AFTER A YEAR OF INTENSIVE therapy, I know this. I feel it claw at my sanity. Oh, God, make it stop!
My fingers claw at smoldering steel as black smoke burns my eyes. "Come on, Beth!" I can't see. I can't breathe. The smell of gas. Help me! Somebody help me! She's not moving. Is her hair caught in the shoulder strap? I smash the window, but I can't get the door. She's not breathing. I suck in and put my head through the window, my mouth over hers, tasting her lipstick. Headlights come toward us through the fog. I stagger into the road. My hands wave. "Stop!" The whites of a man's eyes stare through the darkened glass. "Please stop." He slows and I grab for the closed window; it's cold against my blistering palm. Why isn't he stopping? I bang my hand against his window. "She's dying! Help me!" My palm print, smeared in blood, slips away; he's speeding up. I scream. A blue sparks turns to flames; it's in her hair Help me!
I startled and blinked as a hand tapped my shoulder.
"Dr. Grainger. Peter, are you okay?"
I coughed and fought back the nausea that always comes. "I'm fine," I said, not knowing where I was, wondering how long I'd been gone. Okay, Peter, pull it together. You're in an emergency room,that's what set off the flashback. I turned toward the voice and found a name to match the concerned face of the short, middle-aged black woman looking up at me. "Grace, I spaced," I told the third-shift aide in the psychiatric emergency room of University Hospital.
"Good thing you're not a surgeon," she quipped. "She must be someone special to drag the big boss out in the middle of the night."
"Aren't they all," I answered, trying to fill in the missing pieces. I was in an emergency room, and it was late at night, which meant I had to be here to evaluate someone. "What do you know about her?"
"Same old, same old," Grace said, leading me into the Plexiglas nurses' station that separated the six patients' cubicles from the staff. "Name's Ann Walsh, twenty-two-year-old sophomore medical student, took a razor to her wrists."
"How bad?" I asked.
"Seen worse, a few sutures on each side, and if she really wanted to kill herself you'd think she'd know to go with the arteries and not against the grain."
"You're a sick woman, Grace. Any idea why?"
"Not that she's telling, but it boils down to a few basic plots."
"Okay ... and they are?"
"Oh, please." The thirty-year veteran of the emergency room, who knew me when I was a resident, explained. "You've got Romeo and Juliet--young love gone bad. Ophelia--depressed and suicidal. Lady Macbeth--couldn't handle the guilt. And, of course, Lady Ann--'lay one hand on my frilly white under things and I'll kill myself.' Shakespeare covered the bases."
"Which is she?" I asked, remembering that Grace worked the graveyard shift so that she could spend her days pursuing a career as a comic actress.
"Don't know, but I do know she wants out."
"Which will it be? Keep her or let her go?"
"You want me to do your whole job for you?"
"I know you could."
"You know that's right," she answered. "This is how I see it--if they want to go, you need to keep them. If they want to stay, you should kick them out."
"It's a little perverse."
"Am I wrong?" She grinned.
"No." I took the clipboard with Ann Walsh's documentation and leafed through it. She'd arrived before eleven. She'd been drinking. Her alcohol level wasn't that high, but it was just high enough to do something stupid, like cut her wrists. Her roommate had found her and called 911. The questions to be answered were simple--why did she do it? And did she intend to do it again?
Easy stuff, the kind of thing a resident could handle. Why I--the recently appointed medical director for the university's mental health clinic--was here, had to do with a phone call from Ed, my oldest friend and the dean of the medical school. "Peter," he'd said, "I've got a situation with a student that I'd like you to handle ... personally."
That's why I was here, and that was a big, albeit unstated, part of my job--buffer the students from the real world and keep bad publicity away from the university. Ann Walsh was a problem that needed to be fixed.
I walked the few yards that separated them--the patients--from us--the staff. She was in cubicle five, and as I knocked on the wall and pulled back the curtain, I had to fight to stay present. ERs and certain other situations, such as crash sites, have a way of setting my brain twitching. But as that curtain slid back, it wasn't just my own memories of lying in one of these cubicles, huddled in a ball and wanting to die, it was something unexpected, and it hit hard. In the filtered light that spilled from the common areainto Ann Walsh's cubicle I saw my wife, Beth. She turned and the illusion shattered, just a trick of the light that gave her hair the same coppery gold glimmer, and the way her head tilted on a long slender neck. Her eyes were different, the shape of her chin, her mouth--all different. Beautiful, but different.
"Ann," I said, trying to shake off an irrational bad feeling. "I'm Peter Grainger, Dr. Grainger."
