Content warning: sexual content, domestic violence, psychiatric treatment
Noelle had promised she would write. She was different when she said it. She was the straight-backed, empty-eyed Noelle I’d come to loathe in our last weeks together. The Noelle that smiled too often but never showed teeth. The Noelle that spoke rarely and said nothing of importance. The Noelle that regarded me with pity when I tried to persuade her into physical intimacy, as though she’d forgotten her role as the original chaser in our broken relationship. ‘Passionate’, we called it. The doctors preferred the term ‘volatile’. We’d fumbled in rooms that didn’t belong to us, in stairways and the shadows of trees, in rain, in icy breezes, once in a cupboard of cleaning utensils that stank of chemicals, the handles of mops and broomsticks stabbing us between the shoulders. And then we fought, sometimes before the sex. We’d screamed at each other, sworn, threatened to hit. I’d only put dents in weak surfaces, but Noelle had struck me once, a crack across the cheekbone, then burst into tears as though she were the injured party. I still loved that Noelle, even as she bawled unforgivably like a child; at least I loved her more than the expressionless shell she became. It was like she’d been whisked away in the dead of night, and the wrong Noelle returned at dawn: a polished, repackaged doll.
She told me she would write, and it’s beginning to feel like a lie.
I think about it while I wait in line at the medication desk, the monotonous trudge towards paper cups and pink sugar pills and law enforcers with drawn-on smiles. This point of the day encourages the most reflection. I’m fatigued after another sleepless night – wandering silent rooms and corridors, chasing moonlight along wood-panelled walls, jabbing hair grips into door locks, squeezing myself into armchairs and failing to rest – I lean my hip against the wall and stare numbly at my feet. I want to forget Noelle. Even her name sounds absurd now, like a word too often repeated, its syllables warped. I remember sitting an exam once, before they declared me unstable (otherwise known as inconvenient) and contemplating the word ‘pink’. How ridiculous it seemed as I hardened the K, sounding it out in my mind: pink, pink, like the hard ks beginning Swedish words, Knapp, Kvinna. Suddenly, my attention was tumbling from Sophocles to phonetics and the peculiarities of language, all languages. I’d barely scraped a pass mark on that exam, although my education proved redundant in any case. Nobody wanted to discuss ancient Greek tragedies, not even Noelle. Our conversations were always shallow, focused on the physical world: changes in weather, a fellow patient’s appearance, the state of the hospital. Sometimes we talked about escape: what we would eat, who we would murder, where we would fuck.
Nurse Elwood is this afternoon’s pill distributor, perfumed and not quite smiling. Her long blonde hair hangs over her shoulder in a ponytail. Her eyebrows are too thin, almost invisible because of their fairness; she could be a model from the 1920s. Beside her, the new nurse is handing out paper cups. I don’t glance at her features. She’d burst in on me this morning when I was sleep-deprived and out of sorts, halfway weeping, halfway singing along to the lyrics of ‘My Funny Valentine’. It felt as though the nurse had glimpsed me naked. I’d seen myself reflected in the blackness of her eyes, too preoccupied with my reflection to seek out any emotion there. Still, I veer towards her rather than Nurse Elwood and extend an impatient hand.
“There you go,” the new nurse says.
Squeezing the rim of the paper cup, I start to turn.
“Hold on, Marina,” Nurse Elwood says with infuriating calmness.
Just once, I want to ruffle her, to hear a note of worry in her voice or see a flicker of something, anything, in her eyes. It’s like tossing pebbles at a statue and waiting for it to break. Why is indifference always a brick wall? I glance back over my shoulder. The paper cup begins to collapse in my vice-like grip. Nurse Elwood leans forwards, so her breasts almost touch the high counter, and her finger curves in a beckoning gesture. There’s that unwelcome stirring again, a prickle of arousal. Dead dogs, dead puppies, roadkill, foxes lying at the curb with their bellies open, flies picking over meat. Don’t look at her chest.
“Come back here, please.”
Reluctantly, I slouch over to the desk. “What?”
“You know you have to take it in front of us,” Nurse Elwood says as she straightens again. She adjusts her uniform, so it sits neatly, without creases.
“Don’t you trust me?”
Nurse Elwood ignores the question and turns to her colleague. “Marina, unfortunately, is on our list of troublemakers.”
“Who isn’t on the list?” I say. “Isn’t that why we’re all here?”
It’s clever how Nurse Elwood can give the impression of smiling without actually straining her lips – a skill perfected by most medical staff. She sweeps a hand towards the crushed paper cup. “If you’d be so kind.”
I have to dig into the cardboard and wriggle out the pill with my finger. Plucking it free, I stick out my tongue and let the pill rest in plain sight for a moment. I swallow it whole once Nurse Elwood nods her approval, and the new nurse holds out a cup of water.
I shake my head. “Let it choke me.”
“What do you think of this new nurse then?”
I stretch out on Noelle’s old bed, opposite Kate, and fold my arms into a pillow beneath my head. This room is almost as familiar as my own. I know precisely where the shadows dance across the ceiling at certain times of day; I know which floorboards to creep over if I want to move unheard; the squeak of the mattress beneath my weight is like music to my ears – an old love song. Noelle’s things are gone, but I can still make out the traces of her, the dark patches on the walls where her photographs and posters and sketches once hung, the little damages here and there, a scuffed-up bit of carpet, a stain on the bedsheets, the beginning of a message carved onto the wall above the bed. Noelle had only scraped out two letters. I W, it says. What does the W stand for? I Want? I Will? I Wish? Tugging an arm free, I lift my hand and run my fingertips over the faint grooves in the room’s skin. Kate sits cross-legged on the other bed, posture erect, hair pinned back; pinned like she is, a butterfly skewered in a box. A book lies open in her lap.
