The Shining and Perishable Dream
by Ashley Nafezi
When I first moved here, the thing I liked most about living in New York was that I thought I could kill myself tomorrow and no one would care. That may sound concerning, but let me finish before you call the health center (it’s been done). I had left my hometown because I was suffocating under the weight of my sadness, or perhaps more accurately, under the weight of pretending I wasn’t sad in front of my family and friends, and New York is where I decided to escape to. I spent my first two years here sobbing on the sidewalk and seeing doctors and being prescribed medication to deal with the sobbing on the sidewalk; it wasn’t nearly as tragic as it sounds. I never actually tried to kill myself in New York, of course- it was just the idea that appealed to me, the freedom of knowing I could, if the cold and constant desire ever lured me over the edge. Knowing that perhaps this time, I wouldn’t fail. Now the desire has faded, but my love for New York remains for other, less morbid, reasons. I have lived in other places, but it was in New York that I decided I had to go on living.
When I lived in Berlin for a semester, I walked past the Fernsehturm every day, though I called it The Stick and didn’t learn its real name until the day I left. I walked past it at one am, on my way to the bus because the subways closed at midnight on weekdays and I was too afraid to hail a cab, lest I be forced to stutter some rudimentary German to the grizzled taxi driver behind the glass. On the bus I would lean against the window, wondering if I killed myself tomorrow, would anyone care? and text people I hadn’t spoken to in years to tell them I missed them- this was especially bad because, with the time difference, it was only three or four in the afternoon where they were, and who misses people from their past on a Wednesday afternoon? I do, of course, but I don’t text them until I’m on the bus at one am, after I walk past The Stick. While I was fielding their replies, (“what?”, “who is this?”, “lol did you mean to send this to me?”) I’d miss my stop, so then I’d have to walk five blocks back the other way on the dark German streets and think about all the trouble missing things has gotten me into.
My father owns a house by the beach- his extravagant midlife crisis, along with several racehorses and even more mistresses, although those are less useful to me and so don’t matter as much- and we stayed there every summer when I was a teenager. As I hate my father, on principle I say I hated living at that house too, but the truth is that I loved that beach almost as much as he does. If you go out to the beach at night, there’s no light at all, so you can stand there with the waves biting your ankles and look out at pitch black sky and tell yourself that you could kill yourself tomorrow and no one would care. It’s not true, but the roar of the cold pacific rises up in your ears and you are so alone on that beach that no one else has ever existed or ever will so how could you ever be lonely? And the salt on your face could be from tears or ocean and we will never know which. Back in the light of my father’s beach house, the scent of the sea covered by the musk of alcohol and the scent of air freshener to cover that, these kinds of thoughts will be seen for what they are: dramatic and overdone. But out there by the water, they make all the sense in the world.
When they’re not at the beach house, my parents live in the suburbs, and I used to live there too, back before the medication and the year of misplaced hopes and that whole incident in the fourth-floor bathroom that we don’t talk about. Now that I’ve left, I can appreciate it more, the quiet stillness in the mornings, the chill of your cold feet on the tile when you sneak downstairs to find the keys, the silent scent of suburbia. At the time though, I was busy being angsty and figuring out I was gay, and hiding the fact that I was gay, and all the other things you do during your teenage years. I felt suffocated there, trapped by the knowledge that people would care if I killed myself and thus, the knowledge that I couldn’t. I don’t go back to visit as much as I should because there’s something about being in the place you grew up in that reminds you of how heartbreakingly, endlessly, lonely you are and have always been, regardless of who you’re with or where you live now. Or maybe that’s just me.
In all honesty, the days before I tried to kill myself weren’t even spent at home. I was in South Africa, with my family. They almost canceled the vacation on account of the fact their oldest daughter had just been revealed to be crazy, but it was my mother’s 50th birthday gift, a safari, a real one, and the tickets weren’t refundable anyway, so we went. The details of the trip aren’t that important, but I can tell you this: it turns out if you tell your girlfriend at home that, when you get back from Africa, you’re going to kill yourself, they do care, and so they report you to your therapist, who tells your parents and then while you sit in some airport in the middle of nowhere, South Africa, waiting to fly home, your mom says “I guess we’ll go to the hospital when we get back?” and you nod and say “you should probably hide the car keys.” because you know, in your heart, what you are going to do and she nods back and you board the flight. Then you land back in California and you go home and wait and when everyone else is asleep, you slip downstairs and pick up the car keys, because your mother left them right where they always are, and you cry and cry because you know there is only one way to stop the loneliness. Then the next day you’re in the hospital and before they take you to the psych ward, you look up from the gurney and say to your mother “I hope I didn’t ruin your birthday” because, of course, it is her birthday today, and then they wheel you away.
