Insanity is as insanity does.
If I’ve said or done anything to hurt you or offend you since we began this, I’m so sorry. I know it’s not easy for you to hide this from your family and to have me so far away; believe me when I say that I wish there was a way for me to be closer. But I love this school; I just can’t leave here, not for a man, even one like you.
As I said, I know this is as hard for you as it is for me, if not more so, but please don’t treat me like this, Peter. Don’t stop writing to me. Please, Peter- your letters are the only thing that make me feel good about my life- everything else has gone to hell. I’m failing two classes and it just seems like too much. Please, Peter, I need you; I need your help; I need you to love me the way I love you.
It’s not Peter Katz.
I know that. It can’t be. Why would it be? How could it be?
I look away from the man- Peter Katz’s doppelganger, I swear- and focus on watching for Sean. But I feel the man’s eyes trained on me with such intensity that they feel like lasers burning a hole in my back. There is no rationality strong enough to convince my imagination that they’re not.
I turn around and look back at him, or I would if he were still there. But he’s gone- he may have gone back into the theater, through the double-doors that are near where I am sitting and he was standing.
Or he may not have been there at all.
But there’s no reason to jump to that conclusion, I tell myself as I lead Sean back to our seats, any more than there is a reason to believe the man really was Peter Katz. He wore a coat with a high collar that was pulled up around his face. He was also partially in shadow. You must have had Peter Katz subconsciously on the brain, and that man just reminded you of him, so your eyes played a trick on you. It wasn’t a hallucination- normal people make mistakes like that all the time. It’s fine.
But what if it wasn’t an optical illusion? Well, that’s to be expected, too. I mean, you’ve been on the same dosage for a year- it might just be time for a new one. That happens all the time, too. It’s just new to you. You can just call Dr. Larney when you get home, leave a message, and she’ll see you as soon as possible and you’ll get it sorted out. Again, Beth: It’s fine.
A memory floats to my mind: the black car parked outside my house. At the time it didn’t occasion any response but momentary annoyance. I can’t see how it relates to this, except that now that my mind remembers it, it enhances my general feeling of “not-quite-paranoia-but-getting-there.”
It’s too late and I’m too tired to deal with this. I decide that if one more strange thing happens- or seems to happen- I’ll ask Kellan for advice and then probably call Dr. Larney. I would go to Larney sooner, but our health insurance carrier has some issues with her practice, so I try to minimize my visits so Mom doesn’t have to pay too much or get raised premiums or anything.
I’m able to lose myself in the second half of the show. All of Kellan’s colleagues are good, although the actress who plays Maureen is pitchy. But I might just think that because Kellan told me she tried out for the part, and originally had it, but had to bow out because between Sean and college, she couldn’t do the rehearsal schedule. She plays several smaller roles, including the voices of Mark’s mother and Alexi Darling, plus a homeless person in the ensemble.
After the show, Kellan’s mother gives Sean a small bouquet of yellow-orange roses she brought, so that Sean can give it to his mother, and we go backstage. We find Kellan arguing with a tall, lanky redheaded man with a small, trying-too-hard goatee. He played Mark during the show. “Hey guys,” she says when she sees us, still flushed and clearly pissed from her encounter with Ginger Goatee.
“No non-actors backstage,” says Ginger Goatee. He looks at me, and I can see him sizing me up, in my short heels, plus-sized ladies’ Macy’s dress, and pantyhose (because it’s cold). My ears start to get hot, and I decide to say something so he at least doesn’t think…well, I don’t know what I don’t want him to think. I mean, he already probably thinks I’m fat and a boring square. Which, as an English major, I probably am. I was always the type who would rather read a bunch of plays, poems, and novels written by dead guys than go out to some nightclub and get hammered.
“We’re just here to say congratulations,” I tell him. “Her son wanted to give her flowers.” And you’re being a dick about it, I try to imply. “Actually, you were all really good.” Yeah. Killing him with kindness.
He appears mollified. “Oh. Well…I suppose…just for a little while…” He collects himself. “And you are?”
“Annie Torrance,” I divulge, shaking his outstretched hand.
