I can smell my own panic sweat coming off my hands. I wonder if they can smell it, too. No one’s thinking about it. I know that, but it’s all that I can think.
She rattles off the list of things she shouldn’t have done on the ward. She wasn’t supposed to talk to the boys, but she had to, she can only really talk to boys. Too much trouble talking to other girls. Her mom explained this to a sympathetic nurse.
Her dad’s not happy about going to the pet store. I’m not either, but I’m trying to be nice.
It’s too easy to go that me-brain. I didn’t sign up for this. We were just supposed to pick her up. Now we have go to a pet store and go to dinner? I have to work in the morning. I’m a grown-up and everything is all about me.
Panic sweat is different from normal sweat. It has a sharper, higher smell. Smelling fear is real, if you know what you’re smelling for. We’re stuck in traffic in some awful rich suburb of Detroit, Birmingham, I think, and I worry that everyone can smell the shiny mist of panic sweat continually brimming over the skin of my palms.
Everyone is hungry. We should have eaten first. If we had eaten first, then no one would care about getting to the pet store or how long we had to spend there. As it is we are all on edge and I worry that we might upset her already.
I’m glad I texted her. They’re glad I texted her. I think she’s glad I texted her, and I know she’s glad to see me. Her face lit up with genuine surprise when I walked in. Still, she keeps calling the hospital prison. Her parents kept saying how we were going to spring her.
Her mom, my aunt, keeps trying to talk to me, very sweetly, about my job or whatever while we’re waiting to get called back. It takes forever. We’re sitting next to each other in the waiting room chairs, and it’s not a good angle. I want to talk but I find it difficult. The sentences just don’t build up to anything.
It’s only been like 12 hours since I snapped out of a spell myself. By which I mean I have very much wanted to kill myself all week, but it subsided. I talked to my boss. They’re going to give me different hours. I don’t feel so heavy anymore. Still seeing a new psychiatrist on Friday, though.
It’s funny how fast things like that can pass. Or come. You turn your head and then you get an email that reminds you how much you hate your job, and then your palms start flooding again and you can’t tell if you’re holding your breath or not.
Or you’re just out for a walk when suddenly you realize you need to cry and your armpits are soaked. You take off your sunglasses, but it all snaps back. You can wriggle around inside your panic, but that doesn’t make it go away.
I am bad. When we pull up, I mutter under my breath it’s just a fucking pet store. I mean, it was just a fucking pet store, but Narnia squared if you were from the sticks. I wanted to be nice. I wanted to eat. It was just a fucking pet store.
That sawdust smell. Notes of fish and guts. Sweet shit and dander. The cold hard yellow floor leaps into your nose. It is just a pet store. I am hungry. I am selfish.
I look at the cat toys. I’ve told myself I’m not going to spend any money, but I find myself close to cracking. I wanted to end my life even while holding my cat. I am selfish. I am hungry.
My aunt walk up behind me. “Are you looking for a cat toy?”
“Yeah. I mean, no. Maybe.”
My aunt nods, smiling. “Well, you pick out any one you want. My treat.”
I look back at her. I want to protest, but I don’t. “Okay.”
She walks away slowly, drifting off to find her husband by the dog food.
I look at the bright scraps of plastic and felt in my hands and I want to cry. Again? Have I cried today? My cousin is too short to see over the tall store racks. My cat is too far away to hold.
Something. Something just told me to text her. “Hope you’re having a good day!” She wasn’t. She wasn’t having a good day, or a good time.
She says there are voices. I tell her to tell her mom. I am scared. I don’t know if her mom will believe her.
And then she does. She does believe her, and then my cousin is in the hospital. “Prison.” The disease makes the cure repellent. Not cure. Curative. The treatment.
There are little felt mice with big fluffy tails. My cat would love them. She would love to tumble over them and gnaw them. I put down the toys in my hand in a pile on the cold steel and walk over to the toy mice. Think she must have real mice friends in the basement; the fleas must be coming from somewhere.
I hear her. I hear her laugh. She’s found the snakes. She loves snakes. So does my cat. But enough about her.
“Mom, mom!” she shouts happily, needingly. Desirously. No, needingly. She knows she can’t get a snake. Her sister’s ophidiophobia won’t accommodate that. “Mom!”
My aunt approaches her daughter by the snakes. She wants to buy her a snake. She wants to buy her a snake more each time they go to the pet store. She wants to do anything to make her happy, but for now visiting snakes is about all she can do.
“Honey…” she says, eliding the rest of the sentence in plaintive exhaustion.
“But, Mom!” she intones, gesturing enthusiastically at the cage in front of her.
The coil of a ball python drapes lazily over a stick. Nearby, an albino ball python taps the glass with her nostrils. My cousin is in anxious rapture, lost somewhere between completion and loss. So close, so very close.
I’m doing it. I’m thinking more about snakes than how crazy we are. I remember going to the pet store and petting, holding snakes with my dad when I was a kid. It’s probably why I’m not afraid. Not of the snakes, anyway.
Everything moves fast. She finds the snakes, and then we’ve descended upon her. The albino snake backs away.
We are bad again. “I’m so hungry.” We get a chance to complain and we take it. Her dad joins the throng: “We really gotta get going.”
“All right, sweetheart,” my aunt says, turning back to her daughter. “We should get going now.”
“You just don’t understand!” she says. She doesn’t sound pained, but it sounds like the truth. She stands looking at the snakes, motioning to them lovingly. Flapping her hands in a stiff bent wave. She is excited and in denial. “You brought me to the wrong place!”
The toy mice rustle around their fluorescent plastic sac as we make our way back to the car. I felt stupid putting them up on the counter, following a gesture from my aunt. My cousin holds a thick book on snake care tight in her arms, like a baby doll she could “just eat up.” My uncle starts wondering aloud where we might eat, and complaining about the traffic.
The traffic is lamentable, but he just sprang his kid from the nuthatch. The extraordinary wants to become ordinary.
My cousin’s not upset. She is wrapped up in her book. We go to McDonald’s, and no one’s happy, but we’re eating. They laugh and joke, and I feel alien. I am not picking up the prompts for how I should act.
She wants to get back to normal, too, which probably meaning lying. Hiding. Being a teenaged crazy person. It’s not that I want her to be morose; I just don’t understand this jocularity.
No one is going to say anything; these unusual circumstances are not marked. I went on a trip to spring my cousin for the loony bin, and all I got was this cat toy.
Why do I want more? Shouldn’t I want less? They make the kind of jokes small-towners make about the big city, and I cringe. Some truths are so absorbing that they permeate and become unsen. We’re all fucking crazy, and pretty likely to stay that way.