Coffin Fish

A short story by Laura Dennison

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The bed sheets are becoming the color of beach sand, and the musk in here spills out the door in a gust as soon as anyone opens it. Last week, my hair got thick and matted like coarse black seaweed. I pretended I was a mermaid, slick with oil, feet bound in the confines of a twisted comforter. But a knock on the door reminded me: mother, not mermaid.

               After months of reusing unwashed socks that radiated the stench of sweat and stale onion rings, Andy taught himself to do his own laundry. I pretend this is an achievement on my part—that I’ve eased my son into adulthood. But his white t-shirts are smeared with the indigo dye of his blue jeans now, stains I opt not to see. His socks may be clean, but his shoes track mud onto the crimson carpet of my bedroom. He’s swung open the door and stands, staring, looking more and more like his absent beanpole of a father.

               Whenever I see Andy when I’m this depressed, a bump the size of a walnut forms and gets stuck in my throat. The lump contains all the apologies I’ve offered for my illness before, and all the “I know, Mom, just shut up,” answers they’ve received.

Andy’s eyes dart from wall to wall.

               “Uh,” he stammers. There’s a white slip of paper in his right hand. “There’s a 10th grade science museum trip. Mrs. Stanford says I need to quit forging your signature, so here you go.”

               The walnut has had roughly enough time to dissolve.

               “Sure,” I say. I prop myself up in the bed and rummage through the used tissues and granola bar wrappers gathered on my bedside table, trying to find a pen. Andy hands me the permission slip and I sign it in a loopy cursive signature I barely recognize. The paper flutters in my shaky hand as I pass it back.

               “Thanks,” he says quietly, his voice flat. He turns to leave and shuts the bedroom door behind him.


“On the back side of the paper I’d been coloring on, I wrote in blue marker—because black seemed too bleak—FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM.“


I mourn for the science museum. Until Andy was 10, we used to ride the T into the city, where the museum sits along the Charles River, a dirty and chilly snake of water everyone in Boston loves regardless. On our first trip there, the summer before he started the first grade, Andy threatened to jump in the river because he wanted to swim. I un-clung his body from a metal railing and pushed the hair back out of his face.

               “You can’t go in that water,” I told him. “It’s dirty and filled with trash. Not even fish like to swim in that water.”

               Andy’s eyes got wide. He called it “the fishy-free pond” and, under the impression that the body of water could not sustain life, quickly walked away from it.

               Every year, we’d travel back to the museum. Andy loved to try to balance on the spinning, circular platforms that connect two subway cars together and pretend that he was surfing on some beach in California. He seemed like the lone person laughing on the green line. Back then, both our cheeks were still chubby—mine would push up into a rare smile as he staggered when the train came to an unexpected halt.

               At the museum, we’d move from exhibit to exhibit. There was a room full of playground equipment meant to demonstrate the properties of physics, where Andy and I would always ride on the seesaw. I still have a picture of him giving a thumbs-up next to a model T-Rex hanging on the fridge door. We would stare at the massive slab of a cut cross-section of a Redwood tree and marvel at how something could live healthily for so long. At the human health exhibit, Andy’s mouth dropped wide open when he saw a pair of charred smoker’s lungs on display next to their pink, sponge-like healthy counterparts.

               One year, as we made our way out of the museum, Andy looked up at me, his mouth stained blue from the rock candy I’d let him buy at the gift shop.

               “There was no exhibit in there about people who get the way you do,” he said.

               He was ten, and by then, I’d been in and out of hospitals enough times that Andy understood what was going on. When we reached the street, I held his hand tight, prepared to pull him away from any rouge MBTA busses.

               “Maybe there was no exhibit on people like you because your type of sickness doesn’t have to do with science,” Andy suggested.

               “Maybe,” I agreed, because I felt like being honest. All the medications and therapies seem like educated guesses at best. Andy’s soft fingers stuck out in between mine, and he wiggled them like tentacles as we crossed the street, attempting to break free from my grip.

*

When I haven’t left the house for a while, my thoughts tend to spin so fast they end up stuck together in a useless puree of unintelligible guilt and fear. After Andy’s footsteps have faded, I shut my eyes and put my head back into the dent I’ve created in the pillow. The hours pass and my spine aches from lying in one spot for so long, but flipping over to my other side seems to require more effort than I have. Sometimes I wonder what Andy might say if his friends ever ask what I do for a living. Maybe he answers “a potato” or “a lump of flesh,” or maybe he lies and says I’m a flight attendant always away on trips to Dubai, or a successful dentist busy working at the third practice I’ve opened. Almost anything has a better ring to it than SSDI check collector—diagnosis, treatment-resistant major depressive disorder with catatonic features.