“Torrance?” His brow wrinkles. “That’s the same name as-“
“That crazy girl from the tabloids? Yeah,” I say quickly. “But we’re not related.”
He frowns thoughtfully. “Actually, I was going to say, ‘the same name as the man from that Peter Katz novel they made into a horror movie.’ The one that’s a good horror movie, I mean. It has Jack Nicholson in it.”
“Oh, right,” I agree, relief flooding me. “I like that movie. I love it, actually. Although the book is better.” I haven’t watched it in months. It’s been longer since I read the book. After I got the meds, I pretty much went cold turkey on all things Peter Katz-ian.
“Of course,” he says authoritatively. “The book is always better.”
I’m trying to think of an instance where he’s wrong, when Kellan says, “We’re gonna go, unless you need any help with the cleanup, Collin. It’s getting late, and Sean has to get to bed sometime before midnight.”
“Who was that?” I ask in the car. Sean has fallen asleep and is leaning on me. His weight keeps my left shoulder warm until the heat comes on. “The guy with the goatee.”
“Him? That’s Collin.” Kellan shakes her head at some driver who streaks past us with a sound of skidding tires. She’s resisting the urge to swear so that she won’t wake up Sean. “Collin Flannery.”
“Was he a co-director or something?” I ask, thinking how domineering he seemed, and how arrogant. Like he was the boss of the whole company.
“Him? Nah, although he might as well have been. That douche always thinks he’s in charge of everything. And he’s a know-it-all, too. And a libertarian.” Even though she’s sitting up front in the driver’s seat, and her back is to me, I can see her grimace in my mind’s eye. Politically, Kellan is what she calls a “utopian socialist,” and she can’t stand libertarianism. “They always talk about how socially progressive they are, until you ask them to pay to alleviate poverty or whatever,” she says. “Then they turn into Republicans.”
Since we’re stopped at a red light, she turns around to look me in the eye momentarily, before shifting her gaze to the bridge of my nose, a more comfortable target, since she says looking into people’s eyes is distracting and makes her nervous. “Annie, don’t get interested in Collin Flannery. He’s not the kind of guy you need in your life right now. You need a nice guy who will think you’re the greatest person ever, exactly the way you are. You need a guy who’ll build up your ego a little, not break it down. Collin is the type you always end up feeling like you have to impress. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s easy to be involved with.”
I nod, because she’s probably right. Anyway, I’m not interested in Collin Flannery. So it’s not a problem.
She drops me off, and I don’t realize until after she’s pulled away that I did want to talk to her about these weird things happening after all, even though I said I was going to wait.
Peter, did she find out?
Does your wife know about us? Is that why you haven’t written- you don’t want to give her any more evidence? I know custody battles can be ugly, but don’t you think she already has what she needs by now?
Or has she been intercepting my letters? Is that why you haven’t written- you thought I had stopped writing to you? You thought I forgot you? I understand this is hard on her- but how can that…woman do this to us? As a famous writer’s wife, she must have connections built up through the years- do you think it’s possible she contacted my college? Is that what all their issues with me are really about? Who else has she talked to?
Of course, maybe you never loved me. Maybe this was just an ego-boost for you- an impressionable young student admires your work, you seduce her, etc. Maybe you just don’t love me enough- enough to see this through.
Peter, we have to talk…
As usual in early November, the morning dawns cold and gray. I am mostly awake- lucid, at least- and brushing out my newly-blow-dried hair when I look down and my dresser-top looks totally different. That is, the same colors and objects as usual are present, but their positioning is…strange. It’s not that I have any specific positions for the things on my dresser. I don’t frankly possess that level of organization; I never did. It’s just that things have been lying in certain relative positions for so long that the eye memorizes the tableau, after glancing at it over and over again for weeks to months. So when there is a change, it registers, but you can’t say for sure that there has been one, or what exactly is different. You certainly don’t remember whether or not you did it yourself. This morning, I look down at the top of my dresser and there has been a change, and I don’t think I did it. The only things I moved recently on the dresser were my hairbrush, my stick of deodorant, and the pearl earrings my father gave me, which I sometimes wear to work and which I wore to the play last night. The rest of the odds and ends- pieces of jewelry, mostly costume; makeup; the spare thread and buttons they give you with some clothes, which I never throw out in case I need them someday, which I realize is probably a little irrational- have not been touched in weeks, since I always tended toward messiness, although not actual filth. And they haven’t been straightened or tidied in any way now- it’s more like they were rifled through, as if someone thought they might hold a vital clue of some kind.
