Jason in the next bed over has no arm, or you know, one arm left, no arm where one of them should be, is what I mean to say. I won’t go into what I have that confines me to the bed beside Jason’s in a similar convalescence, but it’s two arms, no more no less, so don’t think this is a place for treating armlessness only, or whatever you want to call what Jason has. I’ve nothing similar. Anyway, I hate him.
I’m sorry, the story is about Jason, and my personal feelings shouldn’t colour it. Jason used to have an arm where he hasn’t now, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he’s acclimatised. To be precise I should say that what he lacks is the forearm, the part down to the elbow (is it an elbow if nothing hinges on it?) being intact. The thing ends in a stump, a mess of bandages.
Yet the remaining arm alone amounts to enough from my scrawny perspective, musculature-wise I mean, to place him a ways above me on the food-chain. It was, so I heard, some kind of sporting accident. Not that I expect him to have lost the arm during the accident itself — I can think of few sports that would tear your arm clean off (though maybe getting an arm stuck in a cliff-face he was climbing, hacking it off himself without anaesthetic, yeah that’d nicely suit the grit and heroism of the cunt). No, I think the accident rather mangled the arm beyond repair, forced an amputation after the fact. I haven’t asked.
I am only in here with him because they are running out of space, shoving unrelated problems under the same headings, into the same wards. Calling myself problem is not inappropriate. I think they resent having me. Next to him, how could they not? As I said, Jason has adjusted to armlessness with ease, meeting his affliction with a grace and good humour I decidedly lack. In fact, he makes the whole situation seem trivial. I’ve never seen him anything besides upbeat. The nurses who come to attend to his wound first thing in the morning, men and women both, reserve unforced smiles and coquettish giggles for him that the other patients never see. That I never see, at least — it’s only me and Jason in here.
No, when they (nurses, doctors, concerned visitors) see me, I reckon something in their faces falls. They put on kindly smiles, sometimes, especially the visitors, but it’s never unstrained. They had hoped it would be better by now. My interminable convalescence, a disappointment to all comers. Thankfully I don’t need the constant care that Jason does, and I try to be as self-sufficient as I can under the circumstances. But there are bad days when I have to talk to someone, someone besides Jason, however unsympathetic. I can read in their faces, they try their hardest to be sad for me, but next to such a brave, model patient it is hard to respect the cringing, whining—
This isn’t some catalogue of woes. Back to Jason — when I speak to him it usually goes something like this (Jason the initiator, naturally):
‘How’s it going today, pal? Things looking up?’
I grunt something deliberately unintelligible to stop the conversation in its tracks. Doesn’t work. He chuckles. For his age, his voice is deep, authoritative; aside from the faint (and deadly irritating, I am beginning to find) American accent, a good-natured laugh like his could have come from my father, anyone’s father. Yet he is no older than me.
‘Don’t give me tha-a-at.’ His voice drags out the last syllable, a sickly-sweet ingratiation.
‘I’m fine.’ I’m not.
‘You’re not.’ He’s right.
‘So-o-o…’ (that ingratiation again) ‘do you want to talk about it, pal?’
I had intended to transcribe much more than this, but it wouldn’t get anything across to you that hasn’t already come across. Probably nothing of the grating quality of the man has come through — you aren’t here. You don’t have to live with the guy.
It’s a subtle thing, I suppose, and hard to put down on paper. You’re probably thinking, the man has done nothing wrong, and more than that, has been actively pleasant and accommodating. It’s true that the last patient to occupy Jason’s bed wasn’t nearly so warm, that this kind of conversation would have fizzled out on his end as I tried, with Jason, to make it fizzle out on mine — that this could inspire a kind of bitterness too. But it’s a different bitterness, a palatable bile compared to what rises up in my throat when Jason speaks.
They brought in food earlier, some unidentifiable mush, and coffee, and this always raises the expectation of conversation.
‘Hospital food, eh?’ he says, but with such self-aware irony I cannot fault him, even privately, on the cliché. He winks, looking in my direction. I do not know how I am supposed to respond but would like, for once, to make the good-faith attempt.
