"What are you doing here?" she asks. "They lock you up too?"
"No, I came to visit you."
"Did you bring cigarettes? Can we go outside so I can smoke?"
"Let's wait till Mom gets here. Then we'll go out together."
"Mommy's coming? Is she bringing presents?"
"Probably, but I brought some too. Want to see?"
Cherie claps her hands like an overjoyed toddler at her first birthday party. It breaks my heart. I think of times as kids when I refused to play with her and wonder if I'd been more open, more supportive, would it have changed anything? But we were programmed from day one to become competitors, enemies. Encouragement was unknown in our house. My eyes sting with bitterness.
As if she can read my thoughts, Cherie's face turns dark. She mutters about curses and devils and the wrath of God, punctuated with unearthly giggles. If it weren't for my experience working in mental hospitals and halfway houses, I'd probably run from the room screaming at what's become of my little sister.
I offer a distraction. "How about we sit down and I'll show you what I brought?"
I extract treats one at a time, cigarettes first. Cherie tears open the cellophane wrapper, sniffs one like a fine cigar. "Please can we go out now so I can smoke?" she begs.
"As soon as Mom gets here," I say, and hand her the bagel and lox sandwich I brought. I glance at my watch. "Which should be any minute. We arranged to meet at two."
"The wicked witch still lives." She scowls and looks away, then her face brightens as she catches sight of a tall lanky guy coming into the room.
"James, my sister's here and she brought me stuff. Want some bagel and lox? Or some cigarettes?"
"Not now." He scoots quickly out the door.
"Is that a friend of yours?"
"What's his name?"
"James Stevens. He lives on the men's side of the ward. He likes me. Can I have that?" She points at my wrist.
"What, my watch?"
Cherie nods eagerly. It's a transparent Swatch, not expensive, but beloved.
"Will you be able to hang on to it?"
"God will guard it as He guards my life," she says. "I'll sleep with it, I promise. I'll never take it off. Can I have it, please?"
I think about the time she dumped all my clothes in a pile in the middle of my bedroom floor and stomped on them because I wouldn't lend her a skirt she wanted to borrow. I feel myself flush with embarrassment at how I bought into our mother's rules about whose clothes were whose and what rituals we had to go through to borrow anything. Cherie never did stick with the program, any program. I unbuckle the watch and hand it to her.
"Really?" She grabs it and quickly straps it around her wrist as if I'd take it back if she waited another instant.
"Really," I say. "It's yours."
"Jesus told me all good things come to those who wait. He wants me to bear his child, and this watch is his promise. He doesn't care about my scar."
"What's the aluminum foil in your hair for?"
"It helps block the surveillance so the helicopters can't find me. The Anti-Christ hired the CIA to monitor me. To separate me from the Almighty."
It sounds so stereotypical it's almost trite, like a bad movie. If only it were. One of my more disturbed clients once told me outright that his daily mission was to erase the memories of where he'd come from, of what he'd done. Could Cherie have unconsciously chosen going insane as a way to avoid taking responsibility for herself?
The psychologist in me understands her mental state as the product of a distorted family dynamic combined with a chemical imbalance in her brain. The explanation buffers my despair at seeing her like this, but still, it scares me. There but for grace go I.
Copyright Suzanne Gold, 2001. All rights reserved.
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