Monday, March 26, 2012

The Delightful, Wonderful, and Crazy Universe of Melanie (3/5)

Melanie and Sam in the Petunia Garden

The petunia garden is nearly two square acres located on the west end of the Bedford complex.  It has a gazebo in the middle and a nice view of golf courses on the outside.  Only patients who have made progress with their treatment can come here, though the staff would never admit it.  Otherwise, there are other places on the Bedford grounds where one can get exercise and fresh air.
          It being early March, the petunias had not yet made their appearance, but the grass was green and the trees were sprouting buds, giving them a pinkish-orangey glow.  In a month or two the place would be bestrewn with not only petunias, but flowers of all kinds, and finely trimmed hedges, making it an optimal time and place to profess one’s love.  But I needed to tell Melanie today what I’ve been feeling these many months, hoping of course that she felt the same.  I could not be certain that her willingness, if not (dare I say) eagerness, to consider me as her lover at the cafeteria table translated to real life.  As you’ll see, I had something else to tell Melanie, and I wasn’t sure how she would take it, as I wasn’t sure about it myself.
          We’ve never taken a stroll through the garden together, and it might not happen again.  We eventually ended up in the gazebo to gaze at the birds and the view.  Bedford staff was never far off.  This was my opportunity, and it didn’t get off to a great start.
          “I like birds,” Melanie said. 
          “Me too.”
          “That one there…See it?  It’s called a red-winged blackbird.”
          Melanie looked at the little creature and then turned to read my face for a few seconds.  “What are you saying?  Are you saying that I have a dark soul and that…and that my passion for life carries me to…freedom?  Are you saying something like that?”
          “No Melanie!  I’m saying, Hey, look at that literal bird over there, that flesh-and-blood bird.  Pretty cool, huh?
          “Are you upset?”
          “Me?  Of course not.”
          “Your tone.”
          “I just wish you wouldn’t always search for some hidden meaning, a metaphor for life or allegory, or whatever, in everything you see and hear.  Imagination is a good thing, but I think—and this is just me—you sometimes forget the real world.”
          “No, that’s okay.”
          “Maybe…maybe I don’t want the real world.”  She hesitated to check my reaction to her words.
          “I can understand that.”
          “Do you?”
          “Yes.  I like your imagination, Melanie.  You create an entire universe, a better place that’s delightful and wonderful.  But one must not lose sight of reality.”
          “Do you think I’m crazy?” she asked.
          She said nothing, for she knew I heard her.
          “Crazy?  Why would you say that?  Why would you ask me that?”
          “No?  I’m a patient in a psychiatric hospital!”
          “Well so am I.”
          “That’s because you’re crazy.”
          “I’m kidding.”
          “You’re hilarious.”
          An inexplicable pause in the conversation ensued.  Both of us stared at the patches of grass surrounding the gazebo.  The sun was shining, but the air was cool.  Melanie’s lavender sweater, I had duly noted, matched her beautiful eyes.  Though I never lost sight of us as two one-winged birds in my mind’s eye, I now pictured us flittering across the lawn like butterflies, following each other from one marigold to the next.  No doubt Dr. Bryson would reward me in therapy for seeing myself in a less pathological light.
          Finally, she took up her question in a new guise.  “Do you not think of me as a mental patient?”  I sat down on the stone bench in the gazebo to consider my answer.
          “No, but…”
          “But what?”
          “We’re all here for a reason, right?”
          “What’s your reason, Sam?”
          “You know.  Everyone here knows by now.”
          “I’m not interested in what’s in your file.  What’s the real reason you’re here?”  As an afterthought, she chuckled.  “You're the one that wants the real world, right?”
          “Dr. Bryson says I hated myself, but that’s not true.  It’s true that I tried to hurt myself.”
          “Why?” she whispered with a look of such compassion I had never seen before in anyone, including my mother.
          “I was a germ.”
          “No, you were not.”  With these words, Melanie sat down beside me on the bench.
          “Yes, it’s true.  I…”
          “Stop it, Sam.”
          “Imagine if people around you were becoming infected.  I thought I could hide out in my parents’ guestroom, but the danger I posed as a pathogen wouldn’t go away.  I didn’t take a razor to my wrists because I hated myself—far from it.  No, I wanted to protect others from the harm I could cause them.”
