By now, I know the drill: I take the elevator to the top floor and wait outside the nurses' station until the clock strikes six for visiting hours. I try not to get there early; he'll stand at the window of the locked ward, looking at me with his endearing, loopy smile, until the nurse buzzes the door.
I hate this. Kiet will pretend it's all okay. He'll offer me a tiny plastic container of apple juice with a foil lid. He'll stand outside the bathroom door, guarding the lockless entrance while I blow my nose.
"Checkers or Uno?" Kiet asks. We're standing in front of a rickety bookshelf in the common room. If it weren't for the faint hospital stench wafting on the undercurrent, you might think we were standing in someone's mid '80s living room: shelves of books and board games and VHS tapes, sagging couches—even wood paneling across one wall.
But we're in the psychiatric ward of Kenton Hospital, and I can't speak yet. Even after thirty-two days here, I need a minute to recalibrate my sense of reality to fit the psych ward, to accept that this medicine-blurred person in front of me is my normally sharp-eyed husband.
I put my hand on his shoulder, feeling the well-worn cotton of his favorite blue hooded sweatshirt. Beneath that, the solid meat of his living, breathing body.
"You okay?" he whispers. He turns to hug me, and I find the crook of his neck and breathe deep. He lets me hold him too tight and too long.
"You're okay, love." He shushes in my ear, filling my head with white noise. You're okay, you're okay, you're okay.
We play checkers back in Kiet's room, a spare white space with a twin bed, a meshed-over security window, no hooks or cords to be found. It's a precarious game; the ancient checkerboard has been ripped down the middle, and the two halves shift on the lumpy bed. It would have been easier to play on a table in the common room, but here we can have a figment of privacy—except for the nurses who pop by at fifteen-minute intervals to ask Kiet if he's having any suicidal thoughts, a routine that unnerves me still.
Alone, Kiet and I achieve a relative normalcy. Playing a board game and trading the day's minutiae, I can forget—for ten or twenty seconds at a time, at least—where we are. We've come miles from those first few days after Kiet was admitted. He wore a hospital gown then and couldn't—or wouldn't—talk. He lay in bed, sluggish with tranquilizers, staring at the careworn picture of his mother that he carries in his wallet: he is a newborn—a tuft of black hair peeking from under a blue stocking cap—and she sits in an armchair, smiling, gazing down at him in her arms.
The last time Kiet saw his mother, he was seven years old and she was dead; his father, drunk, had killed her. In his frightened panic, he'd tucked her into bed before he'd run, and her son found her the next morning, in her deepest sleep.
"You suck at checkers," Kiet says, reveling in the fact that he's won twice in quick succession. "I'm on drugs and I'm still beating you."
I reach over to recover my pieces, and begin to line up for another round. "It's not fair," I say. "I bet you practice while I'm gone."
"Yeah, well, " he says, shrugging, "checkers are pretty much the only thing I have to live for right now."
He must see the stricken look on my face, because he smiles and leans across the bed to peck me on the lips. "Sorry. Bad joke."
A silence pools between us, disrupted only by the scratch of checkers on painted cardboard. Finally, I ask, "How'd it go with your therapist today?"
"She says I should write a book. She thinks it'd be therapeutic." He rolls his eyes at therapeutic.
"About what happened in your family?"
"Yeah, I guess."
I gamely ignore his dismissal, even though it ignites a spark of anger in my heart. Defense mechanism, his therapist would say. Kiet has tried a lot of treatments—medication, meditation, art therapy, letter-writing; there's even been talk of electroconvulsive therapy—but none has been a magic bullet.
"You're a good writer," I say. And I'm not lying. He writes and shoots short films. Goofy stuff just for fun, but they're good. I know it's a point of pride for him. I know he's dabbled with the idea of taking it more seriously.
"Not really, but it'd probably be less painful than shock therapy."
Just then, a nurse pokes her head in the room and raps gently on the door frame. "Excuse me, Kiet," she says—she's Jamaican, her accent like music in the muffled ward—"but are you having any suicidal thoughts right now?"
"No," Kiet says, smiling. "But thank you."
"I didn't think so," she says confidently. "But I have to ask, you know."
