The man of my dreams sat on my right holding my hand. The woman I had played ‘Maid of Honor’ to, sat on my left, holding my other hand. I sat in the middle, pegged down like a tent in a strong wind. A small man with indeterminate ancestry sat in front of us, his dark eyes searching my soul. The surrounding room was small and muffled with a fish-eye in the door, while the pale green walls that were meant to soothe the psyche mixed discordantly with the faint smell of antiseptic. I could hear the whisperings of cushioned feet passing on the other side of the door and the incessant sound of someone crying. The small man rubbed the dark circles around his eyes with both hands and resumed his staring. I stared back–a deer caught in the headlights. Words burbled out of his mouth and I turned towards my dream man with a questioning look on my face, my own mouth wet and slightly askew. I raised my eyebrows and shook my head slightly. I couldn’t understand the man’s heavy accent and the crying was beginning to get on my nerves. The man burbled again and I looked down into my wet lap with embarrassment at my inability to understand him. He stood and left the room, leaving us sitting awkwardly. The crying sound that wrapped around us seemed to emanate from the walls and descend like fog from the ceiling. A wingless angel appeared and put something sharp into my hip, then vanished through the fish-eye. In a little while the crying eased off and I closed my eyes, overcome by the tranquility of silence and the drug.
It was the crying that put me in there in the first place. It had been going on for days and I just couldn’t stop. With red swollen eyes and chapped nose I wandered up and down the long sterile hall dropping sodden Kleenex. Nameless creatures hunted me continually and then stood ominously by as I swallowed baby-colored pills. Time stood still and my mind wandered away, sometimes ricocheting off the other wraiths who drifted down the long hall, sometimes not. Then one day I noticed the girl. She sat with her legs crossed under her, her blank eyes staring into space, while a long line of drool reached from her lower lip to disappear somewhere below the table. She had silver skeletons and jeweled crosses woven into a skinny braid that hung down beside her pretty face. Somehow these were relevant, but at the time I didn’t know how. I sat down in front of her and offered her a watery hello. She continued to stare into space while a bubble formed on her lip and began the long slide to her knee. I knew right then and there that we were going to be friends for life, and we became inseparable, the crying woman and the drooling girl.
As time passed I began to realize there was more to a day then the long hall, the pills, and the sessions with the man with the heavy accent. For the first couple of months I thought I was waiting to board a cruise ship decked out in hospital pajamas and housecoat. Once that delusion subsided I became more aware of my surroundings. I watched with mounting horror the stream of residents happily whisked through the heavy doors at the end of the hall, returning with their heads lolling on their shoulders, their tongues protruding slightly. A few hours later they would wander by with jerking smiles, slowly speeding up as if they had been electrically juiced. On movie night we sat stuffing salty popcorn into our laughing mouths as Jack Nicholson played us on the idiot box in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The dawning knowledge didn’t help. The psychos wandered aimlessly while the vultures circled nearby, their little white cups filled with pills for every conceivable ailment of the mind and body. Every morning I sat with the man with the heavy accent and talked, and every afternoon I sat in the circle of the mindless and was talked to. Like hawks caught on a thermal, the words hovered in the air, unable to find a stable surface to settle on.
It started innocently enough when my lifelong morbid fascination with death suddenly surfaced after the mysterious disappearance of a ward mate. This fascination sprouted and took a strong hold on the barren landscape of my brain and I decided to enlist the help of the girl. I found her in the lunchroom chewing on her seventeenth croissant. A slight adjustment to her medications had stopped the drooling and put everything edible in peril. With snacks nearby we huddled for days in corners and on our beds trying to devise a plan to escape the hall and begin the long arduous search for the dead body repository. In the end it simply came down to asking the man if we could leave the confines of the hall. After three long and vacuous months of life in a corridor I was finally released from ‘close’ observation. The freedom to discover what lay beyond those heavy doors that had been part of my prison was now mine. My first venture was accidental and solo. I had wandered off the hall, completely forgetting about the girl and our secretly laid plans. After all, according to what passed as my brain, it was just another day. My mindless wandering soon turned into mayhem. The fast pace beyond the doors terrified me. Luckily my little plastic bracelet helped my rescuers return a sobbing and frightened lost person in pajamas and slippers to ‘the hall’ where the hovering angels administered the calming medications. As a result, it took about three days to stop that damn crying again, then it was right back to the drawing board. This time I didn’t forget the girl.
Together we discovered by trial and error that evenings in a health institution are much quieter than the rat race that prevails during the day. We bided our time effectively and patiently. I guarded my food while the girl ate. As evening fell we would leave our destination clearly marked on the out-board with felt pen–“Out On A Quest”. We thought we were brilliantly evasive and full of subterfuge. At first we avoided the stairwells and searched the halls around the only home our tortured brains could remember. These forays proved incredibly daunting as the surrounding halls held back offices filled with files and paperwork. Standing at the entrance to this labyrinth one’s gaze melted to a vanishing point at the other end. As I stood at this maw my quest suddenly felt futile, but my obsession would not let me give up. By day the girl fortified herself with food while I strenuously exercised my brain making little dolls out of empty cans and lace. When visiting hours ended and the fluorescent silence descended, our search would begin again. We would creep through the doors at the end of the hall and edge our way carefully along the hallways followed quietly by that eerie hum that huge machinery makes.
We drifted through the sterile surroundings peering closely at the nameplates on each door. Names such as Day Surgery and Outpatients we recognized in our altered states. However, with a simpleton’s fear and pounding hearts we hurried past Endoscopy, not daring to peer through the door’s little window. We climbed a staircase that wound upwards from floor to floor and came across a door that was marked Interspace. Goggling at each other in the dim light we pressed our ears up against it and reeled as the silence roared back at us. Had we stumbled upon the place where they put the psychos who disappeared from the hall from one day to the next? Did windmills turn in the dark? My trusty squire wobbled unsteadily as we gulped air to strengthen ourselves. Afraid that we would be the next to vanish behind this mysterious door, we fled back to the hall, the quest suspended. What can I say–we were loony. We were getting nowhere fast.
As days piled upon days my mind chewed endlessly on my need to find the morgue. I could imagine the subdued lighting reflecting dully from the stainless steel walls, their huge gliding drawers filled with the cold cadavers who tossed up stiff on the outside world. White-coated attendants with green slippers would move soundlessly around gurneys, scalpels poised, their intent almost murderous. I tried to imagine where they would take me once I lay under that sheet.
A time came when I was almost ready to give up. It seemed we had searched every possible inlet and outlet. However, defeat wasn’t part of the plan so I had to keep trying. With a renewed resolution I found my friend, hauled her away from the refrigerator, and we crept out once more. With deliberation we returned to the bowels of the massive machine that continued to hold us within its gut. Walking down the now familiar path I suddenly noticed something we had overlooked before. Like iron to true north we headed straight for a nondescript door. Morgue was written on it in plain letters. With an enormous sigh I turned to my companion to celebrate. As I threw my arms about her, something past her shoulder caught my eye and directed my vision to the nameplate on the door in the opposite wall. It read Cafeteria. Of course. It all made sense to me now. I cried with relief.