I’m sixteen and my hair is bushy and wild. It hasn’t been flat ironed in almost a month, so I’ve been forced to alternate between letting it flow wildly and winding it into tight Zulu knots. Today felt like a wild day or maybe I was too lazy to part and twist my hair this morn- ing. Leah offered to braid my hair last week, but I don’t like Leah. I can’t decide if I don’t like her because everyone else loves her or if it’s because she is overdrawn and exaggerated like her name. L-E-A-H. Four letters is one too many. Her name should be spelled L-I-A like the girl who sleeps in the bed next to mine. They are on name alert, Leah and Lia, but it’s easy to tell them apart, overstated and not.
My feelings about Leah have nothing to do with the way she spells her name; it’s the way she acts. She manufactures lies like Santa’s elves manufacture Christmas toys. And the worst part is I can see her cranking the wheel in her mind to indent lies in the air so clearly that she hands them out like receipts people can fold and carry in their pockets. Leah is a slippery fifteen year old who talked her way into getting us a cabinet full of candy. The cabinet is locked of course, but once a day we can have our pick of candy. Sounds great, right, but the four of us who have the candy cabinet are eating disordered. We don’t want candy, or, at least I know I don’t and I’m pretty sure Leah doesn’t either. Craving candy was another lie aimed at chiseling some time off of her sentence behind the locked double doors of Herring Psychiatric Hospital. It’s hard to escape anyone on the girls unit where we live, but it’s especially hard to escape Leah.
The regular girls who are depressed, suicidal, bipolar or schizo- phrenic eat at two long rectangular tables between the kitchen counter and the lounge area where we have groups. The four of us eating disordered girls sit at a tiny square table by the window. We are our own island with our own staff monitor and our own rules. No talking about body image or weight at meals. No talking about food, whether you like the food on your tray or not. And you have to eat everything on your tray or you have to have a Resource (or maybe two depending on how much food you leave behind). When I first got here, two weeks ago, I didn’t know what a Resource was, and it didn’t sound so bad. When Jude, the patron staff of our lost eating disordered souls, told me I could either eat the rest of my disgusting veggie burger that tasted like grilled rice and soiled mustard or complete two Resources (using the word complete was a trick), I eagerly chose the two Resources.
Hearty bulimic Hannah, who eats tums three times a day for calcium and heartburn, shook her head in warning, but Jude shot her a sharp look. I didn’t understand what could be so bad about a Resource or two. I thought Jude would drop an encyclopedia type book in front of me and I’d have to write something about coping skills. Instead Jude got up and headed to the refrigerator that is only unlocked during meals.
“Chocolate or vanilla?” She asked.
“What?” I replied confused.
Jude held up a boxed nutrition drink much like Ensure and repeated, “Chocolate or vanilla?”
“Uh, one of each?”
She returned to the table with two drinks and smiled, “You’ve got fifteen minutes.”
I nearly gagged as the taste of musky vanilla syrup flooded my mouth.
“I told you that you didn’t want a Resource,” Hannah said, know- ing that she is always right.
“Hannah you know the rules,” Jude warned, “do I need to get you a Resource?”
Hannah quietly went back to shoveling the mac and cheese off her tray and I finished gulping down my first drink. Jude slid me the other one with a satisfied grin on her face. She may be the food police, but it’s hard to hate Jude with her sly smile and strawberry blonde hair that smells like cinnamon. Even if everyone says, “leave it to Jude to ruin your day,” I kind of like her because when she works nights she always lets me stay up past lights out so we can talk about my day. Leah, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities.
An hour before staff change, we have our snack. A tray of cookies and juice cups are set out in the kitchen for the regular girls, while I sit in front of the nurses’ station with Hannah, Leah and Ashley, a girl who has been known to jump up in the middle of a meal and declare that nothing tastes as good as thin feels. Jude oversees as we open white paper bags that contain our special order snacks. I find that I get off easy today; I only have a cranberry juice cup and a box of raisin granola, while Leah, who likes to sit next to me, has a thick slice of cherry pie.
