The monsters, Anna told herself, aren’t real. She took a deep, practiced breath and felt her feet. The knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach coiled one last nauseating loop and came to a stop.
She wasn’t even supposed to have been there, her ER rotation was Wednesdays. She was heading upstairs to the clinic and stopped by to drop off a diagnostic manual she’d borrowed, when she heard a commotion. A male nurse hit the floor, nearly knocking her off her feet. A large man blocked the corridor, roaring, rolling his wild, desperate eyes. Everybody pressed their backs against the wall.
The wild-eyed man was a repeat patient, his name was Willis, his diagnosis—paranoid schizophrenia. This time he’d been delivered to Bellevue psych ER after breaking down on a subway platform, freaked out by invisible monsters. He was being uncuffed when he tore himself away, slamming into the intake nurse. Out of nowhere, he pulled a pair of scissors and waved it violently, barely missing the young transit police officer who’d brought him in.
“Drop ‘em, Sir!” barked the cop. No recognition in the man’s eyes. With the look of a cornered animal, he jerked the open scissors up to his throat. The fluorescent light struck the blade, and Anna saw the pulsing vein where the metal bit into his skin.
A patient at the other end of the corridor wailed, startling her. Willis didn’t flinch. A disconnect. A broken line. He can’t hear, realized Anna with dream-like clarity.
“Didn’t you search him?” the nurse, still on his haunches, hissed to the hospital guard.
“I didn’t strip-search him.” The guard cursed under his breath. “He’s a frequent flyer, never been violent. . .”
Willis stared in their direction, cocking his head dog-like. His breathing was labored, with an asthmatic wheeze. And just like that, Anna knew what to do. Ignoring the guard’s warning hand, she pushed away from the wall and stepped forward.
With a lurch, the world slowed down and came in focus: each hair of the man’s stubble reflected in the dull mirror of the scissor blade; the sharp note of hospital disinfectant cut through the cloying stink of unwashed flesh; the rubber soles shuffled on linoleum across the corridor; the metal against the skin—all pulsing in time to the beat of blood pumping in her temples.
She opened her arms and spoke in a barely audible whisper, “Mr. Willis? Can you hear me?” Inside, she felt the knot loosening. She visualized a silvery glowing thread stretching outward. On an exhale, she tossed the line.
“I hear you, but nobody hears me.” Willis shifted to face her. Their eyes connected, locked. The line caught. “They’re real, the monsters. Nobody believes me.”
“I believe you.” For a split-second she feared she’d said too much. Inside, she tugged, reeling in. “I want to help you. Will you let me?”
“Yeah.” His Adam's apple twitched against the blade. “I . . . need help. I need meds.”
“I'll get you some. Promise. But will you please do something for me?” She took another step. “Please?” She was within an arm’s reach now—the line between them sang, stretched to its limit. “May I have the scissors?”
Willis pointed the blade at her, and back at himself. His hand trembled, went flaccid, dropped. Gently she pulled the scissors from his fingers, and slackened the line.
Everything sped back to normal: a blur of white coats and blue uniforms, arms around her shoulders pulling her to the side, away from Willis who was being tackled by the guards. Anna was patted on the back and asked if she were okay, over and over. She assured everyone she was fine. The psychiatrist on duty praised her call identifying a hearing impairment stemming from schizophrenia and comorbid asthma as “exceptionally intuitive for a non-clinician.” Only when the young transit cop, blushing, reached to shake her hand did Anna notice she still had the blade clenched in her fist. She stared at a red line fading across her palm. Didn’t hurt a bit.
Afterwards, in the bathroom, she scrubbed her hands till they went numb. The antibacterial foam smelled like a mix of alcohol and flowers—a lilac schnapps—but the metallic taste permeated her, lingering on her tongue. She rinsed her mouth with cold water, breathed slowly, in and out. The coolness was comforting.
It had been a while since she’d had an episode. The anxiety self-help protocol had been working. She’d been in control for years. She was in control now. Holding on to that thought, Anna headed to the morning conference.
“And how was your Thanksgiving?” Anna’s counseling workshop partner, Michael Campbell, propped the conference room door with his shoulder: armed and loaded, a brown glazed coffee mug like an organic extension of his hand.
“Just a dinner with family. Yours?”
“Chinese and a movie.”
With a belated sense of guilt, Anna realized she could have invited him to her parents’ home for dinner—like most interns in her group, he was a transplant living in the dorms. No need getting too familiar, she reminded herself: their internship was ending in a few months, and it was time to brace for the loss. She didn’t want to miss him.
“But never mind me,” Michael continued brightly. “You’re the talk of the town. Preventing a suicide by a violent paranoid schizophrenic before your first cup of coffee. Impressive.”
“Come on, it wasn’t like that. I just took scissors away from a mildly agitated man.”
“How does it make you feel?”
She shot him a mock-warning glare.
The medical doctor on call reported on the previous night’s events: the adolescent on suicide watch slept through the night, the sleepwalker tried to exit the observation unit and was promptly returned, the paranoid ex-con responded well to medication, and the early morning incident in the ER was efficiently resolved due to the quick thinking of their own Anna Reilly. The staff and the other interns looked at her, and there was a small buzz of approval around the room. Anna squirmed in her seat. Not that she was a stranger to spotlight—having been a serious Nordic skier all through her teens, she was accustomed to standing on the top tier of the podium—yet, ever since she was a kid, conditional approval always triggered her resentment. Being loved for her worth had always felt to her as worthless as not being loved at all. But, catching Michael’s professionally keen gaze, she readjusted, making sure her imposing frame projected confident composure.
“Seriously, how are you?” whispered Michael.
“Seriously, I’m fine.”
“Now, for last night’s admissions,” announced the attending psychiatrist, Dr. Cohen.