‘Yeah it’s, uh,’ I say weakly, trailing off mid-sentence without having ever really intended to continue. I am hoping he will make something more worthwhile out of the unpromising automatic responses I am providing as raw material.
Instead he spoons something into his mouth and makes a deliberate, theatrical grimace. This is supposed to amuse me, and in fairness, probably would, were it coming from someone with whom my intimacy was genuine, unforced. Absent better ideas I mimic his action. It’s weird, I can tell as soon as I do it, something in either the too-real, unnerving grimace, or in the fact of having mimicked him at all. Jason doesn’t say anything, or object, but his smile falters which tells me all I need to know. I decide not to humour him anymore.
Of course, the idea that I am the one humouring him seems pretty laughable now that I’ve put it on paper. I suppose that’s it: I hate Jason, but only hypocritically. Only insofar as what I loathe in myself is revealed by the comparison. This weirdness that arises in even good-faith attempts at engaging him: it’s all on me. I drink my coffee, which is too hot. The burning mercifully distracts me from this train of thought. A real grimace, now. Jason has turned away. I savour the bitter taste.
Sorry, sorry. So a conversation between Jason and the nurses goes something like this — I hear about two thirds of it, Jason’s voice has that booming quality I can’t avoid hearing, while the nurses are usually quieter, cooing at him in reply.
‘How is it today with our Jason, then?’ she asks, bubbling, giddily excited to arrive at what must be the highlight of her rounds. Or, half the room is a highlight. I’m the other half.
‘Oh, you know. Mostly armless.’ He makes this joke with all of them, at least once. They always laugh. My response varies from pointed silence to forced, unnatural laughter that he can only take as an insult. Today I just hiss.
‘Oh Jason, you are a good one.’ She says this putting her hand on his intact arm (the left, the one furthest from me) and blushing and laughing. This one is in her forties, heavyset, married judging by the ring on her finger, and with a broad northern accent that bothers me. Jason treats her the same as all the rest, the single young women and men who laugh and blush and lean over him and touch his bicep just like this one. He treats everyone the same. That’s the problem.
‘Only because of you, my dear,’ he says, squeezing her arm in return. She blushes a deeper crimson.
‘Jason!’ She whispers something in his ear that I can’t hear, and then, ‘let’s get that wound dressed.’
‘Let’s,’ he responds, with a grin.
At this point I’m wrapping the pillow around my head to block out the sound, and staring at the wall on my right, my back to the pair of them. I imagine them watching me and sighing, except that Jason wouldn’t sigh, wouldn’t be even remotely annoyed. He would find a way to sympathise. I can hear his voice in my head now, buddy, do you want to talk about it? To be so accepting of insult and injury, so passive — you’d have to be insincere or braindead. But the worst of it is he’s neither.
The nurse eventually comes over and I let the pillow rest and stare up at her with bloodshot eyes. I don’t say anything.
‘Surly again?’ she says disdainfully.
She is not among the number of nurses that makes any special effort to accommodate me. I prefer the honesty.
‘Don’t be difficult,’ she says as if to a child. ‘You know, you’re lucky to have a neighbour who puts up with your sulking.’
She beams over at Jason, who is too gracious to respond.
‘Hrm,’ I repeat. Her expression hardens.
‘You’re lucky to be alive, young man. You ought to be more grateful.’
‘I disagree,’ I mutter, hoping to rile her up to indignancy. I wrap the pillow around my head and face the wall again, to dodge the response.
Against the odds she is still trying, stoically, to engage me, but my thoughts are elsewhere, on the things I haven’t told you. The years before Jason, or the evening I tried my best to drown.
After a time, she gives up and goes away.
I should explain. Fuck Jason, this isn’t about Jason. There was a time when I used to try, when things hadn’t yet got to this point. I could tell you the typical story, of being fired from the job and dumped by the girl at the same time, and it is true, when I say typical I don’t mean to imply that it isn’t also what happened, but that can hardly be said to detract from its tedium. To tell it honestly, I think I was angling for catastrophe, I think I wanted an excuse to lapse. As for where that desire came from, who knows? Some innate, ancestral inadequacy, maybe, some feeling that my relative portion of success couldn’t persist. I missed work for no reason, did not break things off with the girl but withdrew to the point where it was all she could do to end it officially. Maybe I broke her heart, or maybe I just like to think so whether it’s true or not. These days it’s hard for me to believe I could have ever held down a job or, worse, been loved by someone. It is everything I have drowned in myself.
