The Songs of Knives
When I was about twelve, and Amelia was six, my family went on a trip to New York City to see the tree at Rockefeller Square. There was a woman, wearing a worn out coat, hair cropped in a crooked bob with greasy bangs, she was dirty. We were engulfed in the stink of roasting chestnuts because it was near Christmas. She yelled unintelligible words at Amelia. She turned to my mother. “What is she saying?” My mother grabbed her hand.
“It doesn’t matter. She is mentally ill.” But the woman was pointing at Amelia, her yelling rising to a crescendo. It sounded like a black magic spell. The woman frightened me. But now I understand. The woman saw Amelia, a blonde-haired blue eyed cherub in a thick, clean pink coat and envied her.
I am twenty-three and in college. I feel like something crawling out from underneath a rock: something moldy, mossy, wrapped in decaying seaweed. It is morning, hated morning. The sun is shining through my blinds, like it has for the past four hours that I have remained under my pile of comforters. My head aches from lying in for too long. Is it too late for coffee? I don’t care enough to make any.
I can smell the remains of bacon that they made for breakfast. It has seeped in beneath my closed door and is stuck on me—the glutinous residue of the smell in my hair, and my clothes, and the blankets. Nothing is safe from their gross morning rituals. I am a vegetarian. I only eat things that leave nothing behind. I want to be something that needs nothing, eventually.
I spent most of last night almost drifting off to sleep, and then ejecting myself out of bed, just to write more notes on my post-its for my book. They are arranged in a wreath around my face on my bathroom mirror. They read things like:
Pale skin, ossification, bloodless, floating in embalming jars beneath the Blood Orchid.
He opens his mouth. Moths fly out.
Gone, her black glass eyes stare out into eternity. The Occido Lumen.
Instead, we tend the Bone-Garden. The Dead are not hidden.
Holidays are sinking ships. There are no warm Christmases. We sit in silence and tension that needs a carving knife.
I stopped taking my pills. The Lithium was making me puke water and Pepto Bismol. Nothing would stay down, and my esophagus was on fire. The others, I figured that if I stopped taking them, I might turn into a normal person again. Normal people don’t take medications that make one’s hands shake, or sleep for twelve hours straight, or make them gain forty pounds in under a year. Normal people can work nine to five jobs. Normal people can lose weight. Normal people know what happiness is. Manic euphoria is not happiness. I always feel like the people I know think I’m a joke or an adventure when I get that way. And they all go away when The Sadness comes. No one stays for that.
Last night, about 4 am, I was wearing a black silk dress that Grammy had bought for me at a consignment store. I had been kneeling in the shower, hands raised above my head, like I was praying, or about to stab someone—myself. I was watching the hot water swirl down the drain. I was reciting my mantra, feverishly: “onetwothreefouronetwothreefouronetwothreefour.” My dress was saturated with sweat and water. I kept kneeling, repeating my numbers as fast as I could, hoping to be soothed by the hot water. When I got out, able to move again, I watched myself in the mirror, face almost plastered to the surface, like Alice poised to fall into the looking-glass. A couple of my Post-its fell off from the moisture in the air, their ink leaching outward from the drops of water from my skin. My skin was pale, luminous, and bright, and it left a smudge in the steam on the glass. I felt hot, sweating because the AC was off. I could feel that I was me inside of my body, so clearly, so clearly. I was seeing myself with a new type of clarity that I had never before achieved. Then something shifted. My eyes were dilated— something there was wrong, different—feral. And I thought of the knives in the kitchen drawer—so shiny, so sharp. And they sang a song to me, alluring like one of Chopin’s Etudes. I began to feel nauseated. I thought I saw a shadow out of the corner of my eye appear in the corner of the shower behind me. I jumped and looked. There was nothing there. I felt like I was being watched. I ran into my room, and I threw myself onto my bed, and listened to my blood, pounding in my ears, I was sticking to my sheets. There was a little man, dressed like a Christmas elf watching me from the door. He was made out of mist, the edges of his body swirling in circles. He was waving to me. I shut my eyes. He went away, but I could hear him sighing in my ears.
