the photo booth
by dm gillis
I wouldn’t recommended it, trying to thumb a ride on the road just out front of the locked gates of a mental hospital. It was cold and white, and there hadn’t been a car by in more than an hour. The two or three that had already passed by, had accelerated as they did. That it was Christmas morning didn’t help, I was sure.
The idea of me, an ex-patient, hitching a ride on a country road out front of the asylum from which I’d just been released, made me smile. But I had my shoes and a donated coat, and my pictures of her and I, and I knew that with these few things, I could wait until spring for a ride, if I had to.
By now she was just a dot on the rise in the road a mile away. We’d never been separated by such a distance before. Maybe I was finally on my own.
It was hard to believe, standing there, under the circumstances, that it had only been days before that Veronica told me that the walls of my room would bleed if I cut them with a razor. She said that the old hospital was dying anyway, and that the room I occupied was its last pulsing organ. Its acre of wooded land was its deathbed, and that I would be its final near-death experience.
So, on a night in late December, I took two hits of my smuggled-in acid and looked out of my second floor window, past the bars, believing that I saw gravity collapse stars into endless heroic outlines. Then I cut and waited to wash in the blood of the ancient hospital. But the walls didn’t bleed, so I had taped my razorblade back onto the underside of my night table drawer, and listened for the rest of the night to Perseus tap on the glass.
Veronica had been wrong. She was unreliable sometimes, too flamboyant, a thespian at heart. She took advantage of my boredom. I was her fond audience, and the dark spilling in through the window was her limelight. She was strong, too. Antipsychotics feared her. They stepped round her, respectfully, and obliterated everything else. And during morning rounds, she would cling to the florescent ceiling like a spider, and look down on me as the horn-rim, herring bone psychiatrist conducted his interrogation.
“Housekeeping says you’re destroying hospital property,” he’d said, the morning after the acid night. He said this tracing the cut lines on the walls with his fingertips. I was still tripping. It was the morning of Christmas Eve.
“So, evict me,” I said.
“Your next stop will be Isolation, Molly.” He paused for effect, still closely examining the wall. He was a thespian, too. “You don’t want to go there again.”
“Release me, then. Give me my shoes.”
“No.” He came and sat near my bed. “You’re still too vulnerable.”
“And the others schizos you cut loose, they aren’t? I’ll get along just fine on the outside, with a few pills.”
“I hardly ever think of it anymore,” I said, “except at moments like these when I’m faced with your mania for it.”
“Are you having ideas? Are there voices encouraging you?”
“No. The voices are gone.” It was a lie, but fuck him. “You killed them all. It was a fucking slaughter. Now I’m stepping over bodies.”
He regarded me sternly for a moment, silent in saying the unsaid things of psychiatry.
Then I said, “It’s a trinket for you, isn’t it? Suicide, I mean. It’s a little paste jewel in your pocket. You finger it all day, worry over it, in with your coins and your keys. You even take it out occasionally, and gloat over it. Take an inventory, as you hold it, of all your patients devoured by the word.”
“Do you still believe in what happened in the photo booth?” he said. It was a quick unexpected thrust. Touché. He even allowed a trace of triumph to escape into the air, through his eyes. “You’ve only told us pieces of that story, but it seems very important to you. Central, even, to your being here.”
“You’ve made up your mind about it,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what I have to say.”
“You still associate the photos with Veronica, don’t you?”
“Leave her out of it.”
“Is she still lurking, a voice that I haven’t yet slaughtered?”
The photographs. Oh how the doctors had smirked when I tried to explain them. Veronica and I, the two us jammed into a midway photo booth and posing for the camera. Photographic evidence of her existence. Two friends at a summer fair. Her smiling, me looking tired and a little hopeless. Four small precious snaps in a strip. I’d kept them safe for so long, fiercely preserving them from the deep hole that inevitably swallows all of the meaningful property of the insane and destitute. But the psychiatrist said that I was imagining Veronica, that only I appeared in the pictures.
Now they were in a file, under lock and key.
“She’s real,” I said, ashamed of the confusion I hoped didn’t show. “You can’t drug-away what’s real.”
“You’ve certainly tried over the years,” he said.
“Yeah well, have a drink on me tonight, doc, and celebrate your reserve and resistance to all that’s mind expanding.”
“Tell me what the photo booth experience means to you right now,” he said. “What happened?”
“It would be impossible to describe to someone whose entire philosophy is based on doubt.”
“Then pretend I’m someone else.”
Veronica floated down now, from the ceiling like a leaf from a tree, and sat next to me.
“I don’t believe in the photos, anymore,” I said.
I felt Veronica stroke my hair. “It’s okay,” she said. “Tell him again. He’s just a failed bully. Tell him ten thousand times, if you must. Destroy him with honesty.”