"I'm not crazy," she stated, sizing me up through large blue eyes set in a face that could have been on the cover of Vogue.
"So what happened?" I sat on the hard-plastic chair bolted next to the bed.
"Everyone keeps asking me that. Like, why should anyone give two shits?"
"Did you tell anyone why you did it?"
"No." She cracked a smile and tucked a strand of wispy hair behind her ear.
"If you did, we'd stop asking. So yes, you've got to tell me."
"Or you get trundled up to the psych unit until you're safe to go."
"I'm not going to do anything," she stated. "This was stupid, I was angry, I'd been drinking. You have no idea how much I regret this. Do you know what they've put me through? I could kill her."
"My roommate, Shana. I've been trying to get a private room, but ..."
"There's one way you can get a private room."
"Yes, I'm aware of the 'psycho singles,'" I said, sensing that she was flirting.
"Wouldn't this count--a trip to the emergency room?"
"You sure you want to play this up?"
"Good point," she said, wrapping her sheet tight. "So, how do I get out of here?"
"Tell me what happened."
"Jesus, you're persistent. There's no other way?"
"Where will this go?"
"What do you mean?"
"What I tell you ... who's going to know? And don't tell me that everything is confidential, because I know that's not how this works."
"You're right, it's not that clean. You tried to hurt yourself, maybe to kill yourself; it's in your hospital record. The reasons you did it are inside your head; I need to know what they are. I probably won't have to get into the specifics with anyone else, but ..."
"There's always a 'but,' isn't there?"
"Right. If you were to tell me that you were thinking of leaving here and stabbing Shana in cold-blooded revenge, I couldn't keep that to myself."
"What if I threatened to mix up her hair scrunchies and nail polish?"
"I'd take it to the grave."
"You know she color codes them?"
"Her nail polish?"
"Everything. That girl needs a shrink. If you so much as touch one of the bottles, she'll know. Plus, she's got bulimia, which--hey live and let live--but our bathroom reeks of puke and Pine-Sol. It's gross."
"Are you trying to tell me you did this to get away from your roommate?"
"Would that work?"
"Why are you so cheerful?" she asked.
Her question caught me off guard; over the past year "cheerful" is not a word I'd have used to describe myself. "Does it bother you?"
"No, I kind of like it, and you don't look much like a shrink."
"Are you trying to get off the subject?"
She sighed and pulled the sheet tightly around her shoulders, looking more like she should be at a spa than a downtown emergency room. "That sounded like a shrink. I suppose I'd better just get this over with."
"Long or short version?" she asked.
"Start short; it's late."
"God, you're direct. Okay, it was my father. I was mad at my father."
"What about?" I asked and watched a tear form in the corner of her eye.
"I sometimes wonder why I even bother; it's always the same. You'd think by now I could have figured something out. I'm not a stupid person. I made it into medical school. I should know not to call him, but I had to."
"Because the bursar sent a registered letter telling me that I have two weeks to come up with tuition or I can pack my bags. He'd told me that he'd sent the check."
"He never does, but sometimes I feel like believing him--that maybe he'll act like a normal father. I think I get that from my mom; she was quite the optimist." Ann looked up and I was struck by her expression, so young, so vulnerable, so beautiful.
"She's not around anymore?" I asked, clearing my throat.
"Dead. Berry aneurysm. Do you know what that is?"
I nodded, knowing from personal experience how having your mother die when you're a child changes everything.
"I was ten," she said. "I remember being told that my mother had died from a berry aneurysm. For the longest time I couldn't figure out how a blueberry or a strawberry could get inside her like that."
As she talked, I made dozens of observations, noting the shifts in her mood, the veneer of defensive humor over a sadness whose depth I could only guess. I glimpsed the ten-year-old she had been as she wrapped herself in a cocoon of hospital linen. I thought of my own mother's traumatic death when I was five. "Are you an only child?"
"There's three of us, and if I don't do something to get them away from him, it's ... it's not good."
"How old are they?"
"Jen is fourteen. Jason's a year younger than me."
"Does he abuse them?"
"He abuses everything, but not in a way that'll send a social worker to get Jen out of there."
"So what happened on the phone?"
"That's the kicker, because it wasn't any worse than dozens of other times. He'd been drinking--a lot. I'd been drinking a little, which didn't help. I asked him what happened to my tuition. He called me a slut. I told him to fuck off. There was some general screaming, and at some point I slammed the receiver."
"And this is how it goes with your dad?"
"So why cut your wrists?"
"You want logic? You're not going to get it, at least not with my dad. This isn't the first time I've seen a shrink about him."
"The other times, was it because you were thinking of killing yourself?"
