What’s the good in being good, when you’re bound to be bad again?
Mona has been crying for half an hour now because she meant to bake a cake for her husband’s birthday. Instead, she blended 30 pills, all different colors, with orange juice and drank the rainbow.
They are sitting in a circle on the floor. Some with pillows, some holding stuffed animals – bunny, one eyed bear, elephant, all lifers here – in blue pajamas, just like yours.
You show up late because your session with your Pdoc goes long. Pdoc looks like Santa and wears cowboy boots under his brown suit. There is a giant poster of a human brain on the wall behind Pdoc’s balding skull: The Autonomic Nervous System.
On one side of the poster: “Feed-and-Breed”
On the other side: “Fight-or-Flight”
You like the sound of both.
More words: Par-a-sym-pa-the-tic, Sym-pa_the-tic, Au-to-nom-ic – the staccato, the musicality that makes your head bob from side to side –
Then, PDoc’s first question: how do you feel today?
Fine, you think.
How did you sleep?
You have recurring dreams of an unfurnished apartment with carpeted floors where your mother lays naked, crying and staring. She doesn’t see you, standing above her. She doesn’t cover herself and you can see all of her nakedness: her pale folds, her body bigger than yours. You feel red hot with embarrassment and shame for thinking she’s ugly, then, there, like that.
Any difficult thoughts or feelings when you woke up?
She crawls in circles like a blind animal. She pulls out clumps of her hair and offers you the fistfuls, kneeling at your feet.
You peer at the brain: Lim-bic, Lim-BIC, LIM-bic. You like the way your lips “pop” when you say “limbic”.
Everyone here asks you how you feel all the time – voices soft, cooing – how do you feel today? Instead of “Good Morning,” instead of “Yes” or “No” or “Have you taken your meds today?” Doctors, nurses, janitors, the lunch lady everyone – because between now and the next time they ask, who knows?
Pdoc re-ups your prescription – A-BIL-i-fy, Well-BU-trin, Al – PRAZ-O-lam. He hands you the ‘script. He’s drawn a smiley face on the signature line.
You feel fine.
You take a seat next to Mona, still crying; ugly crying: face contorted, snot coming out of her nose, mouth opening and closing and drooling mouth-tears. You kneel down next to her and scan the circle; they’re rapt. They love this.
You’re not like them. You weren’t trying to kill yourself. You were trying to remedy a personal situation. You were eating yourself from the inside out; and you had to work your way backwards – outside, in – to dig up the rot, to clean up the mess.
But, if someone were to ask how do you feel today? You would tell them that you feel like a fraud.
You lean back onto the tops of your bare feet. In kindergarten they called this sitting “Chinese Style”; and the cross-legged position “Indian Style”. You, neither being Chinese nor Indian, sit on your feet because the floor beneath your me-ta-tar-sals, the old tiles digging in, feel good.
The word penitent comes to mind. You think about religious die-hards and monk types crawling miles on hands and knees, unzipping the skin of their backs to prove their faith.
Before she died, your grandmother changed her mind about God. You watched her, in a different life, chase the ghosts and statues from her kitchen, throw out their altars and replace them with pictures of Jesus.
Before she died, she cut a deep red slit in her palm and painted the places where her altars once stood – apologizing for letting go, sorry for what she lost.
They gave you socks but you left them in your room because the sun-warmed tile was flat and white this morning and smelled like bleach and lemons. You wanted to feel it with your real feet before the floor got grimy with traffic and the inevitable splash of vomit, somewhere. But now it’s dark and cold and you’re annoyed with yourself for being too good for socks. And you can’t leave until everyone has had a turn.
You settle in for the long haul. You wiggle your cold toes and wonder if one simply runs out of tears, eventually.
You feel tired.
You feel tired of being a fraud.
You bite your wrist like you did as a kid: a watch face of teeth, your incisors at hours three and nine. You bite down again – the circle of spit and the jagged imprint growing pink.
When you were three you met your infant brother. While everyone oohed and aahed over his tiny nose, his little pink lips, you took his small hand, even smaller than yours, and put it in your mouth. You bit down on the soft, boneless palm and it immediately snapped shut into a tiny fist while he let out a desperate animal wail. The blood he clutched overflowed through his fingers and down his chubby arm. The window shattering screams from such a small creature – screams of someone who didn’t have the words to fight back – woke you. You started screaming, too.
One more time and you taste blood. The sharp canine on thin skin, the wet taste of iron –
Your brother shrieking now in anger, in pain, in fear – of the red blackness of blood, of his painful body, of the knowledge that these things exist now because of you.
