By Martha Nemes Fried  

The sitting room had the quality of shabby gentility. It was not smart, it was not chic, it was not color-coordinated. The furnishings consisted of a threadbare sofa, several comfortable chairs, some lamps and small tables, an old television set and an even older phonograph. It was shared by eight women and seven men who had spouses and children somewhere back home. The women knitted and crocheted and some even ventured to try needle point, while the men read or played cards. There was a good deal of conversation and not much television watching.

The little kitchenette off the sitting room was a convenience provided for the residents. It had a tiny fridge, a hot plate, a small frying pan and a saucepan. It also boasted a small cabinet for storing groceries, supplies of instant coffee, tea bags, milk and sugar, soft drinks, canned soups, fruits, cheeses and crackers. It did not matter who got hungry or thirsty, the others were always invited to share.

It took Lil eight weeks to gain admittance, the waiting list was long, eight weeks spent in the small psychiatric unit of a large private hospital of the city. Some of the patients were so severely ill their doctors found it necessary to put them in a locked ward. Knitting needles and embroidery scissors had to be handed in at night and men were only allowed to shave under the watchful eye of a male attendant. All the windows were reinforced with steel mesh.

Lil often wondered why they placed her in that part of the hospital clearly meant to contain those in need of protection from themselves. Perhaps it was due to her husband's discovery of her in a coma on her favorite chaise, and assuming the worst, he had her immediately brought to the hospital by ambulance.

Her first conscious recognition was the face of a kind nurse leaning over her, asking Lil to open her mouth as she tried to spoon pieces of cold canned peaches into it. They tasted delicious, one of the pleasurable memories she would never forget. The more alert she became the more her appetite flagged. Lil could not eat, nor could she sleep. She lay awake at night with her eyes wide open, the same thoughts endlessly racing through her mind, wondering how she ended up in this part of the hospital, convinced her world had become no more than a room without doors and windows.

Her meals were brought to her on a tray by a Puerto Rican attendant on her first fully awake day in her room. He sweetly and gently urged her to eat. His kindness moved her to bury her face in her cupped hands and cry. He put one arm around her shoulders and stood by her in mute empathy.

Lil's husband called the first Saturday. He said he planned to come in the afternoon to take her for a drive with the children. As the morning wore on panic engulfed her. What was she going to say to her daughter when she didn't even know what was wrong with her? The doctor asked her repeatedly where she got the pills.

"From a psychiatrist," she replied. She had been tense, tired from a difficult year abroad and not yet fully recovered from dysentery. She went to occupational therapy the day after all the drugs had been flushed out of her system and she made her daughter a belt of red leather. She realized how deeply she wanted to see her and her infant, whom she had recently stopped nursing. She went home to visit that Saturday and almost every evening after that.

There was a large solarium with a television set constantly blaring at one end, a phonograph playing Brazilian music at the other, and people playing ping pong in between. An ancient old lady was bent over the same jigsaw puzzle hour after hour and adults played Scrabble with words like dog and cat and some people were so full of Thorazine they just sat staring into space.

They played bingo Monday nights and Lil won two oranges, a small bag of popcorn and a chocolate bar the very first time. She left her loot on a lamp table. A tall, fiftyish spinster with a wart on her nose gave a lecture with slides on "My Trip to Mexico" and on another night an amateur group sang "Old American Favorites" off-key.

A young man confided in Lil one evening that he was incarcerated as a result of a major government conspiracy and an old lady burst into song and dance in the solarium on an otherwise quiet evening.

Lil's depression deepened, she knew not why, and one day she refused to leave the hospital for her usual afternoon walk with a nurse. She took to staying in her room some days, then more frequently by such small increments, they were not subject to measurement. After two weeks she just stayed on her bed with a blanket pulled over her head. She saw her doctor every day, having nothing to say and answered questions that seemed to be lacking in logic. Logic had always been important to Lil in a world led by irrational figures of authority whose words and actions could not bear close scrutiny.

When word came that she was being moved to the hospital in the country in a few days, she felt hopeful and apprehensive at the same time. The night before the transfer her doctor came in to say good bye. She told him she had gained hope she would get well.