Once Jude has checked to make sure that our bags have all the food we’re supposed to eat, we are allowed to begin the process of glori- fied indulgence. I tear my cereal box open to get to the pocket-sized bag of granola, then pinch the bag on either side and begin to pull. The bag isn’t cooperating today, and I wish that a non-cooperating snack meant I didn’t have to eat, but it doesn’t, so I yank the bag with force and it rips open, exploding granola. Leah laughs loudly, causing Jude to look up from her cheese sandwich and frown at me and the granola in my hair.
“Sorry,” I whisper to Jude.
“Clean it up,” she says flatly and I think I may actually get out of snack until she gets up from her seat, warns us not to try anything funny and walks around the corner into the kitchen area. Jude is all knowing. She knows to quickly grab Ashley’s tray when she is about to toss it off of the table, she knows that Hannah likes to sweet talk med nurse Patti into giving her milk of magnesia as a laxative and she even knows that I hide food in my socks. Unfortunately she doesn’t know about Leah’s lies, but even Leah knows that she isn’t immune to an after meal strip search from Jude. There is no way we are going to try anything funny.
“I couldn’t find any granola, so this will have to do,” Jude says placing a box of cheerios in front of me.
I am more careful this time. I tear the box open, then slowly pull the bag open and begin to eat. I’m supposed to use a spoon and a bowl, but Jude is eating her sandwich and maybe feeling a little nice, so she lets me pour the cereal directly into my mouth. After a few crunches and a swallow, I break the rules and announce, “This tastes like nothing.”
Jude looks up with a smile and tosses me a box of raisin bran, “Cheerios are nothing, which is why you are eating this box of cereal too.”
I slouch down in my chair with only a pout because there is no arguing with Jude unless I want a third box of cereal. Leah bursts out laughing again and a wad of cherry pie flies out of her mouth and onto the table in front of her.
“It’s really not that funny,” I mutter.
“Sure it is,” Leah assures me as she takes her hand, wipes it across the table and licks the pie from her fingers.
“At least I don’t have fattening pie,” I whisper quietly so Jude doesn’t hear.
Leah turns to me and opens her mouth so I can see the cherry filling on her tongue, “The pie isn’t so bad. It’s a lot like when a boy shoots sperm in your mouth.”
Slightly disgusted, I look at her blankly as she shovels another fork full of pie into her mouth and licks her lips before she continues with a loud moan, “Sperm is gooey and bitter, but it feels so good when a boy gives it to you in your mouth as a present.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I say appalled and turn away from Leah.
Leah clicks her tongue and gasps dramatically, “We have to get you a boy then.” She touches my bush of hair and smiles. I can tell she has got her wheels turning again. “You really should reconsider letting me do your hair. I can braid it in corn-rows like mine and then we can surely get one of the boys from the other unit to shoot sperm for you. “
I flinch in disgust and Jude is standing over us. She slaps a cookie down on the table in front of Leah and announces, “For inappropriate snack time conversation.”
Hannah looks our way and shakes her head to say that she knew Leah was going to get extra food for that one and I shouldn’t have sat next to her in the first place. Simply relieved that I didn’t get a third box of cereal, I start on the box of raisin bran as Leah begins to fondle the cookie in front of her.
After snack, Lia, the one I like, is waiting for me. Humming a song, her body is perched on the window ledge by my bed with her legs dangling above the ground. She smiles sweetly as I enter the room and asks,
“How was snack?”
“Psh, you know Jude,” I reply as I flop down on my bed.
Lia smiles and nods, but she doesn’t actually know Jude. At least not the way I do.
At the beginning of every shift staff gets to pick who they want to work with for the day and Jude always picks me and Hannah. I know this because Sheryl, who only gets to work with me on Sundays (Jude’s day off), told me she was disappointed that Jude always snatches me up. I picture staff having fist fights every morning over who gets who and who is stuck with leftovers. It’s nice to know that people want to have me and I’m not yesterday’s dinner tray. I like Jude because she always picks me. It means she loves me and I love her too. I like Sheryl, and all, but I want to be just like Jude when I grow up. Maybe I don’t want to be as mean, but I want to wear smart plaid pants, eat cheese sandwiches, and ask people questions when their mouths are full and then apologize for it because I used to be a waitress. Jude is smart, chic and tactfully passive aggressive. Sheryl is butch, dykish and direct; that just isn’t me.
