Allison Wendt


Pariah

 

Beth stared at her husband’s pale neck that always craned forward, stark against black uncombed hair. They were walking through cobbled streets of the Old City, in Jerusalem, talking about which sites had been their favorites: Beth’s was the Western Wall with tongues of paper stuck between stone bricks; her husband’s favorite was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He had gazed upon the tomb and ornate crucifixion with glazed wonderment and a touch of horror—an expression Beth hadn’t seen on his face since they took their vows. 

It had been four days and still she hadn’t told him that she forgot her medication—that after she rushed a teenaged client to the ER after the girl overdosed on Tylenol and Beth arrived home with barely enough time to throw some clothes into a suitcase before the cab arrived, her clozapine had maintained its loyal perch in the medicine cabinet. They had been halfway across the continent when Beth realized what she’d done. She didn’t want to tell her husband because she knew he would blame himself for her misstep, ruining his sacred trip.

She was anxious but not surprised, as she had a remarkable aptitude for forgetting important things like keys, her wallet and which day it was. In fact, her inattention had caused her to lose every job prior to working as a peer mentor—a position that didn’t require organizational skills or higher education. She simply shared her recovery experience with clients and gave them a tour of the agency before they met their therapists or psychiatrists. Her job might have been the only important thing she hadn’t lost. It mattered to her more than her own life: Being of service to people in the only way she knew how. It was enough to get her out of bed every morning while her husband busied himself painting flowers, nudes and ingratiating piles of fruit. 

A car honked in the distance. The noise took on exaggerated importance, causing her to jump. Her husband grabbed her hand, talking about how the Arabs lost a civil war; then how Israel’s expansion went against international law. Beth felt lonely, locked outside his fortress of knowledge. The only information she retained was that they were in a country where refugees fought other refugees. She imagined centuries of wars shoring up beliefs to be sifted through and fought over, building and crushing landmarks like layers of sediment composing this magical city. 

Her husband’s words were blending with her thoughts like two crossed radio stations, full of static. Streaks of light flashed in her periphery. Her limbs became heavy, her joints stiff until she almost tripped. The air felt dense, vibrating with oppressive intensity. Something was happening nearby, she knew this the same way she knew her husband was wearing a black TOOL T-shirt and hadn’t shaved in four days.  

“You ok?” he asked, looping his arm around her waist, then slowing his pace to match hers. 

“I think so, but I’m starting to feel kind of . . .” Before she could finish, two boys rode up to them on bikes, sweat clearing paths through dirt on their faces. One tried to sell them a brochure. Her husband gave the boy a few quarters and Beth squeezed his hand. “Be safe!” she called out as the boys rode away.  

They made their way through a vaulted gate to the main road. Bald sunlight plastered her husband’s hair to his high forehead. Any little noise continued to startle Beth. When they approached a stunned crowd, officers standing guard around a wrecked truck and a damaged bus stop, Beth froze, wondering if this scene was responsible for her dread. The truck’s bumper had ripped halfway off and was covered in blood and something yellow that had the texture of grits. She put her fingers to her sternum, expecting to feel a wound. Anyone harmed by the accident had been carried away but what happened left an imprint in the air, allowing Beth to know some details: There had been a fatal gun wound and two other deaths. She retrieved this information like a memory.   

Seeking comfort, she looked at her husband and met his stony face cracking into a mix of fear and anger. Then she was on the ground, the bright sky twisting into kaleidoscopic patterns. Her husband stood over her, a shadow over white heat. He lifted her off the concrete and threw her over his shoulder. Beth grabbed his shirt, digging her knuckles into the ropy muscles of his back. He ran and she bumped against his shoulders like a game animal.

In their room, he dumped her on the bed and opened a can of ginger ale, handing it to her. “Here hon, drink something.” 

She took a sip and put it on the nightstand. The soda tasted weird, acrid. She thought he was trying to poison her—maybe that was the reason he brought her overseas: to get rid of her, his sick wife. A fruit-fly swiveled through the air. As if hitting an invisible barrier, it spun in the opposite direction before plunging into her soda. Beth stuck her finger in the glass to scoop it out, to save one tiny life.  

Then she heard the resident voice of her fractured brain:  He doesn’t care enough to poison you, you’re just a nuisance like that fly. Nothing important. Sort it out. Warped. War-ped.  

