He clutched the orange connector and let the tired weight of his arm release the the hose from it’s faucet. Stale, tepid water that smelled of warm rubber spilt to the marbled pebbles on the ground. Kneeling on his shins, his arse resting heavily on his heels, he reached for the tap and lazily dragged on its left side until it gave and a thin stream flowed. He let go and re-gripped. With less weight needed this time he pulled again. Water rushed out, disturbing the pebbles below and spitting like embers from a sparkler in all directions. Still gripping the tap he dipped his head forward and bowed languidly until he felt the cold force of the water on the crown of his head. Water poured down around his ears and over his forehead. It mixed with the tears that had pooled in his eyes and soaked his cheeks. It engulfed his face as he sobbed through its flow and then, in pathetic submission, he slumped further into the stream until his head came to rest on the stuccoed wall. Water drummed on his neck and drenched the back of his grey t-shirt.
He hoped they would be home soon. He wanted them to see this.
The metallic whine of the front gate followed a murmur of excited voices as his mother and sister followed the path up the stairs and toward the front door of the family home. He didn’t live there anymore but had arranged to meet them there after his sister, Lucinda – two and a half years his junior – had arrived home from Berlin, where she’d spent the past three months. His mother – an elegant and refined widow of three years – had collected Lucinda from the airport at the early hour to which the family of regular overseas travelers had grown accustomed over the years.
He turned off the tap in one motion, got to his feet and brushed the water from his face and hair, then rubbed it dry with the front of his t-shirt. While, only seconds earlier he had almost relished the idea of his mother and sister finding him slumped and sodden beneath a hissing garden tap, without thinking, he found – as he had so many times before – that he was once again arming himself to stave off the outward signs of his depression. He picked up the dark Ray Bans that had fallen to the ground in his wretched stupor of moments before and clumsily covered his eyes – scorched red with turmoil. Breathing in deeply and -as if about to enter boxing ring or ascend a lectern – exhaling with a whoosh, he straightened and turned to his left, and as keys chimed in the steel security grill, with two hands turned inward and braced over his knee, raised himself up the deep step and on to the front porch.
Sensing his presence before he’d announced it, Lucinda and her mother, Elizabeth turned with a start as he approached, aphasic with a labored smile.
“Jimbooo!”, Lucinda exclaimed with a mirth that only compounded what he hid beneath his dark lenses. They met with an embrace the likes of which James rarely gave, least of all to his sister – an exuberant, demonstrative fanatic of life – whose ease of expression, at times, had the inverse effect on her more taciturn brother. He hugged her fully, his chin cupping the nape of her neck. He faced his mum who looked on warmly, perhaps unaccustomed to seeing such affection between her children and who, within an instant, detected the fragility behind her son’s sunglasses as his brow furrowed fiercely and his lower lip fattened and curled outward. A tear that he’d contained until now let go and streaked down beside his nose. There was an moment of unspoken recognition between mother and son as her features lurched and her head leaned despairingly to the side as she moved close while James clung to his sister, who, without needing to see nor hear, had recognised what was unfolding behind her. James could sense it in the way her touch and the tone of her voice changed and although he felt intensely hopeless, he was safe.
He let his tears flow freely now. His sobbing began again but felt more cathartic now. He knew he’d cry himself dry soon, that he’d soon succumb to the tranquility that followed these episodes which had stalked him like a tireless hyena for four or five years now.
. . .
As an interim measure, a doctor, not his usual GP however, prescribed a sedative, lorazepam. His heart had been racing, verging on panic. He’d had a panic attack two years earlier. Alone in the back of his station wagon in a sandy car park behind the dunes of a surf beach north of Sydney, he’d woken in the middle of the night, some hours after an argument with his girlfriend over the phone, adamant that he was having a heart attack. His heart throbbing violently against his ribcage, he’d slapped himself across the face to be sure that he wasn’t dreaming and drew thirstily on his asthma inhaler but in the end could do nothing but wait for the attack to subside. Physically exhausted from the ordeal, he slept well into the morning despite the carloads of eager surfers congregating about his white Holden – his cocoon – who had come for their ritual morning surf check.