          Melanie looked confused.  My explanation didn’t mesh with the official or “professional” explanations that Bedford provides us.
          “Do you really believe that?” she asked.
          “It’s not about what I believe, Melanie.  It’s the truth.”
          I wanted to get the lens off me.  “Enough about me.  What’s your story, Melanie?  Tell me something about yourself, something I don’t know from the stories in the cafeteria.  Please?”
          “I’m not a very interesting person.  Why do you think I make up these stories, huh?”
          She rolled her eyes.  “Okay.  Um…My family comes from Amboy Perth, New Jersey, but I grew up in western Pennsylvania since I was 11, when my parents divorced.”
          “Is this for real?”
          “Yes!  Geez.”  She laughed.  “My great-grandparents immigrated to America in the 1920s from Russia.  They were Germans living along the Volga until it became too dangerous with the Bolsheviks robbing and murdering people.  Boring so far?” 
          “No.  What else can I learn about this enigmatic creature named Melanie?”
          “I studied art history and wanted to teach, but…I’ve had severe bipolar issues all my life.”
          Melanie and I went on to share our deepest secrets and fears, however cautiously, making ourselves more vulnerable and fragile, yet finding a kind of sanctuary in each other.  She told me about her lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety.  I told her about my inability to connect with people and how this sense of being socially dislocated affected my childhood and unsuccessful academic career. The shattering blow of my father’s death, I further confessed to her, and the more recent passing of my mother only increased my isolation and alienation.
          She responded with a kind face and reassuring words.
          “For what it’s worth,” she said, as if a summation to our discussion from the heart, “we seem to be on the same path.”
          “I enjoy our time together.”
          “You mean our time in the cafeteria telling crazy stories, right?”
          “They’re not crazy, but yeah.”
          “I like Lisa, Arnie, and Tom too.  They have their issues, but who doesn’t, right?”
          “No, I’m not talking about them.”
          “I’m talking about you.  I enjoy spending time with you above all.  Tom, Arnie and Lisa are great, but…I found myself looking forward to seeing you each day...and hearing your voice.”
          She didn’t say anything, but continued to watch the birds.  I had to fill up the awkward pause with words, any words.  “Weird, I guess.”
          “Listen,” I continued in a different vein, attentive to her demeanor and suffering under her silence, “I found out today that I’ll be going before the County Mental Health Board in a couple of weeks.”
          She still said nothing but turned her head from me.
          “Maybe I’ll be leaving Bedford.  I don’t know.”
          “That’s wonderful news.  I’m happy for you.  We’ll miss you at the table.”  She smiled, a forced smile, before adding, “I’ll miss you.”  Those three words would echo in my mind for weeks—no, eternity.
          “There’s no guarantee that they’ll decide…”
          “No, you’re leaving.  That’s just as well.  You need to get out of this hellhole.”
          “I’ll never leave here,” she said.
          “What do you mean?  You’re here in the petunia garden, aren’t you?”
          “So that means that deem you on the road to recovery, no?”
          “I’m never getting out of here, Sam.  They say I couldn’t cope on the outside.  If it wasn’t for the drugs, and if it wasn’t for the creative outlet that our morning conversations provide, I’d…”
          “What?  Be able to live a normal life?”
          “I’m here, in this garden, because they feel sorry for me.”
          “I don’t think so.”
          Melanie didn’t respond.  Yet another minute of silence passed before I attempted to tell her how I feel.
          “We’ve never walked here together,” I started.
          “We’ve never been in this garden together.”
          “That’s true.”
          “I’ve seen you here , though.”
          “I mean, I’ve watched you from afar.  Seeing you walk in the petunia garden somehow made me happy, but it also fueled me with …longing.”
          “Yeah, it’s weird, like I wanted so desperately to walk alongside you.”
          “Well, we’re here now.”
          “I….”  She must have known what was coming; she could see it in my eyes.
          Before I could get it out, a red-winged blackbird hopping along the railing of the gazebo ruffled its feathers and chirped as another one approached it.
          “I like birds,” she said.
          “Me too.”
          Melanie suddenly got up and walked out of the gazebo.  I wasn’t sure if I should stay put or follow her.  I remained in the gazebo and watched her traverse the pathway back to Building A.  I became painfully aware of my one wing.