It probably won’t sound like it, but this is a love story. It starts during Christmas in 1985 at Birchwood, a long-term inpatient institution for people with what was broadly termed mental health disorders. The main building was a Gothic monstrosity that glared down from the top of a broad hill, staring down at the smaller units that housed children and teens sent there for depression, drug use, crimes, or just the fallout from abuse or neglect. Some were chronic runaways or truants; some were court-committed, lawyers having found some way for their young clients to avoid prison by going there instead. There were a hundred stories that floated around the place like the folklore of some private country that didn’t show on any map. Some sounded almost otherworldly and some too sad to tell. Most of them were true.
Christmas at Birchwood and there was a contest being thrown by the admin to boost the residents’ flagging morale during the holidays. The Adult Side, up on the hill, would compete against the Kid Side, where I lived, a much more modern building dubbed Cooper South. It was eight units (called Halls) that each housed six male and six female patients grouped by age with a tiny school underneath. The grand prize for the decorating contest was a pizza and a month’s worth of extra access to the vending machines.
No one on my hall gave a shit, not even me. But I was six months into my stay at that point and was sick to death of the place, my Level 4 on Privileges down to being restricted to the Hall because I’d tired of the constant needling, the living under some great eye, the buzzing locks and Lights Out and days at school so dull I’d started refusing to go at all. So getting busted to Hall Restrictions (HR) meant all day sitting at a table. No music. No TV. Just me in a silent standoff with the Day Shift, usually Jo, a mental health worker who stood by the counter smoking her long cigarettes and watching me. Arms crossed over my chest, slumped in my chair, I just stared back.
“You ready to talk to me yet?” she’d ask. I’d gone silent. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing more to say.
“Still not talking, huh?” she asked as she came in one day. It had been a week by then, I guess. I ignored her. Then, as she brought me my lunch: “This isn’t gonna end well for you.”
It was Bette, the occupational therapist, who first brought up the idea of the contest to me. Soon after I’d arrived at Birchwood, Bette was assigned to work with me one-on-one, because in groups of people I’d been labeled non-assertive with a tendency to isolate. They’d noticed that it was easier for me to talk if I were on my own.
Bette sat across from me at the Punishment Table a few times a week, checking on me. She said I must be miserable being so bored and started to bring me kits to make those horrible sun catchers, the unicorns and rainbows you filled with plastic beads that melted to a garish sheen in the oven on a cookie sheet. Then it was models of airplanes from World War II, then stacks of magazines and those little scissors they give you in kindergarten and glue to make collages she could analyze. I cut out trees, then the words Why bother? from a cleaning product ad, glued them down on the piece of poster board, and spun it around on the table.
“I really wish you’d talk to me,” she said as she left.
Finally, I guess she ran out of kits and magazines and brought the roll of butcher paper and pastels instead. She told me about the contest, said: “Maybe you can do something constructive with all these feelings you have right now.”
I just stared. Before this, I’d been living for years in a house with people who both despised me and who thought the best way to end an argument was to hold a gun to their heads. Bette just didn’t get it. I wasn’t full of feelings — nobody was home anymore.
A couple of days later, though, the boredom pushing me down like a hand, I tore off a page and started to draw Christmas Things. I wanted a Zagnut Bar, and this involved vending machines.
“You’re the worst fucking artist in the world,” Tom said the next day. He lived two rooms down from me at the drab, red-carpeted hallway’s end, doing six to nine months, like me. There for drugs and for saying he worshipped the devil, which was really frowned upon.
That morning Tom had punched a teacher and was now on HR with me. He took an interest in what I was doing immediately.
“What the hell is that even supposed to be?” he continued, pointing at a bell I was filling in with green. I picked up a pencil and wrote fuck you underneath. Then I grabbed the box of pastels and tossed it across the table at him.
Tom was a good artist. In fact, it was this that helped to seal his fate of a six- to nine-month stay after he drew a pretty remarkable version of Satan with a broadsword dripping blood during his initial assessment.
“Boy were you asking for it,” my roommate Tracey said later when he showed it to us.
Over the next week, he mapped out a plan to turn every one of the room doors into a scene from the story of Christ’s birth, the manger scene itself on the door to the Quiet Room (the seclusion room), and the rest covered with pictures of angels and the Magi and shepherds with their flocks, a desert landscape carried through each scene.
