AIDS virus has weakened her body and the dope is so strong.
Peanut says the pills are clonidine. I hear Klonopin, an anti-anxiety med. Memphis is dry. No one has any dope, not even the Mexicans. All the dope tracks with nothing but sick junkies scratching fevers and picking at bone. It will ease the sickness she says. I pop them in my mouth. I get in my car and drive away from Alston, back to the white side of the city.
* * *
Clonidine is for blood pressure and twenty minutes later mine bottoms out. I pull the car to the shoulder of the road. It’s rush hour traffic and cars clog the expressway. My body slumps on a patch of grass glowing green in the sunshine. Did I hide the needles and pipe? Cars honk as I drift off to sleep. I dream I’m in my dad’s pickup truck and we wind our way over gravel roads. Tires skid and kick rocks. My dad’s window is rolled down and Luke the Drifter sings about the bad girl who lives down the street. I open my eyes and see paramedics. One snaps smelling salts under my nose. What did you take? And I’m singing again with my dad on an old country road. Little girl, he says.
* * *
Fluorescent lights flicker over my head. I’m on a gurney shoved to the side of a hallway. An IV sticks in the back of my hand, attached to a tube to hydrate me. My mouth is chalk. My lips stick together and I can’t swallow. A nurse says nothing to drink or eat. I think they’re punishing me because I’m a drug addict. A psych nurse appears and I say things like rehab serenity house I need help and she writes it down nodding. I don’t know it, but my mom’s in the waiting room waiting to see if they release me. But since I don’t know this, I tell the psych nurse I have nowhere to go. My car’s impounded, and it’s late now; I’m not sure how late, but time has passed since I left Alston. The police found me on the side of the road and they called the ambulance and the ambulance brought me here. This is the MED. It’s the poor people’s hospital. That’s what Elizabeth’s mother called it, the beginning of the summer after ninth grade, right before my brother died. I had on my bathing suit and a towel around my waist. I asked for the phonebook. I wanted to check on my brother. He was at the MED. Honey, he can’t be there, that’s the poor people’s hospital. And I dripped all over her carpet, yes he is, he is dying of AIDS.
I say I have to go to the bathroom. I pull the gown around me, where are my clothes, and I wheel the metal stand that holds the bag of saline that drips through a tube that is attached to the back of my hand. In the bathroom, I put my mouth to the faucet and drink up. My brother
died in this hospital.
* * *
Plexiglass holding room. Nothing to break and use as a weapon on oneself or anyone. Little plastic recliners the slightest shade of purple are spread out in the small room, all facing the plastic mirror where nurses sit on the other side. I’m waiting for the psych nurse to tell them what to do with me. I’m back in my own clothes, my blue sundress with the cigarette hole in the right side and rust-colored stains in a spot above the hem. Sometimes when I’m high I forget to wipe the blood off my arm and it smears across my dress and it’s there permanently now. The dress is too big, like a sack across you my mom would say and tell me to never visit her at work in that dress again. It used to fit; it used to be pretty and clean. The room is cold, and I ask for a blanket through the plastic but no one looks up at me.
Over to the side, there’s a bathroom with no door. I drink the water out of the sink and worry they mix soap in with the water because there are no soap dispensers and my mouth tastes all wrong.
Finally a student doctor visits me and takes me from the plastic room into a normal room with a real vase with fake flowers. I pretend to be dope sick but I’m not yet. Anxiety creeps back in and deep within me there’s an opening and the pain’s ready to travel up and howl through me. I need something to seal the crack before it spreads. He’s young. He looks at me like I’m human. The lines of his cheeks soften and pity spreads across his face.
When was your last fix?
Last night, around 10.
Last night? Four hours ago?
No, the night before. Before I last slept.
OK. He motions for the nurse. Watch her, he tells her. Then walks off down the hall and rounds the corner. I’m not sick, not yet. Peanut was right, the pills would keep it at bay but moment by moment my body twists and tells me the sick will be here soon.
He comes back with a cup of water in his hands and waves off the nurse. He pulls a small package out of his pocket and pops two pills out the back of it. Percocet should help. I swallow them and want to kiss him. In a few moments warmth will glide through me; it won’t be like heroin, but it’s better than clonidine.
* * *
The county mental hospital is where I end up for 72 hours of observation. Six Oh Three is what it’s called. At Memphis Mental Health Institute, called MMHI for short, I’m in a room with three beds, one shower, and two other women. One’s a spunky young thing who vibrates and rattles off about medication. You need Haldol with lamictal and maybe thorazine. I want
methadone, mepergam, trazodone like the rehab I went to a few years earlier when I was still on my dad’s insurance. Though once I did shoot up thorazine out of desperation. I also took acepromazine for dogs out of desperation—I curled around the toilet while my heart shook and my insides were static like an off-air TV channel.
My other roommate’s nodded out in a wheelchair with a broken pelvis and pumped full of morphine. She stays that way all night, sometimes grumbling to someone in her nods. I toss and turn and my legs ache and my back hurts. I want to sink my teeth into her veins.
