"Some people never go crazy; what truly horrible lives they must live." -Charles Bukowski
He calls me the next night.
I pick up the phone expecting another prank call, because I’ve gotten another since I talked to Kellan. This time I thought I heard the TV or the radio or something very low in the background. I remember wondering at the time, to distract myself from the fear and growing paranoia, what show or program was on. I remember vaguely wanting it to be “A Prairie Home Companion,” if it was the radio, for no logical reason. I just like that program. Why I want a possible stalker to like it too is beyond me. Again, I think I am trying to distract myself.
“Okay, seriously-“ I begin.
“What?” asks an unfamiliar voice.
“What?” For a moment, I can’t figure out what the hell is going on, and then it hits me and I go out on a small limb. “Collin Flannery?”
“Yes,” he says quickly. “Are you expecting a call?”
“Oh, no. I’ve, um, been getting these prank calls and I thought you were one of those.” My throat is suddenly dry, nearly closing up. “What’s up?”
“I was wondering if you would come to closing night of the play,” he says, quickly; I almost don’t get it. “Kellan Rosenthal says you’re busy, and I’m sure you are, but I was hoping to get you to reconsider.” He pauses. “Getting you a ticket wouldn’t be…I mean…I’ll get you a ticket.”
“That sounds fun,” my mouth replies, forgetting the Eternal Exhaustion issue. “Yeah, I’ll be there.” A second after I say it, I’m kicking myself. I should have at least said something about checking my calendar or something like that.
“Great. It’s just that we like as many people from the community to show up as possible. That’s why it’s ‘community’ theater, after all.”
“Oh, right.” When he first called, it felt like someone was blowing a bubble in my chest cavity. Now, the bubble is deflating, and the space where it was has been filled in with something cold and leaden. But it makes sense. We only talked for about five seconds, I wasn’t charming even by my standards, and I’m just not the kind of person who attracts people at first sight. “Well, I’ll see you there, then-“
“Hang on,” he interrupts.
I wait while he pauses again, this time for so long that I actually wonder if he somehow managed to hang up quietly without the dial tone sounding. At last, he says, “After the show…do you want to have dinner?”
This could be a problem. Aside from the fact that I don’t stay up late, I usually have to eat pretty regular meals because of my meds. If you skip meals while you’re taking them, it can have bad side effects, although this has not happened to me because I haven’t tried it. But I could eat something small, like a yogurt cup… “Okay,” I tell him. “Sounds…nice.” I am pushing myself to say something interesting, which of course means that, for once, my mind is totally free of sarcasm or wit of any kind.
“Great,” he says enthusiastically. “Well…I should get back to rehearsing. See you then…oh, shall I pick you up? Where do you live?”
“That’s okay, I’ll catch a ride with Kellan,”I tell him. Maybe that’s weird of me, but I think I’ll only be able to handle this if I do it one step at a time.
Still, I am filled with a cautious euphoria after I hang up, which lasts through my exercise period and my shower, and only really dissipates when I look out my window and realize the black car is back in front of my house.
I’ve always loved off-the-shoulder clothes, and that enjoyment has intensified now that I’ve gained weight. Off the shoulder things make you feel sexy without showing much flab. Besides, I’ve always loved the sensation of my hair and, sometimes, of the long dangle earrings I like, brushing my bare shoulders. For closing night of the play, I wear my purple off-the-shoulder dress. I like purple, and I don’t wear it enough.
I have to confess I don’t register much of the show. The only part that gets to me is the song “Without You” and the subsequent part where Angel is dead. It makes me think of Peter Katz, because as pathetic as it is, the only positive thing about the whole ugly mess that was last year was him- or, in retrospect, my delusions of him. My life unraveled slowly but inexorably at college, and the only thing that kept me going was his letters.
I know now that they were perfunctory; he was responding out of courtesy and good publicity instincts to a devoted fan. I know he never even came close to loving me. We weren’t even friends. And because of this, when it was finally all over, I know that in reality, I lost nothing, because what I thought I lost was only a delusion. I wasn’t even rejected in the true sense of the word, nor was I dumped or broken up with. There was no relationship to break up. I was infatuated with the Peter Katz from my imagination, so in reality there was no one to dump or reject me.
