The Lady in Black

It’s always so cold here. The wind blows through the cracks in the window and the holes in the floor, while I swaddle myself in my rainbow boiled wool sweater under the covers complaining about the biting, incessant cold.

They always tell me of course it isn’t cold, of course I can take off my sweater if I like, but that won’t keep the cold away, you know, and I tell them so.

The kid in the bed right next to the window admires my sweater. “I never had one like that,” he exclaims fondly one day. “It’s so colorful and warm. You always wear it.”

“That’s because it’s so damn cold,” I grumble, turning on my side in bed. The kid never gets any visitors.

The shrinks and nurses here smile at me and feed me Rorschach tests and hypnosis and Freudian junk like that. I used to tell them they could stick Freud up their asses, ‘cause it was so cold I didn’t give a damn about anything save turning on the heat. They chided me, though, with the old routine, “Be a good boy and don’t swear, Simon. Use the word buttocks to describe your behind.” I grumble a whole lot about it, but if I don’t listen they’ll hold me down, so I really have no choice.

Mother, cherry red with anger, insists every time she comes that there isn’t any cold, that this is a five-star hospital with five-star heating and all that other crap mothers usually feed you. She’s always angry, flushed from her uppity blonde hairdo to her tiny coral-pink toenails peeking out from their strappy sandals. The kid next to me grins broadly at her, probably because he likes her. Mother’s anger subsides every time she sees him, and she coos sweetly that his smile charms her. Every guy seems to like Mother, except for Father, that is.

That kid’s name is Earl, or Jonathan, or something like that. After it finally gets a little sunnier outside, I offer him my sweater. It’s useless anyway.

He finally gets a visitor, this overweight blonde woman in bright white sneakers and a black jogging suit. She grins toothily at Earl-Jonathan, who pulls my sweater more tightly around his skinny frame. His elbows are real pointy, like those Indian arrowheads on display in museums.

Tomorrow he is due to leave, or so I’m told. Blonde Woman is sending him somewhere else where I hear it’s warmer, Florida or something.

I told him he could keep the sweater, but I’m starting to regret it.

*

After Earl-Jonathan leaves, they send me to see the floor’s new psychologist—I guess the old one with the wispy red hairs quit after I stuck my feces into the wine he used to sneak in the linen closet. I pad through the starched white hallway with my gray blanket wrapped around my shoulders and over my head because it’s colder than the damn north pole and also because I hate the way visitors smile at me when I pass, like I’m a hoot or something.

I sit across from the shrink in the same old questioning room, although for once the shades have been opened, so that the rays of the sun bathe me in warmth.

Gazing over her horn-rimmed glasses as she clasps her ivory hands together on the mahogany desk, the shrink purses her lips together and lets her watery black eyes seep right through me. I want to say something sarcastic to make her angry, but you have to be careful what you say to psychologists because they can give you Hell if you say the wrong thing. Her hair is night-black, dyed, probably, and it hangs down to her chin in chunks clinging close to her head.

The aide laughs, “He looks like a little Chief Powatan.”

The shrink stares at me with her weepy eyes, unmoving as stone, as the aide chuckles merrily at her own joke. But, as neither the shrink nor I join in, eventually the chuckles die away and an abruptly slammed door indicates that she has left. Without being able to stop it, a little conspiratory smile creeps upon my lips.

She moves a bit now that it’s only us, adjusts her glasses and picks up a pen. “Do you miss your roommate?” She asks, her voice throaty and deep. Her nails are black, and I can’t help staring at them because I’ve never seen anybody wearing black nailpolish, and plus Mother told me that people who wore it were going straight to Hell. I stare so hard that my mother’s face takes up every space and corner in my mind, so that without thinking about it I respond angrily, “He stole my sweater!”

“You gave him your sweater,” she answers calmly as her pen scratches against paper.

I challenge, “How do you know?”, trying to fill up space because I never like blunt silence in a shrink’s office. She looks up from her papers. “Never mind. Do you miss your roommate?”

I cross my arms and bite my lip, refusing to answer. If you’re a patient in this hospital and you don’t make a complete buttocks of yourself, then in my opinion you’re completely unlikable.

She doesn’t sigh or give me an exasperated look, like I was hoping for, but moves on to her next question. “What about your mother? Tell me about her. About your home, as you remember it.”

