"December 3" is an excerpt from Jerome's series called Life Lessons from a Mental Hospital.
“I didn’t really have a reason to leave, I guess. It just felt right. Or wrong maybe, I don’t know. I find myself saying that very often. ‘Where are you going?’ I don’t know. ‘Don’t you feel guilty?’ I don’t know. ‘Why would you waste your life?’ I don’t know. It’s easier just to say I don’t know than to think of a reason.
“It was Summer. July. Or maybe June? It was so long ago.” She sighed deeply, running her shaky hands through her long black hair.
“I took a bus. I guess it wasn’t a split second decision, or whatever they say. God, I thought about it for so long. I just never thought I would actually do it.
“I never really had a reason either. I had a fine family life. I wasn’t bullied. I had friends. I wasn’t depressed or anything. I think that’s why I did it. Not that I wanted to be depressed, I just wanted to feel something. I don’t know. Jesus, there I go again.” She shook her head lightly, laughing a little at herself. She stared at the tear-stained carpet, the picture of myself with my fellow employees, the pencil in my hand. For a second, I couldn’t remember the color of her eyes. Then she looked into mine again, and I wondered how I could’ve ever forgotten.
“Looking back now, I was so selfish. I was so goddamn selfish. I didn’t think about my parents. Or my brothers. I sure as hell didn’t think about my friends. I didn’t even leave a note. I guess it was all part of the whole not caring thing.” She paused. I thought I had lost her again, and then she continued.
“I wish I could remember more of the days before. The days when I hung out with my friends. The family vacations. Christmases. I don’t know, something. I thought it would be easier to push it all out. But I do remember one thing. When I was thirteen I went to the movies for the first time without my parents. I don’t remember the movie, some cheesy animated thing. My friends and I all sat in the back row, giggling as pre-teen girls do. Someone said something about a boy, and we all burst into laughter. But in the corner of my eye I saw these mid-20 year olds walk into the theater all together. They were all laughing and sharing a popcorn, throwing pieces at each other as they sat down. It depressed me. It depressed me so much.” She didn’t go any further, and I didn’t press her.
“So I just blocked everything out. To do what I needed to do, I couldn’t love anyone, couldn’t feel anything; it would make it too hard. So I tried to incinerate it, but the smoke left me gasping for clean air. The ashes hurting more than the memories. So I shoved it in the corners of my brain, like they were in time out and I covered them up with a white bed sheet. And like ghosts, they haunted me. Still do.” She stopped again, and this time I knew she was fighting something, maybe not the ghosts but something. All I wanted to do was take some holy water and rid her creaky, haunted house of a brain of all of its demons.
“The night I left was cold, even though it was seventy degrees. Everything felt relatively cold back then. Not uncomfortable, but present.
“I had my backpack slung across my shoulders, a torn up copy of The Long Walk in my hand ironically enough.” A distant hint of a smile ran across her face, more for my sake than hers.
“I walked all the way to the bus station. I turned around eight, no nine, times,” she said, remembering each time like drawing along each scar with a hesitant finger, wincing as if it’s still fresh, remembering the agony.
“The lady selling the tickets had this look, I guess it was pity, and I tried really hard to tell her to fuck off, but it came out more like take me home.” She licked her lips.
“But I managed to make my way on the Greyhound.” And then quietly she said to herself, “Sixty-four.” I assumed that was her bus number.
“They were pretty ridiculous, the people on the bus.” And she smiled again, this time with the ghost of who she should’ve been, who she used to be. “To make myself feel better I made up stories for all of the people on the bus.
“The businessman sitting cross-legged a couple of rows behind me was on his way to sell his family-run company to managers on Wall Street, and after he sold it, he’d get right back on the bus, come home to his wife and six-year-old twin girls, all of them cuddled in a heap on the living room couch, and he’d breathe this huge sigh of relief. ‘I love you all so much,’ he’d say. And then the girls would hug him, and they’d all fall asleep together, right there on that couch.”
I pictured the beautiful family, and I knew AJ was too.
“And the crack addict two rows back would find a woman that became his addiction. His hands would shake in anticipation of holding hers. His blood pressure would rise at the sound of her name, heart beating too fast. His hallucinations would become of her. He would settle down in a small town in Iowa, get a job helping others that suffer. They wouldn’t be able to have kids, but that’s okay, because they would adopt a beautiful ray of sunshine, and he would grow up to love his mother almost as much as his father would.
“And the woman, sitting in the very back, cradling a six-week-old baby that never cried out the whole ride, that woman would arrive in New York City, the bruises on her arms and face gone. Someone would discover her, tell her that she was beautiful for the first time, and she would become a supermodel. She’d help girls feel beautiful, and the son of a bitch who ever thought she wasn’t would have the courtesy to leave her and her now five-year-old girl alone. She would find love again, and she would marry her. And they would raise their daughter and tell her that she was beautiful, because she was.”
“And what about you?” I ventured, completely lost in her stories.
She jumped a little, like she forgot the real world existed. She looked at her hands for a moment before she started again. “I would arrive in New York City, tired and lost, feeling alone, or maybe feeling at home, and I would sleep on the streets. Maybe for a week. Maybe for a month. I’d get a job at a coffee shop, and each morning I would wash my hair in the train station bathroom. And every time I whipped my wet hair over my head, looking at my pale, cracking skin in the mirror, I would smile.”
Then my assistant walked in. “Dr. Knowles, your next patient is here.”
And then everything that AJ told me she tried to take back, tried to scoop it up in her arms, but it was too big. It filled the whole room; it seeped under the door and out the window frame.
Realizing this, AJ got up and walked slowly across the room, and as her hand grabbed for the handle, I called out to her: “AJ.” She turned back to me. “Do you want to finish?”
She looked at me, and I saw something different in her eyes this time, or maybe it was something I didn’t see. “It’s finished.” It wasn’t so much that she said it to me, but to herself.
I didn’t know what she meant, until the next morning we discovered her, finished.