“... and then I thought, What am I doing? You know what I mean?”
“Yes, but I still feel like you’re not being completely honest with me. You know, considering the circumstances of —”
“I understand. And trust me, had I been in that man’s place, I would’ve done the same.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Now, have you tried doing anything to change your perspective? Because this is ultimately what matters, what makes all the difference: the way you look at something. The way you look at your life, really.”
“If I had a dollar …”
“I know you must have heard this many times, but it does help.”
“It doesn’t help me.”
“Do you have any hobbies?”
“Music — I play the guitar. I read. I write, sometimes. Movies, friends …”
“Good, that’s good. So you keep busy?”
“Is there anything else you would like to tell me?”
“I went to shul the other day — do you know what that is?”
“So I went to shul the other day. They’d invited a famous chazzan for the service, all the way from Israel. When he began singing “Oseh Shalom,” I had goosebumps. That was the first time I felt that way in god knows how long. I don’t know how to explain.”
“I could feel his voice in the place somewhere behind my heart, piercing it like a hook. It hurt, but in a good way. There was also something about the atmosphere: the dimmed lights, the candles, the way people were holding their siddurs — I mean, their prayer books — against their faces. I suppose the technical term for that is ‘trance,’ but I don’t like to use it, you know. Brings to mind cults, and surprisingly well groomed but creepy leaders, and Kool-Aid ... What was I talking about?”
“Oh yes, so he began to chant the prayer, and I thought to myself, Why isn’t this being done on every street corner? We could find people with beautiful voices, or beautiful poems to recite, or beautiful music to play, or beautiful things to say, and pay them for doing exactly that. On every street corner. The world could use some sobering beauty. I don’t think I was the only one who felt life — whatever that means — when the chazzan was singing. If it can provoke such a powerful reaction, why isn’t it being done everywhere? Maybe then people on their way to do stupid things would stop and reconsider.”
“When you say ‘people,’ you include yourself, too, right?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Would you have stopped and reconsidered?” The silence was telling.
“Well, I certainly agree it is something to think about, even though I don’t promise you a cantor here, for obvious reasons. What happened to your arm? Are those — excuse me for a moment.”
Malka had been staring at her knees and raised her eyes just in time to see him leave. (He was very tall, so it always seemed to take him about three or four steps to exit any room.) She realized she was cold. She was very conscious of her exposed arm. Her hands were white. The lighting in the office looked very artificial. She felt like a laboratory specimen. Three people, not much older than she was, had followed him out of the office and were standing in the hallway just outside the door. They were talking amongst themselves in hushed tones and occasionally glancing at her with slightly awkward smiles. She knew being polite wasn’t expected of her in this situation, so she maintained eye contact with them for a little too long until they looked away. The interns obviously had no idea about what they were supposed to do without the doctor there, and she found that amusing.
Dr. Klein came back. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he left, but it probably wasn’t much. He looked a little disheveled and out of breath.
“I’m really sorry, but there’s a situation. This place drives me crazy sometimes.”
“Me, too, and I’m supposed to be getting better. Go figure.” Both of them chuckled.
“We’ll definitely continue tomorrow. It’s almost time for dinner, so you can hang around in the TV room.” One, two, three, and he was out of the office again.
“By the way, there are musical instruments here, so maybe think about attending groups tomorrow?” He said, peeking inside one last time.
“I know and I will, thank you.”
She slowly made her way back to the common room. The hospital scrubs were two sizes too big, so she had to hold her pants by the waistband. Eleanora was banging on the door to the nurses’ station. Malka heard the annoyed nurses saying, “Dr. K will be with you shortly. Please step away from the door.” Eleanora was leaving, and the poor woman didn’t even realize that. Malka fought back tears. “Bye and good luck,” she said with a smile as she passed the woman. Eleanora didn’t pay attention.
The common room was half-empty as always. Four TV screens were on at the same time, and Malka wondered who’d decided it was a good idea, and what they’d been thinking. She got into her reclining chair and stared at a spot a little to the left of the screen that was facing her side of the room. They were showing a rerun of some music awards show. The woman in the chair next to Malka’s was lying on her side and facing the wall, her forehead touching her knees. She was entirely covered by a white blanket. She was having a hard time dealing with withdrawal pains. But for the constant rocking, the woman’s shape looked like that of a big dead baby.
Malka woke up when the night-shift nurse was passing her with her clipboard.
“You didn’t eat dinner. You hungry?”
“No one woke me up. I’m good.”
A visibly anxious young man, probably Malka’s age, was having a conversation with the security officer, who was doing something on his phone.
“You know, man, I gotta get outta here. This place ain’t no good. My mom called the police on me, you know. I was like, ‘What are you doing, ma?’ Told them she was afraid of me. Bullshit!” The young man punched the wall. Malka felt a very familiar pain in her knuckles.
“Hey, hey, hey, there’s no need for that! You’ll hurt yourself. You have to be quiet, people are sleeping. So what are you planning to do when you get out?” Having made sure the young man wasn’t about to punch anything again, the security officer took out his phone again.
“I don’t know, man ... Probably get my shit together, go back to school ‘cause I need to get my education ...”
“That’s good, that’s good.”
Malka tried to locate the source of another voice. It belonged to the old lady who was sitting at a table in the middle of the room, alone. Seeing her, shrunken and motionless, with nothing on but a hospital gown and socks, made Malka want to give the old lady a hug, but patients were forbidden from making physical contact. Malka couldn’t make out the old lady’s face in the darkness; all she saw was the light-blue gown on the vague form of a human being with a dark oval for a face and even darker hollows for eyes.