Lia usually gets chosen by Sarah and she seems happy about it. I wouldn’t be unhappy if Sarah was my staff. Sarah’s a little older than the other counselors, but Sarah manages to look cooler than them. She dyes her curly hair a color that is somewhere between violet and burgundy, has nose and lip rings and tattoos all over her body. My favorite is the one behind her ear that says “joy.” Smiling, she explained that it was so joy could always whisper in her ear. I’m going to steal that tattoo from her, but mine is going to say “hope.”
Kicking my feet against the mattress, I whine that “I have to pee.” “The bathroom is unlocked,” Lia says quietly.
Because I am on eating disorder protocol, the only time we have free access to the bathroom is in the mornings before breakfast. Any other time of day and we have to ask for staff to unlock it, but Lia has never complained about the limitation. I jump up off the bed and scramble to find that she is right and the bathroom is unlocked.
“Score,” I yell.
“You’re only going to pee right?” Lia calls as she follows to the bathroom.
“Of course,” I flash a smile.
“I’m going to watch,” Lia announces knowing that every time I go to the bathroom, staff has to stand outside a cracked door and make sure I’m not purging.
“Do you also want to look in the toilet after I go?” Staff does this too.
“Not really,” she laughs. “So, you have to sing.”
“Sing?” I say as I push the door closed a little, and then pull down my pants.
“Yes, sing, so I know you’re not throwing up.”
“I don’t know what to sing.”
Without much thought, Lia suddenly begins harmonizing her favorite song. I don’t know the song or the words, but I hum along loud enough to please her.
After I flush and wash my hands, I come out of the bathroom and I am met with a big Lia hug. “What’s that for?” I ask as I return her embrace.
“Cause, you’re awesome.”
“Thanks,” I walk to my bed and lay down. Lia follows, crawling into my bed and cuddling up next to me, “I wish I could feel your pain.”
“That’s sweet. I wouldn’t want you to feel my pain though. I wish you didn’t even have to feel you own,” I turn my head and look at her. Her soft blond vegetation is spread across my pillow and she’s gazing at me with the big upside down smiles that are her green eyes. Lia is a giant sunflower in a late summer corn field; even if she is depressive, she has a soft happiness.
She sits up and leans over me, “Let me feel your pain tonight, so I don’t have to feel my own.”
Her pain is written in the soft pink curves of scared skin. Lia has mapped out the abuse and betrayal for strangers to follow. Every scar represents something, she explained. She said they were like stars in the dark sky of her existence; they help her see the way. Lia thinks of herself as dark and twisted, but she is not manipulative or conniving like the other Leah, so I know she is light.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
Lia leans in slowly and her lips press against mine. Mouth sucking is gross, but this kiss from Lia is sweet. I hold back a smile and blush knowing what she means by “feel your pain.” Lia pulls back, her eyes smiling in anticipation. I giggle and nod bashfully; I’ve never done anything before, but I will let Lia take my pain tonight. Her body floats back down next to mine and she drifts into a dreamy sleep that I follow.
Wakey, wakey,it’s time to get up for dinner,”a thick Russian accent infiltrates my dream and I feel a hand on my shoulder. I open my eyes to see Lubov standing over me. She must be my staff tonight. When I brace myself to get up, I hit the warmth of Lia sleeping next to me; it wasn’t all a dream. My eyes look to Lubov nervously, but she is only waiting for me to get up. In Lubov’s Russia it must not be unusual for two girls to sleep together in a twin sized bed, or maybe she doesn’t care to get us in trouble, either way, I am happy because any other staff would have been calling our doctors right about now for approval to transfer one of us to the boys unit. Girls who touch other girls aren’t going to touch boys, right? As Lubov wakes a sleepy Lia, I get up and walk into the kitchen area.