It’s hard to explain. Your give your body the impetus and your brain follows suit: Takes you here or away, here or away. Feel it or don’t. You’re hoping away this time. Away from Mona’s crying, which has started to sound like the low moan of a cat in heat, unbefitting of her current state, away from your unreliable body that feels nothing on its own.
Both of you wailing until your mother smacked you, repeatedly, until you stopped.
No, you’re right here. Still here.
And you can’t get away from Mona, or the cat noise, or the sobbing, or your single-minded curiosity over what 30 pills in orange juice must taste like.
Since your arrival, everything has been thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings. Thoughts trigger feelings. So, they say, try not to think too much. Try to remain in your body.
You weren’t thinking that time you punched Billy M. in the ear for taking your spot on the swing. When he fell down, you kicked him.
You have feelings that you can’t access in a “healthy and appropriate’ manner, according to your Pdoc.
You didn’t listen when they told you not to roughhouse with the older boys next door. You came home wet and filthy: hands and knees scraped down to white, and a bruise on your left cheek where it hit the patio stairs. You threw away your soiled jean shorts and underwear in the big garbage can out back. You scrubbed your hands and knees with soap until they peeled and bled some more.
You bite down on your dry lip. You nibble on bits of skin with your front teeth.
You go to bed exhausted and you wake up angry every morning.
Your mom came to visit yesterday and all she did was cry and apologize. She looked tired and far away and had trouble saying anything else. She wants to know how she could have stopped this, fixed this, fix it now. You’ve asked her to stop so many times now; but she can’t.
Later you stood by in horror as your father campaigned against your brother’s left-handedness. He carried a yardstick and smacked his youngest son’s knuckles whenever he used his left hand: to eat, to do homework, to reach for – whap!
“No such thing as a left handed gun” Dad declares – whap!
Your poor mother.
You consider sleep. The muddy fog, the liquid, heavy quiet would be nice for a change. Just go lay down and pop your pills and sleep and sleep – until you wake up angry, take more pills, grind your teeth until you can feel them working, and sleep and sleep some more.
Like that time your dad had to drown the feral kittens in a trash bag in the pool. He told you not to touch them when you found them in the garage. But you didn’t listen and later found them abandoned by their mother, mewling and half chewed, under the house.
You close your eyes and imagine a no.2 pencil in your fist. You push down until it snaps and it’s insides crack open.
Under your cast your left hand is pulp.
Your fingers, the visible ones, fat purple globules jutting obscenely out from beneath alabaster –
Something itches but you’re not sure where.
You heard somewhere once that a caterpillar’s body will completely dissolve before it reshapes itself into a Monarch butterfly; that inside their cocoons, before wings, a chrysalis, complete mush.
Unless they die in there.
Your knees hurt. The tops of your feet crunch and bend under the weight of your body – like the cartilage you find when you cut the white meat off a roast chicken. You can do it with your hands, too. Wring them hard and feel the knuckles overlap with that same satisfying roll, snap and pop.
Snap and Pop the sound of your left palm down, under the lightning crash of your dad’s hockey skate in your right hand. And again. Again.
The group leader asks who would like to go next.
How calm your parents were, especially your father: calm for you. How you wanted to be sorry, but couldn’t.
How you didn’t wince when the skate came down, but did when you saw your parents at the door.
Your mother was stoic; her hands caked in your blood, holding the jellied mass wrapped in towels. You couldn’t remember the last time you held hands; probably when you were little. You laid your head in her lap and watched the red lights of the cars ahead bloom on and off, stop and go – your dad’s car rocking back and forth in time.
Your left hand, the jellied mass –
“Like butterflies” you whispered.
“Honey what?” your mother asked, her voice a crescendo straining at its leash; her whole body shaking to withhold the guttural wail trapped inside her stomach. A mother can feel where her child is broken.
You didn’t answer.
You felt greedy.
But you felt better.
Christine No is a writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared at the Sundance Film Festival, in publications such as sPARKLE+bLINK, Columbia Journal, APOGEE, and the anthology “If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration” by Sibling Rivalry Press. She is host of Nomadic Press’s monthly reading series GET LIT, and a board member and curator of Quiet Lightning. She is a VONA Alum, a Pushcart Prize Nominee and the First Place Poetry Winner in the 2016 Litquake Writing Contest. She lives in Oakland with her talking dog, Brandy.
This story appeared in Atlas and Alice