“Hey Tom, what are you gonna do when we send you back to school?” Jo asked him one day while we were stretched out on the floor on our bellies like two kids, coloring in the sandy hills behind the figures.
“Punch that dickhead Willis again,” Tom said. He didn’t look at her. “Fuck school, we’re gonna win.”
There were a lot of rules at Birchwood, hundreds of little paper-cut things that lost you privileges or money from your weekly Snack Kit. All swearing was fined, for example, but even that was further broken down, with fuck costing twenty-five cents and fuck you (an obscenity directed at someone) fifty cents. Tom’s response to Jo had cost him seventy-five cents.
Then there were the things that could affect your status and how long you stayed. Attempting suicide was a big one, as was planning or actually attempting to run away from Birchwood, which had no gate or fence. Cutting or other kinds of self-harm. Violence toward others was on the list, and so was having sex (expressly forbidden because it was a distraction from treatment). You couldn’t refuse to eat or bathe or sleep. You couldn’t refuse to communicate. All of these could put you on HR for a while — or worse — HR indefinitely.
All new residents were automatically on HR for two weeks because the shock of institutional living led many to run away. That’s how I met Connor, when they were short-staffed on his Hall (Five) so they punted him up to mine (Eight). Jo could thus keep an eye on the three of us together: the Violent, the Mute, and the Split Risk.
Tom eventually did have to go back to school, but we were mostly finished the murals by then so he was out of things to do and bored anyway. I’d decided to kill more time by cutting out cardboard Stars of David from poster board and then wrapping them in tinfoil. Bette got me the board and some fishing line (glad I was taking an interest in something), and my plan was to hang them from the hallway ceiling’s soundproof panels where the foil could catch the eternal fluorescent light.
So I was on my own the day the door buzzed open and shut late one morning and Connor walked in. Tall and skinny, Cure T-shirt and too many cheap silver rings. Worn black Chucks and androgynous with his thick black eyeliner. A garden-variety mid-eighties American Punk, right down to the sugar-water-and-Aqua-Net mohawk.
“At the table,” Jo droned to him, and he joined me. He smiled and said hi and I raised my scissors in a wave. He asked if he could have one of my cigarettes and I passed him the pack. I cut out stars as he smoked.
“You draw the pictures?” he asked, looking at the door coverings down the hallway. His voice was more gentle than most of the other punks. He was just asking — he wasn’t trying to stir shit up. I shook my head.
“You don’t talk?” he asked, leaning forward to look at me. This was the first time I looked at his face really close and I saw the scars then, raised white lines torn down his face, too uniform to be accidental. They were meant to look like tear trails; he’d even nicked the bottoms to make it look like the tears were still there.
I couldn’t help but stare. He stared at me staring, expecting me to laugh or say something about them. I didn’t want to laugh and I didn’t look away. But it was enough to make me break my silence to keep from being rude to him.
“I’m not talking to anyone,” I whispered, and the sound of my own voice scared the shit out of me after so long. I nodded toward the nurse’s desk, where Jo and Linda, one of the RNs, had their backs turned, chatting through the connecting door to Seven’s staff.
“Ah, gotcha,” he said, and he told me his name. I told him mine.
“What are you going to do with these?” He was sifting through the stars and I saw his fingers, also cut up like meat and healed, and pinned him now as not just a cutter, but a cutter who didn’t give a shit. Even though I didn’t know him yet, it made me sad. Those people usually ended up in a bad way.
Jo was looking at us now, so I just touched the spool of fishing line and pointed to the ceiling.
“Oh, cool.” He smiled, and the fact that he didn’t think it was dumb or make fun charmed me. “I’m taller — you want me to do it?”
Connor asked Jo if there was a ladder, and she called maintenance to bring one up, complimenting him on his good attitude for joining in. When it came, he put it at the far end of the hallway and I spotted for him, cutting off differing lengths of fishing line and taping them to the stars’ backs. Then he climbed up on the ladder and I handed them one of the stars so he could hang it.
“Like that?” He leaned back a little so I could see.
There it was, turning slowly in the central heating breeze, one small light in my dark sky.
We won the contest but we only the got the pizza, not the vending machines. Charlie threw a tray of food at Jo one afternoon and we all laughed.
“Enabling,” Jo snapped, pointing. “No more vending machines.”