               Getting better, as they call it, is tough. If I wind up in inpatient treatment, the only place Andy can go to is his Aunt Lorraine’ house. We share whatever familial fuck-up lurks in our brains, just in a different manifestation. The flow of vodka through her veins as Andy kills time on the X-box stays on my mind whenever I’m locked up in a ward. I swear, as I woke up from the anesthesia after the medically-induced seizure during my first round of electroconvulsive therapy, it was Andy’s voice:

               “No fair when you’re a fish!”

*

When I was doing better, I used to take Andy to the town pond, and we’d race out to the splintery wooden raft. I only let Andy win after every few races, so that when he did, it would be something special. But he’d poked fun of my one webbed toe since he could talk, and I’d always been a fish to him—much faster in the water than I was on land.

               Funny thing is, I feel like a beached whale for now. I’m spread out the discolored comforter like it’s sand, stripped down into my underwear, watching the way my stomach’s gone concave again from eating so little. My nerves make me sweat, though, enough that I could swim in the pool of it forming in my belly button. I spread my arms and legs out like a starfish and recall all the times Andy and I used to go to the water.

               I hold so close to those good years we had during his time in elementary school. I was with it enough back then to plan things. I’d pick a day, shave the bristle off my legs and bikini area, pack slices of watermelon and some bologna sandwiches in the cooler, and count out the pills I’d need to for the rest of the day and slide them in my purse. I stuck to the strict diet my new-ish MAOI antidepressant drug required and dutifully recorded three good things that happened to me each day in a journal I kept on my bedside table.

               Almost every time we would swim to the raft and I beat Andy, he’d shake the water off his face and call out “No fair when you’re a fish!”

               I would stick my tongue out and poke my left foot out of the water to put my webbed toe on display. He would laugh or start to splash me, and—like I always believe when times are good—I felt joy surge through me, thinking how I held the key to happiness in my son. How I’d never, ever relapse.

               Only I still sank.

*

Last I knew, Andy had a thing for owning pet minnows. It used to strike me as odd, since minnows die so often. But he keeps at it. Every so often, he’ll buy a new batch of fish at the pet store and bring them home in a clear plastic baggie filled with water. Whenever I trial a new medication that seems to only add to the long list of failures, I try to keep those little guys in mind. They’ve helped think like this: if you must die often, reemerge.

               I try to make that my mantra. I would love to go back to the water with Andy someday. I’d love to use a knife to cut into a juicy watermelon for both of us to share and not spend the whole time wishing I could plunge that knife into my own skin. And I need to keep the promise that I made.

*

The promise came about when Andy was only nine. The hospital stay was too long. He complained that Auntie Lorraine’s house smelled like cigarettes and said he wanted to see me, so for the first time, I let Andy come to the ward’s visiting hours. I took him to the spot in the cafeteria where they kept the packets of cookies, then brought him to the TV room and set him up with some coloring supplies and a mandala.

               Andy picked up the black and orange markers because it was close to Halloween. We sat mostly silent as I colored alongside him, but when he’d almost reached the center of his mandala, he put his orange marker down and reached for my wrist and gently tugged at the blue hospital bracelet I was wearing.

               “Mommy?” he said, after a short pause. He hadn’t yet switched to “Mom.” I held my breath, bracing myself to yet again come to find that children know more about what’s going on than we give them credit for. “Can you promise me something? And I’m not just saying this because Auntie’s house smells.”

               A staff member doing his routine 15-minute checks on each patient poked his head into the TV room entryway. He marked something off on his clipboard. My hair was clean for once, help up in a clip that had been deemed safe enough to avoid confiscation to the closet that held my shoelaces. My hands fluttered to flatten the loose strands.

               “Sure, honey,” I said. “What is it?”

               “You gotta promise, though,” Andy said. He looked up at me, his green eyes like spotlights, and extended a hooked pinky finger. I offered mine in return.

               “Okay. You promise that you will never, ever, ever, ever kill yourself.”