She beams at him before turning to go, and I can tell he's seduced her with his diffident charm. I'm not surprised. Kiet wields an easy charisma I've always envied. He's the type of person that people remember. "Oh," she says, turning back to us. "You must be excited about Kiet's news." There is pride in her face.
My voice seizes in my throat, and I can't reply.
"We are," Kiet says, shooting me a sheepish look.
When the nurse leaves, Kiet hesitates. I can practically see them—the words I've been craving and dreading for a month—hovering on the cusp of his bottom lip. Though whether it's because he doesn't want to say them or doesn't think I want to hear them, I don't know.
"I'm coming home tomorrow."
When I get home that evening, the setting sun burns red and orange in the windows of the row house where we live. It looks like fire, and for a second I'm gored with a familiar spike of panic, reminded of the smoke-filled bathroom where I found Kiet a month ago. He had duct-taped the door seams from the inside before swallowing sleeping pills and lighting up a small charcoal grill; I forced the door, heard the pop! of the half-melted tape ripping away from the door frame, and stumbled back from the rush of smoke.
But it's just the sun, I reassure myself.
Inside our third-floor apartment, I close the door behind me and lean against it. I look around our entryway, trying to see it as Kiet will tomorrow. There's the same clutter of shoes and mail, hooks hung with cloth grocery bags and the two dozen hoodie sweatshirts we own between us. Will it be instantly familiar to him? Everything the same but the extra dust?
I've tried to keep up the appearance of sameness, but when you create a home and your husband tries to kill himself in it, there's a definite before and after. Two very different places, invisibly so. Now I live in an after house, trying to pretend it's a before, telling myself the cozy lie that Kiet is just out of earshot in the next room. Tonight, like so many nights this past month, I make his favorite dinner: orange chicken with broccoli and sticky rice. I put on the radio to crowd out my thoughts and I get to work in the land of senses. I don't let myself think past the last shards of ice on defrosted chicken, the tang of citrus, the zippery sound of the microplane grater, the starchy steam that emanates from the special stove-top rice cooker.
Before bed, there is one last, unpleasant thing to take care of. I stand in the doorway of the bathroom, trying not to see it again for the millionth time: him, in the bathtub, curled up with a pillow, barely visible amidst the dirty cloud. I close my eyes tight to obliterate the scene. When I open them, I force myself to see only the damage at hand: the door and the window irrevocably gummed with melted duct tape, the walls a hazy Rorschach pattern of smoke damage. It used to be worse. I threw out the charcoal grill immediately, and the towels and bath mats and the lovely cloth shower curtain my mother got us for a wedding gift. Our toothbrushes.
I don't know why I've waited until the last minute to take care of the rest. Maybe because it's easy to throw things out, and hard to fix them.
I open the window, don the yellow rubber gloves and respiration mask; I fill a pail with water and follow the directions on the bottle of industrial-strength cleanser. I scrub at the wall with a blue sponge that immediately reveals itself unsuited to the enormity of the task. I do my best, swirling the sooty mess until my hand cramps, but I'm going to have to paint the wall anyway.
I have the paint; I bought it and the cleaning supplies the day after Kiet went into the hospital, when I couldn't visit him because the doctors were busy making sure he hadn't given himself brain damage from the smoke inhalation. I was in shock, in that buffer zone between the crisis and the pain. It was like when I broke my arm falling off the monkey bars as a kid. I remember looking down at it, dangling away at the elbow, and thinking It doesn't even hurt. It did later, though.
I pry the lid from the can of Classic White semi-gloss. It pours thick and clean into the paint tray, as unsullied as new life. It reminds me of when we first moved here four years ago, just before we got married. It was the first apartment either of us ever cared enough about to paint. My life until then had been a mismatched cobblestone—adjunct teaching, freelance editing, six months here, six months there, disposable furniture. Same for Kiet, only he strung life together with video freelance work—shooting, editing, sound mixing.
An olfactory memory, then, this new-paint smell. The scent of staying.