When I sit down at our table, the other Leah is already eating the limp noodles of a sickly macaroni and cheese dish that is passed around among us. My tray is unfortunately placed next to hers. With a mouth full of food, Leah begins blabbering on about her plan to get me a boy. Still feeling the weight of dreams, I hardly listen as Leah tells me that she wants to fix me up with Graham, a dork who looks like Macaulay Culkin with glasses. I am so not interested, but Leah continues explaining her plan. She says that since we only see the boys in the mornings at school, we will have to get Graham to shoot sperm then. Leah plans to distract Teacher Sam (the man who has us color pictures of buildings for edification) long enough for me and Graham to sneak under the counter like table in the back of our classroom and “do it.” Even my half-hearted listening stops at this point because Teacher Sam is an oily man with a forward comb of dark mushroom hair, thin rimmed glasses and slick lips; Teacher Sam and the phrase “do it” should never be used in the same sentence. Eventually Leah asks me if I am listening to her and when I don’t respond she gets bored and starts talking to Ashley who is sitting across from her.
After dinner we have night time activities, which include games of Pictionary and Scattergories. Then we have Check-out followed by bedtime snack. At Check-out we sit in a circle on the floor of the dark living room and talk about our day in three choppy sentences. Leah begins by turning to the staff members leading the circle and smiling, “Right now I feel happy. The high point of my day was eating nutritious food.” She pauses for a pleased nod from staff and then continues, “And I didn’t have a low point today; everything was great.” I want to gag myself listening to Leah and I think Hannah feels the same way because I can tell she is biting her lip so hard she is about to break the skin. I push away the negative thoughts when it’s my turn, “Right now I feel hopeful. The high point of my day was napping during shift change. The low point of my day was eating two boxes of cereal at snack.” When the circle comes around to Lia her high point was napping too and she is feeling peaceful.
After eating an apple for snack, Lia brushes by me, sneaking a squeeze on my shoulder, and retreats to our room to change into her white hospital issue pajama bottoms and wait for me. Lubov is talking to us as she monitors our 45 minute snack period (15 minutes to eat, 30 minutes to sit after we eat). Although Lubov can’t be older than 27, she is talking about the “old world” again. When someone has cut themselves, she has been known to say, “In old world we couldn’t cut ourselves. Do you know why? If we cut ourselves in old world, we would get tetanus and our arms would fall off.” When she says “old world,” I think she is referring to Russia when it was The Soviet Union, but I’ve never asked to be sure. When the 45 minutes is over, we scatter and Lubov’s “old world” is left behind.
In our room Lia is jumping up and down on her bed. She squeals as I enter the room and does a flip off of the bed. “I can fly,” she says and begins to dance around me.
“Oh yeah,” I ask playing along. “Like Peter pan?”
“Exactly!” She leaps over to the window and begins climbing on the ledge. She stands up and spreads her arms like wings and presses herself against the glass. “I’m going to jump out the window and fly into the night sky.”
She turns around to face me and starts jumping on the ledge, “I’m going to fly.”
“You can’t really fly. You know that, right, Lia?”
“Watch,” She commands and she jumps onto my bed to ready herself for a running leap out the window.
I move backwards slowly, “I’m going to hit the nurse call button.”
“No!” She screams and jumps from the bed tackling me to the ground then calmly states, “you can’t do that.”
“Lia, you can’t fly. You will die if you jump out of the window.”
Reasoning with this girl who has the full weight of her body pressed against me isn’t working, so I scream “Help, help!”
Lia takes one hand and clasps it over my mouth. With the other she pinches my nose closed and calmly whispers “Don’t do that.”
I try to push her hands away from my face and kick her off of me, but she is surprisingly heavy. Her hand is so tight on my mouth that she can’t hear me say that I can’t breathe. I have no choice; I bite her hand. Quickly releasing my face from her grasp, she laughs and springs upwards. She is headed for the window again; I scramble to my knees and grab her ankle. Lia falls to the ground with a hard thud. I climb on top of her and pin her down. She is laughing because it’s all incredibly funny, but I’m about to start crying and screaming for help again when the door to our room opens and med nurse Patti comes to do her medicine rounds. Hearing Patti gasp at the sight of us on the floor, I jump off of Lia and frantically explain, “It’s not what it looks like. She wants to jump out the window.”