I know this is the truth, and every day I am afraid that I will forget that it is. But sometimes there is a realization that I try to ignore, because it would complicate everything and I am afraid it would somehow, in spite of my meds and therapy, lead me back to where I was last year. But at times like this, watching a man mourn the person he loved, and watching people mourning their friend, at least on the stage, I can’t ignore it anymore.
Up on the stage, the people are actors. They are saying lines and singing prewritten songs that they have been saying and singing for a week, plus rehearsals. There never was any one, real person called Angel Dumott Schunard, although the character may be a composite. It is not real.
But the first time I ever heard the Rent soundtrack, and I read the little synopsis card that came with the CD set, I was touched by the music. The first time I saw it performed, I cried. And I never thought once that it was a true story, although parts of it, like the AIDS epidemic and rent strikes, were true for some people.
But I still cried. I still cry a little every time I see it or listen to it. When I hear it, I feel acute sorrow, tenderness, sympathy, anger, and eventually, peace and even hope. The play is not real, the story is not real, Angel is not real. But I feel these real things.
The realization I can’t always ignore is that I loved Peter Katz. I didn’t really know him, and he never loved me back, but I did feel love toward him. They say you can’t love someone without knowing him, but I think you can love the little bit that you do know, and that is what I did. The rest was illusion, but my feelings for him were real.
I heard he wrote a novel about me. He didn’t use my name. It was a thriller about a writer who is held hostage by a crazy woman who is his fan. She tortures him until he agrees to write a novel just for her.
I would never torture Peter Katz. I never meant to hurt him. I would never hurt him, not even now, after that novel and all the interviews and tabloid articles. I would love it if he wrote a novel just for me. But I would never make him do it. I don’t think I could.
I look up at Collin, who as Mark is singing about how his friend Roger is hiding from his feelings, denying the love that he feels. I think that Kellan is right and I am afraid, because if I were not afraid I could admit to myself the complexity of my reality, without the fear that it will pull me under if I acknowledge it.
But it is hard not to be afraid, and not just because of the schizophrenia. Because to love someone is one of the most powerful emotions it is possible to have, especially when the love is unrequited. It is frightening, and exhilarating, to bare your soul to someone in the desperate hope that they will see something in you that they like. To have the desperate longing for them to love you, and to know that there is no other reaction from them that can satisfy you. To be afraid of what your life will become if they don’t. To want so badly to share yourself and the reality of your daily existence with someone that in the end, you lose even your fear of humiliation; all you want is for them to know you, to approve of you, to feel the same way about you as you do about them.
I don’t blame the woman in Peter Katz’s book, and not only because I think she is meant to be me. When you have felt the way I did, how can you not be desperate enough to capture someone? To do whatever you feel would give you even the barest chance? Men like Peter Katz mock those of us who have felt this, because they are so used to being on the receiving end that they can’t even comprehend how it is. To read a line of type and suddenly find the dawning notion that this person, who you have never met and know almost nothing about, has the ability to understand you, which is what you are looking for. Which is all you have ever wanted.
I look back at Collin onstage and I can’t figure out why he asked me here. Does he like me (what a teenager I feel like again, asking myself this question)? If so…why? What does he see in me? Can’t he see that I am damaged, that I am jilted, that I am afraid of my own thoughts? Is he doing this so that he can hurt me later? Is he playing with me?
I want to leave. I nearly do. Only the memory of the way Kellan squeezed my shoulder when she drove me here, the feeling of warm pressure, steadying me, anchoring me to my course, keeps me in my seat now.
I still feel nervous when we head to the restaurant, but I am no longer ready to bolt. Right away, I start feeling inexplicably good about dinner. It has a lot to do with the restaurant. It’s one of those places that sells a weird selection of food- mostly foreign, with some vegan and organic stuff. The walls are plain, unpainted brick, and the lighting is low. There are candles on the tables, the smell of red wine, and the low hum of intelligent conversation. The furniture is mismatched.
When I was going away to college, I imagined intellectual, soft-spoken, passionate college guys taking me to places like this. I breathe in the warm, stuffy air of it, feeling beautiful and mysterious and like a very smart person, as Collin pulls my chair out for me.
The feeling deflates inside me as the waitress comes over and asks us what we want to drink. “A bottle of-“ Collin begins, and my mouth knows before my head does that I have to stop him.