It is a hot Texas morning. My younger sister, Amelia, is still asleep. Mama is sitting on the back porch with the dogs, drinking a glass of ice water. She has been up since five, when the dogs wake her up. Emma is a terrier, with tiny bladder syndrome. She can barely make it through the night without having to pee. Marcy is a two-year old lab, and wants to do whatever Em wants.
“It’s about time! Good Afternoon,” She says as I step out.
“It is eleven,” I say.
“Mr. Man is coming to visit tomorrow.” She means my father. I keep telling her that this is creepy, because it is what Kathy Bates’ character calls James Caan’s character in Misery. My father lives outside of New Orleans in a crap town called Destrehan that is named after a plantation that I once visited in grade school. It had walls made out of cotton fibers and mud. Somehow, that made it cool inside. I don’t know how it didn’t melt. It is both rainy and humid in Louisiana. Anyhow, my dad isn’t allowed in the house here. It upsets my sister to the point where she is ill for days afterward. He is an angry person. And deluded. He thinks that everything is fine. All I can say is that I remember getting slapped in the face one too many times for illegitimate reasons. My parents get lunch together once a month. She gives him his mail, listens to his bullshit and sends him on his way.
“Where will you go to eat?” I ask.
“Five Guys, maybe.”
“I would like Five Guys in my mouth.”
“Heehee. Oops.” I say all of this in a flat voice. I want to distract her. However, this does not work. She’s like a pendulum.
“He really has no idea how much damage he has done. Really. Amelia gets sick to her stomach whenever he comes. Intermittent Explosive Disorder, I say. He would storm off, slamming doors, and then come creeping down, and laughing like everything was better. And he won’t even go for help. He doesn’t see how he has lost everything. The family. Our marriage. I am never living with him again. Two months in, and I was repairing doors and holes in the walls. And what he did to you—”
Mama. Stop. Daddy basically lied to her about going to see a genetic counselor or specialist or whatever. Now I have a genetic disorder. We go over this all of the time—how he is the reason I had my first episode and lost my religious beliefs and refuse to do math without a calculator (I actually can’t do math without a calculator).
I remember a morning, years ago, when I was still in high school. I could hear him yelling at Mama, downstairs. I was in bed, beneath my gray comforter, shaking. I had locked my door the night before, because he had been angry with me for my math test grades. What are you going to do? Work at Burger King? He slammed his way up the stairs like (I’d like to say a mad man, but he was) a mad man. “Get the FUCK up. We are going to church.” About an hour later, he chucked the car keys out of the car window onto the front lawn and then stormed back into the house. Amelia cried. Mama went looking for the keys. I took out the novel that I was reading.
Now, he is a pathetic thing. He goes to church pretty much every day, and feeds the homeless, and washes the feet of the Poor. The last time I saw him, he had forgotten to clip his nails in a long time, his clothes were covered in food stains, and he wore this saint medal necklace that the Catholics wear. The chain was corroding on the collar of his shirt. He showed it to me. One of the medals was held on by a rusty safety-pin. The whole time that we had lunch together, at an outdoor café in New Orleans, he spoke barely above a whisper, talking about how he had been saved.
Mama breaks into my thoughts. “So, when you were at the beginning of Freshman year at college, and you said that your roommate came home puking every night, did that really happen, or were you hallucinating? I have been wondering.” I sit for a moment. I remember the sounds of vomiting. I remember the smell. I remember pounding on the R.A.’s door, crying. I remember the R.A. shining a flashlight at Stacey in her bed, and declaring that she did not see any vomit. I remember sitting on a couch in the common area and crying so hard I got a headache behind my eyes. Now, I think. Did that really happen? Two weeks ago, I was walking through the street downtown in New Orleans. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small white dog walking beside me. When I looked, there was nothing there. People may be afraid of us, the clinically insane, the mentally ill, but it is way more frightening to not be able to trust your own brain. I am not safe inside of myself.
At lunch, Amelia comes downstairs. She has just woken up, since she stays up until five in the morning doing homework for her AP classes. She is conventionally pretty, and she doesn’t wear make-up. But I guess she doesn’t have to. Despite the late hour of her bedtime, she has no dark circles under her eyes.