I lived in the psychiatric ward at Mount Diablo Hospital for only seven days. They wanted to keep me for longer, but legally could only hold me for seven due to paperwork, and anyway, I had an APUSH test on Monday that I needed to study for. My first roommate scared me, so I requested a room change, and my second roommate was in love with me, so I guess it worked out in my favor. I would read to my second roommate from my favorite book in order to drown out the sound of her hallucinations, who, she told me, were saying a lot of awful, sexual things about me. Of course, I couldn’t hear or see them, but I never called them hallucinations to her face because she believed they were real, and to disagree with her was to side with the nurses. We hated the nurses more than we hated living. None of us would ever side with the nurses. Me and the second roommate, we had to hang out during the day because I wasn’t allowed to sleep in our room at night. The especially at-risk had to drag their mattresses off the wooden bed frames and sleep in a huddle behind the nurse’s desk so the night nurse could keep an eye on us, in case the pressing darkness got to be too much at one am and we went hunting for the scissors. If I couldn’t sleep, out there in the light, I could ask for an Ativan, but that would go down on my chart and probably meant I would have to stay longer, so after the third night I just laid there quietly and watched the clock until morning. We were never allowed to be alone in the hospital, so in a way, it was exactly what I always wanted.
When the morning finally came, I would take my turn in the bathroom, where I was given four minutes to shower. I stood quietly by the sink for all four minutes, letting the water run. Then I would wet my hair, strip, and leave the bathroom in just my towel. If you didn’t shower it would go on the chart, you see, so I had to pretend, and my roommate sure did appreciate all that skin. During the rest of the day, we were shuttled from group therapy to individual therapy to class time. If you were good and not a flight risk, you were allowed to walk the ten steps in the open air from the main building to the gym. I was good and not a flight risk, because where would I go in my shoelace-less-shoes and hospital gown? And why would I want to be anywhere else? After lunch I would get my one phone call, just like prison, and I used it to call the girl who had reported me. I told her, “I wish I was anywhere else, somewhere where I could kill myself and no one would care.” The truth of the matter is I told her nothing at all, because I just sobbed into the phone receiver until my ten minutes were up, but that’s what I would have said, okay? In the evenings, we were given tv time, and the unlucky patients has visitors. This was bad because then you had to smile and pretend you were getting better while you were in front of, say, your mother and sister, when in fact you weren’t getting much better because you still wanted to die, and also you hadn’t showered or slept in three days and your second roommate’s hallucinations kept calling you a whore.
And I was a whore, and a bitch, and a cunt, and all the other things her mind and my mind told me I was, because I had failed at even my last resort and who fails at that? On day three, the doctor told me I had to sign the forms to stay longer, probably because I told him, “If I had a gun, I’d shoot myself right here and now,” and I didn’t understand why he didn’t understand what I meant. I mean, yeah, I would have shot myself right then and there, but I also meant a lot more than that, and all the other crazies and psychos living in the hospital understood this, so it was okay that the doctor didn’t. There’s something to be said for the camaraderie of the hopeless and suicidal. Plus, Friday was pizza night, so I said fine, I’ll stay. Hospital pizza is exactly as bad as it seems, but in group therapy we were learning to love the little things. Also, after I wept and refused to sign the consent papers, they decided I was at risk enough to hold me there longer without permission, anyway. After six days of that, I learned to stop telling the doctors the truth and it was decided I could leave the psych ward after all, though most people stayed there for weeks or months at a time. I guess I was just one of those rare miracle cases.
So I said goodbye to my roommate, did not say goodbye to the nurses, and was escorted out. It’s true I hated every second I lived there, but it wasn’t like I had loved living outside, either, and when I left on the afternoon of the seventh day, I cried. Nowhere before had I ever felt such a sense of belonging as I did in the psych ward, and nowhere else since, and you can just guess what every therapist has to say about that.
But that’s in the past. Yes, I have lived in other places, but now I live in New York. I won’t live here forever, or so I tell my mother, and it’s probably true because there will be other cities, other sidewalks and other apartments, just like there will be other breakdowns and other women and other parties. I will move to Boston or D.C. or Chicago and find a new doctor there with new advice and my memories of the old places will start to blur, until I only remember the little things- the vague shape of the stick, perhaps, or the crash of the waves, or the loving gaze of a crazy girl with nothing to lose. And one day, I hope, it will be as if I never lived here in the first place. There’s a comfort in that- in the anonymity, in the uselessness, in the knowledge that where I have lived and where I will live in the future make no difference in the end.
And, of course, a comfort in knowing that there will be an end at all.
About the Author
Ashley Nafezi lives in New York, for now, and is attending graduate school for something completely unrelated to writing. She credits all her success to her therapists, some more than others.