The elderly man to my right, clutching a book of Blake’s sonnets in gnarled hands, whispers words to me all day. I will miss him, which is a surprise. I never expected to miss anything but freedom to do as I choose. I guess we all want that. But here, in these secured and sparse rooms, many of us find how much everything matters, even things you never thought of before. When you are stowed away in a halfway house, rights become privileges you have to fight to regain with all your creative might. It’s the system, and you are the systematized.
“Lovely tiny dancing doll,” he says now, eyes never leaving the floor. He has once looked right at me though he’s about blind–then he squeezed his eyes shut.
I forgive him–I don’t like my size being referred to, I am nobody’s doll and I’m not pretty–because he has lived a long time and he’s no longer quite with us. I guess it’s better than what “Q the King”, the giantess who had to leave due to violent outbursts, named me: Moon Face. She used to black out with rage, throw things, then fall onto the floor, the whole place shaking from her height and bulk. Mr. Eisenberg was terrified of her. I always smile at him–Mr. E., I just call him–though I doubt he sees me. He must feel it. I believe he needs more good smiles, at the very least. he deserves it and more. Because he is not leaving at all. He lives here with his granddaughter, our overseer, Mistress Manley.
“Dancing doll,” he says. “My dancing doll.”
The windows are a sieve for vapid light. I get up and look out. Everything about this place is marred with benign neglect, even the lawn and fields stretching out like ruined carpet. Not a hospitable home. It is a miracle we all are on speaking terms, even if in whispers. But far beyond this glass I see rolling green fields and in the distance a promise of hills. Past those hills is where I’m going.
Lucky, my big brother, will soon come get me; he really is lucky because he was born with simple wants and right thinking. My bag is packed. All I have to do is sign forms and then I will be closing the doors on this break in my life. That’s how I see it; a time apart from everything else, especially those who had no faith left in me. Others might see it differently but if I have learned anything here it is that our human eyes give us very different views of the world outside as well as inside ourselves. We can only think we understand. And you would not want to know everything even if you could. Still, plenty is worth discovering. I’ve had long, ponderous hours to watch, to listen and imagine, to feel and wonder over the lives of people who have lost their minds one way or another and are trying to retrieve them. I guess that includes me, as I have tried to clear some things up and reorder my life plan after terrible things happened.
“Well, Amanda, ready to take off, I see. Two months and one half-day and set to go. You did the work so now you get to do more life.”
Mistress Manley stands over me with hands on hips. She acts tougher than she is. It’s her job to be in control as supervisor but I know she is not, not really, as neither are the two part-time residential therapists. The doctor is, though he comes only once a week, as well as the mental health agency with which the Darren Manley House is aligned. She is not as big as she seemed the day I came but still, she is three times the size of me. I am small, so small I was told as a teen that I would not make a dancer. Thin is one thing, tiny is another. But I ignored the warning. I had to push all limits.
“Yes.” We had a more thorough conversation two hours ago after I stripped my bed and swabbed my part of the room, the last manual labor portion of my “therapy.” I lean against the wall and she steps back as if conscious of how her wide shadow can engulf us. Her next-to-last word can about seal our fates.
“Let’s have a chat.”
I follow her to the back room, the one that has the sign on the door that says “Private” as if anything in this rambling, 2900 square foot, two-story house can be very private for long. There are not enough places to fit sixteen of us so we have bunk beds in four bedrooms, genders separated. Until we are ready to leave, when we get a closet-sized room for a couple weeks, perhaps the reward for surviving.
We know everything about each other due to habitual contact. We are perhaps as close as some of us can be without being family. Lucky has always assumed that’s miserable but for me, it’s felt more than okay. Our own family is piecemeal by now. Only Lucky and I hold onto each other.
I sit in the wooden chair that had a seat cushion added recently, a small luxury. Mistress Manley leans her elbows on the massive scarred desk and stretches her lips into a smile that still looks suspect. Her blue and white striped blouse strains across her chest and shoulders, collar flopping open so her silver Celtic knot necklace gleams. I cross my legs. In groups we had to sit with both feet on the floor and backs straight so we could oxygenate our brains. Pay attention to the wise one, Dr. Hannert. I have thought of him as moderately witless more often than not, I confess. His idea of health is not mine, though I half-faked it for him. But today I swing my foot back and forth, almost striking the desk. I’m wound up, ready to leave but have another hour to go.
