An old story. Troublesome to me, but still interesting.
|Author's Note: Okay, so it took me a ridiculously long time to get this story posted. It was written during my sophomore year of college, about twenty-five years ago. Of course I went about getting it online in the completely wrong way (scanning, reformatting, etc., you don't want to know and I don't want to hear how I could have made it easier on myself).
One final thing: of all the things I've written, Gary is easily the most unlikable protagonist I've ever created. I don't know why. Be assured though that the things that come out of his mouth and run through his mind, are HIS thoughts, not mine.
The other reason I suppose I'm so attached to it, the novelist James Michener (Tales of the South Pacific, which became the musical and the movie, plus many other novels) was a guest lecturer in our class, and he had some nice things to say about it.
"What do your parents think of your sexual orientation?"
Gary looked up. He had been studying his shoes, sitting there wondering how he would be able to walk without his shoelaces. The question caught him off guard.
The nurse looked up from the form he was filling out. "You are a homosexual, aren't you?"
"No! What kind of idiot question is that?" Gary shifted his feet on the floor, his missing laces forgotten.
The nurse frowned for a moment, then crossed off one of the things he'd written on the form. Gary stared. He'd never been much good at reading upside down, but it didn't take much imagination to figure out what the clown had written.
"Why did you try to kill yourself?" the nurse asked next. His expression never changed -- he could have been asking whether Gary preferred cream and sugar in his morning coffee for all the emotion contained in his face and voice.
“Excuse me, Mr. ——"
"All the patients call me Bob."
"Well, Why'd you think I was a homosexual, Bob? Do I look like a homo or something?"
Bob leaned back in his chair and met Gary's gaze. "Are you trying to avoid the question?"
"No, damn it! I just want to know why you think I'm a fag." Probably on the idea that one can always spot another, Gary wanted to say, but didn't.
The back end of Bob's pen disappeared into his mouth. For a moment Gary thought that he wasn't going to answer, just sit there staring at him while he chewed on the damn pen. Then Bob said, "I'm sorry if I upset you, it's just. . . Well, let's say that you fit the profile."
"Profile? What fucking profile?"
"You'd be surprised how many homosexuals attempt to commit suicide," Bob continued as if Gary hadn't spoken. "Homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of."
"I'm not ashamed of anything." Gary stood up, nearly tripping as one of his shoes slipped off. "I'm not a fag!"
Bob smiled. "Fair enough." His eyes said no such thing. Gary caught their accusing look and hate swelled up in his gut. "Now, why don't you tell me why you tried to kill yourself?"
Bob sighed and put his pen down on top of his precious form. "You aren't cooperating." No shit, Gary though, but held his tongue. You think I'm going to tell you what an asshole I am? A thousand images blazed across his mind. Beth, getting drunk, the fight, the pills, being brought to the Crisis Center from the hospital by the police, his shoelaces. He looked down at his feet, hoping they'd magically reappeared on his sneakers. No dice.
"Sit down Gary."
He sighed. He itched all over. His head ached. He felt like he could sleep for a hundred years if only this clown in the cheap suit would shut up and leave him alone. What the hell was the guy doing in a suit anyway? It had to be a hundred degrees outside, only slightly cooler in here.
"Just leave me alone, will you? It's a stupid story and you're the last person in the world I'd tell."
Bob sat up straight, his hands slowly smoothing the wrinkles from his jacket that hours sitting behind a desk had produced. "You don't trust me, do you?"
Gary stared at his shoes. What a fucking genius.
"Listen to me Gary. If you want to go home any time soon, you'd better start cooperating. The college won't care where you are, they'll just fail you in all your classes while you rot here." Bob's face began to redden as he worked himself into a huff. "There are a lot of people who are dying to get into this Center instead of being locked up in the psych ward at the hospital. Think about how lucky you are just to be here."
Gary yawned. "Yeah, I'm lucky. Can I go back to bed now? I didn't get much sleep last night."