"Why does it always have to come down to that? It's a pretty big leap from cutting my wrist to saying that I tried to kill myself."
"In fact, if I'd wanted to kill myself, I know what to do."
"Then what were you trying to do?"
"Okay, but you have to promise not to lock me up."
"Sorry" I shook my head.
She shrugged. "I wanted to feel pain. I had no intention of killing myself."
"It's not the first time you've done this?"
"No." She stared at the floor. "I don't do it often, and I don't know what possessed me for the all-out drama fest. I don't usually break the skin; I just bite the inside of my mouth or pinch myself really hard, but after five minutes on the phone with Carter Walsh I needed something to pull me back."
The name instantly registered. "Your father is Carter Walsh, the writer?"
"Used-to-be writer. Now he's just a drunk."
"He knows you're here?"
"I sure didn't tell him, but he'd love to see me locked up. That way everyone would know that I was the fucked-up one and he could play the ministering angel."
I glanced up and saw Grace's outline on the other side of the curtain; it was after four on a Sunday morning. As my dad--a a shrink like me--would say, "Time to fish or cut bait." The fishing was almost over. "Ann, let's recap. You cut yourself after a blowup with your dad, you had no intention of killing yourself, and if I let you out of here, you're not going to do anything like that again, at least not tonight."
"You're going to let me out?" She sat up, and the sheet slid back, revealing soft shoulders and, through the gaping straps of a blue paper gown, the tops of perfect breasts. "I swear I'm not going to do anything."
I tore my gaze from her nakedness. "There's one condition."
"Follow up. I want to meet with you after you go home and get some sleep. Do you know where the school's mental health clinic is?"
"Yeah. I went there last year; it didn't work out."
"You know what? This is more information than we need now. We'll get into that tomorrow, or rather, later today. Do you have any questions?"
I could see she was going to ask me something, but didn't. "So I'll see you at the clinic. Say, ten?"
"Four?" She shot back.
"Deal. Then on Monday we'll hook you up with a therapist."
She was all smiles as she rearranged her gown, as if she knew that she'd nearly exposed herself. "I don't want to tell you your business, but me and therapy hasn't worked out real well."
"Let's not make that decision now; let's keep the options open, okay?"
I left her cubicle. Grace was waiting. "Does she stay or does she go?"
"She goes, with an appointment to see me at the clinic." I filled out the ER intake form and completed the narrative with a couple lines of cover-your-ass legalese. Patient consistently and repeatedly denied any thoughts of wanting to harm herself and was not deemed gravely disabled.
As I walked to the security door, I glanced at Ann's cubicle. The curtain was drawn. I felt a stab of doubt. What if she wasn't okay? Why didn't I ask her more about what happened last year at the clinic? Something in my gut wasn't sitting right. The problem was, I couldn't tell if it had to do with Ann or with me. Glimpsingher bare feet under the curtain, I reran the interview and reminded myself that she was low risk for suicide. Yeah Peter, but what didn't she tell you? I felt doubt, paralyzing and irrational. Fish or cut bait.
"Grace, I'm out of here. I hope the rest of your night is quiet."
"You too." she unlocked the door. "And get some sleep."
OUTSIDE, IT WAS FACE-NUMBING COLD. Fall had slipped into an early winter and New York had been blasted with an ice storm and six inches of powdery white snow earlier in the week. It had all turned to a frozen mush that made every step an exercise in balance.
I cut through Washington Square Park, where the bare branches painted a black-lace veil against the sky. I was glad for my fur-lined bomber jacket and for the ski cap and gloves I'd tucked in the pockets before heading out. Even so, as I turned east, the wind burned my cheeks. I thought of Ann and how she just wanted to feel the pain. I knew what she meant; there's something grounding about physical pain. In the few minutes I'd spent with her, I'd learned a lot. Apply that to my professional life, which has been spent studying, treating, and writing about trauma, and you get a bit further. Until a year ago I thought that was enough; I was the expert--trust me, I'm a doctor. People published my books; my name was attached to a model for working with trauma survivors--all sorts of good stuff. Then a car went out of control, and my brain, which used to be a good friend of mine, decided it was going to teach me some new tricks.
These were the things that ran through my head as my feet carried me past Astor Place, the newly constructed NYU dormitories, and the faded Punk Rock glory of St. Mark's Place. About halfway down the block between First and Avenue A my earsperked at the sound of voices. There were three men--young and rowdy--and I was on their radar. I quickened my pace to see what they would do. They sped up.