“Um, thanks, but I’ll just have some hot tea,” I tell her. “It’s cold out there.”
“You don’t drink?” he asks.
“Um, no.” My meds shouldn’t be combined with alcohol. “I mean, I don’t mind if you do. I’ve just never been much of a drinker.” I silently pray that this will be seen as me being mysterious or feisty, instead of prudish and weird, the way I feel now that I said it.
He shrugs, not seeming to be offended. “Okay. That’s fine.” He leans in slightly. “Anyway, Annemarie, I asked you here because I wanted to apologize for the display you saw the night you came backstage. Kellan sometimes has an erratic rehearsal schedule because of her son, and she seems to take issue with my politics. We clash.”
“She has some strong opinions,” I admit, feeling disloyal even though it’s true. When I first met Kellan, I was pretty offended by her stance on psychiatric medication, which at the time I found 'Tom Cruise'-ian. Sometimes, even though I know she agrees that mine is necessary, I have a hard time not taking it personally. “But she’s right about a lot of things, too.”
“I…know a girl who had to go on welfare for a while after she had this…nervous breakdown. Until she could get herself together enough to find a job. She couldn’t do anything for, like, five months. She kept having problems with her meds.” The waitress brings our drinks- red wine for him, glittering like a giant garnet in the cup, and spicy-smelling Turkish tea for me, in a smallish espresso cup. “I’m glad the government had something there for her. And frankly, it only barely helped her out. She still had to borrow money from her mom.” I stir my tea. “She had all these student loans.”
“Maybe she shouldn’t have borrowed the money.”
“She couldn’t afford her college otherwise.”
“She couldn’t not have gone to that college. She visited once and loved it. And she earned it. Besides, she made sure she read all the fine print on the loan agreement and didn’t get one of those crappy interest rates.” I glance up at him from stirring my tea. “Still,” I add, trying to preserve civility, “It must be nice not to have debt. Is it?” I try to laugh, to make it a light question.
He looks down momentarily. “I have debt.”
“Oh. Um…well, how come?”
“A loan. For acting school. Kind of a big one. But I’m going to pay it back…soon.”
“Oh.” I bite back a sarcastic response, because this was supposed to be a date, and because it’s superfluous at this point. We both know what’s floating in the air, unsaid: you’ve got debt from a student loan, and you don’t support your tax dollars going to help someone else who’s in the same situation- or worse? I don’t want his pity, but I don’t want his judgment, either. I mean, he must at least suspect by this point that we’re talking about me here, not “my friend.”
“So,” I say, making one final stab at pleasant conversation before I start contemplating how to end this as politely as possible. “How do you know this restaurant?”
Things go remarkably smoothly after this. I learn that this is one of Collin’s favorite restaurants (it may become one of mine, too; at least we won’t disagree about where to go on any future dates that might happen), that he found it when he first moved here from a Troy suburb across the bridge, and that he was raised upper-middle class and Catholic and is now an atheist living in a studio apartment with several cockroaches. He got into theater in high school through his public speaking class; he started doing the school play for extra credit and realized he preferred Shakespeare to Machiavelli and Kissinger. His original plan had been to major in political science and run for office; by the time he was ready to go to college, he had decided to be a theater major instead. His favorite book is V for Vendetta.
Collin learns that I am an English major and would-be writer, who toils by day as a receptionist at a place I sometimes want to set on fire (after first making sure that the building is totally empty). He learns that I wrote a novel once, although it’s pretty bad (what I didn’t say is that since the last quarter of it was completed during my “episode” last year, the last five chapters or so are literally gibberish). He learns that I used to feel strange, being the only girl that I knew of at my college (Thorne, but I don’t specify this to him because I don’t want to try to explain why I transferred) who didn’t actually care whether or not she got married as long as I got to travel to Europe and Asia, and to write or teach for a living. He learns that I’ve lately become more interested in psychology, although naturally he doesn’t know the real reason why. He does learn that my favorite book is Jane Eyre.
I learn that he was in love once, but she dumped him and since then, there just hasn’t been anyone else he’s felt that way about. He learns that I’ve been in love once, too, but it was unrequited, and since then, I’ve been hesitant even to date.
He drives me home. His car is an old, about-to-die piece of crap. I vaguely like it. As we come to my house, he observes, “You know, there’s a car parked in front of your driveway.”