Someone is going through my things. It’s a relief to finally think it at first, and then it’s terrifying. Because what that thought means is an adjustment to my dosage; blood work, the side effects as my body processes the new chemical levels, and of course, more weight gain, more fatigue.
I should call Dr. Larney. Since there’s no way I can get anything done with this level of anxiety- and, possibly, in the mental state I’m occupying- I call in to work and then hang up and plan to dial Larney’s office. Except I find myself dialing Kellan, instead.
“Please come over.” My voice is hoarse, close to breaking, and seems remote. “I need to talk to you. I need your help.” I need advice from someone who’s sane.
Then, I curl up on the couch in the fetal position and go back to sleep until Kellan rings the doorbell.
I am coming out to meet with you. You need to see me. We need to talk this over. I no longer know how you feel about me, but in a way I’m at peace with this, because I no longer know how to feel about you. The only thing I am certain of is that whatever is happening between us, I need and deserve to speak to you face-to-face about it.
I also can’t help but feel sorry for your wife. I understand that we can’t help what we feel, and I accept my share of the responsibility for this mess. But what we are doing- were doing- sneaking around and lying, poisoning your marriage further- is not right. Something has to change, Peter. Something has to give.
I’m coming to see you. Don’t try to stop me.
Kellan sits calmly and listens to me, which actually makes me feel even nuttier by contrast as I struggle to explain the weird things- okay, bizarre coincidences- that have been happening, while conveying the essential link of strangeness that connects them and that makes me so afraid.
Finally, I tell her I used to be Elizabeth Torrance, the English major who stalked the famous writer, Peter Katz. I finish and wait for her to make me call Larney.
Instead, she says, “Do you think it could be the press?”
“Well, if you’re the Beth Torrance from the tabloids, don’t you think it’s possible they found you again? That they learned about the name change and tracked you down? Those excuses-for-reporters are always doing extreme stuff to get their stories.”
“But…you believe me?”
“Yes,” she affirms, “I do, and here’s why. First of all, I’m taking an abnormal psych class this year and your behavior doesn’t fit with a psychotic episode. You told me everything- I think it was everything; was it? Yes?- you told me everything right away. You also assumed that you were delusional, which is what a sane person would do. People who actually are delusional are usually convinced that they’re the only sane ones. Besides, there are no gaps in logic. There’s nothing that I hear it and just think, ‘no, that doesn’t indicate what she thinks it indicates’- your reasoning process seems sound. That’s unusual, too.”
“But given, you know, my diagnosis and everything-“
“Yeah, I know, and we should call your psychiatrist at some point and get things checked out. But a car parked in front of your house, for instance, that’s weird. There’s not really a logical explanation for that, especially if it wasn’t familiar. Did you get a look at the driver?”
“No, it was dark inside and the windows were slightly tinted. I think it might have been a man.” This makes me think of something. “So what about at the theater? You think Peter Katz was really there in the hallway?”
“Of course not,” she replies. “But on that, your conclusion- I mean, your non-insanity conclusion- is probably right. You had him on the brain more or less constantly for a little under a year. This guy- who may have been the tabloid reporter- must have had some characteristic that reminded you unconsciously of Peter Katz, and between that and the bad view you had of his face, your eyes played a trick on you. That sort of stuff happens to neurotypicals- to everyone- every day. It has nothing to do with hallucination.”
Now that I’m calmer, I’m starting to realize she’s right. Besides, I haven’t had any other symptoms of a relapse- at work, the tasks I complete are of their usual quality, and in fact I’ve probably improved since I started there. Ditto for my schoolwork. No one, not my supervisor or any of my professors, has complained about my performance, and I haven’t received a grade lower than a C+ (because I forgot there would be a test in that course and didn’t study- I can still remember how scary that day was) since I transferred to River Valley. Aside from these incidents, my life is stable.
