by Aimee Henkel
We shared a ward together, he and I; the kind of place you find homeless junkies,
schizophrenics, shell-shocked wanderers, drug abusers. They called it a dual-diagnosis unit. The
hospital complex was in the center of Westchester, NY, across the street from Macy’s and the
Galleria. I could see it from the windows. It was beautifully kept: emerald lawns, pearly white
buildings with bright red roofs, lots of flowers and shrubbery. Inside, our ward was septic,
strange. There was a padded cell in detox. The night I arrived, they brought in a pregnant heroin
addict who screamed for eight hours straight. No one slept. We stood at the edge of our
doorways in the dimmed halogen lights and watched the door, listening to her scream. Every
hour or so an orderly or a nurse would go in and through the brief opening we’d see the poor
thing on the floor, curved around her belly, her legs kicking.
It was a locked mental ward. Orderlies watched our every move. Doors locked automatically
from the outside. There were call buttons on the walls and “take down” lights on the ceilings.
There were doctor’s rounds each morning: three white coated men asked questions, nodded with
the answers, and wrote them down. There were meds, lots and lots of meds. And then there were
the people. My roommate was a prostitute from Yonkers who had three kids, all of whom she
lost to Child Protective Services. She had no idea where they were. She was on a lot of
Thorazine, and she was touchy. The food made us all gassy, and she was particularly offended
by the smell of her co-patients on the ward. Other people came and went, some to other parts of
the hospital, others just refused treatment.
James wasn’t the kind of person who belonged in that kind of rehab, although it was clear he was
an alcoholic. He was the kind of guy I liked: jolly, open, friendly. Short and squat, he was Italian
and Irish, his face pocked with little scars I assumed were acne or early chicken pox. He wore a
moustache and I wondered what his face looked like without it. He was rotund, which I figured
was from all the liquor, but then, I didn’t know much about his life before he got there.
We connected right away. He smiled and joked with everyone, but we shared a strange sense of
humor. Being the only alcoholics on the ward, it was easy to latch on to each other, somewhat
like drowning cats to a stick of wood. Outside during smoke breaks, we talked, but he was
reserved. He listened to me, wanted to know what my life had been like before rehab, was I with
someone—all that. It was easy to tell him my girlfriend was in the eating disorder ward across
the quad and that we had been nude strippers together until she tried to kill me. That I had
graduated from NYU summa cum laude, and worked as a corporate writer until the booze got
me. My best idea had been to take my clothes off for money so I could drink full time. It was like
letting my breath go. The strange part about telling him all of that was he understood. He got that
I wanted to drink all the time and that I wanted nothing more to do with men. I told him I wasn’t
going to drink again ever. Just for that day.
He agreed with me. We had a lot to agree upon. When the Narcotics Anonymous speaker came
and admitted he woke up one morning with another man, who said to him: “Good morning,
papi,” we laughed so hard we cried. And when we had to pretend we were animals in therapy,
we egged each other on because someone willing to stay clean and sober “would do anything.”
And when we were finally allowed out to roam the grounds, he told me about his English
bulldog that had to be delivered by Cesarean section because their heads were so big, they
couldn’t be delivered naturally anymore. I wondered if eventually that would be true of people;
would our heads be so big that no one would have vaginal births? He didn’t answer.
He and I liked to play trivial pursuit, although he was much better than I. We sat around the day
room at night, the summer Olympics blaring, while he beat me over and over. The only questions
I got right were entertainment. I was terrible at history, sports, geography. We were inspired that
summer, watching the athletes struggle and win. Working as hard as we were during the day,
trying to get it right: the steps, the therapy, the family entanglements, the reasons, reasons,
reasons; these nights were part of a routine I needed more than anything else. We joked and
teased, and nothing got too serious. Until the therapists got serious about us.
I was called into the head counselor’s office on a Thursday. I remember because it was AA day,
“You and James are too close.” She said, opening my file. She wrote something in it and I
thought for sure I was going to be thrown out. I wondered if it was anything like getting
suspended from high school. Would I have to do this all over again if I was? “You two need to
separate. His treatment isn’t going to work if he can get out of himself with you.”
I looked at her as if she had two heads. I thought his treatment was going just fine.
“No. He needs to address what happened.”
“What happened?” I asked. This was a new element in our relationship. What hadn’t he told me?
“James was married up until a year ago. Then his daughter died.”
“You’re kidding?” I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t tell me about this. “How did she die?”
“He and his wife had been out at a party, drinking, and they forgot to close the baby gate all the
way. She fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Died instantly.”
The therapist nodded and closed my file. “You two need to separate.”
“But I need to talk to him about this. It’s not fair he didn’t tell me.” I think I cried then. “I told
“Good distraction for him, I guess. Being a stripper and all.” She raised an eyebrow at me, kind
of smirked. I didn’t like that little observation one bit.
I left her office with strict instructions not to talk to him. It seemed strange, to know so much
about a person, who they were, what made them laugh, what sports they liked, what they did for
a living, and not know about the hole in their lives. It was as if he had danced around it in every
conversation. There had always been something
but I never knew what it was; words on the edge
of his tongue, a thought never expressed. Perhaps he had wanted to tell me, but I hadn’t let him
get a word in edgewise. I beat myself up for not knowing, not giving him the room to say the
That afternoon, he must have gotten his talking to as well. He didn’t avoid me at dinner, just sat
two seats away instead of next to me. I leaned over and asked to talk to him on the walk back.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“Tell you what?” He smiled and handed me a necklace he’d bought me from the gift shop that
He looked crushed. The person I knew disappeared in an instant; his expression collapsed. “She
“She went down the stairs. She was two. Our townhouse had steep stairs. She got up in the
middle of the night, fell and broke her neck. I don’t know who forgot to close the gate. I think it
“Oh my God.” I cried then. At the time, I was sad for him, because of the broken expression, the
empty eyes. The jolly man I had known was gone. But later, I realized I had known something
else. He would never stop drinking. We knew it then, but neither one of us had the courage to
All of a sudden an orderly was between us. “Let’s get going.”
He was discharged a week later. We tried to laugh, make jokes, but they fell flat. Nothing was
funny, now that we had to face the real world. I never saw him again, although fifteen years later
I can still see him saying: “I don’t know who forgot to close the gate. I think it was me.” I want
to believe he got sober, that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I’ll never know. And that’s how it is
sometimes when you stay clean this long; you learn to live without knowing.
Aimee Henkel studied fiction and poetry at New York University, Manhattanville's MFA
program, and the Sleepy Hollow Writer's project. In a previous life she was a corporate
communications professional, published anonymously in national and local newspapers and
trade journals. In her current incarnation as a writer of fiction and poetry, she has been
Beginnings, and most recently,
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