thirty-one years old
THE LAST TIME I saw Cherie she was still beautiful.
I used to envy her perfect nose, her perfect teeth. Even her artificially-straight artificially-blonde hair flattered her. I dread seeing her now.
Mom says Cherie's mental state deteriorated fast after her boyfriend/cocaine connection dumped her, and soon she was seeing black helicopters following her, international conspiracies spying on her. When she ran out of money and tried to get the boyfriend to take her back -- yelling on his doorstep, threatening, and frightening the neighbors -- he called the police. They threw her into Egg Harbor State Hospital, where she's been for over a year, court-committed, with reviews every six months.
Lost in memory, I stare out the airplane window, barely registering the dull roar of the engines or the attendants rolling carts down the aisle. Thirty thousand feet down, barren waves of earth undulate. Probably mountains, but from up here they just look like random abstract patterns. The plane hits an air pocket and I'm falling but my stomach stays behind, leaving me that much more nauseated than I already was about making this trip.
I remember Mom calling to tell me about Cherie's hospitalization. Guilt, shame and outrage mingled in her voice.
"The New Jersey State Police, no less. A crowd came to watch." I could picture the way she slits her eyes in disapproval. "Can't say I'm surprised. Cherie always was difficult. But a nervous breakdown in public on a quiet street in Cape May. It's so humiliating!"
Mom sounded as if she'd taken Cherie's psychosis as a personal affront, and maybe it was. It was a long time coming, although Cherie was twenty-six when the first bona fide symptoms appeared. Late onset adult schizophrenia, the diagnostic manual calls it. Now Mom's torn between tying to fix Cherie and just wanting to forget she ever had a second child.
She'd asked me to come right away, as if I could do anything about it. Too busy, I said, but really I couldn't face it.
The aroma of burnt coffee penetrates my contemplation.
"Like to try some of our special Starbucks brew?" A woman in a friendly-skies uniform lifts a carafe at me.
"No, thanks." I gaze disconsolately at the landscape below. We're crossing a river that looks an inch wide, but is likely the Mississippi. I glance at my watch, already set to Philadelphia time, which tells me we'll land in about an hour and a half. Even with a year to get used to the idea and as many psychotics as I've worked with, I still don't feel like I can face this. It's different when it's your own sister. Maybe I should meditate.
I lean my head against the seatback and realize I'm sucking my tongue. Mom broke me of sucking my thumb all those years ago but not of the need to suck when I feel threatened. I sigh and look for a place of peace within myself.
I can hardly keep from crying at the sight of Cherie being led into the visitors' area.
A parody of her old self, she's gained at least thirty pounds. Her eyes, outlined heavily in royal blue, peer out of her round face like a trapped animal cowering in a cave. Blood red lipstick smears way past the outline of her mouth; her tentative smile reveals receding gums and a couple of lost molars. Her peroxided hair is a rat's nest with dark roots, thinning around its center part. Here and there a lock is wrapped in foil. Dressed in clothes she would never choose for herself, too-short red plaid pants and a badly pilled lime green sweater that clashes with every color in the plaid. She couldn't look more like a lunatic if she tried.
I take a deep breath and stand. We embrace. I feel myself sink into her pillowy softness, so different from the strong solid body she used to have.
Copyright Suzanne Gold, 2001. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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