But isn’t that how it started last time? Strange things happened, or seemed to me to be happening. I decide I’m not ready to rule out the possibility of relapse, although I’m definitely going to wait to get my dosage adjusted, if only out of procrastination.
Kellan, meanwhile, is gazing at me. “You know, now that I come to think about it, Annie- or Beth, if you’d prefer- plenty of sane people would insist that they weren’t delusional in a situation like this. Because people are used to trusting their perceptions. Trusting their own minds.”
“I guess so.”
“So that makes me kind of curious as to why your first thought, as you yourself told me, was that you needed your dosage adjusted.”
“Because of my diagnosis-“
“And that’s another thing I’m wondering about. See, most people who have…what you have…”
The word needs to be said, so I do. “Schizophrenia.”
She flushes at her momentary lack of guts. “Schizophrenia, yeah. Lots of people who have it have this period where they convince themselves they don’t need the meds anymore. Because of the meds and their side effects…it’s just too hard to stay on them. So they go off and have a relapse, and with luck, that convinces them that they have to stay on them. Because deep down inside, nobody really believes they have a problem. That’s not a mental illness thing, it’s a human nature thing.” She pauses. “Or, I guess, almost nobody.”
There’s a cold feeling in my chest; I’m anticipating the kind of thing she’s about to say. “What are you saying, Kellan?”
She doesn’t disappoint me. “Annie, do you feel self-confident?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t you try to go back to Thorne?”
“They wouldn’t have let-“
“How do you know? You didn’t even try-“
“BECAUSE I COULDN’T DO IT!” The words explode out of me. I don’t know how long it’s been since I yelled at anyone. “Don’t you get it? I can’t go to Thorne! I can’t cope with it. Not anymore.”
“Bullshit. You could cope. Yeah, I know it would be hard. I know it would be the hardest thing you ever had to do. I know it would drain you. And I’m not saying you’d graduate at the top of your class or that you’d have the energy for anything except literally eating, sleeping, and doing schoolwork. But you could do it, Annie. You could do it just like you could have a better job and you could be a writer or a teacher like you wanted to be originally. You could have a family. Hell, you could drive.”
“You don’t have it, you don’t know-“
“No, but I know about losing faith in yourself. In your own mind. I mean, not to make this about me, but I had social therapy from the time I was five. Think about that- all these adults separating you from the other kids, telling you that everything from the way you interpret people’s facial expressions to where your eyes look when you’re talking to someone is wrong. That if you just do what they say, you’ll have friends and no one will pick on you anymore for being weird. What do you think that does to a kid’s self-esteem? That’s why I don’t put Sean on anything. He needs to know that he’s okay the way he is, that he doesn’t need drugs to make him somebody worth respecting, worth loving.
“Now, when you had that episode last year, I think it made you doubt yourself. People like you and me, our minds are what we rely on. We pride ourselves on being smart, and we like to think and use our minds. But when you had that episode, you saw it as your mind letting you down. And even though you know it should be okay now, because of the meds, you can’t convince yourself. That’s why even though it makes an equally rational explanation that some paparazzi guy found out where you are and is trying to get a story, your instinct is to blame yourself. Your own mind. Annie, you’re not just tired and you’re not just sick. You’re insecure. And that has nothing to do with mental illness.”
“So what should I do?” I snap. “Just stop taking my ‘drugs’ and ignore the fact that I have a problem-“
“No, Annie, because you do have a problem. And you do need the meds. But…somehow…” She shakes her head sadly. “Somehow, you’ve got to start having some kind of faith in your own mind. You’ve got to start trusting that you can do things again, Annie. Because the more you try to do, the more you’ll find that you can do. You can’t do everything, but I know you- you can do a hell of a lot more than you’re trying to do now.”
And there is nothing I can think of to say, in the end, except, “Get out.”
So she does.
The phone is ringing.
I peer at the clock radio. It’s about midnight. I have a hard time staying up past eleven-thirty or so these days, although I push myself so that I can watch “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” I was in the middle of a dream, which is interesting enough on its own. I hardly ever dream. Well, I guess I must sometime, but I almost never remember it. This time, a few images stay with me, but it’s too hard to retain them, and they leak out of my head like water cupped in my hand. It was a good dream, though. I remember that.