               He shook our pinkies up and down and I wondered if he could hear my heart beating fast under my thin cotton T-shirt. Of course, I wanted to believe that this promise would be easy to keep. I told myself the same thing when I first found out I was pregnant and truly believed bringing a child into the world to love would be more than enough to cure me of this disorder.

               “I promise, Andy.”

               On the back side of the paper I’d been coloring on, I wrote in blue marker—because black seemed too bleak—FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM. I drew a line underneath the words and signed my name, then folded the paper and handed it to Andy. He insisted I write the date down before he slipped the note into the back pocket of his jeans.

               There is no contract on earth I will ever honor more seriously, and there is nothing I’ve faced more difficult.

*

Some days, I swear the air has changed to something much denser and viscous. Today, though, the air has changed to water, and I can’t breathe. I start to panic, because I know that Andy and I can’t live in parallel. He needs air, but I’ve grown ugly slits like gills that seem to help me survive in ways I shouldn’t. The bed I’m in keeps sinking me deeper. With every placebo-like pill I swallow, the fear mounts—Andy’s fifteen, half time neglected, and living fine without me. His lungs are probably pinker and stronger. I can’t seem to believe there’s any science behind that, either.

Before my last hospitalization, I went to the ER, where I stayed for a few days until a bed in the behavioral health unit opened up. The TV mounted in the corner of the room was set to a nature channel. At night, I couldn’t sleep, so I lay awake and watched a documentary about the ocean floor. Apparently, scientists have been stunned to discover the presence of aquatic life near the pitch-blank bottom. These animals survive, but with gross adaptations. Their colloquial names are things like “coffin fish” and “vampire squid.” With time, evolution has made them into what seems like monsters. Their internal organs are their only source of light. They’re hideous, yet they still roam around in the darkness, surviving on whatever scraps they might find.

I realize now that I’m living on my ocean’s floor, grossly conditioned to survive. There is little human about me. I bore and birthed a child; I held him for the first time and cried tears of joy. I named him Andy, and then I cried alongside him when he wailed in his crib, requesting I bring him comfort. I grew cells to fetus to human being, hoping he would bring me comfort. There is no more demented a medicinal wager.

Andy’s father left with the excuse he’d be a bad parent. I chose to stay with the hope that I would adapt. I’ve morphed and continue to morph, but if life is a case of survival of the fittest, I’m worried there might not be enough time to learn to survive.

*

I sleep on it. It could be Tuesday but it might be Thursday. I never know anymore. There’s somebody over the apartment with Andy, though, and I’m relieved to find this helps propel me out of bed. I move to the bathroom and stare at my blotchy face in the mirror, pulling at tufts of tangled hair. From the hall, there is commotion—whispers, the solitary beep of the smoke detector, and a loud smack I later find is from the broomstick hitting the side of the wall. I listen to stifled laugher and watch as the sight of my own pale complexion captivates me. I don’t recognize myself, and my eyes look gray. I’m losing pigment like one of those deep-sea creatures.

               When the skunk-like odor of weed wafts under the crack of the bedroom door, I go to scold Andy, only my hand gets stuck hoovering above the doorknob, and I eventually decide to run back into bed. I don’t remember the last time I showered. My hair is seaweed, and my reflection doesn’t match how I feel—like one of those grotesque sea creatures, complete with claws and fins and tentacles sprouting from my sides. There’s one deformity for every time Andy skinned his knee and I wasn’t waiting inside with Band-Aids. There’s one for every time he brought back a quiz with an A on it, but I was too busy being buried under a stack of blankets to find a magnet to hang it up on the fridge and say congratulations. How is it right to tell my son what he can and can’t do when he’s the one who’s had to call the shots all along?

               From my spot in bed, I can still hear waves of words.

               “Dude, we should always come here to smoke,” a voice a bit deeper than Andy’s says. There’s a small coughing fit, then Andy talks.

               “We definitely can. My mom’s basically a vegetable. She doesn’t care about anything.”

               I expect to remain frozen, only something usual happens. Rage builds. A rare emotion. Of course I care about something. I care about what Andy does. I think that maybe I should get up and tell him his friend has to leave. Even still, my arms and legs seem glued to the mattress. I try to gather momentum. My right leg twitches. That’s it. I swallow back the tears and close my eyes.

*

After the apartment quiets, my body and mind finally decide they’d like to move at the same time. I get up slowly and pay a visit to Andy’s room, a space I’ve left undisturbed for months. It’s been hours since his friend left. Andy’s sitting on his bed and reading a magazine about mountain biking. When I enter, he looks up briefly but says nothing. On the wall, there is a new poster of a tan woman sitting on the beach wearing only a thong bikini. Her pink nipples seem to mock me.