Internally I curse like I have Turette’s syndrome, because this is one subject I can’t stay silent about. I really like talking about myself. I look at her face to make sure she’s listening, but I should have guessed she would be, since shrinks always listen too hard. I tell her all about the big house my father bought for my mother, about my three younger siblings and the four cats we have. Two of them looked so similar we always called them identical twins, both with gray fur and a white patch over their right eye. We named them Tristan and Isolde. The third one was a calico that always reminded me a lot of caramel and cream, but it was my younger sister’s and she named it Curly, which was a stupid name because it didn’t have any curly fur at all. The fourth one was mine, and she was silky black with green eyes sunken deep into her skull. Everyone wanted me to name her Midnight, but black cats with that name are crawling all over the place, so I named her Osiris instead, because I’ve always liked that name. What I don’t tell the shrink is that I want to meet a girl someday whose cheeks and eyes resemble those of Osiris.

“Do you know Osiris is a male name?” the shrink cuts in.

I grumble some annoyance about being interrupted and reply, “Of course I do.”

She continues, leaning back in her chair and peering over her glasses at me with amusement, “and I suppose you know that Osiris was the Egyptian god of death.” I nod. “And you know, too, that cats were revered in ancient Egypt.”

“Can I continue with my story now?” I snap. She leans forward, picks up her pen, and nods at me to go ahead.

I tell her about the days my siblings and I used to play badminton out on the lawn as Mother sipped her iced tea and watched, wearing her broad-rimmed pink sun-hat and large sunglasses.

I don’t tell the shrink about how Father was always away on business trips to make lots of money for us, and how Mother caught him in bed with this other woman in red panties once. She told me afterwards that any woman who wore red panties was Satan’s child. It occurs to me as I think this that since she wears black nail polish, maybe the shrink in front of me sports red panties as well.

I don’t mention when Mother and Father pulled an all-nighter arguing in the living room as my siblings and I crowded around the door to hear. They said a lot of stuff about me and whose problem I was, which I didn’t particularly feel like relating to the shrink.

The shrink nods through all of it and then peers slyly at me, in a way I don’t really care for. “Was it warm there, Simon?”

I nod emphatically. “Yeah, ten times warmer than it is here. You need to fix your heating or something. It’s colder than the damn north pole here.”

The shrink looks at her notes, and I try to read them upside-down. I can’t, though, because her handwriting’s too flowery. Without looking back up at me, she asks, “What about the south pole, Simon? Is it colder here than at the south pole?”

That’s a really queer question for a shrink to ask. I shake my head no. “Of course not. What are you, dumb? The South Pole is ten times colder than anyplace on earth. Even snakes can’t live there, because it’s so cold, and they live everywhere.”

She’s still looking at her notes, but I glimpse a smile slowly spreading across her face and it drives me crazy. “Do you like to read?” she asks quietly. “Did you have a lot of books at home, Simon?”

My father always liked to stay up late in the oak library reading, and the next morning when we passed it on our way to school, we could smell the faint smoky fragrance left behind from his pipe. I tell the shrink that I had lots of books at home and that yeah, I read when there was nothing else to do. She nods her head slowly up and down after I say this, and then rises to her full height. She’s tall as a redwood, and I realize for the first time that she’s wearing a long flowing black cloak and dress that must be her grandmother’s or something, they’re so old-fashioned. A brooch of the same color adorns her neck. I wonder why she wears it—I bet it reminds her of some dead person she really liked, maybe even loved. I don’t really comprehend love, though. I don’t know anything about it. It’s something Mother had for Father, but they’re both depressed and they stuck me here in this hospital, so I figure that whatever love is, it can’t be too good.

“You’re not treated like a human here, but like an artifact,” the shrink declares, walking out from behind her desk. “I plan on changing that. Do you have any suggestions?”

I glance over at her wall, where she’s hung her achievements, just like every other snotty educated person. She’s a Yale graduate, and she did some studying abroad. She’s won a lot of awards, too, which pretty much say things like what a great psychologist she is. I look back at her and say, “Are you sure you’re a shrink? You sound the same, but you don’t look like one.”

For a second, I’m afraid I’ve said something terribly wrong, for her features harden again. But then, to my shock, she laughs. Not a chuckle, either, but one of those full-belly laughs you don’t hear too often. “The wolf in sheep skin!” she proclaims. “Now I’ll call the aide and she’ll take you back to your room, if you’re satisfied with our interview.” So saying, she picks up the black phone and dials the main desk.

I can’t sleep later on, because I’m burning up inside, for a change, and I’m not used to it. I’ve never made a shrink laugh before. I turn on my side and try to remember what color her eyes were. Green, I think, but I can’t be sure.