“Kate? What do you think? Did you see her? She’s pretty.” I turn to look at Kate. “Does that make you jealous?”
“Why would it?” she says without lifting her head.
“In my experience, girls don’t like it when I compliment other women in front of them.”
“I would rather hear your verdict. Tell me what you thought of the new nurse.”
“She seemed nice,” Kate says quietly. There’s a soft swish of paper as she turns a page.
A chuckle rattles in my throat. “No, no, no. Nice isn’t an opinion, Kate. I want you to tell me the truth, tell me something. I can help you out if you’re not feeling descriptive. I’ll give you three choices. Would you fuck her, murder her, or would you drive her insane? Obviously, I’ll accept any reasonable combination of the three.”
Kate isn’t listening. Her shoulders hunch forwards, as though she’s trying to shrink into invisibility. I glare at the book in her hands like a jealous child whose parent has turned their attention elsewhere.
“You can answer. I won’t tell.” Swinging my legs off the bed, I sit upright. My palms are moist as I bring them together in a prayerful gesture between my thighs. “You don’t have to do the whole blank thing around me. I don’t know why you’re so hung up on being like them anyway. Do they seem happy to you? How’re you supposed to know what happiness is if you’re never sad? It’s just one big mediocre emotion, toeing the line of feeling. I’d rather be alive, personally. Kate? Little Kate?” Now my own shoulders point forwards like unsheathed daggers, and restlessness makes me twitch. I think about ripping the book from Kate’s fingers, how it would arch through the air and splat against the wall like a squashed insect, wings spread. Pages tumbling, gravity inverting, a room of floating paper: an odd little snow globe. There is something indescribably satisfying about tearing the pages from a book. “If I set fire to that book in your hands, would you actually move? Or would you go on reading even as it burned and blisters spread all over your body like a black rash? Would you let it kill you, Kate?”
“You mean, would I let you kill me?” Finally, she lifts her head, and I almost gasp with relief. It’s like peering into a kaleidoscope of colour. Kate has never been a good liar, and her eyes overflow with expression, although the rest of her features remain impassive, like sculpted stone. “You always say you hate your mother. By any chance, did she ignore you a lot when you were a child?”
Chuckling, I stretch back out on the bed. “Touché.”
How easily my mother returns to me: elegant, regal, silky haired, and tall. She’d been a dancer in her youth, and her back was always straight. She moved with enviable poise, limbs tucked and leant a feline grace. Whenever she spoke, it was in a half-whisper that made people lean in closer, as though she was about to include them in a secret. Nobody asked her to repeat herself. Instead, they nodded their heads and pasted on smiles, because she was very attractive, my mother. They all craved a little piece of her charm.
“Don’t worry. I wasn’t mistaking you for her,” I say. “Or Noelle, no. You are my friend. Right?”
Across the room, Kate buries herself in French literature. “Sure.”
“Sure?” I shake my head. “Sure you are. Sometimes.” A yawn teases out my nostrils and pricks my eyes with tears. “Do you mind if I sleep in here?”
“No,” Kate says. I catch the jerk of her head from the corner of my eye. “Just don’t –”
“Don’t touch yourself – in here.”
I chuff air through my nose. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Closing my eyes, I recall my last escape, walking in the blue gloom of dawn. The world was hushed, and only the hiss and sigh of the slate-coloured sea could break the perfect silence. Strange, how the outside begins to feel miraculous after a time. Every escape is like being born again. Ordinary buildings become objects of fascination; isn’t it incredible that people huddle together in blocks of rooms like mice in a wall, yet hardly know one another, hardly speak? Outside, I was mesmerised by flashes of headlights, by insects dancing in the milky glow of streetlamps, by city landscapes silhouetted against the distant night.
I’d found my way into a nightclub, an experience that left me dizzied and euphoric. In another life, a bottle of vodka or a pill might have formed the stairway to such a sensation. Now all I need is music, the heavy pounding thud of it shivering through my entire body, leaving my head deliciously fried. Blue-green light spread into every corner of the room, making the club feel like an ocean floor. And the warmth, the heat of packed-in bodies, being brushed by shoulders and elbows, the unsolicited hands on my waist, somebody’s fingers splayed across my belly, applying pressure to move me aside. Figures at my back, bony hips and flat torsos pressed the length of me. The club smelled like perfume, sweat, and smoke. I wanted to stay there, but the wandering hands became too persistent, and I’d staggered back into the night with the same exhausted pleasure that comes after sex.
That was the night – or the morning – they’d found me, the faceless men in suits. I almost hadn’t minded. After all, the thrill of freedom is always the chase. Otherwise, a person is merely living, and these days, the thought of just existing out there in the real world is more frightening than a cage. Noelle didn’t agree. Perhaps that’s why she hasn’t written. She wanted to be outside, so she’d learnt to be still, like a gazelle hiding in the long grass, though she’d said survival meant imitating the lions.
How could I even attempt such a feat? How can a girl who has invited death at dinner tables, between bedsheets, in fields of tulips, embody anything but chaos?