By Helen Beer
Lavender. It was meant to have a calming effect on residents, the director had explained when Dorothy first toured these hallways five years earlier. She’d always thought the wall color dull, monotonous, institutional—anything but calming. But her daughter’s neurologist had said it was the best possible facility for Barbara’s long-term care; he’d pulled strings to get her admitted. And then he removed himself, allowing the facility’s chief psychiatrist to take over the case. The MRIs showed normal brain activity; Barbara was awake, technically, but not engaged.
“Barbara, sweetie, I’m here. Sorry I’m late. Traffic was a bear on the 405. Today is Wednesday, November 2, 2016. I’m checking it off on the calendar.”
Another white lie; Dorothy had told many over the years, to protect her daughter from inconvenient realities. She’d been late because her ex had called as she was walking out the door. He wanted to make sure she knew the other boy, technically a man, had been released from incarceration.
‘I’m just glad you’re here now, Mommy.’
“Do you mind if I turn on the TV for a few minutes? There’s supposed to be a press conference. Jane Doe’s coming forward publicly for the first time.”
Current events offered a connection to the outside world that hadn’t stopped moving forward. Dorothy flicked on the remote.
“Alright, let me just brush your hair a bit. Do you want to look in the mirror?” Tactile contact. Reestablish trust. Show the effects of time’s passage.
‘No. I don’t recognize that person. That’s not me.’
“Oh, no! She’s had death threats. The press conference is off.”
‘It’s understandable. What did you expect?’
“Damn. I was hoping this would be the final nail in Trump’s coffin. Okay. I’m turning off the TV now—I just can’t stand the news anymore.” She flicked off the remote.
‘He’ll win. These guys always do. Who would believe her word against his?’
“So, your dad says he’ll try to come Sunday…”
Yet another white lie. He’d said he probably couldn’t come.
‘Like he was going to try and come last Sunday, and the Sunday before that, and…’
“You know, his travel schedule is just so hectic, and his new wife really demands his time on weekends.”
His new wife was ten years older than his own daughter.
‘And his daughter is a non-verbal ‘vegetable,’ right?’
Be positive. Stay focused. Make the necessary excuses and move on.
“Hey, I just ran into Josh in the hallway, by the way. He’s such a nice young man, such a good, loyal friend. He was heading out for a smoke but said he’d be back as soon as he finished. I’m almost glad I was running late, it gave me a chance to see him.”
He was the only friend who still came to visit; everyone else had a life after high school graduation.
‘He was there. He didn’t stop it. He could have, but he didn’t.’
“Here, let me put a little lipstick on you. It’ll give your face some color. You were always so pretty. I mean, you’re still so pretty.”
Gymnastics star. Honor student. Pretty. Popular. Anorexic. Alcoholic.
‘No. No. No.’
“Oh, honey, don’t make that face. It’s just a nice, soft pink. Nothing too gaudy.”
‘God knows I wouldn’t want to look gaudy for Josh, now, would I?’
“There you go. Oh, it’s such a flattering color on you. It really sets off your complexion. I’ll just bet Josh agrees.”
Twenty years old. Enclosed in these lavender walls for five years. Both boys responsible, tried as adults, now free. Yet Barbara remained locked behind a door no one knew how to open.
‘Because I need his approval?’
“Oh, hey, Josh. We were just talking about you. Doesn’t Barbara look pretty?”
“Yes, ma’am. She does.”
‘Was I pretty that night, Josh? Was I pretty when I was drunk out of my mind? Was I pretty when Charlie and Andrew raped me? Did my lipstick shade set off my complexion that night? Was it flattering, or just a bit too gaudy? And how about my clothes? Were they flattering to my 15-year-old body that night? Did my sweater hug my perky breasts just so? Were my jeans just a little too tight? Did they accentuate my tiny hips and athletic ass? And why the hell do you keep coming here? I don’t need you now. I needed you then.’
“So, Josh, tell me, are you still working at Best Buy? Still doing the Geek Squad thing?”
“Yes, ma’am, yes, I am. I made assistant manager last month.”
Everyone else quit; everyone else moved on. The position was Josh’s by default. In spite of his multiple misdemeanor possession charges. In spite of the alcohol on his breath.
‘Drop it, Mom. Yes, he’s a grown man, still working a teenager’s job. It’s like he’s frozen in time, just like me.’
“Oh, that’s great! That’s a lot of responsibility. Big congrats to you!”
“Uh, thanks. It’s really not that big of a—”
“Oh, but it is, Josh. You’re being too modest.”
“Mom. Please stop!”
“Oh, my God! Josh, go get the nurse! Tell her Barbara spoke!”
“Josh, please go get the nurse. Now!”
Josh left the room. He wanted to run to his car. He needed a drink.
‘Yes, Josh, go. Go tell the nurse I’ve spoken for the first time in five years, to keep my mom from humiliating you any further. Okay, Josh? Can you do that for me? Or are you just going to stand there? After all, that’s what you do, isn’t it? Oh, wait. This time you’re getting help?’
“Josh—Josh was there that night. He watched. And did nothing.”
It turned him on. If he couldn’t have her, he could watch others take her.
“What? No. Oh, honey, not our Josh. You must be mistaken. He’s been coming here longer than any of your other friends. He’s…”
“Feeling guilty. And I need new friends.”