Friday Night Dance, and Dave was at the record player playing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There was a group of punks and metal heads out on the dance floor trying their best to make a mosh pit, and Walt and Francis from Eight’s staff and George from Seven were out there breaking it up so that no fights erupted and no one got hurt.
Connor and I spent the dances on one of the couches, each on a cushion, our hands folded in front of us. Once I started talking again, we talked nonstop, parsing the music of The Smiths and Pink Floyd down to measure and note. We talked about The Thundercats. We both liked Weegee and Sylvia Plath.
“You two are some sad fucking Brains,” Charlie said as he passed, and Francis shooed him away, looked back at us.
“Don’t you pay him any attention,” he said. “You two are cute together. Just have fun and keep your hands to yourselves.”
Every other Friday it was the same. But by late January, the winter was cold and the conversation took its turn to colder things. His parents had divorced and his father was moving to Wyoming for a job. It was all happening too fast for him, and he worried, being there, how often he’d get to see his father from here on out. We wondered when and if we’d make it out of Birchwood, how our lives would go after this. We talked about what we were afraid of: the too-friendly terms we both seemed to be on with death.
Connor grew darker as the winter went on and on. I didn’t see him as much because we were both on HR a lot. He’d threatened to run away a few times, trying to get to his father. And I went silent again for a time and ended up first on HR then in the Quiet Room when my silence went on too long. I was left with sending him letters, sometimes giving innocuous ones in their sealed envelopes to staff to pass on to the staff of Five, knowing they’d be opened and read long before Connor got them. Other times I would use the Underground: give Charlie a letter to give to Paige in French class, who would pass it on to Frank in Government class who’d take it back to Connor on Five.
The letters I got in return, what was happening to Connor as his depression deepened, were like looking at a drawing someone was smudging with the side of his hand, making the picture fainter and fainter as he went. One letter he told me he’d started sleeping in the Quiet Room on request, that he lay on the floor all night looking at the moon through the grate, that it looked “like the whole sky was locked in a cage.” In another, he told me there had been a pier in the Outer Banks that he’d stood on with his father when he was a boy, and that when he thought of it now, the ocean looked like the land and the pier looked like the sea. One was all about how he was sure he was going colorblind, because when he looked at everyone and everything, it all looked “like newspaper print.”
The PC Stairs is what we called them, the PC standing for the forbidden activity of physical contact. It was a seldom-used stairwell that connected the teachers’ offices in the first-floor school to the Halls on Cooper South’s third floor. The staff seemed to think we didn’t know about it, but of course we did. It was an odd staircase, sort of freestanding and immense, with metal grating going all the way up it on the sides. Because of the grating and the height of it, it afforded one a bit of privacy if one wanted it. A lot of the couples did, risking the loss of every privilege and more time at Birchwood for ten minutes of sex on one of the landings during the fifteen minutes higher-level residents had to travel to school and back by themselves. It was our one private space, and we protected it well.
Connor and I spent a lot of time there early in his stay, just talking. He fingered his rings and handed them to me and I handed them back as he spoke, his voice soft and monotone and deep. When we were both on HR, I missed seeing him there.
By March, we were both back on Level 2 and found our way back to the Stairs. First time alone in a long time, and we just sat there in silence and holding hands while the time ticked down. I was so happy to see him, but he was thin and pale from HR and tray food. His hands shook.
“Do you still think about dying?” he asked.
It wasn’t what I expected him to say. “Well, sure,” I said. Back then I just thought everyone did.
“Are you scared of it?”
I shook my head. “No. Are you?”
“Well, don’t do it then,” I said. I shoved his upper arm with mine, but all lightness had gone from him.
I still recall the precise feeling of his hand with its Braille of scars. I remember how he sounded when he asked me to make him a promise, to swear it, and I said yes.
“Promise me that if I do it, you will too. I’ll make the same promise to you.”
I loved him so much. He looked bereft and afraid. Even then I couldn’t fathom a world without him, the shadow of him already over everything.
So I said: “Okay.”
We were running out of time. I squeezed his hand, rose, and left him there.
When I told a psychiatrist about this — and it took decades before I did — he got very quiet, then said: “You know that wasn’t a reasonable thing for him to ask.”
“You have to forgive yourself for both making the promise and for breaking it, okay?”
