My Institutionals

(after Patricia Ferrell, The Paris Review, May 2001)

He leaves and she can't sleep: You need structure the M(ental)H(ealth)A(id) says. He takes her blood pressure. We used to call them The Aids, but then someone suggested that was distasteful, and now we call them MHAs. (No one really stopped calling them the Aids).

He leaves and she cries. He calls and she cries. She says I love you. She's eating pita with tofu fried in spray canola oil, rocket lettuce, balsamic vinegar, and hummus from a box. She takes a bite and cries. LA: he has to go.

Doctor Lyle. Do you remember Herr Doktor? Learning Greek and sneering at the women in AA. The woman who left: he made her leave (but we didn't like her anyway). In Community Meeting one day he told her that she was only proud of her sobriety. And so what? He told her to cut the feminist rhetoric.

Of course some of them you don't wonder. Ella, for example, with her arms scarred so badly, from top to bottom. Ella who had been a model, but "it got too hard to cover up the scars with makeup. They didn't want me any more." She modeled hats for a while.

He is gone and she's back in that place where being alone is a trick, a trap--they'll lock you up if you're not careful--don't feel so much, it doesn't mean so much.

She couldn't stop writing. She'd become--what's the word?--hyperbolic. They wrote it in her chart: Histrionic.

But of course, her father laughed, she's an actress!

Of course he's here, and (Lyle would say) that's why he's gone. Lyle would say it's the crux of her evil, the corn in her craw, the bee in her bonnet. Lyle would say: See, there, that's it! He's here and gone! His here is his gone and it's your sine qua non, your sui generis, your dammit but it's a cliché! you say--that line in this life (love, don't say love--he worried about your saying it too much. In my family we don't say it so much. Mine either, you say, but not for not trying).

Clichés, as Lyle said, are the sum of all evil, they make the world go round, the exceptions that prove the--little silver linings in those dark clouds of yours.

Mary: do you remember? Mary of the Upper East Side--fresh out of Austen Riggs (kicked out, she gloated, for snorting H in the bathroom). At Austen Riggs, she said, there are fireplaces in every room. Jane, also of the Upper East Side, stayed by her side--a pair, the two of them, one skinny one fat.

She's up all night in his bed. He's gone remember? The pastries are too big here and not enough. That old Catskills joke (remember Annie Hall?). It meant more later. She was 33 when Manhattan came out. And you are 29? Or 32? Though it may look like--Write it--disaster!

He lied about his age. He said it was just his way of being honest.

So what of it. As if your slate is clean. Remember Charlie, the former Art Director at Rolling Stone who burned all his art and jumped off the George Washington Bridge? Charlie in the coffeehouse on Avenue B, accusing you of being selfish: "You call yourself my friend?!" And when he dashes out, stranding you at your table alone, you can't help but enjoy the surfeit of dramatic intensity, the eyes all directed your way--this strange transport out of yourself, who had almost thought to herself, "I couldn't care less. So I am selfish? Very well then, I am selfish; I am large, I contain multitudes."

Who were you back then? And is there consolation in being honest about it now?

That was her all right. Remember Pat the Occupational Therapist (O.T. after her name: we wondered too) who made you wear the No Whining button? Pat with the secret crush on Alba (whom you too had a secret crush on). Pat and the other woman--what was her name?-- who taught you to knit, then scolded you for giving up. (This was before knitting became de rigueur for hipsters and women featured in Real Simple). Who told you you were really a good actress--really good, not just good. And so you let her teach you how to knit.

He is gone and, anyway, knitting was not your thing. That's all. It didn't mean more than that. She scolded you. It was never the same.

He's gone and she can't sleep. She's up all night but its not like her usual can't sleep: gotta do what the magazine said: take a bath, simmer down, eat a snack--no late meals!--buy the Zen alarm clock for $89.95, get up! (The bed is for sleep and sex only). Stop writing.

The word is hypergraphic.

He is gone and she wants to be up, truth be told. When he is here, she can't write. "There are ebbs and flows for all artists." The other woman nodded in agreement. "This is your ebb." Well maybe. But she knew the way the charts ran: her ebb was off.

He was gone and relax, visualize something peaceful. Pretend it's time to get up. Wiggle your toes, rub your stomach, miss your ex-boyfriends. On a bumper sticker: Visualize whirled peas.

He was gone, but that's really overemphasized. He was merely for the weekend. Sure she'd been left before--once, twice, but hey who's counting?--but he's not left now. He's gone, but not left. It's an important distinction.

Do you remember there were no Asian patients at all? Do black people get mental illness? There were standards, rules, qualifications: a veritable grid sheet of high-prognostic probability indicators.

You are attractive. It is an objective thing, Lyle said. I don't care what you think. Subjective-shmujective. It matters-objectively, he said.

How many shrinks does it take to screw in a light bulb? How many attractive mental patients? Have you fucked Thomas Pynchon? Did you dream of it? How many times? Are these recurring dreams? Come into my office.

If he was gone, you'd leave. What would you be? The same. You know now there is no magic place called The Mental Hospital. Not really. If he was really gone--and not just gone--you'd go on (I can't go on). I'll go on. (Your ex had it tattooed on his arm. Damn, you can't make it mantra man! We told him. We tried to tell him. It can't become gospel, man.)

Too bad, so sad, somewhere over the rainbow: now it's just a short-term ward. If you are relatively attractive and/or have celebrated friends/lovers they'll keep you for thirty days. Or until your HMO stops payment. Whichever comes first.

The one before this one (or were there more in between?) said, "I've eaten tapioca pudding on the fifth floor ward too," and just like that, he disappeared. Don't they all blend into each other eventually? You knew then, he was one to watch--but what the fuck you are 30something now and you are in it for the ride. So you said, what the fuck I'll get in. Yeah? he said, So tell me your war stories and I'll tell you mine. So tell me. Yeah, me too. Me too. Me too.

About the author:

Suzanne Scanlon's writing has appeared in The American Scholar, Bust, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Poets and Writers, elimae, Chicago Life, and many other publications. She lives in Chicago where she teaches in the English department of Columbia College.