Still laughing, Lia corroborates my story, “I can fly.”
Patti rushes to Lia, who is climbing the window again. Patti pulls her away and calmly escorts her to the door, “I’d really love to hear all about how you can fly. Let’s get you calmed down, so you can tell me all about it.” Lia waves her hand goodbye and I run to the door to watch as they disappear down the hall.
When Lubov comes to do the first round of bed checks, I am sitting on the window ledge, watching the last bus of the night drive down Haste Street in the dark. Her voice startles me as she enters my room, “You know you’ve got your love riding on a dark horse.” I snap my head in her direction and she continues, “Lia is Manic-Depressive, she’s always going to be like this.”
I shake my head fighting back tears. Lia is not always like that.
Lubov walks over and taps the glass on the window, “Plexiglas, it won’t break. We’re not going to let you girls hurt yourselves; you’re safe in here.”
I nod. I should have known that they wouldn’t put actual glass in the windows when they took the doors off the closets in our rooms and they take our shoelaces and draw string pants.
“You know, in old world we can’t stand still to be sad. Do you know why?” She pauses and waits for me to shake my head before continuing, “If we stand still too long in old world, we freeze to death.”
I think she is trying to be funny, so I crack a small smile. “Come, it’s time to get in bed,” she offers me her hand.
Taking her hand, I slide down from the ledge and crawl into my bed. Lubov pulls the covers up over me and thickly whispers, “sleep snug as a bug in a rug.”
I’ve been lying in bed awake for at least an hour when Jude comes in to do morning vitals. She seems chipper and happy, strapping the blood pressure cuff to my left arm as I remain in bed. I am hardly as eager to start this day. After she pushes the button on the blood pressure machine and the cuff begins choking my arm, she slides a digital thermometer in my mouth for me to hold in place with my right hand. I turn my head and look at Lia’s empty bed.
“She will be alright,” Jude attempts to comfort me with all the information she is allowed to give and suddenly she doesn’t seem all-knowing anymore.
She takes the thermometer out of my mouth a minute later and the blood pressure machine beeps. “Stand up slowly”, she says, and I do. She sets the timer on the machine for two minutes and places two fingers above my left clavicle to measure my breathing while we wait. This is our morning routine.
When I don’t say much Jude begins talking about the “amazing” movie we are going to watch after lunch, but I assume it’s like the last educational movie we watched that put half of us to sleep, so I’m not listening. The blood pressure machine starts back up and Jude removes her fingers from my chest. When the machine stops she asks me if I am dizzy.
“No,” I say and sneak a look at the final numbers. A 20 point heart rate increase is not enough to keep me in bed for the morning since my standing heart rate (I’m sure they have some sophisticated term for it) is still under 130 beats per minute, so Jude pulls the cuff off my arm and finds the key on her thick keychain to unlock my bathroom. I have 30 minutes.
As soon as Jude rounds the corner out of my room, Leah is standing in the doorway, “I heard your friend tried to off herself last night.” Leah isn’t supposed to be in my room, but she moves in and leans her arm against the bathroom door, “I can’t believe there are people like her in here and they call us crazy.”
“Get out!” I scream shoving Leah away from my bathroom.
She stumbles back a little and pretends to brush herself off with an innocent smile, “I was just coming to see if you wanted me to do your hair.”
I stomp in the bathroom and slam the door. As I reach for the shower faucet, I hear Leah call, “You’ll get in trouble for closing the bathroom door.” I move to the sink while the water heats up. Stretching on my tippy toes, I reach above the light fixture to see if Lia has replaced the razor blade I hid from her last week; she has. As I turn to my distorted image in the thin slab of tin that is supposed to serve as a mirror, I take the blade and tear it across my hair. I am so sick of this tangled mess.