Bob closed Gary's folder and filed it away, red faced and silent.
"This stuff looks worse than the food at school," Gary said to no one in particular as he poked his fork into what Bob had called "beef stew." The plastic prongs bent as they worked themselves into the tough meat.
"At least it's kind of warm. It usually isn't," Janie said from across the table. She was a frail, pretty girl with pale grey eyes. Gary had met her earlier that morning at a group session. She'd been even more withdrawn and belligerent than he had, which was saying a lot.
Gary laughed. "Yeah, almost all of the ice crystals are melted off mine." He wasn't sure if trying to keep the conversation alive was a good idea or not, but he figured the only polite thing to do was to try.
Janie put her fork down and looked at him. He drew back reflexively, waiting for the angry words. It took him a moment to realize she was laughing. The sound was so alien to this place that all of the other patients looked up from their food with dull eyes to see what was going on. Gary looked at them apologetically. Janie, oblivious, kept right on laughing.
"It really wasn't all that funny," Gary said to her quietly.
"I'm sorry, really," she said as she calmed down. "It's just that I haven't had much to laugh about lately. God, that felt good." There was wonder in her voice. '
"Happy to be of service then." Gary pushed the Styrofoam plate away. "Jesus, I wish I was back at school right now. At least there I could have a pizza sent to the dorm."
"I know what you mean. My mom cooks a hell of a lot better than this." She got up, grabbing her plate and plastic utensils. "Are you finished with that?"
Gary looked at his untouched food. "I'm afraid so." Janie picked up his plate too and dumped them both in the trash, then brought the utensils over to Bob. Every piece had to be counted before it was thrown out, no doubt against the troubling possibility that someone would try to fork themselves to death.
Gary got up and followed her over to the couch by the TV. Sitting beside her, he wondered again at the advisability of trying to keep the conversation going. The last thing he wanted right now was another fight with a girl.
"So, why are you here?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts.
"Well, I thought you might want to talk. I'm sorry, I can go away."
"No, stupid. I mean what are you doing here, in the Crisis Center?"
"I, uh, tried to kill myself."
Janie punched him in the arm, hard. "Of course, asshole. Everyone's here for that. I mean what did you do?"
Gary looked down at his laceless sneakers. "I overdosed. Sleeping pills." His cheeks burned. That'll sure impress her, he thought.
"Hey, cool, me too!" She sounded genuinely happy.
He pried his eyes away from his shoes. "Mind if I ask why? I know I don't really have a right to, but..."
"No problem," she shrugged. "But I have to warn you, it's stupid."
"No more so than mine, I'm sure."
Janie looked away. Her left hand began rubbing her knee, back and forth, back and forth. The sound of flesh on denim was all Gary could hear in the quiet room. He stared at his shoes.
The sound of her voice startled him when she finally spoke. The old anger was back, this time directed at herself rather than the rest of the world. "My neck hurt. Can you believe that? I'd slept on it wrong and it was stiff and sore. I couldn't turn it more than an inch to the side without almost passing out from the pain."
"Your neck hurt? That's why? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" He stood up, his cheeks flaming red. His stomach knotted up, making him feel sick.
"What's the matter?" She was on the verge of tears, he saw. Fuck it.
"That has to be the most selfish thing I've ever heard. What, are you one of those spoiled little brats that always has to get her own way? A little pain and it's okay to make it go away by dying?"
Janie's eyes lost their dull, flat facade. It was as if Gary were watching a mirror shatter, tiny shards of protective shield spiraling down into the depths of her gaping pupils. The tears came, spilling down her cheeks to die at the curve of her lip, recycled into her body for use at a later time.
Gary shook his head. "No, you don't have a right to call me that." Only Beth does, he thought, and his anger left him as swiftly as it had come. His knees gave out and he sagged back onto the couch, covering his eyes with the crook of his arm.
The room was silent. He thought that Janie had left, either to go cry in her room or to tell Bob what an asshole he was. He'd never get out of there now.