Beth tried not to panic. Her psychiatrist had told her that activation of the “inferior parietal lobe” of her brain could cause her to think that her body was controlled by an outside entity. She remembered the name of this brain region with a mnemonic device that matched how she felt whenever it talked to her: inferior pariah. Her psychiatrist had suggested naming the voice something silly to externalize it, and so she called it Mildred. She reminded herself that Mildred could not in fact control her. 

Give it up already. You’re done, hon. It’s on the run . . . gun it . . . shun it, fun. 

Beth flicked the unlucky fruit-fly to the floor. She said, “Chris…thanks for carrying me back here after I fainted, or whatever happened after that . . . scene.”

“Yup,” he said, “I’ll be right back, I need a smoke.” 

Beth dug in her purse for a Xanax. Chris returned with three candy bars and turned on the TV.

“Aren’t you scared, after what we saw?” she asked. 

“Don’t worry hon, it won’t happen again, I promise.”

“Probably not, but still,” she said, taking one of the Xanax.

He sat on the bed next to her, working the wrapper off a chocolate bar. His fingers were trembling and so he wasn’t making much progress with it. He told her, “You should lay off those pills, I worry about you.” 

“It’s a prescription,” Beth said. She was about to tell him that she left the clozapine at home, but he kept talking:

“They aren’t good for you. People went crazy for Valium when it came out. Used to be you could buy it over the counter, sold out all the time ... And you know what?”

“What?” Beth said flatly.  

 “The guy who engineered Valium sold the patent to pharmaceutical companies for something like ten grand. Then they jacked those prices right up . . . They made people legal addicts to rake it in.” 

 “I’d be a wreck without it,” Beth said. “Hey—you sure you’re ok?”

 “Yup,” he said. He had finally worked the wrapper all the way off the candy bar. It lay in a red-foil wad next to a flickering lamp whose cord he yanked from the wall as if the lamp were to blame for everything wrong with their vacation. 

“Chris . . . careful,” Beth said, laying down. She felt the need to justify taking an addictive medication, and so she said: “It’s just that I need if, after what happened.” More than anything else she felt scared of her mind. Her symptoms were just beginning and she feared the point where she stopped recognizing them as symptoms. The Xanax took her feelings away, allowing sleep to settle over her. 
            

When she woke, her husband was sitting by her side, chewing on his lip and tossing a pomegranate into the air, catching it, tossing it up again. She wanted to rub his back, pull his head into her chest and stroke his neck with its small black curls of hair, but her body wouldn’t move. She was scared of him. 

“I picked it for you, from that tree outside. See? That one right there.” 

“Thank you,” she said, pressing the pomegranate against her cheek. It was warm from the sun and his palms. They sat with their backs against the headboard while the television broadcasted the US presidential debate. Beth lay her head on his shoulder and picked at her skinned knee. 

“Please, I didn’t travel with you overseas to watch this grotesque reality TV,” she said. She thought about why they had traveled overseas: her husband was pursuing his own brand of Christianity, one that had to do with understanding spiritual truths from direct experience instead of following scriptures. Beth hadn’t wanted to deny him this trip because doing so might have started a fight that could drag on for the rest of her married life. And because she knew he needed something—anything—that might challenge the inertia of his life. Their life, as she knew it.

“Shit’s hitting the fan,” he said. “We’ll be fine ‘cause I make cash doing things with my own hands . . . I don’t take from government handouts like some of those bottom-feeders do.” 

“Some of those people really need the help,” Beth said. “What are you saying about me, when you call people in need bottom feeders?”

“I’m not saying you’re like that.”

“If you’re not talking about me, then you’re putting people down who have it worse than me.”

“No, listen to me: I’m talking about people who take and don’t work for it.”

“Some can’t,” Beth said. 

So much static and noise was pouring into her mind that she couldn’t stop her impulse to say something cruel: “You shouldn’t call people bottom feeders when you’re just some Joe Blow artist painting stuff to match people’s lampshades.” 

He sprung up from the bed. Beth watched anger twitch up his neck, flooding his face with tiny veins and blood vessels. His fist was clenched and raised. She knew he would never strike her but she thought this time he might. She shielded her face with her arms. There was a deep crack and the sound of splitting wood—another crash—and then he was gone. He returned a few minutes later smelling like weed and cigarettes.  

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. 

“Chris! You broke their fucking chair.” 

A wooden desk chair was laying sideways on the floor. A diagonal crack split its seat and one of the legs had come off. Next to it was the lamp. The bulb had shattered and the tan lampshade was bent and ripped. Even though her husband had sniffed out a pot deal as soon as they arrived, Beth realized he was having trouble anyways. 

