What the hell was I thinking? No wonder they thought I was crazy. I lay there, tears leaking out of my eyes, singing “Rock Around the Clock” at the top of my lungs.
The doctor clamped a strap around my head. I tried to tell him he was hurting me, scaring me, but I couldn’t seem to stop singing. He jammed something in my mouth and I gagged.
Everyone stepped back from me and I remembered thinking, Bomb! They’ve strapped a bomb to my head and I’m going to blow up. I tried to spit out the thing in my mouth and then …
The jolt is impossible to describe. I know now it was a bolt of electricity burning through me. I shook like a rag doll and peed my pants. The noise was a high, piercing whirrrrrr. I thought my bones would snap. When it finally let me go, I sagged onto the bed lifelessly, feeling as close to dead as I could imagine. I heard a tiny drip-drip-drip of my urine falling onto the linoleum floor.
There, Helen said, that wasn’t so bad, now, was it?
I closed my eyes and prayed to Jesus to take me. I had no idea what I’d done that was terrible enough to warrant this punishment, and I wanted a mom, but not my mom, and I certainly didn’t want my dad. I guess I wanted someone to hold me and love me and tell me it would be okay.
But … well, if wishes were horses, all beggars would ride, right?
You might think I am stupid because you’ve seen me high so much of the time, but I’m smart. It took no time for me to learn where I’d screwed up. Oh, I knew what had been expected of me before I arrived at the hospital, but I hadn’t known the cost of changing lanes. I learned. Boy, did I learn.
Be good. Be quiet. Do as you’re told. Answer direct questions with answers, never say you don’t know, never say your father hurts you. Don’t tell them that your mother knows what’s happening to you and doesn’t care. Oh, no. And never say you’re sorry. He hates that most of all.
I’d gone into the hospital broken. But I learned how to gather up the pieces and hold them tightly to my chest. I nodded and smiled and took whatever pills they gave me and asked when my mother was coming. I didn’t make friends because the other girls were “bad” and damaged. My mother would never approve. How could I be friends with a girl who’d slit her wrists or set her family dog on fire?
I kept to myself. Kept quiet. Smiled.
Time passed oddly in there. I remember seeing the leaves turn color and fall to the ground, but that’s my only way to judge the passing of the days. One day, after another shock treatment, I was in the “game room”—they called it that because there were checkerboards on the tables, I guess. I was in a wheelchair, facing the window. My hands had started shaking and I was trying to hide it from everyone.
Never had my mother’s voice sounded so sweet. I turned slowly and lifted my chin so I could see her.
She looked thinner than I remembered, with her hair so precisely styled that it looked shellacked. She had on a full plaid skirt and a prim sweater with a Peter Pan collar and black horn-rimmed glasses. She was holding her purse strap in both hands, and this time she was wearing gloves.
Mommy, I said, doing my best not to cry.
How are you?
Better. I swear. Can I come home now? I’ll be good.
The doctors say you can. I hope they’re right. I can’t believe you belong with … these people. She looked around, frowning.
That’s why she was wearing the gloves. She didn’t want to catch crazy. I guess I should have been happy that she felt okay to touch me, to breathe the air that I exhaled between us. And I tried to be happy after that, I really did. I was polite when I said goodbye to Dr. Gabardine and I shook Helen’s hand and tried to smile when she told my mother what a joy I’d been to have around. I followed my mother out to her big blue Chrysler and slid into the leather bench seat. She immediately lit up a cigarette, and as she moved the car into gear, ash sprayed down onto the seat. That’s how I knew she was upset. My mother didn’t believe in mess.
When I got home, I saw the place. Really saw it. The one-story house, decorated to look like it was a part of a ranch, complete with a horsey weather vane and barnlike garage doors and western fretwork around the windows. Out in front, a black-faced metal jockey held out a welcome sign.
It was all such a lie, and a lie pokes through that parallel universe. Once you glimpse it, you’re changed. You can’t not see it.
My mom wouldn’t let me get out of the car in the driveway. Not out in the open where the neighbors could see. Stay there, she hissed, slamming the car door and opening the garage. Once we were in the garage, I got out. I walked through the darkness and stepped into the brightness of our space-age living room with its aerodynamic, futuristic look. The ceiling slanted sharply upward and had been decorated with tiny colored rocks. Huge glass windows looked out on the Polynesian-themed backyard pool. The fireplace was set into a wall of giant rough white rocks. The furniture was sleek and silver.
My father stood by the fireplace, still dressed in his Frank Sinatra suit, holding a martini in one hand and a lit Camel cigarette in the other. The kind of cigarette John Wayne smoked—a good American smoke. He looked at me through his wire-and-tortoiseshell-framed glasses. So you’re back.
The doctors say she’s fine, Winston, my mother said.
I should have told the old prick to go screw himself, but I just stood there, wilting like a flower beneath the punishment of his gaze. I knew now the price of making a spectacle. I was clear on who had the power in this world, and it wasn’t me.
