Thomas Cannon’s story about his son is the lead story in the anthology Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism. He also has his humorous novel The Tao of Apathy available on Amazon. His poems and short stories have been published in many print and electronic journals. He volunteers as a presenter and the social media director for The Lakefly Writer’s Conference in Oshkosh, WI.
The Common Room
by Thomas Cannon
Holding his coffee mug and jiggling his foot, Victor sits in the common room of the psychiatric wing to avoid the nurses on staff. He is also waiting for a chance to talk with Chrissy, who is doing the same clinical rotation on this wing. She is a thin girl with thinner blonde hair and Victor’s sole goal for the morning is to get to know her better.
Not for the first time, he does the math. Chrissy is a traditional student, which means he is at least eight years older. It makes him announce in his head what he has already decided—he can still be young. There is no other option. And not pass for a college kid, but be one. He keeps himself clean-shaven and gets an expensive haircut every two weeks. He holds his phone low in his lap and texts and twitters with the best of them. I’m more of a slacker than any of them, he thinks, those amateurs actually initiate one to ones with their patients to keep busy. Victor does not see how that will make the day go any faster.
Unlike the clients on AODA, the Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse unit where he wants to work, these patients seem hopeless to him. Victor can see that they will be in and out of treatment facilities their whole lives. Sure, they might make improvements, but only until they decide to stop taking their medication or their medication stops taking them to reality. Their psychotic disorder, their personality disorder or their anxiety disorder circles them and waits for a door to open.
Still Victor tries to look dedicated because Chrissy has an older sister that is bipolar and this is the population she wants to work with once she graduates. It’s the reason he is sitting alone. He had gotten Chrissy to come and talk to him, but then she responded to the first chance to help a patient out.
Nothing is getting me off this couch, he thinks to himself. His next thought is that he just jinxed himself because an eighteen-year-old suicidal comes over and sits down next to him. Her name is Merry and aside from the stupid name her parents gave her, she is all right in Victor’s reckoning. She tends to be morose, but has a dark sense of humor. He doesn’t even mind that she has a crush on him. Women in general like his good looks and his handsomeness makes him popular with the patients. His instructors tell him otherwise, but popularity with the patients does have an effect on evaluations. Still, he doesn’t even give her a noncommittal head nod in hopes she will go find someone else to talk to—like an animal playing dead so that a predator moves on.
She turns towards him and, with an elbow on the back of the couch, forks her unpainted nails firmly into her long red hair. “Dude, you got a cigarette?”
“Merry, you don’t have privileges. Even if I had a cigarette, it wouldn’t do you much good.”
“Oh, you have cigarettes. You smoked over lunch. I can smell it.” She pulls her hand out of her hair and flicks her fingers to let the entangled strands fall from them. “What do you care, anyway?”
He half-shrugs his shoulders before he catches himself and changes it to stretching out his neck. “Listen, those things don’t do anything for you except mess up your lungs. I know. I’m a nurse, remember?”
“You’re just a student. Come on, Victor. You’re as bored as I am. It will give me something to do.”
“Still. I don’t want you to get addicted.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’m killing myself long before cancer sets in.”
“Sure you are. All talk like that does is keep you here.” There goes nurse of the year, he thinks to himself, but he continues. “I should talk like that to get some attention. Am I supposed to think you’re serious?”
“I got the scars on my wrists to prove it.”
“So you do. Why don’t you go talk to your assigned nurse about it? They can help.”
Merry slides a leg, wrapped in tight faded-to-white jeans, up on the couch towards him. “I have a plan. I have a friend here that’s leaving soon and she’s going to give me her shoelaces.”
“Yeah, every suicidal patient here has a plan. But the staff knows all the tricks. They will stop you. They always do.” He takes a big sip of his coffee. He is supposed to ask her questions about her plans and then get her to commit to safe behaviors. To him, his comments are more direct and effective.
“Why don’t you give me a sip of that? I need caffeine.”
“Also against the rules.”
She scoffs. “I thought you were cool. I guess you’re even older than you look. I have you pegged as someone that washed out of other careers and just landed in the nursing program.” She bites her pinky nail. “Come on, Victor. You’re a loser just like me.”
“I’m not a loser.” At this point he decides that he should have included her in the ‘not being a loser’ category. But he said what he had said. In fact he wants to add that he has not failed at other careers. They just did not keep his interest. “You know, you really don’t want to kill yourself. You’re just attention-seeking. I can tell by your stupid plan.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to talk shit to me that way.” Merry’s last comment is pretty loud and Victor looks around the room to see if it has turned heads in their direction, but there are just two elderly patients at a table across the room. A guy reading Field & Stream and a battered old lady coloring pictures of Sponge Bob Square Pants. They have both, on separate occasions, tried to flush their hearing aids down the toilets, so now their back-up hearing aids are locked up in the nursing station. Victor knows that if you want to converse with these two old people, which he didn’t, you basically have to yell. Still, the last thing he wants is a confrontation, so he looks down at his watch.
