by Joyce Carol Oates
I'd been brought to the hospital in wrist shackles. In a van marked CHAU CO WOMEN'S DET CT. In a shapeless gray smock, bare legs and laceless sneakers. They'd taken away the laces because I was on suicide watch at the detention center but I would never hang myself with shoelaces!—that's got to be a joke. I would never hang myself in any way, it's an ugly death. I've been close to strangled and I know.
Also: the shock of somebody finding the hanging body is too great. You can't inflict that kind of ugliness on an innocent bystander.
O.K.: maybe I did try to poke myself with a fork smuggled back to my cell after supper one night. My head was hurting and word was, I could almost hear the whispering, my life was over anyway. Dog-girl! Dog-girl! Dog-girl! but when I'd look around, all their eyes were turned away. There's a guard, happened to be a black woman, stands by the door of the dining hall overseeing a big plastic bucket and you drop your used fork and spoon inside, no knives of course, and this guard has got to be alert and cagey but it's a boring post and naturally her thoughts wander. I'd slip into her head through her glazey eyes and saw the shuffling lines of us, gray smocks, battered faces and scared eyes, a leakage of pity and disgust and a numbness so I knew the guard wasn't alert to me, a tall downlooking sallow-faced white girl and I carried out the fork in a crease of my skirt.
Just to get a vein going, that was the only purpose. To see Am I real? Any of this?
I was not on methadone, I was not a junkie. But you feel the need, the need builds up, every forty-eight hours or so. It's a fact, it's human anatomy. Neurology. We all want to explode. If you can't come one way, you come some other way. I pick at my skin, too. My face. Don't tell me it's a beautiful face and I'm scarring it, I've heard that before. Or my eyes, etcetera. All I know is there's this tightness in my skin like it's a drum's skin stretched to bursting, and a pounding heat in it like fever. You people staring at me in pity, disgust, superiority whispering Dog-girl!
Always had this bad habit since I was a little girl, Momma despaired of me. Maybe because Momma used to be so beautiful, I needed to hurt one of us? Picking at my face till it bleeds. These rashes that flare up out of nowhere, pimples hard as grit, insect bites—my sharp fingernails find their own way, greedy for what they find. Asleep, or awake. Dig till a little blood starts!
Then I feel better. Almost better.
As for the fork they confiscated. One of those cheap dimestore tin things, prongs dull as the handle. Stabbed myself in the shower in fury and mockery that the fork was so fucking inadequate, you know?—like it was a joke, against me. Look how despised Dog-girl is, a fork so dull is all Satan has allotted her.
An owl-looking matron from the detention center and a sheriff's deputy, male, sexy in that sag-eyed way turns some women on, took me to the hospital. Following the yellow arrows to PSYCHIATRIC SERVICES. I figured I would be given shock treatments as punishment and maybe that would cleanse me.
My long straggly curly blond hair gone thin on the sides from starvation and my picked-at face and the bandage on my left arm and—for sure!—the wrist shackles drew a lot of attention in the hospital. Like on TV. You'd see a hospital worker or a visitor or a patient in a wheelchair or even ambulatory pushing an IV on a gurney watching us approach, the three of us abreast, their eyes widening with interest as we passed and they'd freeze and turn to watch us till we were down the corridor and out of sight. Is that the one—? That girl—? The one who—? Inside my hot eyelids comes a quick dream of seeing myself through a stranger's eyes. Wondering what judgment to pass on this person who's me.
There was a doctor, I didn't see his face. I was crying, and I was ashamed, O.K. I did want to die, that was my secret. And him saying in that slow kind of pushy voice like something prying a shell open Tell me of your life, Ingrid. We want to make you well.
Saying, I'm a Doctor, I don't judge.
And I could not speak. Nor lower my hands from my face. My face that is scarred if you look in such bright light. This man saying, repeating You've suffered a severe trauma but now you're safe, and you're going to be all right. Will you trust me?
I shook my head I don't know.
Why won't you look at me, Ingrid?
I shook my head I don't know.
No? Will you speak to me, then?