It’s the black car again. I order myself to remember to get the license plate number and report it. This is getting ridiculous, and, to me, slightly scary. “Um, yeah. It’s just some…random person.”
He gazes at me. “You know, Annie, this may sound a little odd, but…I feel like there’s something mysterious about you.” He grins.
“Thanks, I guess.” I start to get out of the car. I don’t know how the hell you’re supposed to respond to a statement like that.
“Hey,” he adds. “Would you want to do this again sometime?”
I have no idea whether or not I like him enough to endure this level of stress again. Luckily, I realize, I am supposed to be “mysterious.” “I’ll think about it,” I reply as coyly as I can, which is not very. “Thanks for the evening.”
I walk up to my door as briskly as I can without actually running, since, at least on my end, this conversation can only become more awkward.
Collin definitely excites me, and it occurs to me for the first time- as you can imagine, I haven’t been thinking about sex much lately- that I might want to sleep with him at some point. He’s smart, and interesting, and he seems to like me. For now, those are the main qualities I’m looking for; I’m not exactly searching for potential husbands, at least not yet.
I’m not sure yet how much I like him. He makes me nervous, but then so do a lot of people. When I’m thinking about him it’s hard to think of anything else, without my mind coming back to him. Aside from the times when we disagreed or I was worried he was going to be somehow nasty to me, being with him made me happy.
Yet I do not feel blinded by my attraction to him- I can see his faults. He is smart, but not as smart as he believes he is. I think he also has trouble seeing other people’s points of view. Sometimes I have a hard time with this, too, but it’s not impossible. Generally, what you have to do is understand what your flaws are. Then, you just find the part of you that is capable or feels as if it could in some situation be capable of making whatever mistake the other person made. Usually, if you look hard enough and are honest with yourself, you will find that that part of you is there. Once you see it, you will still judge other people, at first, but you will at least feel worse about it. Because you won’t be able to tell yourself anymore that you would never have done what they did. You will realize that, had you been as poor as they were, as naïve as they were, as sick as they were, or as stupid, or ignorant, or damaged…then you might- in fact, you would- have done the same. Sometimes I want to tell people this about the schizophrenia. You think it’s so easy to recognize that the delusions, like I had, don’t make any logical sense, just as you might think that a person who hears voices or sees things (which never really happened to me; they say it doesn’t always) might eventually get suspicious because no one else seems to be picking these things up but them. But there is no logic in dreams, and a delusion is like living in a dream. In a world without reason, how would you react?
But thankfully this thought does not start me brooding tonight, because the memory of Collin chases it away. Even if this doesn’t go beyond one or two dates, it is still a milestone for me. I went on my first date in over a year. Nothing worse than a disagreement happened. And in my head there is now the thought that if I did this once, I can do it again. And again, and again, and again, until the date becomes a relationship. I can do this.
I could start trying to get my driver’s license back again, too. I could apply for that state job. I could graduate from River Valley and transfer to a four-year school. I could travel somewhere. Someday I could have or adopt a baby, raise her with a man like Collin or even by myself like Kellan does. I know that doing all this will make me tired. I am tired even now as I contemplate it. But I always work through the tiredness, so I will just keep doing that, because now there is no more doubt in my mind that I can. I don’t feel hyper or manic like I did at the start of my episode- there is only a serenity that I think may be the absence of fear.
I am tired and it is late, but I sink down on the couch to process things. I want to keep my dress and jewelry on a little longer. I feel beautiful in them, like a girl home from the prom.
Someone is watching me.
Now I am wide awake. I sit up straight and listen for a minute, before I realize how silly that is. No one is here but me. The house, predictably, is silent.
But I can’t fully convince myself. That really unnerves me. Afraid to make noise- because, against all logic, I am afraid that someone might hear me- I tiptoe to the phone and dial Dr. Larney. No one answers; it’s her home number, but she may be out or asleep. I leave a message asking her to call me as soon as she can, that I need to talk to her right away. Then I dial Kellan.
She’s not there either. “Hi, it’s Annie,” I tell her machine. “So I was out with Collin, it went okay, but then I got home and suddenly I just started feeling really-“
A scream claws its way out of me as something grabs my shoulder. My stubborn intellect is still insisting that this can’t be real, even as a hard object that feels extremely, solidly real comes down on my head, bringing pain and then nothingness for a long time.
