March 17, 2019

“Broken” by Anna Zetlin

The rain hit hard against the windows of apartment 11C, spraying the panes of glass like a machine gun. Linda hoped it would let up soon; Elliot was coming home for a visit, and she still had a lot to do. She had made a list and methodically crossed off each completed task. Stock the fridge with his favorite foods and sodas—nothing in the color red or orange. Check the bookshelf to make sure the books were in alphabetical order; she had gotten careless in his absence. Put white sheets on his bed—prints might contain secret messages. Turn the desktop computers so they faced north. Or maybe it was supposed to be south. She made a note to ask her husband Paul; he would remember.

Danny bounded into the room with the long legs and broad back of an athlete. She missed the blonde curls he cut off when he made the high school soccer team, but he retained the generous smile of his childhood.

“Do you know what the day after tomorrow is?” he asked.

“Of course, I do. I was there, remember?” He was turning fifteen, but it was still their running joke. She felt a bit guilty she had not baked him a cake from scratch, but preparing for Elliot’s home visit had required all of her attention. She flung her arms around Danny’s waist and squeezed hard. Danny reached down and hoisted her up.

“You’re getting lighter,” he said. “Don’t disappear on me. What can I do to help?” Danny asked his perennial question.

“I’m good,” she answered, basking in the pleasure of his easy affection.

“You sure? I can miss the opening game. No big deal,” he said as he shifted his balance from foot to foot.

As much as she loved Danny comforting her, she feared that one day he would implode from the weight of too much goodness, too much patience, too much virtue. But it hadn’t happened yet. And, so far, the demons that possessed Elliot had passed over his younger brother.

“Everything’s under control,” she said.

“I hate not being here when Elliot arrives.”

“Go! You’ll have all weekend to catch up.”

“Okay, then,” Danny said, exhaling sharply. “I’m off to school, then Philly for the quarter-finals.”

“See you tomorrow,” she said.

At three o’clock the rain stopped, and she called the super to put gates on the windows. If he suspected why she needed them, he didn’t say—not that she cared—she was beyond shame now. The gates blocked the few slivers of sunlight that poked through the blinds, but the only thing that mattered was making it safe for Elliot. After the last home visit, she wasn’t taking any chances.

Paul promised he would leave work early to help, but he still hadn’t arrived. His job had become more demanding lately, and she wondered if he had volunteered to take on new accounts to pay down Elliot’s medical expenses.

Although he never said so, she was sure Paul blamed her for not spotting the warning signs sooner; but for a long time, Elliot’s behavior seemed like the quirky habits of an unusually bright boy. He started reading when he was three and did multiplication and long division problems in his head when he was four.  “Paul,” she had said when Elliot was six. “Elliot asked me about the connection between geography and democracy.”

Paul laughed and shook his head. “He takes after your brother. I’ll buy him some more books.”

Elliot was always the sun around whom the rest of the family orbited. He had burned so brightly, urgently, and insistently that he eclipsed everyone else in the room until he was almost devoured by the heat of his own brilliance.

Even with hindsight, it was not always easy to identify the precise moments when Elliot crossed that bright red line separating the normal from the abnormal, us from them. As a teenager, he had only slept a few hours a night—like many teenagers, she told herself—then he stopped sleeping for days at a time. He had always preferred solid sheets and shirts over ones with plaids and checks; but when he started seeing secret messages in prints, she had to remove them from his sight. His fascination with numbers began as an interest, but over time became an obsession; then, he developed “The Code.” Every morning, he applied an algorithm to the current date, and the result yielded a number that dictated what foods he could eat and what streets he should avoid when walking to school.

She and Paul took Elliot to psychiatrists. The initial diagnoses were bad, but still somewhat hopeful: free-floating anxiety, OCD, bi-polar. Elliot’s symptoms seemed to elude just one category. Reluctantly, Linda and Paul agreed to medicate Elliot, supplemented with homeopathic remedies, a vegan diet, and a regime of vigorous exercise. As scary as it was, it still seemed manageable—until Elliot started to hear voices, and Linda’s hopes collapsed into a dark hole.

“The voices hurt my head,” he had said. “They say I’m bad.” Then: “I don’t deserve to live.” And, then, miraculously: “Take me to the hospital.”

With all of her vigilance and the combined efforts of the entire family, it was Elliot, after all, who realized he was broken.

After dinner, she showered for a long time. The sharp pellets of hot water stung and burned red welts onto her skin, but she felt cleansed and purified. The torrent of water drowned out her tears and Linda allowed herself to cry freely and loudly. She wondered what happened to spent tears? Did they evaporate, joining millions of tears shed by others, forming clouds of combined sorrows; or did they go unceremoniously down the drain with the rest of the shower water? With embarrassment, she realized that she wasn’t sure what happened to water after that. Too many things were mysterious to her.

When she climbed into bed, Paul was waiting for her, and she noticed his pupils were dilated. It pleased her that he desired her after twenty-five years of marriage. He touched her tentatively, not sure if it would be okay; but she didn’t want tenderness tonight and turned her back to him. “This way,” she said.