*

Dr. Moriarity, the old medical doctor, comes to see me the next day.  I think he used to be a chemistry teacher at some college. Ever since I read Frankenstein in the eighth grade I’ve kind of had an interest in chemistry, so when I heard that about him it redeemed him a bit in my eyes. He’s pretty accomplished. I hate the guy, but I have to admit that much, since it’s true.

He smiles down at me smugly while shaking the thermometer he just practically forced down my throat. “You have a fever,” he explains, “probably just influenza. You should be over it in a matter of days.” He sits down next to me on the bed and I slide as far away to the other side as I can get. Leaning his head in his hands, he sighs, “Strange, though. You’re never sick.”

“Do you know the shrink in black?”

“The shrink in—oh, yes, you mean Ms. Demeure. And call her a psychologist, Simon, like a good boy.”

“Shrink. She never told me her name. Ms. Demeure.” I say it slowly, feeling the way it rolls off my tongue, and decide that I like it.

The doctor looks me in the eye. His eyes are this light translucent blue, his hair black and peppered with gray and white specks. A handsome guy, I guess, when he was younger. Now he looks more like a grouchy old fart. He asks, “What do you think of Ms. Demeure, boy?”

I peer at him suspiciously, because he never cares what I think. I feel like talking about her anyway, though, so I just shrug it off. “Her hair’s…” I want to say nice, but the way his eyes are cooling my fever right down tells me I shouldn’t. “…short.”

He nods as if accepting this analysis and adds, “Greasy, too, I daresay.”

I never noticed that about her hair. “Her voice is nice,” I continue nasally, hating myself all the while for flattering a shrink. “Shapely, like a real woman’s, not all high-pitched and whiny.”

Dr. Moriarity nods. “You could say that. Find it a bit manly, myself.”

Now I’m angry. “What are you–?”

“Calm down, Simon, no need to get frenzied,” chides Dr. Moriarity, standing up. “She is one of the best psychologists in the country, after all, and that counts for something. Or so I’m told.” He presses the button to make my bed go up so I’m sitting, even though I don’t want it that way and I tell him so. He continues, “I have to leave now, and finish rounds. I’m bringing someone with me tomorrow, a professor from the college. He wants to see you. I want you to behave yourself, Simon.” He always takes on this tone like he’s my father, which he’s not. “I hope you don’t disappoint me.”

“Is this professor guy old, like you?” I blurt, but the question doesn’t seem to bother Dr. Moriarity, who says goodbye and, humming, leaves me burning up in this stupid lonely ward.

*

The next day Dr. Moriarity comes back dragging along a clean-shaven young man with a clipboard.

“This guy’s a professor?” I ask incredulously. “He looks like he’s barely got his high school diploma!”

“Simon, please,” says Dr. Moriarity in his warning tone. Then he transforms completely like Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll and introduces us. “Simon, this is Professor Clark. Professor Clark, Simon.”

He reminds me of a puppy dog with large soulful eyes obediently following its master’s example. The guy touches my shoulder, and I push him away angrily. “What the Hell?”

Dr. Moriarity regards me from under his bushy gray eyebrows. “Simon’s a little sensitive about people touching him, Professor Clark, but he knows very well what will happen if he doesn’t behave.”

Damn, he’s gonna call in all the male doctors and have them hold me down. I hate it when they do that since then I can’t move and I have twenty or so of those medical types blinking down at me as they probe all over the place “for research purposes” or something like that. I sigh and sink to the bed in defeat, since even this Professor Clark guy’s better than being held down.

I ask if Professor Clark is a chemistry teacher, since chemists get to do fun things like discover elements. I used to want to be a chemist, except that I realized when I met Dr. Moriarity that Chemists can’t love girls or anything, only chemistry, and I’ve always wanted to meet a girl like Osiris. I think I already have.

But Professor Clark shakes his head no. He’s a professor of psychology. Great. Another one.

Silent as the snow the way it falls outside my soundproof window, Professor Clark scribbles furiously on his clipboard and hardly even looks up at me. “Some observation,” I can’t help but mutter.

“When will I meet Ms. Demeure?” the professor asks timidly, and I feel like telling him there’s no need to fear Dr. Moriarity, he’s an idiot anyway.

The doctor responds, “You will not be meeting her today. She is holding an informative meeting on her methods tomorrow. You will see her then.”

Later on after Professor Clark leaves, I hear a deep female voice shouting at Dr. Moriarity outside in the hall, and I can tell from the voice and the bit of dark skirt visible in the crack beneath the door that it’s Ms. Demeure. I pat my hair to make sure it isn’t ruffled or anything.

