March 2020, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic
London talks to me as I continue to glue sequins to the outside of a styrofoam cup. It’s my 14th day on the ward, and this is how I’ve chosen to spend my time, wasting the minutes between group meetings and meals with mindless, repetitive tasks such as cardboard puzzles and crafts. The craft cart has a ton of crap on it: feathers, sequins, rhinestones, construction paper, markers, colored pencils, crayons, coloring books, nontoxic paints, pipe cleaners, puff balls with tinsel, and nontoxic glue. I’ve cataloged it all in my head for reference. My chosen craft is bedazzling disposable objects, such as cups, bottles, milk cartons, yogurt containers, sporks, and other objects left out after meals. It takes just the right amount of brainpower to become unaware of the passage of time while I wait to get discharged from this strange, sterile, purgatorial place.
London stares out the Atrium windows at the helicopter pad above, arms crossed as she sways left to right in her hospital gown. She talks about her children, she has seven surviving, minus her son who was killed in the drive-by shooting that still haunts her, even now. I stop gluing down my sequins and stare at her.
No way you have seven kids. How old are you? I ask.
I’m 62. She says.
I gasp. London! I seriously thought you were 23! I thought you were younger than me! What the hell? Man. Well, you’re fucking beautiful. Jesus. You’re ageless really. Immortal London.
London smiles at me, squints her cat-like amber eyes. Well honey, inside, I feel about 5 million years old.
Her slender arms are folded across her chest, wrists tucked under her biceps. She’s small and her dark skin is ashen, gone dry from the industrial soap they give us as dual-use body wash and shampoo while we’re held in this place. The bathrooms flood constantly due to faulty plumbing, so I have a whole routine of disinfecting before I feel safe undressing and tentatively crawl under the small tap in the wall that sprays water on a timer after you push the button on the outside of the stall. I always wipe down the sink and toilet with disinfectant before I take off my clothes and fold them neatly on the sink, then slip on my shower shoes and enter the stall.
London sits down across from me at the small table. I finish gluing down my last few sequins and present her with the cup as a gift and decoration for her room. Her amber eyes water above her mask.
Thank you, dove.
I start gluing sequins onto another cup. I plan on giving it to the small Indian man who doesn’t speak English, who never leaves his room or talks to anyone because of the language barrier. He only knows how to ask for water. I always bring him several bottles before the nurses can even stand up. I think he must be terrified here, in this place full of strangers, all talking to each other or themselves in a strange tongue, disturbed and distraught.
London starts telling me about her son:
He was so bright, my boy. He could have been anything, he could have done anything he wanted. He was great at sports and sharp as hell.
The corners of her eyes crease in a smile behind her mask.
I tell her: I bet he was beautiful too, like you.
Oh, yes he was, he was beautiful. My beautiful boy. He could have been anything.
She looks down at her hands then, fingers splayed out over the chessboard built into the top of the table. She sits back in her chair, crosses her arms over her chest. She seems to be squeezing herself. I look down at her arms again, her skin is covered in goosebumps. She’s shivering. I watch her gaze glaze over.
I remember the night it happened, she says. I heard the pop of the shots and dropped to the floor in the kitchen. I crawled to the front door, calling out to him, I knew he had been standing on the front porch even though I had told him it was time to come in. When I heard the car speed off, I pushed open the door and found him lying there. They had shot him through the heart— he died in my arms.
I look at her. Behind that blank stare, I can tell she is there, still there, forever there on her front porch, screaming and holding her son as he struggles to breathe, blinking up at her, lips coated with blood— Oh Mom. Oh Mom. Oh Mom.
Oh London, I say. That is some war-level trauma you’ve experienced. What you have lived through is what mothers dread every day in war-torn countries, when they know they will live to witness their sons and daughters and husbands and sisters and mothers and brothers and fathers be gunned down or blown up in the streets.
I put my hand out palm up on the table for her to take. She places her small, cool hand in mine.
I am with you sister. I am with you, always, even there, on that porch, in the dark, and your son lives on in my heart, in your heart, and in an infinite number of time arcs where those fuckers never got to that point, with their guns and their words and their wars, where your son finishes school and becomes the man you always wanted to see him grow into, where he safe and healthy and with you, and you were never here at all, with me, because you had no need to be.
She nods at me, wipes her tears with the shoulder of her sleeve.
But we are here, I tell her, and we must live out this life the way it unfolds for us, and you have to focus on loving and supporting each of your seven other children, so they can love and support you, so you can teach them how to hold and comfort you in the moments before your own lips turn blue.
She squeezes my hand, nods again. Her gaze focuses on my face. Her amber eyes widen, bold and brave. She stops crying, smiles and sighs.
Thank you, dove. I am glad I am in here, with you. You understand.
I tell her, I am glad to know you, you ageless goddess you. You gorgeous soldier, you’re the strongest person I’ve ever encountered. Look at you! There’s not a damn wrinkle on you!
She laughs, tosses her head back and slaps the back of my hand.
I never felt so much alike alike alike alike
Rachel McCarren is a pansexual poet from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Vulcanalia (upcoming), The Honest Ulsterman, Anti Heroin Chic, The Pittsburgh City Paper, The Unexposed Mag, Radioactive Moat, and more.