Tonight, I feel far from those optimistic first days. But maybe it was inevitable. His mother's death; his father's act—they guided our relationship like an unmentionable rudder. He didn't talk about it, and I didn't know how to ask. After his initial admission—on our third date, already on the cusp of love—we only talked about it in euphemisms. It took me several years to draw my own connections between the traumatized boy and its grown-up manifestations: the fear, the need, the jealousy that lingered like a poltergeist, ready to shake down the chandeliers at a moment's notice. And somehow, as the anniversaries stacked up and we grew more entwined, it all got worse. As if the more we had together, the more there was to lose. And every loss, to him, no matter how small, was an extension of the original.
It's quiet but for the sticky rhythm of paint adhering to the wall in wide stripes, and soon the bathroom is a quarter white, then half white. I stop to look at my handiwork, mesmerized. It's strangely empowering, how doing something reminds you that you can do something. Suddenly this coat of paint becomes more than itself; it becomes a thin new skin growing over the old wounded past.
I stare at the wall, delirious with exhaustion and chemical fumes, until paint drips off the roller and onto my foot, like a wake-up call.
"Kiet should write that book," I say aloud. "That's exactly what he needs." I trace my way back through this evening's conversation. Maybe he really wants to write a book; maybe he wants to be encouraged; maybe that's why he told me about it. I picture it: Kiet installed in our office, writing away his demons. A surge of clarity inflates me with a second wind, and I dip my roller into the paint tray and finish the job with a manic vigor.
The next day, I go to the hospital with a rolling suitcase, and Kiet and I pack up the surprising number of his belongings that I've delivered piecemeal over the past month. It's mid-morning, and it feels illicit to be here outside of visiting hours. But Kiet and I, we're above the law today.
"I can't wait to wear shoelaces again," Kiet says, fitting a stack of books into the bottom of the suitcase. "And shave without supervision. And go to Starbucks."
"Wow," I say. "Sex didn't make the top three?" I bend over to look under the bed for anything that might have gotten kicked under there.
"I didn't know 'crazy' was one of your turn-ons," he says.
"Lucky for you, it is." I stand up too quickly. The head rush raises a fit of blinkered lights in front of my eyes. I put my hand on the headboard to steady myself.
"You okay?" Kiet asks. He looks unduly worried, his concern an exclamation mark etched in the single wrinkle between his eyebrows.
"I'm fine," I assure him quickly. I pull him into a hug, grateful again for his heat, his aliveness, for the few pounds he's put on while he's been in here with not much to do besides therapy and eating.
And in some ways, I am fine. My anxiety is always with me—like tinnitus; a dull roar that can be drowned out but never silenced. But today it's quiet compared to my clanging joy at Kiet's release. There are nooses to tie and guns to shoot and pills to swallow, yes. There are. But I feel hope, too—my plan for Kiet like an amulet, warding away bad spirits.
"Hey," I say, pulling back to look at him. "I was thinking about that book—"
"Excuse me, Kiet." A different nurse this time, one with Mickey Mouse scrubs and a stony demeanor. "Are you having any suicidal thoughts right now?"
"I should hope not," he says, laughing.
"Is that a 'no'?" She doesn't smile.
She makes a note on her clipboard and walks away.
Kiet rolls his eyes and pulls away from me. "I'm going to run these books back to the common room," he says, pointing to a small stack of dilapidated paperbacks.
Alone, I survey the nearly empty room and wonder for a second whether I'll ever be back here again. It gets that tinnitus ringing, so I force myself to think of home, of sleeping in bed with Kiet tonight, spooned together, his arm encircling my chest, his fingertips coveting the tiny mole on my right breast.
I'm folding the last few T-shirts into the suitcase when my eye is caught by a small notepad, like you'd get in a hotel: cheap paper held together by a glue strip. It's blank but for the first few sheets covered in blue ink.
Seeing his handwriting, I'm confused for the briefest moment—like seeing an old friend out of context and having to remember where you know him from. But there it is, his slanty, left-handed writing, the I's dotted with circles. It feels illicit to have stumbled upon this, but I sit down on the edge of the bed and pore over it, greedy for insight. His thoughts are so often inscrutable, encrypted within his dark sense of humor.
