Jan/Feb 2006  •   Fiction

Hospital Girl

by Kate Hall

The girl in the next room is sleeping. I make sure no one sees me come in. It looks just like my room, only she hasn't been throwing up for three years so she takes up more of the bed. She's in here for sexual abuse, but no one knows who did it. The girls have been speculating. Mandy, she's the youngest on the ward, says it was the sleeping girl's father. That's the easiest guess, so most of us are holding out. On placing our bets, that is. Whenever anyone new comes in, we bet on who did what to them. No matter what has happened, there is always someone to blame.

I climb in bed next to the sleeping girl, careful not to wake her up. She doesn't have a roommate yet, so the other bed is empty. I think about pushing the beds closer together, but I'm not sure I can do it without one of the nurse's finding out. My throat is raw from throwing up oranges. The sleeping girl's hair smells like cotton candy. She is wearing a bra and underwear, and when I lift the covers so I can see her, she looks like a lingerie model. Most of us like girls for some reason or another, although I'll take what I can get. Tonight there was a guy doing his laundry on our ward, and I imagined what it would be like to clean my throat with him. The doctors here are confused by me. They say it is common for food to be both comforting and threatening, but that I need to learn to see sex as a threat, too. I have seen them writing "promiscuous" next to my name in their charts.

The first girl to touch me lived in the house across the street. She was seventeen, and my mother said her bedroom windows never got any sun. The girl's name was Anna, and she was heavy and wore her hair in two long braids. When she would lean over me in my living room after school, smelling of cigarettes and old milk, I would reach up and play with one of her braids. We did this for about a week and then, one day when my mother wasn't looking, she carried me up the stairs to my room.

In group therapy, they teach us it is not healthy to go into too much detail. I am not quite clear as to what took place once Anna and I were alone in my room, only that I was made to do things with her body and to allow her to do the same things to mine. I do remember that I was struck with the symmetry of our bodies, how mine was a smaller version of hers. I do not know what became of Anna; she went away to college not long after and her mother fell asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. The whole street gathered the night Anna's family burned down. To this day, heat and sex are mixed up in me.

The sleeping girl is awake, and I cover her mouth with my hand. I wonder if this is how it happens in prisons, if women are as gentle there. Part of me worries what this will do to her, being accosted by a fellow patient in the mental hospital, but that is only how it appears in the extreme. If the newly awake girl decides to view what is happening in that light, I cannot stop her. I have dropped by for some company and perhaps a little bit of comfort, nothing more.

By the time morning comes, the girl either does not remember or has chosen not to mention my late night visit. I could feel her beauty in the dark the way a blind man would, but now, with the light from the window catching her hair, she is quietly stunning. She is in line behind Jenna, the tall girl, and you can tell she is used to people staring at her. When the therapist asks me later if I like the new girl, I tell her I think she is boring. The therapist asks if we have had any contact that would lead to such a conclusion on my part, and I think about how the girl looked, sleeping. "She hasn't made much of an effort," I say, because I know ahead of time how the therapist will respond. Half of getting out of a place like this is how much you can guess about them before they tell you.

The next time I see the new girl is in Art Therapy. We're making time machines for our loved ones, and Emma, who isn't afraid of anything, refuses to participate. When the teacher, who is also a therapist, asks her why she hasn't started, Emma tells her she doesn't have any loved ones. "What about your mother and father?" the teacher asks. "I don't love them," says Emma, and I wonder if I have only half-listened my whole life. Kiley, who has just been diagnosed with schizophrenia, begins to talk to her left hand, which is covered in glitter. The room has taken on the soft buzz of a mental ward, and Nurse Notley, who has traded for the day shift, comes in with a tray of tranquilizers.

It is visiting hour and no one I know shows up, so I ask Mandy if I can join her family. What I really want to do is watch who comes to see the new girl, and I can only do that from the lounge where everyone else is meeting. The new girl has changed her clothes and is wearing a floor length red gown. The man who comes to see her is either her father or her boyfriend, I can't decide. They sit in the corner, laughing, and if I didn't know they were on a hospital ward, I might think they were at a restaurant having dinner or cocktails.

When visiting hour is over, I change into my nightgown and go to the lounge to watch TV. On the way to the lounge, I pass the kitchen, where the new girl is having what appears to be a flashback. I go to where she is seated at the table, put my arms around her, try to still her small body. She screams at me, shakes me from her, so I go to get the Night Nurse. By the time we have returned to the kitchen, the nurse's white shoes nodding ahead of me, the new girl is in a heap by the coffee machine. "She must have worn herself out," says the nurse, injecting her anyhow.

I think about the new girl when I am on the sofa watching TV, how she must be fast asleep in her bed by now. When I think no one will notice, I make my way past the nurse's station to her room. There is someone asleep in the bed not hers, so I am extra quiet when I get into bed beside her, follow the lines of her body until I am mimicking their shape. I wonder whether they have diagnosed her, this beautiful, shaking girl, and as I reach my arms around to enclose her, I wonder if whatever it is she has will allow her to forgive me.