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On Fire

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I could see her through the glass doors, sitting there alone, pretending not to be alone.

I hesitated; her mouth never stopped moving, forever whispering mysteries for no one to hear, and I didn’t want to interrupt this conversation that seemed to be so vital for her. Opening the doors might release her contained soliloquy, sending her insanity flowing into the rest of the world and leaving her naked, unprotected. I didn’t want that.

On second thought, maybe she wasn’t feigning her absence of company.

Seeing her like this was more painful than I’d expected. Someone had drawn lines into her forehead since the last time we met, and there were faint charcoal smudges under her eyes; her leg never stopped moving and her hands never stopped wringing, twisting and squeezing each other for some fragment of relief. Her skinny limbs poking through the hospital gown were like little pins in my sanity; was this catching, her disease? The chaos dripping into my mind was irked by her sallow skin and flimsy frame, sending sparks out to every nerve and my hand started to shake out of frustration, elation, every emotion – gunshots to my brain out of this tiny, skeletal thigh.

“Are you okay, ma’am?”

The voice startled me. I lifted my head quickly, hurting my neck in the process. A pretty Spanish nurse was standing there, her sleek black hair tied in a bun and her tired eyes gazing at my bizarre posture, legs in the middle of a stride and my hand posed on the handle ready to push open the door and sit across from the remnants of the girl I used to know so well. The nurse was staring at me expectantly. I realized she wanted an answer.

“Yes… sorry, just… visiting someone.”

“Well, visiting hours end in forty five minutes. You better hurry.” She was not being rude, or mean; she was joking with me, talking playfully as though she knew me. She was young.

I opened the door, bracing for catastrophe. There was no big bang, the room did not implode. Shirley continued her unending monologue, hardly stopping to take a breath as I entered the room. My presence meant nothing to her.

What else is new.

Her insanity touched everything. It was a component of the air, flowing in with the oxygen and floating around my lungs with the clean smell of hospital— dancing into my veins and riding my blood cells up to my brain and infecting me with my affliction again. Her unspoken judgment permeated through everything and found its way to change my heartbeat, even after the thirty pounds stolen by her resentment of authority. I could imagine her, sitting hunched over her hands as she did now and as she did before she was ever here, murmuring obscenities to her plate of tasteless mush, like when she shouted at the principal to f**k himself when he gave her detention for pushing Bobby Holleron out a window in the A-wing.

She noticed me standing there, consumed by nostalgia and that stupid concept I stopped believing in when I had to bring her here. I could tell she didn’t recognize me, at first, but then I could see that the memories of friendship were breaking through the barrier this illness had created and a spark of recognition shone in her iris.

“That’s my best friend. I love her,” she said, matter-of-factly, to somebody who didn’t exist in my reality.

I’d been expecting to see her broken; her intense whispers before I entered the room made her look worse, something I hadn’t thought possible. But seeing her sitting before me in this cloud of elation made me question more than just my judgment. She belonged here; this was clear to me from the start, when I hauled her protesting body across the threshold and forced her into someone else’s care, when I told her if she cared about me at all she would sign the consent forms and stay like a good girl. Because I couldn’t handle her, and the people here could, that was why she belonged here. But perhaps there was a reason beyond the limits of my self-centered logic; perhaps she wasn’t insane, and perhaps she just needed a place without desks or tables or knives to distract her from her own, beautiful thoughts, her own beautiful friends inside her head.

“I just… came by to see how you were doing. You’ve been here for almost a year, did you know that?”

“Did you know that? Did you know?” She seemed puzzled by my words, confused that someone outside her head was trying to have an actual conversation without her that wasn’t about her bowel movements or if she was cold.
“I knew. I mean, I think I did. But now I know because you told me, so who knows what I knew before, right?”

“So, you’re doing okay? I mean, are you eating well?” I looked at her legs again and rephrased. “Are they giving you enough food to eat?”

“Food, eat your vegetables. I missed you; you should see me more. It’s making me happy.”

Her voice was the same and her words were not, and this was sending my head spinning into oblivion. Where was the artist, the drinker, the girl who always wore black and drank her coffee black and dyed her hair black in the eighth grade before it was even cool or hip? Where was the girl who used five syllable words interspersed with words we learned by reading lips on Jerry Springer?

She stretched her arms above her head, compressing her spine backwards into an unnatural curve and cracking it, sighing in pleasure as she lowered her arms back to her sides, leaving her hospital gown slightly puffed out as though the stiff material had no sense of gravity. “Making me happy. I missed you. Is Margie still alive?”

“Yeah, she misses you as much as I do.”

“Misses me. She should see me too, then.” She giggled again. “Dr. Ortega is allergic to cats. He might get sick and then maybe it’d be easier to convince him to go home with you. I haven’t painted in a long time.”

“I know. All your blank canvases are still at home; I could talk to one of the nurses about bringing you some stuff.” Talking to her was like talking to a four year old, not my best friend. But what was I expecting? That I could come here and tell her about how terrible my last boyfriend was, how much I wished she had been there to tell me he’s not worth my time? To laugh about the last stupid thing my mother did?

I had nothing to do here. I was stuck between two options— stay and risk my own sanity, or leave and make her upset, until she forgot I was ever there. I looked at my watch, and the ticking bomb’s fragile hands pointed out that I had only been here for ten minutes and I was already too exhausted to try and think of conversations to have with her.

“I should really get going.”

She didn’t understand. “Can’t you stay here with me? You actually talk to me like I’m a person.” Her face creased in worry— worry that I would leave her again. “I am still human, Anna. I’m still a person, and I keep being treated like insanity personified and it’s not my fault all of you are blind.”

A glimmer of her old self shone through her babbling. She was breaking my heart. “I know. I’ll come back soon.” Liar, liar, pants on fire. “I promise.”

It was burning me now, the schizophrenia; it was scalding my skin, repelling me with its suffocating heat, arousing my instinct to flee from this horrible danger. Her face was cracking, her red hair had glimmers of orange and yellow, and I couldn’t stay anymore because unlike her, I still had other things that needed burning, that needed closure. I could sleep easy knowing Shirley was here, peacefully turning to cinders.

I took her clammy, restless hands in mine. “Goodbye.”

As I drove home, I felt vaguely empty. Shirley had been my best friend for as long as I could remember, and losing her felt like putting the dog I’d had all my life to sleep. But saying goodbye to Shirley hurt less than losing my dog, because I wasn’t the one killing her.

The fire takes care of everything.





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