When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed
by Christopher Bowen
Gary jumps up and down as we cross paths for the first time down the hall clasping his hands together in exasperation and reaching his right one out to shake mine. I reach out and he vigorously shakes it. He is excited to meet me. I say hello and give him my name. He smiles, nodding his thin head, occasionally looking out of the corner of his eye as if something were there, but there isn’t. There are other people here in the halls, too. There’s a woman who reminds me of Patti Smith with dark, scraggly hair and a man a few years older than me who works in construction. Another woman with a family of five or six cries a lot. Some of us don’t wear pajamas.
I call Rob on the phone outside my room. They don’t trust us with phones in our rooms. They don’t trust us with razors. They trust us with Footprints. Trying to get through there’s a girl my age breaking down on the other phone down the same side of the hallway. She’s slumped against the wall, her back to it, on the floor crying into the receiver. Her hands to her face, I ask Rob if he is still there. He says, yes. Watching her I say, I will be okay. He says, yes. I ask him to look after Christa. He says, yes. I never see the girl from the phone down the hall again. Patti Smith and I play pool with a young Jewish kid who does yoga stretches in the morning down the hall.
“Why are you here?” she asks.
“I think it’s because I’m kinda sad or at least staying here makes me feel like that.”
“You must be really sad to be here then,” she replies. “What have you been diagnosed with?”
I hesitate. “I’m not diagnosed with anything, just trying to get outta here like the rest of us. I don’t have an illness. I’m just trying to leave, you know?”
She laughs at this and we finish the pool game. She says they will keep me here as long as the man thinks they should and it makes her mad as hell. It’s the first thing I ask the doctor when he visits that afternoon if he’s the man.
“Not quite getting it, but sure. Actually, I’m starting to think that you’re the man, Jim. We’re going to start some new activities for you this week, group occupational activities, and meeting with the team.”
Okay, I say, thinking it’s best not to ask questions from the man.
I go to group. Gary is there. Dan the construction worker is there, even Patti Smith. We bake cookies and play board games. We joke about how Dan can’t cook as he burns his cookie tray and Gary nods smiling but Dan takes the insult too seriously and can’t laugh it off. Gary continues to nod for the next five minutes before pointing to the empty seat next to him. I make the mistake of looking into his eyes.
The occupational therapy lady that walks into my room every morning really, really gets me going, almost like an army drill sergeant kind of going. I think of the Jewish kid who does yoga and wonder how he feels about it, how he reacts to this woman coming into his room every morning. I remind myself to ask him.
“This is my room and I need to sleep,” I yell to the doorway dismissively. This is the third or fourth day of this. I pull blankets over my head trying to hide it. She is my mother waking me up for school saying she will be back in fifteen minutes and that I better be ready for group. Sliding the curtain that divides my half of it from my roommate, when I’m sure she’s gone, I get up and get dressed.
The strangest thing occurs to me when I walk down the hallway this time. I have a feeling that I am being led as if I have the ambition today. I will bake cookies and they’ll be chocolate, my favorite like every birthday cake, and I will share them. But where’s my dorm? The morning sun hits my back from the window at the end of the hall where the clouds were but aren’t now, a place I thought I could fly. They have started letting me wear normal clothes and the heat of the sun soaks through my favorite yellow t-shirt with a number seven on it. I used to wear it before going to bed and brushing my teeth at college.
“There you are,” the woman shrills from down the hall, two or three doors down on the right. “Come inside!”
She scuttles into the doorway of the cafeteria room. The voice comes through gently, a low hum at first that easily could be mistaken for the hospital life-flight helicopter. But it isn’t. It’s the beat and hum of something—of wings. I turn my body around facing the empty fifteen feet of the hallway behind me turning my back to all of them. There’s a window at the end, the door to the right—my room. I run fingers through my hair. My shoes fit and there are no footprints. The shoes still fit and the voice is sunlight and stars from the weeks passing. It’s the farthest end of the hall and leaving by the second. I put a hand up to shade the sunshine singled out there before pointing an index finger to the brightness.
I was chosen to be here? I have to find my way home.
Trembling with my knees ready to buckle at any given time as if to jump or fall through the floor, a cloud passes sorting me, and all of it, out. The voice, too, fades. The shade comes up and away over buildings, over skyscrapers, and away, and part of me is with it. I cup my hands to hide my face and keel over, I sob a river.
~ © Christopher Bowen
WHEN I RETURN TO YOU, I WILL BE UNFED
BY CHRISTOPHER BOWEN
Published: January 2016
Publisher: Burning River Press