“You can sit down, you know.” Andy’s words startle me. He pats at a spot next to him on the bed. “My sheets aren’t clean,” he says when I don’t answer. “But they’re probably cleaner than yours.”

               I take a seat at the very edge and look up at the single florescent twisty bulb lighting the small space. He needs a light fixture. He needs some more milk cartons for his stuff. Maybe some shelves up from Ikea. But who am I kidding. He needs a lot more than furniture.

               Andy sets down his magazine, dog-earing the page for a bookmark.

               “What’s up?” he asks, his eyes scanning me. With each mark of how unkempt I am,  he can evaluate, roughly, my level of depression. I can see the numbers adding up in his head as I attempt to articulate what I need to say. There are still some minnows swimming on the window’s ledge in a fishbowl. He’s even kept the glass clean. It’s incredible to me that a teenage boy would put so much care into something with such a small, fleeting life.

               “Do you hate me?” That’s all I manage to say, as if I’m one of his fifteen-year-old classmates, not his mother. The curls of his sandy blonde hair spill out of the sides of his baseball cap. He takes the hat off, puts it back on.

               “I never want to have a kid,” he says. The indent of the cap has left a semi-permanent mark on his head. He covers it back up and the ring is magically gone. “Not if I ever end up sick as you.”

               Of course, this is not the best thing to hear.  He could have said, “No, of course not. I love you,” or, “No, of course not. You’ve done the best you can,” or, “No, you’re my mom and I’ll always love you no matter what.”

But then I would know that he would be lying. Instead, he’s offered the truth as bait. I bite it.

               There is no way to say I regret Andy—the beautiful and forgiving being who has somehow sprung out of my own body. If this were a world where everything was as it should be, any one of these things would be more than enough to get me out of bed each day: the way he bobs his head with each step he takes, the way he writes the letter F just like me, the way that one bottom tooth juts out just a little too far.

               There is no way to say that having Andy was right. It’s an imperfect world. There’s the times we had to water down the powdered milk. The baseball games I missed because I was in the hospital. The dinners he had to make himself because I was too busy sleeping.

               “I’m sorry about how things have been,” I tell him. I know he’s used to it. I know he’s heard it before. But I need to tell him again. “Things will get better.”

               Andy rises to his feet. He reaches for a folder that’s sitting in a milk crate underneath the window with the minnows’ bowl. He opens the folder and thumbs through it until he finds a paper, which he unfolds and puts into my hands.

               There it is. FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM.

               In my body, there’s a warmth that’s been absent for months. Instead of asking Andy if I can hug him, I reach forward and do it. He offers no objection. I haven’t felt his flesh for much too long.

               Andy is proof. If fish can do it, he can, too. The strongest survive. He’s adapted to live in the harshest condition. My grip is so tight, but his bones are stronger than I could imagine, and so are mine. So I squeeze him as hard as I can. There is still love here, even in the darkness.


Sparks

By Laura Dennison

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You handed me the welding helmet and warned me about burns and arc flash. You told me the sparks would provide enough light to see what I was doing.

            “Keep your hands steady,” you said. I knew that was impossible, but I tried anyway. I went on to weld—in rough, wiggly lines—our initials into a piece of scrap metal. With the bulky helmet over my eyes, I couldn’t see you or anything around me. All I saw were sparks. It didn’t matter. In the beginning, that’s all we needed.

We met in the summertime on a camping trip. You were the burly electrician with the nice butt; I was the skinny, blonde girl finishing off her fourth year of college. I liked the way you wrapped the warts on your callused fingers in electrical tape, and how you replaced the two-pronged outlets in my ancient apartment—that old, red-bricked building on Main Street that we both thought was haunted. We used that place as a playground: climbed the fire escape to the third floor so we could sit and drink beers as the sun set, letting our bare feet dangle; opened the bathroom medicine cabinet to slip razorblades into the slot in the wall labeled RAZORS; explored the long, narrow crawlspaces behind the galley kitchen, wondering if we’d stumble across a century of used razorblades in the process.