Two of Anna’s four cases had been closed a week before, so she was up for a fresh one. Thomas, the medical intern, glanced at her and turned to his notes. Just great. The last thing she needed today was his attitude. In the complex and subtle hospital hierarchy, all the student interns shared the bottom of the totem pole, but true to Sayre's law, the lower the stakes, the more bitter the rivalry: medical students found a reason to look down on psych grad students, psychiatrists saw themselves above clinical psychologists, who, in turn, entertained notions of a mild superiority over cognitive psychologists, like Anna. She had to be impeccable just to keep up.
Anna didn’t mind. She’d always run her best races in the worst weather.
“An elderly female presenting with depression.” Dr. Cohen leafed through his notes. “A repeat hospitalization.”
Next to Anna, Michael’s hand flew up. Seeing the older man squint at his ID tag, Michael offered: “Campbell.”
Typical Michael, so cognizant of the subtle signs, so accommodating. Selflessly volunteering for a decidedly dreary case. Anna, a cognitive psych grad, was lucky to have been paired with a clinical psych postgrad. She’d learned more from watching Michael lead a group than from any course book. He was a natural.
“Next,” said Dr. Cohen, “A homeless male with what presents like—huh, what do you know, a retrograde amnesia. Voluntary, compliant, had a comprehensive medical and, due to the nature of his hospitalization, an MRI.”
“I’ll take him.” Thomas half-raised his hand.
“Looks like Dr. Stevens has already assigned him to . . . Anna Reilly?”
Anna bit the inside of her cheek to hide a triumphant grin. Before taking off for the Thanksgiving weekend, her supervisor—who happened to be the head of inpatient psychology—had left her a thoughtful and generous gift. Clear-cut cases fitting Anna’s academic research were hard to come by, and a full-fledged amnesiac was a rare treat indeed. Handing such a juicy morsel to an intern was a genuine gesture of support, even if it made Anna look like a teacher’s pet.
“What should I prioritize,” she asked, ignoring Thomas’s scowl. “Establishing his identity or gaining diagnostic clarity?”
“Begin with a mental status exam,” said Dr. Cohen. “The diagnostic investigation itself can have a therapeutic effect. If his episode doesn’t clear within seventy-two hours, and he is admitted, he’ll undergo a standard battery of tests. In the meantime, it’s your call. Next!”
Current cases updated and new cases assigned, the meeting broke up, and the staff went off to start their day. Anna and Michael walked out together.
“Congrats on a curious case.” Michael carefully clanked his glazed mug against her stainless steel thermos. “You don’t seem too enthused about it, though.”
“I am. Here’s my happy dance.” She rolled her head in a little slide, her shoulders relaxing.
He laughed as if she’d made the wittiest joke. She would miss him.
“So, you think you could use the amnesiac for your paper?”
“Won’t know until after the interview. His memory impairment could be due to substance abuse or a head injury or a psychiatric condition, all of which would put him outside of my measurement model. See, what I need is a person who copes with trauma by generating a delusion while remaining psychiatrically sound otherwise. It’s a pretty narrow human subject pool.”
“Or, a pretty wide one.” Michael winked.
“Yeah, as in the whole of New York City.”
“Why settle? The whole of the humanity. We all cope with the trauma of everyday life, some more elaborately than others, and memory—well, memory is notoriously subjective. But, say you establish evidence of false memories accompanying a psychogenic amnesia and take him on. How do you get an informed consent form signed by a man who can’t remember if he is capable of informed consent?”
“Odds are he recovers his memory by the time I’m done with the initial round of interviews.”
“Here’s your opportunity to practice your psychoanalytic skills. I keep telling you, they’re better than you—”
“I won’t get to be his treating therapist,” Anna said quickly. “It’s unethical for a researcher to get this close to a subject. I mean, one on one with patients is not my thing, anyway.”
“I don’t get it,” said Michael. “I know you must have jumped through hoops to get this internship. Here’s your chance to work with live people, intimately. You do get excellent results. The PTSD vet last month? And the strung out girl last week—you did great with her. Your mirroring was effective. Yet you do anything to avoid one on one.”
Maybe because I don't like what I see in the mirror.
“I’m a cognitive scientist, not a counselor. Intimacy isn’t in my required skill set.”
Michael nodded, looked about, and spoke with a quiet urgency, “Listen, about this morning, it might not feel like a big deal now, but you’re talking to someone about it, right?”
“I have a nine o’clock supervision session with Dr. Stevens on Wednesday.”
“I mean, your personal therapist,” said Michael. Clearly, to him, a clinician coming from trauma counseling, it was inconceivable that she wouldn’t have a personal therapist. Anna’s slight embarrassment mixed with momentary irritation, the two cancelling each other out.
Since her face didn’t give anything away, and Michael kept looking at her with genuine concern, Anna bent her neck to give him one of those upward, soft glances that are meant to convey silent, noncommittal gratitude. She was a good head taller than him, and the back of her neck echoed with a dull ache, a reminder that some expressions of emotion were psychically challenging for a woman like her.
A fast-eyed nurse was waiting at the ward to introduce Anna to the new case. According to the police report, the mid-twenties Caucasian male had been discovered the night before in a pile of leaves in Riverside Park, nude. The jogger who called him in initially reported a corpse, but when the police arrived they were surprised to find the young man deeply asleep. Once shaken awake, he appeared disoriented and failed to identify himself. Eventually, he communicated that he had no memory of his identity or past. He was photographed, fingerprinted, and dropped off at Bellevue, where he underwent a standard medical examination. He consented to all the tests.
He had scrapes on his face and hands, but no damage to his head or sexual trauma. His blood work came back negative for STDs, HIV, drugs, and alcohol. Although naked in the November cold, he showed no hypothermia. In fact, his body temperature was slightly elevated as if he had been running a low fever. Despite appearing slightly malnourished, he had been deemed exceptionally fit and healthy—“For a man in his circumstances,” added the nurse, rolling her eyes.