Their voices are loud but muffled, and I can only hear the name Professor Clark shouted angrily several times. Afterwards she bursts through the door and runs to my bed, flipping on the light switch as her cloak flaps wildly behind her. Meanwhile, I hear the fading click-clack of Dr. Moriarity’s shoes in the corridor as he storms away.

“Are you all right, Simon?” she cries anxiously, feeling my forehead.

I try to shrug indifferently. “Fine, except that it’s cold as usual.”

She takes a step back and breathes deeply. “Well, there’s nothing I can do about the cold,” she says, “but I can assure you there will be no more visitors from the college.” She spits these words as if they taste like dirt in her mouth.

I suddenly feel some need to defend my fellow man against the meeker sex. “Aw, Professor Clark isn’t bad. Ten times better than Dr. Moriarity, anyway, ‘cause he doesn’t talk much.”

Ms. Demeure ignores me, looking at the other bed made all neatly, empty and freed from the scent of Earl-Jonathan so that nobody except me knows he was ever here. And me, I’ll probably forget him, one of these days.

“Those men,” Ms. Demeure says, “think  they come here to learn, but they’re only here to ogle the sick and thank their lucky stars it isn’t them in the bed.”

The way she says this all of a sudden makes me embarrassed to be lying with ruffled hair in a johnny in an unkempt bed right in front of her, to even be in this hospital in the first place. I make some weak attempts to straighten out my sheets. She abruptly swings her gaze my way, intently, watching, and I look back at her ‘cause I have nothing else to do. She smiles, “I’ll be back, Simon. Don’t worry about Dr. Moriarity.” Then she pivots on her heel and exits with her cloak flowing out behind her, flicking the lights off and shutting the door softly so I can’t hear the clickety-clack of all the footsteps in the hallway.

*

It’s been a few months and I’ve decided to marry Ms. Demeure. I figure she’ll probably say no, but if I don’t try I’ll kick myself in the buttocks really hard many years from now when I’m wrinkly and alone. I haven’t seen her in a while, though. She used to see me twice a week, but then it went down to once a week, and now it’s probably been at least a month since I’ve last seen her.

I get out of my bed without anybody’s consent, which I’m never supposed to do, and I clickety-clack through the hallways in my brown leather shoes looking for her. I’m all dressed up in the brown slacks and beige sweater that are usually reserved for when Mother visits, hair combed neatly to one side, so nobody suspects that I’m a patient walking around without permission, only a casual visitor. At one point Dr. Moriarity strides by and he knows me very well, so I have to turn and pretend to read a poster on Alzheimer’s. My grandpa had that. He never knew who I was when Mother made me call him on the telephone.

I check her office first, but the door is locked and the lights are off. She isn’t there. I take the elevator to the other floors of the hospital after I fail to find her on my floor, finally emerging onto the ground floor where I am definitely never supposed to go without an escort.  I happen to amble past the cafeteria, empty at this early hour, and hear Ms. Demeure’s voice through the door. I smile and pat the daisies in my hand that I picked during recess yesterday. They’re beginning to wilt, but I figure once she puts them in water they’ll come back to life like nobody’s business. Besides, I can’t afford a ring, in this damn place.

Mother saw me yesterday and asked how things were going, and I told her she was going to get a new daughter-in-law. For once not angry, she actually laughed and asked if it was the new patient whom I had started to talk to, Ophelia, but I told her no, Ophelia talked too much.

I tiptoe through the cafeteria’s swinging doors prepared to propose immediately, but my words fall silently to the ground and shatter as I stand there in the yellow light, completely unnoticed.

Ms. Demeure stands before the snack machine, but she isn’t the same Ms. Demeure. Oh, she looks pretty similar, but she’s wearing a slim black dress, backless, kind of modern. Then she’s wearing these sheer black tights and little black pumps. Not only that, but her hair’s smooth and shiny. She looks amazing like that, with her legs showing and all, but it still annoys me because now she’s dressed just like every other woman I meet these days. Her brooch is still pinned to the fabric before her neck. Her cheeks redder than I remember, she is laughing with Professor Clark, whom I have only seen a few times in the hallways since that first meeting with Dr. Moriarity. The two of them are standing there chatting it up as if it’s the end of the world tomorrow, which confuses me because I thought she said Professor Clark was bad to come in and ogle at me like I was an artifact or something. What really amazes me is when the professor takes his arm and wraps it around her waist as if he knows her. Then, he squeezes her buttocks gently and I expect her to push him away angrily but she smiles and buries her head in his shoulder. I feel like a steamy black cauldron boiling inside, because it’s me she’s supposed to like.