"Shit!" I muttered. When in doubt, I'm a firm believer in running away. Not that I'm a coward; it's just easier. But now, less than two blocks from my loft and my sleeping fourteen-year-old son, Kyle, I had no intention of leading a group of thuggies home. As I hit the center of a streetlight's glow, I stopped and turned. They were closer than I had thought; barely ten feet separated me from the front man, a boy really, with matted hair that jutted out from a filthy-looking cap. At six foot two, I had the height advantage. I made eye contact with each of them and then settled on their leader.
"Give us money," he said.
"No," I told him. I noticed that his nose was dripping and what I really wanted to offer him was a tissue.
"Give us your money." He lunged, brandishing a box cutter.
I pivoted, and my right hand found a particularly painful pressure point in the back of his wrist. I twisted up and back. With my left, I pushed him to the ground, leveraging his shoulder while keeping his buddies in sight. The weapon lay in the gutter.
He shrieked in pain. "Let go of me!"
I eased up without loosening my grip. I held him on the verge of agony as I thought through my options. I didn't have to think long. One of the other boys spotted a patrol car heading down the block. "Shit! Come on, Carl!" Without waiting, they sprinted off.
"Let go of me!"
"There's a cop coming." I gave his arm some play and let him get to his feet, although I kept his wrist trapped--one of the joys of aikido, which I've practiced since elementary school--it offers the practitioner a great deal of control.
"Let me go. Please, let me go."
This seemed to be the evening's theme. First Ann, now thiskid. "Why should I? You tried to mug me." His body trembled beneath the layers of an old army coat, a hooded sweatshirt, and God knows what else. "Where do you live?" I asked, figuring I'd walk him home and let his parents deal with him.
"In a squat. Please, don't let them take me." There was raw fear in his voice.
"Why not?" I asked as the cops spotted us: a tall man in a black leather jacket and a crusty teenager apparently holding hands in the lamplight.
"Please, don't let them take me. They'll lock me up."
I moved him out of the center of the light.
"I can't go back there." He begged.
The patrol car was now even with us. It stopped, and a male officer rolled down the window. "Everything okay here?"
The kid was in a panic, and I knew if I let go, he'd bolt, which would only ensure the cops pursuing him. The smart thing would have been to tell them the truth. Crusty boy tried to mug me. He's all yours, and have a pleasant night. "Everything's fine," I lied. "He's a friend of my son's who shouldn't be out. I'm Dr. Grainger. I work at the University. Right now, I'm trying to figure if I'm going to cover for him or just hand him over to his mom." I knew that if the officers got out and took a closer look at the boy, they'd know he was a runaway and I'd look like a pedophile.
"You okay, kid?"
"No problem," he answered. "Please don't tell my mom," he said, improvising on my lie.
Apparently it was good enough, or else it was so cold they didn't want to leave their cruiser. "You'll bring him home, Dr. Grainger?" the officer asked as he rolled up the window.
"I will," I assured him, and watched as they drove off. "If I let go of you, are you going to run?"
I let go; he bolted. I shouted after him, "Hey, if you want a few bucks for food ..."
He stopped, looked back at me. "No, but thanks." Then he sprinted away, vanishing quickly.
Overhead, day was breaking, a vivid streak of red against the eastern sky. I walked the last block and a half to Tompkins Square Park. The gates were locked, but I could glimpse the darkened windows of my third-floor loft on the other side. The iron-fronted building had started its life as a tool factory. For a few decades after that it had served as a sweatshop and then it had gone derelict. In the 1980s it had been bought and sold by a series of developers who never did anything with it, and then as the East Village became trendy, it got rehabbed into lofts. I had been fortunate to get such a great apartment, but like so many things in my life now, I had little to do with it. My new job at the university and my loft were gifts from Ed. Not literal gifts--I was more than qualified and the money was mine--it's just ... it's just, Ed had thrown me a lifeline and had smoothed the way to a new life. So when he had called me up to ask me to see Ann Walsh in the emergency room in the dead of night, there was no question that I'd go.
As I got into the elevator and pulled the gate closed, I thought about how quickly things can change. Just one year ago I was living with my wife and son in Cambridge; we were expecting our second child. It was the happiest time in my life. Everything was in place--my career, Beth's career, Kyle was doing well in school and completely addicted to basketball. It was a very good time. And then, after years of trying and having pretty much accepted the verdict of our fertility specialist, Beth got pregnant--and not just a little pregnant, like the times before when she'd miscarried.
The elevator lurched and hiccoughed to a stop. I yanked back the steel gate and took a slow breath to try to quiet my thoughts.Beth wasn't a little pregnant; she was a lot pregnant, seven months. A viable child burned to death inside of her, a little girl.
