Years ago— many—when I was at Camp Slap’em Sane because I wanted to die, our women’s ward got a newcomer: Tina, a beautiful Latino 18-year-old with abyss-like dark eyes and black hair that flowed to her waist. Tina, a heroin addict, had landed in Camp Slap’em because she’d tried to hold up a convenience store, gotten caught, and then gone cold turkey in jail. When she finally came before a judge, he said she had potential and ordered her incarcerated in Camp Slap’em Sane until authorities thought she could leave without reoffending. He said he had faith in her, and after a time, I learned what he meant.
At first nobody paid much attention to her. She skulked around in what seemed to be her only clothes: jeans, a workman’s shirt and a filthy cap that she wore pulled over her face. She was a Mex’kn in a town that didn’t like Mexicans. That her father was in prison for rape and her mother on the dole with eight children didn’t help. Our hard-working folks shouldn’t be forced to support scum! And everyone had their cliques; even I had Patte and Mindy, who endlessly listened to me whine about my daughter’s death. Patte, who had been a math major at Rice University, was also in for drug rehab. She had been a groupie of Charles Manson, and even now, although she was “clean,” people would occasionally morph into werewolves. We would laugh and ask the color fur or teeth of the current patient cum werewolf. Mindy was an addicted teen-aged prostitute who had taken me under her wing but had the annoying habit of pecking at you with honesty. “Those aren’t love handles–they’re fat rolls.”
Despite being odd woman out, Tina maintained her tough girl swagger and apparent indifference, until one day she got a package. “What the fuck is this?” Tina tore open the package with claw-like red nails. A small cellophane paper thing emerged; a tiny scrap of paper fell out. The cellophane “thing” was a small purse made up of empty cigarette boxes, a gift sent by her father. As Tina turned it around, she began to shake. “I don’t know where the fuckin’ son of a bitch gets his nerve! How in hell did he even find out where I am!” She slung the purse and then sobbed like nobody thought she could. I couldn’t see why she would go so to pieces over a lousy paper purse from someone she didn’t really know.
Still I wanted to help. “Say Tina, you’re not alone. We all know dads are jerks. I’m sure everyone here can tell a jerk-dad story.”
“Huh?” Snot poured down onto her lip. I looked for a Kleenex and found one.
“Yeah. My father wanted me to put my adopted son into an orphanage so I could take care of him. How’s that for jerkdom?”
“No shit?” I nodded. But where’s Mom?”
“Oh.” Tina took the Kleenex I’d offered, wiped her nose and went to her room. We never heard about the purse again.
Tina’s breakdown warmed me and a few others towards her, and before I knew it, Tina and I were staying up late drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes until we were so tired that we nearly fell out of our chairs. What I liked about Tina was that she was wise beyond her years, not just street-smart but insightful about herself. “I’ve been running, Mary, all my life,” she said, flicking ash into the almost empty plastic coffee cup. “First, I ran into sex, then liquor, then Jesus, now Horse.”
“Heroin—how have you been on this planet?” Tina shook her head. You must be really nuts not to know that. Why are you here anyway?”
“I don’t know really, except that I wanted to die right after Daddy died, still do.”
“Him, the jerk? I thought Mom died”
“Both, in short time.”
“Jesus, you could have used some Horse.” Tina said. “Anyhow, you’re alive and I’m clean. But I still want to run, and there’s no place else to go.”
The “running into Jesus” sparked something inside me. I didn’t understand but her admission started my spiritual search, almost as if she gave me permission. Tina and I grew close more so than with any of the others. We ate together, went to OT together, stayed up late, smoking. I don’t remember what I told her, except that it was my fault Rosalind, my infant daughter, died and that her twin brother was still in an incubator.
But then I didn’t have as much as Tina to unload. She told me everything that was going on inside her, or at least I thought she did. We began to laugh, the way people do who accept each other and “catch” or confront each others’ evasions.
After Tina broke and we got close, she began to relax with others. So did I. Gradually, both of us drifted. Not that we distanced ourselves from each other. It was as if the security we had enabled us to venture out yet remain “accountable” to each other. Tina not only ventured but “improved” rapidly. She became the golden child, doctors and nurses marveling, as she dealt with her demons openly. In no time, she got permission to go unescorted to occupational therapy, to the gym, and, sometimes, even to visit with her parole officer. To “go unescorted” was the equivalent of earning an A+ at Camp Slap’em Sane. It was the official stamp that a patient could be trusted not to bolt or to do something stupid.