Anna leafed through the examination report: the man’s body hair had been removed, probably by electrolysis. Kinky. Her smirk faded when she saw a snapshot of round, pale pink scars in an oddly regular pattern—like holes on a flute—along his forearms: healed cigarette burns. Self-harm? The round scars also ran along his spine. More likely, torture.
She shut the folder. This new case excited and disturbed her in equal measure.
“The officer who brought him in said he must have been engaged in the sex trade.” The nurse made a face. “No wonder, with his looks . . .”
“What about his looks?”
Without answering, the nurse pushed open the door to the interview room, a small square space painted in institutional beige with a desk in the middle and an empty chair to one side. Across the desk, a young man lounged in his hard chair with an out-of-place air of serenity. His bandaged hands, resting on the table, made him look like a prizefighter—or, rather, an East Village boutique mannequin displaying a prizefighter Halloween costume. His hair, cropped unevenly above his shoulders, was so blond it looked synthetic. A raw graze marred the smooth skin over his cheekbone. The oversized hospital-issued pajamas hung off his shoulders as if off a rack. Yet none of this could hide the obvious: the young man was strikingly handsome. His exquisite, almost feminine beauty felt ostentatious in the bare room of a mental ward. As Anna entered, he lifted his face: wide-set gray eyes flashed, dark eyebrows furrowed, finely cut mouth tightened. Anna could’ve sworn she’d seen this face before, but it was impossible. That she would have remembered.
“Good morning.” She made sure her voice projected warm authority. “I am—”
“Ahn-nah,” exhaled the young man, then threw back his head and burst into wild, hysterical laughter.
Anna and the nurse exchanged glances.
The young man stopped laughing as abruptly as he’d started, and fixed his attentive gaze on her. His clear eyes were rimmed with long eyelashes, thick and black, as if painted with mascara.
“You know him?” asked the nurse under her breath.
“’Course not! He must have read my badge.” Anna straightened the ID card on her chest.
“No, it’s all right.” This case was hers and hers only.
“The security guard is down the corridor,” whispered the nurse and left, half-closing the door behind her.
Slowly, Anna pulled out the empty chair and sat, facing the man. His stare was making her self-conscious. Her casual pencil skirt squeezed her thighs, her turtleneck choked her throat, and she regretted not wearing the protective armor of a lab coat. The standard protocol of the mental status examination she’d performed countless times, in supervised training and with actual patients, evaporated from her memory. Are you suicidal? Homicidal? Do you hear voices? See things? What was she going to say—
He kept staring at her. She stared back. He had a curious double curve to his upper lip, a shadow of a smile lurking in the corners of his tight mouth.
“Your hair is long,” he finally pronounced. His voice was low, smooth, melodic, and unambiguously masculine.
Mechanically Anna touched her hair, pulled back lacquer tight in a low ponytail. His inane statement hit a sore spot. What’s next, his commenting on how tall she is? She’d heard it before— height is perceived as intimidating, long hair as unapproachable. A surge of anger cut through unease and helped her focus. She may not have been a natural, but she’d been well trained. By focusing on a physical feature he’d served her an opening, and she used it:
“How long have you been growing yours?”
“It hasn’t been this short since I was a child.” Mirroring her, he ran his fingers through his disheveled hair. The gauze bandage caught in the tangled strands. He pulled out a dry leaf.
Appearance, Anna wrote, and paused, giving him another look. She couldn’t in her right mind put “gorgeous” on an MSE report, so she wrote, youthful, fragile, sexually ambiguous, unkempt, consistent with being found outdoors.
“It should fall below my waist, that much I know,” he added, twirling the leaf in his fingers.
“Why isn’t it?”
“Someone must have cut it off.”
“Why would anyone do such a thing?”
He shrugged one shoulder, tilting his head to the side. In contrast with his measured speech, his movement possessed an exaggerated, theatrical grace—no wonder the cops took him for a gay hooker.
“When I woke up without my long hair, I asked myself the same.” He sounded bemused. “When they brought me here, a woman requested some of my piss. I found it odd, but did as bid. Next they wanted some of my blood. Clearly, your people have an unnatural fascination with bodily fluids. Makes me wonder what else they may ask for. This is a strange and terrible world you live in, Ahn-nah.” He pronounced it with oddly open vowels and doubled consonants, making her plain name sound exotic and grand.
“If you call me by my name, wouldn’t it be fair for me to call you by yours?”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because I don’t know it.”
“But you must.” He leaned across the table, making Anna want to lean back. She stayed in her place. Contrary to what she expected, the man didn’t have body odor. Instead, there was a distinct freshness about him, like he had come from a glacier—a high, indefinable scent of snow.
“I don’t know your name,” Anna repeated firmly. “Would you please tell me?”
His angular face expressed disappointment. “So, you don’t know me. When you walked in, I had a feeling—” He let out a soft groan, the way large dogs do. “I had a hope you would know me. See, I cannot honestly say that I know myself. My memory must be clouded by the hardship of my journey. I cannot even recall my name, although the men who brought me here called me John Doe.”
“May I call you John?”
“John is as good a name as any.”
Rapport: cooperative, wrote Anna.
“So, John, you mentioned a journey. What was it?”
“Why, my having traveled through space and time, of course.”
Anna lowered her face to hide a smile. Despite the diversity of delusions, a human mind could concoct only a finite number of unique self-created narratives. A systematic methodology allowed them to be classified, and, hopefully, demystified, which she’d always found reassuring. Only so many stories in the world.
“Do you mind if I tape you?”
“I certainly do.” His dark eyebrows came together. “Why should you bind me? I am here willingly. For now.”
Anna put her phone on the table. Last month James, her gadget-freak stepdad, bought her a discreet microphone that turned her smartphone into a digital recorder: sensitive yet subtle enough not to alert the suspect, he'd said—ever a cop, she thought with tenderness.
“I’m asking if you don’t mind me recording our conversation for later.”
“With this?” John cocked his head. “I have never seen one of those.”