He took two of the small, round pills and within half an hour his heart had calmed and a deep haze – not dissimilar to a good, mellow, bush-bud high – came over him like the relieving afternoon fog of a San Francisco summer. He slept for three hours on his mother’s couch and woke in the early afternoon. Not wanting to stay sedentary, James decided to leave the safety of his mum’s place and to walk, to give himself a chance to mull over the doctors advice – that he should admit himself to a mental health clinic as soon as possible. Hearing this from a matter-of-fact but evidently concerned doctor had been overwhelming, especially given his state of mind. In a branch of health riddled with stigma, he felt that his status had just been upgraded in the hierarchy of mental disorders. To heed the doctors advice would be to submit. But was submission what was called for now? After three years of perilous Russian Roulette with anti-depressants? After 6 months of twice daily meditation that had only intensified his intolerable and debilitating anxiety? After countless work lunch hours spent cowering under the eve of a nearby residential building – balling behind his hands? After waking up day after day unable to foresee anything worth living for? After nights curled up by the toilet bowl with his fingers down his throat – trying to purge his torment? After driving to places of high cliffs and switching off his phone, the two or three closest to him calling one and other in a frenzy while he sat in the drivers seat of the car and pondered his fate. Was this new option – to submit – an alternative to the one way he’d previously thought to act out submission – by defying his lot, to defy everyone who said that suicide was a long term solution to a short term problem because it – as only he understood – was the only solution?
He wandered and wandered until he found himself by the harbor in a sunny cove with a small marina and a ferry wharf. He recalled the afternoon perhaps six months before his father had died of Melanoma when he’d met him at the wharf as he alighted the ferry in the dwindling light of dusk. Self consciously, he’d taken a photo as his dad came across the narrow gangway. Both knew – but of course didn’t acknowledge – that it was in anticipation of posterity.
A ferry waded into the bay and pulled up alongside the wharf, the water at its bow churned and billowed with reverse thrust. The journey across the harbor suited his dreamy state, his mind seemed to float and although he couldn’t fully grasp them, his thoughts transitioned fluently from one to the next. He found a bench on the upper deck where he could prop his feet on the steel bars of the guard railing. A set of diamond plate stairs descended on the other side of the railing. It was nice to be cordoned off from people because, while he needed to be near people – because the thought of being alone was utterly frightening – he didn’t have the energy nor desire to interact with anyone beyond being within a broad proximity.
His wander continued once the ferry had docked at Circular Quay. Up the same hill that Arthur Phillip and co. had wrested from the blacks more than two hundred years ago. Past a building named in his memory and some of the few remaining architectural vestiges of the time since. Through the domain on to which the hedge funders and corporate lawyers faced down on but never admired from their fortieth floor meeting rooms named Bondi or Kozciuzko or Uluru. He followed the asphalt pathway towards an expanse of Moreton Bay Figs, their ghoulish roots brooding just like the way he eyed the lycra-clad lunchtime joggers. Through the trees, across the road and between the colossal, sandstone pillars, between throngs of Chinese tourists so irrelevant to his world that he could have walked straight through them as if they were holograms. He made his way through the immense atrium filled with Tillers’, Whitleys and Boyds all framed in heavy, gold leaf. Down the escalators and toward the cafe where a scattering of older couples sat with tea and scones. Through the windows clouds were beginning to form in the south. He found a stool by the windows, laid out a paperback, an A5 notepad and the pen he’d brought from home and ordered tea. A girl with short, bouncy hair, bright, wide eyes, a petit, upturned nose and tomato sauce red lips sat a few stools away. He’d seen her here before, working for the gallery in some sort of administrative role. He also recognised her from TV – an Australian soap – she was probably done with that though he reckoned. She seemed humble enough anyway. He managed to catch her eye and smile before returning to his view so as not to draw conversation – not that she’d want that anyway – he thought.