Outside, crows had noisily descended onto the hospital courtyard. I walked to the window to watch, glossy stones black on the snow. I’d take Veronica’s advice, if only to move another dull morning along.
“It was late August,” I said. The crows fought over something dead. “A Saturday. A crummy little town full of dented pickup trucks and dilapidated tractors. Everything a bit rundown and faded. I’d been hitching. It was where my last ride had dropped me.”
“How old were you?”
“Eighteen,” I said. “There was a fair in town, the kind that comes to a small town late in summer. It was rundown and faded too, but not as much as the town. Especially at night when it lit up.”
“And you were very sad,” said Veronica, putting her hand on my knee.
“Sad.” The word was too small. “I was very sad.”
“You’d raised a little money….”
“I’d begged on the street, and had gotten enough for admission into the fair, and a little besides. Seemed the whole town was there that night. I ate a hotdog, and watched the midway from a corner. Loud out of date music over the PA. Devout born-again farmers playing crown and anchor, and trying to toss dimes into milk jugs. There were rides, too. Nothing too big. Just what could be brought in on the carny trucks. It smelled good, in a greasy smoky sort of way, like childhood.”
“It was already getting dark,” Veronica said.
“It was dark when we went into the photo booth,” I said. “I still had a few coins in my pocket. Veronica asked me to sit on her lap, so we’d both fit, and then she said, ‘Smile’.”
“But you didn’t smile,” said the psychiatrist. He jotted notes.
“No, I didn’t smile. The camera must have been broken. The flash popped four times, without me pushing a button, before I could compose myself.”
“And those are the pictures we have?”
“Give them back.”
“But they’re mine.”
“They only reinforce this delusion of yours,” said the psychiatrist. “I think you’re ready now to hear me say that.”
I wanted to be with the crows, to be unrecognisable in their strange order.
“Then the booth spit out the pics through a slot,” Veronica said, “and we stood in your corner on the midway looking at them, for a long time. You wept, a little.”
“Veronica and I looked at them for a long time, until the fair shut down for the night.”
“And the pictures were so beautiful, that you wanted to die,” said Veronica.
“I wanted to die long before we took the pictures.”
“What was that?” the psychiatrist said.
“All of the others,” I said. “The ones who’d followed me, everywhere since I was a kid. The voices and the faces that I couldn’t shake no matter how far I hitchhiked and doubled back. They wanted me dead. They harassed me until I bought the junk, enough to kill three people. I hid it in my backpack with the syringe and the spoon. Then they plagued me even more, to take it. Why aren’t you taking the goddamn heroin? End the pain, the pain. They wouldn’t let me sleep. I hadn’t slept for weeks, before we got to that shitty little town.”
“Tell me more.” The psychiatrist was leaning forward, greedily. “Tell me how they wore you down, how they whispered and tormented, how they surrounded you and made it impossible to escape.”
“They didn’t,” I said. “Not like that.”
“Tell me, every detail.”
“Tell him that I wouldn’t let you take the heroin,” Veronica said. “That you’re too dear to me. That’s all there was to it. I fought the others off. I protected you. That’s what this fool refuses to understand.”
“Veronica saved me.”
“Nonsense!” The psychiatrist began to rapidly tap his pen on his knee.
“He’s fishing for something,” said Veronica.
“She told me to dump the junk down a storm drain, and I did. The others shrieked at me not to do it, but Veronica told me that death always comes on its own to the patient heart. She protected me because she loves me, and I love her.”
“That’s impossible,” the psychiatrist hissed. “No one can love a hallucination. Now don’t you see why it’s our goal to cure you of all your false perceptions? You can’t live a normal life loving something for which there is no actual stimulus.”
“Yes you can,” Veronica said.
“Yes I can.”
“I’m increasing your medication,” said the psychiatrist. “And introducing some others.” He wrote furious notes.
“I won’t take it.”
“Then you’ll be punished.”
“Punished?” said Veronica.
“Punished?” I said. “Did you just say I’d be punished?”
“No. Yes, but I meant placed in isolation, for your own protection.”
“Veronica can walk through walls, doctor. You’re throwing pills at a fortress, and they’re just bouncing off.”
“This is noncompliance.” He spit the word out like a curse. His most dreaded enemy.
On Christmas morning, as the other patients lined up for their medication and Christmas stockings of mean charity, I was escorted, with my backpack, out of the building, through the courtyard and left outside of the gates in the falling snow.
A sour nurse had given me back my strip of photographs, and had me sign my Release. Veronica and I stood together on the road for a moment, and looked at ourselves caught in that long ago August moment; her smiling, and me looking tired and a little hopeless.
Then she stroked my cheek. “Merry Christmas,” I heard her say, as she slipped away.