6.08 / July 2011

from Promising Young Women: Heather (#19)

This wasn’t like in the movie Heathers, which had come out a few years earlier. We watched it over and over again. It was something we did. Back then, I hadn’t read Ariel. In the movie, Ariel is a punchline; Sylvia Plath is a joke. This was before I’d learned  that Sylvia Plath was real, not a joke. Heathers made suicide glamorous but also made fun of the glamor. What I remember most is the way Winona Ryder said I don’t really like my friends. It was perfect: sexy and sad. It was how we all felt back then.

This Heather wasn’t a Heather, though. She wasn’t a Veronica, either.

And this Heather wasn’t Scandinavian, though when I think of her I always think of Bergman, of the grainy film in black and white. The actress. The nurse. I first watched it while visiting Dread at Sarah Lawrence. He locked me in one of the library viewing rooms. You have to see this, he said.

For the rest of my life, the men I loved or would love-it was always this way:

You must read/see/listen to/think about this.

And I would. Read or watch or listen or think. It was one way of becoming the person I wanted to be.

Heather was pretty in a simple way, what people think of when they say wholesome. Which is a word I hate. The kind of girl all the guys wanted to date in high school. Which was not me. Heather was a cheerleader and her boyfriend was a football player. Joe.

Heather didn’t talk. That was her thing. She’d been in the hospital a year and a half and hadn’t said a word.

I found her absolutely riveting.

Heather walked. There wasn’t far to go so she’d walk the halls, the corridors, up and down over and over again. Daily.

It is a way of dying, not talking. I hadn’t realized.

Those first weeks I spent my days mostly just watching Heather walk up and down the halls of the Unit, her thick brown ponytail swinging as she walked. She had a body like Marilyn Monroe’s-the large, round gorgeous body of Monroe in The Misfits. Which is my favorite. I hid my body under my sweatshirts; Heather wore tight t-shirts and short shorts. She was utterly uninhibited, except for the not-speaking part, I guess. She walked with perfect posture and because of this I associated her with a sort of freedom that felt impossible.

This association, of course, said a lot more about my relationship to my own body than it did about Heather. Who knows how she felt about her desired body? Did it feel like something separate from herself, as it did for me? I didn’t think so. It was her voice that needed disciplining. Her body-that was something else, something alive in a way she would not be.

Heather always wore her Walkman as she walked. She listened to Mary J. Blige.

Walking is thinking, Gertrude Stein wrote. But for Heather, I’m pretty sure walking was not thinking.

Every day I sat on the vinyl couches watching Heather. One day, as she passed, she smiled at me. Just for a moment. She then looked straight ahead again, her chin up, her posture straight. I can still see her walking, her effortless grace. Most of the women on the S.S. habitually slouched or tried otherwise to make their bodies disappear. To take up less space. Heather didn’t have these hangups; only her voice had come to seem like too much of herself in the world.

I admired her for it. Language is a betrayal, after all. Or so I believed in those days. Or so I still believe.

One day I worked up the courage to ask Heather if I might join her.

“Would you mind?”

She shook her head.

I smiled, blushed. I ran to get my own Walkman and running shoes. I joined Heather, who was waiting by the nurses’ station.

We walked the halls of the S.S. Lyle. It became a regular thing. Day after day on the floor of the ward, we walked together and alone, side by side, not talking; each wearing our Walkman as we walked from one end of the women’s dorm to the other: down the main hall and past the nurses’ station, past the smoking room and the kitchen, past the elevators and the television room, all the way to the men’s dorm in the south end of the ward-which wasn’t really a dorm at all but rather a designated space spanning about four rooms, though there were never more than two men on the ward at any given time–toward the back hallway full of doctor’s offices and meeting rooms. We followed this route, back and forth, for an hour or more each day. When we reached the eastern end of the hall of the women’s dorm, or the eastern end of the hall of north offices, we’d stand for a moment in the bright sunlight that hit that window most intensely and then pivot around, taking the step that set us back again west, toward the elevators, the kitchen, the Aides station, the front sitting room where few patients or visitors ever sat.

That light coming through the window always reminded me of something hopeful and sad, some hard-to-place thing.

It was one way of passing time.

Walking is thinking, I wrote to Dread.

I thought walking was walking, he wrote back, from Prague.

“This is a good addiction,” Lyle told me approvingly, “it may be compulsive, exercise can be addictive-but it has positive results, so we want to encourage it.”

Heather had been a cheerleader, I was a pom-pom girl. One thing we knew how to be was pleasing. Without realizing it exactly, we sought the approval of authority figures, which, in the context of the S.S., meant the approval of doctors, nurses, staff.

Everyone on the ward was being observed, of course; some just found this more gratifying than others. It was maybe more complicated than that, but easy enough to spot: girls who were used to getting attention. Maybe too used to it. Maybe we didn’t know what to do without it.

Heather listened to a variety of music, most of which I didn’t like. I liked Tori Amos.

“She’s too whiny,” Heather said one day, and then smiled.

It was the second full sentence I heard her say.