"Yes, I think your illness has run its course," the doctor said. "The bad medication has been fully flushed out of your system. You should explore your reason for seeking the help of a psychiatrist in the first place."

Shot full of Amytol, the ride to Massachusetts seemed swift, the lead taken out of time. After checking in at the reception desk Lil was ushered to a small reception room and told to wait for her psychiatrist. A hospital aide stayed with her, a dull, middle aged woman with whom Lil, always the perfect hostess, made every effort to converse. The moment the doctor entered the aide excused herself and left.

He was a huge, loose-jointed man, clean shaven with an abundance of wavy brown hair. He ought to have it thinned and styled she thought. She looked at his rumpled, baggy brown suit worn with a dark green shirt and dark blue tie. He didn't look like a psychiatrist, he looked like a farmer come to town to sell one of his pigs or cows. He was obviously in need of a good tailor.

"My mother says I'm going to get well."

"You certainly wouldn't want your mother to be right."

Lil was escorted to her unit by another aide and given a book of rules to read. After she finished that, they gave her the black box containing the five by seven cards of the Minnesota test. She had no difficulty with the questions. When she was finished, a hospital aide came to take her for her physical examination.

She was shocked to see her psychiatrist when she walked into the room, instantly realizing that he would examine her. There was a dim memory of something read a long time ago, a dictum (by Freud)? "Never touch a patient." The sheet separating Lil from the doctor's gaze was removed and he proceeded to give her naked body a thorough inspection.

It would be years before she would fully understand the symbolic meaning of this act, this ripping off of all masks, veils, pretensions, and the removal of all sexuality, however faintly imaginary, from the relationship, then and forever.

In the meantime Lil's clothing was tagged with her name by a seamstress and returned to her by nightfall.

The unit had its own dining room with four tables, three seating four and one seating three. The napery was snow white, the water goblets delicate glass with stems, the atmosphere gracious and quiet and the housekeeper sweet and solicitous. Lil felt she would jump clear out of her skin. Everyone was so calm and poised, why, one might imagine oneself dining in a country inn, and she, the one sick guest, among all these tranquil, well adjusted people.

Her table companions were Harley, a New York stockbroker, Madge, a young housewife from Oklahoma, whose husband was "in plastics," and Gloria, a fortyish woman, a writer whose work Lil had admired. They made no attempt to draw her out, in fact, completely ignored her and talked about other patients and themselves with what seemed to Lil the most casual indiscretion. Lil was embarrassed to hear their gossip and self-revelations and riveted to her seat, she stared at her plate, fiddled with the flatware, took short sips of water, twisted her handkerchief around her fingers and made a serious effort to eat. After dinner Madge gave her a copy of The Ladies Home Journal. Lil riffled the pages, unable to read.

Her doctor walked into her room directly after breakfast the next day, dropping his lanky frame into the one comfortable easy chair, she sitting in a straight-backed small one facing him.

"Is it a strain, being in an open unit? Does it make you nervous?"


"Well, all right! I want you busy! Don't tell me it bores you, don't tell me you don't like it! I want you busy constantly! I'll see you in my office at two this afternoon."

He gave Lil a pass to occupational therapy and she shuttled from pottery to leather shop, from sewing class to bowling, from embroidery to table tennis. She was never without her knitting in the sitting room of the unit, she hung onto it as if she would drown, were she to let go.

After the first week she summoned enough courage to pass a remark at lunch about the absence of nervousness in the place. Gloria looked at her and said with a perfectly straight face, "Nervous? Nobody's nervous in a nut house." Lil began to eat better after that and fidgeted a lot less.

Although Lil enjoyed Gloria's sharp wit she felt more comfortable with Madge who turned out to be from Boston and felt like an exile in Tulsa, a graft that did't take. They took long walks around the spacious, manicured grounds, their conversation never about anything of substance, which was a relief to Lil. She was not up to a significant exchange of ideas.

They wondered aloud to each other if they would ever make it back to the world outside. Madge reported she knew of one man who practiced by going out one exit, running to the next faster than the wind, going inside, repeating the process until he succeeded in circling the grounds. He had been in the hospital for two years.