Mistress Manley clears her throat in a rumble like a motor starting up. She can talk a lot if she has the chance. I have heard much of her life story, ending with how her parents left her this farm house. So after she got a Masters in clinical psychology and practiced at a city hospital and hated it, she decided to open the halfway house for aftercare of psychiatric patients. I can’t say she’s happy here but I think she might not be no matter where she is. Her life is burdened with sad, lost souls and her own dreary childhood. I respect her effort to make a difference even if she has little talent for it. I think she would prefer to run an old folks home, for her grandfather, at least. But he’s going senile now. She has to do what’s necessary; I hope she finds a way to do something else, though.
“Do you feel ready to strike out and take on the world yet?”
“No. But I can manage ordinary life better, I think, and I might make something of mine again. Eventually. I accept what I cannot do now. Or what I don’t want to do, more accurately.”
“Meaning what exactly?” Her hand goes to her Celtic knot. She often touches it like a talisman or a guide. I wonder what she thinks it does besides soothe. It was a gift from her one, long-gone boyfriend.
This meeting is a last test. If I am overly confident, she might second thoughts and get my departure cancelled with a swift phone call to Dr. Hannert. If I have too little confidence the same judgement could be made. I must have moderately aligned expectations. Be calm.
“I know better than to try to off myself. It’ll take a while longer for my sliced wrists to heal up. I still feel like a sort of puppet–my hands don’t want to perfectly cooperate even since surgery. The foot injury still aches at times. Time and physical therapy, the doc says. But my head is on straighter. I think about the future and it looks like a country I’d like to explore again…”
I stop my restless foot. I wonder where Lucky is, and strain my ear to hear the sound of his ’78 Mustang. I haven’t seen him in so long, almost five months now. I’m hoping I still recall all pertinent details, the baritone voice, the way he used to walk like a loping dog, his worn out cowboy boots caked with things Id rather not note. We both have probably changed but me more, I’m guessing.
Mistress Manley sits back, satisfied. “And that will include eastern Oregon now. The ranch life with Lucky and your friends. And Tammy. You’ll make a good helper now, Amanda.”
I swallow, find my throat dry. “Helper” is not what I was hoping for but she’s right. Tammy, aged four, is the daughter of Doug and Cassie, the ranch owners and our mutual friends, the ones who are willing to take me on as a kind housekeeper even though I tried to die a few months ago. They knew me long before my dancing passion became a profession. And then was deleted. Before Lucky left the city to work the ranch with them three years ago.
“And your plan for dancing?”
“That’s not fair.”
I want to leave. I have had more than enough. She knows nothing of that life, despite my having to share the best and worst of it. I already got my release from the doctor, “acute severe depressive episode” no longer like a tattoo on my forehead. Coping skills duly noted, medications tried then slowly titrated off as I proved I was back to normal. I call it “my brief psychotic grief episode”, not a flat-out depression. I don’t remember feeling depressed before I got fired from the ballet company. After I broke my left ankle and then couldn’t get it all back, the overriding power and agility that kept me secure among other dancers, ones with longer legs or more grace, charisma. More beauty.
That Amanda, the one who succeeded against all odds and then lost it all, is fading to a fainter memory, an erased self-portrait on a weathered page. Folded up, put away. I don’t want to take it out again for a long while, if ever.
“Not fair at all,” I repeat, the flame of anger heating my face.
“Maybe not. But it’s never going away, your desire to dance.”
“No, but it can convert to something else, say, horseback riding– I’m good at that, too. I don’t know yet. Maybe still dance, just not ballet. Maybe country line dancing–wouldn’t that be something?–or tango!”
I shrug slowly, as if this is not the one bruised nerve that still cries out when pressed like this. One more hour to go.
She looks at me with skepticism, then slides paper and pen across the desk. She sets a white plastic bag with all extraneous belongings near my feet. I note the listed items, scan the doctor’s advice and so on, then sign and date with a flourish, my hand steadier than I feel.
“Good,” she says. “I want you to know once more how much I enjoyed having you in our little community. You’ve been a surprise, resourceful, hard-working, and helpful to others. You’re well on your way to recovery. But don’t get too bold at first. Take it slow. Don’t forget we’re here if you need us.”
Her pleasant choice of words about my behavior almost sound like skills I could list for a job now I am discharged. I sigh.
“Thanks. It’s been interesting. I appreciate your assistance.” Which is half-true. I appreciate her constancy, the rules she enforced even as I balked; her firm, even response when we all took turns freaking out. I appreciate her clinical insight into mad grief and worse maladies. But I haven’t enjoyed her overbearing ways or her own poor boundaries or slips of provincial attitude.