Staring out the floor to ceiling windows at nothing in particular he soon realised that the bank of terraces bathed in afternoon sun across the narrow bay were the ones that he’d stayed in for a short time with his girlfriend, Michelle, only a few months ago. They’d house-sat for a work friend of hers following (what must have been) their sixth unsuccessful breakup. It wasn’t planned that way of course. He’d shown up at her door one Sunday. The day before he’d seen her at a music festival with her friends. He spent that entire day scouting the heads of the crowd to catch a glimpse of her. It was the self torturer, the masochistic in him. He got uncharacteristically drunk and tried to apologise to her friends for what he’d put her through. The sort of behavior he’d have cringed at, had it been someone else. He’d been a mess that night. Cycling home in the stillness of night he bawled all the way and continued, hunched over the kitchen sink with his flatmate making vain attempts at consolation.
In his desperation, he’d convinced himself that being with Michelle again would make everything alright. It went against everything he’d learnt from previous experience and all the advice that he’d self righteously dolled out to friends in similar circumstances, but in comparison to his need, his will was feeble. Her resolve too was weak. She had always been more enamored with James than he’d been with her and she admitted that whatever she could get of him, she’d take. It was an impenetrable, self perpetuating vortex.
But as he sat there, comfortably stoned on two prescription pills, it was that Sunday night that he threw back to. He’d delivered an hour long monologue – a similar, but more lofty rendition of the one he’d recited on each of the six or so occasions that they’d come back together previously. They had watched the sun move across the sky in a low, early winter arc and basked in its warmth until the colours in the sky began to change and morph and it disappeared behind the city skyline. Wishing that the day would never end, they laid on the rickety courtyard table, spread a picnic rug across themselves and spotted shooting stars even against the bright city sky. Entwined in a tangle of arms and legs, they spoke in whispers for fear of breaking the harmony they’d found. It was sometime that evening, he thought, that the emotional pinnacle of their time together had occurred. A moment where they found the allusive affinity that they both dreamed of. Either side of those few hours however, were defined by either an ascent to that peak – which had begun in a deep valley – or by a tumble over the precipice back to that same Hellish valley below. And what James had always found difficult to reconcile was what part Michelle played in these deeper mental ebbs and flows. Did she play any part at all? Or was she the fallen leaf in the stream, following the descent to the the river mouth with only the mercy of gravity?
He began to draw the row of apartments in his notepad in the same sketchy style that he’d always tried to imitate from what he knew of the French Impressionists that he’d studied in high school. Having filled the page he turned to the next and paused, the nib of his pen hovering, unsure how to proceed. When he struck the page with the first character, he began to write something of a journal of what he already sensed was going to be a defining period in his life. It wasn’t addressed to anyone but he soon realised that it was, of course, Michelle that he was writing to. Although he was uncertain as to whether he’d ever actually deliver the letter, much less what its content would be, what followed was a written mastication of every thought and observation he’d had since the night before – a night which had, although not caused his current state, undoubtedly tipped him over the edge of what, with hindsight, even now, he recognised he’d been heading for for some time. They were always fairly innocuous signs, but they were proven and trustworthy. He’d find the most trivial objects – a street sign, a door handle – would overwhelm him. Not the objects themselves so much as the thought of what was involved in their being. How many people it must have taken to make it, the machinery involved, the cost, the power. He couldn’t conceive of the reason for it all. The apparent waste and pointlessness saddened him deeply. If he couldn’t be bothered to read the books that he loved he really knew things were dire. And when he would wake beside Michelle, wait and watch until she too awoke, and then stare blankly through her worried, maternal gaze with such a crushing apathy for the world and everything in it, that tears would begin to form in his wide, unblinking eyes and fall across his face on to the pillow. She called that face The Abyss and when it appeared her grief was as sure as his oblivion.