She’s crying, for God’s sake.
I hadn’t even known it, not until he said it. But still I kept quiet.
I knew now what was expected of me.
* * *
When I came home from the loony bin, I was an untouchable. I had done the unthinkable in Rancho Flamingo—made a messy scene, embarrassed my parents—and after that, I was like some dangerous animal only allowed to live in your neighborhood at the end of a sturdy chain.
Nowadays, shows like yours and Dr. Phil’s tell people that you need to talk about the wounds you bear and the loads you carry. In my time, it was the opposite. Some things were never spoken of and my breakdown fell in that category. On the rare occasion when my mother did accidentally refer to my time away—which she tried never to do—it was called my vacation. The only time she ever looked me in the eye and said the word hospital was on the very first day I came home.
I remember setting the table for dinner that night, trying to grasp what I was supposed to be. I turned slowly to look at my mother, who was in the kitchen, stirring something. Chicken à la king, I think. Her hair, still brown then—dyed, I think—was a cap of carefully controlled curls that wouldn’t have looked good on anyone. Her face was what you’d call handsome today; sharp and just a little masculine, with a broad forehead and high cheekbones. She wore cat’s-eye black horned-rimmed glasses and a charcoal-gray sweater set. There was not an ounce of softness in her.
Mom? I said quietly, coming up beside her.
She cocked her head just enough to look at me. When life gives you lemons, Dorothy Jean, you make lemonade.
Enough, she snapped. I won’t hear about it. You have to forget. Forget all of it and you’ll learn to smile again in no time. As I have. Her eyes widened behind the lenses, pleaded with me. Please, Dorothy. Your father won’t put up with this.
I couldn’t tell if she wanted to help me and didn’t know how or if she didn’t care. What I did know was that if I told the truth again, or showed my pain in any way, my father would send me away and she would let him do it.
And there were worse places than where I’d been. I knew that now. There had been talk in the hospital from kids with eyes as blank as chalkboards and shaking hands, talk of ice-water baths and much worse. Lobotomies.
* * *
That night, without even changing clothes, I climbed into my little-girl bed and fell into a deep and troubled sleep.
He woke me up, of course. He must have been waiting all that time. While I was away, his anger had spread out tentacles and wound around everything, growing until I could see how it was strangling him. I had humiliated him with my “lies.”
He would teach me a lesson.
I told him I was sorry—a terrible mistake. He burned me with a cigarette and told me to keep my mouth shut. I just stared at him. It made him even angrier, my silence. But it was all I had. I’d learned my lesson, remember. I couldn’t stop him from hurting me, but when he looked at me that night, he saw something new, too. I might tell on him again. Girls have babies, you know, I whispered softly. Proof.
He backed away and slammed the door shut. It was the last time he came to my bed, but not the last time he hurt me. All I had to do was look at him and he hit me. And I lay in bed every night now, waiting, worrying, wondering when he would change his mind and go back to his old ways.
School was worse when I got back from the sanatorium, too.
I survived it, though. I kept my head down and ignored the pointing and the snickering. I was damaged goods and everyone knew it. There was an odd comfort in it. I no longer had to pretend.
My mother couldn’t stand the new me, with my baggy clothes and untended hair and sleepy eyes. Whenever she saw me, she would purse her lips and mutter, Ach, Dorothy Jean, have you no pride?
But I liked being on the outside, looking in. I saw so much more clearly.
We were poised on the cusp of a new world in California at the end of the plastic decade. The suburbs were opening up; forming a new American dream. Everything was spic-and-span, Mr. Clean, wash-and-wear. We had shopping malls with Tomorrowland-style rooftops, and hamburger drive-ins. As an outsider, I saw things with the clarity that distance provides. It wasn’t until I lost my way that I noticed the factions that inhabited our school hallways. There were the “it” kids, the popular ones who dressed in the latest fashion and popped gum bubbles as they talked to one another and drove their parents’ shiny new cars along the strip on Saturday night. They gathered in bubbling, laughing pods at Bob’s Big Boy and drove up and down the street at night, waving and racing and laughing. They were the kids the teachers loved; boys who threw the winning touchdowns and girls who talked of college and spent their parents’ money. They followed the rules, or seemed to, anyway, and to me they seemed golden somehow, as if their skin and hearts were impervious to the pains that assaulted me.
But by the spring of my junior year, I started noticing the other kids, the ones I hadn’t seen before, the ones who lived on the wrong side of the tracks. One day they were invisible like me, and the next day they were everywhere, dressing like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, greasing their hair back, rolling packs of cigarettes in their T-shirt sleeves. Black leather jackets moved in alongside the lettermen’s sweaters.
Hoods, we called them at first, and then greasers. It was supposed to be an insult, but they only laughed and lit their cigarettes and mocked their “betters.” Almost overnight, rumors started swirling of fights and rumbles.
Then a “nice” boy was killed in a drag race and our community erupted with the kind of swirling, ugly anger I hadn’t imagined was there before.