Misfire

by Kathryn Hargett

 

I am a terrible person because when my friends talk about their mental illnesses, my chest coils like the mud nest of a sparrow and I vomit. Even the word “health” can sometimes nauseate me, or the way facial muscles contract when someone is incubating an egg under their tongue. Their faces turn plump and red as a liver when their illnesses seep through their sulci. My therapist will tell me that this is a reactionary impulse, the adrenal gland misfiring. Or she’ll tell me that I’m an asshole. Either way, whenever my friends mention the word dissociation or memory, my teeth shudder in their gums and, one by one, squirm out of my mouth and fall at my feet like bottles.

*

My mother tells me that I will never be medicated, to never trust doctors, because I will never need to take pills in the first place; there is nothing wrong with me, it’s all just stress and I haven’t realized the proper method of regulating it yet, that’s normal for kids your age. I imagine a monochrome film, French-haunted, Salvador Dali sliding a razor blade across my cornea.

*

Confession 16: Ever since reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I have classified the men I meet according to male pattern baldness: A (splotches of thinning hair, a spot of receding hairline), B (a nearly-bald scalp with black tufts behind the ears), and C (either completely bald or desperately clinging to the six last wisps atop the parietal lobe). Most people don’t realize it, but we are constantly losing hair: a few pieces in the shower drain, a couple of strands lost in the teeth of a hairbrush, the slow retreat of the hairline above our temples only seen when stretched back, revealing itself like centipedes on the underside of a boulder.

*

“‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl.’/—Yet when we came / back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

*

My therapist hangs Chinese paintings above her desk of a bough puckering into pale flowers. During our first session, she tells me that she understands my tiger mother because she is Jewish. Later, I find that she writes “cultural” beside some of my comments about suicide.

*

One night, I dream of smashing my phone against a metal railing until it crumbles into my hand, then comes together again as a swallow. Anything to feel as though I am still made of sweetness & light.

*

My first prescription: citalopram. Dosage: 10mg, no bigger than a rat’s eye and the color of the Arizona mesas, to be taken once a day with a full glass of water. Side effects include dry mouth, loss of appetite, hurling books from the faces of hickory desks and emergency rooms folding into light behind the eyelids.

*

Neither my mother nor I can definitively place my psychiatrist’s age. The Dr. E. that reflects across my retinas is in his mid-fifties, with stony, quarter-like eyes behind a pair of equally round brown glasses. My mother insists that he is younger, mid- to late-forties, though still younger than she is. During a follow-up appointment, I imagine him pinning me against the floor and trapping my hair between his teeth like a lightening bug. I smile at him ugly and gray, like a mouth full of gasoline.

*

My name, printed in bold sans-serif across an amber bottle, holding years I will never touch.

*

Confession 12: In the bathroom of a Mexican restaurant, I lock myself in the largest stall and find the artery where the fire is carried away from my chest. Tweezer and forceps, I slash away the skin from my thigh, cut away every part of me that has ever been touched.

*

What no one ever told me about medication is that the world does not haze over like the eyes of a corpse or lurch into a shipwreck. Instead, the world thickens, becomes a mouth suspended over the South Sea, and I, Ernest Shackleton, must trek through it on my knees and cleave the air into a map of limbs.

*

My therapist tells me that Chinese people may sometimes reject medication due to their historical distrust of authority figures. I say nothing of First Aunt, her eyes ghosting towards us from their labor camp.

*

My doctors look at me as though I might, at any moment, erupt into blue flames, and as such they wield pens across their clipboards like buckets of water.

*

What nobody ever told me is that only one kind of girl can become Angelina Jolie and wrestle the air with a switchblade.

*

Confession 8: I dream nothing for three months. I am eleven years old and I do not sleep for several weeks, but instead find knuckles bones in my pockets, gnarled as walnuts and scarred by white boils. I cut antlers from my temples. I watch The Boondocks. I lie down on the cold tile of my bathroom and grasp the lip of the basin, convulsing, the house phone in pieces at my feet like jacks. When I do sleep, it is fitful, and my body flees its eyelids. When I do dream, it is of coyotes, Red Mountain, the soft neck of a gazelle— opening. I burn all the air out of the room, slick the bed with tar.

