An excerpt from Hystera
Inside the locked ward on Payne Whitney’s fifth floor, Lilly stepped onto a steel platform. The examination room was harshly lit, the bulbs behind plastic squares on the ceiling— fluorescent and burning. The metal examining table sparked from too many electric darts and moonbeams.
It was an April evening, in 1974. The city’s night lights streaming in from the window would have been enough to illuminate the room, Lilly thought. The arrows of moon pierced her blue-jeaned legs.
"You’re a dark girl." The nurse said. "You look a little like Patty Hearst. Lillian, is that your name?"
Lilly nodded, staring up at the large woman who confused her. The nurse fisted her hands, big as a serviceman’s, glossy nail polish shining on her nails, reddish-brown like her long hair. The nurse was sturdy and strong, her copious breasts bulging under a tight blue tank top.
Lilly was a mess of unbrushed hair and pale features, the odor of imported Italian sardines in olive oil on her stained Tee-shirt. I want to rest now, she wished. She turned to stare out into the darkened evening. A spring rain was slanting on the pane behind the metal bars.
"We're going to keep you here in the hospital with us a little while," The nurse said. "I'm going to examine you, Lillian. My name is Beverly."
"It's just routine. Nothing elaborate."
"That's not possible."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I can't be examined."
"Dear, all of us can be examined."
A sheet of thin white paper was pulled all the way down to the metal stirrups, attached to the base of the examining table.
"Lie down on your back now, Lilly."
Out the window, a soft indigo veiled the sky; the wind swirling, incessant. Lilly eased herself down, flat on her back. The cool air was a wet cloth slapped on Lilly's forehead. But, her breathing was short, panicked.
"I need you to squish yourself down further on the table here, Lillian." Beverly said.
"Did I frighten him?" Lilly asked her.
"Who do you mean, Lilly?"
"The doctor who spoke with me in the interviewing room."
"Oh, heavens. It would take a lot to frighten Dr. Burkert."
"But is that why I'm here?"
"Howard Burkert's one of our best third-year residents. No, no. You didn't scare him. Dr. Burkert thinks you're really feeling some discomfort in your pelvic area. We need to know whether you have a physical problem, or if it's something else."
Stretched out on the examination table, Lilly wondered again if there were an abnormality in her sex, a cyst there, a tumor. Maybe she was pregnant.
Her boyfriend, Mitchell, was gone.
Lilly read about body delusions. She learned, too, after her father had come home from the hospital three years ago from his long coma, the extent in which a mind could reinvent its former world, house a whole alternate universe of worlds.
Maybe Beverly and Dr. Burkert didn’t know yet about her father’s two cerebral strokes, his coma, his altered mind. Or his brain-damaged condition.
Five hours ago, it was freezing inside the emergency triage cubicle at New York Hospital. The winter heater must have shut down too early for April. When they took Lilly into the procedure room, they gave her a furry wool blanket and she had stopped shivering.
Let the tears in my eyes tell them a story, she thought. She practiced her story: Her father got sick; her family are strangers. Her boyfriend Mitchell left her. She would leave out the practice of alchemy which was obsessing her. The alchemical symbols of trees and phalluses which were populating her imagination with images of fire from old Hebrew texts in the basement of her parent’s house. She feared the hospital staff would discover she was hallucinating the unnatural bulb between her thighs, that she was really delusional, if she mentioned alchemy. It would make them put her away. And she wanted to stay a few days in the hospital to rest. Because the building is nice. This hospital is for the people recovering from unrequited love affairs, she thought. But the delusional cases, where were they put? She wondered. She didn’t want to find out.
Lilly remembered lying supine on the trolley in the emergency room a few hours ago, and the apparatus, like a gas mask strapped onto her nose and mouth, delivered the fumes which forced her into cloudiness. It was all she remembered about her stomach pumped, besides the brackish brown, sweet syrup the emergency physician handed her to drink. It made her convulse, and vomit. She remembered taking the Librium pills and drinking the pint of Johnnie Walker Red. Two hours earlier, before her roommate, Jane, brought her to the ER. Like a sleepwalker guided by a seeing-eye dog; she let Jane take her arm. And then, Lilly plunged forward into a taxi, accepting Jane’s warm body against her. The whiskey felt good coursing through her system with the relief that she hadn’t consummated the suicide. She had a love disease of flammability; love was dangerous or yearning. Intimacy made her feel as though her bowels were crying out. Everything inside her was as fragile as the web a spider spins on a tree branch in the midst of a forest-fire. This is why she tried to die. She was burning up.
