At dawn I wake up coughing violently and dimly recall having done so throughout the night. When I stand, the room spins wildly. I sit back down and cough specks of blood into my hands. It kind of freaks me out, but I tell myself I’m fine, that if I ignore it, it will eventually go away. I eat half a Snickers bar from the vending machine down the hall, drink some water from the tap, lie back down and pass out.
• • •
Early evening again. My clothes and the mattress are drenched. My teeth chatter nonstop. It hurts to breathe. I don’t know what to do, where to go. I barely have the strength to get out of bed, but all I can think about is the pay phone down the hall, how much I want . . . well, not my mother, but a mother, and if not a mother then someone. But I can’t think of anyone to call. Then I remember the piece of paper with the hospital pay phone number that James gave me. I find it in my still-unpacked suitcase, then stagger over to the door and sit against it. I don’t want anyone to see me like this, so I press my ear to the wood and wait for the hallway to quiet, wishing I had a cell phone like everyone else in the free world. When I’m certain most everyone is at dinner, I slip out and stumble down the hall.
As soon as I reach the phone and start to dial, I feel better. I can picture James slouched in a chair in the main room with his feet on the table, his arms behind his head, flirting with the nurses as they walk by. All I can hope is that he’ll be the one to answer.
The phone picks up. “Hel-hel-hel-lo.” It’s Brian. The stutterer.
“Bri,” I whisper as if somehow the nurses might hear me, “it’s Cass. Can you get James for me?”
“Oh, sh-sure,” he says. Then he shouts at the top of his lungs, “Ja-Ja-Ja-Jaaaames!”
I wince, in part because my eardrum has just been blasted and in part because I am sure his yelling has alerted the staff, thus ruining my chances of getting to talk to James, the one person who could make me feel less alone. But then I hear, “Looney Tunes Institute. This is James speaking.” The sound of his voice is so comforting and familiar, I want to cry.
“Hey,” I say and lean my head against the cool cinder-block wall.
“Cass!” He sounds so genuinely happy to hear from me that I grip the phone cord, wanting to hold on to his excitement, prop myself up with it.
“What’s wrong?” he says when I don’t respond right away. His voice is so full of worry that I can’t bring myself to tell him the truth.
“Nothing!” I start coughing again. “Everything is great!”
“You sound like hell.”
“It’s just a little cough.”
“It sounds like you need a doctor.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “Quit acting like I’m dying of cancer.”
On the other end of the line, I hear Nurse Kay bitching at James for being on the phone outside of calling hours.
“I bet you don’t miss that,” he says to me. To her he says, “It’s Cassie. She has cancer.”
I laugh, and he whispers, “Quick, tell me everything. What’s the first thing you did when you got out of here?”
When I tell him about my little swim, he is not amused. “Were you trying to kill yourself?”
“I was baptizing myself!”
“Oh, stop,” I say, though my voice comes out sharper than I mean it to.
“Cass,” he says, his tone serious. “Please don’t be a statistic.”
It was something we talked about often: the high rate of suicide after release. With twenty-two troubled kids on the ward, we knew there were bound to be ones who wouldn’t make it. I wonder how he could think I might be one of them.
“Anyway . . .” I say. But before I can continue, I start hacking really badly and look down the hallway, worried that someone might poke their head out and see me like this. “I should probably go.”
“Promise you’ll see a doctor,” he says. “You need to learn how to take care of yourself.”
“I promise,” I lie.
Then I hang up the phone, go back to my room, climb into bed and go to sleep.
I DON’T GET better, I get worse. I sleep. I wake. They seem like the same thing. Days exist in a blurry, subaquatic state, separate from the college life outside my dorm window, the moving light and the sounds of voices, louder as they near, fading as they pass. Even my usual nightmares are underwater and without the serrated edges that typically wake me up gasping.
I have a vague recollection of having heard knocking one night, of my RA asking me from behind my closed door if I was okay, of me telling her I was fine. But I don’t even know if it was real or a dream.
Friday becomes Tuesday becomes Friday again, announced by the late afternoon keg party breaking out on the campus lawn. Time has become a meaningless abstraction; there is only this moment and then the next. Sweating and then freezing, a stabbing so violent in my chest and ribs that I sometimes lose consciousness.
I get my food from the vending machine, slipping past other students who look at me strangely as they give me a wide berth, making me feel even more like an outsider. The rest of the time, I flit in and out of lucidity, one minute imagining I’m getting better, another so disoriented that at one point I wake thinking my mother is here. I hear her voice clear as glass. “I’m sick,” she says. “Take Cassie to the hospital.” I am confused by this, then angry, then my whole body disintegrates like light snow on pavement. Finally I realize that I’m still inside a nightmare, that I never woke up at all.
When I actually do awaken, I long for the comfort of a mother, an ache as physical as the illness itself. I do not long for a father, mine or even an imaginary one, although I suppose in some way they are the same thing. My father is a shadow person, a chalk outline of a body, nothing inside the lines—or at least nothing accessible. I know in my heart that he doesn’t agree with all the things my mother did. But we both know that if he dared voice his opposition, she wouldn’t listen or care, and then his irrelevance would be confirmed. So he went along.