I was scared and alone. Unbathed with unbrushed hair, a mouth that tasted like rot and a tongue that was heavier than a corpse. It had taken only six hours to admit me to the hospital, but it may as well have been six years. It was evening now, and my family had just left. I was twenty years old, and it was my first time overnight in a hospital. I didn’t know how long I would be there for. My eyes burned from the tears.
The psych ward looked different from the exaggerated scene movies had put in my head. It had an open plan—nurse station in the center, bedrooms and activity rooms lining the circular perimeter. There was just one entrance that was locked from both sides to keep patients where they were meant to stay, and my room was the first on the right from this door. My roommate was nice. She spoke to voices in our shared bathroom.
You found me recovering from my first of many panic attacks. A fellow patient had approached me moments after my admittance and enthusiastically invited me to an art project she and the others were going to work on later. I agreed. When she saw me an hour later kissing my girlfriend goodbye though, she apparently changed her mind. I heard her shouting homophobic slurs in her heavy Russian accent, saw her circling the nurse station and jabbing pointed fingers toward my door. The hulking male nurses had to tie her down and sedate her. She was now silent in her locked room.
You approached from behind the cheap leather chair I was curled in. My eyes were bloodshot but dry. Cheeks red from shame and nervous excitement. We were in the only short hallway that branched from the ward’s circle. My chair faced the only two windows in the ward. They were barred.
“I see you found Florida,” you said. Your melodious voice was powerful yet gentle at the same time. I jumped. You apologized.
I didn’t look directly at you, but I could see the seafoam green scrubs from the corner of my eye. Your short sleeves were rolled midway up your bicep, and I watched your hand absently rub at the skin just beneath. You distributed your weight evenly between spread legs that stood solid as a mountain; your breathing was controlled and steady. “I like it here,” you went on, regarding the only patch of sunlight to be found on the entire floor. “I come here when I need to get warm. When I need to relax.”
I nodded. I was frightened, but appreciative of your reaching out. I didn’t know how to express my gratitude. I didn’t know how to handle any of what was going on. The beeping and whispering and banging and screaming that made up the chorus of the ward was enough to send me into sensory overload. The nauseating florescent lights that beamed down on me like the heat of the sun made me want to close my eyes and sleep until I could leave. My skin felt grimy and sore, and the emptiness I held in the cavity of my chest was too much for me to speak through. So all I did was nod.
There was no way you could have known any of this, and yet you acted as though you were conscious of it all. Maybe you had just seen one too many kids like me. You moved to stand beside me, but not too close. You crouched so that your calm, brown face could look into my distressed, pale one. Your large, dark eyes surveyed what little you could see through the glass and I noticed the corners of your mouth were upturned in a subtle smile. “You’ll be gone before you know it.”
This surprised me. I had never had anyone in the many hospitals or doctor’s offices I’d been to talk to me like that. Most of the therapists are kind but distant. I get interrogated about pills and sleep schedules; I’d never had a conversation. “Gone?”
You gestured to the ward behind us. “You won’t have to stay here long. I can tell.” You didn’t make too much eye contact, which was all the better for me. I felt myself relax somewhat in my chair. “You don’t belong here.”
I looked out the window with you. I felt, suddenly, like I could hear Florida. The medical equipment and intermittent crying that sounded behind us faded away. I heard the hot, heavy wind blowing around us; the gentle waves lapping onto the sunny Daytona beach; the scurrying of anoles along the scalding pavement before they disappear into the leaves and grass.
“I can tell,” you repeated, rising to your full height once again. “You just take your time, rest, and get better.”
You smiled. I smiled. It felt good to smile again after so long. I wouldn’t smile again until long after I had returned home, but when I did, I thought of you. In the middle of the night, in my own bed, sweating because I thought it was time for the nurses to take my vitals. When the flashbacks reached me, and instead of panicking over terrors of the past I’d be comforted by how you believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. And years later, when the only memories I thought I had left of that place were bad, I would think of you and cry because you had been the nicest part of that hospital stay.
“Enjoy Florida.” It sounded like a joke, but I knew you meant it. You walked back to the nurse’s station and I stayed by the window for a few more minutes before returning to my room.
I didn’t see you again after that. I slept a lot and must have slept through your shifts. But every now and then, when I’m scared and alone, I see your smiling face in my mind and listen to the sounds of Florida.
Kethry Bentz is a student at Central Connecticut State University
Headline Photo credit of Emma Warshauer