Indian Sick


I want to placate here. I want to be polite and present myself as decent. I know the math of regret and nostalgia. The potency of your touch times the distance between that touch and today determines the intensity of my desperation. I regret leaving you in a hotel room and I’m disappointed you let me go. This letter can spiral out of control like me, and maybe you won’t read it, because I might fail to send it or you might decide your life without me is worth maintaining. You have white sensibilities and who can fault you for being practical? I’d like this letter to be ashamed and wild like me, and I’d like to know you read it and wanted me more. I told the staff this is my journal.

I’m going to die an Indian death. I want to lay my neck on the cool steel alloy of the train tracks back home. I want the death of a rez dog. I believe the mutts throw themselves on the tracks in desperation.

I’m writing you from a behavioral health service building. I agreed to commit myself under the condition they would let me write. You should have thought before you made a crazy Indian woman your lover. Feel culpable in my insanity, because you are partly to blame.

I am a cheat, but you knew that. Why think less of me in here? When I was there with you, my husband was at home, as he is now. It might be all the same to him. You still loved me more, even with all of your ethnic enthusiasm. Do you still love me more than him? I am Quentin-averse, Gary. I am husband-averse. I still want you. Don’t think less of me for being crazy. Don’t think that I am the only one culpable in my craziness.

Quentin caught me walking through the house in the dark. I had covered our windows and mirrors and taken out all of the bulbs. I was just unseeing things, dragging my feet along the wood panels until I found myself in the kitchen. I could not forget the familiarity of the kitchen or its drawers and instruments.

Keep in mind you were once desperate for me. I need help because I want you and I want my husband, and I cannot stop thinking that every transgression has brought me closer to a light, a striking beacon that tells me death is absolution. I have never chosen light.

I’m tired of the constant stories and the truth I don’t acknowledge. They’re not medicine anymore. I’m not medicine anymore. I’ve become an impotent bard. The words are flaccid and the things I used to find sacred are torment. I’m stepping into my own undertow. My own valley is closing in on me. I curl into walls, ashamed at the cowardice I carry in failing to die. I am sick or possessed.

On Seabird Island the spirits used to possess the people. We called it “Indian sick” and it was the first illness to be accounted for. It begins with want, with taking, and ends with a silence that hurts and makes us beg. There were eight coastal stories about the cures and causes. Women ate soapberries or nothing and talked about how we all had it coming. When the first children died it was too late to stop talking. When the beings took the women they bound them in blood. They were buried in wombs of sad memory. The only thing, the right thing, the thing that brought about our immunity, was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back. The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital. I don’t feel the eyes of my grandmother anymore.

What I feel struck with is something smaller, in a less impressive world. I woke up today confused, inside of something feminine and ancestral in its misery. I woke up as the bones of my ancestors locked in government storage. My illness has carried me into white buildings, into the doctor’s office and the therapist’s – with nothing to say, other than I need my grandmother’s eyes on me, smiling at my misguided heart. Imagine their faces when I say that.

At the Behavioral Health Hospital today I felt something: a young woman staring at me. She was portly and crazy-eyed, sitting neatly with an old, gray wool-blanket in her lap. Avoiding her stare was the first task I failed at in the institution.

“Dang. You’re pretty,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“No,” she said. “Thank you.”

Scared, I smiled and nodded.

“I got these moles,” she said, and pointed to the five surrounding her mouth. “They’re spitballs from Jesus.”

We passed the hours in the waiting room watching the Weather Channel. We watched tornadoes and the fury of water wash around. Slowly, women were called in for assessment with psychiatrists, and then more women came in to wait. I sat alone on the couch. Regular to crazy-looking, I was somewhere in the middle, wearing an oversized black petticoat and a too-red lipstick. A nurse came in with a wily-looking young girl, no more than eighteen.

“Sit,” the nurse said.

“Calm your tits,” the young girl said, turning to me. “Wild night?”

The fuzz of the couch came off in my hand. The orange fur of it reminded me of a loveseat we had back home. The nurse came out of a gray door and motioned for me. I followed her into a room. She left me there with the door cracked. There was an urge to leap and run. The doctor was petite and wore a blush hijab with wine-colored lipstick.