"Wait a minute. " The nurse was looking down at her now, shaking her head. "I need to get another pair of latex gloves for this. It’s going to be fine, Lillian. Please stay on the table. There’s a hospital aide right outside the door. I won’t be a minute."
When Lilly was alone, she looked around the sterile room. Then she put her hands on herself. The strange bulb was still there, nested beneath the zipper of her jeans.
First, Lilly imagined she had transformed. When she first discovered the bulb, it was like a dream, but she was awake when she found it. This was a few months ago. Late fall. Her boyfriend Mitchell was still in her life. He was making her dinner that evening. The steam from the boiling beef cubes was rank as old bologna. In the bedroom, she heard Mitchell swearing at the frying pan where the cream and butter and beer were crackling. She donned Mitchell’s bathrobe, and passed her roommate’s, Jane, bowl of unshelled peanuts on the dining alcove table wishing Jane was there instead of Mitchell. But Jane was out, at school.
"We’ll eat later," Mitchell said, when he saw her appear. He turned off the stove and walked closer to her and opened the bathrobe, running his hands lightly over her breasts.
"Dig it," he whispered. Then he took her hand and she let him pull her into the bedroom. He sat down on the wood-framed bed which the Italian couple before them had left behind. The bedposts were painted a gaudy gold like the cheap bureau. Lilly could not see the moon from her room, as she could now lying on the examining table—heavy drapes had hung from bent tin curtain poles precariously strewn across the upper window frame. Mitchell pulled her across his knees on her back. She was lying startled, face up staring into his moustache, and then she felt his hands on her sex and by then she was edging off him, and onto her back on the bed.
He unzipped his white sailor pants, started undoing his belt.
His fingers were beautiful, like marble stones tipped with mica, but then they raked at her sides as he gently positioned himself on top of her; each of his hands clasped onto her ribs. He was a small; soft-muscled man and she felt too fierce under him. She pushed at his chest. He slunk off her. She could sense Mitchell’s letdown, an attractive man like Mitchell could get any woman, Lilly thought, her own face was always so tense, it burned. She was lumpy and inadequate.
Lilly lay still now beside him under the sheets, naked except for her panties. Mitchell didn’t ask her to remove them. He tried once more to caress her, but it hurt when he pressed her breasts. When Mitchell’s body pressed on her; it made her breasts feel like a toothache.
"I’m sorry," she said as he stopped touching her.
"Lilly," His eyes were spacey; an emptiness in his voice. "This situation is getting very intense," he said.
She wished to be warm and oblivious, taken into a delirium such as a protected child feels on a winter’s night, when someone very large and enveloping is responsible for her well-being. Responsible, too, for her life and death, and the molecules inside her which might explode from her desire to be loved so overwhelmingly. Her wish was a kind of lust, hungrier than any other she felt. She might settle for being cared for and chastised, her body’s yearnings had become primitive, insatiable.
Lilly shuttered her eyes closed and listened to sounds of the cold slum night outside as Mitchell slept. The street noises below them were muffled by the half-shut window, but she heard a drunken bum stranded outside the locked door of The Salvation Army Shelter, wheezing and wailing.
Mitchell reached for her again after an hour. Maybe aroused, she had thought, by his own dreams. He pulled at her hair, she knew he was trying to caress it, but his pull only hurt her again. Still, she would have let him have her that night as he tried again in his half-sleep, rolling on top of her. But, he read her body like a traffic sign even barely awake and drove off, redirected back into whatever he was dreaming, desiring before he moved to her.
He rolled onto his right side, his back to her.
Lilly looked away, to the window. The bum was still crying somewhere down the street, and his plaintive noise made her feel, somehow, that she wasn’t all alone. Then her own fatigue overtook her and she finally fell into a restless sleep.
