He looks like every other doctor I’ve seen. Long white coat, to signify he’s above the other orderlies. He’s more important, he’s more, he’s a man. He doesn’t have to wear the stiff skirt or smile of a nurse’s uniform.
I drown out the doctors scolding and look down at my own uniform. It’s mockingly clean and untampered. But it helps me finally fit in somewhere. We check in, they take away our names, and soon we blend in together. We become numbers in rooms that feed on pills at the same hour every day. But I’ve become exasperated with blending in. And the blending of the days. And the blending of the memories. I look out my barred window (I fancy myself to be Allen’s mother in the poem I helped type for him , looking for the Key she told him about, but I can’t find it anywhere and I’m beginning to think she was a liar like her son) out towards Manhattan and think of life before. The lives that moved on without me while mine is stagnant inside of this madhouse. The doctor raises his voice and is more affirmative and I slip back into Bellevue.
“Elise, are you listening? I strongly advise you to reconsider. Given your circumstances.”
I adjust the heavy glasses on my face and look up at him. My mind is made up.
“Thank you doctor, But I think I’m ready.”
He shakes his head and sighs. Both familiar disappointed gestures. The day I’m ready to leave is the day I finally see his real face. Deep concave wrinkles like dried up rivers, carve at his face. The same wrinkles I’ve seen on Ma and Pa.
Faces eroded by worry.
* * *
Worry, Worry, like when I blew my damn eyebrows off baking a cake for friends. Friends who didn’t say thank you. Mother runs to the kitchen first. She’s hollering, thinking it’s one of the anarchists beneath us, or the communists above. “A bomb! A bomb!” But the smell of disintegrated hair hits her nostrils, the smoke clears, and she looks at me, her only child, no eyebrows, hair on head defying gravity. She laughs, and I want to laugh too. She covers her mouth laughing, and I try to join her. Her laughs become deep with long pauses in between. They’re not laughs. They’re sobs. Spacious sobs, not immediate. Struggling to come out to the surface. Pa runs in. He takes one glance at me and shakes his head before wrapping his arm around Ma and rushing her out. He looks back for a second.
“Clean this mess up Elise!”
“Look what you’re doing to your mother!”
“I already have enough to worry about with you!”
“And just look at your face, how ugly you’ve become!”
But what about me, Pa? Flames lashed out at me. I could have died, Pa. I saw my life before my eyes. It was short with nothing worth seeing. I thought in that instance how no one would come to my funeral. Not a boy or a girl. No one.
* * *
The doctor says something before he walks out of the room. Must’ve been something like, Don’t want to see you back here or Remember, you need to take your medication. I nod, “Sure, sure”.
I walk out of my room and to the common area. I want to take in one last look of the other patients in here before I leave. They’re all women who’ve gone mad for being too intelligent and brilliant for this world.
They see things other women can’t.
They do things men are intimidated by.
They are not ornaments for their lovers.
They are not merely presences.
They are the silent voices of the girls dressed in black.
They are called delinquents and much worse.
They’re only crime trying to survive in a straight world.
They are rebels within the rebellion.
They are all me..
I stand in the doorway of the common area and go unnoticed. A group of four ladies are playing cards and cursing each other out with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. One stands by a barred-up window drinking a cup coffee, whispering inaudible phrases to herself. A couple of the younger ones surround a radio and try to dance to the latest sounds of Jazz. I take in the beauty of their souls one last time. It feels like I’m back at my old pad.
* * *
I was nineteen when I got my own apartment. The landlord almost wouldn’t give me it, because no one believed a woman could afford it. They were right. I was so low on cash I had to steal books from libraries to keep me sane. It was at the Barnard College library that I met Joyce . I was looking over the Whitman section, looking for a collection to take home. Joyce happened to be there in the aisle. I stood there awkwardly, hoping she would grab a book and leave. But she took the collection I wanted. She stopped.
“Did you want to check this out too? I’m sorry.” She said. She was beautiful and I know any man or woman would be happy to lay with her.
“It’s fine.” I stood there looking at my shoes.
