Still Life




There were four walls around it. We had all just eaten. The walls opened and closed like accordions. We had to sit quiet and glisten like newborns. Some girls were crying. We had to ignore them. I sat before a worksheet and stared at the boxes. Write terrible poems, the doctor said. Just fill in the blank spaces.



They took away my clothes and gave me a plastic bracelet with a barcode. I walked up and down the hall. Touched the sensor at each end. A girl with white hair poked through with plastic barrettes stopped me in front of our door. Our room was littered with broken crayons. They wouldn’t give her any more paper, so she’d ripped open the trashcan liners. “X” is the set of all good things, she said. Like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. “X”-inverse is their absence. She drew a Venn diagram and labeled it. No roses. No kittens. At the center is rape, she said, and she labeled that, too. I was raped, she said. She stared at me. I nodded.



They left a gown on my egg foam mattress. A gown of white muslin with blue roses. Ribbons at the back. The others came shuffling down the hall. We were all identical, rubbing sleep from our eyelids. One hand behind our backs to hide our undies. I felt like I was in a movie. Closed my eyes tightly, and I stepped backwards. Backwards onto the creature. I always held my breath. A red eye blinked behind me, but I could not face it. When you lose enough, you are faceless. Under your face is a mask, and that mask is a skeleton. Even on tiptoe, I could only see breastbone. As far down as the mirror went. I smiled at myself, and wolf eyed my dimples with hatred.



One of the girls had long black hair. Over the hair, a long black scarf. The scarf was covered with little mirrors that trembled when she turned. She would sit on an inner tube. When I moved, her eyes moved over me. The mirrors flashed over my skin. In groups, she touched her hairline when she spoke. I had a face like death, she said. She said it again and again. I carried a mattress up a flight of stairs. Her face bloated like a moon. Strangers would stop me in parking lots. She pushed the wig back again. Strangers would stop me in parking lots. Ask me, “Can I pray for you?”



The zoo, we called it. All together, poured animal crackers onto paper napkins. I am thinking of something in this room. We sorted the creatures into towers. Sheep. Monkeys. Camels. Elephants. Left the broken parts in piles. Is it a table? Is it a chair? I moved the heads and legs around, trying to find pairs. Some fit. When they wouldn’t, I made monsters. Four legs together with no torso. Two heads on a turtle shell. Is it a tray? Is it a cart? The ark, we called it, too. One girl pointed to her stomach. She said, Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Another girl bit the ears off first. I wanted to smash her creatures. Then mine, too. Is it a window? Is it a wall? Is it a fork? Is it a knife? Is it a spoon?



They told us the swimsuits were bleached after use. They were threadbare where others had sat. We pulled them from a trash bag. We were covered in holes again. Found our arms, and our legs, and our faces. We sucked in our stomachs and ran to the fishbowl. There was an electrode that measured our hearts. Hollow center of the hospital. Room warm as an incubator. We slipped into the pool without breath. We went in a circle. We created a river. Pretend you have no muscles, no bones, and we did. A girl sat in a chair underwater. They pushed a button to lift her. She rose, and her swimsuit ballooned out. It gushed all around her. Like Miss America, she was waving goodbye to us.



He climbed up on the ledge in his socks. They were blue with rubber padding. I’m scared. Should we say something? The eight of us girls in the mirror. I saw, and then I couldn’t. Look! someone shouted. Where the mirror broke, she had no head. She stepped back and forth, and we were laughing. The man on the ledge. He had a robe. It filled like a parachute, flapping behind him. We broke our cookies and said nothing. I eyed the reflection that sat next to me. Veins in her skull like a baby. Fridays on the rooftop for tea and cookies. A meal consumed in silence. A hospital is a monastery. The man stepped down, and a cardinal landed among us and called out like a siren.



My hands were clenched. I had forgotten. My nails left little crescent moons in my hands.