TW: suicidal ideation
With unsteady fingers I pushed the buttons of my vest through their holes and regarded myself in the long bedroom mirror. “It isn’t too much is it?” I asked Tangerine, the sleek orange tabby lounging on my bed. He regarded me through slitted eyes. I’d already removed and tossed the vest aside twice, only to pick it up again moments later.
I’m already on the small side for a man, and I’d lost weight in the hospital. I was afraid I would look like a teenager if I came to the party in anything too casual. Compared to everyone else invited, I was surely the least qualified, but I was determined not to let them see through my mask of fake adult competence. It was the opening night of a gallery show, and with my art on display it would have been rude for me not to make an appearance, but when I had seen the list of renowned artists that would be in attendance, I’d broken into a sweat. I’d even yelled at my sister for submitting my art without asking me first. I wondered who she’d bribed to have my art hanging alongside all those recognizable masters.
Tangerine pinched his eyes shut as I stroked his head. “They probably won’t even notice me. There will be too many people there,” I reassured the cat. “I’ll just thank the hosts and leave.” I looked at my phone, but it still wasn’t time to leave. I didn’t want to be early and draw attention to myself. The plan was to come fashionably late, shake hands, smile, and escape. No one would care about me, and, I hoped, no one would recognize me.
I longed for the hospital.
After living there for weeks with almost no outside contact, I’d become comfortable, if a bit restless. I’d started to feel safe. When they deemed me well enough, they sent me home to sleep in my own bed at night, and then I’d return to the hospital during the day. Eventually they reduced that to a half-day. Before I could leave I always had to fill out papers describing what alternative actions I would take if I wanted to kill myself.
Once, we were filling out our paperwork to leave, and it was one woman’s first day with the ritual. She sat next to me quietly and didn’t make a single mark on her paper. Eventually she said to the counselor, “I can’t think of a single reason to live.”
The counselor looked up with a furrowed brow. “I’m so sorry. It doesn’t have to be a reason to live forever, just something that keeps you going for one more day. Did anything at all make you feel good today?”
The woman’s face looked so dejected, so abysmal. She shook her head. But then, something miraculous happened, which I will never forget. Before this hopeless creature had fully completed the action of shaking her head, she paused, and her eyes widened ever so slightly. Light began to fill them, just a little. She looked up, with a wide nearly-toothless grin and said, “Grape juice.”
Everyone in the room laughed, and she did too. We all knew what it was like to be sustained by something so small, so minute, that it sounds utterly idiotic. The counselor told her that was a fantastic reason to wake up in the morning, and the woman wrote it down.
To a normal person, this all probably sounds tedious, patronizing, restricting, and a lot like imprisonment. To me, it just felt safe. Previously, I hadn’t known what that felt like.
During my hospitalization I wasn’t allowed to have electronics of just about any kind, but they had no qualms with art supplies (provided they couldn’t think of a way I could kill myself with them), so I had done a great deal of art. Once a week visitors from the outside were allowed in, unfortunately, and the art served as a great shield. Here, see? I’m getting better. Go away. Leave me be. I hadn’t meant for any of it to end up in a gallery. Galleries are decidedly not safe.
I recognized her by the way she walked. Her hair was a different color than I’d seen it last, and so much longer that at first I thought I’d been startled by a memory and nothing more. When the pink-haired girl turned, however, Tami’s unmistakable pale blue eyes caught sight of me, and her eyebrows lifted. I stood frozen, like a rabbit, too frightened to run, yet hopeful that if I was still enough the predator might lose interest.
As she approached, my second line of defense kicked in, and I started to spew friendly greetings at my ex-girlfriend through a forced smile. “Is your art here?” I asked, motioning at the standing panels scattered around the huge hall.
Tami shook her head, “No,” I caught the shadow of a wince in her features. “My fiance’s art is. He’s an art teacher at the university.”
I smiled, clenching my teeth. “Really? That’s fantastic.” I scanned the polished tile for a dark corner to die in. Or alcohol.
“What have you been up to these days? We haven’t caught up in a while,” Tami dragged my attention back to her with the worst possible question.
I ran a sweaty palm through my hair and chuckled as I stalled. “Oh, you know,” I drawled. “Where do I start?” I folded my arms in an attempt to look like I really was thinking of where to start describing the incredible amount of success in my life. Please don’t look at my shaking hands. Should I just make something up? I had decided that yes, I would just make something up, when I was rescued by the most unlikely knight in shining armor.
Tami’s fiance slid an arm around her, giving her a little start that made her giggle. She put her hand over her chest in a very southern-grandma gesture and introduced him as Jim and me as “an old friend” (thank God for small mercies).
I was determined to let him distract the attention away from me and my past as much as possible, and Jim was pleased enough to talk about art and himself. So was Tami. We walked to his piece, a lovely pastel landscape, and then began to make our way around to the other paintings and drawings displayed. There were a few award-winning masterpieces at the very front, and I stood staring at them for a while, breathing them in, absorbing their colors with my soul.
“Dumb, isn’t it?” Jim appeared beside me, but I didn’t jump when he spoke softly. He gestured at the award-winners. “That these ones are set apart from the others. In every technical sense, they’re the same as most of the ones back there. What’s the damn difference?”
I think he was attempting to bond with me. After all, both of us had art “back there”. I was not offended that this art was up front. There was something different about it that had nothing to do with technical ability, something nearly impossible to put words to.
“Grape juice,” I said, smiling to myself. Perhaps the artist understood what it was like to live for something small, like the stroke of a brush, or the flavor of a drink. I don’t know who made those paintings, but they sustain my soul, somehow, just a little longer.