            Then there was that night we crawled out from a bedroom window, climbed up to the flat part of the roof. I wrapped us up in my patchwork quilt and there we lay, drink the Barefoot wine we bought at the corner store. When packs of partygoers passed by down on the street below, we took turns tooting at them with the little bike horn we carried with us. The party girls, dressed their shimmery tops and stilettos heels, up, stared up, wide-eyed and confused, while the boys with backwards baseball caps hollered, searching for the source of the sound. We ducked down, stifling our giggles. We were untouchable.

            It felt like the right time to tell you about what happened three years prior: the breakdown, the psych ward, the lithium. I told you how surprised I was to still be here—how I felt like I was living past an expiration date.

            You also had a story. You told me about the car accident that landed you a ride in the ambulance chopper. You said that your rib lacerating your kidney was nothing compared to the injuries to your head—how you feel like a different person now and can’t remember things the way you used to. “I still feel like I’ll be dead by thirty,” you said.

            I nodded. “Me too.”

            I reached for your hand. We made our own warmth, swaddled there together in that blanket. I shut my eyes, happy we’d found each other—two humans with no futures to scare us.

*

And now three years have gone by. We’ve moved in together—a new apartment—one with modern, three-pronged outlets, no fire escape, no slits in the walls to deposit sharp objects, and nowhere to sit at night other than the beige-carpeted floors.

            We’ve stopped spontaneously driving to the beach in the winter to lay out our blankets and have the whole place to ourselves. We’ve stopped racing each other through the downtown streets to see who can run fastest without bending our knees. Once, in the beginning, we spent a whole hour laughing after you dared me to peel a banana using only my toes and I succeeded. But now you spend your spare nights in the garage working on your old truck, while I stay in the bedroom, wrapped up with the patchwork quilt and a book.

Last weekend, though, we went on a date. On our way home from the diner, we stopped to let an elderly couple cross the street. The man wore a bowler cap and clutched his partner’s elbow. She clutched a three-pronged cane and wore a tight, white perm. Each small step seemed in slow motion.

  “I hope I die before I get that old,” you whispered after they passed.

“Me too,” I said. Only I mouthed it more than spoke it, and I don’t think I meant it.

In five years we’ll be thirty. I’m too afraid to tell you that I’ve started daydreaming scenes of a life ten or twenty years from now. After we finally drove away, all I could do was stare at my interlocked hands in my lap as they grew colder. I glanced over to see your knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel, and it made me wonder if you were merely reading off the old script—the one with no future and neither one of us in it.

*

At night, back in the new apartment, the four white walls of the bedroom make up a perfect square. It feels like we’ve explored every last inch. We lie on top of our queen-sized mattress underneath the same old quilt. There’s so much space between us now that didn’t exist before, back when we were forced to cram together on the tiny twin. I can’t even feel the heat of your body against mine. I turn toward you and you roll closer against the wall, pressing yourself deeper into the whiteness, making yourself small. I try to make sparks myself—like we once did— but it’s like rubbing two twigs together, hoping for a fire. It only works in the movies.


Cashier

By Laura Dennison

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   “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

            My classmates always had lofty goals in response to this question. They wanted to be equine veterinarians, or paleontologists, the President of the United States or multimillionaire major-league baseball players, maybe all four of these things. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a cashier when I grew up. I guess you could claim I was a seven-year-old realist.

            Lucky for me, unlike most of my peers, I’d fulfilled my lifelong career goal three times over by the tender age of twenty-one. Cashier gig number three was at a convenience store/sub shop on the campus of the college I attended. At 3 a.m.—the end of my shifts—I could walk home on streets that were clear and quiet save for the occasional possum or straggling drunkard. I wanted nothing more than this—to deep-fry frozen mozzarella sticks (even as speckles of the hot oil splattered back on my face); to grill steak-and-cheese subs and layer the meat with slices of the soon-to-be-oozing gooey, white American cheese I’d never eat myself; and to slide the change—the seemingly worthless pennies—through my index finger and thumb and into the cupped hand of a waiting customer.

            The chaos of getting all the orders cleared off the overhead screen, the changing in and out of the dozens upon dozens of pairs of greasy disposable gloves, the thud of the roll of quarters breaking in half as I slammed them against the sharp black edge of the register—in this nightly grid, the store pulsed with an energy so strong it left no room for my own pulse to sail too fast and fill me with worry. In those moments, the makeup of meats in an Italian sub was far more important than my brain’s neurochemistry and whatever might’ve been worrying me that day.

