Francis was sitting in the back seat of her father’s car, staring herself in the eye in the rearview mirror. She rested her left hand on the bag that lay next to her, filled with clothes and books, and put her right hand on Mr. Penguin’s belly. If there was a time and a place for a twenty-year-old to be seen with her favorite childhood toy, it was during a ride to a hospital.
‘You shouldn’t have taken all that stuff. They won’t let you keep it anyway,’ Mrs. Rutherford said. ‘Are you sure you want to go through with this? You can still change your mind.’
They climbed out of the car and headed into the emergency room where they came to seek a second opinion after Frannie had been referred to a hospital the first time. Mr. Rutherford passed all the relevant documentation to the nurse on duty, who asked Francis to change into a pajama and a bathrobe, while her parents filled out some forms. She then invited the patient to wait for the admitting physician in the celadon green exam room, where Francis sat tapping her fingers on her knee. A doctor came in an hour later, and without introducing herself, she sat behind the heavy oak desk screwed to the floor.
‘Name?’ The doctor asked the file in front of her, which had the patient name written on top of it in big, block letters.
‘Twenty in six weeks.’
‘Do you know what day it is?’
‘It’s September 1, 2008.’
‘Who’s the current president?’
‘Of what country?’
‘Good one, Frannie!’
The doctor didn’t appreciate an attempt at cleverness.
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m at the medical university’s psychiatric hospital.’
‘Why are you here?’
‘Because I stayed awake for over 56 hours with four hours of sleep in between. Because D-flat tickles, all shades of red are salty, and I can hear squeaking in my aching back. Because I used my father’s credit card to order 314 boxes of pens, and because I feel like I could dance on a railing of a bridge, just to see what happens, although it doesn’t feel like I would be involved in the outcome.’
‘Are they pressing charges?’ The doctor asked the file. Francis wondered whether the trained monotone of her voice was intended to keep her calm, or agitate her.
‘You made an unauthorized transaction using a credit card that does not belong to you. That’s illegal. Are your parents pressing charges?’ She kept talking to the file, and Frannie wished she’d give her the courtesy to call her a criminal to her face.
‘No. I don’t think they are.’
‘I won’t advise them to do so. Why did you order the pens?’
‘I thought someone might need them.’
‘Need them for what?’
Francis could feel her cheeks burning, as she suppressed her instinct to make a joke, which was sure not to be appreciated, making her more chagrined than she already was.
‘To save the world. I thought that if I didn’t order the pens, the world would stop, or end, or something. I can’t explain it.’
‘Three hundred and fourteen boxes is a very specific number.’
‘It’s the value of pi multiplied by a hundred. I mean, if you round up.’
‘You said you were awake for over fifty-six hours with four hours of sleep in between. Have you taken any drugs to stay awake? Any amphetamines?’
‘No. I’ve never taken any drugs. I was awake just like that.’
‘Have you been drinking?’
‘Yes. Before I ordered the pens. After I already couldn’t sleep.’ Frannie wished she could melt into the chair, or evaporate, or just leave the room. Going home looked fantastic right about then.
‘You were prescribed antidepressants and mood stabilizers. You were taking both of those while consuming alcohol? Were you aware of the threats associated with mixing those drugs with alcohol?’
‘And you did it anyway?’
Pause. Francis closed her eyes. ‘Yes.’
‘Have you had unprotected sex recently?’
‘Not that I recall.’
‘I suggest you focus, and try to remember. Have you had unprotected sex recently?’
Francis snickered. ‘No.’
‘Are you pregnant? Any recent experiences of trauma or injury? Any prolonged illness, other than this one, any surgeries?’
‘No. No, no. No, no.’
‘All right,’ she closed the file. ‘That’s all for now. A nurse will be with you in a minute to sift through your… stuff.’ She waved her hand, all the time avoiding eye contact with her patient, and left. Francis went back to tapping her fingers against her knee, and another forty minutes later she was joined by a nurse.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting. It’s a real train station here today. Is this your first time with us?’ She asked in an travel-agent-like manner, and Frannie nodded enthusiastically, like a satisfied customer. ‘It’s a peculiar place, but don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. My name is Hilda. Now, let’s see what you have in there.’