Paul left before daybreak to bring Elliot home, and she immediately reclaimed Paul’s side of the bed. He was her one constant in a world built on quicksand. He must think her greedy, wanting to spread out in his spot, but she needed to breathe in the smell he left on the sheets and pillows. His scent was not only erotic—it was the drug that gave her courage. She wondered if Elliot would ever smell a woman. What others took for granted was probably unattainable for him now. Would he ever have a girlfriend, fall in love, make a baby? She envied friends who complained: “I wish Vinnie would settle down. John’s girlfriend is so spoiled. The wedding is out of control. I can’t stand my new in-laws. Kelly’s pregnant; I’m too young to be a grandmother.”

Her hopes were like soap bubbles, so small, fragile, and transparent they could fit into the palm of her hand and float away if not held, but collapse if held too tightly.

“I have a good feeling about this visit,” she said to Paul as he left to pick up Elliot.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Paul said. “Remember what happened the last time.”

“This’ll be different. I’m prepared.”

After Paul left, she removed the birthday cake from its box, placed it on a blue ceramic plate and put it in the back of the refrigerator, hiding it behind cans of diet soda. Tonight, she would make Elliot’s favorite dinner for just the three of them; tomorrow, they would all celebrate Danny’s birthday. This was Elliot’s first visit since his latest episode, and she was hopeful that If the visit went well, he could live at home.

Linda’s hopes soared when Paul and Elliot arrived at noon. Elliot had apparently adjusted well to his new medication. The tremors were gone, as was his furious blinking. His body was less bloated, and he was animated.

“Mom,” he said. “I’m home.” He threw his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “I’m hungry. What’s for lunch?”

Elliot devoured his food and the scraps left on his parents’ plates. “I want to rummage in the refrigerator. These meds for my schizophrenia make me hungry,” Elliot said with a wink.

“I’m right here if you need me,” Linda said.

“Let’s clean up later,” Paul said, as he guided her out of the kitchen.

“See how quickly his face lit up. He’s getting better, don’t you think so? He used the “S” word. The doctors all said when he starts talking about his illness, it’s a major sign of recovery,” Linda said.

“Linda, we’ve talked about this.”

“Let’s wrap Danny’s gifts.”

She grabbed Paul’s arm and pulled him into the study where she had hidden Danny’s birthday presents. It reminded her of Christmas Eves when the boys were young and still believed in Santa Claus. She and Paul would wait until Elliot and Danny were sleeping, wrap toys and books, and hide them in the study. It was only a few years ago, yet to Linda, it seemed like another lifetime. She luxuriated in the memories of a sweeter and simpler time when she heard a crash and then a loud, sustained moan emanating from the kitchen. It sounded like an animal who had caught his leg in a metal trap. “What happened?” she screamed, running into the kitchen. Elliot was on the floor surrounded by cans of soda. The refrigerator door was open.

“It’s Danny’s birthday. I forgot. I don’t have a gift for him. I’m bad. Bad. Bad.” Elliot held the sides of his head and swayed back and forth on the linoleum floor. “Make them stop, Mom.”

How could she have been so careless? Linda dropped down to the floor and put her arms around her son, but he flung them away. “It’s ok, Elliot. We have plenty of time to buy a present.”

She knew it was too late; the damage had been done. Paul darted into the bedroom to check Elliot’s backpack and returned to the kitchen holding the full bottle of Elliot’s meds. “Baby, he stopped taking them again.” And to Elliot, “Why did you stop?”

“Paul, don’t be so rough,” Linda said. “Maybe he forgot.”

“Remember what the doctor said,” Paul said. “He knows he stopped.”

Linda cupped Elliot’s head in her hands. “Elliot, sweetie, why did you stop?”

“I felt better,” he said.

And just like that, they were back to square one.

“I’ll call his doctor,” Paul said and walked out of the kitchen.

Linda helped Elliot back into his room, and gave him his medication, making sure he swallowed it. He looked confused and angry. When she started to leave, he grabbed her shirt sleeve.

“I want to stay here, Mom. Can I come back home? I’ll follow the rules. I won’t skip my meds again. I promise. Please let me come home, Mommy. Please, Mommy, please!”

Please, Mommy, please, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. Elliot’s mantra of pain reverberated inside of Linda, growing louder and louder until her heart shattered into pieces that were so small, they simply dissolved. It took all of her willpower to appear calm. His grip was strong, and she slowly unpeeled his fingers. “Get some rest. We’ll talk later.”

She stood over Elliot’s bed until he fell asleep, and then walked into the kitchen. Paul was waiting for her, stacking the dishes in the sink.

“Sorry,” Paul said. I know you were hoping—”

“This was not Elliot’s fault,” Linda said. “The hospital should have—”

“Yes. The hospital screwed up.”

“And I screwed up. I’ll do a better job when he lives at home.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head.

She looked down, refusing to make eye contact. “No? Why not?”

“He’s not ready,” Paul said.

“I just need to monitor him more closely.”

“No,” Paul said.

“I can do this,” she said, but her voice choked.

Paul draped his arm around his wife. “I’m sorry, baby. Come, let’s clean up,”

Linda and Paul stood side by side in front of the kitchen sink, as they had done for over two decades. The water ran hot and released a sweet scent as it hit the liquid soap. Paul washed a dish and handed it to Linda, who placed it in the dish rack to dry, careful not to break it.

 ©Anna Zetlin


About the Author: Anna Zetlin is a former attorney who currently teaches math to disadvantaged adults. She is an emerging fiction writer with one recent publication in the Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review. She lives, works, and writes in New York City.

Anna Zetlin Author Photo

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