I hated the dirtiest menial chores. Found it hard to help care for physically ill patients when extra hands were needed, despite it being against the law. I hated the glaring, humming overhead lights in the group room twice a day, how it felt we were being interrogated. The demands to spill it all in front of people I didn’t really know, who could not truly understand what ballet is to me. The insistence that I was sick instead of devastated, betrayed by my body. The way the wind moaned and rattled the shutters when I couldn’t sleep but wasn’t allowed to get up and roam or sit outside on the porch and take in the night’s fertile air. The long days when no one laughed or commented on that glowing line of royal blue at the horizon before the sun set. How most acted deaf when I talked of the beauty of farm land, the mysterious alchemy going on at vineyards right down the road. Except for Gina, my unusual ally, who would exclaim that she thought things like that, too.
How they questioned why I wanted to die. How many times did I have to say: Because I am a dancer who now cannot dance! Until it made me want to quit it all. Until I decided: Enough. I have to–want to–stay alive even if I have to crawl a little longer. And then I stopped explaining. I just did the work they asked and talked to God in skies spilling over with moonlight and shape shifting clouds.
We exit the office and heads to the medication room; I go downstairs where a few of the women are sitting around. Three are new the last two weeks and don’t trust me and besides, I’m leaving. A couple others stir, put down knitting and books.
“Do we get to meet Lucky?”
“You’re finally being sprung, Moon Face!”
“Moon Face?” a new woman asks.
I laugh. “Yeah, and you’ll get one, too, like it or not.”
Gina aka “Catgirl”–used heroin for fifteen years until finally kicking it in a tent in some woods, then getting assaulted on her way back home–got up and put her arm around my shoulders, pulls me up to her boniness. “Moon Face. Look at her. All round, white as a moonstone. And she likes to sit on a windowsill, the moonlight on her–moon bathing! And she does have a kinda sweet light, see?” She turns me to her, hands holding me at arm’s length so we were face-to-face. “I’ll miss you, girl. Our fearless talks in the night.” Her dark almond eyes fill, then clear. She gives me a friendly smack on the top of the head and sits down.
Jana “Java Queen”, resident bi-polar thief, bursts into the room, riffing off-key. “My, my, soon on down the highway, brother at your side in a fantastic classy ride, you got it right this time, yes, Moon Face, my my!”
She has her usual thermos full of coffee and holds it up in a cheers! gesture, then plops onto the couch by Gina, resuming the song.
“Gonna just get up and go, leave us alone with ole Manley-o, just like that, am I right or no? Not one of us will miss you, though. You got too many wants and needs, you gonna need more crazy therapy, gotta get the right pill they say, stop another spill, but your soul is–”
“Oh, please, Java Queen, spare us terrible rhymes!” Gina moves to the end of the couch.
Jana rises again, hands held out to me as she danced.”–your soul is riding high now and you’ll be flyin’ soon now, Moon Face, your little Moon Face will be moving past the clouds!”
She comes up and holds out a hot, dry hand and I take it in both of mine. Her brown eyes, lightening with a long-dormant spark beneath the haze of confusion, smile into mine.
“Thanks for the song.”
I can hear the Mustang coming down the road. My knees tremble until I stand with legs apart, feet splayed as if readying for plies.
Marilyn “Matchgirl”, the hoarder who collects old matchbooks and so many other useless items and dyed her short hair green, says, “Don’t forget us…? I’ll remember. Your kindness.”
“Of course she’ll forget us!” Gina the Catgirl snorts. “Who’d want to remember being here?” She shoos me to the door to urge me on: Go now!
I want to say, Wait, I see it’s all of you who have saved me. But Catgirl knows this, and more that I will never get to hear.
When I hear him cut the motor, I pick up my bags and step onto the porch. Some of the men are there, in a rocking chair, on a bench swing, sitting at a card table playing canasta. They wave and a couple say things both regrettable and sweet. I have known them less well; we women stuck together except at one group and mealtimes. But they have been there, too, have witnessed me as I have witnessed them. Their faces are so familiar that I wonder if any of them, women and men, will stop keeping me company in restless predawn hours or when Lucky and I butt heads as we do, or I wonder if I can get on with it all.
“Dance, my little doll!”
As I hurry down the stairs Mr. Eisenberg’s voice pipes up, quiet but clear. I look up and around to see his wizened, white-haired head stick out an open window. I put down my bag just as Lucky opens the door, starts to get out; he looks almost happy to see me. But I run the other direction, run faster with one good and one ruined foot, the steps a joyous ache and I leap high into the air, legs parallel to earth, arms lifted like wings, chin high, body leaving gravity to other creatures. As I reach the pinnacle of the jump I see Mr. E. stretching out his neck to see me, waving. Lucky looks as if ready to catch me, but I’m not in need of being caught. As I descend, a cheer goes up, then Mr. E.’s words, bright as bells, ring out.
“Dance, dance your way to the moon for me, little one!”
I land gently, soundly on my feet.