So once I no longer had the job or the relationship to worry about, the great project of lethargy began. Initially I fooled myself into believing that I was enjoying the time off from work and people, that a well-earned rest was all that this was. I stopped cleaning the dishes, washing my clothes, caring for the plants. The plants, an interesting note, variously stopped growing or grew out of control into monstrous shapes against the windows, an encroaching darkness.
Nothing too melodramatic, I didn’t board up the windows, I sometimes even answered the phone, shaved, left the house, but to be truthful it is easier than you would expect to fall off the map. All it takes is a good enough show of not caring, and the calls, the knocks on the door, for the most part dwindle to nothing. So the rooms of the flat became a little darker during the day as the plants blocked the windows, and I felt badly about the gathering dust, and I almost never woke up before midday, but it took something greater to solidify the situation for me.
When I walked into the kitchen to find a colony of ants living there, this was the sign. It was as if the house had decided to turn its despair, my lethargy, into a physical symptom. It was the abject irrupting into the real. I don’t posit any causal link between my slothfulness and the infestation, but it was a point of departure. A synchronicity. I stared a few moments, unable to formulate a reaction, and then went out the front door and slammed it shut, leaving my keys inside, among the ants.
It is difficult for me to describe my feelings; I felt at the time that they had gone, with this sudden incursion, beyond the bounds of what could be described. I walked with heavy, uneven steps down the corridor outside in a sort of psychosis, making my face grotesque, sticking my tongue out at nothing. There was nobody there, and the doors to the other flats were all closed. I went properly outside and could think of nothing better than to plunge into the nearest canal, which I did.
Not wearing heavy clothes, I struggled to sink. It must have been an absurd sight, my attempting to reach the bottom of the (not very deep) canal and remain there. After the third time I was returned against my will to the surface, it became clear to me that I had not thought this through. Nonetheless I persisted for I don’t know how long, until I passed out. I suppose the dead weight of unconsciousness would have dragged me down had some do-gooder, some anonymous Jason before I knew what that meant, not dived in and returned me to safety.
So that’s about the long and short of it. It’s harder than you’d think to properly drown.
I’m looking at him, Jason, with a special bitterness now. It’s night; he’s sleeping. I woke just now from unpleasant dreams, not any one dream but several that formed a sort of swirling continuum, but throughout which Jason was ever-present. Now there he is sleeping, peaceful as a child. I wonder what does he dream about, what does someone dream about who is so untouchable? I envision what might be in his head: a bland recounting of the day’s news — a series of typically effortless conversations — an enjoyable sporting event — a nice meal with some loved one. I can see no secrets, no perversions beneath his untroubled brow. I want to fucking kill him.
‘Jason,’ I say loudly enough to wake him. ‘Jason.’
He wakes up. Even this he does gracefully.
‘Yeah, bud?’ he says, almost instantly alert, attentive.
‘You populate my nightmares.’
He blinks, the first time I’ve seen him perturbed — though not too much.
‘What do you mean?’ he says carefully.
‘You’re always there, in every dream. You’re taking over my mind.’
‘You’re agitated, my friend. You’ll feel better once the dream fades. Give it a moment, we’ll talk it out.’
I say, ‘I don’t think so, no. I don’t think this is going to fade, Jason.’
Slowly he says, ‘O-o-oka-a-ay.’
‘You’re in everything. You don’t understand. The plants grow into your shape and your face is at the windows and the ants, they all have your face, and when I look in the mirror I have your face, you are the passers-by in the street, and the water pulling me down and at the same time the stranger pulling me to safety, you are going to rip me in two and — ’
‘Whoa whoa whoa, slow down, it’s okay, it’s okay. This sounds like a lot of different — ’
‘It’s not okay. You don’t understand,’ I say again.
