The Broken Line, 48: The Other John

(Missed the last chapter? Go to 47: Sex Dreams and Secrets)

HANDS WITH LONG nails pinch me and then grab me roughly—lifting and shaking. Wanda’s face looms. I smell sickly sweet coffee on her breath. I gasp for air and then vomit a stream of bile onto her uniform.

“Filthy,” Wanda hisses. “Get into the bath.”

“No,” I moan, as she shoves me down the hall. “It can’t be true, can’t be.”

Even as I resist, the pieces click into place. The man’s clothes in the closet. John’s reportedly blasé attitude toward Dorothy’s affair with my father. Dr. Rolfe’s reaction every time I said Uncle John. Wanda’s shock when I mentioned the dark haired musician. My lover. The one who’d dumped me on the porch for my … husband to deal with?

In the bathroom, Wanda turns on the shower and roughly strips off my clothes.

John is your husband. Dr. Rolfe had said it yesterday. But I hadn’t wanted to hear, so I’d simply forgotten. If I had a talent, surely that was it. Rewriting reality with a little help from chemistry.

“Get in,” Wanda says. “And use soap. You stink.”

 

BY THE TIME I finish washing, dress again, and take my medications, I feel calmer. Not because I’ve accepted that John is my husband—just the opposite. I’ve concluded that Dr. Rolfe and Wanda are lying.

My mind concocts wild possibilities: maybe I’m an heiress with no other family, and they’re out for my money; maybe this is revenge against my family for wrongs real or imagined; maybe I’m part of a government experiment. Farfetched, perhaps, but nothing compared to the idea that I’m married to John.

I say as much to Dr. Rolfe when he arrives. I greet him standing, arms folded over my chest. Despite the fatigue that weakens me, I want to demonstrate strength instead of languishing in my bed like a defeated damsel.

“Despite all the evidence, you’re not convinced that John is your husband.” It’s a statement, not a question. Dr. Rolfe rummages my face with eyes so sad that it almost undoes my resolve.

“I don’t know why you’re doing this, but I know you’re lying. If John were my husband, he would have been here every day. Up here, on the second floor with me,” I announce with relish. “I might have misremembered a wheelchair, but there’s no way I forgot an entire marriage.”

As I speak, I sense truth in every word, and it emboldens me. “I looked around this morning, and what I saw is rooms that have obviously been scrubbed of personal effects. Someone is conspiring to keep me confused and disoriented, a prisoner in my own house.”

Dr. Rolfe frowns. “Wanda said you saw your wedding album.”

“So what? Faking images is as easy as a few clicks of a mouse.” I stalk to the window, looking into the branches of the oak.

Behind me, Dr. Rolfe clears his throat. “Yes, um, well, it’s true that this floor was “scrubbed” as you put it. We would have taken the album, too, if we’d seen it. But it was done for your protection. Every time you saw John, or anything that reminded you of your marriage, you had a major setback. I’m sorry to tell you that we’ve been through this cycle a number of times now: the breakdown, the amnesia, then the process of re-orienting you to reality. This will be the fourth time in as many weeks.”

My mind flashes back to the surprise I’d felt at seeing leaves on the trees a few days ago.

I turn to Dr. Rolfe. “If you scrubbed the rooms of anything that might remind me of John, why are there men’s clothes in my closet?”

Dr. Rolfe winces. “Another oversight.”

“You’re not very good at this conspiracy thing, are you doctor?” I let sarcasm drip from my voice, lending it a certainty I don’t feel.

“Lacy, it’s not that we wanted to keep the truth from you. At first, John was right here by your side. It was only after we realized the tenacity of your delusion, and the violence of your reaction when presented with evidence to the contrary … well, we thought it best to slow things down. Bring your memories back little by little.”

I feel my certainty wobble. “If I was as berserk as you make it sound, I’d be in a hospital.”

“Normally, yes. You would be.” Dr. Rolfe sits and pulls pen and pad, his familiar props, from his leather satchel. “Most families don’t have the resources to keep an acutely mentally ill patient at home, but John is surgeon at Retreat Hospital. As an alternative to committing you to a psychiatric facility, he’s taken a leave of absence.” Dr. Rolfe frowns. “He loves you so much.”

I turn away from Dr. Rolfe and stare up into the oak tree again. A crow perches, cleaning her bill on the branches. She regards me suspiciously before croaking and launching upwards. Feeling envious, I watch her go, black wings forming shapes like ciphers against the blue sky.

As I press my forehead against the glass, Dr. Rolfe’s voice etches the air. “Because you don’t remember being married to John, it feels wrong to you. That’s common among patients with memory loss. But your mind has taken it one step further and created an alternate reality. That, in a nutshell, is the very definition of delusion.”

“It’s a nutshell, all right,” I mutter.

There’s a long pause, then Dr. Rolfe gives a small laugh. “It’s good to keep a sense of humor. But, understand, until you can find a way to accept the truth, your mind will keep fracturing and forgetting. A defense mechanism to keep the psyche from disintegrating.”

“I see.” Humiliated and exhausted, I walk carefully to the bed and sit down on the edge.

Dr. Rolfe leans forward in his chair. “Anyone’s mind can break under the wrong circumstances. Soldiers who’ve been forced to do unthinkable things in battle come home and tell everyone their tour was uneventful. And they aren’t lying. To protect itself, the mind puts up a wall. Trouble is, eventually a fracture forms and the wall breaks. And that’s where I come in. I help people build bridges back to reality.”

“I thought psychiatrists just dispensed medications these days.”