So far I’m about a third of the way through the draft you sent me; it’s impressive. Actually, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Your style is a little unpolished, but I can feel the passion behind your words. This is why I love young writers.
Feel free to send me anything else you’re working on; I’d love to collaborate sometime. I’m not coming east anytime soon, but during one of your vacations, you could come out west; we could even meet halfway. I sense this could be the start of a great partnership, Beth, even a great friendship. It’s always good for older writers to know the next generation of talent- it keeps us relevant, and it always keeps me feeling like the cranky old man I feel myself turning into.
I am going to ask a favor, though, Beth: I’ve enclosed the address I reserve for correspondence from my publisher and agent. If you could start using that, instead of my home address, that would be great. I don’t mind, but my wife seems to think your letters are taking up room in the mailbox or something. She can be silly that way; she doesn’t understand the way writers collaborate.
But keep writing, Beth, and keep writing to me. You’ve got a lot of potential, and it can really help when you’re starting out to have a friend who really knows the business.
For a minute, I don’t recognize him. He’s familiar, but it’s like deja-vu; I don’t know from where.
Then I think, oh, it’s the man from the theater lobby.
And then I realize I am looking at Peter Katz.
Other realizations trickle in slowly after that. My arms are tied behind me with some type of cloth cord, and I am sitting up in a chair in my kitchen. The shades are pulled down, and the light is dim.
He is wearing a long, water-repellent jacket, with boots and gloves.
He has a gun in his hand. It’s pointed at me.
My head hurts; I probably have a concussion or something. The good news is, says my inner “ironic voice,” that by the looks of him I won’t have one for much longer. “What are you doing?” asks my mouth, clumsily, even though I guess it’s probably pretty obvious. Even his choice of room was well-planned; in the kitchen, he can just scrub down the linoleum, instead of worrying about bits of gore getting caught in the carpet for the forensics people to find. If there are forensics people. I’m not sure there will be.
“Peter,” my mouth is rasping. I take control of it at last, and say instead, “Mr. Katz, why are you doing this?”
He stares at me as if it’s obvious. Actually, that’s the only part of this that isn’t, not to me anyway. “You thought I wouldn’t find you, didn’t you? You thought you could just fuck up my life and I’d just let you get away with it?” His voice is becoming progressively louder. “You little psycho whore! You know what I was going to do for you? I was going to make you the next Stephenie Meyer! And you went and blew it! What did you expect, that we were going to have a goddamn June wedding? That you were any different from any of those other bimbos just because you could string a sentence together?”
“What?” My headache is way worse now. I wish he’d stop yelling. It would be nice not to die with a headache.
“Oh yeah, now you’re the one with the amnesia? Well, let me lay it out for you, psycho: you drove from your stuck-up East Coast dyke college out to my goddamn house! You told my wife I was in love with you- you told the press- you told the cops- you told everyone! Do you know she left me? Do you know how many people stopped reading the shitty dime-store novels I churn out for fat Midwestern Baptist housewives and frigid, stupid little virgins like you? And then you get to tell everybody, ‘oh, it’s okay because I hear voices,’ and just disappear, and I have to take it?”
Something occurs to me. “Wait- your wife thought we were having an affair?”
“Sure! She may be a bitch, but I never called her stupid!”
“But there was only my word, and I was crazy.” I knit my brows. “But I’m sorry…if I’d known, I would have told her what was going on.”
“Oh, I think you did plenty of talking as it was.” He shakes his head, and then stares at me. “Wait- what do you mean, ‘what was going on’?”
“That I just thought we were in love, but it was just a delusion…” I look up. “Wait. Are you telling me we really did- that you really did feel-“
Slowly, he smiles and shakes his head. “Bethie, if God is good, you are going to die tonight without ever knowing the answer to that question. It’s better than anything I could have dreamed up for you.”
It’s at that point that my hands are fully free of the cord. He’s not exactly a Boy Scout when it comes to knots, apparently.
I launch myself at him, and hear the gun go off.
My rationale is thus: if I do nothing, he is going to kill me. The odds that anyone will come to help me seem slim. But if I try to get the gun, there is a chance that I might not die, so that’s the thing I decide to do.