“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is your depression?”

“Seven,” I said.

“Seven’s not a ten, so that’s good.” She smiled.

“I’m normally a six. I have obsessive thoughts about suicide some nights, but after those manic hours, I’m more like a six. I guess you’re not asking what I normally am.”

“We don’t like to use the word normal here. Do you have a plan to hurt yourself?”

“Sometimes,” I said.

“You’re a college teacher?”

“I teach traditional storytelling.”

She nodded.

“I’m smart. I’m not sure how I got here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know how I got here. Sorry. I forgot you’re writing down everything I say.”

She hid her scribbles. “I’m going to recommend the inpatient women’s program for three to five days.”

“I have to go to a faculty meeting today.”

“I strongly recommend you volunteer yourself as an act of self-care.”

“I’m not sure you understand,” I said.

“Why are you here?”  She crossed her arms at me.

“I feel worthless. I’m being used for sex, and I’m married. Married is reason enough.” I laughed. “I’m uncontrollable, even to myself. I dislodged a bathroom sink. I ruined my own manuscript in rage. I drink. I drink.”

“Do this program for yourself,” she said.

The forms made me feel big. My signature mattered. I was signing a new treaty. The gamut of questions and searches through my bag lasted for hours, and during that time several nurses pointed out that things do, in fact, get better. Two of them asked me if I believed in God, and the smart one asked me if this was about a man. I felt breathless, like every question was a step up a stairway.

Gary, it was more than surreal. It was funny and hurtful to see the women walking past my room to glimpse at me and assess what type of crazy I was. Every few minutes I was able to witness a girl who looked surprisingly normal and surprisingly sad at the same time. One, dark and exotic. One, red-haired and freckled. Another, eating while walking, sad-eyed. Another, wiry and quick. We mirrored each other’s blank stares. It was nice to feel at home in that odd place. I put away my belongings neatly, like I never do, then two nurses came in to show me around. I needed a drink, but I reminded myself not to say that out loud, even in jest. The women walked me to the reading room.

“Nobody reads in here,” a young, curly-haired, frumpy nurse said. “It’s the quietest space though.”

“You smell amazing,” I said. It was cheap body spray – lavender and something fruity – and maybe she only smelled good because everything in there, including us, was sterilized and without distinction.

“You’re welcome to read so long as it doesn’t take away from your healing,” the old one said. “We have romance novels in stock, and some books from the Oprah Book Club.”

“Nice,” I said, half-smug. I did enjoy Oprah.

The art room was all colored paper, glue and glitter. The pool was stagnant. The birds outside offended me, domestic but free. All of the rooms were stark white, but the lighting was dim, so everyone looked bleaker.  A dull blue stripe ran along every room for the invalids to follow. They gave me an Ambien and I walked the line, stopping at every barred window. I wanted to hear the world, but the glass was too thick. I fell asleep trying to remember the composition of a tooth. Gum and bone support the softer things. The raw nerve in my tooth tingled under the weight of my tongue. I don’t want my mouth to be obscene when I die. I was finally beneath myself, at a new low.

You said you love to failure. I left you on the hotel bed, full and flushed. You loved me until your body failed your will. You said making love was kissing my eyelids. I kept them open once and saw you differently. You rooted against me like a hog and forced my eyes closed like little coffins. I wondered how many bitter ghosts it took to create a cold feeling in a room. My face was covered in your sweat. You lay back and said you used to think I was all points and sharp corners.

I sat in the reading room for five hours watching women color. The women in here take coloring seriously. They’re territorial over the colors.

“That’s an earthy green, dear,” Patricia said to me. “You should use something brighter.”

Patricia looked bothered by my work. She was an apple-faced older woman, with white hair and a soft voice. She was taken here against her will, so she had no clothes of her own. Her breasts hung low in her gown and I wondered if I could lend her a bra of my own.

“I don’t know, Patricia,” Laurie said. “It’s kind of like a rich, lustery green. That’s how green stems are.”

“I guess I don’t care about coloring this picture true-to-life,” I said.

“Don’t be sloppy, dear?” Patricia said. “What else are you gonna do here?”

“I wanted to kill myself yesterday,” I said. “This picture is not a problem.”

