We weren’t allowed in the rec room yesterday. A crew of painters came in and smeared the walls with a nice, if somewhat cloying, robin-egg blue. If I’m being honest, I preferred the gray, but I’m not the one in charge here. I guess the paint is dry now, otherwise they wouldn’t have let us back in. The smell isn’t gone though. It’s real peculiar, the smell. Sour. Not like normal paint. It took me a minute to realize I wasn’t just smelling Joseph’s after-breakfast breath (spongy eggs, with lots of ketchup). It turned my stomach regardless.
Anyway, the smell is still here, and they can’t open a window because we’re on the thirteenth floor and I bet my roommate would try to jump out. She did her best to drown herself in the toilet last night, which sounds much more dramatic than it was. Right around eleven I heard the flushes, followed by some wet-sounding coughs and, after a few minutes, a heavy sigh. She padded back to bed, towel wrapped turban-style around her hair. The nurses barely blinked.
The morning schedule is written on the white board in front of the now-blue room, and reads as follows:
8:00 – Resident Grievances
9:00 – Expressing Your Emotions In A Healthy Way
10:00 – Music Therapy
11:00 – Free Game Time For Those Done With Lunch
A sleepy clock high in the corner of the room reads ten. Rebecca, one of the counselors, begins to call us to attention. She’s one of those women who seem to lead with her sneakers—the rest of her body an afterthought, a distant second to the bright white boats on her feet. “Why do we listen to music?” she asks us.
Roger, a pleasantly manic man with skinny hips and oversized front teeth, squeals, “Because it makes us feel good!” When I first met Roger, he couldn’t go three sentences without mentioning James, an adult film star who babysat his distant relative and was the as-of-yet unrequited love of his life. Whether James is real or a figment of psychosis I cannot say with any certainty, but he appears to be somewhat of a rascal either way. When discussing him, Roger’s affect ranged from just shy of euphoric with romantic possibility to weary with heartsickness. At one point in our early conversations, he spontaneously crumbled, weeping “I am just so tired of being alone.” The crying jags stopped once the Haldol kicked in, but still, I knew what he meant.
“That’s right!” Rebecca again. “It can elevate your mood. How many of us have had that experience where we are driving down the highway, put on our favorite song, roll the windows down and…” She trails off, closing her eyes and snaking her hand through the air. The room erupts in appreciative mmmmhm’s and knowing nods.
“You can’t just passively listen to music. Research shows that you actually need to make it to reap the full benefit.” She reaches for two microphones resting on the chair behind her and brandishes them at us. The rules of karaoke are simple, she explains to her captive audience, sitting in neat rows of the too-heavy-to-throw chairs: no profanity, no stealing the stage, and lots of effort.
Colin is up first. He makes his way to the front of the room, left hand resting lightly on his aide’s shoulder and right hand pushing back his shoulder length mop. His hair is greasy, but his tank top is black and clean and shows off the tight S of his deltoids. I wish I could touch them.
Colin is newly blind after gouging his eyes out in a swamp somewhere behind his house. He hasn’t admitted it yet, but I guess the pattern of his injuries left no question about the Oedipism. I overheard a conversation between some of the doctors marveling at the remarkable consistency in auto-enucleation—apparently the tried and true method is advancement of both index fingers along nasal side of the orbit followed by a definitive flick laterally, severing the optic nerve. This can be done in less than one minute, depending on how altered your pain perception is. Colin is astonishingly unperturbed by all this, telling me yesterday “I mean, it is what it is. I can’t look back.” He waited a beat, a broad smile extending to his Vaseline-smeared eye slits. “Get it? I literally can’t look back.”
He requests Eminem’s “My Name Is,” rapping into a mic held so close that it grazes his lips with every consonant. His volume steadily increases and by the time he whoops in the coda, he is sweaty and panting. He takes a bow that isn’t quite directed at us.
Frankly, the room is overwhelmed. We applaud politely as Colin is led back to his seat.
Sandra is up next, though she would be displeased to hear me call her that, as she prefers “Mrs. Shakur.” I try not to press too much about how folks ended up here, but she’ll rant to anyone who will listen about how her betrothed is still alive and she needs to get OUT OF HERE to be with him (emphasis hers). Naturally, she chooses “Changes.”
“Do you need the lyrics?” Rebecca is having some difficulty finding a karaoke version on YouTube.
“Nah girl, I know these words!” Sandra says, flicking her hair back and grinning towards the crowd.
The unmistakable ivory opening comes over the speakers. Mrs. Shakur stands with the back of her all-gray sweat suit facing the audience, chin tipped up to gaze at Mr. Shakur’s face on the screen. The piano swells. The beat drops. She misses her cue by several measures. Off-key and off-beat, she mumbles a garbled line or two, trying to catch up. It becomes obvious she doesn’t know the words after all.
For the first time since I’ve been here, no one else is speaking. The collective, regardless of how internally preoccupied, cannot bear to look away. Sandra, face taut, is now making a sound at once wretched and vaguely in the appropriate tune directly into the microphone. Rebecca, who at this point ought to be faking a power outage or possibly her own death, seems to have lost the ability to move her legs and simply gapes. It appears no mercy will be shown. The keening continues. I feel nauseated with second hand shame.
And then: “That’s just the way it is.” A voice from my right cuts through the air, quiet but unwavering.
“Things will never be the same.” Devin, sitting to my left, tentatively responds.
And with that, the whole room erupts. Our disorganized association swells as one, with no residual hesitation. We are taken by the spirit—perhaps by Mr. Shakur himself. We are the LFT Church Choir, effortlessly following the invisible hand of Hezekiah Walker. We are Kirk Franklin’s family. We are each other’s family. We are the same brain, sharing the same off-kilter neuro-chemicals. We are manic, psychotic, depressed, delusional. We are all these things simultaneously and also none of them at all. We are lithium, olanzapine, valproic acid, fluphenazine. We are pulsing, robin-egg blue. We are trapped here, but in this moment, we are free.
Hannah Decker is from Chicago and has two younger brothers who are cooler than her in every way. She studied history in college, worked at a hedge fund for a stint, and now is in medical school in Atlanta. She loves mountains, Russian literature and states of wonder.