I, however, stagnated, unwilling or unable to deal with myself. “I haven’t seen you move in a coon’s age,” Cookie, the floor nurse, complained. I didn’t know what she meant by “move,” nor did I care enough to ask. I was content to cheerlead Tina— get my mind off those coffins that appeared like toy train cars. Mommy’s gun metal coffin, followed by Daddy’s black one followed by an infant’s white coffin, ending with Elizabeth’s walnut one. Elizabeth, my buddy, smashed in an accident.
Each report on Tina to the court showed steady progress until it looked as though in a few short months, Tina would “graduate” into a halfway house. This potential was another gold star. Halfway house arrangements were carefully scripted. The “newbie” had to move into a place with at least one other “graduate” who had been able to deal with “the real world” for at least six months.
But then Tina got a letter from her mother in El Paso.
I was there when she got it, read it, crumpled it in her fist. “Mom needs me—she can’t handle my brothers and sisters alone—wants me home, wants to know why I ran out on her—never thought I’d be like my father.” Tina began to shake a little. “What the hell have I done? I’ve got to go home!”
The staff went into a flurry of alarm; the drug-free poster child was being lured away. We patients were concerned too; if Tina went down, we could go down also. Tina had given us all hope. But while I realized this letter provoked some kind of crisis, my focus (and head) had been turned by the attention of a man in the men’s ward who had asked me to dance at one of the monthly coed “socializations.” He had long, lanky, grey-blonde hair and was reputed to be a religious nut who when he read in Scriptures, “If your eye offends you, pluck it out,” had tried to do just that. I didn’t care; all that mattered was that a man had asked me, ME, to dance. So, while I heard staff clucking and patients speculating about Tina, I was in a romantic haze, drifting along the edges of the coffin clatter in my head, as if I were running a sewing machine.
Tina’s life went on, of course, without my help. The progress from halfway house potential to actuality sped up. Finally it was decided that Tina might be able to function “clean” if she shared an apartment with Debbie, another teenager and a quasi-success story who had been in a halfway house for three months. They would make an exception to the six month rule. Tina promised she would not violate any of the “rules”; she knew Debbie would tell on her if she did.
I dreaded going back to my husband but didn’t seem to have any other option. Besides, I felt torn because of my sons. Slowly, I slid out of my starry-eyed state towards a final goal of somehow escaping the whole home situation. After all, my friends were here, here at Camp Slap’em Sane; they were my real family. Slowly, between daydreams and daily life, I decided that if I could convince the doctors I was permanently crazy, maybe I wouldn’t have to go home—maybe I could go to some other nuthouse—not so fancy as Camp Slap’em Sane, but permanent—maybe a minimum security state home. Then Tina could visit me and I could visit her. I even mentioned the possibility to Dr. Laurie, a kind motherly therapist, who practiced across the one street where I was allowed to go unescorted.
“Dr. Laurie, I just wonder…God’s telling me I’m still not right, especially in my violability. I still see coffin trains, only this time mine is the caboose. My insurance ends soon—what can I do? My husband will just lock me up in the house. What do you think about a state place, at least for a while?” But Dr. Laurie just listened.
One afternoon I heard uproar. “She’s split! Tina’s split.” Nurses were running about, on several phones.
“How?” I said, incredulous. Camp Slap’em Sane prided itself on few if any patient escapes.
“She was going to Occupational Therapy but never showed up. Someone said they saw her getting into a car with a man!”
“They shouldn’t have let her go unescorted,” I said.
Why would Tina escape just two days before she was to be released into Debbie’s care?
“They’ll get her,” Barbara said. She was ex-nurse and doctor’s wife and carried herself a bit above us. “They always do.”
“Staff will catch hell,” Mindy said, always on the lookout for cops and their aftermath—hell.
“Good. I never liked Cookie anyway,” Pattie said.
Once I digested that fact that Tina had indeed split, that it wasn’t a rumor or a practical joke, I knew she was gone. No matter how many staff, cops, even state police, even the FBI chased after her, Tina would not be found.
Her escape hurt but didn’t devastate me—or so I thought. I’d already come to grips with her move to Debbie’s place. That and my preoccupation with never going home had caused me to detach. Still, I wondered how I could have missed the signs, since we were once so close. There were a few flurries over the weeks wondering where Tina was, and lots of “hahas” about her putting one over on staff. No one knew anything, not even her mother. After awhile it was as if she had never existed. The rare times Tina’s name did come up, staff would say, “There’s only so much we can do.” Now and then new patients might ask who she was. She was like a hand dipped in water and then drawn out; the water closed over without a trace. And I? I was one of the worst of the “forgetters.” I erased her as I would a high school history lesson, so absorbed was I in fear of returning home. I knew that I was getting better.