“Hello?” I try not to snarl. I expect it to be Kellan, calling to apologize or try to patch things up. She doesn’t like it when people she likes stay angry at her. I guess I’m not, really.
“Hello?” I strain to hear the caller- they might be talking very quietly- and hear breathing. Like a prank call. Or like the calls from all those horror stories and urban legends.
My room seems to get darker, and suddenly I feel hot, sweaty, and wide awake. I really wish I hadn’t remembered about all those urban legends.
“I’m hanging up now,” I announce, trying to keep the unease out of my voice. Again, there is no answer.
I keep my word, and I tell myself I should write this down somewhere, as more “evidence” of the Beth Torrance Theory of Paranoia That Doesn’t Exist, but my sleepiness returns remarkably quickly, and before I remember what I was going to do, I am falling back into a dream.
“Did you call me last night?” I ask Kellan the next day.
“No. I thought about it, but I decided you’d be asleep and I could just apologize tomorrow. Or, rather, today. I am sorry, Annie. I didn’t mean to upset you. I was trying to give tough love, but I should know by now that that almost never works. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“That’s okay,” I reassure her. “But someone called me last night. About two.”
“What’d they say?”
“Nothing. I just heard them breathing. It was that heavy, prank-call breathing.”
“Well, then, it probably was a prank caller. Or, going back to an earlier theory, it could be that someone figured out your secret identity-“
“Kellan, I’m a reformed stalker, not Wonderwoman.”
“Catwoman would be a better metaphor. Wonderwoman came from this island of Amazons, and she didn’t really have much of a secret identity.”
“Kellan, could you not be an Aspergian nerd for a second?”
“Hey, autism jokes are only okay when I tell them. Or Sean, when he learns to tell jokes better. It’s like with black people and saying the N-word.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“It’s true. But anyway, someone could have figured out who you are, and they might just be messing with you. You should try to get some evidence and then talk to the police. Or call the police now.”
“I can’t. They’d just think I was off my meds or something.”
“So you’d give them proof that you weren’t.”
“I just don’t like getting them involved in my life. Especially after that time I told you about, when I forgot my meds and they saw me when I was all hysterical.”
“Annie, everybody needs help sometimes. And everybody loses it sometimes. You don’t have to keep up some façade that you’re totally put together all the time just so people will think you’re normal.” She sees me close up at the insight, and says instead: “So, guess who might be calling you pretty soon?”
“Collin Flannery. You know, that guy from my play with the stupid goatee, who I was having the fight with-“
“I remember.” The thought of talking to Collin again makes my stomach turn over.
“Yeah, he called me and asked if you were coming to any of the other shows, and I said probably not, because you probably aren’t, at least that’s what you told me, so he asked if I had your number-“
“So you gave it to him?”
“Yeah, I knew it would be a little weird, and it was before I knew you were getting weird phone calls, but…I thought it might be good, Annie.”
“You said Collin Flannery wasn’t good for me.”
“Yeah, but now that I’ve thought about it, I sort of want you to come out of your shell a little.”
“That’s not for you to decide! I know you’re going to be a psych major, Kellan, but you’re not a therapist yet. And you’re definitely not my therapist.”
“I know…I’m sorry…look, do what you want. If he asks you out, don’t go if you don’t want to. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you first. But don’t say no to this just to spite me.”
I sigh. “I won’t.” The truth is, I want Collin Flannery to call. I want this with a ferocity that scares me. I recognize the feelings swirling in my gut and puffing up my chest.
I never really had a steady boyfriend. I didn’t find anyone I felt that way about.
Until Peter Katz.
I tried to act on these feelings once before. It didn’t work. Ha; “didn’t work” is probably the biggest understatement of the year. But I tried, and even aside from the damage I did, when things fell apart- or, I guess, when I realized that they had never come together to begin with- it hurt.
Can I do that again?
(Note: So I am once again worried about length, and am finishing the story in a third part. It is building to a climax, so this will be the last time I do this. Please bear with me.)