Helen Keller, Radcliffe College graduation photograph, 1904 [Source]
I meet a Stranger who speaks to me and what I remember I write down on a matchbook and it’s a number. Which makes no sense so I turn it into a joke that I tell no one, reduce what happened to a funny story I only tell myself in order to diminish the confusion and fear I can’t afford to feel back then, in New York, in the early 80s. Remarkably, it isn’t hard to do. “Oh look,” I say, whenever 1904 shows up, as it does, frequently in the form of a year, although occasionally as part of something else, an address or serial number, a license plate. Look for anything long enough and you’ll find it. Oh look, my lucky charm, my lucky number. This much I could share, with Skip, with friends. “George collects them, you know, he’s the Franklin Mint of numbers, collect them all, the more obscure the better.” Cary Grant born in 1904. Cecil Beaton, Christopher Isherwood, Nancy Mitford. Madame Butterfly premieres in 1904, Peter Pan, The Cherry Orchard. A game is born.
An easier solution might have been to stop drinking, but instead I drank more, now to protect myself from these ‘fits’ or ‘spells’ of losing time and talking to mysterious strangers who disappear, and the nightmares in which I am falling and have to force myself to wake up to find I am still falling. I didn’t stop drinking; I went into therapy. And at least I began to pay attention to what was happening, from a distance. From someone else’s point of view. I started to keep a journal. I began composing a narrative.
“You saw horses on Christopher Street,” Dr. Sullivan asks tentatively, the active listener, rephrasing, redirecting my words back to me. Arnold Sullivan. Fireplug short and bow-legged like a wrestler or an action figure doll. Arnie, I decide, his friends must call him. But Annie to me. Annie Sullivan and I am his Helen, his blind child, his little deaf and blind girl trying to spell water, Annie at the pump, helping me connect words to my experience, Little Arnie’s Orphan. This is the first time I’ve done therapy if I don’t count college and high school counselors and free clinic clinicians, which I don’t; they had no idea what they were doing then because neither did I.
“I didn’t see them, I smelled them,” I explain to Annie. Dr. Sullivan.
“You smelled horse shit.”
“Okay, yes, I think so, yes. Also what might have been a Model T.”
“An old Ford.”
“You smelled it, or you saw it?”
“Not exactly. I mean, both?”
“I’m trying to understand. You didn’t see an antique car on – ”
“I felt it. No, that’s not what I mean, I mean I could see it but not see it. I mean – sorry.”
We play at this some more and then Dr. Sullivan sends me to a psychiatrist who gives me prescriptions of increasingly colorful complexity and side-effects and I am on my way, oh boy am I ever, off I go. I don’t remember his name but at the time I called him Dr. Kansas because we already had a medical doctor, Dr Montana (it’s true, you can’t make up something like that) and I told Skip Dr Kansas was going to put me in a different state of mind, pun intended, not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. And what Dr Kansas did was prescribe something to calm my nerves, then to help with the depression and the lethargy and then the crying jags and the memory loss and then the inability to stay awake and then the inability to fall asleep, and then the panic attacks and yes, I probably should have mentioned I was polishing off a fifth of scotch a day, but like I said, some things are nobody’s business and better kept private. Like writing messages in code to myself on matchbooks, in bars.
“What do you mean, you fall.”
“I don’t really.”
“You mean you feel like you are falling?”
“You feel like you are falling.” I repeat his words. I didn’t actually know I was doing this until afterward, after the drugs, after the … after a lot of what I’m telling you here now so I don’t want to get ahead of myself except to say it was around this time I began echoing. “You echoed,” my friend Rose told me, years later.
“Yes, as in, ‘How are you?’ and you would whisper ‘How are you,’ and then you would say, ‘oh, I’m fine.’”
“Yes. You would quietly repeat what was said to you. It was vaguely dramatic and quite weird.”
“It was a dark time.”
“It was a dark weird time indeed,” observes Rose, agreeing.
It was a dark and weird and low time. Literally. The drugs lowered the ceiling on the world. I started having to duck to get through doors, stooped over when I stood up, turning on lights in the middle of the day because it was dark at noon, dark so early, all the time.
The falling got worse. Not yet Falling, as in an actual state, a phenomenon, but something messier. Nightmares, and sleepwalking. One especially bad night I had to wake up Skip by knocking on the apartment door. I didn’t have my key and I was outside in the hall and I was naked. “You need help,” he observed, once I was back inside and wrapped in a blanket and feeling remorseful and stooped and being scolded, sitting on the couch in the dark because it was the middle of the night and actually supposed to be dark and I couldn’t turn on a light and understandably Skip was unwilling to put up with this sort of behavior. You need help, I thought, whispered, echoed, repeated. I said I was getting help by seeing Arnie Sullivan.
“More help,” he advised. “Better help, I don’t know what or where or from whom but not me. I can’t do this anymore.”
I could hear the distress and something like panic in his voice. I could feel the distress and panic in myself. I remember noticing then how thin he had gotten, how much weight he’d lost and I knew he knew I’d noticed and was daring me, threatening me with his eyes not to say so. It was the early 80s, have I mentioned that? I don’t remember the early 80s very well but I remember this, I remember Dr Montana saying, in that very room, “We don’t know what it is, we don’t know even know what to call it, what, Gay Cancer? GRID? What the fuck does that even mean and even if we knew we have nothing to treat it with.” There aren’t any drugs that will help you forget that, no drugs that will help you un-see and un-know. I had tried. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. Skip was right. I did need help. We all did.
Yesterday, now, here, far away from that time and technically speaking, into the future as it were, a friend calls, someone still left who knew me in those days, and knew Skip. Someone who remembers what it was like. “What it was like,” he says long distance, driving somewhere in the snow (it is always snowing back East) and me at the kitchen window, watching the burgundy bougainvillea wave at the bright sun, “with you and Skip – because you knew all these references, you’d read all those books, you were collecting something – ”
“1904 references,” I explain. “It’s a long story.”
“Right, and I had no fucking clue what you were talking about. Honey, I felt so stupid, trying to keep up. All these books I hadn’t read and people and… I felt like I was Helen Keller with Annie Sullivan, trying to spell water.”
“I know the feeling.”
“But now here we are, and finding you on Facebook, and all these years later.”
“All these years later,” I echo.