            And so, as far as I was concerned, working as a cashier was still ideal. The thought of jobs where I’d be in power—where I’d lead or be responsible for the lives of others—left my stomach turning, my palms sweating, and my mind willing me to go toast breast for a BLT. Because despite occasional customer complaints that could sometimes seem the contrary, nobody dies if the bread is too crusty. If I could rent an apartment and visit the dentist regularly on gas station clerk’s salary, I’d be the first one to sign up, graveyard shift or not, and bachelor’s-degree-be-damned. My seven-year-old realism has turned into what could be perceived as twenty-one-year-old laziness or lack of ambition. I realized that a woman graduating from a four-year college should perhaps purchase a pant-suit or a pair of slacks and a matching argyle sweater so that, upon graduation, she could take a job behind a wooden desk, where she’d write important emails and take phone calls.


“There’s just one problem, if you want to make it one: For years, I didn’t need to pray I’d die before I got old. I had a solid plan. Suicide at twenty. No need to worry about the future. “


But here’s the truth: in between my first two cashiering jobs, I’d spent a few nights in a psych hospital and dropped out of college. Instead of returning to what now seemed like pointless, antiquated, stuck-up study of English literature, I decided I wanted to do something with my life that would actually help other people in the way that the nurses and attendants at the hospital had helped me. And so I enrolled myself in a three-week crash course to become a licensed nursing assistant. This is what I considered “the real world,” and the real world had done nothing but scare me.

            My first glimpse of the real world was at the Work ‘n Gear store, where I purchased the white scrubs all student-nursing assistants were required to wear while in training.

            “Be sure to wear nude underwear with these,” the gray-haired cashier told me with a wink as she rang up the scrubs. “Any other color will show straight through—even white.” She flashed me a nicotine-stained smile and I let out a stab of a laugh, then stuffed a handful of crumpled one-dollar bills into her hand as I thanked her.

            “Rookie mistake,” she added.

            The three weeks that followed could also be described that way—rookie mistake. Our class met in a nursing home basement, and our RN teacher informed almost all our learning, sans the state exam, would be hands-on. Soon, the hands I’d once used to take notes in Brit Lit with perfect penmanship turned clammy and tremulous as I tried to shave a grown man’s beard with the same model of cheap, disposable safety razor I’d used to cut myself with in the dorm bathroom less than a month earlier. My once-crisp white uniform was soiled daily by a rainbow of body fluids—blood, bile, vomit, diarrhea, saliva—you name it, I wore it.

            In the eight-hour days I spent dunked into “the real world,” my eighteen-year-old self learned about the human condition and aging. I worked with another woman to shower the shriveled, leathery body of an Alzheimer’s patient who could no longer stand. As we rubbed soapy washcloths on his shoulders and underarms, we tried to ignore his erection poking up from the shower chair. My LNA partner-in-training bent down to scrub between the delicate, peeling purple skin of the man’s diabetes-riddled feet.

            “Ooh, scrub a little harder,” the man moaned. I locked eyes with my partner and she shrugged. I glanced out of the shower stall, over to the patient’s waiting wheelchair. It was only sometimes that, back in his room, he could lift the black-and-white photograph at his bedside and tell me—with confidence—that the young woman standing and grinning beside the young man in the photograph was his late wife. I wondered what it would be like to want for someone or something you couldn’t remember you missed.

            But I couldn’t wonder for long, since there was lots to do in the nursing home. Bottoms to wipe, for example, and diapers to change. If we were caught uttering the word diaper, though, we’d be subject to a write-up, because such language was thought to rob the residents of dignity. Only I learned quickly that dignity can be damaged in ways far deeper and more haunting than a few brown smears left accidentally on the bedsheets overnight.

            Jane, for instance. She hated the nursing home. She had a photo album tucked away in the drawer of her bedside table, and she’d once shared the album with me. I turned the pages in awe as I realized how she’d shrunk. Once maybe over two-hundred pounds, she’d shriveled to mere bones encased loosely in thick, molasses-like ribbons of yellowing skin. She was starving herself to die. The head nurse had told me so.

            “Make sure she eats her breakfast,” she’d told me one morning. As she spoke, her eyes were fixed on the next room down, where the resident has pressed her call button. She hugged her clipboard tight across her chest. “She’ll fight you; don’t give in,” she said before disappearing down the hall.

            I felt connected to Jane, maybe because we’d both had thoughts of opting out. And maybe also because of that mutual understanding, I hated to make her eat. I’d sit the back of her bed up and set her breakfast tray in front of her and she’d whimper.