He wrote and wrote and wrote. He filled the notepad, turned it over and wrote on the back of the pages. He wrote until the ball of the pen that his father had always carried in his top pocket ran dry and scratched the page before he replaced the cartridge. He wrote about the girls who Michelle had felt jealous toward and why he could understand that she had reason to. He strained his mind to identify the emotions that he’d so often felt and that she’d so often suffered as a result of but that he’d rarely been able to identify. He wrote until the cafe closed, on the ferry back to his mum’s house and when he woke up the next morning – the morning of what was to be his first day in the clinic – consumed by anxiety and the oppressive weight of sadness.
. . .
While many at the clinic felt they’d failed having ended up there, James was – all things considered – philosophical about it. Submission, he felt, was for once a decisive maneuver rather than just a surrender. The formalities of the admission included physical and psychological tests and a tour as if for a seven year old. Rooms were not fitted with locks and he was told that a nurse would enter unannounced every ten to thirty minutes -depending on his ‘status’ – twenty four hours a day – presumably to make sure he wasn’t hanging from the rafters.
While it was far from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there was a resigned air that hung over the clinic. Some patients were jovial and took it upon themselves to try to bring a smile to the faces of others in the corridors but most kept their heads down and remained inside except to smoke cigarettes with the Vietnam Vets – still suffering PTSD – in a small rotunda in the courtyard outside. Once or twice a day an alarm would sound throughout the complex. Unnerved patients would come to their doors and watch as nurses carrying defibrillators and first aid kits ran to the source of the alarm. James’ nurse, Gail was fifty something, had an tattoo of a rose that was dissolving into the flesh of her left forearm, a piercing New Zealand accent and a friendly, maternal disposition. She carried a small, silver fob watch on a pin over her heart which she used to measure his pulse and blood pressure during daily physicals.
It was a surreal environment. Many patients were heavily medicated and so the atmosphere was, not surprisingly, sedate. It took James a few days to reconcile that there were others there that were indeed more fucked up than he was and that just because he was in a mental clinic didn’t mean that he had to act out the stereotype of a mental patient. He kept to himself whenever possible. While he knew that isolating himself had been – in the past – a symptom of his depression, he didn’t feel that keeping company with any of the other loons would benefit him in any way whatsoever. Besides that, he wanted to continue to write, and did so in between appointments with his psychiatrist, group therapy sessions and meal times.
He noticed that his writing was becoming increasingly letter-like. That rather than simply diarising his thoughts, at the start of each new day he would commence a fresh page with the words “Dear Michelle” and while they weren’t love letters as such, there was undoubtedly longing between the lines. How could there not be? She was – apart from his own mother and sister – the only one who might understand or want to listen. He tried to be positive about his position but for some weeks to come, the tone of the endless letter would be mostly morose. As he had from the beginning, sitting by the cafe window at The Art Gallery of New South Wales, he wrote from where he was in that moment. He didn’t prophesize about the future nor look into the past. Instead, he dictated as best he could the contents of his spirit in it’s present state. In doing so, even his handwriting would reflect his mood. In one passage written from a park that – once his security level had been downgraded and he was allowed out for a few hours at a time – he gravitated toward for reasons unknown, his scrawl was barely even legible. Each line physically drooped as it went across the page as if it’s author had been too exhausted to lift the pen. He wrote while lying on his back, his eyes straining to make out the white square that sat upright on his sternum. He was too exhausted to sit up or even lie on his front, propped up on his elbows. He wrote without congugations which gave the sense that vultures were circling above him, waiting for the final breaths to leave his body.
As the letter became more and more directed toward Michelle however, James made the conscious effort to try to curb the morbid tone of his writing. Just as it had morphed from the form of a journal into a letter, the letter was slowly evolving into something far more profound than just a chronology of emotions. He was beginning to incorporate Michelle into his observations and how she was shaping them. Until now, although he’d begun to consciously write to Michelle, he hadn’t been doing so with a particular goal or outcome in mind. Although, until now he hadn’t even sent a letter, it was looking increasingly as if he soon would. He was feeling that her presence in his thoughts was starting to mould his recovery. She was his incentive and his motivation. She, or the idea of a them in fact, was fast becoming a measure of his own resurrection.