“Not all of us.” He draws himself up. “John knew he could count on my expertise … and my discretion.”

“Are you saying I’m an embarrassment?”

His long pause before answering says yes. “There are always jealous people looking for opportunities to … make life unpleasant. John Strong is a great surgeon and a great man. It’s my honor to help him, and you.”

I look down at the white quilt and trace the patterns of stitches that twine and swirl. “When you explain things, it seems to make sense. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine John the way you describe him.”

“Seeing is believing, darling.”

That voice. The feeling of being watched, of being held down by heaviness so wet and thick that I have to fight to unbend my neck. I want to straighten, to lift away from the twisting pattern of stitches on the bedspread. I steal a glance at the man who shimmers in the doorway—fit, young and strikingly handsome. He stares at me with such naked love and longing that I feel transparent.

“I promise I wasn’t eavesdropping. I just couldn’t wait any longer to see you.”

My eyes skitter around the room like a trapped bird, finding danger on all sides. The covered painting, the gray walls, Dr. Rolfe.

“Lacy, please, look at me.” John’s deep voice has a melodious quality, like a half-forgotten song. “I miss you so much.”

I turn my head slightly, peeking out of the corner of my eye.

John clasps his hands in front of him. “You look better, Lacy. Doesn’t she George?”

“Yes, Dr. Strong.” Dr. Rolfe beams like a kid at a science fair. “I think our plan to bring her memory back in increments is yielding results.” He looks at me, and his smile wobbles. “But we don’t want to rush.”

“I hardly call this rushing. I’ve been cooling my heels for over a week now.” John’s voice shifts, layers of tones, a razor in a cotton puff.

“She’s making progress, but she’s still delicate.”

Despair and desire war on John’s face. “Is that true, Lacy? Do you want me to go?”

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Dr. Rolfe offers John a toothy, servant’s smile, lips stretched tight. “I know it’s still morning, but Lacy has done a lot of work already today. We don’t want to overdo.”

“No.” John’s throaty voice, so mournful that I glance over. He presses his fingertips over his eyes, then pulls them away and blinks rapidly.

Our eyes meet. I feel the strangling, itchy sensation again—like an infection. As if the one of me must become two, and split and branch through the pulsing wound. I try to rise to make it stop, but my legs feel sharp and unbending. “Up,” I say. “Up. Up. Up.” But it’s a whisper. I can’t breathe. I can’t look anymore.

“Lacy!” John’s voice reverberates.

“She’s had enough.”

Enough. Enough. Enough. The door clicks shut. I cover my head with a pillow. Still, the voices come through.

“She’s not getting better.”

“We’ll increase the dosage, and accelerate the protocol,” Dr. Rolfe says.

“Do that.”

“She’s getting there—”

“That’s what you said two weeks ago.”

“It’s a very difficult case, Dr. Strong. Her mind is fixed on—”

“I know what her mind is fixed on,” John snaps. “I want my wife, now.”

I feel the door opening. Wanda. I know it by her smell—antiseptic, cigarettes, sugary sweet coffee.

“I don’t know why you’re hiding,” Wanda whisks by the bed, her nylons swishing. “You’re lucky. Anybody else would be locked up in the mental ward. But not Miss Thing. Miss Thing hides under the pillow while her husband moves heaven and earth to keep her home.”

“Your husband takes a leave of absence from the hospital and his patients. And how do you repay this devotion?” She snatches at my arm and pushes the pillow away from my face. “Sit up, you brat.” She pulls me up and plucks at the vein in my arm. “You have a fit every time he shows his face. You have him staring up like a schoolboy hoping for a glimpse of the prom queen.” She pushes the needle into my arm.

“Go right ahead. Drive yourself to hysterics. Forget who you are. Piss the bed. Twist your young panties up your nasty little ass. Pose for another porno painting. Have me wipe up the puke. I’ll be here to clean up the mess because he tells me to. Clean up. That’s my job. I’m just Miss Thing’s personal janitor.”

Before the tranquilizer wipes my mind, I feel Wanda pass my bed, a twisting gray wind, and that’s when I know. She’s in love with him.

 

A DUSTY PINK light wakes me, disoriented, heart pounding. A rushing sound. Walls, bowing and contracting. Vines, slurping and climbing. White, distorted flower faces. The stem pointed at my mouth. I scream.

Wanda. Her face a mass of swirling gray branches. “You’ve wet the bed, again.” Her voice warps. “You disgust me. Selfish filth. You’re less than a dog in heat. If I had a camera you could see what you’re doing. You could see the filthy way you swell for him. Squirming Miss Thing. ”

I clutch her. My hands tangle. The vines tighten and slide inside. I see them ripple beneath the surface of my chest.

I try to scream. Vines clog my throat. Tears wriggle down my face like snakes. The snakes will save you. The words write themselves into the air.

Vines slide out from my mouth, nose, ears, anus, vagina. White sap oozes from them.

I feel a hard pinch on inside of my thigh. Then a pinching inside me. Some part of my mind says exam. Pap smear. Then a twist of my flesh that makes me extend my legs straight and clamp them tight. Then a whisper, hot and close to my hear. “You’ll get more of that if you don’t stop your selfish filth. Do you want more of that, Miss Thing? Do you like that?”

I hear the door open. Wanda draws in sharp gasp and swishes away from the bed. A clink of glass on the bedside table. The smell of roses so strong, I gag. Then, a cool dry hand on my forehead.

“He wanted me to give you these. He thinks they might help,” Dr. Rolfe says. “Lacy, if only you can pull yourself out of this. He loves you. He loves you so much.”

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