There's not much substance here: to-do lists, short-hand notes, geometric doodles. Nothing that means anything to me. I flip through the unused pages, feeling deflated. And then, suddenly, it occurs to me: Kiet didn't leave me any sort of note before he tried. No explanation, no last "I love you," no going-away solace. Just a blank silence and me to fill it up with my ringing anxiety and guilt and the wondering, wondering, wondering what I could have said or done to divert him. He could have written a note; it's not that much to ask. And, as selfish as it might be, that is what undoes me. I tremble—I can see it in the paper that shivers in my hands—with every shade of anger and helplessness and grief I've ever known. My vision narrows, the world erased except for me and this blank notebook that has unwittingly revealed the story.
I'm camped out in the bathroom, the only spot in the ward where I can entertain a delusion of privacy. The door doesn't lock, so anyone could walk in at a given moment, but at least I can relax my face out of its "everything's going to be okay" expression.
I sit on the toilet lid, holding a bloom of tissue to my nose. The bathroom is hot and vaporous—a patient must have showered recently—and I feel soggy; my T-shirt is limp with sweat, and my bun has come loose, unspooling damp threads of hair down the back of my neck.
Finally, a soft knock at the door.
"Are you in there?" Kiet's tentative voice penetrates the wood.
"Yes." The word is a burr in my throat.
After a few beats, Kiet tries again. "Surely not everything," he chides gently. "Can you narrow it down?"
"I really want to come in," he says.
"Well I wanted you to write a book," I say, momentarily pulling the wad of tissue away from my face. "But you didn't even write me a note."
"I'm coming in," he says, pushing the door open. And though I know I've never looked more wretched in my life, I don't know the extent of it until I see Kiet's reaction. He covers his mouth with his hand and looks at me for a long moment. And then he starts to cry, his dark lashes blurring like ink in the rain. He comes to me and kneels at my feet and wraps his arms around my legs. We sit there, his tears soaking into my knees, me thinking about the last time we were in a bathroom together, when I was dragging his dead weight out of that smoke cloud.
"I wanted you to write a book, but you won't," I say.
"You want me to write a book, too?" Kiet says, bewildered. "Why does everyone want me to write a book?"
"To expunge your demons," I say. Hearing the words, my plan—which seemed so golden last night—reveals itself as nothing more than the alchemy of self-help: take your worst and magick it into something beautiful, or redemptive.
"It was stupid," I say.
We sit awhile, listening to the pipes tick. With his fingernail, Kiet frets at the white paint spotting my hands. "What's this?"
"I painted the bathroom."
He rests his head on my lap. It's a heavy cantaloupe of sorrow. "It was a wreck, wasn't it?" "It was."
"You get a lifetime pass on cleaning the bathroom. I swear." He smiles ruefully and squeezes my knee. It tickles, and, despite myself, I emit a thick, clotted laugh.
"Sure," I say. "Until you disappear again."
"I'm not going anywhere," he says, so fiercely I wonder which one of us he's trying to convince.
"I don't believe you," I say.
"You can't really help me, you know," he says gently. "That's hard to hear, but it's true."
I stroke his face, the light haze of stubble, the baby softness of his earlobe, and think of the myriad ways to die a terrible death. A wave of helplessness swells in my throat, as bitter as bile and viscous as pudding. I swallow hard to keep it down. "So all I can do is worry?"
"I worry, too, you know," he says. "What's to stop you from leaving me for someone who didn't try to kill himself in your bathroom?"
"I could never leave you."
"How do I know?"
"Because I'm telling you," I say, running my fingers through his soft hair.
I look at him, his face so familiar I ache to think of it gone. He is my love incarnate. He is my love, walking around in a body that will die someday. I feel it then, the gaping seam between promise and reality. I can't really know that I won't leave him. And he can't foretell the future, whether he'll need to someday seek that violent, definitive relief. All we have is present tense and well-intentioned lies, our words as meager as the string between paper cup telephones.
"I'm sorry," Kiet says. He takes my left hand, spins the silver band. He looks down and a tear drips off the end of his nose.
And what can I do besides forgive him and go on? I bend my head to kiss him, to bow to this moment and pray for the next one. We hold each other tight and press our wet faces together. You're okay, you're okay, you're okay, we say.
Title graphic: "Charred" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.