“It’s a new model. One, two, three.”
When the recorder played Anna’s voice back, John’s eyebrows arched.
“Ah, how clever. Yes, you may record our conversation.” He rolled his rs ever so slightly.
Speech: archaic, formal, slight accent, otherwise highly expressive.
“All right. For the record, do you know your age?”
He sighed. “No, I do not. But I feel as if I have lived through hundreds of winters.”
“You don’t look that old.” She caught herself feeling uneasy commenting on the patient’s appearance, as if his arresting beauty was a kind of unmentionable deformity.
“If you say so.” He pursed his lips. “Truth be told, I feel I have lived and died.”
“Those marks on your arms. Do they have anything to do with those feelings?”
He pushed up the sleeve of his hospital pajamas and caressed the inside of his forearm; so sensual was his gesture that fine hairs stood up on Anna’s arms. She wanted to look away but forced herself to keep her eyes on the small, round scars along his radius. A good reminder that the attractive person in front of her was a trauma victim, someone in need of professional help.
“No,” he said with conviction, finally looking back at her. “This is not a mark of death. Rather, a mark of another life. I understand, it sounds unlikely, but you must believe what I say to you.”
“Tell me about that other life in which you . . . died?” asked Anna, scribbling, Perception: experiential anomaly.
Suddenly John hugged himself, like he was freezing, and began to rock back and forth with a little whimper.
“What is it?” Anna instinctively pressed against the back of her chair.
“I don’t know who I am!” Tears filled his eyes. “I cannot recall! I sense the memory locked inside, yet lost to me. Pray you never know the torment of such a loss.”
“It’s all right, John, we’ll skip it for now,” said Anna quickly, and wrote, Cognition: severely impaired memory, loss of identity. “How far back can you remember?”
“Stars and snow were falling from the sky. On a hilltop I knelt, praying to be welcomed into my father’s house . . . and snow covered me . . . and ages flowed by like a dream. Then, a door opened and I went through.”
“What kind of door?”
“I have no words to explain!”
“Where did this door lead?”
“Nowhere— no, where and when, it led through time and space. I cannot—”
“We can talk about it later, when you remember. But one more question now: why did you come through the door?”
He drew a ragged breath.
“I followed my desire.” His sharp teeth raked over his bottom lip. It glistened. “Why are you asking me these questions?”
“Because I want to help you.” For a split-second Anna worried if her voice came out overly heartfelt, but her words seemed to have an immediate soothing effect. John exhaled with relief and stopped swaying.
Wide emotional range, high affect intensity, she wrote.
“I was right to put my trust in you.” He tucked a strand of blond hair behind his ear. “When my story comes back to me, you shall be the first to hear it. You have my word.” And he gave her a smile.
A smile can illuminate a plain face and can turn a pretty face ugly. John Doe’s smile reassembled his sharp features like shards of glass in a kaleidoscope to create an image that was simply dazzling.
At that moment, Anna realized what felt odd about his appearance: the delicately shaped ears were longer than usual, and stuck out quite a bit. Together with the clear, almond-shaped eyes, his ears made him appear somewhat feral. But this smile of his, which could easily turn into a wild grin, was so genuine, so guileless…
“Let’s talk about something you do recall. What is your most recent memory?”
“I was awakened by a stranger, in a foreign place. I had no possessions, no clothes. These are not mine.” He tugged at the collar of his hospital pajamas like it suffocated him. “I was awake and aware, but my life was a forgotten dream. Do you know this feeling, this bitter taste under your tongue left by loss and longing?”
As much as she disliked his turning the conversation to her, his poetic way of describing his disorientation struck a chord. Unfortunate that a man capable of such self-awareness was so lost. Anna knew exactly what John Doe was talking about. He was describing derealization, an altered perception resulting in the external world appearing alien, the real feeling unreal. She felt a sharp pang of empathy for this waiflike man.
Thought process: logical, reasonable. Thought content: delusional ideation as rationalization of anomalous experience. Derealization? She circled the latter. The tips of her fingers tingled.
“At first, my senses were numb,” he continued pensively. “The world began whispering to me, first vaguely, and then more clearly. I began to seek things familiar: simple things, like the smell of the leaves, the roughness of a stone, the bark of a dog. I reckoned that the only sensations I recognized were those that time cannot change, and it comforted me, because at this moment I understood my predicament and submitted to it. I allowed strangers to handle me. And you came.” John leaned back in his chair, a picture of stoic contentment, as if his hysterical outburst of a few minutes ago had never happened.
“Wait, you stated you understood your predicament. What did you understand?”
“That I have traversed time and space on a quest for the worthiest prize.”
“I am not entirely sure yet,” John lowered his eyelids, suddenly demure, “But I expect it has to do with true love.”
The words true love falling from his lovely lips made Anna gag a little.
“And how is your quest going so far?” she asked, and immediately regretted the sarcasm spilling into her voice.
“So far, so good.” John looked up.
Meeting his earnest gaze made her uncomfortable. Something was wrong, beyond the usual wrong you’d expect at the Bellevue psych ward. This man did appear submissive, but it seemed that with each acquiescence he claimed a new degree of intimacy from her. To ask him an upsetting question felt like injustice, not to return his smile felt plain evil. But she was supposed to elicit a reaction from him, not the other way around! Anna chewed the tip of her pen.
“Let’s approach this from the other end. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to assume that everything seems strange because you are experiencing a kind of internal breakdown?”
“Such an assumption feels wrong, so it is wrong. I trust my heart. I may not remember my past, but I am aware of the present. When I grew accustomed to the speech, I asked where I was, and was told this is New York. A new York, imagine!” John laughed softly. “Would I know of an old York? Obviously, time has passed. Everything looks—how shall I put it—overbuilt. I must have lived in a place simpler than this, a place with trees, open fields. And animals! When the sheriff’s dog licked my fingers, I nearly wept, so dear was the sensation.”