Emerging from a deathly depression was like coming into a light having lived in the dark a long, long time. At first the light was blinding, then gradually became so life-giving that I would kill to defend it. I spent a lot of time concocting my “story,” including new fantastic images (cribbed from Dalí) to avoid being released.
The sticking point was exactly where I would go if not back to that marriage. After all, I didn’t work and I had no money of my own. I mentioned custodial care again to Dr. Laurie, stressing that insurance would run out on this ritzy funny farm, but since a doctor had declared me schizophrenic (my original diagnosis before “acute depression.”), perhaps I could be transferred to a state institution where meds could prevent my hallucinations (which I never had), and stifle the desire to kill myself. There could be a quiet divorce and my husband could take up with the other woman who, whether or not she existed, would be a better mother to my sons than I ever was or could be. In my mind, I would be as set as Little Miss Muffet in a state-supported tuffet.
But along came a spider: the head psychiatrist of the women’s ward. He showed up one Saturday and unceremoniously threw me out. There were people who really needed my bed and he wasn’t runnin’ a fuckin’ summer camp. I had thirty days to say my goodbyes. The words didn’t penetrate. I was so angry I saw red and heard only noise. “Huh? Mindy, what’s he saying? Is he talking to me?”
“He says you’re faking, so you have to leave.”
“Yes.” Her red hair bobbed.
So. Dr. Laurie had ratted me out. No tantrums or further attempts to sabotage my own graduation would help. I was going to end up just where I didn’t want to be, back in a small Texas border town. I looked up to spit at Dr. Johansson, but he had already gone.
Once I was home, I found it wasn’t so bad. My husband never came home sober and even then he wasn’t mean. My children had excellent “wetback” care. Many would have envied my leisure, my freedom from household chores or money worries, the hobnobbing (at my husband’s insistence) with the Junior League and bridge-playing crowd.
I despised them all. Days passed; the sun shone brighter as spring approached, but in Texas the sun was always shining, so big deal. I missed “home,” Camp Slap’em Sane, but that too faded, as had the coffin images months before.
One day I got a letter in a small beige envelope, written in a fragile hand. The return address showed it was from Camp Slap’em Sane and Patte, the one who occasionally saw people morph into werewolves but most of the time was okay. In her lacy hand, she wrote that Tina had been found dead in El Paso, dead from an overdose. Patte thought I would want to know.
I remember the sun streaming through the narrow kitchen windows and a pressure I didn’t recognize starting to build up, a missile preparing for launch. I plucked a piece of paper from the trashcan and the pen next to the phone, and wrote “Horse.” The missile began liftoff as I wrote and on and on and on…
Of course, I never showed anybody that first scribbling; publication came in 1978, four years after “graduation,” and when it did, I felt like a fraud. Now forty years and many publications later, I still try to con myself into avoiding that blank page, telling myself I’m not really a writer, so why struggle? Then Tina’s waist length black hair brushes against my shoulder and I hear it.
“Okay, Mary, You know about me. Now what about you? What are you running from?”
“I’m running from you, Tina.”
“Don’t try to con me. I’ve got it all over you. You’se runnin from you’self, as usual. We talked about that, remember?”
“And ain’t you the rat’s ass!” She’ll squint through her cigarette smoke and then giggle. “If it weren’t for this Mex’cn druggie, you’d never have lifted a pencil.”
“So get with it, Girlie—I didn’t die for nuthin.’ Just don’t write no romantic shit, fake images either. Tell it straight— like it was, not how you want it.”
Though born in Washington, D.C. the author is generally noted for being absent minded and well traveled. She has lived in New England, the South and Southwestern states, plus Germany, UK, Switzerland, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania, Russia, and visited many more places. She publishes under Mary Hanford to avoid confusion with last names (too many husbands) and has three books out, a Holding to the Light (poetry collection), Dr.Sally’s Voodoo Man (novel),and Swimming at Villa Hugel (memoir) plus about a hundred “loose” publications, usually poetry. Formerly a Professor of English, she taught for quite a spell then forgot where she put her gradebook, so she retired a couple years ago. Currently, she is working on a book of interviews with World War II American and German Veterans.