The waiter retreated to go place the final order of the evening and the two young men from the corner booth walked out into the stale air of a summer evening. All the other servers in the building set about the task of cleaning up before closing the restaurant in little more than ten minutes, but Stella took no notice. Her gaze was fixed on the streetlight outside as she sat in a catatonic trance. She prayed she could drape unconscious to the floor, God put me out of my misery tonight.
Opposite her, her husband was engrossed in examining his napkin. He hadn’t actually spoken to Stella in months, but he’d strangle her if she ever told that secret; it was improper not to keep up appearances. Stella’s brain didn’t feel very proper; it spun and ached but yielded no coherent information to its one functioning section. She knew she should put no stock in anything that happened until the next day after seven drinks, but her husband had insisted upon another and another and another.
Her arm flopped like a dead fish to touch her face, suddenly wondering if she would find any tears, should she check. She gave a small smile and nearly giggled but couldn’t remember quite how. I must be very smart, she thought to herself because my brain is so very heavy. She leaned forward, prepared to share this with her husband. Ah, why bother? A new voice in her head every day, she believed, but always with the same inquiry like a different cop banging on her door every morning to ask the same question. She had no answers for anyone, least of all herself.
She woke up in the wrong place and was instantly aware that she was… groggy. Yes, that’s the word- she was groggy when she woke up. As if her brain had disagreed about the right time to wake up and the losing side was now being spiteful. Next, she noticed her whole body was cold and angry. Finally, she observed a restraint on each wrist. Wait- is that what they’re called? Soft restraints… that’s it, right? And then everything stopped.
I’m not alone, am I?
No, you’re not.
Who are you?
I’m the version of you that wants to survive.
There’s more than me here.
That’s right. No, you’re not alone.
“Good morning, ma’am,” trilled a voice that was all too high and all too loud. Too chipper, far too chipper for a morning in the real world. “I’m Nurse Kelly,” it continued without taking note of Stella’s complaints.
Squinting as if to get her bearings, she laid her hands flat on the bed. She felt as if her neck was about to snap from the pressure when she tried to lift her head, but Nurse Kelly put an end to it with authority.
“Oh no, ma’am, let’s not try to sit up just yet, shall we? Let’s just focus on getting lots of rest, how about that?” It sounded just fine to Stella, but she was still confused. She put her communications degree to good use with a universal request.
“The doctor will be in shortly, she’ll answer all of your questions. All you need to worry about is resting.” How am I supposed to rest if I’m worried about resting?
“Shortly” the doctor on call entered Stella’s room, which she’d figured out was on a high floor of a hospital. She had a cheery painting on the wall, but nothing else of interest. Her first question was, “Where’s my husband?”
“The police wanted to interview him about last night,” the tall brunette answered. She wore pink and had short cropped hair as if she was fresh from the military. A pager was clipped to her waist, announcing she was needed in at least thirteen different places.
“Why?” Stella demanded, with an almost indifferent surprise. Only later did she realize she was taken aback because she could never have expected that a man so seemingly dull would interest the police, not because she was concerned. For once in her life, Stella’s only fear was for herself. Oh God, what I did? No, that’s not the right way to say it. What did I do, did I do something?
“I take it back,” Stella declared.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that,” her doctor replied. “No one has the ability nor the right to undo what’s been done.”
“But I’m sorry. Doesn’t that count?”
“It’s good to hear, but it doesn’t change what you did. I might be out of work if people who were sorry didn’t still need care.”
“I’m alone, aren’t I?” Stella whispered as the thought struck her. Her husband had always said without him she’d be alone.
“Actually, you have a line of people waiting for the green light to see you,” the doctor told her, laying a hand on the bed’s railing by her patient’s head.
“I hate traffic,” Stella murmured without thinking. Laughter. Squeaky shoes leaving the room. A soft click of the door. WHAM! The door burst open.