Anna suppressed a skeptical snicker at the mention of the K-9 unit dog licking a civilian’s hand.
“So, you are familiar with a rural environment. Did you live on a farm?”
“Are you accustomed to farm work? Did you care for animals, I don’t know, drive a tractor?”
“Animals care for themselves. Attractor, who is he?”
“It is an agricultural machine.”
“Oh, yes, the machines. This world is full of the most sophisticated contraptions with purposes I cannot conceive of. And the magnificence of stone buildings! Impressive.” He nodded with lordly approval, as if complimenting Anna’s personal achievement. “It appears humanity has advanced quite a bit in the study of mechanics, masonry, and magic.”
Here it comes. “What do you mean by magic?”
“The power to reorder the creation.” John set his elbows on the table, placing his sharp chin on locked fingers. Looking at his hands, Anna decided that those nails—the shape and luster of peeled almonds—could not have belonged to a farm laborer. Even bandaged, his hands looked like they’d never picked up anything heavier than a flute of champagne.
“John,” she spoke as amiably as she could. “Magic is not real,”
“I beg to differ.”
“Because I feel so, which means it must be the truth.”
“Very well. Do you have magic powers?”
John studied his palms. “I’m afraid not. Not here, not now.”
“Then what makes you think magic is real?”
He smirked with gentle condescension. “You do not think magic, you feel it.”
Anna rubbed the bridge of her nose. John Doe’s life philosophy seemed to be “I feel, therefore I am.” Descartes would be spinning in his grave.
“John, there is no such thing as magic.”
“How else would I be able to travel through time and space if not by a mighty magic?” He batted his smoky eyelashes.
Anna took a deep breath. John Doe was going in circles, and she was getting nowhere. She needed to snap him out of his loop, but carefully, without damaging an already fragile psyche. She wished she were better at this, more intuitive instead of having to rely on protocol. What would Michael have done? Anna mentally shuffled through her inventory of techniques. The patient was highly sensitive. A guided imagery visualization could be a fitting tool to gently pry open the locked vault of his mind.
“All right, John. Let’s try something else. Please close your eyes and try to imagine what I’m describing. Humor me.”
With an expression of mild amusement, he shut his eyes.
The Green Hills walk was Anna’s favorite visualization routine—she had come up with it as an undergrad. Her Green Hills was a place of infinite beauty, where luminous planes of landscape overlaid each other all the way to the horizon, all in a promise of endless possibility. She had no idea where it came from, probably from an idyllic countryside, Ireland or Tuscany or some other lovely unpeopled terrain computer companies use for screensavers—certainly, not a place she’d even been to or was going to any time soon.
“Imagine yourself standing on top of a hill. The gentle wind is warm against your skin. You are at peace. In front of you is a path. You begin walking downhill. You come into a valley, following the path. Tell me about the path.”
John’s eyelids quivered. “Nooo,” he exhaled. “There is no path in the hills.”
Anna made a mark in her notes. The patient was not pretending. In his own mind he was literally lost.
“Now, you see someone.” She led him to the next stage. “Describe this person.”
“There is no one here. Wait, I do see someone, a youth with cropped hair. He looks young but strong—no, wait, he is a she.”
Danke schön, Herr Jung. The imagery generated by John Doe’s psyche was textbook archetypal. Without a doubt, the female figure in his vision represented his Anima, the feminine aspect of his own psyche.
“What is your relationship to this woman?”
“We are . . . together.” His eyelids trembled. “And yet we are apart.”
So, John Doe’s personal femininity was represented by a tomboyish girl. An archetype of the Maiden: an innocent, an eternal juvenile, arrogant but ultimately needy, assertive but ultimately vulnerable, full of potential for both success and failure—all the qualities he must have adored and despised in himself.
“The woman is giving you something. What is it?”
“She holds her hand to me, but her hand is empty. Nothing for me in that world.”
The patient readily acknowledging the discord within his own subconscious—a good sign.
“You return to the top of the hill. The gentle wind is warm against your skin. You take a deep breath, and you open your eyes.”
John opened his eyes and rubbed them with his fists like a child.
“How did it feel?”
“As a walk in the hills would.”
“Would you describe the hills?”
“There are grassy green hills as far as the eye can see, veils behind veils suspended in the air all the way to infinity beneath the sunless pearly sky.”
Anna felt a touch of unease. In her imagination, the sky was indeed sunless. Pearly-grey, when she thought about it. John was inexplicably specific about something he had no way of knowing. It was an intriguing angle worth exploring, but it would have taken her away from her primary line of inquiry, so she shrugged off cold tickle between her shoulder blades.
“I know and love this place well. I believe I always have.” John’s pale face was slightly flushed. “Thank you for reminding me.”
An hour later the orderly came to escort the patient back to the observation unit, and Anna was no closer to solving John Doe’s mystery than she’d been when she started. In essence, the man had lost himself. He had no idea of his identity. He could only recollect emotions, not facts. But Anna gathered that he had grown up in a rural setting, possibly an isolated compound with no access to modern conveniences (he was sincerely impressed with the ward’s indoor plumbing). His memory of life prior to being found in the park was fuzzy, and every attempt at recollection threw him into fits of despair. However, here the aberrations stopped.
John Doe was lucid. He expressed common sense. He showed no signs of a thought disorder. Other than suggesting he’d traveled through time and space, he appeared reasonable and aware of his surroundings. Although he came off a bit affected, he didn’t check out for histrionic personality. He didn’t exhibit psychopathic or antisocial tendencies either. His manner of addressing Anna bore no trace of flirtation or sexual manipulation. Overall, he came through as a sincere and intelligent, if eccentric, individual suffering from memory loss due to an unspecified trauma. Someone coping with trauma by generating a delusion while remaining psychiatrically sound otherwise. Her dissertation’s definition of the perfect subject, verbatim. Anna chewed her lip to suppress a nervous grin.