* * *
The medication line is long. One woman calls everyone Momma, including the men. This isn’t like rehab. In rehab, the men and women are mostly separated, but in here we are all together. A heavyset woman rushes over to the momma-caller and leans in close to her face. I’m Brown Sugar and I’m your momma now. The other lady cries.
I can smell Brown Sugar, and it isn’t sweet. It’s days of refusing to bathe and change clothes. Later that day, they drag Brown Sugar against her will into a room with a drain. Her clothes are stripped off, and she’s sprayed down with a hose.
While the line slowly moves, a man rolls around by himself in a wheelchair. His left foot touches the floor and propels himself and the wheelchair forward. He’s too big for the wheelchair. Almost seven feet tall, around fifty or maybe sixty or maybe only forty years old. It’s hard to gauge age when life’s been hard. He sings gospels in a deep, guttural voice. My jumpy roommate sees me watching him, sees me swaying to his music. That’s Frank. He’s a murderer, you know.
I finally make it to the nurse’s window. They hand me a huge horse pill. Potassium. I have trouble swallowing. Another pill. Effexor. At the MED I said the methadone clinic gave me Effexor. I hadn’t taken Effexor or methadone in months. I don’t know why I even mentioned it. I swallow the pill. The nurse tells me to wait. She comes out of the office with a syringe in her hand. Ativan. She injects it into my hip. It’s not heroin and it’s not mainlining, but I will take it.
Ten minutes later, it isn’t so bad here.
* * *
We’re shuffled from one fluorescent-light-filled room to the next. Doctors we never see designate which groups we will be in. I’m in one about how to remember to take your medicine. I have never been diagnosed with anything that actually requires medicine, yet I have been given medicine because I’m a drug addict and no one seems to know how to help me. Here’s a pill. Swallow. It will make you feel better. But it never did. Antidepressants turned me into a zombie. I don’t even know what Effexor is for but it makes me kind of sleepy, and I like anything that slows me down and blurs the lines.
Brown Sugar’s in this group. She eats an orange. Her nails dig into the rind and peels off the skin. The man in the white coat tells her that she can’t have food outside of the cafeteria. She lifts a crescent moon of orange and crams it into her mouth then smiles with the guts of the fruit all over her teeth. The man next to her raises his hand and speaks before being acknowledged. He talks about leaving notes to remind himself to take his medicine. The man in the white coat tells Brown Sugar to throw away her orange, there’s no eating in the classrooms, he says.
She says I’m Brown Sugar. This sends a ripple through the room. Voices chatter. Some laugh. The man in the white coat tries to regain control. I sit quietly. A little scared. I’m in a mental hospital against my will with others who are here against their wills but they, unlike me,
have diagnoses like bipolar with schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality, and don’t leave after three days.
The room buzzes. People are shouting. The man in the white coat raises his voice. The man next to Brown Sugar, the one who needs notes to remember his meds, snatches the rinds off the table and then grabs and pulls what’s left of the orange out of her hands. He walks over to the door and tosses it all in the trash. He returns to his seat. Everyone shuts up. Brown Sugar says damn.
* * *
My mother drops off clothes and cigarettes for me. I’m happier about the smokes because no one here really wants to share. Smoke breaks are spaced out through the day. During those times we are led outside to a huge paved area with tables, benches and basketball hoops which stay empty and cast shadows across the concrete. Ward Four West shares the area with us. They are a little bit crazier than my ward, Four East, but not nuts like on Five. I sit on the ground and lean back against a light pole. A tall thin man with curly brown hair pinches the filter of his cigarette. He talks to an older woman who nods and says yes, yes, yes.
He’s having a party and he wants her to come. His house is out in the country somewhere or maybe Cordova which is a suburb but feels far away. His party will have beer and music, lots of music and dancing. The woman nods yes, yes, yes. I want to be invited to his party even if it’s pretend, even if he doesn’t know the right location. Outside of this place I don’t have anyone besides my mom. Maybe Brendan, but he has a girlfriend and he only likes me because I do drugs just like he does drugs but everyone knows how I do drugs so he keeps our friendship a secret. I had friends. Jenny and Tiffany I met in college before I dropped out but they moved to Japan. James was my friend until I repeatedly stood him up because I was off copping dope. Cherry is dating a guy, an artist who rarely drinks and never does drugs except pot but that doesn’t really count. I try to bat my eyes at the guy with the pinched cigarette but he won’t stop looking at the older woman with a double chin and receding hair. There will be philosophy there, too, he says. And she says yes, yes, yes.
My last Ativan shot kicks in and the man with curly hair becomes two men with curly hair but more like conjoined twins whose contours blur together. I look around the courtyard and everyone’s doubled. I close my right eye and cup my right palm over it. With my left eye, I scan the people sitting on benches and tables. All smoking. All folding into themselves and then unfolding again. I take off my glasses and do it again. I switch eyes. One of the guys from my ward sees me and says and she ain’t crazy, just a drug addict, then laughs.