“For Christ’s sake,” Laurie said. “Do not antagonize the old woman.”

I apologized. Patricia’s soft skin wrinkled, smiling, as she passed me the right color.

“You’re a good kid,” Laurie said. “I wanted to die.”

Patricia hovered over her own flower to disengage from our talk.

“I didn’t try anything,” I said.

“I was found surrounded by my own vomit,” Laurie said. “I took the whole damn bottle of Klonopin. I’m gonna be kicked out of the shelter because they found beer cans after the ambulance took me. Two goddamned beer cans, can you believe it? I’m trying to stay here as long as I can.”

Laurie’s hair made me nostalgic for my childhood. It was auburn, and permed and gelled into a crunchy lion’s mane. She wore a Ratt T-shirt and jogging pants.

“If you want to stay here you should stop coloring,” I said. “They think being social is healthy. That’s why I’m doing it.”

“Here I thought you liked us,” Laurie said.

My flower was inside the lines and the stem was all right by Patricia. A teacher’s assistant in grade one asked me to draw a spoon. I took my time and drew an elaborate rainbow in its silhouette, and I gave it a mouth and legs. She told me that passing relied on my ability to just draw a spoon, then she handed me another paper. I remember my father’s face when he saw my boring spoon. I have some memories of him painting. He held me tight in the cold of the basement. I used to sit on his lap for hours while he worked.

“Look,” he said, pointing to one of his birds. “What do you see?”

“Eagle,” I said.

“Mother,” he said.

He looked a lot like Jim from Taxi. He had long, coarse, black hair, and he always wore light blue denim with an old baseball tee. He was a lanky man; my mother had a thing for tall, lanky men.

I was certain after day one I didn’t belong, but my doctor advised against me leaving and threatened getting the courts involved if I tried. So I participated in group therapy. It was quite intense, because holy shit there were a lot of women in that group who could articulate why they were there.

“It’s been forty years of silence for me,” said Laurie. “My father raped me from age six to ten.”

The group counselor said one must forgive for themselves and not for the perpetrator. This made little to no sense in my mind. We’re all on meds here – most of us are half zombie and half antsy: a weird mix. I found myself staring off during group, which made the counselor, Terri, prompt me for my story.

“I’m here about a man,” I said. “I look for external validations of worth, and I always end up crazy over it.”

“It’s good you can acknowledge that,” Terri said. “How long have you been doing that?”

“My whole life. Isn’t that what we learn as children? To look for affirmation in the external? Our fathers and mothers?” I said.

“Some children are taught self esteem from a young age,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.

She’s right. My mother wasn’t big on esteem for herself, let alone trying to foster that in me. She did teach me story, along with Grampa Crow. She knew that was my power, and she knew women need their power honed early, before it’s beaten out of them by the world. I know what you’re thinking, Gary, again with my mother? Yes, unfortunately that’s the biggest part of my work in this place. The therapists seem to think she’s a link to my betterment. I think she did the best she could with the tools she had. The therapist said that’s making excuses. Sometimes she had to lock herself away from the world, that’s all. I have fond and bitter memories of her. I can’t imagine what she’d think of me being here over a man. My mother would have laughed at me. She’d have rolled in laughter, and threw her head back at my misery.

“They’ll never love you,” she said once. “They’ll use you up, and, when you’re bone dry and it’s your time to write, you’ll be alone without a goddamn typewriter to your name.”

Ralph took her typewriter and memoirs when he divorced her. He was a white social worker with no use for story. It made little sense to me then and now. My mother didn’t have money for a good lawyer, and she didn’t have the energy to fight because she was sick. A year after he left with her stories, she died, and he didn’t come to the funeral. All we could do was sit around and tell those stories from memory. My mother’s spirit loomed over us, importuning us to avenge her death. She was bitter like that, but so small that her snarling was endearing. I considered driving out to my stepfather’s house, but I never got the gumption.

Remember when I told you some things about my mother’s sordid past? You seemed engaged by my Mom’s plight in the way that white people are engaged by The Wire. This was something you didn’t deserve to know. I elaborated on the small things, like her smallness and how light her fists were – how she pinched the fat of my fingers to tell me she loved me. She told me on her deathbed that she would have liked to have had more dinners out. She said she regretted it was too late to kill my stepfather. “La vie continue,” she said. I knew she had been holding onto that bit for a while, which made that moment even sweeter, even funnier. I told myself that it would have been too contrived to ask her about my father, but I wish I had.