‘You might be right about that,’ he says, with an unbearably self-mocking smile, ‘so slow down. What was the dream this time, tonight?’
‘I am begging you,’ I say, and I mean both in the dream and in the present, ‘I don’t know what for but I am begging you to just, to just.’
I pause for a long moment. Jason says nothing. His eyes broadcast concern.
The thing I want to say goes something like this in my head: ‘If you’re in the world I can’t be. There’s no place for me when someone like you exists.’
What I end up saying instead is, ‘You need to be cut out. I want you dead, Jason. I need you dead.’
And the sight is so pitiful, so muted, that he shows nothing of fear, resentment, even confusion. His brow creases with sympathy. He wants to help me. I think of deepening the insult, suddenly, telling him in more colourful words the depth of the loathing, You’re a tumour, worse, you’re the plague, you’re but — I could spit in his face, and nothing would come of it. No retaliation, no surprise, no nothing. He wants to help. He says as much, making an apologetic gesture with his good arm.
‘I… I think you need to talk to someone about this, man. I’d offer, but I think circumstances maybe… preclude my helpfulness to you, no?’
While he talks, I am pulling the covers off and getting first into a sitting position then to my feet. I do not reply but walk the distance to his bed. I stand over him in what I hope is a menacing pose. He looks up at me, his expression unreadable, his absent arm strikes me as a conspicuous plea, you wouldn’t hurt a man in my condition, would you? Would you? I would. I would. I will. The mantra echoes in my skull. I will. I will.
Instead I say very quietly, ‘Thank you for trying to help me, Jason. I think I am a helpless case.’
It feels like a small death, and I go back to bed.
Jason is absent now. I am (finally) alone. They took him away, somewhere else in the hospital, I guess, a couple of days after that night, and who can blame them. I wish I could gloat over his retreat, but I expect he didn’t have a hand in it (ha, ha). He felt obliged at least to tell them the story, maybe, and they can’t have golden boy in with a lunatic now can they. Net result is I’m still here, without a roommate, which suits me fine, and the doctor, the one who tries to talk to me about my issues, comes more often. I still have a sort of childish glee in giving him absolutely nothing, which is something to fill the days.
To tell the truth though, after the incident and with Jason’s absence, I’ve become restless here. What an embarrassment, softening at the decisive moment, neither able to stop hating nor to properly justify the hate so as not to be embarrassed by it. It’s easier now that he’s gone. I can say he’s a bastard and he just is one, he doesn’t get to grin as if to say Well I suppose I am, in my own charming way. Or worse, apologise, try to get better. When he’s not here I can build up a solid portrait including every little wrong he’s ever done me, and there’s no risk of him shattering it with something, well, equally hateful but harder to define as such.
To tell the truth, again, I am itching to be out of this place now, and nothing is stopping me. Certainly they would rather I left at this point, they sense the hopelessness of fixing me as well as anyone, and I may as well be out of their hair. It’s been some time since I had any friends or family come to visit, and I expect they’ll feel obliged to, once they hear about the little incident. I would rather dodge that unpleasantness. The door stands open and I am staring more and more not at the wall but at the corridor outside. Not that there’s anything there but — there is the promise of being out of this place, out of this misery, into a different misery perhaps, I am not so blinkered, but — but I have had enough of rooms and being in them, rooms with Jason and rooms alone. I suppose I’ve been in here long enough to forget what there is to be afraid of out there.
So now, tentatively — I get unsteadily to my feet. I put on my boots. It’s raining out, but that almost makes it better. Walking to Jason’s now-empty bed, I pull off the bedding, pillows and all, and dump it in a heap on the floor. I look down at the bare mattress, trying to imagine I can still see the imprint from where he lay, ending abruptly at the elbow (elbow?) of the right arm. I take aim at where his head must have rested and spit in the phantom of Jason’s stupid worthless face and walk out the door.
There is nobody in the corridor, and I grin. Wearing my green hospital gown and excited with the prospect of muddying my boots, I make my way with uneven steps to the nearest fire exit, sticking my tongue out at nothing all the way.