Hilda was an ample woman – she seemed large in body and spirit – capable, decisive, and probably an early riser, but at the same time warm and caring, which, Frannie imagined, made patients cling to her, and trust her with their fears and worries. Her lipstick was in the color of celosias, and her two front teeth were missing. She reached for Francis’s bag.
‘You can’t have any bags or backpacks with you on the ward, so whatever you want to take with you, you’ll need to put in one of those,’ she pulled a couple of thin, black trash bags from the pocket of her uniform. ‘All right. You don’t need a change of clothes with you, you’re only allowed to wear a pajama and a bathrobe, so all you should keep are fresh socks and knickers. And you need to take the belt out of your pajama pants and the robe.’ She helped Frannie pull out a string that was holding her pants up, and they were now hanging low on her hips. ‘You can’t take this either.’ She put a music player aside. ‘You can’t have any cords or strings with you. Hospital policy. And this,’ she was holding books in her hand. ‘You might want to give those back to your parents too. You won’t be doing much reading here, I assure you.’
‘What else can I possibly be doing?’
‘This place is not conducive to doing much. But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. You’ll make friends in no time. Oh, and if you wish to take this one with you,’ she raised a notebook cinched with an elastic band, with a ribbon page mark tucked between the sheets of paper. ‘You’ll need to cut those.’ She held the notebook at the elastic and the ribbon.
‘Are you kidding?’
‘I’m afraid not. As I said, no cords or strings. Hospital policy.’
‘Oh come on, how can I hurt myself with this?’
‘This is not about what you can do to yourself, but what other patients can do to you. I can’t let you take it. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. Now, if you insist on bringing this notebook with you, I’ll bring you scissors, and you can cut those things.’
‘Thanks, I’ll pass. Can I have a penguin with me?’ She hugged Mr. Penguin.
‘Yes. That you can have, unless it has any loose parts in it.’ She examined the toy, and passed it back to Frannie. ‘Now, if you’re ready, I’ll take you to the ward.’
They stepped into the hallway, and Francis, holding a trash bag filled with her belongings, passed all the items that didn’t make the cut to her parents. Then, led by Hilda, they headed toward the heavy, swinging doors marked with a letter A, at the end of a long, dusty hallway. They went through the door and found themselves in a well-lit passage – its windows looking over a vast park that belonged to the hospital – which connected to the crisis stabilization unit for women. There was a petite woman with platinum blond hair sitting on a bench and smoking. It was early September and the day outside was breathtaking, and Francis thought that no end of summer had ever been this beautiful.
‘It’s always good for the parents to see where their daughter will be spending her time,’ Hilda said to the Rutherfords, before turning to Frannie: ‘There are some people your age, so don’t worry, you’ll make friends in no time. It’s one of those places, you know. We find it that the patients are always tremendously supportive of each other, I’m sure you’ll find it helpful to be around people who understand exactly what you’re going through.
‘The rules are simple. Francis is going into the crisis stabilization unit first. She won’t be able to go anywhere alone, only accompanied by a family member or a member of the hospital staff. She’ll be staying in the room closest to us, so we can keep a close eye on her. Once we know who we’re dealing with – if she gets aggressive, or tries to pull stunts, things like that – and if the consultant assigned to her case approves, she’ll be able to walk around unescorted. If that goes well, you’ll be able to take her home for a few hours at a time. And if that goes well, she’ll be transferred to what we call the sanatorium unit. There she’ll be able to wear normal clothes, and you’ll be able to take her home for the weekend.’
‘How long will…?’ Mrs. Rutherford started.
‘It’s hard to tell. For now, she’s going to get a lot of rest. She’ll be taken off all the medication, except for anti-anxiety pills, which we’ll keep available if she needs to calm down. She’ll meet her doctor tomorrow, and they’ll take it from there.’
They stopped by a glass door. There were female-shaped zombies in pajamas gathering on the other side.
‘I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford, this is as far as you can go. There are no visitation limits, so you can see her as often as you’d like, just keep in mind that this is a hospital, she’s here to be treated, and treatment requires peace and rest.’