Everything that he was learning at the clinic – the thought processes, the self perpetuating patterns of worthlessness, the illogical reasoning behind the thoughts and actions of the clinically depressed – was, in it’s disturbing familiarity, somehow comforting. It made him feel that it wasn’t just him. It was just like all the fiction novels he’d read and related to as if these authors were transcribing the depths of his own soul. He wasn’t alone and if others had been able to identify these falsities of mind, so to could he begin to separate what was him and what was merely this Dysthemic depression that he’d been diagnosed with. If he was able to do that then he could assess where, with Michelle, he had blundered and whether these blunders were the result of he himself or this miscreant beast that had inhabited his being for the past few years. Was it this being that had driven a schism between he and his first true love, Louise, three years ago? Was it responsible for the many friends he’d neglected and lost and all the other aspects of his life that had suffered the same fate?
The more he fostered this theory, the more he reckoned that what had gone wrong with Michelle, which he’d always assumed had been something out of their control, was in fact nothing more than the result of a pest that, armed as he now was with knowledge, could be contained.
His letters were all of a sudden informed rather than searching, optimistic rather than desperate. They were hopeful and self assured. And it wasn’t only his letters that were evidence of this change in temperament. The thought of Michelle – of them, of the future – a life together – which had often conjured feelings of unease in James when he’d posed the question to himself, was no longer. He tested himself by imagining the moment they would reunite and reading the reaction of his heart. The thought no longer sent the cold shiver of trepidation through him that he’d forced himself to ignore at the outset of their numerous reunions. He wrote to her about this and although it was an abstract concept, he thought that it’d have been a perfectly conceivable concept for her. In writing, he was able to articulate it in a way that, had they been face to face, he’d never have managed.
His temporary life in the clinic continued but seemed just a venue for his quest to win back Michelle. He was still far from being ‘better’ and his days were interspersed with bouts of rifling anxiety, despondency and at the other end of the spectrum, the unfamiliar somnolence of antipsychotics. Most nights he’d sit with a couple of other cackling patients and watch The ABC in wait for the Seroquel to take effect. The first time he was given it from the nurses quarters in a tiny pill cup, he sat in a straight backed sofa chair for no more than twenty minutes before starting to feel woozy. Standing up to head off to his room, he found himself unable to keep his balance and toppling to the floor. He struggled back to his room feeling as though he’d drunk twelve schooners and slept soundly until it wore off six hours later when he woke in a familiar panic.
The letters were piling up. He hadn’t posted a single one. For one thing, Michelle was still overseas. She’d gone to India to recoup and since the distraught phone calls she’d made to him in her first two weeks away, he hadn’t heard much from her until the night before he’d found himself flushing himself under a garden tap down the side passage of his mum’s house. She’d written an uncharacteristically strident text message alluding to how she was moving on and to the friends she’d made in some seaside, backpacker town in southern India. He hadn’t pinpointed it at the time but it was no doubt a subconscious nail in the coffin and probably a catalyst for his decline. It had come while he was hosting a dinner party at home for a big group of friends and likely had something to do with why he ended up falling asleep in the arms of one guests with whom he’d had a holiday romance a year or two prior. They didn’t fuck but the comfort of holding and being held was probably enough to delay his complete demise until the next morning.
By this stage though, he had at least determined that he would send them and so he began breaking the letter up into daily installments. He wanted her to understand the whole thought process behind his campaign to claw her back, even his initial scribblings from the early days of the letter in which he hadn’t expressed let alone thought of the objective that he was now working towards. He wanted her to see the genesis and the evolution of where he’d come to in his thinking, warts and all. He stuffed one envelope per day and on each he drew, in the same black biro, an organic object – usually a piece of fruit or a vegetable – since she was, for one, a vegetarian (in circumstances where he wasn’t so intent on flattery he’d have avoided pandering to this aspect of her personality) and two, she enjoyed scribbling them in water-colours herself from time to time. He hadn’t drawn as regularly as this since his school days more than a decade ago so while the earlier drawings were clumsy and inelegant, as the days went on his chilies and pears became more refined and artful. He knew she’d love these drawings. In fact he almost felt a pang of guilt because he knew he was exploiting a weakness like a clued-in General would the vulnerable flank of an retreating infantry battalion.
