We Fly in Planes
I thought 9/11 was my fault. I saw it happen on TV. I believed it was because of me and what I had done. Because of all the dead AA batteries in the ashtray of my 1993 Toyota Tercel. I had done something wrong. I watched the planes, the billowing smoke, and people running. I bounded upstairs to my dad sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee.
“Something terrible just happened,” I said, shaking, hiding my guilt in nothing, because then I had nothing. Everything I’d worked for my whole life had been taken away from me that August. And now, this.
I don’t remember all the chronological details about the rest of that day, but maybe my dad does. Should I ask him? I can’t ask him. We don’t talk about personal things. We don’t discuss the past. I need an airplane to get back there, to a time in my life that is both vivid and surreal. I need to know the truth.
All that summer of 2001 I drive around in my car, listening to Radiohead and Tori Amos. I am twenty-one. I use up a lot of batteries while wearing out my Discman, stashing the dead ones in the ashtray of my car. The signs along the road and in the bright blue sky point me in the direction of clarity. It all makes sense, or cents. Pay with change first. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Don’t worry about your weight. Go to McDonald’s—it’s okay—Friday is “fry” day. Is today Friday?
The orange Home Depot sign catches my eye. Turn, turn, turn into the parking lot. “Make me one with everything!” I say gleefully to the man selling hotdogs outside of the Home Depot at the Seven Corners shopping center. I always remember the punch line, never the joke. Now I remember. What did the Zen Buddhist say to the hotdog vendor?
I fill my shopping cart with the following necessities: one socket wrench set, one six-way screwdriver, a “Fatso” brand utility knife, one toilet plunger, a small orange flashlight, and a tall, silver-toned floor lamp. Pay with the credit card my parents gave me for emergencies. This is an emergency. I am a superhero with all my tools. Load up my car. See Barnes & Noble next door. Find a book, Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, thinking that, yes, I am having a year of wonders. Buy three other hardcover books from the new releases table in the front of the store and a black leather journal so that I can write all this down. Swipe credit card. Move on to Best Buy for a new desktop printer. Swipe card.
Four-hundred dollars later, I call my parents on my cell phone and leave a message on their home answering machine about my spending spree, laughing. I drive west down Route 50 to go through the car wash at the Exxon in Merrifield. I blast the Tori Amos song “Concertina.” I listen to this song when I go through automatic car washes. At three minutes and fifty-six seconds, it times perfectly with the length of a Deluxe Wash at Exxon Mobile. Torrents of water pounding on glass. I am in a state of fierce calm.
Driving home, I realize that free will and predestination coexist in perfect harmony. I grew up Presbyterian, but I don’t understand the theology—now the secrets of the universe are revealed to me, and I am its queen. The puffy white clouds against the summer sky look straight out of The Simpsons, a show my younger brother watches. It dawns on me that I am Lisa, he is Bart, and I start laughing. Everything syncs together in rhythm as Radiohead’s Amnesiac, the song “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box,” plays on my car stereo. The beat of the music matches the beat of my blinker ticking as I turn and turn, making patterns on the streets near where I live.
Turn, turn, turn. First left, first right, first left, first right. Home to Christopher Street where my dad is waiting for me. Now I am a comedian. There are two kinds of people in this world: cats and dogs. My dad is a dog. Through my tunnel vision, I see his bushy eyebrows furrow. He doesn’t think I’m funny. He calls my mom to come home from work. My mom is a cat. “I hate cats!” I scream.
I strip myself naked and run out to my car parked in the driveway, get inside, and lock the doors. I have to get rid of my sins—all those dead batteries in the ashtray. I am frantic. I need to be cleansed. My mom runs out of the house with my dad’s large white bathrobe to cover me, so I get out of the car. I am now an angel. Now I am Jesus. It is the end of the world. I sit in the family room on the old brown sectional couch with my whole family and close friends as they listen to me count down to the end of times, from alpha to omega.
The world does not end.
I go upstairs to my parents’ bathroom and take off all my jewelry and try to wash it down the sink drain. I need to be unadorned. I lie down on my parents’ big white four-poster bed. A summer’s worth of blotchy red mosquito bites vanishes from my pale legs. I am pure. I am perfect. I am in heaven now. I am dead.
No. I think I am living the movie Memento. Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss and gets tattooed messages all over his body to remind him of clues he needs to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder. I am Leonard. I’ve told you this before, haven’t I? he keeps asking.
I stay up all night in my room writing out formulas and messages on yellow Post-it notes—notes to myself in case I wake up the next morning and can’t remember this. I scribble on the Post-it notes that this is all an elaborate game. I am a detective. My goal is to not let the other detectives know that there is a game, and that I am playing. Instead of getting tattoos, I plaster the notes all over my faded peach walls and white closet doors.
My mom comes into my room to help me calm down and get some sleep. She lies down on an old futon she puts next to my bed. She listens as I ramble on, unfiltered. I tell her everything. I tell her about how I lost my virginity to my first love in January. At one point during the night, I stop talking, sit up, and accuse her of being a detective, too. I demand to know her real name. “Mudd,” she says. Satisfied, I fall asleep.
The next morning, my parents sit me down at the old oak dining room table and hand me a brochure.
Manic episode: A distinct period of elevated, enthusiastic or irritable mood lasting at least one week (or less than one week if hospitalization is required), that includes at least three of the following symptoms.
Heightened mood, check. Decreased need for sleep, check. Racing thoughts, check. Overly talkative, check. Agitated, check. Grandiose thoughts, check. Impulsive, check. Reckless, check. Spending sprees, check. Poor judgment, check. Delusions, check. Hallucinations, check. Check, check, check, check. After I finish reading the brochure, my mom asks, “Do you think this is what is going on with you?” I immediately say yes. I agree that I need to go somewhere to rest my mind and body.
A large intake nurse decked out in purple from her eye shadow to her shoes takes me into a small room and admits me to the Partial Program at Dominion Hospital. It’s August 24, 2001. The nurse is me, in the future. She seems nervous. Or am I nervous? Nearly everything I own is purple. I’m thin, but my health-conscious dad has always warned me that if I’m not careful, I could become fat like his sister Carol. Genetics. Aunt Carol died on August 18th, the week before, from a heart attack while swimming in a pool in LA. I imagine her feeling peaceful, weightless, and then free from her earthly body. I met her only once, when I was seventeen, but something clicked for me when my dad called with the news. He always said that Aunt Carol and I had the same sense of humor and love of puns. Even at that moment, the term “partial patient” strikes me as funny. Am I not a whole person?
Dr. S giggles the whole time that I meet with him at Dominion Hospital. I think he looks like Yoda. I feel strange and confused as I tell him that my dad is manic-depressive, and my mom is bipolar, as if they are two different things, and that our family physician is a psychiatrist, because that’s what my dad told me. Another psychiatrist, Dr. T, comes into the room and they ask me more questions. I hear them say that they’d like to put me in a study. I tell them jokes. I’m a comedian after all.
The truth is that my dad used to joke that he was manic-depressive, which he isn’t, but his stormy moods and alternating exuberance make a case for that. The truth is that my dad used to say that every family is an insane asylum, a quote he either attributed to Harry Truman or William Faulkner. Or was it Richard Nixon? The truth is that my Aunt Carol had bipolar disorder, and my dad had grown up with her antics. The truth is that I experimented with marijuana a few days prior to all this. I have the classic triggers, all in a short amount of time. Changes in sleep patterns. Lack of sleep.