Nonfiction from Paige Lalain


Photo by Andrew Neel

Malady, Melody

I live in the basement where the ceiling dips down at the foot of the stairs, and I dip down quick into a wade pool of musk, the splashing of my feet like the tiny drip of the drain that echoes, grows, the kind of drip that drives a dreamy night to delirium. The floor below my body is fibrous carpet that breathes with the breath of the walls, and the ceiling above my head is centipedes and spiders that swing from the rafters. They perform for me and I kill them. My bed, a modest twin mattress, sits directly on the floor against the white wall, and the low center of gravity threatens, quite loudly and with the ferocity of one of the monsters that I speak with on the telephone that lacks service from the cellar, to swallow me whole and at once into the dirt.

When the witching hour oozes over, the springs begin to wobble in a wicked building tremor. I cling to the sides of the bed so firmly that sometimes, under the stress, the skin on the soft side of my arms sees no choice but to split, spilling the sweetest squeezed strawberries, which stream downward, feeding the maligning mouth who chomps at the inner elbow’s crease.

“It’s no wonder you’re feeling off,” Barb explains, seeking the eyes that I’m not giving her from the psychoanalyst’s chaise. “You don’t even have a real room.”

§

My mother moves the mattress. It nests beneath the basement nook with the painted, plastered roof. She buries my books in a blue bedside bureau. She lays my posy of pitch-dark polyester roses atop a small nightstand, next to my three most favorite candles. When studied from above, each burns as a simmering, reddish ring. The wicks bubble black, but I can still force a flame to them. The innards produce a perfumed ash.[1] It smells like rain and islands.

When night inhales the wooden house, I slip silently beneath the covers. My body flattens the fluffed ruffles. My eyelids blacken the stuffed storage. And as soon as I see stars, the bed begins to quake. The speckled sky commits to pull together. Each sparkle swells into one, five-pointed pentacle, which pricks its needlepoints in the circle of my iris. I resolve by morning to spend more time with my mother.

§

I join her in the living room. We decide which movie we want to watch. I have never, in all my years of horror hoarding, seen the original, head-spinning Exorcist, the priest standing, hat on head in a shadow of light, demanding the demon release the girl from its grips. We push play. I slice my throat on the sharp breath of recognition—her bed, too, goes bump in the night. And, in this world, as in my own, they cannot strike the source.

“Mrs. MacNeil,” Dr. Klein shakes his head, a cigarette in his left hand. “The problem with your daughter is not her bed, it’s her brain.”

I focus firmly on the screen. The film continues, “You’re going to die up there” and comes to a close, “Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?”

I begin my latest nightly preparations.

§

Remove the rear cushions from the camel couch. Cast out my comforter like a shivering spirit across its length. Wrap myself in tight, subdue my arms and legs. Look to the love seat two inches from my left toes, where my mom watches. She says staring will ward off the monsters. If she can just watch me, she can see them when they come. If she can just watch me, they’ll be too afraid of getting caught, to make me move. We exchange goodnights, and I don’t tell her that I can hear them. I want to tell her that she shouldn’t look.

§

I vomit in the bathroom in the dark, so no one will find me. It’s easier to do it with the lights out. I slip back into bed. The noise nudges her conscious. I have a thigh a third out of the blanket. I smear my skull onto my pillow. At some point, between infantile fontanelle, between two months to twenty years, the dura mater tried to push the soft spots out. But now my bones are brass and my soft spots sunk, and the doctors call those depressed. She sighs and goes back to sleep, thinking I never left. I’m not…sure if it…makes me…happy. My panicky pants stir her supraliminal. She stands, heads to the bathroom in the light, so that I can find her. When she toddles back, I ask her to be my weighted blanket. She lies across my body, catches my blue breath in her hands and stuffs it past her lips, trying to whir it round her heart and return it to me, red. She lies across my body, and I hug her, and we almost fall asleep. I’m not sure if it makes me happy.

§

I read Lolita in a bar, busy, sitting by my fifteen-year-old brother in one of those high top chairs where my legs dangle and I feel helpless. In the swelling, heaped together echoes of 100 conversations, H.H., freed from his last two stays at the sanitarium, finds Lo’s limbs on his lap. And my brother, in tune to the sway of his humdrum mumblings in these close quarters, finds his left knee grazing my right. “Insane in the membrane, insane, got no brain!” He sputters as I shift to the left. He’s got the dyslexia ADD combo that makes everything haywire. Helter-skelter and sounds and short circuits. “Insane in the membrane, insane, got no brain!”

Words burst and buzz and I find myself, again, disappeared. Around the roots of the hairs on my head, up one nostril, out the other.

“O my Carmen, my little Carmen,” H.H. chirps, as his shuffling gets more suspicious. “Something, something, those something nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen.”

Blow the ear. Erupt the eye.

§

I knew from the first flash.

Across the sea of separation, my newest neighbors installed a single green light, which introduced itself to me one night in a blinding burst, with the chemical intensity of a damaged, dripping glow stick. I knew I needed to let the light lick my fingertips, watch luster dribble to my open palms.

I just knew.

§

A new girl came today. She whispered “Daisy” when Susanna, one of the therapists, asked for her name. While the other patients returned to their sanitarium stirrings, her hushed humming simmered in my senses, rising to a rolling boil. /Dāzē/, the tongue touching the top of the mouth behind the teeth, which swing slightly open, zinging the final syllable in a frenzied flurry of air. Her hair was white like bloodless limbs, severed near the roots in some places, near the tops of the ears in others. She wore a crew neck sweatshirt and drawstring sweatpants, both in the same shadowy shade of gray and the same billowy size, with a wristwatch wrapped in rosy rhinestones. Was the watch particularly bulky or was the arm it weighed down unusually slight? She was delicate and delightful. She moved slow, like everything hurt, and her smile, more of a wince, made way for thirty-two shattered, translucent teeth, stained mud brown.