“There is nothing good to eat,” She moans in her tiny nasally voice that she utilizes when she is cranky.
“I just bought you some French bread and turkey this morning. And there are grapes,” Mama replies, false-happily, sycophantically—take your choice.
“No-ho. I don’t want that.” Amelia whines. She shakes herself a little as she says this. The child-tantrum is coming on.
“I can go to the store—or Brooklyn Café,” Mama prompts. Amelia is in love with the boy who works behind the counter at the Brooklyn Café.
“Noooooooo,”Amelia sits down on the kitchen floor. “I’ll just eat nothing.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind,” Mama says, reaching for her keys. Amelia stands up and slaps them out of her hand. I throw down my sandwich, sickened.
“Don’t treat Mom that way, you bitch!”
“Fuck off you fat fuck!” She flies upstairs, punctuating her sentence with a scream and a door slamming. Mama sighs and shakes her head. I start to cry. The Lithium, for the first couple of months made me gain weight. I used to be one hundred and nineteen pounds. Now I’m one hundred and sixty, and I don’t fit in many of my clothes. I run from the kitchen. I need to find a shirt that fits.
I can’t find it. My green tank top. I need it. I go through all of the laundry that my mother is doing for my sister, folding as I go, even the dirty stuff. I take my own laundry, devoid of my shirt; into my room. I sit down and cross my legs and start folding. A hard hard stone is in my throat. As I cry, harder and harder, that stone breaks into pieces of sharp edges. I am hyperventilating. Mom is helping Amelia to find something to eat, and there is no one to help me. I lean forward over my laundry, heaving, mouth wide. My white towels become stained with my running mascara.
“Helen? Helen!” It’s Mama. “What’s the matter?”
“My emerald green t-shirt. Someone took it.”
“I will go look. Relax.” She leaves, and I throw all of my laundry into the basket. There is an ornament, a tassel with a porcelain doll’s head hanging over the door handle. I snatch it up, tearing the string that holds the head to the tassel. I unweave the strings of the tassel, shredding them feverishly, like fiddling with a rosary. The pieces create a pile around me. I throw the head with its delicate red lips and flat black painted porcelain page boy at the corner. I don’t care if it’s broken or not.
I stand, and start tearing my watercolor paintings and charcoal drawings off of my bulletin board, now slowly and methodically shredding the Arches paper. It feels like vellum and it tears like moss. I stare at my dirty hands. On my dresser, there are framed pictures of my family. I can’t let them see me like this. Grammy and Grandpa. They are dead. They shouldn’t see me doing these things. I place all of the frames facedown. Even the ones with pictures of living people. Even the ones with pictures of me. I am just disappointing. I remember one night, during high school, I sat on my bed, sobbing loudly and chafing my legs that I hadn’t shaved in weeks, I can’t remember why (for either of them). Mama said something about praying to God. I said “I don’t believe in God. Why would he make me feel this way?” She looked straight at me, “Then I don’t think that you are the child that we raised.” This was before I was diagnosed. She didn’t know. But it was true. I am not the child that they thought they raised. There may be something to the changeling theories.
Mama comes back in. “I found it. It was my fault…” She is surveying the damage. “What did you do?”
“I feel better now, thank you.” I take the shirt and squeeze out of my old size small t-shirt and put the green one on, making charcoal fingerprints all over it. I feel better, relieved within the midst of my destruction. I have no intention of cleaning it up. It feels beautiful.
I am sitting in my reading chair, reading The Fellowship of the Ring. The blue book covers are falling off of it, and most of the pages taped or glued back in. I am feeling weird. Really sad, just sad. I might start crying soon. No reason, really. I feel old, tired, and skeletal. I have a head-ache behind my eyes that won’t go away. So I am consulting my comfort-book. I am in the middle of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm while wearing my replica Elven Leaf Brooch from the movies when Mama comes in.
“You upset Amelia earlier,” Mama says, “You have to understand—”
It is as though a door has been kicked open: I sit up and scream, shutting my eyes, and scrabbling at my face with my nails. It burns. Mama grabs my hands. Strips of skin are stuck in my finger-nails. I am beyond words. “I was trying to protect you, Mama.” She looks at me, eyes wide.
