Nonfiction by Toti O’Brien
Doctors meet at regular intervals to discuss the patients. The chief nurse also attends those reunions. So do a few medical students, welcome to sit, listen, take notes.
I have followed the chief nurse to the meeting room, pen and pad bulging in the front pocket of my blouse. Eli stops on her way to fasten a helmet strap (we are at the Children Hospital, Neuropsychiatric Ward). For some reason, those supposed to keep headwear at all times still manage to unbutton it. Fascinated by Eli’s brisk, expert fingers, I wait until she finishes. Her mouth squeezes in concentration. She is square-faced, lipless, gently whiskered. Down to earth and authoritative, incredibly efficient. I always try to squeeze into the meeting room right behind her, shielded by her reassuring presence.
We sit on metal chairs by the door. I open my pad, pencil between my fingers, in wait. Eli doesn’t need writing tools.
Luminaires in white coats perch on leather armchairs. In front of them, a long table bears a bunch of light colored folders. One of the doctors picks a file, quickly gazes at the front page. Wearily, he tosses his glasses upon the typed words, fingers lifted to his nose bridge as if squeezing out a significant thought. Perhaps hold it.
Last name, first name. Diagnoses are usually skipped. The cases here discussed are inpatients: we know them well. Once in, they are not quickly dismissed, rarely transferred. Medications are listed, followed by cryptic comments—incidental discussions about a particular brand, dosage, synergy, side effects. A correction is inked down, then highlighted. Elizabeth will take care of it.
Next! Down the pile we go smoothly, unless something new was reported about a specific patient. Perhaps counseling, psycho or occupational therapy have started… how did it go? Any improvement so far? Or a crisis took place. Rare instances. Usually these sessions are boring as hell and—for this particular ward—on the depressive side.
As if she knew it, Maria Soccorro Del Sol wanders in when her file is up. Yet, when a dull monotone utters: “Del Sol, Maria,” then hesitates, then… “Soccorro” (they always seem to forget the second half of her name) she doesn’t blink. I can’t recall if she is deaf. Very likely. She stares at the window opposite to the door, where she is clearly directed. And you can sense nothing will stop her.
It is not the look on her face revealing the invincibility of her purpose. Her eyes are misaligned, crossed with strabismus, and consequently unfocused. All of her features are motionless, limp, like a rubber mask. She is so pale she looks like a walking moon, her skin waxen, her hands two bleak bundles abandoned on her thighs. Slowly, she drags her feet—an inch at a time. Yet you can feel a courant, a magnet, a steel wire pulling her somnambulic self towards her goal.
A soft curtain, made of powdery layers of gauze—one peach, one periwinkle, another pea green— is pulled across the windowpanes. I have noticed it before: by and large the prettiest corner of the room. Soccorro might have spotted it from the corridor. Perhaps she remembered it. Maybe she came on purpose, to meet with those rainbow veils.
Now she stands parallel to the wall, looking nowhere and perfectly still—a sphinx, hieratic, intent. She studies the sides of the curtain, as if evaluating how accurately the hem has been sewn, while pondering the immediate future. Push? Pull? Tear down? Crumple? Kiss? A riddle of possibilities.
Meanwhile her case has been reviewed, my memory refreshed. Soccorro is one of the oldest inpatients, ripe for transfer to an adult facility. You sure wouldn’t tell. Her body is a twig. Fragile, tiny. Rigid, breakable. For appearance sake (nothing notable has been said) I jot a few scribbles on my pad. When I look up, she has vanished.
Not exactly. Wiggling on my chair I see her lying horizontally across the windowsill—luckily just two feet from the floor. She almost fits… bunched up, her knees bent towards her chest. She has partially wrapped herself with the bottom edge of the curtain. A corner brushes her face.
Her small figure is embedded in the drapery, as if she were modeling for a renaissance artist. Or if she were a diva, about ready to exhale her dramatic solo. Of course none of it applies to her looks. Genderless, ageless, unexpressive, remote. More than perusing props in order to strike a pose, she has smoothed herself into the landscape, quietly objectifying her presence, swallowed by the décor.
No one has reacted to her entrance—as it was expected, I guess. She doesn’t hear or talk, doesn’t communicate. She is far out, severed from our shared reality, husked inside her own world. Patients like her are allowed to freely circulate, in absence of disruptive behaviors.
She has crossed the room on tiptoe, almost gliding, levitating on an invisible cushion of air, detached from the ground, without no sign of noticing surrounding humans. Likewise, no surrounding human has betrayed noticing her. No one presently glances at her reclined silhouette—this caryatide come to decorate the temple, this wooden Neptune’s angel.
Once more I am distracted, eyes staring at my scribbles, mind jumping to the grocery store where I’ll stop, pretty soon, on my way home. The afternoon is winding down. Relief tickles my limbs. When I look up, before maneuvering to take the window in sight, I perceive a shift in the air. A turbulence. Something. Maybe I have lifted my eyes, immediately seeking the curtain, because of it.
Without much change in posture—certainly no change on her face—Soccorro has crumpled up her hospital gown—rough linen printed with minute geometrical patterns—and she is touching herself. Calmly masturbating, as if knitting away in front of a television set. She is discrete, unobtrusive, yet the unmistakable rhythm of her activity disturbs the air particles, calling for attention. Only mine? No one looks in her direction.
On the table, two folders are left. The meeting reaches its end. We all wish to be finished.
So does Soccorro. She has extracted a stuffed animal from her gown’s capacious front pocket. A quite battered toy, yet soft—I am sure. Candy-colored. She is stroking her genitalia with it, her gestures accelerating. The toy—bright, large, ostensible—adds a touch of grotesque to the scene, harder to be ignored. A hint of provocation? Only in the mind of the observer. Soccorro doesn’t mean it. She is alone at the moment. She is alone, always. At least not with us.
Leaning on her side like a dining Roman empress, the girl reaches orgasm just when the last folder is closed—the pile pushed towards the center of the table, white-clad bodies concertedly rising, standing vertical, nearing the door with the noise and heaviness of real things.
Her pleasure was noticeable. Her features came alive for a second—a fit, a release, then the closest to a smile I ever saw on her narrow face. A drip of saliva graced the corners of her lips. The hand holding the toy went suddenly limp, yet didn’t let go. The other hand clawed at the curtain instead, squeezing it like a sponge.
Elizabeth, straightening armchairs au passage, pushing them squarely around the table, marches up to the window, firmly taking Soccorro’s hand, then helping her stand. I notice the two of them are about the same height. Eli walks out, carrying the girl along as if she were collecting a lost pen, emptying an ashtray—yet considerately, kindly. Soon the room will be locked. The girl follows the nurse—easy, easy—barely brushing the floor, stuffed animal hanging by the tip of her lifeless fingers. Knocking at her calf like a pendulum bob, a bell clapper.
Toti O’Brien’s work has most recently appeared in The Write Place at the Write Time, Lingerpost, Lotus-Eaters, and Masque & Spectacle.