‘They probably serve white bread with meals here. Don’t eat it. I’ll bring you something more substantial tomorrow,’ Mrs. Rutherford hugged Francis. Both parents took a long look at Francis, before Hilda prompted her to come in, and shut the door behind them. Francis – in pajamas and a bathrobe, with a trash bag in one hand, Mr. Penguin in the other – watched her parents walk away, and disappear behind the door at the end of the hallway.
All patients within the crisis stabilization unit are required to wear a pajama and a nightgown at all times. The patients must not have with them: bras, belts, breakables, mirrors, knives, shoelaces, tights, etc. Those objects are strictly prohibited and will be confiscated. The nurse is required to check items brought by the family. Visitors must be approved in writing by the Chief of Psychiatry.
The nursing station, which was a counter that came all the way up to Francis’s chin, was occupied by three nurses at all times. There was a huge emergency button near the door and a heavy block of lockers right next to it. The unit was another long, narrow corridor with a single, barred window at the end of it. It was filled with whispers, and somewhere in one of the rooms, someone was shouting about the love of Jesus Christ.
A twenty-something girl with smudged make-up that made her look like a raccoon – although one could tell she aimed for a theatrical effect – came up to Francis, and put her hands on Fran’s face, exploring it with her rough fingertips, like a blind person would.
‘You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You’re way more beautiful than Kate Winslet in Titanic. I’ve seen that film many, many times. I had a poster of it over my bed…’ She had a low voice that sounded like a product of years of smoking cigarettes and shooting whiskey. She reminded Fran of a bored Claudette Colbert.
‘We’re going to be very good friends, you and I. I love beautiful things. Beauty is very important to me. The most important.’ She stroked Fran’s hair, and Frannie, not sure what to do, just stood there. ‘Stunning. Truly stunning. Beauty makes life more bearable, don’t you think? It makes us all more human, do you agree?’
Frannie nodded uncomfortably.
‘Oh, I am so sorry. I forgot to introduce myself. Silly me, going up to strangers like that, no wonder they all think they should keep me here. My name is Veronica Cornelia Strawińska. I’m an actress.’ She said while still running her fingers through Frannie’s locks. Frannie introduced herself with her full name only. She wasn’t sure whether she was anything beyond that.
‘Nice to meet you, Francis Rutherford,’ Veronica running her finger along the outline of Frannie’s lips. ‘Let me show you around.’
‘Sabina, that’s my job,’ Hilda cut in cheerfully. ‘Please go back to your room now.’
‘I’ll go. For now. But I’ll be back,’ the girl said, her chin raised high. To Frannie she added: ‘Make sure you miss me.’
‘Her name is Sabina, but she has everyone here call her Veronica. She says it’s her stage name.’ Hilda explained when they walked into the first of four patient rooms. ‘You’ll be staying on this middle bed right here. As I said to your parents, you can’t go anywhere, so try making yourself comfortable. If you need anything, I’m right outside.’
Francis sat on the bed and looked around. There were five other beds in the room, and they were all taken by people who were curled up and asleep facing a wall. The windows were barred. The weather outside was magnificent. She’d never experienced such unbridled zeal for a walk.
She unpacked her things into the night stand and lay on the bed counting cracks in the ceilings, crossing her arms on Mr. Penguin, who was resting on her chest. She wished she could listen to music or watch some t.v. shows, but her player had been taken by her parents, and she had no laptop, no internet connection, and no t.v. privileges. She had five roommates and she was being watched by three nurses. Effortfully doing nothing, she felt the time standing, stretching, spilling out, and knowing that this was what she’d experience in the days to come, she fought for her limbs to stop telescoping into her torso. She drew an imaginary grid on the ceiling, and counted the cracks in each square, trying to memorize how many there were in each, but before she could sum them up, she fell asleep.
There was that dream again: she was alone, in the rain, trying to square a circle made of soap, only this time she was doing it at the center of a roofless circus, with the members of the audience holding up consecutive digits of pi, arranged around the circumference of the arena, from the top rows toward the bottom. She was wearing a sequined corset with a tulle skirt and a pair of ballet shoes, and all these people watched her work on the task at hand, which was particularly tricky, since her thoughts were occupied with flaming images of luxurious coffins. Adam and Edmund were sitting in the front row. They jumped over the fence that separated the ring from the audience and walked toward her, as if to help her, but before they got to her, Adam said something that made Edmund laugh, and the two of them walked back to their seats. When she opened her eyes, Sabina was sitting on Francis’s bed stroking Mr. Penguin.