“Oh, my goodness gracious, Stella darlin’, what’d you do that for?” a heavy sigh screeched. She only knew one person who talked like that- her college roommate. A sorority sister. No one spoke until the next person came in.
“Mom, you’re here!” she cried.
“Of course I’m here. You’re only my baby. Oh, hi Rachel.”
“It’s Michelle,” the Georgian drawl replied in cool response to her sister’s mother.
“I messed up, didn’t I?” Stella asked the frigid air between her two favorite women.
“You did something that better not happen ever again,” was her only reply. Mom merely let tears slap the hospital floor.
They each held one of Stella’s hands when her husband came in. None of them moved for a moment. There was a uniformed police officer by the door now. I really messed up. Why can’t I remember what happened?
“Ma’am, we assure you: you’re not in any trouble. We just want to talk to you about last night. But first, how are you feeling?”
Two detectives, who were evidently authoritative enough to walk all over an officer, were standing awkwardly in Stella’s room. Their beady eyes bore into her through the stillness. They’d cleared the room for this little Q+A, so now they were free to close in on their prey. One was a beautiful woman, the other a man blander than beige. They introduced themselves as Withers and Daniel, putting badges in her face as if she was supposed to sniff them like a dog to verify that they were good people.
“I’m confused. Groggy. Scared.”
“You don’t need to be scared,” Daniel said, giving her a look that sent fear into her mind. Withers walked around to the other side of the room.
“So, you know…” she began. “We’re obviously trying to get to the bottom of what incited last night’s incident. You’ve got a lot of people who care about you.”
Stella’s mind was blank. She had no answers, except that she could recall looking into a dark place and seeing a light loom far away.
“We talked to your mom and your best friend and, um,-” Withers fidgeted, leaving Daniel to take the baton from her hands.
“We’ve been talking to your husband, and he’s very upset, of course. He’s scared too. Now, we just wanted your side of the story.”
Stella shook her head. Deciding she had no story to tell felt wrong, but what other choice did she have?
“So, could you start with whatever you remember from last night?” Daniel asked, seeming to be under the impression that she needed an outline of her next words, but then again, that’s men in general with a woman.
“We went out,” she replied.
“You and your husband?” Withers prompted. “You went to a restaurant and bar four blocks from your home?”
“Yes. We sat at the bar,” she confirmed.
“He said you had a booth,” Daniel contradicted. Stella was no longer sure about the restaurant. She remembered now: oh, let’s no go out, I don’t feel like it tonight. Shut up and go get ready, we’re going out to eat.
“Yes,” she acquiesced distantly. “A booth. A small booth in the back, where it’s dark at night and sunny in the day because it’s right near the windows.”
“What did the two of you have?”
“We drank a bit. I wanted pancakes, he got soup. Smelled awful the whole night because of that soup, I swear it.”
“He said you got the same thing he did.”
“Well yes, he told me to get whatever he got, but I wanted pancakes. I couldn’t eat, you see, so it didn’t matter anyway.”
“Why no appetite?”
“My head didn’t feel right?”
“Something was wrong physically or emotionally?” Daniel inquired, already sounding bored with her case.
“Are you saying it wasn’t real if I didn’t have a tumor or something?” she snapped, aggravated for a reason she couldn’t really explain when she thought about it.
“No, of course, it was real, Stella. May I call you Stella going forward?” Withers answered gently. Ah, how kind, but I wasn’t asking you because you weren’t the one who asked if my problem was real or fake.
“Yes, of course,” she replied, keeping the eye contact initiated by Withers. “Something was wrong,” she explained, remembering how it had felt the night before.
“What was wrong?”
“Everything! It was all wrong, it was all wrong. Something was wrong, you don’t get it, it was all wrong.”
“Alright then, it was all wrong. We understand. Stella, is it wrong now?”
“No, no I would suppose it’s just fine right now.”
“Good, that’s good. Did you tell your husband it was all wrong?” Stella nearly laughed at the poor woman being so dumb.
“No, don’t you get it? We never talk about things.”
