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Painted Brain | “strait Is The Gate, Narrow Is The Way”
"Strait Is The Gate, Narrow Is The Way" by Tilly Oren
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“Strait Is The Gate, Narrow Is The Way”


To the left of the door was a wall of shelves. A large plasma screen TV hung in the middle, which I always set to the indie music channel. There was a stainless steel sink that I didn’t use and it seemed like one of those weird design choices that no one used. The bathroom was small, with beige tiles lining a shower in which i sometimes slept, hiding behind a locked door. Often, during the night, the nurses would notice I wasn’t in my bed and was instead huddled on the floor of the shower. “Get back in your bed,” they admonished. Scared, I would creep outside and find refuge on the couch in the common room. I made my bed every morning, as a bonus to show the doctors that I was functional. The floor of the room was tiled cement, cold to the touch. Since we weren’t allowed shoes with laces or heels, we all walked around in sea-foam green hospital-issued socks with rubber on the bottom to keep from slipping. There was a large window in my room with a view of the buildings in Westwood. Sometimes I looked out the window at airplanes, predicting which ones would arrive at their destination without exploding. Happily, it was usually all of them. There was a plastic and vinyl armchair in a depressing shade of teal and pink plastic where I sometimes sat as I read the same New Yorker article, over and over, laughing at each snarky nuance. But one night, lying on the single bed in my private room in Four West, I could hear the Princeton Skull and Bones organizing upstairs.

I knew it was them because for one, the vent was directly over my bed so I could hear them and also, they let me know that they were getting ready. I lay in wait, trying to estimate what was going on. On my bed, staring at the vent in the ceiling, I could hear Web’s entire faction of Skull and Bones preparing. Clad in hooded brown robes neatly tied with black ropes, they surrounded the vent upstairs looking downward into my room. I couldn’t catch on to their legal system but clearly, a trial was taking shape and I was the one on trial. One by one, I heard marbles drop into my vent, a secret code for the brotherhood to keep track of my crimes.

And then it commenced. People from my past appeared in a circle, surrounding me. Slowly, more past friends gathered in a circle upstairs. Everyone was there, Nancy, Marvin, Stefan, Lawrence, Damien, Kelley, Shelley. My life was on the line. I lay awake listening to them argue my fate while Skull and Bones took note. Marius, the skater I had a crush on in high school, now a filmmaker, was impressed with my progress. I was doing great in Four West, I would be better in no time. But, I hadn’t wronged him. On the other hand, Melinda was livid. I had told someone of her father’s dying of AIDS without permission. “Who does that?” she hissed. And down came another marble. Skull and Bones stirred about the room above me, exchanging nods and glances. “Do you understand now, Tilly? Do you see?” I stirred on my bed. I was often plagued by my memories during the day. If my mind took a turn, I would cringe at a stupid thing I said, or a weird thing I did. But this memory had not been one of them. In fact, that was what made me feel this trial was so real. I wondered if it was something like the judgment people stand in when they die? Aren’t we supposed to stand trial before god and his angels? Is this a quick abbreviation of my otherworldly trial? I wasn’t sure what my fate would be, and so they continued. Marisa forgave me. And so we continued.

Alex from elementary school appeared. How could I have told his new girlfriend about his father’s dying of AIDS before he broached it himself? “Sure you introduced us but you had no right to tell Irene about my dad.” And another marble dropped into the vent. Marvin came to my rescue, “Anyone would have done the same,” he said. Stefan chimed in, “This isn’t her fault.” Alex forgave me.

I couldn’t understand how they knew. I hadn’t thought about those trespasses, I never even understood that they had happened. And out of the blue Skull and Bones had me on trial for committing ethical crimes of consciousness? How did they know? Who told them? Mired in my past, I couldn’t understand how everyone but me seemed aware of my crimes. Usually, I am the one beating my breast. No one need remind me of mistakes, but obviously, I wasn’t the only one who suffered.

Years before my first breakdown, around the time of the millennium, I traveled to Europe, alone. I was psychotic, but no one knew it yet. The millennium was a special year for Catholics in Italy, It was time for the much anticipated Jubileum.
Religious pilgrims flocked from around the globe to hear the Pope say mass. Also, this was a rare occasion when the doors to the holy sepulcher were opened and through which, if walked through, all sins would be forgiven. I entered through the immense door, staring up at an imposing room of marble and light, facing Bernini’s beyond compare. Transfixed, I was sure all my sins were forgiven in that moment. And Bernini, a god among men. If I made it this far, my life would only get better.

Then, Jane came up to bat. “You slapped me,” she said. “Remember? You found out I was sleeping with Morris and you slapped me. We were sitting on the lunch benches in our senior year at Pali High, and you knew I was dating him and you slapped me for sleeping with him.” “Morris made you smoke crack,” I countered. “He was a gangster in the 18th Street gang and he gave you drugs and you not only took them but you slept with him, too. I was trying to be a good friend. I was trying to wake you up.”

