A Woman with a broken mind
It always begins with a black map that won’t stop stretching across the insides of your otherwise fair thighs. Soon your thighs start to rub against each other while the black map grows and darkens and threatens to take over the inside your thighs. Soon you start to imagine that since you cannot take your eyes off the bulge on each side of your hips when you stand naked in front of the mirror, no one else can. The grocery clerk must only be smiling at you because of the way you carry the extra in your hips. The man who asked you on a date and did not call back must not have called back because he realized how fat you were when he held the doors of the restaurant open for you. That Is how the black cloud descends, first a little fluff of black cloud when the black map comes, then a little more when you notice real and imagined faces staring at you and when you summon the courage to get on the scale and see the red hand move all the way to the right the cloud consumes you.
It is then that you befriend the gym once more. When you run on the treadmill you run as if for your life because you know that when you go home you will have a helping of cake. After that you will have many more helpings and you will look in the mirror. Disgusted at what you see, you will seat on the closed lid of the toilet seat, place the blue bucket between your laps and start vomiting into it. When you are done, you will scoop the vomit out of the blue bucket and watch it follow your pull reluctantly, like a scoop of okra soup being served. Then you will pour it into each square in the purple ice tray. You will then mix some mango juice and some vodka into each square in the purple ice tray, stirring them with your fingers and lifting the concoction to your lips for a taste. Then you will store the ice tray at the lower portion of the deep freezer in your garage; never the little freezer where your friends go to get drinks when they come. You can't be that careless.
Despite the ache from always thrusting your fingers into your throat, despite knowing that it is strange what you do, it relieves you, saves you even. In that moment when your whole face is lost inside the blue bucket and you have thrown up all the food and the stench starts to reach your nose you are at rest for just a little while. Relief fills you such that the stench of your vomit becomes a sort of healing aura.
After storing the ice tray in the freezer, you clean up the left overs from your breakfast of toast and slices of cake, dusting the breadcrumbs into the wastebasket. You wash the blue bucket until it no longer smells when you lift it to your nose, then you will pick up your lunch bag and head over to work. When you get into the building, you take the elevator to the second floor of the departmental store and it is there that you see Adolph waiting for you. He is wearing a green tuxedo and as always he looks like he is trying to wear high class while high class refuses to wear him.
“You have not been picking up my phone ...”
“And you thought you should come by my office didn't you?” you retort before he completes the sentence, unlocking the door of your office.
“I just wanted to see how you are doing,” he says, patting his hair and looking into the mirror in front of the children's wear section.
“Of course, you wanted to see how I am doing.”
“Mum has been asking of you. She says she wants you to visit.”
“But she doesn't know anything she says. She is old”
“I think you should go and say 'hello'.” The phone in your office rings just as you are about to reply.
“Okay, I will. I have to get to work though. Remember, I told you to always call me first.”
“Okay. How have you been though?” he asks.
“Bye,” you say and you pick up the receiver, with a smile that cannot wait to explode into an exuberant “hello.”
Working in the mall is not what you hoped for when you matriculated into college but it has been years since you actively loathed it. While you are not the rich businesswoman that you had thought you would be, you have risen from clerk to senior manager and rarely have customers take out their bad days on you. Today's customers are level-headed, the usual middle class professional trying on a few shirts and dresses on her lunch break and the sales girls who the managers trained in the art of pretending to give a damn. The small talk and the tense back-and-forth laughter between the sales girls and the customers on the ground floor float to your office while you sit down to write a report for the meeting with the head office on Monday. After lunch, you kill time until clock hits five p.m. You make sure that the registry is closed and that the sales ladies have cleaned up and then you lock up.
When you get home you sit by the fireplace with the intention to write. You hope that you will enter that world that takes over you when you write, that space that feels like wearing the insides of your self. The one time when you were younger and your classmates told the teacher that you had not been eating lunch with them, you ended up with a psychologist. She had given you some tests to take, and asked you how you felt about your family and your life and yourself. She asked to meet with your mother but before that she told you that nothing was wrong with you, that your mind was only broken. But when you write nothing is wrong with you at all, even your mind is not broken. It jumps to life and spurts out words and more words and soon, bliss.
You try to start writing that story that you have been full of but it still will not turn to words. You remember the Pakistani lady who had tried to teach you to write mindfully, so you try to free-write but all that comes out is the type of garbage that you tear up and throw into the bigger trash container in the garage, to make sure that it has no trace of existing. But you keep trying and throwing away until you eyes start drooping and you put your laptop down and lay down on the sofa by the fireplace. You think of Adolph’s visit and then of your mother, if to see her and when to see her. You decide, half asleep, to see her the next day and get it over with.
Most times, you fall asleep by the sofa because you like your bed to be well-made and sleeping on a well-made bed will make it badly made. You like the purple pillows fluffed just right and lined up at the top of the bed with the burgundy bed sheets stretched out until they are taut. You like the duvet to cover exactly half of the bed and to be folded sternly until the fold is sharp like the edge of an envelope. You let the bedsheets cover exactly a quarter of the bed, and let the ten pillows cover another quarter. When you are satisfied you smile at your work of art and let it be, unless it has been months and you think it is time for another change of beddings.