            “No, not today. Not today.”

            But usually she’d eventually choke down some orange juice and a mouthful or two of toast. And it would usually come right back up, into the kidney-shaped pink basin I’d hold in front of her to spit into. I’d rub her back as the saliva and bile slithered up her throat. It got to a point where the body fluids stopped bothering me, but Jane’s determination to leave the nursing home in whatever way possible? That never did.

            Then there was Mae, who, according to her files, was only 67. The head nurse had us practice changing colostomy bags on her, and Mae would watch and utter something as I snapped off the bag, cleaned her puffy, pink intestines of any residual poo, and snapped a new ostomy bag back in place. It was only after a few rounds of doing this that I came to understand her slurred syllables.

            “Thank you!” she’d cry out through one corner of her stroke-riddled mouth. I’d learn to wave and smile, but it still hurt. Because here was a woman, unable to control her own body, controlling her manners better than I did half the time.

            Each day at the end of the course, I’d return home to shower and try to cleanse myself of the atrophy and decay of the place. Then I’d say a quick prayer, hoping I’d die before I got old or ill.

            When the three weeks were up, I went to take the state test and passed all of the nursing board’s requirements. I didn’t use my license once. The next available semester, I reenrolled at a four-year college and signed up to be an English major. I wanted to be nobody’s keeper, nobody’s caretaker—to touch paper rather than flesh.

            There’s just one problem, if you want to make it one: For years, I didn’t need to pray I’d die before I got old. I had a solid plan. Suicide at twenty. No need to worry about the future. Now I’m living at twenty-one, a few months shy from graduating with a bachelor’s degree, staring into the big, hollow vortex of time. The future’s like a black hole. Once it sucks matter in—once it sucks me in—there’s no escaping. Nobody knows much about it, either. Even to the frat-bro business majors and those girls who knew they wanted to be equine veterinarians since they were four years old, the future is ominous and uncontrollable. And when I start to gravitate near it, it threatens to swallow me whole.

            The trouble is, the future’s spinning ever closer, and I have no idea what I want to do come graduation and summer. Or the rest of my life. At my parents’ urging, I sometimes log on to job-search sites and scour for administrative assistant type jobs without much luck. I have noticed, though, that there are plenty of nursing assistant jobs available—hospices, home-health aides, assisted living facilities. All I’d need to do’s renew my license.

            It’s been years, but I still remember exactly how it felt when Jane—the same patient who was intentionally starving—would forget who I was even if I was standing right in front of her.

            “Have you seen Laura?” she would ask me, shivering under a thick layer of quilts. “I had this nice nurse named Laura. Where’d she go?”

            I would turn from her and try to subtly flip my name badge over temporarily, so that the block lettering that read L A U R A wouldn’t give me away. The goal has always been the same: don’t think about Laura. Just move onto the next thing. When Jane got confused, I’d try to distract her. I’d grab the earring holder by her bedside and have her pick out which pair she’d like to wear for the day. She once chose a pair of turquoise studs, and after I’d fastened them to her ears with gloved hands, her smile quickly drooped to a frown.

            “My daughter gave me these,” she said, one hand reaching for a stud. “I think.” She scrunched up her face. “Oh, I’m not sure. She never visits anymore.”

            It’s this memory, more than all the others, that stop me from applying for any of these types of jobs, even if they’re right there for the taking, listed on the black-and-white of the screen.

            Another truth: every time I search for post-college jobs, I start to cry. People have stopped asking me about the future because of this; it's only tolerable so many times. The tears are involuntary, like all tears are, I guess. But scrolling through those listings gets my heart racing, my mouth dry, my head hazy and fuzzy until I see the computer in triplicate and then I shut it off.

             As always since the hospital, I try to take things a day at a time to get by. The trouble is, too many days have passed. Sixteen years of schooling, and I still feel like I have no skills. I don't know a thing about Microsoft Excel, still look at fractions like they’re an alien life form, and would be clueless if I had to pitch a tent. When I describe my accomplishments, they’re all in the past tense. I have this plastic running trophy in my bedroom at my parents’ house that I won when I was fifteen. I can’t bring myself to take it down. Draped around it are my high-school National Honor Society cords, my Varsity letters, a Top 25 ribbon from a cross country race, four half-marathon finishers’ medals, and old notes from teachers encouraging me to pursue writing in college.