The therapist says that, instead of thinking of the loss of you, I must visualize a space for myself and focus on the details of that space. I have old spaces in my registry to recall. I think of you often but there are still spaces unchanged by you.

Uncle Harold’s shack: a teal, crisp marshmallow since his wife Trudy burned it down with him in it. I can imagine the charred teddy bear in the middle of his den. I run my hands over the craggy ends of every black cupboard. I wonder what Uncle Harold looks like in his grave. His hair is twelve dead strands that stick to my hand. His knuckles look like Liberace’s, in long white cuffs with two gold rings on each pinkie. His slacks are wool and pleated. His brown mouth is closed and tight. I’ve gone mentally to Uncle’s home, and his grave, because of the intrusive thought that while I color in the evenings you are sitting across from a woman at a restaurant table. While I’m walking along dull-blue lines or gluing Popsicle sticks, you are with a white woman named Laura. She plays tennis. She’s an ethereal white woman who thinks dogs are people too. You think, isn’t this nice. You’re tempted to mention the sad woman in the hospital, your ex. It might assuage your guilt, or get you laid, and it might kill me to imagine this here.

You tell her that your last relationship was all consuming.

She’ll ask, “Like a black hole?”

I try not to imagine you laughing.

I return to Harold’s home. It’s dark. Abandoned. It’s night. The old, dead walls are illuminated by the truck stop across the street. I can hear you telling me that the shack will fall on me. By the time I get out of this hospital you’ll be missing the smell of her on your pillow. I’ve never even seen your house.

Gary, I’ve been released but I am not better. I can’t work and I won’t leave the house. Outpatient treatment, because I am not crazy enough to be sedate in a madhouse. But I am a cat in heat; my mother was right.

I am unraveling in the dark kitchen. I wonder how many women have gone to the kitchen after giving their husband a languid hand-job. I am scattering my wet eyes, looking for signs or something significant. I am, in fact, incorrigible when I’m like this. I wish I could do anything but stand alone in a dark kitchen without you.

Quentin came in the room and held my waist. He asked me to come to bed. He doesn’t know the truth and he wouldn’t read this because he’s not the type to turn pages. The first ten pages in this book are really just notes for class, and quotes I like. He’s not a page turner.

Why don’t you answer my calls? I left crude messages, but maybe you didn’t get them? I said that you came on my belly for the last time. I won’t fuck you anymore so it can mean less. Although I’m gone, you can still see me with a black light in those hotel mattresses. There is permanence in physical craft. Laura isn’t absorbed in any beds – she requires 24-hour protection from her own scent: ultra-dry with peony. She keeps her bra on.  A bound book is worth more than an online volume. There’s a smell, and resonance that can’t be dismantled or erased. I’ve asserted intent on those beds. The weight and the dust of me are in every thread.

When you loved me it was degrading. Using me for love degraded me worse.  You should have just fucked me. When I slink inside of Quentin’s bed, I have to turn my body away. I am dead on the mattress as he’s grasping and prodding. While we make love, I burrow into the crook of his arm, the crook of his neck, and remember my hospital bed and the neutrality of the room I had. I was safe from myself and from you.  I’m stupid, waiting for the phone to ring, thinking you might call so I can go. I’d just drive to you and be no better for it.

I want my grandmother’s eyes on me. I thought unseeing would be a cruel game to play with myself. But now I am reading the dark and knowing how my feet drag on every inch, feeling monstrous and tired. I’d like to have familiarity back, but all I see now is my father’s body over my mother, whose body is boneless like a rabbit’s. I’ve descended into my earliest memory. It is too horrible to know, and no work of unseeing will remove him from me, or turn the lights on in the kitchen.


"It’s this life I want, this valley / between the hills and high places"

For This Relief, Much Thanks

"Worried, even certain, will die on upcoming Peru trip — card-carrying hypochondriac — so jotting down some instructions for you."

Dear Dorothy