Right here, right here it’s dangerous to say out loud the way you feel. Kaity hands around a laminated sheet of cartoon faces with feelings to choose from – nervous, anxious, disappointed, angry, alert. There’s no blue or yellow face for seasick, the only way I feel, the only thing I actually feel, not the ill-patterned loveseat with Shannon up against me or the cold air where a skylight once was. The sheet passes hands from row to row, happy, scared, all their dapple-colored friends. Choose the wrong feeling, take more medicine. Choose the right feeling, take the same amount of medicine twice a day with the rest of us.
In a magazine, Shannon draws circles around every piece of furniture we can use to fill our beach house in Tahiti or some other where that’s tropic. She gives golf pencil halos to headboards and quality flooring, indoor rugs and outdoor rugs. In the corners of each page, she makes a note of the total cost of things and subtracts the sum from the amount she expects from the divorce. There will be vases and throw pillows to buy right away and vases and throw pillows that can wait for a season change. We’re still in here, all we have are cigarettes for bartering.
Kaity is the one who lets us use her color changing lighter, some of us, the ones who haven’t refused meals or gone to violent quaking over missing puzzle pieces in the activities room. It’s against the rules, we all know it and Kaity knows it, but she’s seen so many of the women here before. When Kaity’s not here, when it’s Ray or someone else, we have to go about the safe way of lighting a cigarette, where no one dies after and the hospital doesn’t use up all its resources fighting lawsuits. It starts with a woman or two women, the moms of older children or impatient lifetime smokers with winter voices that last year-round, who have got the trick of standing crooked with one hand on the red button that starts up the wall machine and the other balancing a dead cigarette through a hole too narrow for a finger on the other side of which there just might be enough heat to get a cigarette sort of going. When the first woman has her cigarette sort of going, she passes it off to the rest of us, and we make a community of it until every woman has a little light to grow a flame from, even the new girls with their headachy intake faces. Mama is the last to get a light always, stooped low as she is in the corner of the patio, and always the last to shuffle in for group time or meal time or quiet reflection.
I’m wearing Shannon’s onesie pajama set, the blue one with polar bears making merry sleds and snowflakes run down my legs and everywhere, only she won’t call them polar bears because she’d rather make the old and getting older joke that they’re bipolar bears like we are. It’s got the heavy warmth I’d like to wear always becausee it’s cold in here, cold as any fucking cold place, especially at night in hard beds with hard sheets, but if you want to leave the ward for meals, you have to wear real clothes, outside clothes, like any set of tourists being led in single file through the cold and quiet halls of any terrible museum. I’m fresh off a car ride from Boca, all my clothes are summer clothes. In Boca the year goes by way of hot months and then hot, rainy months. Shannon loans me a pink sweater even though the last time she loaned out anything a girl was transferred off the ward without returning any of the things she’d borrowed, which turned out to be two designer t-shirts and a pair of sunglasses, and at night Shannon shares a wool hat I can wear pulled low over my eyes so that the every-fifteen-minute flashlight checks don’t leave me with the telltale signs of sleeplessness that doctors worry over.
Kaity and Destiny make a kind of dance out of turning the white board from its afternoon schedule side to its before bed wrap-up group side. My name is – I’m feeling – my goal today was – I met it by – I didn’t meet it because – I’m thankful for – it’s the same list of questions we see every night, only there are new girls on the ward, the kind who need help reading because they’re still slowly falling off the good drugs. I’m standing in the front of the room. All the old-timers, the in-it-for-almost-lifers, know this is a victory. The right-before-bed-pill-swallowers trip sleepy from the medicine window, anchored now in a loose loveseat. All their sad or dead soon faces, I’m standing in front of them. My name is Kat, I’m feeling so thankful, I’m telling a lie. I make a show of going through the crowd, letting each one of them give her last speech of the day, how she’s feeling, what she accomplished, all of them except for Mama, who’s already asleep in her loveseat because the voices are back again, they’ve been shouting devils at her all day. It’s December and her skin is so dry the black has almost gone out of it. When it comes around back to me, every woman having named a thing she’s thankful for, the same answers repeating like a horoscope, the room goes into clapping. Shannon starts with crying again, the way she’s been taking medicine for all day, and Mama stirs awake enough to pat her heavy on the shoulder. We’ve all been sleeping one next to another on this long, fluorescent midnight wing through similar disaster. I take a bow. It’s my last great performance, my last night on the ward.