Read Songs Only You Know Online

Authors: Sean Madigan Hoen

Songs Only You Know (27 page)

BOOK: Songs Only You Know
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“Are you rolling?” Caitlin said. “Your eyes are all weird. Why are you grinding your teeth?”

Hearing this sobered me for an instant, realizing my sister could identify ecstasy’s teeth-gnashing effects.

“No way,” I said. “I’m drunk. We’re Irish, you know?”

She took a seat on the couch as I continued a soft shuffle about the living room.

I did the Travolta. I fluttered my hands, clacked my heels. The funk was still thumping when Lauren showed up with a
HAPPY NEW YEAR
badge pinned to her sweater. Caitlin had asked Lauren to meet her at the apartment—for what purpose I had no mind to consider. A year had passed since I’d seen Lauren, yet without a word I took her hand, prancing to the backbeat as she shimmied along, smiling as if nothing had changed. The
tenants below arrived home to pound on their ceiling, but the music was in Will’s hands.

Lauren and I grooved awhile longer, until the wallops beneath the floorboards began rattling the windowpanes. Then she headed toward Will’s bedroom to see about the noise while I sat beside Caitlin, petting her shoulder with an undivided concentration.

“Something bad happened,” she said. “I just wanted to see you.”

Christmas had been unmemorable in an alleviating way. Easy. We needed to keep everything smooth and easy, but Caitlin curled into herself and began crying hard.

I actually don’t know what I said next, or how long we carried on that way. By morning, Lauren and Caitlin were gone. Will and I awoke spooned on my mattress, dressed in ski hats and winter coats, and throughout the apartment every window had been opened wide. Apparently we’d decided that an evil had been turned loose; our only hope had been to cleanse the air as we lay shivering beside each other, awaiting the first light of the century.

T
WENTY-THREE DAYS LATER
, I walked into Oakwood Hospital’s psych ward with only a book to offer, an Oscar Wilde novel Angela had given me for my birthday, encouraging me to read. Will said of dud records that they made him “throw up in his mouth,” and I’d lasted mere pages with
Dorian Gray
before feeling similarly. Yet of the books on my narrow shelf, it seemed most precious, the safest one to hand Caitlin as she lay in a hospital bed on suicide watch.

“These people are terrible,” she said, giving the novel a courteous once-over.

If she in any way expressed relief at seeing me, I do not
remember. Others things are crystalline, but not that. Though I wasn’t surprised to be there, or couldn’t feel the surprise, and whether that was a mistake or a failure or a lapse of heart, it was the worst of my life. “You might like …” I said, yet to speak a full sentence. I meant the book.

It was a late-January afternoon. I’d just punched out at the rug shop. The night before, Caitlin had swallowed a month’s worth of her antidepressants and passed out in her car after calling Mom, who’d rushed her to the ER in time to have her stomach pumped. Mom had been at my sister’s side all morning. Dad was the one who’d called me, saying, “Your sister. I don’t understand.”

Hospital policy was that attempted suicides were to remain under psychiatric evaluation for two weeks. Caitlin would spend the days lounging in a paper gown, doing arts and crafts and group therapy with junkies and neurotics. Needles stuck out from her hairless arms, held in place by strips of surgical tape. Bags of fluid dangled from a rack next to her bed. Her heartbeat was displayed on a monitor that glowed silently above, but I saw no dark circles beneath her eyes or any obvious signs of agony.

“Everyone here’s a freak,” she said, when I hugged her. “Can you get me out of here?”

I felt her shame and her near-total surrender to it. A shy, becoming twenty-year-old girl locked in a nuthouse that demanded she announce her every trip to the restroom. Only later would I consider the mealtime slop being served or what crossed my sister’s mind as she showered, her nightly routine, before laying her head against the hospital pillows.

“These doctors walk in with their students,” she said. “They talk about me like I’m not right here in front of them.”

The supremacy of doctors—I still trusted that they must know what’s best.

“Can you relax?” I said. “Get some sleep?”

“Sleep,” she said. “You try it here.”

She then went on to tell me what had happened on New Year’s Eve. That a friend’s brother had dragged her into the bathroom at a party and sexually assaulted her. Caitlin spoke in an even tone, as if reading aloud a police brief, warning someone that life was full of danger.

“Who?” I said. “What friend?”

“I don’t ever want to see them again.”