‘Can I help you?’ Francis started, and she took Mr. Penguin back.
‘You look so beautiful when you sleep. I wanted to wake you up, but you were so lovely, I couldn’t find it in me to disturb you.’
‘Thanks, I guess,’ Francis replied, internally disturbed.
‘You have very beautiful hair. Charming. Very unusual. And your face. Delicate and fair. Like in a porcelain doll. You could pose for doll makers, you know? Not one of those modern ones. No. The old kind of dolls, the heavy ones, difficult to break, made with painstaking attention to detail. I’d like to have a doll made of you.’ She paused. ‘You Scottish or something?’
‘Partly. My dad’s Scottish, my mom’s Polish. I’ve got two passports.’
‘How very interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with two passports. I don’t even have one! As I was saying, my name is Veronica Cornelia Strawińska, although you’ll hear people here call me Sabina. I don’t want everybody to know who I am. I’ve been in I Love You After Midnight, so they might get jealous.’
‘You were in I Love You After Midnight?’
This was the most popular movie made in Poland in the last decade. Although Francis herself hadn’t seen it, she heard enough about it to know that it was the dominant topic of water-cooler conversations, gossip columns, and entertainment programs. It made millions, elevated the lead actors to a celebrity status, and generated more jokes and parodies than the previous presidential election.
‘I know! It’s crazy! But it’s true! Bart and I had a thing, too,’ she added, referring to the male lead.
‘Good for you. Did you star in anything else?’
‘I did a few musicals, some plays, a number of t.v. shows. Mrs. Zee taught me to sing!’
‘Seriously?’ Francis raised her eyebrows. Mrs. Zee was a world-class voice coach, notorious for her stringent selection criteria.
‘I knew you’d be impressed. I can tell you value art. I wish my mother were more like you… My mother’s so jealous of me that she sends me here,’ she threw her hair raven back in a movie star fashion. ‘I miss my regular clothes, you know. I have a huge wardrobe at home, but obviously none of that is any good here. I’m so bored with this,’ she brushed invisible dust off her gold satin robe.
‘Can’t you just go back home?’
‘My mother won’t let me. She made sure I had to stay here, if you know what I mean. She’s jealous of my career. She works at a clerk’s office. She’s not even a clerk. She just works at his office. Can you imagine anything more pitiable? I surely cannot! But look at you! You’re so beautiful,’ she reached out to touch Frannie’s face, but she pulled away.
‘Why are you here?’
‘I’m telling you, my mother sent me. It’s like the fourth or the fifth time she’s done it. She really doesn’t want to see me succeed.’ She sighed. ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’
‘Curious. I have a boyfriend. He’s rich and handsome. You should meet him when he comes to visit me. He doesn’t come very often, because I don’t want him to see me this way, you know, without the right clothes and stuff. But he loves me very much, and if I let him, he would be here every day! He loves me very much, you know.’
‘Hi!’ Another patient sat down next to Veronica. This one was drooling, her eyes seemed turned inside-out, and there were old bite marks all over her fingers, hands, and forearms. She was enveloped in an long-unwashed pink robe with an elephant crest. Her large breasts were hanging unsupported, her teeth were brown and crooked. She reminded Francis of Edmund Munch’s paintings.
‘I’m Martha, and I’m going to get out of here real soon. I’m telling you, real soon. Probably even before you. And until then, you’re going to be my friend,’ she announced semi-coherently, as if her tongue were too big for her mouth. ‘I’m getting out of here real soon. You’ll see.’ When she spoke, she expectorated the words.
‘Martha, go away, you stink.’ Veronica said.
‘You stink! You stink! You stink! And I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to her. You’re mean.’ Martha tried to stay in her spot on the edge of the bed, but she kept sliding off.
Their bickering was interrupted by a call for dinner. The three of them headed to the tiny dining space furnished with plastic tables and chairs. The food cart was standing in front of the room. There was a stack of plates on it, each with a single white roll, which, when bitten, turned into dust, two sausages with bits of bones, and a blob of ketchup. Francis laughed wholeheartedly and took a portion – her mother would have not approved.