Dutifully I said I would, but I never did. It took until I was twenty before I wouldn’t wake up and think about it first thing every morning, as though I had somehow betrayed him again by waking up to another day.
When I miscarried my son four years later, as much as that devastated me, I felt that at least I’d given some penance. It was as though Connor, like some crow in my dreams, had carried the baby off like a Changeling in my place.
I was let go in late July and went straight into a college dorm, trying my best to just pick up and go on with this “new life” they said I now had.
I got the call from Tracey, still on Eight, in October. I had finally made a friend in college, a guy named Mitch, and he was in the room so we could go to eat when the phone rang. Tracey was crying. She told me Connor had run away, gotten a Greyhound to Wyoming, and found the house his father was sharing with his new girlfriend. Connor asked his father if he could stay, go back to school or work. His father told him no and to go home, that Connor could stay overnight but that by morning, he should be gone.
Like he always had, Connor did what his father said. He went into the garage before dawn, put his father’s shotgun in his mouth, and blew himself away.
When Tracey finished telling me, when I told her I was all right, I hung up and told Mitch I wasn’t going to dinner after all, that a friend had died and I needed to be by myself.
My roommate was gone for the weekend and for two days I didn’t leave that space. I sat in the corner on the floor next to the air conditioner. I didn’t eat or sleep. I cried and smoked. I listened to The Smiths and The Cure. I sat there with a double-edged Blue I had for one whole night because I couldn’t fathom letting Connor down. I pictured him off somewhere just out of sight, waiting for me.
Near dawn, wired and lost in some fundamental way, I was left with just two words — live and die.
I put down the blade.
Because I’d been given a straight discharge and a clean bill of physical and mental health, I was allowed to return for three visits with the staff. We could stretch the visits over six months, but once we had the third visit, we weren’t allowed to go back. The staff members were forbidden from seeing us off the grounds, from having contact. So three times and that was it.
I used two up before Connor’s death, my new life a huge adjustment after so much time living in an institution, which is much harder than most people think. I had planned on saving the last. But after Connor, after I couldn’t truly surface after it for weeks on end, I needed to talk to Sarah. She was both the Head Nurse of Eight and the wisest woman I’d ever met.
Back on the grounds, I walked the long road beneath old trees toward Cooper South, the way as familiar to me as the road to a childhood home might be. Sarah buzzed me in and I pulled up the stool that sat by the payphone and put it in front of her, the counter of the nurse’s station separating us, our traditional place. She leaned back with her Virginia Slims, with her strange blue eyes that had always looked at me and seen everything.
“This is number three,” she said, and I nodded. “Pretty quick going through them, I think.”
“I know,” she said. “I know that’s very scary. I know it’s hard on all of you when something like this happens, and I know this one’s particularly hard for you. But just because it happened to him doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you.”
I wanted to tell her about the pact we’d made. I wanted to ask her how to get out of it, how to stop feeling the way I did. I wanted her to absolve me in some way, to release me from its terrible weight. I wanted her to tell me that by living, I’d done the right thing.
Instead I just sat there.
“I won’t see you after this, will I?” I said. I hated that I was crying.
“No, you won’t,” she replied calmly. “But you’re okay. We made sure of that. You may not have us in front of you anymore, but you have everything we taught you and everything you taught yourself. For your whole life. And you’re going to make it. You’ve got you and that’s a lot, and you’re going to be all right.”
I could tell from her voice she needed to believe it. She needed me to not be Connor. She needed me be all right. And more than death or absolution, in that moment I knew I just wanted to be what she wanted me to be: alive and good and strong.
“Time’s up,” she said, glancing at the clock, still smiling. Those words were how every conversation we’d ever had ended. So I got up and I wiped my eyes and did as I was told. She walked me to the door, buzzed the lock to open it.
“You’re okay,” she said again as I swallowed and swallowed. “You’re going to be okay.”
I nodded. I would do as she said. This is a love story, after all, and that’s what you do for people you love. Even then, that last day, standing at that door.
“Go on,” she said, hand soft on my back, and I did, and true to my word, I’m here. Still. And true to her word, I never saw her again.
Wynn Chapman is a poet, essayist, and songwriter. She lives with her partner in Kentucky. Selected by Vanessa Martir.
 All names have been changed.
image copyright Satpreet Kahlon.