Saturday, November 25, 2006

Another Day in Paradise

What will I discover? I wonder, as I am buzzed through the metal gate. Images of drooling patients shuffling around in carpet slippers or deranged men with long hair and a penchant for blondes. I tell myself off firmly. I’ve worked in a mental hospital, complete with restrainers (otherwise known as straitjackets) for patients who would otherwise bite the nose off other patients in the night, and enough feces to make motherhood when it came, a breeze. So what am I frightened of? After all, this is only a private mental health facility. I have already encountered most of the serious lunatics in Los Angeles when I worked on Skid Row or traveled on the buses.
I wander between low, modern buildings with curtains at the windows holding my vase of peach tulips. The grassy pathways and quiet institutionalism remind me of college dormitories during exam time. A groomed woman with a badge around her neck flashes a curious smile in my direction. Time to look collected.
A series of polite signs direct me towards security. I descend carpeted stairs to a sunny desk where a white-haired security guard laboriously copies my name into the visitors’ book. If he has this much trouble with Godbold, I can only imagine what he is going to do with Gabriel de la Broderie. “Camille G?” he asks into the telephone. “She just got out of group,” he says to me. “It’s snack time, so she’ll be over at the cafeteria,” and hands me a blue paper VISITOR sticker. First, he instructs me, I have to relinquish the vase (no glass), and transfer the tulips into my wide-necked water bottle.
“Should I give you my cell phone?” I ask, spying the long list of forbidden items on a sign behind him.
“No, just turn it off.” Fortunately, I have not brought razors, penknives or an AK-47 rifle with me, so I am allowed to proceed. However, should I have any of those items stuffed in my bright orange purse, the benignly smiling guard would be none-the-wiser.
I bound up the stairs with a sense of victory. Official visiting hours are 7-8pm, and I was expecting just to drop off the goodies I brought for Camille at the nursing station and maybe manage a wave hello. Steven said she didn’t want visitors, so I am taking a risk by crashing her snack time. I’ll just leave the gifts and disappear if she doesn’t want to see me, I reason.
The hallway is filled with flower paintings, on a par with the ones I see drying on the line at the preschool – art therapy, no doubt, or possibly some famous modern artist who has progressed from riding bicycles over his paper. The open lounge is deserted apart from an overweight lady in pink, who investigates the coffee table with determination. Ah, one of the patients, I think, until a side door opens and the ‘group’ spills out. “I’m waiting for him,” says the pink lady, and points at an elderly gentleman who is looking around for escape. I suppose I should explain the presence of me and my now-drooping tulips to the gentle, white-haired lady who appears to be the leader of the group, but I hear “Louise!” and Camille is hugging my neck.
“Let’s go outside,” she says, heading for the glass doors to the patio.

The sun burns through my long-sleeve T-shirt, but Camille seems not to notice the heat in her black sweater. She sits with her feet on the bench and sinks her teeth into one of the organic apples I brought. Suddenly, I feel awkward. What am I doing here? Maybe she really doesn’t want visitors. Maybe I have overestimated the depth of our friendship and she sees me as a curious hanger-on, or worse, an interfering busybody. On the day she was admitted she left a tearful message thanking me for looking after the boys. “I love you!” she finished, her voice breaking. I had to sit in the school parking lot with my hand to my chest, trying to calm myself before facing the boys. “She’s just having a feeling. It’s just a feeling; it won’t kill her. She’s okay.” Now her face is turned to mine, glancing up every now and then to read my expression, but there is no sadness, only weariness and resignation in her eyes.
“I always feared I would end up in a psychiatric hospital, but now I’m here, it’s a relief.”
“How so?”
“Because I don’t have to worry about figuring out the meds and I’m not sitting at home staring at all the things that need to get done.”
Everyone is very “sweet,” she continues. The nurse took away her fruit when she first came in, but let her keep her toiletries. “They eat so freaking early!” she exclaims, “Eleven thirty for lunch.” I sympathize. In England ‘elevensies’ are the snack we have at eleven o’clock to keep us going until lunch. But then we are not in England, not even in Europe, and the agriculturally derived customs of our adopted country prevail. I have done my seditious part by supplying her with apples and organic raisins; now we contemplate how to arrange them under the magazine and greeting card so the nurse won’t see them. A man appears at the glass doors, dressed in jeans and a sweater, badge flapping at his chest. “Camille!” He sees us at the table: “Oh, you have a visitor,” and retreats.
“He’s nice!” I say and then we both giggle as we hear the, “And cute!” in my voice. “I think I’m having a turn,” I goof, “You’ll have to admit me right away!” Our laughter dies away and I become awkward again. Sitting in the sun and the silence we could be co-workers hanging on past the end of lunch break to enjoy our last moments of freedom, if not for the 6-foot iron fence that hems the view of a distant downtown and County jail.
“What should I tell the girls?” I say, curling the last vowels in an affectation of an American accent.
“Tell them what you like,” she replies, flatly.
“I mean, about visiting.”
She tells me she would like visitors, an injection of the “outside world.” I ask about the schedule, wondering if there are other opportunities to steal a visit during the day.
“They wake us up at 6:30, breakfast at 7:30, then they take us for a walk.” I cock an eyebrow. “Around the parking lot,” she grins ruefully. At least this is more like the old Camille; she is tired, a little anxious, depressed even, but she has a sense of irony and an edge of defiance that lends her dignity. She might have to be in this place, but she doesn’t have to like it. That’s my girl! “Well, I guess I’d better get back up to find out about the evening schedule,” she says. I glance at my illegally illuminated cell phone: It’s 3:30pm; almost time to put the cows in the barn and go to bed.
She relieves me of all my quarters for the payphone and gives me a letter to mail to her grandmother. The letter was the goal she set for herself in morning group, she says, making a face. I bounce towards the gate, lighter without my gifts, as she slowly makes her way back through the glass doors, booty hidden in the gift bag and clutching a polystyrene cup of chamomile tea.

The gate clangs behind me and I stop to turn over the envelope in my hand. It is covered in spidery handwriting and has no return address. I wonder what her grandmother in the ritzy first district of Paris will make of the contents, if she will be able to imagine this ‘mental health facility’ clinging to a hill among the whitewashed apartment blocks of Chinatown, where a bran muffin is considered health food and the male nurses all look like film stars. I wonder if she too has misgivings about demented roommates and lunatics perched on windowsills. It’s okay, I want to write on the flip side, Tout va bien. Your granddaughter is actively resisting paradise.

© Copyright Louise Godbold

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