Making your bed reminds you of baking. It is also why you do not bake although you like baking. You do not have time to methodically measure each scoop of flour and butter and sugar. You prefer to watch it done by the experts on the food shows. You like to watch them cut off the flour at exactly nine hundred grammes and no more, and cut the almonds into perfect little pieces. When your mother baked it was always with no class, no style, no method. She would spill flour all over the kitchen and ants would gather everywhere, at the sink, on the floor, on the handle of the oven. She would then use the same napkin that she used to clean the grease to clean everywhere else, making more of a mess. Everything, even baking is high art when done by the right people, the rich people, the experts.
The following morning, the quick temperature drop in your house wakes you up. Snow was bound to be coming although it was warm just the previous day. You remember the budding flower that you had noticed on the sidewalk the previous day and how you had pitied it because it would not live much longer once the snow came. You fiddle around for the remote control for the fireplace and turn it on whilst rolling around to let the warm air get into the quilt.
You fall asleep again, this time dreaming of the yellow flower. You dream that instead of being outside in the cold it is in one of those decorative flowerpots in your house. In your dream the flower sprung amidst the other dead stalks in the flower pot, in a little and tight corner of the pot. You raised the flower pot quite ceremoniously and headed for the screen door of your house. But there was no screen door in the dream and so you walked right through, removing all the dead stalks from the flower pot until only the stalk with the yellow flower was left. You filled the pot with more water, mixed up the top soil and walked back into your house through the space where the screen door should have been, flower pot and yellow flower in hand.
You wake up from this dream in a much lighter mood and sit up as you remember it. It felt like this could be a good day. It felt different fro those days when your heart was heavy like lead and all you could do was lie on the sofa incapacitated, waiting for the lead to lighten and to release you to start your day. Today you actually get off the bed at a go. Even when you go to the garage to pick out the cubes of frozen vodka and mango juice and vomit, you are still light.
Even when your face scrunches up at the taste of the ice cube and you swallow down what would be pieces of old spinach that had once been freshly eaten, you are still light. You help yourself to more and more. It is the happiness that surrounds you, which almost makes your laugh at yourself that makes you decide that it would be a good day to pay your mother a visit at the nursing home. You think of calling Adolph so that you can go together but shake off the thought. First you will shower and brush your teeth and throw on your favourite dress, rub your favourite lipstick and slip into your newly ordered trench coat.
There is much more snow up in the mountains compared to your suburb. Salvation army volunteers shovel away at the entrance to the nursing home, with practical smiles on their faces. You walk into the front entrance and ask the volunteer at the door to see your mother. The volunteer, a young and exuberant woman with a name tag that reads 'Meredith' leads you through the hallway plastered with the sketches and paintings of the men and women who live there.
One catches your eyes and startles you. It is a naked body, an old man's naked body. The sign at the bottom left corner of it reads “naked I came into the world and naked I will go”. The volunteer notices you looking at the painting and she tells you how Pete died a month ago, one day after the painting was finished. She tells you how he painted it with this air of calm urgency and could not be distracted. When asked how he knew to draw his body with such detail despite being blind, he said that the spirit of his dead cat was guiding him as he drew, and that all he had to do was look at the cat to know what to draw. After Pete was done painting, he asked that the painting be hung up on the hallway and it was put there after dinner. That night, Pete went to bed happier than ever and never came out of his room to ask to be taken for his usual 5 a.m walk.
“His children never came to visit him but they came to make the burial arrangements,” Meredith says, smiling at you to imply that she is proud of you for coming to see your mother.
She leads you into the room and you see your mother's eyes light up when she sees you. Meredith gives her a hug, takes away her breakfast tray and pulls out a chair in the corner for you to sit. This is the first time you take a proper look at Meredith. You notice the pendant on her neck that looks like it means something but you do not ask her what it means. You notice her blue eyes that are as clear as something true. There is an earnestness to everything she does. Her lips are plump for a white girl and her simple clothes cannot hide the fact that she is gorgeous.
What ails her then, you wonder? What pushes her to volunteer at an old people's home? Is she looking for meaning? Is she looking to pay penance? You remember your psychology professor who said that the choices we make and the careers we end up in all bear traces of our demons. The professor’s demon was the death of his friend from brain cancer which he could never make sense of. And so he decided to teach 'The psychology of death and dying'. In the last class he wished you all 'a happy death, whatever that means'. As Meredith talks to you and you try to nod back and pretend to care you wonder if it is a need for control or to be good. You could see how that need to be seen as a good person might be her demon. It crosses your mind that it takes a lot of trust to walk around public places with people who you do not know, who pretend to be civilised, whose demons you do not know, just like they do not know the demons that ail you. All of you pretend and pretend quite well, to be well-adjusted people.
After Meredith leaves the room, your mother turns to face you fully, smiling. Her skin is still pale and she always looks older than you remembered but today she is happy. You ask her why and she points outside to the piles and piles of shovelled snow and asks you how you could have forgotten that she likes a white Christmas. You lie that you did not forget.
