Parallel lines and a slender fragile bridge. H is for horror, H is for harmony. H is for hurt. H is for hospital. H is for horror. H is for horror. Lying there Harriet was still here, still alive, human salvage scraped off the sidewalk. Her world was still a screaming seamless chaos, polluted with mnemonic fragments, shards of faces, family remnants, idle hours, dreams and desires, silent noise, splintered absences. And it’s all still here, still shooting those poisoned barbs into her fragile mind. All faith that there could be an end was gone. She is here and everywhere. H is for hospital. H is for horror. H. Parallel lines and a slender fragile bridge. She has a sudden terrible awareness of the space around her, feels it closing in and she’s getting smaller sometimes shadowed, sometimes curving. The bilious incomprehensible distortion that was the life she wanted to end is still churning. H. H is for how. H is for helpless. H is for haze.
And now she’s back again, duped by the glory of her wonderful flight, the flight that should have ended in silence, in an abrupt and pure reality. She knows she’s still there. Surrounded. Unfamiliar wirey webs, pathways leading to unseen routes and strange destinations. H should be for hope but it is for hopelessness. And then slowly something comes. She knows.
Lamps are glowing, flicking off-on, silent sentinels standing guard. Blue. She lies still and baffled, motionless and wondering why it happened this way. H is not for blue. H is for help. “Harriet can you hear me. Honey, do you know your name?” Is H for honey? The voice is low and anxious, breathy with emotion and through her own half-closed lids Harriet can see tears on a face twisted with anxiety. A voice in Harriet’s head whispers that sure I know my name. And I know your name. Grace. I know I do not want to be here and you, with you talking in that gentle voice, your voice full of love and caring, you do not understand. And I know where we live, how we live, in shabby isolation, terrified in the night when the gunshots start, terrified in the day when you go to work and I have to stay home and wait all alone, wait for you to come back with the groceries in a paper sack and the stories of your day on the bus, at the warehouse. The picture’s clear for you but you must know that every detail of your day is a savage stiletto point, a wound to my soul. What do I do with all those details, all that information, so much meaningless data that I must process and file? I can make you dinner, if it’s simple. I can clean the apartment again and again and still it’s not clean. I can get the mail from the mailbox, pick up trash on the stairs, run from the kids in the afternoons. “Hey Harriet” they say, “hey Harriet, we just wanna talk to you”. H is for home. I know that you love and that you believe you are loved, but I don’t know how or why love works. He left us. He’s gone and you cannot find him. He’s over. You’re over. I was over and now I’m not. H is for him. H is for hate deep in there somewhere, somewhere and coming closer. H again. H for help. H again. H is for hospital. H.
I can hear them tell you I need sleep, I need to rest and I want you to take your deceitful eyes away. Stop them seeing stuff to tell me about. Take your ears and your mouth too. Stop them hearing stuff and stop you telling me more. The data and lies are building back up again, flying fast and frightening into my disrupted and liquid mind. Go. My eyes are drooping away from the blue lights, my ears are full of ringing and muffled humming.
Harriet hovers in the glittering dark behind her eyelids in the depths of the distant buzzing that’s getting louder. H. Is there more, must there be more of this? Strange shapes and a resolving rhythm of sound is coming through the dark. A shapeless swell. H is for helpless. And the tears drool slowly down unseen towards her ears.
Three weeks later when the money for the hospital had run out Grace and Harriet stepped onto a sun blistered sidewalk. Grace holds Harriet’s hand and they squint together in the hostile light, brittle and hard and alien. On the way home they stopped at Denny’s and had waffles. Harriet likes waffles her step-mom explained to the disinterested waiter. He scribbled the order and poured the coffee and hurried away. Harriet smiled slowly showing her teeth, but her eyes slid sideways. “He don’t care if I like waffles or not” she mumbled, looking down and picking at the napkin still folded in her lap. After so many weeks in the hospital Harriet is thin and gaunt, her skin the texture and shade of a fallen autumn leaf. Her hair stands up straight from her head and her clothes drape her body, unconvinced that they really should be there at all. A shoulder here, too much cleavage there, a stray leg draped awkward on the seat of the booth. Grace is watching her, encouraged by the smile, by what Harriet said about the waffles. “Honey have some coffee while it’s hot.” Harriet took the cup in both hands, sipping the brown water slowly. She looked over the rim at Grace who’s smiling and reaching out to touch her shoulder.