Years later, Jane would find me on Facebook. Saddened, I apologized profusely for the slap, for not being a good friend, for trying to mother her. And she, she didn’t remember the slap. She had no recollection of it. She, instead, remembered that I brought her into my home, gave her a safe place to sleep, invited her to all the parties I went to. She thanked me for being a good friend.

Sometimes, I feel like no one thinks of me as the kind of person to cause hurt. And, since they don’t think of me that way, they simply forget when it does happen. It’s like the time I walked around with a beer in Chicago. I passed a cop and he didn’t say a word. But I knew he wouldn’t. He simply didn’t think of me as someone who would break any laws. I’m a small woman, one to be trusted.

At the next point in the trial, Skull and Bones had gathered enough intel about me and were ready to close the proceedings. I would move on to the next level.

In a flash, I lay back in bed and an image of the room above flashed in a brilliant white light. This is death, surely, I thought. But it wasn’t. When I awoke, the trial was over and I wasn’t sure it ever happened.

Save for now, I could see people in green X-rays. President Obama, Pete’s mother, Sylvia, my grandmother and deceased aunt Rose. There was another dimension, they assured me. “One in which we get to watch over you,” Sylvia said. My bedroom wasn’t safe. I could be raped there by another patient, by a male nurse. No one would know. I was terrified of sleeping there alone so I had a strategy worked out. First, I would sleep on the floor of my room, behind my bed so no one would see me. But if anyone figured it out, I would run to my bathroom, lock my door and huddle on the floor of the shower, fully clothed, in case I had to fight someone off or make a run for it. In the shower, I would tuck my knees in and try to fall asleep, unsuccessfully. Quickly, I would switch position to relieve my muscles. Then a nurse would come in and make me get out of the bathroom. I would get in bed and get out again when the nurse left my room. I headed for the hallway. There, in fluorescent green X-ray, Sylvia and Barak Obama assured me that I would be okay. They were watching over me. I huddled by the escape door that led to the other ward, Four East, a door that was locked and couldn’t open. Next, I headed for the common room sofa. Often my friend Nestor was in the common room, gesticulating wildly and yelling loudly. I not so secretly thought he was acting that way on purpose because he wanted them to give him a shot of sedative to shut him up. He could have been dangerous. Sometimes, during the day Nestor and I sat in the common room, eating ice cream and talking about Tori Amos. Nestor was working on a Ph.D. in poetry at University of Michigan. When he got better, he decided to go back to school to complete his studies and disappear from my life, forever. I gave him a tiny hot pink origami crane to remember me by. I told him it would bring him good luck.

Three times a day we were let out to the big terrace for a break. It was a new modern terrace with tall glass walls overlooking the medical plaza from four stories up. At night we could see the romantic view of high rises down the street lighting up like a box of jewels. I could see all the way down to Wilshire, where I used to work, in another life. I looked down at the cars in the roundabout. Which ones are the ones that were there for me? I couldn’t tell. Wes told me he’d watch over me and even visit me. But, I couldn’t see him and our communication was breaking down. He said he would show up for visiting hours, that I would know him when I see him, but he never did. I knew why. His family would never approve. I’m a big step down for them. Sure, I come from a good family, but they’re blue bloods, the beautiful educated. When I did see Wes, he was wearing a grey hoodie and jeans, standing a devastating six foot three. There are some types of men I can’t say no to, and he was all of them in one. But on those breaks, we would connect and he reassured me we would be together soon. I would be discharged, I would rehabilitate, and he would come for me. “When you wear your cobalt blue silk pencil skirt and silken white top with your yellow and black Lanvin purse, I will come for you.” Our secret song was ‘Knife’ by Grizzly Bear. That’s when I would know he was there, and on cue, I would search the room for him.

Once, when my sister graduated college from Berkeley, the family traveled there to celebrate. Wes followed me there. I would spend the better part of the day jogging, knowing everyone was watching me. Wes’ white VW van followed me everywhere. He was so in love with me and all his friends were supportive. I would be the one. Then, the family headed to Camino for Olga’s graduation dinner and we sat around the table. I, barely eating, couldn’t carry on a conversation with anyone. I was basically untreated and schizophrenic and I wasn’t on clozapine yet. We sat at the camino, sharing appetizers and then it happened. “Knife” by Grizzly Bear came on. But I, I couldn’t bring myself to look around. I didn’t lift my head, I didn’t turn to survey the crowd. I sat, mute, deaf and blind to everything around me.

Tilly Oren is a new Painted Brain contributor. This is her first appearance in Painted Brain News.

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