Mitchell got up before Lilly the next morning. He dressed quietly, quickly, and left the apartment very early. The sun was already risen, the milkman was delivering bottles to the Salvation Army Shelter across the street, cars were gunning their motors to unfreeze the long, cold night’s hold on their engines.
When Lilly rose, she set her alarm clock to time her writing, she had to look for work in the neighborhood before her afternoon classes started at Sarah Lawrence College. But, all of a sudden, Lilly thought she needed to urinate urgently. She pulled down her panties when she got inside the tiny bathroom. The rounded bulb was nestled between her thighs. She thought, first, it was not a part of her but when she put her finger to touch it, it was her own labia swelling into the shape of a large teardrop.
The sensations and the bulb filled her along with the salty bathroom air; the tiles and salmon-pink walls, all bringing her into a wild confusion; a sense of being in and out of reality. And then, she felt too paralyzed in fear to ever remove herself from the bathroom.
Lilly looked back at this as the morning her world changed, the morning she fell apart, and her being, shifting in and out of reality, became so insensible, it ached.
"All right, Lillian," Beverly walked back into the examination room. She clutched a pair of latex gloves inside a packet in her hand. "We need to get on with the examination."
While Beverly opened drawers to the pearl-white cabinets by the door, tossing around some of the instruments inside them, Lilly positioned her head under the ceiling light a little better. She roused up just a tiny bit, so she could make out her own face’s shape and form in a reflection the window threw. The structure of her face looked the same as when she’d checked it yesterday: she had her father’s sallow complexion and dark brown hair, but unlike him, her brown eyes were almond-shaped, her nose neither small, nor large for her face, but ambiguously sized, as if it weren’t fully grown yet. She had her father’s slender build, too. She seemed, to herself, camouflaged inside a well-proportioned but androgynous body—- nothing on her was very large, or matured, or developed.
Beverly lay the gloves inside their packet on a countertop. Then Beverly walked to the sink, turned the faucet on and she made an icing of soap bubbles, cleansing her hands, her wrists, and arms.
When she stopped squirting soap on them from the dispenser on the sink’s rim she rinsed them in a clear stream, flapped her fingers out in the air. Drops of whitish water sprinkled the floor, the sides of the medicine bins and cabinets. She took the gloves out of their torn packet and peeled the rubber gloves onto her clean fingers.
Beverly steeled herself a little before she went to Lilly, a small blue towel in one of her gloved hands.
"What’s going to happen to me?" Lilly asked her. "Can I go home?"
"Are you confused again, Lillian?" Beverly said. "You’re in a psychiatric hospital. You took an overdose of Librium. You’ve been admitted as a voluntary patient. Dr. Burkert saw you for your initial interview, do you remember? You showed signs of extreme pelvic discomfort. He has ordered me to exam you."
"He told me no one would touch me," Lilly said. "Dr. Burkert promised me there wouldn’t be any examination."
"Oh, I doubt that. Perhaps you were mishearing him." Beverly pointed three fingers to the thick leather of Lilly’s belt. "Can you please take your pants down, panties off." She said. Then, more softly, she whispered: "Try, Lilly. Lie back and take the rest of your clothes off now. You can put this towel over you. You’ll feel better. No one’s going to hurt you."
Between Lilly’s legs, the strange inflation––the bulb––undulated. She didn’t trust that it was nothing but she started to pull at her jeans.
"Good, Lilly. Now, take them off."
Lilly undid her blue jeans’ leather belt. She would never be able to describe what she felt, but it was absolute now. The bulb between her legs was not of this world, so she was crazy. All indications were that she belonged here, in this hospital, on this mental ward.
Slowly, Lilly pressed her forehead against her knees and forced herself to unbuckle her belt. She was afraid, but she rejected her tears, pulling down on her blue jeans and then lifting up her buttocks, and thrusting the jeans finally off her.
She had to cooperate now, or it could be worse for her, she thought. She grabbed at the thin towel Beverly was. It scraped across her naked knees, the room was suddenly colder.