He arrives at the hospital late in the afternoon, six feet two, round-faced, handsome, bursting into Sally's room with his playful rolling stride.
"Scooch, you look fantastic," he says, using his pet name for her. "What are you doing in this place?"
He comes laden with presents --- the New Yorker, Newsweek, People, Vogue --- the very magazines I had pondered over and decided not to bring.
"Did Father tell you why he locked me up?"
Aaron envelops her in his arms, loving and offhand, hiding his distress.
He beckons me out into the hall. He looks thinner than the last time I saw him, and is cultivating a soft uneven beard. "I thought I knew her," he says, a hint in his voice of one who has been deliberately deceived. The idea of his sister behaving without a trace of rational intention is unfathomable to him, as it was to me at first. In a single stroke her identity has changed; and by extension ours, as a family, has changed too. I detect in him the same question I keep asking: Where has she gone?
Horrified, he describes a patient he encountered while on his way to Sally's room: a round, wild-haired, gap-toothed woman devouring a mango.
"Fabulosa," I say.
"You know her?"
"I've been spending a lot of time here."
"This can't be good for Sally, identifying with these people, I mean. She's not like Fabulosa, Pops. This isn't the crowd she should be told she belongs to. Think about it, by putting her here, we're telling her she's crazy."
He drapes an arm around me. "You look like shit." Then, lowering his voice, he repeats my own dashed belief that psychedelic drugs are the cause of Sally's altered state. "I've seen people flip out after bad trips at school. It shakes them up. But they come back."
When I tell Aaron that I've already looked into this possibility, he is unconvinced. "You didn't get to the bottom of it," he says. "If she took acid, she has every reason not to come clean to you about it. She's afraid of how angry you'll be; and she wouldn't want to rat out her friends. She'll feel freer to confide in me. Watch."
And with that he goes back into her room without me, carefully closing the door.
Aaron the rescuer. I am moved by his impulse to prove that Sally doesn't really belong here.
I spot Dr. Mason coming out of the staff room.
"Has Sally been tested for substance abuse?" I ask her.
"She had a toxicology screen, yes, Mr. Greenberg. On being admitted. It's standard procedure. She was completely clean."
When Aaron emerges from Sally's room, he throws his arms around me.
"Just as I thought. She dropped acid, Pops. She was out with a bunch of friends, trying to keep up with them. Don't let on that I told you, she swore me to secrecy. She's afraid you'll never forgive her. 'Father will hate me for lying,' she says. 'Father wants to put an end to everything. He's so sad. Do you think I've made him sad?' She calls you 'Father' now, for some reason. It's a little freaky. You've got to talk to her more. Pops, try not to show how worried you are. The important thing is, she's not insane. It's just a bad trip. A very bad trip."
He embraces me again, taller, stronger than me, the body bequeathed to him by his mother's Swedish stock.
"You're crying. Pops."
He looks amazed. "I never saw that before."
We go into Sally's room. "She's dead to the world," he whispers. "That's for the good. She'll probably be more herself tomorrow. Can you talk to the doctors about all the drugs they're giving her? They seem as bad for her as what landed her here. I wish they'd just give it a chance to run its course."
I break the news to him of my conversation with Dr. Mason.
"It's not possible. They must have the wrong results." He pauses, stricken. "She was so convincing. I don't see how she could have made it up." He takes me through the details of her "trip:" the playground and the Sunshine Café, the potentially fatal certainty that she could stop moving cars --- the same simple yet fantastical events that I have gone over time and again in my mind.
"Everything she told you is true," I say. "Except for the acid. She didn't take anything."
"Why would she lie to me?"
"She probably doesn't think of it as a lie. She may have thought she was keeping you safe --- hard as that may be to believe. She figures we can't handle the truth. Her truth."
"She's right, I can't."
I can feel him gauging how implicated he is in Sally's breakdown, racing through the stages I too raced through but with a sibling's tilt. Was he too cruel to her when she was a child? "I teased her. I made fun of her weird ways. How can I be sure I wasn't the one who pushed her over?"
"You did what every brother does to his younger sister," I assure him.
We go into the dayroom, where patients in various stages of disintegration and recovery wander about.
"We can't allow her to belong to this."
"We don't look much different," I joke.
But we do look different, and with Aaron next to me the dayroom feels outlandish and raw. Fabulosa, with a purple do-rag around her head, acts as if she is in love with Aaron, mooning over him and laughing. Mitchell, a young man whose ambition to become a librarian was interrupted by schizophrenia, winks significantly at us, then apologizes for the impingement. "I didn't mean to menace you," he says. The patients ignore each other for the most part, but with a gentleness that seems connected in some way to their split-open selves. Aaron notices this too. "They live together, yet apart."
I urge him to tell me more about Youngstown, and a certain excitement creeps back into his voice. "I feel like I'm just kicking into gear. Pops. While Sally --- " He stops, catching himself. "I feel relieved that it's not me in this place, and I feel guilty for feeling relieved. I wish I knew what to do for her."
"Go back upstate. Write your paper. I can't wait to read it." I promise him that we'll stay in close touch; Sally won't be on the ward forever. "They don't hold patients for very long nowadays."--- From Hurry Down Sunshine
©2008 Other Press