He took a seat next to her, rubbing his temples. His cheeks were always sunken-in but now his skin seemed plastered to bone. His features changed until Beth thought he had been inhabited by something else, something malevolent. Part of her knew this was her brain playing its tricks. She also knew she perceived subtleties that other people couldn’t see: one world lapping into the next. She stood up and grabbed the pomegranate off the night stand, holding it by her head like a softball. 

“What now,” he shouted.  

Beth walked backwards into the bathroom and shut the door. Mildred spoke: 

You’re pathetic. He gives you just enough to keep you around. You’re worse, you get what you deserve. He broke the lamp because he wanted it to be you.

Beth ran the faucet and flushed the toilet, making all the noise she could to tune these words out. She tried not to have such old-world beliefs about her hallucinations, like that people could become possessed. But the shadows—she thought some might belong to outside energies tapping her brain’s broken filter. 

Her husband came in and turned off the faucet. “Now I know what’s up,” he said. He held her head against his chest while he took the pomegranate from her hand and threw it out the open window. 

“We forgot your pills . . . I’m so sorry, Beth . . . I can’t believe I let that happen . . . Why didn’t you say something?” 

You should know better; he pretends to be your protector but that hick only wants you because you’re sick, said Mildred. Sick hick tick.  

Beth nodded, feeling comforted by her husband’s touch. “Mildred’s back. She sure didn’t waste any time . . . And she’s ridiculous as ever.” 

“All you have to do is ignore her, stay calm,” her husband said.   

“Yeah, ok . . .” Beth muttered. 

Head full of rocks, Mildred said.  

“Can we just be nice to each other?” Beth asked, placing her hand on the side of his face. “She’s quieter when we’re nice.” 

“Sure, hon—there’s nothing I want more than that,” he said, putting his hand over hers and sliding it to his lips. His kissed her palm. Then he led her by the arm to the bed. “Come here, next to me.” 

“I wish we could leave sooner, I just want to be home,” Beth said, picking up a glass of iceless Diet Coke. She took a sip to clear her throat. The soda was flat. Like the ginger ale, it tasted like chemicals. Mildred was going again:  

Get over it. Get over yourself. Get over it yourself. All over yourself. Foreself. 

Someone laughed. It was either coming from the room next door or her own brain. When she placed her hands over her ears, the laughter grew louder. She breathed in and out slowly, counting to ten until her attention was drawn away from the laughter. 

Her husband placed his hand on her knee, his gaze fixed on infomercials. She could tell he was trying to keep his cool. Trying, for her. 

“I’ll call the airline in a minute,” he said, “And your psychiatrist. There’s gotta be a pharmacy here where we can get it filled . . . Look hon, I’m really sorry for losing my shit.” 

“It’s ok—I know you’re trying.” 

Beth didn’t know what to make of her hallucinations. She did feel sure about one thing: thoughts and emotion could be transmitted between people like radio signals. She knew because some thoughts would enter her mind and they weren’t hers. These were often corroborated by something another person said right after it happened. Her psychiatrist called this an error of perception—like déjà vu—because of crossed wires in her brain and the misfiring of neurotransmitters. Beth knew he was right, in some cases. She also figured her psychiatrist was too preoccupied or locked inside his own belief structures to notice this network of minds trying to synch up—to strengthen each other. Chris, we need to love each other right now or I’ll spin out, she tried to think hard enough for him to receive it. 

“Come here,” he said, opening his arms. He held her, pressing his cheekbone into the top of her head. “I’m sorry about what I said—I know you do good work, I won’t call anyone bottom-feeders no more. They’re trying to survive and nobody’s doing them right, neither.”

 “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have said anything about your paintings; you have an eye like no one I’ve ever met.” 

 “Nobody else would put up with us, hon—not either one of our crazy asses.”

“I know,” she said. “A teenaged client asked me if my husband loves me.”

“What did you say?”

“I told her yes and then she tried to kill herself.”

“That isn’t why she did it,” he said.

“She overdosed in a place where everyone was around to save her—but still. She might have done some real damage to her organs . . . I worry about her. What if she tries again and succeeds?”

He squeezed her knee.

“I can tell the kid really envies me. If she only knew…”

“Knew what?”  

“How things are with me . . . with us,” Beth said, thinking about how her husband was broken because of a ruthless upbringing in a backwater southern town while she was broken by the faulty architecture of her brain. Their lives spun around each other by some force mysterious as gravity. Beth wore a sapphire colored ring from the Salvation Army. Her husband had his ring tattooed, a thick black line.   