“I’ll be quick with it. I only need it for an essay.”
“You know, I know a way we can both use it, if you’re willing to share?” I said as an idea popped in my head. She gave me a wide smile and I became attracted to how honest she appeared to me. “Just give me the book and meet me outside the library in about 5 minutes.”
Outside we made quick introductions. We walked with the Whitman collection under my coat to my apartment and made small talk. It was when we got to my apartment that Joyce became more earnest.
“Hip pad, Elise! You’re here all by yourself?” she said looking over my other stolen books.
“I envy you, to be independent like this outside of a marriage. I don’t know how you could do it.”
“Trust me, it’s not as glamourous as it looks. So what poem were you looking for?” I open the collection and skim the table of contents. I peek over to my guest to make sure she’s comfortable. I see her pick up one of my notebooks and open it. “Wait, don’t read that!” I lunge and snatch the notebook of poems and fragments out of Joyce’s delicate hands
“Don’t worry, it was good stuff. I write too, you know. We should write together sometime. We can share and help each other,” she said with enthusiasm.
“I don’t know. I’ve never shown anyone. They’re mediocre anyways.”
* * *
I dazed out and find myself back in my room. I look around me and plan my departure. I pack the few belongings they allowed me to keep in here. A hairbrush mother gave me to help maintain my ugly mane. The old Barnard College sweater Joyce gave me one night I was freezing my tits off outside of an East Village club. A notebook full of poems and fragments I haven’t shown to anyone. And a book on Eastern Buddhist Mysticism. I know Pound. I’ve memorized Eliot. But I never could get into Buddha. Enlightenment seemed too high an expectation to reach. I grab the book, and flip through the dog-eared pages of principles I tried to learn. I remember stealing it from a Manhattan bookstore the day after I met Allen.
* * *
I stayed after philosophy class to talk to Alex Greer, my professor.
I needed to tell him I couldn’t keep fucking him.
Allen was in the doorway waiting to talk to him too.
Alex knew what I wanted to say so stopped me before I could.
“Elise, do you know Allen?”
We went on our first date in the spring of ‘53.
He took me to his pad in the East Village.
We made mad love the same night.
He turns away from me after he finishes.
He pulls out a Buddhist text and reads it out loud.
I can hear him yelling in the Jazz club to Jack .
“She’s a MADWOMAN, man!”
“An intellectual, can recite all of Eliot for you!”
“And she’s queer, like me!”
Jack nods and smiles at him then looks back at me with his sad eyes and winks.
Weeks pass and we see Jack at the same club again and I stay behind while they talk.
“She’s disgusting and smells like death.”
“Reminds me of my mother, some big Jewish wife that yells at me over the dishes.”
“Can’t stand her hopelessness, I’ll glad to leave her behind as the last girlfriend I’ll ever have.”
He thinks I can’t, but I hear it all.
I’m not his muse but his secretary.
I work for him while he dances with Peter .
I ask him to move in with me.
He brings Peter along to distance me.
I go to lesbian bars and meet and fuck Sheila, but he doesn’t notice.
I find an artist, but he’s not Allen.
I get pregnant anyway and need an abortion.
It’s too late so they have to do a hysterectomy, or I’ll kill myself I tell them.
I have to move back with Ma and Pa.
Then I breakdown.
Ma and Pa kick me out.
I check into Bellevue Hospital.
They tell me I have hepatitis and have gone mad.
I become a brief moment for Allen.
But to me, he will always be eternity.
* * *
I take my belongings and sign out of Bellevue. I told them I’m going to Miami Beach with Ma and Pa for vacation. But no one’s home at this hour. I wave down a cab.
“Where to Miss?”
“Bennet Avenue. In Washington Heights.”
I get dropped off in front of Ma and Pa’s apartment. I look up at my childhood home. The building blends in with the New York skyline. No bars on the window. I saunter inside. Take the elevator alone. I count each floor as I go up. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven . I walk to the door. The Key is hiding under the welcome mat.
-For Elise Nada Cowen,
More than mediocre, more than a moment.