Just as the orderly came over, John leaned across the table and said pleadingly: “I am suffocating here. The smells and sounds are horrid. I need air and sunlight.” He covered her hand with his narrow palm. Even through the bandage, it felt hot and hard. The sensation gave her an adrenaline jolt, like she’d misstepped down an uneven staircase. She pulled her hand away.
The orderly tensed up, and she motioned for him to take it easy.
“No, John, you’ll have to spend the night here.”
“Am I jailed?” He jerked up his chin and folded his arms across his chest. The contrast between his defiant posture and the fragility of his body pierced Anna’s heart. What kind of trauma was he trying to forget? What kind of reality made him want to escape into a fantasy?
“You’re not jailed, but I want you to stay overnight.” She stood up.
“What is that you want from me, Ahn-nah?” John rose too. He was taller than she expected, in fact, they were the same height, eye to eye.
“I want to know your story.”
He let out a deep sigh and fixed her with his Siberian husky stare.
“If I give you my story, will you free me?”
“I will,” she blurted out, and blushed, because at that moment she was not the coolheaded, detached mental health professional, but the little girl who simply had to rescue the puppy from the pound.
“I have your word.” He exhaled, as if bracing himself, and nodded to the orderly, “Lead the way, my good man.”
The report Anna filed before leaving for the day stated that John Doe was deemed to present no immediate danger to himself or others. However, the subject was gravely disabled due to identity/memory loss, rendering him unable to provide for his own basic personal needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. While the police worked to establish his identity through their channels, Anna recommended that John Doe be kept in the seventy-two-hour holding facility, starting at the time of his arrival, for extended observation to gain diagnostic clarity.
That Friday night, Anna’s mother and stepfather were going out—undoubtedly, following the “How to keep your fire going” advice from Woman’s Day or any of the other magazines that littered the coffee table at her parent’s place. As always on her parents’ date night, Anna stayed home with Jack. Jack, who preferred to think of it as his own rightful date with his sister rather than babysitting, was disappointed when she showed up with her boyfriend—correction, fiancé.
Anna had been dating Ted for nearly a year. They had met during her second year of graduate school, at a conference where he, a recently board certified pediatric psychiatrist with his own brand new practice, was giving a presentation. She hadn’t dated in high school, and while she had made a concerted effort to catch up in college, the random hookups at the dorm parties rarely went beyond a one-nighter. Of course, there was Genie, but what Anna had with Genie was not dating.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, they talked about the future, and by the end of the conversation it came up that getting married was the next logical step in their relationship. Ted expected that they’d announce it at Thanksgiving dinner, but Anna suggested they wait to tell her family. This was primarily because of Jack, who was as much her baby as her half-brother— possessive of her, perhaps inappropriately, but nevertheless. Anna was grateful that Ted didn’t openly express any resentment. His appreciation of her boundaries was one of the qualities she found most attractive.
In his usual constructive manner, he offered to spend more quality time with Jack. Sooner or later, the eleven-year-old would have to start getting used to his sister’s boyfriend—yes, fiancé—being a part of the family. The initial discomfort was natural but would eventually be overcome, he said, and Anna agreed. Still, as she now watched Jack follow Ted with eyes full of jealousy and mistrust, she couldn’t help but feel torn.
“Pokémon?” Ted picked up a deck of brightly colored trading cards.
“It’s Yu-Gi-Oh!” Jack glared. “I’m not into Pokémon. Pokémon’s for losers.”
A shadow of embarrassment passed over Ted’s kind face. He prided himself on following popular cartoons and toys, always striving to establish common ground with his young clients Adolescents comprised a good portion of his private practice, which, as he himself complained, had lately become less about handing out Ritalin prescriptions and more about treating opioid withdrawal.
“Do you still watch Naruto?” asked Anna to change the subject.
“Nah. I read the manga now. It’s much further ahead than the animation.”
“Wow, you’re hardcore. So, what’s up with Naruto?”
As Jack launched into an enthusiastic and detailed account of the complicated social life of a demon-possessed ninja boy, Anna’s mind wandered to John Doe.
“You’re not listening!” Jack nudged her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, buddy. It’s just . . . I keep thinking about this patient with amnesia . . .” Anna stopped short, catching Ted’s warning glance. Ted believed that even casually mentioning a case to civilians violated the therapist’s integrity.
“In this one episode, Pikachu gets amnesia and joins Team Rocket, then he and Ash Ketchum fall in the river, and then they almost drown, and then he remembers the times they had together, and then his memory comes back,” declared Jack with authority.
“I thought you’re not into Pokémon.” Ted squinted.
Jack shrugged, doing his best to be nonchalant. His eyes darted around the room. “Hey, you know what? I got a bunch of super-rares and some ultra-rares since we played last time. And Egyptian Expansion.” He grabbed his Yu-Gi-Oh! card deck. “Wanna play, Annie?”
Feeling guilty for neglecting her brother, Anna threw herself into the game. From the many times they’d played together, she knew the rules and could hold her own, but Ted kept getting beaten by Jack, who showed no mercy after Ted’s Pokémon jab. Things got brutal. Soon—but not soon enough for Ted—it was Jack’s bedtime. Anna cuddled up next to him, and he was out cold before she finished a chapter from his favorite book de jour, another dystopian young adult fantasy. For a boy who still loved being read to, Jack always insisted on books above his grade.
Mom and James returned soon after that.
“Your mother kept smiling at me,” said Ted as they walked to the subway stop.
“She always smiles at you.”
“She was smiling knowingly. Did you tell her about our engagement?”
“I told Mom. She wants me to tell James personally, and I will. He’s treated me as his own since the day we met, I owe him that. He is sensitive. Tough guys often are.”
“And sensitive guys are often pragmatic.” Ted smiled. “About that: I was looking at two-bedrooms in our price range and found some interesting offers in the upper Eighties, around York. Oh, and of course I was looking only at elevator buildings.”