“How are things . . . with us?” he said. 

“I don’t know,” Beth said. 

She must have been dead-tired because the next thing she knew, she was being riled from sleep by her husband kneeing her, shouting in his sleep. She shook him until he woke up.  

He draped his arm over her torso. “What’s wrong, hon? You doing ok?” 

“You were shouting in your sleep. You were having a nightmare.”

“I was? Just try to go back to sleep,” he said, rolling over. 

Beth was sore from where he had thrust his knee into her. She glanced at the broken chair, wondering how many couples took transcontinental flights to stay in their hotel rooms fighting, hallucinating and smashing things up. And yet, the outcome of this trip didn’t surprise her. She had thought about leaving her husband ever since they married and she woke up the morning after feeling smashed in between his life and her mind. But she stayed in the marriage because there was nowhere else to go; because being alone with her thoughts scared her, and she loved her husband.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mildred said.  

“But it’s not fair.” 

“Huh?” 

“I was talking to Mildred, I thought you were asleep.”

“What are you two talking about?”

“I’m thinking about us . . . your nightmares…as if going through your childhood once wasn’t bad enough, now you dream about it, too. Your poor body thinks it’s still happening. And there’s me—how am I supposed to heal when my brain gets mixed up . . . what if I lose it and I’m gone forever?” 

“I won’t let that happen to you—I promise you won’t lose all your marbles. We all got our demons, hon. Your brain gets mixed up and then the aliens talk to you, they don’t talk to me . . . I’m kinda jealous.”  

“Stop it,” she said, elbowing him. He climbed over her, pinning her wrists above her head. Laughing, she tried to break out of his grip. “That’s just crazy,” she said.  

She knew he was serious. He was fascinated by stories about NASA pilots who had seen UFOs. He thought some brilliants like Nikola Tesla and John Nash had received knowledge by intercepting divine or alien intelligence. 

 “It scares me, too, you know,” he said, releasing her wrists. “It scares me thinking about…” he stopped.

“Thinking about what?” 

“I wonder what I could do, if someone made me angry enough. You’re afraid of losing your mind . . . so am I.” He placed his hand on her thigh, then ran it over the curve of her hip, down to where her stomach dipped into her pelvis. For the first time in weeks she wanted him, perhaps because she was off her medication. 

“Beth, what happened out there…I know it’s got you thinking about all these wars you worry about. Thing is, they start in our souls and that’s where they need to be extinguished. If we’re still using weapons, then we’re not even close. You can’t worry about what other people are doing all the time, we gotta watch out for us now.”

 “Maybe you’re right,” she said.  

He went on, “I know you think you’re real crazy—but I think you’re just real open and your mind gets all the signals scrambled.”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, Mildred said. 

“Be quiet,” Beth hissed, “Sorry Chris, I wasn’t talking to you.” 

“I know,” he said, lifting her shirt to plant a kiss on her stomach. 

As they made love her thoughts became heavy, clustering behind her eyes. The truck attack, her young client’s overdose on her watch, her husband’s anger—all of this spun around a dark center, pulling other thoughts to it until they funneled out of her awareness. While her husband had an orgasm, her thoughts swirl up and away from her like smoke. She relaxed and came right after him. 

“I’m glad you got off,” he said, “I thought I didn’t do it for you anymore.” 

“Chris? Where are we going together?” she asked. 

“Nowhere. I’m right here . . . what do you mean?” 

She said, “I just feel like there’s something else for us, something we can’t find if we keep doing what we’re doing.” 

“Just get some sleep and we’ll get you back on your meds tomorrow . . . just go to sleep and don’t think about it right now.”

As the rise and fall of his breathing disturbed the sheets, Mildred remained silent and Beth felt lighter—expansive. A quieter voice, subtler than Mildred, androgynous, said:

This. Pay attention.

And Beth knew: there was something else on the other side of everything. Her mind was the Holy Church fractured by seismic activity. Or a truck spiraling into a bus stop, people inside splitting like the seat of a chair. Her and Chris’ dreams were sealed inside a tomb adorned with candles, flickering lights guiding their way home.      

 

                                                 Jeanne Bessette

                                               Jeanne Bessette

 

Allison Wendtis a therapist living in a beachside town outside of Seattle, WA. She is currently writing a novel and a collection of short stories. She also enjoy painting, aerial dancing and exploring the natural world.