During my first morning therapy session in the psych ward, about sixteen of us sat around a kids’ table that only came up to my knees.
“Everyone takes a turn,” Rick, the psychologist, told us. “Tell us how you’re feeling this morning—and you can’t say ‘tired.’”
I was fifteen, but there weren’t many kids my age that day. In fact, most of them seemed much younger. A girl who looked eight, Krissy, took her turn.
“I feel hopeful,” she told us. “I’m glad for faces.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I wondered if she had attempted suicide, too.
“Angela,” Rick turned to the next girl. “How are you feeling?”
Angela was my age. She had long brown, almost black, hair. She had acne and wore no makeup as if she had given no thought to her appearance, which made her even prettier.
She leaned back in her tiny chair and grinned.
“I feel—like I have to pee. It’s giving me anxious-feelings.”
“I am losing hope,” she said louder over Rick’s protest, “of making it to the bathroom in time.”
When I laughed loudly, Angela looked right at me and smiled like I was the only one she’d intended the joke for. It felt like an emergency brake being yanked on the freeway, or maybe the opposite, like moving from a standstill to 70 in the aching seconds it took her to look away.
“Jacob? How about you?” The psychologist interrupted my fall.
I shrugged, still looking at Angela, who was pretending not to notice.
“Hopeful?” I said. “Glad for faces?”
Angela smiled a little, and the kids tittered. Rick pressed me.
“And what do you mean by that?”
I finally looked at him.
“I don’t know…” I thought for a second, tried—too late—to think of something that might explain why I was here. I couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t a joke or deflection. I shook my head. “I guess, I don’t know—misery loves company?”
“Are you miserable?”
I beamed and nodded. “Sure.”
Rick grunted and moved on to the next person.
The performance over, I started to sink. But I caught myself. Instead, Angela and I took turns staring at each other.
Everyone was allowed a list of two people who could call them at some point during the day. I just had my parents and my youth minister listed. At the time, I didn’t think of choosing anybody but them—someone to drive me home, someone to pray for me. At several points, a friend of mine, Matt, tried to get through, but the nurse wouldn’t let him speak to me.
“You have to change who’s on the call list if you want to talk to him,” she said with her hand over the mouthpiece, my friend Matt on the other end. “And you only get one call per day.”
I shouted so my friend could hear through her hand, “Sorry, Matt! It’s you or my hooker!”
There were ‘milestones’ for our mental-health treatment, different rewards that good behavior or contributions to group-talks could get us. Once we reached the ‘top’ milestone, we got to leave. The 7-10 days this took seemed to coordinate perfectly with when our insurance ran out.
One of the first rewards that Angela and I received was a chance to leave the hospital hallway we were locked in, a chance to go to the gym. The nurses weren’t sure if they should let me go as I was still on suicide watch. But I’d just made a ‘breakthrough’ in counseling by admitting that I tried too hard to make other people happy. My suicide note was eight pages long, mentioning what I loved most about almost forty friends and family members. The psychologist laughed when he recalled it, said it was the longest he’d ever seen. I got defensive: “It just seemed wrong not to mention them all.” So the nurses took the laces from my shoes and told me to go ahead. A few of the younger kids came too, and we took turns shooting free throws.
Angela didn’t play much. I wondered just how fragile she was. She had confessed in group therapy that she didn’t like to be touched, and as we shot around, she mostly just sat on her heels and chewed her hair on the sideline. I tried not to look stupid in my loose sneakers. But she teased me whenever I missed, so I began to miss the net by larger and larger margins.
On the walk back to the kids’ psych ward, she approached me from behind, shoved her shoulder into mine. The bandages on her wrists brushed my arm. I stumbled sideways into the wall, and she kept walking as if nothing had happened.
“Hey!” I said.
She laughed and I caught up. I pushed my shoulder into hers. She staggered and laughed, and I put more and more of my weight on her as we walked back to our corridor.
The counselors forced us to sit by ourselves in our rooms for an hour every day. There was no TV to watch, no card games to play. No place to sit even, aside from a hard bed. Most of us suspected that this was just the time when the nurses went on break or had lunch together.
“Why are you making us do this?” I complained to Rick one day.
He answered in a calm and almost rehearsed voice. “It’s so you can learn how to be by yourself. So you can be bored and not kill yourself.”
I was surprised by how much that made sense.
Still, whatever their intent, we all just laid in our doorways and poked our heads out. We laughed at the sight—a long row of disembodied heads grinning down the hall.
All the boys were on one end of the hall, the girls on the other. We couldn’t quite shout down to the other end, so the boys just talked about the girls, or about what the nurses might bring for dinner that day. One kid swore that the hot nurse had “put the moves on” him during that morning’s check of his vitals. I laughed, threatened to run his story by her.
“Like she would own up to it,” the boy said defensively. “She could lose her job!”
One day, the counselors brought in a decade-old Sega Genesis. The only game was Ms. Pac Man. Angela was cleared to play, so I stood behind her on a tiny chair and screamed cheers.
