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Toy Soldiers MAG
“Why are you here, Vanessa?” asks the woman with the bun. Two blond ringlets fall behind her ears and I want to yank them, to see if they will straighten when you pull them.
“I don’t know,” I mumble. She looks at me irritably, pen poised like a dancer at the top of her notepad. “Because of my grandma,” I relent. My voice is hoarse. We have to drink tap water here, and I’m really an Evian kind of girl.
“Vanessa,” she says sternly. I hear the undertone in her voice: You know that’s not why. And I do, minimally. But I don’t speak. My ears are itching for the headphones that have filled them almost nonstop for the past two months. My eardrums quiver at the unnatural silence
“Here at Horizons, the first step toward mental health is taking responsibility for your actions,” she lectures. I tune her out, mentally rapping what I can remember of Eminem’s latest. She leans forward and for a second I think she’s going to slap me. She doesn’t, though. She just looks me hard in the eyes. “You do want to get out of here, don’t you, Vanessa?”
I don’t understand why headphones have to be contraband.
I am one of only two non-suicidal patients. The other one is here for reasons I don’t understand. He raps Eminem in the halls too, but with a fierceness I can’t quite muster, talking back to counselors and swearing at the receptionists. I just don’t care that much.
My tray of kosher vegan-friendly cuisine has two Lexapros and one Topamax where the milk carton should go. All around the room, kids take their medicine like candy, joking as the pills dissolve on their tongues in smears of pink and white. I take mine quietly in a single gulp. I’m not practiced enough yet to swallow them dry.
After lunch, everyone gets up and silently moves the table to the side and pushes the chairs into a circle. A counselor enters, his glasses askew. I reach up automatically to check that mine are in place, but then remember that they took them and issued me contacts. They said glass is unsafe, that even if I don’t want to hurt myself, someone else might ask me to help them.
I wouldn’t though. I’m not here to cater to someone else’s agenda, to play Kevorkian to their wounded souls.
A girl with a bandaged wrist nudges me. Time for group.
“Hi, my name’s Natalie, and I’m here because I slit my wrists.”
“Hi, Natalie,” we chorus. I mouth the words because if I say something out loud, that means I’m here.
The rapper boy is next. He’s wearing black nail polish. From before, I guess. “Hi, my name’s Randy, and I’m here because I pushed my father down the stairs.”
It goes like that for a few more people. Then it’s my turn. “Hi,” I say. This is only my second time in group, and this is the first time we’ve had to say why we’re here. Before, we just had to say how long. “My name’s Vanessa, and I’m here because I hit my grandmother with a chair.”
There is an uncomfortable silence. Suddenly my pride is leaking away, my remorseless acceptance of my actions crumbling at my feet. “She’s, like, 50,” I snap. “And she goes to the gym. I mean, she’s, like, this big,” I say, holding my hands as far apart as they can go. “Don’t get mental images of this weak old lady with, like, white hair. And the chair was ….”
“Vanessa,” the counselor says. “That’s enough.”
I realize that I am leaning forward. Abashedly, I slump back like a sullen child.
Newbies don’t get to watch TV, but Randy recaps it for me anyway. We’re not allowed in any rooms but our own without two counselors to supervise, so we lean against the reception desk. He tells me about some show on MTV. I tell him about how much I miss my books and computer. He tells me how badly he wants a cigarette.
What strikes me as more painful than anything is the fact that I don’t want to go home. I know I won’t do what I did again, but the circumstances will be the same. I’ll still be in my grandmother’s condo with my mother, who’s the reason why we can’t live in our house. My clingy brother will be there with his stupid stuffed snowman, and my grandmother will check the computer history to make sure I’m only going to kid-friendly sites.
The only company I want right now is Eminem’s. And failing that, Randy’s.
Or my father’s. But he’s in New York with his new girlfriend, and I … well, I’m not.
“So this one time,” Randy tells me, “I stole my cell phone from the nurses. And I was just standing there trying to think who to call. ’Cause who do you call when you’ve been stuck in a hospital for six months? I wanted to talk to everyone I knew. But I knew I had, like, ten seconds, so I ran to the bathroom and stood in the shower and turned the water on.”
“Who’d you call?” I ask urgently. That detail makes his whole story. I want him to say it was his dad, or his girlfriend, or his drug dealer. I want him to say that it was the most beautiful conversation he ever had.
But he picks at his nail polish and says, “This kid from my psych class. I asked him about the homework.”
I sit there, stunned.
“He was all, ‘Dude, you haven’t come to school in six months.’ I didn’t know what to say, so I hung up and gave the phone back to the nurses.”
“Wow,” I say quietly.
On my eighth day at Horizons, Randy and I find a small radio in the custodian’s closet. We search for Eminem songs for a good 20 minutes. Finally, we catch one, just as it’s winding down. We mouth the words that are bleeped out, and I stare into the blinking red light of the radio like I’ve suddenly recovered my sight after 30 years of blindness.
When I am discharged, my mother comes in her maroon minivan to pick me up. My brother is with her, clutching his stuffed snowman. Pens and pencils are contraband except in the common area, so that’s where Randy and I stand. We write our phone numbers on each other’s hands, though he tells me to send letters to Horizons “for now.”
I promise. My resolve crashes, and as my mother’s heels click past the reception area, I shudder. I’d rather stay at Horizons for seven years than go back with her. What hurts is that I can’t choose. I could fake a suicide attempt, but I know I won’t. Something in my face lets Randy know all of this. “Hey,” he says in that raspy way of his. “Hey. You be a soldier, okay? Don’t let them get to you this time. Be strong.”
I close my eyes. “Like Eminem,” I say quietly.
“Yeah,” he says. “Okay? Say it.”
“I’ll be strong,” I mutter.
“No,” he says seriously. “Say what I said. Say ‘I’ll be a soldier.’”
“I’ll be a soldier,” I promise.
Randy kisses me on the cheek. Casually, because that’s all we’ve ever been. “I know you will,” he says.
I walk to the car with my chin up. When my mother hands me my headphones with her familiar cluck of “I wish you wouldn’t listen to this,” I tune her out without any help from the music.