Now when she complains at things you forgot, when she is upset that you do not visit as much as Adolph, you do not feel your self-esteem crumble like it used to. You feel only pity as her raised fingers tremble to make a point. When she was strong enough to laugh a raucous laughter at you, to tell you all the things you didn't do right and how your life would amount to nothing, you would cry. Now you do not cry, you only pity her. The mother that haunted you, the one you hated, whose voice you heard every time the darkness dug its claws into you has died. What is left of her is a cute old woman.
If the person who inflicted the wound does not exist anymore, what does one do with the wound? Can you still pin your wound on them? Maybe the wound is your broken mind like the psychologist said. Or maybe the wound is simply that you are alive, that unlike the squirrels you and your mother watch run around the parking lot across piles of snow, you know you are alive. Being conscious of being alive is the gaping wound that life only throws more pepper into. That is why the doctor will make a lot of small talk when he comes in, and will act as if your mother is in good health and is not really in the nursing home to die. That is why he will talk about the weather with you for more than five minutes, because talking about the weather is better than listening to the terrifying sound of not only being alive but knowing it.
These days you have also been noticing the resemblance between you and your mother. Even though lines run through her cheek now, you can see that the curves in her cheeks are in the same places as they are in yours. Sometimes you even hear yourself talk like her and you wonder how close you will be to mothering like her if you eventually pull through with your desire to adopt a child. But not now and not soon. It has to be when you feel ready enough, whole enough, close enough to being a normal human being.
Your mum tells you of all the new people and fixtures in the nursing home. She tells you the man that tried to pull out his feeding tube the previous night. She tells you she would never do that. She tells you of Meredith and how beautiful she is. She tells you of the reading lamp they finally put on her desk and how she is now able to read when she cannot sleep at night. You nod and pretend to be interested. You have never really been good at small talk and even at work you are amazed at how excited pretend to be about the simplest things. You sometimes wish you cared.
Your mother lifts her eyes to look at you and you notice that you have been standing by the chair that Meredith pulled out for you. It is then you sit down to make it more comfortable for your mother to look at you. She asks about Adolph and you say he is fine, that you saw him the other day. She pauses, staring at your face. She studies your eyes and asks if you are okay. You say yes. She lifts her trembling fingers to your chin and asks you why you have all those rashes on your chin. You say it is just the change in your facial products. Even the way you try to respond casually fails you. You know she doesn't believe you and you wonder why she always knows when something is off. It makes you feel weak. She tells you that she hopes you have been eating well. You say yes. She asks you to wait and have lunch with her and you say okay, and you do.
As both of you eat in the cafeteria she stops to announce to everyone who makes eye contact with her that you are her daughter. They tell you how she cannot stop talking about you, how she shows them the pictures of you and Adolph. When both of you are done with lunch, Meredith offers to wheel her to the bedroom and you do not decline. As Meredith busies her with chatting, you rush to the toilet in the main reception and you stick your fingers down your throat and try to puke as silently as you can. The vomit does not flush properly so you cover the toilet with endless rolls of tissue paper and when you come out to see middle aged women waiting for to use the toilet after you, you tell them to find another one because that one is blocked.
When you get home that day you think of your mother and the way she looked at you, how happy she is to see you these days. Your mind then jumps to the thought of seeing a psychologist again. Maybe you should call a psychologist. You find the number of the one closest to you from Google maps. She seems nice and the blurb about her says she specializes in women with eating disorders that co-exist with depression. Her picture makes you think she is trustworthy.
Maybe her office will actually be inviting and not too formal and clinical. Maybe she will not make you feel like you are being studied, like the last psychologist did. Maybe she will make you feel like a human being, not a minority that she can then add to her expertise - high risk women, women of colour, ethnic women, so that she will come across as embracing diversity. You will give this a chance. You decide to skip the gym the next Monday morning, booking an appointment for then instead. You go to your fireplace and as you try to write you feel the urge to order a large pizza, but you don't. You go into your room instead, untucking the duvet as if it is a grand act of defiance. You sit on the bed, wrinkling your perfect bedsheets. The story that refused to turn into words comes to you in a craze and you jump up and dash to the fireplace to pick up your pen.
You will write a story about a woman like you – a woman with a broken mind.
Ebele Mogo is a doctoral candidate and practitioner in public health. Her writing varies widely and ranges from fiction, non-fiction to health, development and equity. She has previously been published in the following publications: Brittle Paper, The Stockholm Review, Modelview Quarterly, Saskatchewan Folklore Magazine, Africa at LSE blog, the Seattle Globalist, On Being blog, Inter-Artive, Poetry Potion, Kalahari Review, The Human Touch Volume 7, Pennwood Review, Sentinel Nigeria among other publications. She was one of the winners of the Forgotten Writers Women’s Domination Short Story Competition, and was shortlisted for the Flounce Non-fiction Award. She has a recent story published in The Jeli and poetry forthcoming in The Offing.