“PAC, PAC, he’s our man! If he can’t do it—” the orange ghost caught her—“don’t worry! You have more lives!”
Another day, they brought in some musical instruments. I held a tiny drum between my knees and bonked it obnoxiously. I played it with my forehead. I even performed a triangle “solo.” Angela laughed, then applauded solemnly.
“Bravo. A masterpiece. So moved.”
Then she went over to the keyboard and started playing a Linkin Park song. Her dark hair covered her face, and her skinny, pale fingers pushed into the plastic keys. She sang In the End beneath her breath while I tried not to make a sound, afraid her beautiful artifice might shatter.
One night toward the end of the week, Angela and I sat on the couch in the common room with four of the others while the two of us debated what movie to watch.
“You’ve never seen Gremlins 2?!” Angela said, looking up at me in mock outrage.
I shook my head and laughed. She told Krissy to put it on.
As the movie started, I let Angela do the leaning, slowly, onto my shoulder and chest. I wanted to brush her hair out of her face, but didn’t want to scare her. She sat up quickly every time a counselor walked past. And when she settled back into me, I held perfectly still.
Krissy couldn’t stop giggling at the two of us.
Rick pulled me aside one day.
“Don’t date in here,” he said. “This isn’t about anyone else. This is your time, to get well. Don’t waste it.”
I thought it was possible he was right. But in the ward, it felt like everyone was in it together, like we’d be bringing everyone home with us when our time was up. Like we might have finally solved something. I ignored him.
I turned sixteen the day I was discharged, and all the others were forced to make birthday cards for me during morning free-time. The cards said things like “Don’t kill yourself—it’s your birthday!” and, “Always be happy!” and, “See you on the outside!”
Angela made me a card, too. But she didn’t make any demands or promises. She just drew balloons on the cover and a picture of me, smiling, in my parents’ car as we drove away from the hospital.
When it was time to go, my parents walked into the tiny hallway where I’d spent the last seven days. I wasn’t happy to see them. They looked uncertain.
“Do you still want to celebrate your birthday? We don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
I shrugged. “You can invite the relatives I guess.”
It felt weird to just leave. I had no luggage or extra clothing, nothing to take with me but paper birthday cards. I stopped in the doorway.
“Hold on,” I said. “I have to do something really quick.” I ran back inside.
I found Angela hunched over the table, scraping at one of the deeper gashes in the yellow-painted wood. I went to tap her on the shoulder, but pulled back.
“Hey,” I said.
She jumped up and hugged me.
“Put me on your list,” I said into her shoulder and hair.
She pulled back. “What?”
“Your call list. I’m gonna call you later.”
By the time I got home twenty minutes later, my aunts, uncles, and little cousins were waiting for me, and they tried to be positive. But they couldn’t stop staring at me. They moved and spoke carefully around me, like they were afraid I might throw my slice of cake at them and jump out the second-story window.
They kept asking me how I felt, and I tried to tell them what they wanted to hear.
My friend Matt showed up, pulled me into my room.
“Why’d you do it?” he asked.
I struggled and tried to answer honestly, but his face went white—we had only ever talked about sports. So instead I grinned and shrugged.
“I guess I just didn’t want to be alive anymore.” I laughed. “Even screwed that up!”
Matt looked like he was wearing urine-soaked jeans, shifting and turning away.
When it was dark outside and everyone was leaving, I slipped down to the basement to use the phone. I called the hospital. They connected me to the ward and a nurse asked me, “Who are you calling for?”
I told her, “Angela.”
“Oh. She left with her parents about an hour ago, she’s gone.”
There it was, that falling feeling again. I cried, right there on the phone, for the first time all week.
“Oh, honey,” the nurse said on the other end. “Oh, dear.”
I don’t know why I didn’t hang up. I just kept saying “please,” like there was something she could do. And she just kept saying, “Oh, dear,” like it made a bit of difference.
“Wait, wait,” she finally said to me. “Okay,” she lowered her voice. “You’re Jacob, right?”
I nodded, “Mhm” through my ugly crying.
“Angela was quite upset too, dear—when she was leaving. I told her we couldn’t do it, that we aren’t allowed to, but she insisted I give you her number.”
So the nurse read me the number and I thanked her twenty-seven times, hung up and called the number.
Her mom or her sister answered, and I asked for Angela through a mucus-thick throat. The woman on the other end said, “Hold on,” disapproval dripping from her voice.
When Angela finally picked up and said, “Hello,” on the other end, I could only say, “Hey,” back.
She laughed at my awkwardness and silence, and I did too, but then I started crying again. I apologized once, then twice, then a third time, and she kept saying, “It’s okay.”
After a long time listening to me quietly, she started crying, too, and I laughed at our absurdity. And then I started crying again. And we kept going that way, laughing and crying, laughing and crying—and it seemed for a time like we would never stop.
About the Writer
Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of Brevity and Profane, and is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University. His recent poetry and creative nonfiction is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Crack the Spine, Pithead Chapel, Word Riot, and Yemassee, where he won the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Award.