He didn’t have to say that. Anna knew he’d rather they spend the night at his place than at hers. Her studio was at the top of a four-story walk-up in the Garment District, right off Sixth Avenue, only the skylight between her and the starless Manhattan skies. The narrow brownstone had only four apartments, one per floor, all semi-legal residential spaces above a barbershop, its red and blue neon swirl like a beacon at night, when the colorful windows of wholesale fabric shops disappeared behind graffiti-painted eyelids of metal shutters, and the bustling commercial neighborhood turned into a graveyard. Anna loved her funky neighborhood and her peculiar little apartment, which was taller than it was wide. It would be a shame to give it up.
A homeless man in a green tarp parka was shuffling down the sidewalk, asking for change. He stopped in front of them, twitching and mumbling.
“Come on, kiddo, you got to—” He stared directly at her. In the cool streetlight his green irises looked unnaturally radiant, out of place in his weathered face.
“Change!” the beggar exhaled into her face. Instinctively, Anna held her breath, but man didn’t smell foul. He didn’t smell at all.
“Easy now,” warned Ted, shifting his weight. He wasn’t athletic—even climbing the stairs to Anna’s fourth floor got him winded—but his size alone was imposing.
“It’s okay.” Anna dug through her purse. Usually she had cards with a list of local homeless services in her wallet, but today she was all out, so she pulled out a dollar bill. “Here you go.”
“Don’t gimme that!” The man huffed, ignoring her outstretched hand. “None of it is real! Damn, kiddo! Change!” He shot a disappointed glare at her and continued his unsteady trek, muttering, “Change, anyone, change?”
Anna chuckled. “I once interviewed a person who didn’t believe paper money was real, transferred his paycheck into dollar coins monthly. A neat man, quite intelligent, had a wonderfully logical, deeply paranoid narrative about the conspiracy within the world financial system.”
“And you think it’s cute?” The palpable disgust in Ted’s voice took her aback.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Sometimes the way you speak about delusional patients makes it sound like you think their illness is some sort of art project.”
“Well, a delusional mind can be very creative. To acknowledge it is a question of ethics, and yeah, aesthetics, too. Besides, isn’t psychotherapy just two people playing together?”
“You don’t have to quote Winnicott to me, Ann. I’m surprised you’re so flippant about this. It’s not a game. The ethical thing to do is not to indulge the illness and chat it up, but to treat it by medical means.”
“Chat it up. . . I’m not a therapist, Ted, I don’t have a horse in the race. I’m just a humble researcher with my nose buried in statistical data, trying to devise more ways to dig up more data.”
“Precisely why I’d expect you to take a more scientific view.”
“Well, neuroscience proves that the human eye receives only raw sensory data, light and shadow, planes and edges. It’s the brain that processes it into what we distinguish as objects and backgrounds. In that sense, we all live inside our minds, each of us constantly perceiving and simultaneously creating reality.”
“Forgive me if I keep getting the impression that you romanticize the phenomenon.”
“I’m only suggesting that eliminating the symptoms prematurely may prevent insight into the origins of the condition. You know, the psyche exploring itself through the illness . . .”
He responded with a passion she didn’t expect from him: “When they bring me a little girl weak from sleep deprivation because monsters under her bed keep her up, or a boy whose reliance on an imaginary friend turns him into an outcast at school, or a teen who self-mutilates because she believes she’s a dragon—should I tell their parents to tough it out because it’s the psyche exploring itself through the illness? No, Ann, I don’t think so. If a medication can eliminate these symptoms, I’d make sure the patient receives it. The sooner the better.”
“You would, you drug pusher, you,” Anna muttered through a grin. She wanted to sound playful, but it came out mean-spirited, so she threaded her hand under Ted’s thick arm and rested her cheek on his shoulder. She didn’t feel particularly tender toward him at that moment, but continuing the argument was even less enticing.
As soon as they entered her apartment, Anna dropped her phone into the speaker dock on her tempered glass computer desk, and let the syncopated melody of Jethro Tull’s “Living in The Past” fill the room, its gentle whimsy preempting further conversation. Another quality of Ted’s that Anna appreciated was his indifference to music that she took as an indulgence to her 70s progressive rock addiction, something most boys had found decidedly uncool.
Anna’s studio doubled as an office where she sometimes conducted interviews, so she kept it uncluttered and impersonal. The only sentimental object on her desk was a glass vase with a tall, dry, gorgeously fractal maple branch trimmed with a collection of tchotchkes she’d accumulated over the years.
She flicked the crystal pendant that hung between an antique Christmas ornament and a small dream catcher, sending it into motion. She was a kid when she made this trinket with a leather cord, some wire, and a pointed crystal shard. She’d used to pretend it was magical, had this secret game where she’d put it on and count the monsters she saw out the subway car window. What New York teen doesn’t cope with anxiety? Some girls binged and purged, others cut. She’d counted monsters in the subway tunnels—yet another thing never to speak about. Do you hear voices? See things? No and no.
Later, as Anna brushed her teeth in front of the bathroom mirror, she calculated the odds of Ted’s interpreting her disinterest in sex as punishment for disagreeing with him. Withholding intimacy would make her look petty, but she wasn’t in the mood. When Ted reached out to hold her in bed, she hesitated.
“That tired, huh?” Ted knew better than to sound disappointed, and Anna knew better than to think he wasn’t. He’d spent the evening with her family. She owed him. She mirthlessly grinned to herself: look at them, two mental health professionals, not even married yet, but already keeping careful score of positive and negative coupons. She turned toward him, pressing against his soft body.
“Never that tired.”
“How did I get so lucky to net such a hot babe?”
“Yeah, and here I thought you loved me for my brains.”