“I’m not giving anyone my sandwich. Think they can just take it away. It has my name written on it and everything … Kicked me out. Repeating myself. I’m not repeating myself! Trying to take away my food … I asked her not to throw away my carpets. Told her, ‘Honey, please let me know if you decide to throw anything away.’ I wanted to keep the one with the bears … Shishkin’s ‘Utro v sosnovom boru’ … Threw away everything. They belonged to me, the books. Those were my books. My papa’s books. Wouldn’t hurt her to let me keep them … Calls me a hoarder … Why do you care? Threw away everything ...”
Malka searched her tangle of bed sheets, blankets, and pillows for a sheet of paper and a pencil that she had persuaded the kind volunteer girl, Miriam, to let her keep. There was just enough light coming in from the corridor to make out what she wrote:
“How utterly, unbearably, miserably, gut-wrenchingly alone we are.”
“You play really well.”
Malka was sitting in the recreation room with a guitar by the window. She hadn’t noticed Heather.
“Oh, thank you.”
“Are you excited about leaving tomorrow?”
“You know what? I’ve grown to like being in a bubble. This isn’t real life, and real life scares the hell out of me, to be honest with you, Heather.”
Heather gave Malka a smile and went to look at the drawing that David was impatiently waving at her. The day before Yom Kippur, he had heard Malka play “Hatikvah,” and decided to give her his machzor so she could pray. He had signed it: “David the Messiah.”
Malka looked at the group of people doing arts and crafts. Should she have felt sorry for them? Adult men and women drawing devils, and flowers, and things that made sense to them if to nobody else. Adult men and women awkwardly holding crayons between their fingers. Helpless children who had never learned to live, now trapped in adult men and women. What could possibly have happened that led to all of this?
Heather was one of the good ones. She actually loved her job, and Malka always wished she could stay a little longer. Heather, Joy, and Eric locked the recreation room at four in the afternoon, and people hobbled to the dining area to line up for dinner, not because they were particularly hungry, but because that was one of the few things they could do. They had empty eyes. Malka dreaded the end of dinner. It would be visiting time in a couple of hours, and she always felt even lonelier then.
Malka woke up when the night-shift nurse was passing her with her clipboard.
“You didn’t eat breakfast. Are you hungry? You’re getting discharged today, so here’s the bag with your clothes. Remove the sheets and put them on the floor. Your doctor will give you your papers and anything valuable you might have in the locker.”
Malka saw Dr. Klein making rounds. Miriam was pushing a cart with activity books, Sharpies, modeling clay, cheap paperbacks, and all sorts of other things that the people they were intended for were not going to use. She walked up to anyone who wasn’t asleep, crying, or having a conversation with no-one in particular, and said, “Hi, my name is Miriam, and I’m a volunteer. Would you like to do something? I have crayons, playing cards, dominoes—” but before she could finish, the person would turn away. Miriam sat down at a table and opened a crossword puzzle book. She was blushing.
“Mind if I sit down?” asked Malka.
“Oh, not at all!” said Miriam, and her face lit up. “What do you want to do? Wanna play dominoes?”
“Sure. I’m getting discharged today.”
“Good for you, mazal tov! Is anyone coming to pick you up?”
“Oh … Where do you live?”
“Well, I wish you all the best — and don’t you ever come back! Seriously, though, it was really nice talking to you these past couple of days. Don’t forget to check out the books I told you about — they’re really funny! ”
Malka smiled and tried to ignore the lump in her throat.
The elevator doors opened. Malka stepped out into the lobby. A belonging bag with her cell phone, jewelry, and Metrocard was the only thing giving away the fact that she had been a patient ten minutes ago. She pushed the revolving door, and the chilly autumn air filled her lungs. The world had a cool blue tinge to it, the kind that appears when you close your eyes for a few minutes on a sunny day and then open them and look around. Malka tried to remember where she was and how long it would take her to get home.
She went down the steps of a subway station. Rummaging through the transparent bag for her Metrocard, Malka saw a woman with a stroller.
“May I help you?” she asked.
“Oh, that’s okay, thank you.”
The woman smiled at Malka, and started going up the stairs backwards, lifting the stroller by the handle while Malka lifted it by the front wheels. A boy, two or three years old, was bundled up comfortably inside. Malka smiled at him. The boy smiled back. They reached the top of the stairs. Malka carefully put the front wheels of the stroller back on the ground.
“Thank you so much!” said the mother.
“Not at all. Have a good evening.”
Malka heard somebody’s phone make the familiar sound of receiving a new Messenger text. She could barely stand it because she had been waiting to hear it all this time. She was afraid to look at her phone. She decided to do it anyway. No missed calls or unread texts. Malka felt sick.
It would be a long way home. Why even bother going home? Malka’s head felt heavy, heavy. She wanted to lie down. The naked branches of trees looked like cracks in the orange sky. The most perfect thing was coming apart. Nobody cares. Nobody cares. Malka remembered the man who called the police. She remembered his wife and son standing slightly farther away. People care just enough to grab you by the collar and drag you away. People care just enough to call the police. Let these words find you. Let there be no more ghosts of girls walking home from hospitals. The waters beneath the George Washington Bridge were still.