I was seventeen the night of my first breakdown, sick with the opiates they had forced down my synaptic clefts. The lithium that flowed from my physician's white-lidded pill bottles was water poured into a broken glass.
By then I knew that the doctors' offices each have an inimitable smell: an airborne concoction of disinfectant, pills, powders, and tissue paper.
And after awhile you notice that there are clocks sitting quietly in their place, keeping time like locusts waiting in the underground.
Then there are clocks that ring out crisp and clear on muggy August nights, or loud and paralytic in the office of a wealthy doctor. I'd known both types of timepieces, the click-click of the second hand marking my future in a language of red and blue capsules. I'd never known a doctor to notice the distinction between one clock and the next, but once I'd seen a little timepiece smashed by the girl before me, her hands wringing the neck of a round oval, pieces of the second hand descending in the office with the slivers of sticky glass.
The questions begin the same way - height, weight, birthday. I'd say Yes, the lawyers came for me. I was at school. I'm on medical leave now. It became a refrain I'd sing for unwilling audiences. I'd been cracked wide open, a screaming pregnant girl who'd finally burst.
And the doctors will tell you to follow the instructions on the bottle no matter what. Even if the pills begin to gnaw a hole in squishy fabric of your stomach, they will tell you to do as told. After taking the seven bottles of pills as they'd said to, the place between my heart and my hips caught fire: before my breakdown I lay awake five nights on end, thinking I'd let the devil inside. That was when the electric light inside of me misfired, a bottle rocket caught in the crevices of my spine.
And on the way to the doctor that night, I remembered when I was a middle-school kid and my mother brought me small things to remember her by as she recovered from the years of drinking SKYY and bottled seltzer. There was a tiny plastic duck on my dresser and a little toad on my bookcase. I saved books and jingly trinkets from the mornings she woke me up and left. I saved the glass tumbler that she drank her bubbly mix from, knowing I'd someday find myself as hollow as the bones of a bird.
* * *
Years trickled away with pills, and some things became clear. I called my boyfriend, singing lullabies on his answering machine, begging him to come home. My dad prayed that I'd have direction, his hands pointed upward like the steeple of the last church on earth.
And my heart had become something of an anorexic, a hungry little schoolgirl crying out for more. I'd hoped to grow old and pill-addicted with the man from Gambier, whose answering machine had become my confessional. I called and was redeemed by his automated greeting; I was lifted by the empty white space of the cassette tape waiting after the tone. The light on my own telephone shone red like a poker chip. No one would call.
Ask anyone off the street, they'll tell you someone knows their secrets. My uncle knows his wife shoplifted from Strauss & Jeremy Department Store when she was eighteen. And as the youth ministry treasurer she can only hope he doesn't go public. Everyone has a story like that, something they hope never gets out: I'd let a man twice my age anesthetize my thinking brain with sweet talk. Try wanting to change the speed light travels at, or bending every clock's skinny arms toward your own self. See how you feel in the morning.
Before I'd told Pembroke, high priest of the dial tone, about the years I'd spent in a velvet underground, plagued by black-suited men with briefcases, I'd noticed that on his mantel was a watch that he never wore. He just left it there, and as he made me sit through "Indochine" for the fifth time the tock-tock began to fill the room. He just kept watching, and ogling Catherine Deneuve.
His face was the last thing I remember seeing when I woke up in a hospital bed. And that was the last time I saw him, enamored by a fictive blonde.
The answering machine must have recorded my entire life story after I'd gotten the doctors to let me out again. I remembered when he and I talked about having a family, and being disconcerted by what a lovely pregnant girl he thought I'd make. And the tape clicked off.
There are some girls who never drink but often wish they were drunk as a frat boy on a Friday night. I'm one of them, planning a dark iron-lidded stupor. Pembroke, the owner of the answering machine, didn't remember me when I called three years later. He was finally home, an amnesiac with a Brooklyn accent. I remember the light being sucked out of everything.
The lists I'd kept were never written.