“Helen. Calm down.” But I can’t. My throat is dry and sore. My face is on fire, like I am sunburned, and I am sobbing without sound. My book is on the floor, a pile of leaves. “Come eat dinner. Take a breather. Then come out and eat.”
When Mama leaves, shutting the door, I slide down to the floor and begin to beat my head against the hard wood of the floor. I don’t know what else to do. I hate myself. I want to hurt. I want to knock out the headache behind my eyes. I start hitting my head upon a nearby footstool. Heaving, sobbing, I scream. At the beginning of the scream, a flap of mucus membrane in my throat shifts, and the scream changes into something awful. I run out of breath, start again. When I stop, my voice comes out in a rasp:
“Send me to the hospital send me to the hospital send me to the hospital.” I throw a closed can of cherry lime-aid soda at the door. It dents both can and metal door handle. I cry, until I am tired. I rest my head on the floor, I am in child’s pose.
I am remembering another time. It was the summer after Grandpa died. The same year I moved away for college and Mama left Daddy and took Amelia to live in New Jersey at Grammy and Grandpa’s house. It had been a long day, and I refused to come downstairs for dinner. I was upset. All day, Amelia had been rude to me. Name-calling. Leaving me to pick up an unfinished one-thousand piece puzzle on my own, after harassing me to stop reading and play with her. That door had been kicked open. I had to fight it. I had to fight back, because the person kicking that door open might be my tormentor. I ran downstairs, screaming, just screaming with no words. Grammy, Mama, and Amelia were sitting at the dinner table. I threw chairs, and I broke a model boat that was on a shelf. Mama grabbed me, and held me down, forcing my head against the floor. I struggled, crying.
I creep into the kitchen. Mama and Amelia are at the table, I am in full sight, but they aren’t looking at me, as though I am an explosive deer. I pretend to open the cabinet to the glasses, but instead open the drawer for the knives. I slip out a knife with one hand, and a glass with the other. I fill the glass with water, and return to my room, walking gingerly.
It isn’t sharp enough. I run it over the skin on the inside of my arm. If it is going to do anything, I will have to gouge my skin. I sit disappointed, thinking of the false songs of the knives last night. This is when Mama comes in to check on me.
“What are you doing?” she snatches up the knife, holding it to her chest. “Why would you do this?”
“It would feel good.” I curl up on the floor, shaking. “I don’t want to die.”
She leaves and then comes back with the phone book and the cordless house phone. She sits down in my reading chair. She is talking to the doctor.
“Here. Speak to her.”
“Hello.” I whisper.
“Hi Helen. When did you stop taking the Lithium?”
“It was making me throw up Pepto-Bismol and water.”
“I am going to call a prescription in to Walgreens for the liquid version of it, ok? It should be easier to digest. What flavor do you want it in? Strawberry? And I will add some more of your Seroquel. Do I need to have you sent to the hospital?”
“No, and I hate strawberry.”
“Make a big-girl decision, here, Helen.”
“Big-girl decision? Big-girl decision? I am an Adult, Doctor Crowley. I might not be feeling well. But I am still a Human Being.” I hang up and slide the phone vehemently across the carpet toward my mother. “Why can’t anyone help me? I am still a Human Being.” I slam my head against the floor in frustration.
“I know. What is happening?”
“Prescription will be at the Walgreens.” My mother gets the alerts for when my medications are ready on her cell-phone. I realize that the dogs have not come into my room all day. I miss them even though they are somewhere in the house. I start to cry into the white carpet (that I have stained with charcoal), silently, just tears. I feel lonely. I have no voice left to call them.