Michelle was due home in the coming days. James had been in the clinic for over a week but hadn’t sent her any word. He felt both noble – because it wouldn’t spoil her time away knowing that he was in such a state – and roused by the anticipation of her pity.
The day before she was due home, James wrote in point form, a list of all the things that he wanted to do with her in the years to come. From taking her camping on the south coast with nothing but a swag and sleeping bag and teaching her to surf, to making fresh pasta at home to making love in a patch of winter sun on a grassy river bank. Like his little sketches on the envelopes, these were aimed right at the bulls eye of Michelle’s heart. He wracked his brain for every possible thing that he could dream of and that she had probably already dreamt of experiencing together.
It was a long race that he was running. He didn’t expect to win her back the day that she arrived home nor did he want to. He wanted to prove it to her. He wrote of visiting her sister in Melbourne and her father in Perth and how he would convince them, before he even convinced her that he was worthy of their flesh and blood. Carelessly though, the thought of failure, of rejection was something that he hadn’t even considered.
He hadn’t counted down days like this for as long as he could remember. As he’d been discussing with his psychiatrist over the past week, he was basing the success of his recovery entirely upon getting back with Michelle. Dr Varin was gently trying to dissuade him from this way of thinking. He’d seen it all before – a patient trying to treat his symptoms rather than the cause of his illness. Not only did James not have a contingency if she slammed the door in his face, but his realisation that Michelle’s recent indifference toward him was not the cause but only a fraction of the catalyst for his falling into this pit of gloom meant that even a recovery based on a perfect reconciliation with Michelle wouldn’t, in the long run, be a recovery at all but just an ephemeral high destined to collapse.
He continued his vigorous routine of doing everything that was possible to assist in returning to a properly functioning state. He ran to and from a nearby pool where he swam laps until he was breathless. He ate well and flushed his system with water. Physically, he was as fit as ever but again, he had to ask himself the question: Who was he actually doing this for?
He’d already posted a bundle of some 14 letters by the time she arrived home. He hoped that Michelle’s flatmates would collect them from the letterbox and knowing who they were likely to be from and even despite their apprehension toward the ever-returning lover, would have them giggling with joy and optimism for Michelle’s sake when they saw, among bills and junk mail, her discovery of the pile of hand written envelopes from the man she’d tried to tame for the past two years. He knew the likelihood of that occurring however, was slim.
He was sitting on the grass out the front of the clinic as he did in most of his idle time. He was still daunted by the thought of being out of contact with the world even in the most isolated of environments and, to complicate matters, without actually being in contact. When he walked the streets, if he noticed a deserted stretch of footpath, he’d cross the road to where there was more activity or turn around and find another route to wherever it was he was going. Similarly, in the front yard of the clinic, he felt he was a part of the outside world just by being able to the see passers by who – were he in the clinic courtyard – he’d be unaware of. He sat with a copy of The Power of Now and tried to maintain his focus on the quixotic and all-too-easy-to-relate-to passages. He’d shut down his life when he checked in to the clinic two weeks ago and so the sound of his phone ringing wasn’t entirely familiar. What was familiar were the four brightly coloured vignettes of Michelle that were attached to her number when it appeared on the screen, bordered in the black rebate and the bright white sprocket holes of the slide film on which the photos sat.
. . .
The days that followed were mentally chaotic for the both of them. While Michelle was happy to see James and pleased that he’d finally done something serious about his health she was also angry and frustrated that it had come only now, after all her urging, after they had fallen apart. She was also extremely cautious and deliberately distant. She was only too aware of how easily she could fall back into him, especially now being so vulnerable, so laden with the sensitivity that she loved him for.