* * *
It’s exercise time. We stand in the day room in our regular clothes. We always wear our regular clothes. I’m told it isn’t so on other wards like Five, but that we are in Four East and it’s the laid back ward. I imagine skin and bones in faded blue scrubs and shuffling feet in slippers above our heads. A lady comes in the dayroom. She walks in circles around the dayroom, around the tables, the stiff sofa, and the plastic chairs. She tells us to fall in. We all follow her around the room. We walk in a circle for twenty minutes. She says good job and then leaves the room. This was our exercise time.
* * *
Growing up, I read books like I Am the Cheese, The Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I fell in love with the struggle of class and crazy (though Holden was rich and disillusioned, but I did not pick up on that then). I watched the old black and white film The Snake Pit starring Olivia D’Havilland. I locked myself in my room and pretended to be in a mental asylum undergoing psychoanalysis and electro-shock therapy. I also read Junky and The Basketball Diaries and watched the movies with the same names and pretended to be a heroin addict, burned bottoms of spoons and faux shot up with ink pens.
I call my mother to complain about the tedious conditions and to make sure she understands that I don’t belong here. She says, It’s like those movies and books you love. You should be excited.
* * *
The cafeteria looks like a school’s cafeteria. A young black man stands in front of me in line. Every few seconds he says Carlos tried to suck my dick. Fucking bitches and hoes.
The guy behind me says Damn, Carlos done fucked you up.
The line inches forward and I hear it again, Carlos tried to suck my dick. Fucking bitches and hoes.
Once we get through the line. I follow him and sit across from him. He’s a pretty man, high cheekbones, and delicate hands, light skinned with blue eyes brighter than the sea. His hair is pulled back into tight braids.
What is your name?
I’m Kitty. Short for Katherine.
He sits and eats and stares like he is somewhere deep inside himself and he doesn’t know how to get out. If I ask a question, he answers it but offers nothing else.
How old are you?
Me,too. Do you like it in here?
Me, neither, I say.
Then we sit quietly across from each other poking at the food on the plastic trays with our plastic forks. He drinks chocolate milk and I drink tea but really want a coke, almost as bad as I want heroin. Rayvonne slugs back his milk and doesn’t mention Carlos again.
* * *
Day three and I stand in line for meds and when I finally get to the window, I’m only handed potassium and Effexor, no nurse comes out with a syringe to poke in my hip. My 72 hours should be up. I tell the nurse I want to leave and she says it’s up to my doctor. A doctor I have yet to see. She points to the double doors, the ones that lock and you have to be buzzed back in. She says she’s right outside those doors in her office, she’ll let us know when it’s time.
But I’ve never even met her.
The nurse shrugs. It really doesn’t matter.
My stomach is upset, I lie. I’m still sick.
You can’t have anymore ativan she says then offers me Pepto.
* * *
In the dayroom, I sit on the edge of the off-white sofa and keep an eye to the hallway watching the double doors. My hands shake. My brain shakes. I’m thinking of ways to get out of here which is really thinking of ways to get high. People mill around this room. Brown Sugar sings Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All and the woman who calls everyone momma holds a doll and dances. Frank roves around in his wheelchair shouting bible verses in a deep voice. One of my roommates sleeps in her wheelchair and the other one tells a woman I don’t know about Haldol and how it makes her tongue stick to the roof of her mouth.
A man sits down next to me and introduces himself as Jerry. We have polite conversation. He’s coherent. We talk about Memphis, about the weather, about the high schools we went to. He makes jokes about the other patients and I laugh. Then he turns his head to where no one is and says I’m not talking to you. I done told you to hush up and let me talk. Hush up. He pauses, waits for the air to respond and then turns back to me. Sorry about that, he’s so rude.
* * *
I’m discharged the next morning without ever seeing a doctor. The front desk, the gatekeepers of the main entrance, give me a voucher for a cab. The cab driver can only take me to the address the hospital gave him. It’s a long drive to my mom’s. Down Poplar, near the homeless drop-in center, I see a man laid back on the grass, a forty-ounce beer in a paper bag leans against his thigh. I want to be him. I want to let go and leave it all behind and sleep on the grass with a forty and not have to worry where my next fix is from. Not have to worry about withdrawals or cars in impound lots and mothers who will get cars out of impounds lots, mothers whose hearts get broken every day, mothers who kick you out at times and you worry where you’ll sleep and if it’ll be safe. I once heard a man say that the first time he slept in an abandoned building that he was scared but then eventually he got used to it, he adapted. I want to be there. All the way there where I don’t have to worry anymore about being me because by that point surely the me I am now will surely be gone.
* * *
It’s nightfall and I sit in Peanut’s small apartment on her threadbare burgundy couch. The electricity is on and the lamps shine and the TV, knobs as dials, hums images across the screen. I drag on my cigarette and flick ash toward the tray on her cluttered coffee table. I dip my syringe into my water glass; her glass is on the corner by her leg. She says this is my needle, don’t set yours down, I got AIDS.
I tell Peanut after you gave me those clonidine, I got sent to MMHI.
She laughs, but then says why do you keep coming back here?
And I say because I am just like you though I still don’t believe it’s true.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Allan Foster