Anna had never considered herself hot. Growing up, she had valued her lung capacity above her looks, because back in Michigan one wasn’t made captain of a middle school Nordic team for being cute. At her new high school in Manhattan, it was her top ranking on the track and field team, not her freckled face, that made her popular. During her freshman year at NYU her gangly frame had filled out, and she’d begun to turn heads, however, by then the inventory of her assets and insecurities had been assembled, and her body image placed low on both lists. As they said in her social psychology classes, her identity has been already informed by other things.
And then Genie burst into her life, supernova-hot, with kohl eyes and vermillion lips. They’d met at a party first-year drama undergrads were throwing at the dorms. Anna, a psych undergrad, had been still living at home with her mom and stepdad the cop; the wild life outside of parental supervision had been new and exotic to her. Eugenia Sokolova, or Genie, as everyone called her, was as exotic as they came. A foreign student whose father, a Russian oligarch—A small-time oligarch, she’d say with a sneer, not even in the top ten,—financed his daughter’s thespian habit along with all the other habits inherent to a theater student in New York City. All Anna remembered about that night was winning a drinking contest. Genie was the prize. Anna had had her share of girl locker room makeouts, but this was a whole new ballgame. Tall, dark-haired, reserved Anna and petite, foxy-red, exuberant Genie were the two girls least likely to bond. Besides, Anna, whose class sensitivity had been honed by her years as an athletic scholarship student at an upscale Manhattan high school, was wary of the rich kids. And yet, they hit it off like crazy. When the next semester came, Anna moved out of her parents’ apartment and in with Genie into a two-bedroom down in the West Village. Rented from some family connection for a symbolic fee, it was cheap enough for Anna to afford her half and her pride. Their apartment became something of a bohemian salon for the next three years, a never-ending party; it was a miracle (by the grace of Adderal) that Anna got any school work done. But what made Genie so irresistible to Anna wasn’t the dubious advantage of befriending someone worldly and generous, if unhinged. After all, her new friend didn’t make Anna do anything she didn’t want to.
The real reason was that Genie loved her for no reason at all.
But as all things free, Genie’s love was not subject to the rules of exclusive ownership. Soon after she realized that, Anna began having sex with men. She discovered she liked it: physical fullness, esthetic validation, social capital—the usual. She mostly liked that it allowed her to expose herself without having to talk. About the dead father, who’d moved from mostly absent to forever gone, leaving her no chance to figure out if she even missed him. About the delicate mother who hadn’t missed the dead husband enough, remarrying indecently quickly and happily. About the baby brother who’d needed her more than she needed her teenage freedom, and just wouldn’t let go. About the old friends who’d let go too easily, and the new best friend who was content remaining just that, albeit with benefits. About herself for foolishly wanting the things she couldn’t have.
It was good to feel wanted instead. Almost boyish despite her shapely butt and thighs—it took a while to stop referring to them as glutes and quads—Anna retained the physique of an athlete even after quitting sports. She was surprised to learn how her height, her long black hair, and her sarcastic demeanor could not only intimidate, but excite. She began to relish the expression of disbelief in the face of a next target when he realized he’d been chosen. She always kept them at arm’s length, even if they wanted more. Especially when they wanted more. She’d rather be cool than hot.
A year after Genie left for a graduate program in London, Anna met Ted. When he formally asked her out, Anna thought, this I can have. Ted was solid, inside and out. He was ahead of her on the same professional path. He was taller than her, unlike most guys, and she liked that. She liked that he paid attention to things other than the tight curve of her behind or her ability to hold her liquor—her academic ambition, or how well adjusted she was for someone who’d suffered the death of a parent as a child. If she were to be loved for a reason, it might as well have been the right one.
Sex with Ted had been an improvement over casual hookups, as she always reminded herself when, afterwards, they’d kiss and roll to opposite sides. Dozing off, Anna focused on the positive feeling.
“Sweet dreams,” whispered Ted.
The words gave her a little prick, but Anna bit her tongue. Ted had no way of knowing, because she’d never told him.
Of all the things Anna Reilly didn’t talk about, this one was as embarrassing as it was ironic: she didn’t dream. To be scientifically accurate, she suspected she did experience normal brain activity during her REM sleep stage, yet every morning as soon as her eyes opened to the world, a curtain would fall over her mind and she’d wake up with a taste of loss under her tongue.
She remembered when it happened. She was fourteen. The winter she moved to New York, she had a nightmare of which she mostly recalled the sense of relief that it ended. Then, abruptly, no more dreams, like someone flipped a switch. Around the same time, the anxiety attacks began.
Later, as a psych undergrad, she had tried everything legally possible to glimpse her own unconscious mind, from setting an alarm at odd times to breathing exercises and guided imagery visualization. She’d tried some of the illegal stuff as well. Still, the most she could recall upon waking was a feeling—an echo of being in love, a shadow of fear, a sense of release, emotions presumably related to the dreams that had inspired them. She hated this helplessness as much as she hated losing control during her anxiety attacks, but not as much as she loathed being found out as a pathetic imposter: a psychologist locked out of her own mind.
She had a close call when her inability to fill up a required dream journal put her in danger of failing her Jungian dream analysis class. “The cobbler's children are always the worst-shod,” joked her professor, and explained that loss of dream recall wasn’t indicative of anything in particular—especially, not of mental illness—unless it caused emotional distress, which must be addressed in personal therapy. “An issue of personal hygiene,” he said.
She remembered being surprised by how much inner resistance his words had made her feel. Back then, she’d secured her professor’s permission to analyze her roommate’s dreams. Genie’s subconscious had always been a fertile field, and Anna had earned her A.
Now she lay next to her future husband, so alone that even having someone to blame would have been a relief. But there was no one to blame, just as there was no mystery to why she’d felt that way. Besides, she had no use for either blame or mystery. No longer was she an insecure, anxious teen clutching in her fist a tacky trinket to ward off the imaginary monsters. She stood on the other side of the barricades now, armed with science and reason, fighting the real monsters lurking in the shadowed crevices of the human psyche. She held onto that thought as she drifted into sleep.