Harriet understands this cue and responds through a new personna. “It’s ok, really it’s ok. You don’t need to worry. I’m gonna be fine. Really.” The waffles arrive. They eat in silence. Grace knew that it wasn’t that simple, not for Harriet, not for her. But no one in the hospital wanted to talk about it. No one saw more than the dollars and cents of it. So Grace told herself that she guessed it was fine. And she gets it. The doctors and nurses in the hospital have no time to care, no reasons, not for Harriet, not for Grace. No one looked. No one saw. What’s another broken young woman to them? Grace doesn‘t question this because it’s always been this way. Nothing changes and women like Harriet and Grace are invisible. But Harriet’s saying what Grace wants to hear. Harriet’s giving Grace reassurance. Harriet’s giving Grace a first-class ticket to carry on. She can keep going to the warehouse, keep reaching out for Harriet’s dad, keep trying to understand how he could leave them, and why it was this way. Harriet’s words give Grace license and maybe one less thing to worry about.
When they got back to the apartment Harriet went straight to the tv and switched it on. She dropped down onto the lumpy couch and stroked the faded brown upholstery, like it was a much loved pet. “Are you sure you want this honey?” Grace was at her side, getting in as close as she could. She gently went to take the remote from Harriet’s hand. Harriet held onto it tight and in a voice that was slightly too loud said, “I told you I’m fine, I’m really ok and I can take it. I made a mistake before, letting all that stuff get to me. I know that now. Now that I’ve rested for a piece.”
They sat there, with a ranting tv, waiting for some connection with what happened when the stuff had gotten too much, and with Grace starting to believe that maybe it could be that simple. The air in the room lay heavy like a shroud. Outside the horns and sirens, the shouts and street hum rose up. Harriet saw the city’s leftover dust come into the room to build microscopic towers and tunnels and complicated structures that she would have to remove as soon as Grace was gone. Grace again touched her shoulder with a loving hand. So much love this woman has, Harriet told herself. I can take some of it, I can take it and toss it away, I can help Grace make space for some other love, someone else’s love for I have none to give, none to share. I cannot keep the love she gives me. She understands that Grace deserves love, Grace needs love, so Grace needs Harriet to take some of what she has to make space for her to get more, more from someone who isn’t Harriet. “Okay honey, if you’re sure the tv won’t upset you” Grace says. And the dust motes drift and hover.
Harriet was right. Grace could see that the tv and all the other noise and intrusions didn’t upset Harriet any more. Not any more. And Harriet stayed inside her terrors unseen, watching tv, her hands clutching her head, her mouth wide open and screaming silence into the noise. Harriet was once again cleaning the apartment, the mailbox and the stairs and making dinner for the two of them with whatever groceries Grace brought home the day before. But Harriet is hovering in that same glittering dark. Broken shards and barbs pierce and tear at, but in the depths of darkness pain is rising slowly and is soon loud and insistent.
Then Harriet started counting, and she tells Grace that the counting was helping her make sense of all the signals speared into her fragile mind. She counted the steps from the apartment to the street (four sets of seven), the steps to the mailbox on the corner (twenty-seven) and the steps to the decaying Federal Building (over seven hundred – Harriet lost count after that). This was as far as she could go at first and then as Harriet got bolder she walked up a floor at a time, counting the steps (two sets of seven), counting the floors (seven). She even counted the height of each floor (10) but this number was no good. She told Grace about the counting and the trips, just so as Grace would know that Harriet was getting better and that the tv was helping and that it didn’t matter if her daddy ever came back because Harriet didn’t want to see him anymore. She understood that he didn’t care. And Harriet told Grace that she was sorry that daddy didn’t care about her either.
At the Federal Building Harriet looked up at the sky and saw freedom there. She saw the flickering blue, the safety of steel and concrete canyons, the safety of the birds soaring between the towers and she stood by the revolving door, smiling at the people passing through, at the people inside with suitcases and small children, smiling at the people she saw with special badges and smiling at the meatloaf she’s left in the oven on low. Soon it would be done. As soon as Harriet entered the building, she headed to the seventh floor.