He felt her lips touch his, only for a second. It happened so fast that at first his mind refused to register its occurrence. Then he pulled his arm away from his face, his eyes snapping open and looking up in confusion. Janie was standing over him, her thin arms crossed over her chest, tears still streaming down her sunken cheeks.
"What the hell was that for?" he asked.
She smiled sadly. "For being right." Sobbing, she turned away and ran to the room she shared with two other girls, slamming the door behind her.
"Bob, do you have a minute?"
He looked up from the paperwork growing like weeds from his desk, pen poised halfway to his mouth. "Sure, Gary."
Gary took a seat across from him. Once seated, he kicked of his sneakers and wriggled his toes, making them pop and crack.
"What can I do for you?" Bob asked hesitantly.
"Well, I just thought you might like to finish filling out that form for my file."
Bob's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Of course." He swiveled his chair around and opened a drawer on the file cabinet behind him, pulling out a thin beige folder He turned back around, opened the file on his desk and picked up his pen. "Are you ready?"
"Let me ask you one question first."
"Did Janie tell you why she tried to kill herself?"
Bob shook his head. "I can't tell you that."
"Look, all I want to know is if she told you. She told me."
Bob stared at him for a couple of seconds, silent. Gary could almost hear the hamsters running around in the nurse's head as he thought this one out. Finally he nodded. "Yes, she did."
"Good." Gary took a deep breath. "I believe we were up to why I tried to kill myself."
"Well, basically, what it boils down to is that I got in a fight with my girlfriend, Beth. I hit her." Gary looked down at the floor. He kicked his sneakers under the desk so he wouldn't have to see them anymore. "I was drunk. I know that's no excuse, but it's the only one I have. She just really pissed me off, you know?"
"Mm-hmm." Bob wrote quickly on the form. "What happened after you struck her?"
"I don't remember it all that well. I was still mad at her, but I was more ashamed than anything. Then she said 'I love you,' and I just lost it. I ran out of there before I gave in and beat the shit out of her. Nice guy, huh?"
No answer, just writing.
"Well, after I left I went back to my room. I didn't know what to do. Then I saw the pills." Bob looked up, an expectant smile on his face. Gary had to look away before he lost his temper and hit the clown in the face. "So I took them. Thirty of them. The whole bottle."
"And I ended up here. What more can I say?"
"Do you feel like killing yourself now?"
Gary was tempted to say yes, just to see the look on the fool's face. He barely stopped himself. He wanted to get out of there before the turn of the century. Instead, he said, "No. I just want to get my shoelaces back and get the hell out of here."
Bob dutifully wrote down the response.
"Well, looks like we're both getting out of here," Gary said as he laced up his sneakers. Janie sat on the couch next to him, putting her earrings back in.
"Yeah, I guess so." Gary and Janie hadn't said much to each other over the past three days. Sometimes Gary had caught her looking at him, looking like she'd wanted to talk. Gary guessed they were both too afraid to let that happen.
"Look, I'm sorry about what I said, really. I had no right."
Janie smiled. The dull, vacant look was back in her strange grey eyes. "That's okay. Listen, uh. . ." She bit her lip. "Can I give you my number? We can get together sometime and talk. Or... Whatever."
Gary finished tying his shoes and sat back, not looking at her. "No."
"Listen." Gary took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before continuing. "I have to put this part of my life behind me. I can't forget it -- I'm not sure I want to forget it -- but I do have to get on with my life. And I don't need you to be a part of it."
Janie stared at her hands, which were now clenched in her lap. "I have no friends."
Jesus, Gary thought, I don't want to deal with this now. Just let her go away.
Bob came into the room. "Gary, your ride is here."
"That's my cue." Gary stood. So did Janie. "I won't forget you."
He gave her a fake smile. "Probably." He reached out and gave her a small hug. Then Gary picked up his bag and walked away, toward where Bob was waiting to show him out. He never looked back. He was afraid of what he might see.