A call for medication came shortly after dinner, but since there was nothing for Frannie, she skipped the queue and went to take a shower. On her way back to her bed, she was snatched by the blonde woman she’d seen earlier.
‘You look normal, come with me,’ she said, and Frannie followed her into the smoking room, where the blonde sat on the window sill, and lit up a cigarette. ‘You want one? Have one. It helps. It’s the only thing that keeps me from throwing stuff at people in this place.’ She lit up. ‘What are you in for?’
‘F-31? Me too. Fresh diagnosis, huh? How are you handling it?’
‘It makes sense.’
‘Yeah? But if you have any questions – I’ve been with this thing for the past twenty years. You can live with it, you just need a few survival tricks, which, by the way, is also true for this place. So ask me anything you want to know, but no matter what you do, don’t let them put you on lithium.’
‘Because if this little condition doesn’t beat human instincts out of you, lithium will. It’s a disgusting little thing. Come on, have that cigarette,’ she pushed a pack toward Frannie who took one, even though she didn’t feel like smoking.
‘I suppose it’s not my decision to make. I’ll do what the experts tell me to do.’
The woman scoffed.
‘Poor thing! Do yourself a favor and don’t believe what experts tell you. Think for yourself. Always think for yourself. You a pianist or something?’’
‘I used to be.’
‘Were you any good?’
‘Anyone ever tried to tell you that it was because you’re crazy?’
‘Not to my face, why?’
‘I’ve heard that so many times. It’s such bullshit! An illness cannot make you an artist. A talent might. Drive, discipline, dedication. A hopeless need to tell people something that will make them uncomfortable with their own convictions, that will make them shiver with uncertainty. Those are not symptoms of pathology!’
‘It’s just semantics.’
‘Ah, I see. But don’t be so quick to accept this. Once you do, you’ll relinquish your right to be a person and you’ll always be a patient. No matter what you make out of yourself, people will always say that it was because you were crazy, and wouldn’t it be great it they were all crazy.’ The woman was biting her nails, which were stained with colors.
‘I do. I’m pretty good, actually. But my husband is the rector of the art school, and somehow I was never able to be anything other than his wife, although I did produce more work than he did. It also sold better, and was more acclaimed, but I was always introduced as his wife, like I was nothing more. “This is Mathilda Polańska, the wife of Stanisław Polański, the rector of the National Academy of the Arts”,’ she paused for a puff. ‘This is what drove me crazy.’
‘You don’t think you were bipolar before you got married?’
‘First of, no, I wasn’t bipolar before I met him. F-31 is a disorder, it’s something you have, not something you are. Memorize that. But no, I didn’t have it before I met him, either. It was the constant being someone else’s wife that drove me nuts. Don’t ever let people do that to you.’
Frannie sat quietly. Matilda seemed eager to share her story.
‘We used to be so happy, you know. We were so in love! We climbed Mount Everest years ago. It was so lighthearted, so breathtaking, so deliberate! I painted all the time back then and I had a show, after a show, after a show. It was grand! And then Stanisław got a new job and it all went to hell.’ She flicked her fingers. ‘Overnight.’
‘Do you have kids?’
‘No.’ She flicked the ash. ‘I got pregnant when I was twenty-one but it wasn’t the right time for a baby. I was so young, so irresponsible – I had so much wind in my hair! So, you know, I did what anyone would do in that situation… And then, a few years later, I got older, the wind stopped blowing, my hair started falling out, and I found out that I was out of opportunities…. So, you stopped playing when you got ill?’
‘Yep. I might go back to it if I’m out of here by the time school starts.’
‘Poor thing, school starts in four weeks! You won’t be even close to getting out of here. My guess is twelve weeks minimum. I was here for six months once. Don’t worry, Martha can put all your problems in perspective. She’s been here for a four months now. And I’ve been in with her twice already, at the county hospital, of all places – it’s such a dreadfully eery place, you can’t imagine – nothing works for her.’ She finished the cigarette and examined Francis. After a moment she added: ‘If you’re not going to smoke it, I will,’ Matilda took the cigarette from Fran’s hand.