I kept a gentle voice, prodding her until she explained that two days earlier she’d finally confronted the guy and his sister, Sheila, who for the past year she’d been calling her best friend. Sheila had eaten dinner at Mom’s house. She’d taught Caitlin how to dress for the clubs and made her tapes of booty rap, club bangers. Nice enough, but I’d never had much to say to her. One of those Dearborn lost girls who seemed beyond the scope of my social graces.

“I just wanted an apology,” Caitlin said.

Sheila and her brother had thrown Caitlin out of their house.

They’d called her a liar.

“They had the audacity to yell at me.”

Whatever her troubles, my sister was not oblivious. In a way she saw things too distinctly and felt them too immediately, without filter, without defense. So susceptible to heavy feelings that she was bound to endure many, sometimes at the hands of people whose nature it was to prey on all things fragile. Her face wasn’t sufficiently angry, just burdened, like she’d been told it was entirely her fault for letting people treat her this way.

“But what happened?” I said. “Tell me what happened.”

Months later, I’d investigate the incident from numerous angles and be told that Sheila’s brother had pulled Caitlin into a bathroom, that he may or may not have shoved her to her
knees. Unzipped his fly, wagged his thing in her face. Almost certain is that a crowd of drunken Dearbornites gathered at the stall door, chanting, “Suck it!” Mom would tell me that Caitlin had described the way her heels slipped across the bathroom’s tile floor as she tried to struggle free—a detail that would become the crystallized, indisputable bit of evidence I’d cling to when I began stalking Sheila’s house in the early morning, devising ways to murder her brother without being caught.

In the hospital, Caitlin elaborated no more than to say the guy had done something “messed up.” When I said the word “rape” she said, “No, he’s just a jerk because his mother left when he was young.” I didn’t yet know his name or what he looked like, only what I’d heard: he was a trained boxer and a male stripper across the border in one of Windsor’s male entertainment clubs. I knew Caitlin had bought him a gift that Christmas and that her checking account was overdrawn.

“Sheila wasn’t even there,” she said. “She was off with some guy.”

A nurse observed us, seated feet away, half engaged with a magazine. She appeared to be assigned to Caitlin. A privacy curtain hung on metal rings, clamped to a track in the ceiling, separating us from the activity of the ward. The lights were dimmed. If there were windows somewhere, you couldn’t tell. Other people were nearby, but I couldn’t see them—could only hear their shoes clomping on the linoleum. The sounds of footsteps and televisions surrounded us. Who in their right mind would get well in a place like that?

Caitlin said, “I just want to start over.”

“You can,” I said, having no idea what that meant.

But I knew it wasn’t just New Year’s Eve that had delivered her there. Trouble sniffs out people who are lost the way we were; or else we’d marched toward it, expecting to find ourselves.

Caitlin had gone pale, or I’d just noticed.

I’m not sure I even took her hand in mine, which is the kind of thing you spend the rest of your life trying to forgive. What did I know, barely twenty-two? Absolutely nothing about anything in that very moment, or what the moment itself meant.

I said, “I love you.” I said, “You just have to make it through.”

Caitlin looked anywhere but at me.

My senses were shot—the adrenals, the emotion cells. Just then I was vaguely sober, but there’d been a hazy run since New Year’s Day. Instead of calling Caitlin that first morning of the century, I’d met a dealer at 7-Eleven. My wonky eye had snapped back to form, but ever since, my face had felt like mashed tinfoil. There was a sickness in my mouth that could not be rinsed away. A few days into the millennium, a pain vibrated through my chest, radiating up my neck as my organs ceased manufacturing whatever mojo I needed to be sane. I’d wedged a chair beneath my doorknob so that Will and Andrew wouldn’t catch me bawling with an unspecific dread that felt as permanent as the sky. I’d driven to see Angela twice, to hide in her bed. I’d slept five hours at a rest stop on I-94. Nothing had helped until I saw a doctor at a walk-in clinic, who, with a glance, wrote a script for a tranquilizer called Ativan. Enough of those, and the days had passed as dreams, because the thing about being in a spin like that is how quickly the world blurs on by like some bogus marvel you’d had no desire to see.

“Are you all right?” Caitlin said.

“Me?” I said. “I’m always all right.”