Harley played the piano with quite a flair, mostly the popular tunes of the thirties and forties and Juliette, a woman past childbearing who wore a rosary around her wrist, seemed to know all the words and sang when he played. The piano was in the dining room, as was the huge vat of iced tea when the weather turned warm.

Some evenings the members of the unit just sat around and compared symptoms. They found that most of them were scared stiff of going out on balconies, (they might fall off or jump off) and some could not bear the thought of sitting in the middle of the first row of the auditorium, preferring an aisle seat in the back so they could run home to their rooms at the unit if they got the panics.

By the fourth week of her stay in the bucolic countryside, Lil called a friend in New York about to leave for Europe to wish her bon voyage. Lil told her she had slept without sleeping pills for a week and gained eleven pounds.

"What can I send you? Books? Are you ready to read?"

"I might try a mystery."

"I'll send you a whole bunch of Josephine Tey."

"Why can't you read," the doctor asked Lil. "What do you feel when you read?


"Were your parents annoyed with you when you read?"

"My mother used to get furious. She said when I read a book I became totally oblivious to the world around me."

It would be years before she would remember that her father, who read four newspapers a day would not allow her to read one. He said the contents would pollute her young mind. He also kept the books in glass-fronted cases that were always locked. Lil secured books and newspapers by devious means and read them behind the locked bathroom door. Before her father's death her mother was rarely without a book. Afterwards she hardly ever read one.

"The alcoholics enjoy it here. They don't suffer like us. They actually have a good time, once they're dried out," Madge commented during their after dinner stroll.

"I suppose you're right. The pressure is off, their days are planned. They're back in the womb."

"You mean the nursery. Did you see the new one? Harley said she had the DTs for nine days. He said it was a long nine days."

"He ought to know."

"She's changed her clothes four times today. I'd hate to share a room with her."

Lil got suddenly bored with the conversation. She wanted to do something, anything, to test herself. "Madge, we have to do it. We just have to do it. It's no good just talking about why we're afraid to go out by ourselves, we simply have to do it. I'm going to ask my doctor for a town pass tomorrow - you do the same."

They got their passes and went to the cashier to get money for the day. The walk from the gate to the bus stop was the longest walk they had ever taken and the wait for the bus the longest wait of their lives. They were quiet during the ride to town and when Lil got off the bus she felt the ground move under her feet. The other side of the street was further than the moon.

They went to a small restaurant for lunch recommended by an older patient and while they read the menu Lil told Madge that her father had been a morphine addict and died of an overdose, and Madge told Lil that her father and uncle had sexually molested her when she was eleven years old. Having exchanged their respective credentials, they ordered a huge lunch and ate it like hungry children.

After lunch they went to a department store. Lil bought a piece of blue Moygashel linen and a pattern and Madge bought a dress. Then they walked over to the glass building that looked like a fish and looked at the art exhibit in the lobby. They were hungry again so they went to a bakery and bought a dozen jelly doughnuts and walked over to the plaza and sat on the edge of the fountain with the sun warm on their faces and ate them licking their sticky fingers like school girls. When they finished all the doughnuts they carefully brushed the crumbs from their laps, tossed the bags in a trash can and took the bus back to the hospital.

When they returned to the sitting room everyone was eager to hear the details of their foray into town and asked how the outing went. In a happy rush of words tumbling like beads of water from a waterfall, they told them they didn't get the shakes or the jitters and they had a wonderful lunch and saw the exhibit in the glass fish and they had had lots of fresh jelly doughnuts and it had been a truly fun afternoon.

The venturesome voyagers unwrapped their parcels. While Madge went to her room to slip into her new dress for dinner Lil showed them the blue linen and the pattern she had purchased, knowing they were halfway home.

Martha Nemes Fried has published two hardcover books; each came out in paperback. Nineteen of her stories have been published in the following magazines: Ceteris Paribus, Eclectica, Savoy Fiction, Megaera, Dynamic Patterns, Zinos, News of the Brave New World and C/Oasis. She was born in Budapest, Hungary and came to the United States when she was a child.

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February 27, 2003
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