I turned the two locks and slid the bolt on the banded-steel-and-oak door. Inside, the radiators hissed and gurgled. To my right I saw the brightening sky through the windows and the shadowy treetops in the park below. Most of the loft was open. My father--a psychiatrist by trade and carpenter by nature--had helped Kyle and me sheet rock out two bedrooms, a kitchen, a study, and a bathroom. It was the best therapy I could have done. Like Ann with pain, there's something grounding about a pneumatic hammer.
I went toward the back and gently opened Kyle's door. He was dead to the world, his long body sprawled facedown on the diagonal, our tortoiseshell coon cat, Willy, curled at the foot of his bed. I watched him, not moving until I could reassure myself that his chest moved in and out as he breathed. I thought about the street kids. Where were they now? Were they warm? Did they have enough to eat?
I closed the door and looked toward the dark opening of my own bedroom. Who am I kidding? No way I'd fall asleep. Whether it was the emergency room or almost getting mugged, my nerves were sizzling. Every creak of the floorboards or clang of the elevator made my head twist. Why even lie down? It would just make it worse. Instead, I went into my cavelike study with its steel-barred fire-escape window. I switched on the light and sat behind the massive rolltop desk, an anniversary present from Beth, and one of the few pieces of furniture I had taken from Cambridge. The walls were covered with bookshelves, and in one corner was a stack of boxes from my publisher, unopened and filled with copies of my books. I was nothing if not prolific. Even now, it was one of the few things that kept me going: my son, my father, and my work. Withoutmeaning to, my hand reached down to a locked cabinet drawer. Inside it were all of my forbidden goodies, the things I needed to stay away from.
I unlocked it, and pulled out the worn manila envelopes, the reams of police reports, and the notarized copy of the fire marshall's findings. There were stacks of photographs taken both the night of the accident and the morning after. There were pictures of the wreckage; there were pictures of Beth. I had the autopsy reports, both Beth's and our unborn little girl's. Then, as I'd done dozens of times before, I searched for answers. Certain things had come back. I knew that we had gone out to talk about something important, that we had wanted to do it away from Kyle. We didn't do that often, only if we thought there might be an argument. I had been driving; there were no skid marks and no signs of mechanical failure. The final finding was that, for some unknown reason, just over a year ago, I had rammed our midnight blue Audi into a granite wall and killed my pregnant wife.
KYLE GRAINGER DRAGGED HIMSELF OUT of bed. His feet found the wicked good L.L. Bean slippers that Grandpa Michael had given him last Christmas--the Christmas in hell. He pulled on a Knicks T-shirt and ventured into the chill of the open loft. Morning sun drew a sharp line of light and shadow on the golden-oak floors. He squinted and turned toward his father's bedroom. He knew that Dad had gotten called to the ER late, and as Kyle walked to his door, he said a prayer. "Please God, let him be asleep."
He peered in at the neatly made bed and felt a wave of disappointment. He walked around the granite kitchen counter, back toward the bathroom, and saw light streaming from under the officedoor. He thought about knocking, but just twisted the handle instead. He stood there, taking it in: his father passed out at his desk, dark stubble sprouting on his face, his arms strewn over a slurry of black-and-white photos. Kyle picked up a photocopied document from the floor; it was his mother's autopsy report. "Fuck!" It dropped from his fingers. He backed out of the room and resisted the urge to slam the door. No, can't do that, because at least he's sleeping. He went to the kitchen phone and pressed the first number on the speed dial.
He breathed easier at the sound of the phone being picked up. "Grandpa?"
"Hey kiddo." His grandfather's deep voice entered his ear. "What's up?"
"He's doing it again," Kyle said, trying hard not to cry.
"The police stuff, all of it. He's in his office, passed out on top of it."
"Is he taking the medication?"
"I don't know. You want me to check?"
"Not yet, it's probably just a blip. Remember, we talked about how people get better and then fall back a bit. It's not a straight line, like getting over a cold."
"I know, but he was doing good. He's going to work. He's writing again, so ..."
"So you think he's back to the dad you used to know?"
Kyle gazed up at the stamped-tin ceiling. "No, I don't think he's ever coming back, not all the way. I'm okay with that." Then, with a telltale Grainger guffaw he said, "It's not like anyone's giving me a choice."
"Tell you what, kiddo. Put on a pot of coffee, let him sleep, and I'll be down there in ... give me forty-five minutes."
"Is Sheila there?" Kyle needled.
"Nothing." Kyle smiled, thinking about his grandfather's lady friend.
"That's what I thought. I'll see you in a bit. And Kyle?"
"It's going to be all right."
THE CADAVER'S BALL. Copyright © 2005 by Charles Atkins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.