Standing beside her in the psych ward, I remembered little about having been alive the past weeks. And I’ll never recall exactly how I left my sister in Oakwood Hospital, or where I went next, only that she sat propped on a stack of thin pillows, thanking me for the book.

W
HEN
I
ENTERED THE
rug shop the following morning, there was a look I’d never seen before in the eyes of the General’s wife. She hovered near the doorway, her dainty figure electrified as if expecting a visit from a saint. She stammered through our routine: “Good morning, how are you?” Then she walked to her desk and sat down. Will wasn’t around. He must have been on delivery with the General.

“Your mom’s friend called,” she said. “There’s been a change in your sister’s status.” She began twiddling with a spool of new thread. “She said to stay put. She’s coming to pick you up.”

Mom had never been inside the rug shop, let alone called me there. Someone must have gone to the trouble of looking up the number, which even I didn’t know. All of which was strangely wrong, because for what ridiculous purpose would I need to be chauffeured anywhere on any occasion?

“Is she all right?” the General’s wife said.

“It’s her heart.” Our euphemism for Caitlin’s past attempts. “She has a condition.”

I was out the door.

Oakwood Hospital was a couple miles from the rug shop, across the street from Stout Middle School where Will and Caitlin and I had done time. I’d skipped class to steal desserts from Oakwood’s cafeteria. Caitlin had been born at Oakwood; I’d had hernia surgery there before I knew my name. Pulling into the hospital driveway, I couldn’t imagine what change could have taken place. Yet I was familiar with the emotionless calm spreading through me. Behaving with a mind of its own, my car circled the block-long complex twice before the visitor parking area loomed ahead.

From here you could see the building my dad worked in: an old engineering compound surrounded by a cement fence, the slope of a Ford Motor test track rising above the barricade across
Oakwood Boulevard. He’d driven Caitlin and me up that hill in a premarket Thunderbird; his crew had been updating the car’s transmission system. He’d gunned the engine, handling the machine as if he’d scrapped it together by hand, Caitlin and me cheering as he hugged the track’s corners.

Dad walked into the hospital not long after I did to find me wandering the hallways in a panicked search. Caitlin had been moved from the psych ward. I hadn’t wanted to ask for help, but Dad badgered the staff as though every second mattered, shouting, “Where’s my daughter?” He wore a suit, was sweating around the collar. Seeing him in a jacket and tie allowed me to cling to the sense that there was still order, an official procedure.

We were led to an elevator, then into a conference room where Mom was seated at a roundtable of nurses and doctors. No one said a word. Behind us, Mom’s friend barged in short of breath and, seeing that I’d found my way, composed herself.

We all looked to one another like we didn’t want to know what might come next. I could tell Mom already knew more than anyone. She was dressed in public-school attire: a dark blue blouse; clip-on earrings, in case her autistic students were inspired to snatch them. Her fist was pressed to her mouth. She turned her head the slightest bit, saying hello to me with her eyes.

“Cyn,” my dad said. But he didn’t ask.

I felt Mom guiding my thoughts, assuring me this wordless prelude was necessary.

Dad and I took our seats. Then Mom related the details.

Caitlin had rolled her IV into a private shower that morning, pulling the needles from her arms and using the plastic tubes to tie a noose, which she fastened to the shower rod as
the water ran. By the time the nurse burst in, Caitlin had been down for ten minutes.

She’d been “down”—that’s how Mom said it.

I chose then and there to picture my sister on the floor, silently collapsed. To this day I picture that, only that, but for horrific split-second frames that flash unbidden like lightning. And then, I see only partially.

“She’s alive, though,” I said, insisting it.

Dad wheezed, staring at nothing, like a man blinded by a punch to lungs.

“Caitlin’s unconscious,” Mom said. “But they’re doing all they can. To restore brain activity. And the only thing we can do right now is pray for her.”

Next, a doctor spoke. Caitlin had been moved to intensive care. They’d revived her pulse and were feeding her oxygen. There’d be tests once the swelling in her brain subsided. He gave no indication about the odds of survival, but that didn’t alter my belief that she’d come to. I’d seen movies about this sort of thing, where a person awakes from a comatose sleep, instantly restoring harmony to the universe. She’d open her eyes. She’d laugh an exhausted laugh, and we’d cry our faces dry, and the idea of that sweet moment of relief was my only endurable thought. I couldn’t feel my fingers.

BOOK: Songs Only You Know
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