While I was still at school last month, I got tired. I stopped doing my work to stay in bed and watch TV. The Lithium started to make me throw up. I was in pieces that I could not pick up. One day, I realized that I wanted to leave. I had enough money in my savings account to fly from New Orleans to the New Jersey shore. Enough to rent a house for a couple of months, by myself. Every summer, Grammy and Grandpa would rent a house in Lavallette that would fit the entire family—us, and Mama’s sister and her children. We would spend all day on the beach, and get ice cream every night at Salty’s. The Shore. That is where I planned on going, with its pure white dunes and green ripcord salt grass. I wanted to feel the sand, scouring the skin beneath my toes. I would lie down on the blue and red plaid picnic blanket that my grandparents kept in the trunk of their car. I would pretend that they were still there with me. I would remember Grandpa, refusing to wear sunscreen, and wearing his blue plaid button-up shirt open, his lobster-red man boob tan. I’d think of Grammy, standing at the edge of the water, arms crossed and talking to either Mama or my aunt. She would wear a floral swimming suit that accented the wasp-shape of her body that older women develop. She would be looking out for sea glass. But that was my talent. Whenever everyone would come back to the group, they would hold seashells, and I would show up with handfuls of sea glass, misty colors of blue, white, green, and brown. I felt proud to hand everyone pieces. It was the only luck that I’ve had in my life. I made the mistake of telling my roommate that I would be gone for a little, and she called my mother, who came and picked me up. I suppose I am on a “Medical Leave.”
It is a drive-thru pickup window for the Walgreens pharmacy. My Mama parks, then rolls down the window and picks up the receiver.
“The Insurance company won’t cover the pills since prescriptions for both of them have already been filled this month.” The woman at the window says. She has a fat face and wears her hair in a bun on the top of her head like Mrs. Pillsbury Doughboy.
I need these pills so that I can stop feeling this way I need them and I need them NOW. I grab the receiver, and say:
“You are going to send me to the hospital.”
“I can’t give them to you,” she says, “The Insurance company won’t cover them.”
I need them now, I realize. My life depends upon this. My hands freeze over the receiver, and I scream into it, something more wordless and animal and painful that I have ever heard comes out of somewhere all inside of me. I am remembering the woman on the streets in New York. I could be her. I can see the woman at the window. She is holding her hands to her face. Then the words come back, just as Mama pulls the receiver from my frozen hands:
“I AM STILL A HUMAN BEING I AM STILL A HUMAN BEING I AM STILL A HUMAN BEING I AM STILL A HUMAN BEING.”
I curl up in fetal position against my seat. I have no more left. I start sobbing because that is the only thing left to do.
“I’m sorry.” Mama says, and then pulls away quickly, the wheels of the car screeching.
If they send me to the hospital, they will take away my underwire bras. When I took clothes and books to my friend Julia when she was hospitalized, they ripped the underwires out of her bras right in front of her. She cried. There is something cruel about destroying undergarments in front of people. Dehumanizing. They will take away the tie to my bathrobe. They will take away my shoe-laces. They will take away my books and shake them to pieces, looking for razorblades. They will take away my phone. They will take away my note-book. They will take away my pens. They will not let Mama in for 72 hours. I will be alone, alone and locked away where everyone wants to leave me.
We go home without the medication. The Pillsbury bitch at the Walgreens would not give us the medication because it would jeopardize her job. My life, my self is at stake. Every part of my body aches from exhaustion as I get out of the car. I walk straight to my room, ignoring Amelia who is watching Glee. I have a hidden bottle of Pinot Noir and a shit ton of Xanax. If I can’t fix the pain, at least I can dull it.
Everything is hazy. I want to fuck somebody but I’m stuck in a pseudo-suburban development ten miles from the nearest bar, called The Ice House. Within those ten miles, in the dark, lives the Texan wildlife—huge ass snakes, wild boars, cougars, and armadillos. You don’t fuck with an armadillo. They might be blind, but they are vicious, have claws, and carry leprosy. Mama took my license and credit card away days ago when I started acting erratic.
The Xanax is on the top floor of the dollhouse that Grandpa made. I start to cry a little. He made the house out of wood, with real windows with plastic panes and a door with hinges and a working knob. He even added shingles to the roof. Then he painted the outside pink—my favorite color. I swallow five Xanaxes and then wash them down with some wine. Maybe porn will help this time. I don’t know how far I get. I black out.
I wake up in my mother’s bed. She is holding me. I don’t remember getting here. I am wrapped up in the picnic blanket from Grammy and Grandpa’s car. I have known that she loves me. I had forgotten how much.
Jessica Drake-Thomas is a graduate of Tulane University and Emerson College’s MFA in creative writing program. She currently lives out of a suitcase.