*

“Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you / Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded / I do not know whether a man or a woman / —But who is that on the other side of you?”

*

After he prescribes me sertraline— 25mg— my mother asks me if Dr. E seems a bit nervous around her, as though he were wrestling a panther when he explained the side effects of my new medication to her.

*

In the emergency room, a doctor flashes a white light across my eyes, scowling, as two nurses jot down my heart rate— 72 bpm— and my blood pressure— 108/60. The doctor is not quite type A. Perhaps in five more years as a medical professional, treating non-epileptic seizures and boys with white shards instead of femurs, his hair will fall into his hands like hay. Another nurse loads me into a wheelchair as though unshouldering a sack of wheat into a wheelbarrow.

*

In the hospital, a boy—too young for balding— asks me if it’s true that Chinese people eat dog, calls me dogeater, his black eyes wide as June. I imagine my body elongating and spindling like a Schiele, dissipate into smoke.

*

“Well, that may be true, but the only reason someone that age would do something like that is if somebody had gotten to him first.”

*

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water.”

*

When I return, I find the blue scrubs folded under my tongue like a communion wafer, bitter & umami. I scoop out the fleshy tongue, pluck out my teeth to scrape the fabric away.

*

Dr. E. opens his palm and becomes an alchemist, the DSM-IV warm in my lap like a sleeping dog. “How was the hospital?” In response, I pull a peach pit out of my throat and scrub it free of sea foam, set it on the coffee table.

*

One morning, during School, D. who calls me Ching Chong swings himself open like a switchblade and smashes the side of his first against the psychiatric windows as though cracking a coconut. As the nurses rise to restrain him, their faces rearranged like a Picasso painting, D. shucks himself like an oyster, all the brine and abductor muscle filling the ward like a mother’s voice.

*

“There is shadow under this red rock, / (Come in under the shadow of this red rock), / And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

*

A nurse thumbs a blue pill— sertraline, 50mg now— out of a plastic square like cracking an egg into a Dixie cup. Inside: mercury, small birds. The nurses never look at me, really, but look just beyond me, as though attempting to ascertain the spine within the skin. I lift my tongue, see how I didn’t forget—

*

During visitation, my mother removes her skin like peeling off a wet shirt and drapes it over my shoulders, her grief calcifying to a tooth in my mouth. “Don’t stay here, my daughter of crushed jasmine leaves.”

*

“I can’t stay here. I don’t belong here. I know I’m crazy but not like that. This place is like the maw of a wild dog.”

*

Every night, a new nurse takes my blood pressure and temperature, occasionally the pulse. In general, the nurses cannot be qualified into such categories as A, B, and C. They are so young, I think they could be anyone’s kid brother, a university student. The armband squeezes my bicep like my father’s shotgun around a glassed buckshot to make it speak.

*

“I mean, it wasn’t really my fault though. I was raped, too, so it just shows that there’s two sides to every story. Right, Kat?”

*

“At the violet hour, when the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits/ Like a taxi throbbing waiting, / I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see / At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea—”

*

On the ride home, my temple presses against the car window, my eyes lulling against the brightened streets. I imagine my body clattering into a handful of sweetened seeds, the kind my mother cracks between her molars and slivers the shy meat out from within. I run my finger on the underside of the white identification band around my wrist, the ones the other patients would slip off from time to time to remind themselves that they are capable of destruction. My mother drives slow, as though I would disappear entirely if she shot above fifty miles an hour. As we crawl up Twentieth Street, she jokes that she is a double threat, that I am a triple threat indeed: young and Asian and female. I nod, readjust my mouth into a grin, slip my index finger under the bracelet again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kathryn Hargett‘s poetry has been published in or is forthcoming from the Adroit Journal, Gigantic Sequins, DIALOGIST, the Fem, |tap| magazine, Sierra Nevada Review, and elsewhere. She is a Chinese-American poet from the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama.

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