Merry laughs at his reaction. Then she whispers, “Shit is better than the condescension everyone else gives me. Jesus. I can hear the staff in morning report bragging about the pithy advice they give to us patients.”
“Listen.” He looks around again for anyone witnessing the conversation. This time he sees Chrissy looking in on them from the doorway. She must have heard Merry laugh because she gives him an approving nod. Victor can see in that nod what Merry meant. It pisses him off too. “A real plan would be ‘do what you had to do to get out of here.’ Go to groups, take your medication, and stop talking about wanting to hurt yourself.” Victor sees that getting out off the psychiatric wing is a key to getting better. He sees that for himself as well. The sooner he gets off this unit, the saner he will stay. In fact, he decides that once he gets rid of Merry, he will sneak off to the AODA unit and talk to the director about a job once he graduates.
“Well that was almost useful advice. I already got that speech. Several hundred times. I should be the poster child for mental health programs. They took me from a sad depressed child to a sad depressed adult. All it took was time.”
“Fine, I take it back. I’m just telling you what I’d do if I were you. To me, going around telling people how suicidal you are seems kinda boring.” He looks around the room again and then whispers, “I know this unit doesn’t help anyone. You’re going to do what you’re going to do. I know that. You know that. You just can’t do it here. The staff here keeps too close an eye on you. So you have to be not here if you want to end it all.”
Merry looks at him. She opens her mouth, but doesn’t say anything.
Merry participates in her groups and learns her medications and side-effects. After her talk with Victor, she engages with the other patients and helps the elderly patients walk down the hall and open their mail. Staff keeps an eye on that kind of activity so that patients did not take advantage of the more vulnerable. But they do not find any hint that Merry is insincere.
Neither can Victor, although his money is on her following his plan. This worries him and he decides to not call it his plan. After all, she could have figured things out on her own and chances are that her suicide attempts (past and future) are just cries for attention.
She never mentions their talk, but she likes to ask him, “Do you know what I want to do when I get out of here?” Then she poses different scenarios each time. “I want to go swimming. I want to get my driver’s license. I want to go on a trip.” Others praise her for making plans. Victor, however, hears, “I’m going to drown myself. I’m going to drive my car into a tree. I’m going to just disappear.” He honestly can not tell if she was being devious.
He cannot pull her off to the side because he is not assigned to her. He can not tell the doctor that she is just doing well to get enough freedom to kill herself. She would tell them that he gave her the idea. He would flunk out of his clinical and Chrissy would stop seeing him since his success with Merry had been the right flourish to get her attention.
At the beginning of Merry’s last week, he gets to talk to her. He comes late to her staffing and as long as he is up already, he can go get her. She is putting a puzzle together with another girl in the common room and jumps up when she sees him.
“Victor, they’re going to tell me I can go home soon. They said I’m a real role model for the other patients and they are all proud of me.” She looks up to him, her long hair clean and shimmering, and smiles. “I spent a long time in this loony bin, but finally they’re going to let me get out of here.”
“About that, Merry.” He walks her into the hallway. “You haven’t been following my plan have you? I just wanted to get you to participate in your treatment.”
“Don’t worry about me, Nurse Ratched. I know all about reverse psychology.”
He likes her answer and the way she loops her arm around his and dances into the meeting room. He sits in for the rest of the meeting, smiles when she smiles at the good news and then spends the rest of the day chasing Chrissy. It is not until he was in bed with a good buzz on that he wonders if she had been performing the reverse psychology.
The next day is his day off. He spends it on Chrissy’s front lawn smoking a brisket on her grill and drinking beer. He tells himself that he will talk to Merry the next day.
But the next day, Merry is gone. Her aftercare plan had come together easily so there was no reason to keep her. She is gone and afterward there is no bad news so he decides he has gotten lucky for once.
It is August when Merry comes to his apartment door. He almost does not recognize her because she has cut her hair down to a jaw-length bob and is wearing bright red lipstick. He has not forgotten about her and guilt had pinched him in the days following her discharge. But he has his own things going on. He has graduated, so this is his last possible summer as a student and he is trying to live it up.
He feels his heart pound to see her. For a moment, he tries to figure out if he can just tell her it is not appropriate for her to be there and shut the door. “Merry,” he says. “How the hell did you find me?”
She smiles and pushes past him. “I bet you thought you’d never see me again. In this lifetime, anyway.”
Victor tosses his Taco Bell meal off the couch and makes a spot for her to sit down. Then he plops himself on the dirty-clothes-covered recliner. “Okay. Let’s talk.”
Merry walks into his kitchen and disappears from his view for a moment and then when she sits down, she drops a carving knife onto his coffee table. “It was important that I come here. You got anything to drink or some weed?”
“Jesus.” He pushes himself razor straight and tries to read her face. She sits composed and comfortable, waiting for his answer. “My roommate has a stash. But he hates when I dig into it.”
Merry smiles again. “I don’t want any. I just wanted to see if my hunch was right.”
“I’ll get to the knife, Merry. We’re going to discuss it. But first tell me how you know where I live.”