“I see. So when you felt that everything was wrong did you go home?”
“The joint closed.”
“Yes, it did. It closed for the evening at 11:00. Is that when you two left?”
“I think it was, yes. He wanted more and more so I just sat still, sort of mentally dozing off for a while.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding for no reason. “You were dozing?”
“I suppose so. I was very tired last night. I’m tired now. I’m always tired.”
Her head fell to face the opposite side, eyes seamlessly shut. She was still awake, keen ears fixed on the detectives.
“So what happened, Withers? Do you get this woman?”
“She threatened her husband with a knife and, when he backed away, she used it on herself instead. She doesn’t seem to remember much at all, but it’s clear her mental state was and probably still is somewhat disturbed. Come on, let’s go. We’ll check back later.”
Stella was no longer tired. Last night… there was a dark place with a bright light in it, far away and not a person around… she threatened her husband with a knife then used it on her own wrists. She touched her thigh, wondering if anyone had seen it. She shivered wildly over and over.
Light… knife… alone… blood. Blood! Blood, yes, she remembered it now. A vivid flash screaming in the haze of a lost evening. There was blood on the kitchen floor, and it was like watching a drained pool be refilled with clean water. Clean water- there was water on the floor too, but they’d run out of clean towels. There was blood on the floor last night and there were screams in the air. It was fuzzy and garbled as if someone had shoved the audio underwater, but her voice broke the surface. Angry, mostly anger. What have you done?
The screaming subsided. Sobs racked inside her brain and she longed for comfort but no one came to her side as she combed through snippets of nonexistent memories from the night before. Suddenly, she remembered the other sound. An excruciating sound that turned all the others to bubbles on the air. A slicing, grinding noise- metal against metal on metal. It sounded like the taste of blood, Stella concluded. She buried her face in a pillow, wondering if it was fair to cry. What right had she to shed tears today? The crimes of last night were hers. She didn’t have long to hide from her mistakes like a small girl.
“Detectives,” she heard her doctor call. “There’s something else I thought I should mention to you. About Stella. She has a scar on one thigh, no one seems to know how she got it, but I didn’t ask the husband. He’s more concerned with whether or not he’ll miss work tomorrow than with whether or not Stella will survive.”
“And will she?”
“Yes, I’m almost certain she will. But we all know a patient’s condition can change on a dime. Anyway, about that scar on her thigh. It’s old, maybe a year or so from now. Seems to have been made by something like a chef’s knife and I can tell it wasn’t treated properly.”
“And how was it treated, with a bandage or something. Oh good God, I hate it when doctors just shake their heads like that. Wait- did you say a chef’s knife? Like the knife Stella threatened her husband with and then used on herself?”
Oh is that what the official term is? Is he spending his day scrubbing blood of the very blade I scrubbed blood off of eighteen months ago? A big, bloody knife again.
I was screaming at him to stop, he shoved a pillowcase in my mouth. He stormed out of the room, I tried to scream when I saw the knife in his hand. He pinned me down. I cried and cried and cried, for weeks I cried. Bet he won’t shed a tear this time either. He just gets angry when he has to miss work. Oh no, I’ve made him angry with me again.
But for good reason. Stella had taken a blade to her own wrists. How could you do this to your husband? And you made your mother cry, I hope you’re proud of yourself. The more her mind cleared, the more her emotions set in. Guilt simmering below layers of anger pouring down from sky to earth with a burning sting. Confusion without borders and a box of cowering sadness hiding beneath the clouds. She remembered the most immense pain of her life radiating all throughout her body but it was now too numb to feel a thing. She thought it would make more sense if she did feel all that pain. It was hers to feel, her consequence to take, it was how it was supposed to be. Thinking of what she’d done, she allowed herself to cry all over the hospital pillow.
I can see it all, kid, you’re going places in life, you cannot just decide to… You can’t make that mistake, it’s a wound that can never heal. A wound that can never heal.