James wasn’t sure if it was just the perspective from which he was viewing her but she walked tall and exuded a confidence that he hadn’t noticed in her before. She wore enormous, circular sunglasses like Jackie Onassis and spoke of the things in her life that he hadn’t been privy to of late in a way which – while outwardly he remained unfazed – gripped him inside in the way that conversations from which he felt excluded had always done.
On her third day home, Michelle – on her way to work – had driven to the clinic and called James as he ate a breakfast of watery porridge and prunes. She sounded bright and when she told him that she was out the front James left his half empty bowl spinning, cartoon-like on the table, ran up the flight of stairs, down the corridor past the nurses quarters, out the door past the reception area forgetting to sign out as it’d been drilled into him to do-so and on to the street where he saw Michelle slamming the heavy car door shut across the road and glancing up as she sensed his presence. They slowed up, stopped and simultaneously started toward each other in a sheepish swagger, heads down but maintaining eye contact and unable to suppress the smiles that enveloped their faces. They hugged – the first truly mutual embrace they’d had since Michelle’s return. They worked their way back to her car without letting go. He turned the two of them around so that he had his back to the side of the car. they pulled each other tight and grappled to gain a firmer grip. He felt himself harden against her and she pulled her waist into him tighter still. His blood was burning. He felt a wetness on his jeans as he pulled away for a split second before she thrust herself back on him, hungry, ravenous, for she new it was forbidden. They were both breathing short, deep breaths. James was shaking slightly all over. She brought her head out from the cradle of his collar and guided their opposing cheeks across each other until their noses met and their brows touched and ground together like warring buffalo. Her lips reached for his and they kissed forcefully, front on, breathing through squashing noses so as not to tilt heads and unhinge the frenzy of passion that they both wanted so desperately.
Minutes later she drove off and left him in a state of euphoria so tangible that he could barely recall the way he’d felt only minutes ago let alone two weeks ago when he was in such a state that qualified doctors put him in a loony bin!
For the rest of the day James floated on his cloud of euphoria. Had it not been for his unexpected rendezvous early that morning, the doctors and nurses at the clinic would most likely have treated it as a manic episode. Many of the questions asked upon his admission had been aimed at identifying Bi-Polar disorder and while he’d been told by psychiatrists that he wasn’t a sufferer, he had had a manic episode or two. He’d actually relished them. He would become ultra productive and efficient and his mind would race with activity and ideas. The problem of course was that, just like any party drug, there was an inevitable come-down that followed the high.
And so it was that afternoon when James fled the clinic and made out for the city to a place where he guessed Michelle might have left her car for the day. After canvassing a few streets he spotted her car, propped himself on the bonnet and tried to read a paperback. He followed the lines of his bookmarked page again and again, coming to the bottom each time and realising that nothing had gone in. After ten or twelve attempts he sensed a shadow approaching. He continued to scan the page for another five seconds for effect before slowly lifting his gaze. It was a different figure to the one who’d greeted him that morning. Instead of the sheepish swagger, she moved intently but with a distant poise that immediately unsettled him. His nerves were instantly set on edge and the delight that had played on his face seconds earlier was replaced by a look of horror which wouldn’t leave his face until the 25mg of Seroquel that a nurse had gave him later that night defeated his anguish and put him to rest.
With another dose during the night to get him through, James woke with the pre-dawn light. The abyss had returned. He stared blankly at the pluming above the door to his room and thought of prisoners hanging themselves with bedsheets in their cells. He’d been asked so many times if he’d thought about suicide and wondered if this constituted ‘thinking’. He didn’t really think he’d do it but he saw the temptation in the ‘cry for help’. He wondered how many set out crying for help but ended up dead, and how many were serious about it and ended up vegetables? And what would be worse?