“I found your profile on the university website. There’s still not too many guys in the nursing program. Maybe, you think I’ve been stalking you, but—”
Victor hasn’t been thinking that. He thought her plan was to kill herself in his living room, but now he has to consider that she wants to knife him. “The thing is, Victor. I know you’re broken. That you agree with me that life isn’t worth the pain you have to go through. You’ve thought so for a long time. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have given me that advice. You fake being happy just like I did to get out of the hospital.”
“Merry, you need to let go of your obsession with me. And your plan.” Victor moves, but Merry grabs the knife long before he could have got to it.
“What a fucking thing to say to a suicidal girl.” Merry gets a good grip on the knife after turning it so that the point touches her chest. “Our obsessions are the only things we have.”
Headlines run through his head. Teenage girl found dead in man’s apartment. Suicidal girl kills her nurse, then self. “I saved you,” he says. He is loud and that scares him. “It got you past your depression. Gave you time to think and change your mind.”
“No. I followed your plan. Right up until you didn’t show up on my last day. I actually expected you to be waiting for me in the parking lot. I thought all along that we had a death pact. Or would at least fuck. Strange as that was… what was stranger was that even though I was working your plan, I did get caught up in my treatment. I felt happier than I’ve ever been. I just looked at it as a taste of peace that would disappear as soon as I got out.”
“Despite being chock-full of coping skills; turns out my shithole of a life was still a shithole.”
“Then why didn’t you… kill yourself? I mean, right away?”
“I wondered if you’d have the guts to ask that.” Merry twirls the knife end over end. “But of course, you do. Insensitive question but Victor gots to know, so Victor gots to ask.”
“Okay. So you’re not going to tell me.” He looks around and decides he cannot make it out the front door, but he could get his bedroom door shut before she could get him. He glances at his door. Then he folds his arms. “It’s okay. As long as you are okay. Forget me, Merry. You have so much going for you. Enough to make me jealous.”
“You know, I was just trying to kiss ass by walking Mildred and Henry back and forth to their rooms, but it made me feel good. It made me realize… I was going to say something to you. That’s why I’m here. But I don’t feel like it anymore.”
“No.” He swallows. “I want to hear it.”
“Oh, If Victor is interested, I better tell all.” She stops spinning the knife in her hand and points it at her gut like a game of spin the bottle. “It made me see I was a good person. Or at least I was when I wasn’t pitying myself. I could be a good person. But you. I figured.” Her mouth clamps tight for a moment. Her painted lips the color of her hair. “You seemed to be living a life. And you’re not a good person. If someone like you was allowed to have an all right life, then why shouldn’t I? I mean you have chances for a good life. You just squander them.”
“Really. Tell me about these chances I blow.”
“You graduated with good grades, but don’t have a job yet. You were dating that skinny blonde Chrissy, but she left you. Left you pretending you were happy to be single by going out drinking.”
“How do you know that?” For a moment, he wishes she would take the knife and kill herself right then and there.
“Sorry, but you asked me.” She looks at him. “I didn’t have to look hard.”
“Fine. Let me have it. Describe my life as Merry sees it.” His hands trembles with rage, but also with anticipation. An anticipation that he felt as a kid when he crashed his bike and hoped he had broken a bone. Otherwise, no one in his family would acknowledge he’d been hurt.
“That’s just the thing. I thought you were happy. You want people to see this cool life. But you actually try so little that someone like me that hates computers could find out the truth. I found out how long you’ve been going to college, and your police record. I followed your Facebook page like a soap opera. I saw all your pictures of you with that Miss Perfect that was too young for you. Then I saw she got a job in Michigan on her page and then your status go to single. Yet you still posted things on her page at all hours of the day and night. Until she blocked you. To top it off were all the mobile pics of you drunk with your buddies. You know if you want to be an AODA nurse, you can’t have those up.”
“There’s nothing wrong about living it up before you’re old. That’s what you should be doing. Kill yourself when your thirty, but not before.”
“Admit to me that’s all you think about doing.”
He feels all his blood and everything he ever felt rush up to his pounding head. “I’m talking about you. Make a new plan to put it off for a few years.”
“Say it out loud, Victor. For once to somebody. It will feel good. It will feel so good.” She brings the knife to her chest. “Admit it to me. I’m going to kill myself so I’ll take it to the grave. No harm done.”
“Yes. Yes.” Victor lets out a sob. “Thirty God-damn years is enough to know if you’re cut out for life or not. I gave myself that. I gave myself until I was sixteen, then twenty. Then I allowed myself until thirty. But thirty shit-filled years is enough.
“Maybe you’re here to do what I am not brave enough to do.”
Merry extends her arms as far as she can while holding the knife. Victor reaches out and grabs it so that they both hold it.
She brings it down as hard as she can into the coffee table. It stops just into the wood. Her hand slips so that the blade slices into her palm. Her blood rushes onto the table and the knife, and through his fingers.
For a moment, both stare at the knife and her bleeding hand. The blood belongs to both of them. Merry asks a question then, a question that is right to ask at that moment, but will still be good a good question after Victor goes and gets everything he needs to stop the blood or even after Victor drives her home. “What do we do now?”
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Cannon