I am already on top of him when I process that the gun has just fired. I am wrestling with Peter Katz for the gun, and he is not letting go of it, so I try to bite his hand. It sounds gross and it is, but it works; his hand lets the gun go as he pulls it away, and I scramble up holding it.
I then register that he tried to shoot me. Since I’m not in pain and I don’t feel like I’m dying, I assume he missed and put the matter to rest, pointing the gun at him.
“You don’t know how to fire that,” he snarls. “Even if you did, you wouldn’t.”
“I’m going to call the police now,” I inform him. “If you move from that spot, I’m going to shoot you. I can’t promise that it’ll be fatal, but it’s going to hurt.”
I get to the phone and have almost started dialing when he jumps me. I hold tight to the gun and try to knee him in the groin. He winces and groans, but grabs for the gun, and as I try to shake him off, I hear, for the second time, the sound of a gunshot.
As I lay in shock, I register distantly that Peter Katz has slumped on top of me. I lay there until I start to panic, and then I struggle out from under him and finish dialing the police.
I’ve always enjoyed starting a new writing project, whether it’s a new story, a novella, or a novel- even some class papers, and my occasional, ill-fated attempts at poetry. There’s a feeling of possibility, because even if you start out with everything planned out carefully, from the first words to the last line, the fact is you never know for sure what’s going to happen.
I love starting a project, but I never know how to finish one. This one should be easy, because I know exactly how it ended, and even though it was six months ago, I remember it as if it was yesterday. Better, in fact. After several months’ worth of processing, I find that the memories are finally floating back into my mind, usually at random times. I find myself bringing them up in conversation with my family, Kellan, and even Collin, because in the act of retelling them, they become real, and less able to hurt me.
It was relatively easy for Peter Katz to find me despite my name change; after all, I didn’t even change my last name, and I stayed within the same general geographic radius of my old apartment, because that’s the area where my mother lives. Even if she didn’t want me close, I’d still want to be close to her.
The black car, in case you didn’t guess, was his. It was him at the theater, of course. I did not hallucinate him, and he was not some stranger who I imagined to look like him. The calls were from him. The cops even think he was in my house once before that night, looking through my things. Even that wasn't a delusion.
I was paranoid, and I was right. I’m not sure how I feel about this.
I do not remember whether or not our affair was real. Apparently, the cops recovered most of our correspondence, and they gave it to me a few weeks ago. I haven't looked at it.
I don't want to know.
What more do I need to wrap up? Let’s see: Collin and I are still seeing each other. He knows I used to be Elizabeth Torrance, and he knows about my meds and the schizophrenia. He says it doesn’t bother him. A few days ago he forced me to listen to Quadrophenia, the rock opera by The Who, about a young man with some bizarre ‘70’s combination of schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. Having already heard The Who’s rock opera Tommy, which is about a boy who gets autism after being told to keep quiet about a family scandal, I’ve come to the conclusion that The Who are quite fanciful about developmental differences and mental illness.
Sean is starting first grade in a few months; he will be “mainstreamed” in a normal classroom with an aide, as opposed to a special ed class. It makes sense; I think he’s too smart for special ed. He can already read because Kellan has been reading to Sean and having him experiment with writing words and letters for a while. He can write little, five-sentence stories to go with pictures he draws. He reads them to Kellan and I.
Kellan also introduced me to the mother of one of the people from her Asperger’s support group. The mother is a lawyer who deals with claims of sexual harassment and discrimination. She offered to represent me in my suit against Thorne College, which I will be suing for discrimination on the basis of disability, since they kicked me out after my episode and wouldn’t let me come back, even after I was on the meds and completely rational.
I have to finish this; I need to get ready for my job interview at the Department of Mental Health. I know, I know- it’s corny. As if by magic, the main character goes through a trauma that provides a catalyst for her to finally make changes in her life. Well, my life feels pretty much the same as ever on a day-by-day basis. I still think I could do better than River Valley, I still go to the part-time job I hate, I still worry about my meds not working and I still feel tired all the time. The difference is that what I do feels for the first time as if it is leading toward a goal. I am moving extremely slowly, and sometimes I almost don’t believe I’m moving at all. Corny as it sounds, I am actually going somewhere now, and I am going to get there in the end.