I’m going to tell him off. I’m going to point  out all of the faults in his character, like how he’s bad because he treats me like an artifact, and how he listens to everything Dr. Moriarity says and doesn’t know the meaning of individuality. My speech will be so convincing that Ms. Demeure will pull away from his grimy hands and run to me crying out about how she was sorry, being so mistaken like that.

I open my mouth, but all that comes out is screaming.

Ms. Demeure transforms instantly into the psychologist of serious demeanor, glancing my way, hurrying over, a pained expression on her pretty face. “Oh, Simon, it will be okay, it will be okay,” she says in a soothing tone, so I scream louder. She’s just like every other shrink, wouldn’t you know it, treating me like a pile of turds, and I wish she’d get her slimy hands off of me. Professor Clark runs over too, kneeling by my side and repeating everything Ms. Demeure says because he has no personality of his own. “Don’t you look nice, Simon! Don’t you look nice!” Ms. Demeure croons, and meanwhile neither one of them even notices the flowers in my hand, which I clutch more tightly than ever in my sweaty palms because they’re the only remnant of life as I knew it before I stepped into the cafeteria.

“You’re not even married!” I shout. “Slut! Slut!”

I don’t expect Ms. Demeure to get angry, and she doesn’t, but stands up to talk to some new arrival standing behind me. Before I have a chance to turn around, I’m grabbed by the collar and dragged away, and I can tell by the glimpses of white coat that it’s Dr. Moriarity pulling on me.

Now my heart beats out against my chest and I scream, “Don’t hold me down! Don’t hold me down!” while Ms. Demeure’s voice from behind me shouts advice to the doctor that he’s not listening to.

As everybody turns and stares, no smiles now, I am dragged kicking and screaming all the way back to my room, my pants all disheveled and my stupid tears streaking my sweater like clear blood. As my bed suddenly looms before my bleary eyes, the doctor plops me onto it and looks me in the face, a hand firmly gripping each of my shoulders. Ophelia sits there on my dirty floor—is she even allowed here?—waiting. She glances at me as I scream, but it doesn’t seem to bother her and she returns to watching the television turned on mute in the corner. “Stay,” commands Dr. Moriarity, like I’m a dog. Will I see Ms. Demeure ever again? Will she leave?

“You cannot treat me like this!” I scream, my throat growing terribly sore. Where is my mother? “You can’t order me around! Ms. Demeure says you treat me like I’m not even human! Like an artifact!”

“Ms. Demeure doesn’t know what she’s talking about!” Dr. Moriarity hisses, spit in my eye, face right in front of me blocking out everything else. But then he looks surprised with himself, with eyes widening and furry eyebrows rising. He’s not supposed to talk to patients like that, I bet.

As my heart begins to slow, I nod vehemently, to show that I agree with him. Dr. Moriarity is my friend, he knows me loads better than Ms. Demeure ever will, and I feel like hugging him but don’t because I should be more manly. Besides, I’m still clutching the daisies in my hand, my frozen hand—I can’t unclench it.

Dr. Moriarity tentatively lets go of me, and I blurt, “I want to study Chemistry! I hate women and I want to be a chemist instead!” My father had a degree in chemistry, even though he never did anything with it, and I always figured if he had been a chemist instead of a businessman he wouldn’t have traveled as much and things would have turned out differently.

The doctor glares at me as if trying to decipher what I said, like it’s hard to understand or something, and then he shakes his head. “Stay here, Simon, and don’t bother Ms. Demeure or Professor Clark ever again.” He glances down and sees the daisies. Wrenching my fist apart, ignoring my howl of pain, he grabs them and storms out of the room, tossing them into the wastebasket as he does so.

Ophelia folds her hands neatly in her lap and gazes at me. Her hair’s stringy and she’s sitting staring at me with her sunken eyes. I don’t usually mind things like that, but I finally turn to her and shout, “What the Hell is it?”

“Are you okay?” she promptly asks. “Because it’s okay if you’re not. I don’t mind.”

I have no idea how to answer her, but the image of her sitting primly before me like that is filling my mind entirely, and I’m beginning to forget about Ms. Demeure and Professor Clark and even my friend the chemist Moriarity. I forget about Mother and Father too, and I even forget about our four cats who probably miss me, purring and waiting by their milk bowls for me to feed them like I always used to do. I bite my lip until it bleeds trying to think of a way to answer Ophelia, and when I can’t think of anything I turn on my side away from her and pull the sheets up around my chin. Suddenly the cold has returned, threading its way in between the covers to envelop me in its shroud, and I curse aloud at its recurrence. Hopefully Mother will hurry up and visit again. Then I’ll be able to ask for a new boiled wool sweater.

 

 

 

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