§

I knew that I loved her—the sunken cavern of her cheeks, the seasick skin like the slimy guts of a shelled, split oyster, the way her life dangled by only the daintiest string, attached to a glass ceiling she and I could see straight through, but never thought we’d break apart with our bodies. She was my pearl, eras of penetrating parasites after all producing enough nacre to be harvested: Her appeal to me was not the lustrous reminder of a battle hard-fought, but the promise of a permanently empty shell.

I’d seen her once before, in that bed where the monitors kept beeping. Five fingers clutching my chest. Five fingers hugging my hand, tugging me toward her. The beep, beep, beep. The way a cement truck says it’s ready to reverse. The way I wished they would let it bulldoze me.

§

Orange drink in a clear plastic cup, with tick marks up the side. All salt and no citrus, and “just plug your nose and drink.” All of it, all “drink all of it, please.” All “it looks lovely but it tastes terrible” and looks can be deceiving. Liquids lapped at my barren body and food forced its way into my bones.

White body in a white tunnel, with clear tubes up the arm. “Lift your arms up over your head, please” and please, I don’t want to lift my arms up over my head—it moves the needle in my vein deeper.

§

She kept hidden, screaming in my ears. Until today, when she looked long into my eyes, and I saw again our familiar future dancing on the jagged peaks and valleys of the electric beat of my heart, until, finally, we can rest. Lying on the flat line into infinity.

§

The green light glows from across the street, and I’m sure it knows how boldly it shouts, “go.” But, for as long as I linger, focused on the phosphorescent forest that flourishes from its source, convincing myself of its presence is often problematic because, by morning, it is no more than a bulb within a lamppost. And it bends the mind to imagine it possible that, at dusk, it blossoms again into a shining sour apple; one I’d most like to pick.

§

I step out of my sable sedan and whisk my feet over spat out rain. I do little to deflect the drizzle. Dart down rows of bumper stickers. I pass, at the very front of the lot, a decrepit, dusty silver junker with a darkened woman’s form haunting the front seat. I jump. Replay the woman in my mind. Mushroom skinned, fungus gray. A mop of matted hair dripping against a cloth headrest. Eyes open. Head lolled. Forehead pressed against the window. I reel backward—a fish hooked, again, by the needle of my own delusion. No one there. No one there and how long until she sees me staring?

§

“So, what did you guys think of the readings for this week?” my professor asks, surveying mixed reactions from the 30-something 20-somethings stuffed behind their desks.

“Grace, what did you think?” she says, seeking the girl’s undecided eyes from the back left corner by the wall.

“They were fine,” Grace responds, tucking her chopped, chestnut hair behind her ear, furrowing her brows in thought. “I liked some more than others I guess.”

“Which did you like the least?”

“Uh, probably ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’”[2]

“Let’s start with that then,” my professor decides. She rolls up her sleeves. Reveals her sweeping, inner forearm tattoo of an EKG reading. “Do you guys trust the narrator? Or do you think she’s just crazy?”

Her tattoo leaps off of her skin and into my chest.

“I don’t know how you can trust her,” Chad from the back chimes, lifting the lid of his brown baseball cap. “She’s like, licking the walls and shit.”

My professor shares a rolling laugh with her students. I study the bricks on either side of me.

“Yeah, she’s also seeing, like, women in the wallpaper, who aren’t there.” A girl gives her pleasant perspective. “I think I trust her husband more. He’s a doctor or whatever and he was so scared of her he literally passed out, so, I mean…”

Another lick of laughter. I try to tally the bricks, but soon realize it’s impossible—they have neither rhyme nor reason, they start with no end.

“Paige, what do you think?”

The brick blocks coat a little less than a third of the front wall, a weighted, white strip, which swirls into a solid, painted blue. And then, on the right wall, returns to heavy, heavy, bleached cement.

Or is it blue? Light blue. Maybe. Periwinkle. Perhaps. And then back to paint.

“Okay, what about ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?’”[3] Professor pumps. “What did you guys think about him? Do you trust him?”

“I think he’s cool,” another guy answers, automatically. “He seems like a good time. I’d definitely hang out with him.”

“Yeah, I trust him,” a girl coils her curls around her finger. “His wife is, like, annoying; it makes sense that he’s constantly daydreaming.”

Paint, paint, paint, brick, brick, brick. Blue. White. And red in the face.

“And then the narrator in the other story, when she peels off the wallpaper and she’s running around pressing her shoulder into the wall, do you think she’s free? Or do you think she’s just gone?”

“Well, I think she’s gone,” someone says.

I’m right here!

I stretch my fractured fingernails before me and swing my shoulders sideways, cracking my spine.

Everything swirls like the barrel of a cement truck waiting to pour.

.

End Notes:

[1] “Ring around the rosie, / a pocket full of posies, / Ashes! / Ashes! / We all fall down.”

[2] “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do? . . .”

[3] “‘Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!’ said Mrs. Mitty. ‘What are you driving so fast for?’

‘Hmm?’ said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment … ‘You’re tensed up again,’ said Mrs. Mitty. ‘It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.’”

.


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Paige Lalain is a senior at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Michigan, where she’ll be graduating with a B.A. in creative writing in 2018. She writes nonfiction and poetry, and leads workshops in both genres with people in mental health and substance abuse treatment.

2 Comments

  1. Zann Carter says:

    Barely breathing as I read this. Fine, fine work.

  2. Bill says:

    Good poem!

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