We could only agree on Madonna. All of the white girls on the ward loved Madonna, Les noted, except for her. She was proud of it.

It meant something, Les declared, all that Madonna love, without explaining what she thought it meant.

I told Mary, my favorite, that I didn’t care what Les said; Madonna made me happy, at least in a momentary superficial way.

“You’ve got to take what you can get in this world, doll. There’s not much more to it than that.” Mary would say, laughing. I loved that laugh.

Lyle believed in certain things. I wondered if Heather believed in Lyle’s belief. I wanted to ask her. But it wasn’t possible to have a conversation with Heather, and that in itself became extremely comforting to me. As much as possible, I wanted to live within Heather’s world of silence.

But the thing about Heather: she got better.

This was especially notable because very few women aboard the S.S. Lyle made anything like linear progress during their stay. Even Denise O’Byrne, discharged after three years, had the same defensively angry expression and tendency to violent outburst that she’d always had, at least that’s how it seemed to me and the other patients. Iris Hernandez cut her thin arms just as regularly, if not more often, as her discharge date approached. Heather-who was neither violent nor a cutter-was different. She came in silent, stone-faced, removed; over the years, she blossomed. She smiled, laughed-at first a little, and then later as a regular thing. She started talking. She told jokes. And then she talked a lot. She even talked about how she had gotten better–the rest of us were far too nervous to acknowledge something like this, even if it was true, for all sorts of deep-seated and complicated psychic reasons. Also because mostly we didn’t believe it was possible to get better. Heather did, though. She still had her bad days, her bad moods; but, for the most part, Heather changed. She wasn’t happy, exactly, but she was there in a way she hadn’t been for years. Looking at her; well, you almost believed in the place.

I can’t say how it happened and it turned out that I hadn’t even seen Heather at her worst, since she’d been there over a year already when I arrived. At her worst, so Annie told me, and Heather agreed, she didn’t even smile. She wouldn’t have noticed me watching her, wouldn’t have acknowledged another human being. At her worst, she was pretty much gone. Which is why her mom had driven her down to New York City from their inconveniently located home in rural New Hampshire to meet with the famous doctor who a friend of a friend had heard good things about. He sounded like just the doctor to treat Heather, the friend told Heather’s mom.

And Heather was pretty, the friend said. She’d heard that his hospital specialized in treating pretty young girls.

Heather’s mom was skeptical (and frankly a little wary of a doctor who focused on curing pretty girls) but Heather’s not talking had scared the hell out of her, really. She had no idea that her daughter could do such a thing. It revealed a power she didn’t think her child possessed. She didn’t think she herself possessed that power, to be honest. There was a small part of her-she didn’t tell Lyle this-that envied her daughter. She only remembered the small part when Heather did it (stopped talking); she remembered her own desire, as a young girl, to shut everything out, to refuse, to say no.

Thank you, but no. I’d prefer not to.

She couldn’t do it, of course. It was impossible. Her own mother wouldn’t have noticed even if she had done it, likely. And so she had gone along with it all, had married Heather’s dad, had two children, had left Heather’s dad and managed to raise the two children on her own, without much help. Rarely did she stop to consider it all now. She didn’t have time. And so when her daughter-pretty, sweet, a cheerleader with a nice enough boyfriend, a football paper who first spotted Heather cheering on the sidelines-refused to talk, she was brought back to that time, that younger version of herself, that moment when the thought had occurred to her, too: the thought that she had a choice, that it was all a choice.

She’d read an interview with Meryl Streep, her favorite actress, some months earlier. Streep was asked how she would spend her perfect day, if she had the choice.

“If I had the choice,” the actress replied, “I wouldn’t do anything. But I don’t have a choice.”

Heather’s mother had been moved by that, deeply moved to realize that her favorite actress of all time felt the way she herself did, at least some of the time, when it came down to it. And that’s what she wanted to tell Heather (but never would, because you can’t tell children such things, they have to learn it on their own):

“I don’t have a choice. And neither do you.”

And so when I started walking with Heather, it was already happening. There was a change underway. As I walked and looked daily to the light that showed me a way while also forbidding it, something in Heather was shifting. As I became more aware of what the light forbid, Heather remembered the power of a smile. The day she first spoke to me, who hadn’t yet heard her voice, she laughed and then said,

“I’m going to tell Joe not to come anymore.”

I took off my earphones then. I looked at Heather. Joe visited every Sunday, usually with Heather’s mom and brother. The two of us, who were technically women, walked down the hall, looking straight ahead. As we passed the Aides station, William, just coming on shift, held up his hand. Heather slapped him a high-five and as she did, let out another laugh that could be described as carefree. Which is another word I hate. William smiled. We kept walking, down and around the nurses’ station and then back into the girl’s dorm, until we reached the end of the hallway where the midday light shone hard against the thick barred windows.

Suzanne Scanlon's fiction has appeared in Fail Better, 580 Split, Pindeldyboz, elimae and Everyday Genius; her essays and book reviews have appeared in The American Scholar, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Chicago Life and many other publications.