            I speak in the past, my mind living in reruns: “When I did this . . . When I did that . . . Remember when? I wish I still . . .

* * *

There are only a few weeks left of my job in the University’s convenience store, and until my graduation. In my dining-hall uniform cap and blue t-shirt, I pass the hours straightening out the inventory on the shelves, dusting them off, and pulling all the products forward. Then there is the constant motion as we make the food that fuels the drunken droves. I fold a quesadilla on the grill and cut it into thirds. I think nothing of myself, just the orders off the monitor, and this is when I am happiest—exhausted.

            Of course, the cash register slides open with a clunk. I grab the change and count it back, sliding the coins from palm to palm. It seems like nobody ever wants their change, though. They leave it behind, in the leave-a-penny take-a-penny jar. Without a thought, they walk away. Funny thing is, I would take that change if I could. That is, if I were allowed to. The rules dictate that dining-hall employees can’t take tips, so I usually don’t. I get so afraid of such simple little risks.

            But sometimes, when nobody is looking, I take the change anyway. I slip it into my pocket to put in my piggy bank for later. There’s no harm and low risk in making myself twenty-five cents richer, and I figure if nothing else, all of this slow change has to add up to something substantial eventually.

            I do these things meticulously—slowly—so that nobody catches on. But I do these things deliberately, so some part of me must think that I am worth of this change.

            If someone were to ask me today, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I might not reply “a cashier!” anymore. I might just say, “I don’t know.” What I really might mean by that is, “Judging from everything I’ve seen, I don’t know how to go on.”

            At night, I still think of black holes pummeling toward me, a collision course.

            But for now, I’ve found the rhythm, and living—avoiding the future—is easy enough. Making change out of twenties, refilling the gigantic vat of mayonnaise, counting out the number of chicken fingers to shove in an order box. Until 3 a.m. rolls around and I walk home to the black holes barreling toward me, closing in on either side, twisting like tornadoes, I’m safe from time.

            Eyes shut for just a second. Deep breath. Open the eyes and smile. Now the long line at the register doesn’t seem so bad.


Writing beneath the bell jar: lessons from Plath

by Laura Dennison

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“Not the mental illness one,” my professor told me. “Mental illness is not . . . hip. And literary magazines want hip.” I was finishing my undergrad degree, and we met to review which of my essays to send out to The Sun.

He spoke the truth: mental illness isn’t hip. It shouldn’t be. But my professor’s honesty got me worried that my non-trendy topic would translate directly into unreadable material. I wondered if I should ditch my in-progress memoir entirely, and instead buy a pack of American Spirits and book the next flight to Iceland for some backpacking. Those things, surely, were hip.

My second, more troublesome fear: how could I—just one person—accurately tell a story about mental illness? Would I misrepresent, romanticize, or sensationalize my experiences? How would I adequately acknowledge the role that privilege played in the quality of my care? Where was the line between helping others feel less alone and just adding something dark to their already stormy headspace?

I thought back to 16, when I was assigned Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my high school psychology class. I don’t believe Plath glamorized mental illness, and while her book spared no grimness, I found reading it somehow freeing, most memorably for its central metaphor: the bell jar, trapping her within her thoughts. It may randomly lift, granting her the freedom of fresh air, but it always stays suspended over her, threating to come crashing down once more at any time. I still remember the night I set The Bell Jar down on my bedroom rug after finishing it, feeling at once comforted and deeply unsettled. The comfort came from the fact that no, I was not the only person in the world who felt the way I did. The discomfort came from how accurately Plath was able to use metaphor to make her specific experiences disturbingly familiar.

Remembering Plath helped me solve both my concern with hipness and my fears surrounding how to discuss mental illness. First, fuck being hip. Second, I let metaphor do much of the heavy lifting. After all, real-life mental illness on paper would either look like 300 blank pages or 300 pages of illegible scrawl. Rather than restrict my memoir’s topic, I strove for authenticity, hoping this would be enough to avoid glamorizing or sensationalizing. I realized that I did not need to write my “mental illness story,” but the memoir of a 12-year-old girl inundated with psychiatric diagnoses and medications and the six years of tumultuous aftermath. By rejecting pathology in favor of character and quest as the central focus of my book, I rejected the limiting classifications that makes illness un-hip, and found the freedom to tell the story I needed.


Laura Dennison is a graduate of Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. and is a content editor at Southern New Hampshire University.