What had brought him here, back to the edge of the cliff, was Michelle’s smugly delivered death-blow – that, after exorcising the pain of their separation in the first few weeks of her time away – meditating, practicing yoga, being massaged, cleansed from head to toe – she’d met a traveling Canadian who had swept her off her feet to a place far from the misery of their break-up and within five days of meeting, asked her to marry him. While she hadn’t seriously considered taking him up on his proposal, the thought of the prelude to it was more than enough to crush James.
It was perhaps the blow that he needed most. It galvanised what he new all along but was unable or unwilling to accept until now, that to seriously come through this whole struggle, he was going to have to separate the two issues and deal with them individually. What now seemed a very real possibility – that he might never her get Michelle back – made him realise that if he was ever going to live beyond her, he would have to reevaluate the objective that he’d been working toward since it had occurred to him that she might be his savior. It didn’t change the way that he ached for Michelle in the slightest, it simply meant that he had to take this even more slowly than he’d previously thought. That before he could truly give himself over to her he would have to first wright himself.
James didn’t exactly give up his fight though. While he did pull back, try to temper his expectations regarding Michelle and concentrate on what was really going to restore him to capacity mentally and not just in his heart.
His psychiatrist was satisfied that James was ready to head home from the clinic after having spent the past two weeks there. Only days later and somewhat nervously, he fled the country for four weeks in pursuit of R and R and more space and time without the close proximity to Michelle, who, with his new objective would only hinder his progress. He continued to write long, heartfelt letters to Michelle every day and the drawings that adorned their envelopes became even more accomplished. He was far from immune to thinking and worrying about her but he purposefully planned his days so that his mind was occupied with other endeavors. He surfed in icy, cold water, walked through fog and morning frosts. He spent hours sitting atop the stump of a hoary Redwood, drawing for himself and read books from cover to cover and sometime during his third week on the chilly west coast of America, he found himself, for no particular reason, to be happy.
Michelle collected her daily letters, read some and let the others pile up by her bedside in a facade of restraint. They had spoken once or twice by phone since he’d been away. It was difficult for James because he’d be left to dwell on the tone of conversations that Michelle was the ultimate arbiter of while she at least appeared to leave off unscathed and indifferent.
A week before James was to return home and just as he was on the cusp of turning a corner with the anxiety and general blueness that had continued to shadow his days, his phone rang on a stretch of two lane highway fenced in by paddocks of nondescript farmland in northern California. He pulled to the side of the road and answered the call from the blocked number with hope in his voice. Michelle answered in a forthright tone that implied business. She came straight to the point. If it was forever, she wanted him back. If it was anything less, he could go fuck himself. A close friend had suggested the ultimatum spontaneously during one of their many heart to hearts. Regardless of his decision, she would love him forever. He could take as long as he needed.
Some would say that if it’s love, it isn’t a decision, it just is. And that if it isn’t love then the decision is already made. For James, it was more complex. He was still wrestling two issues, both of which, depending on how he approached them, would shape at least his short term future and quite probably beyond. What his decision would mean for Michelle was no less fateful. He was still coming to terms with the fact that the two issues were exclusive of one and other but yet so entwined. Drawing a line in the sand however, was long overdue. James was embarrassed that it had had to come from someone other than he, but it did, however, result in yet another minor epiphany – that only he could have the ultimate say in the fate of their story. Her love for him – being all forgiving and almost unconditional – was without the discernment that was needed to make such a momentous choice. Her choice would always be for him. It had to be he who decided to make their love mutual, or not at all.
Two days later on the same giant tree stump that he’d spent so many hours watching the low sun swing across the deep green treetops to the south with the Garcia River trickling in the gully below, James dialed Michelle’s number. She answered – for the first time since he’d been away – in the same, hopeful tone that he had when she’d called last. He was was unsure where to begin. He would start, “I . . .” and become lost for words. Michelle was silent on the other end. He said her name to check that they hadn’t been cut off. Nothing. . . Then a whimper. He could only hope that for each of them there would be nothing as liberating as the truth.
~ The End ~