As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
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The narrator is Charlie Weir, a New York psychiatrist. The year is 1979.
The building on 87th Street had a small foyer with a bronze pot for umbrellas, an old wing chair, and a faded rug. It was always full of shadows, especially in the gloom of a dying day. As I came down the last flight of stairs a figure rose from the chair and moved toward me. She had waited for me. We stood there in our overcoats, facing each other, and then we embraced.
“Look at the state of you,” she murmured.
We took a cab in the rain to 23rd Street. Agnes had never been in the apartment before, and she moved around it as women do, as cats do, in new places, feeling for the spirit, I suppose. We had barely spoken in the cab. I was very deeply moved by this act of generosity, or affection, or whatever it sprang from; for some reason it made me think of the early days, when I was running the psych unit on the East Side and we stood shoulder to shoulder, Agnes and I, comrades as much as lovers. Now I felt that the bond had endured despite the years of anger, despite everything.
“You’re going to miss her, Charlie.”
Her being with me like this, keeping company with the bereaved—given that I had nobody else, this was a compassionate gesture, though what more it signified I couldn’t say. Agnes remained physically attractive to me, and perhaps as a function of death’s proximity I wanted very badly to hold her close to me then. But that was not for me to ask.
“All right, Charlie, come here.”
She was on the sofa. I switched off all the lights except for the lamp in the corner and sat down next to her. Turning toward me she took my face in her hands and, with some deliberation, kissed me. I became at once feverish and she permitted this, then let herself be led into the bedroom where the fierceness of my desire surprised me but apparently not her, perhaps because she already understood sex as a kind of cathartic abreaction to the fact of death. I hadn’t had sex with an emotional intimate since she and I had last been together, that was before Danny, her brother, died. Though I hadn’t been celibate in the meanwhile; there was a building at 33rd and Lex where in a large, fourth-floor apartment women sold sex every night of the week. One of the women I visited there resembled Agnes sufficiently—the same lanky, small-breasted body, hair the same shade of pale straw—that I was able to sustain an identification. We did nothing particularly perverse. I was happy just to have her wrap her legs around me as Agnes used to, and do that same thing with her pelvis. The woman apparently had no feelings either way as to what name I moaned into her stiffly lacquered hair.
Later we lay comfortably in the darkness. Through the narrow space where the blind failed to reach the top of the window the lights of the city played across the ceiling. Agnes was mildly surprised to find herself in my bed, though not alarmed; there was no convulsion of panic or guilt. She hadn’t planned this, she told me, but when she’d seen the depth of my grief back on 87th Street, it was inconceivable to her that I should be left alone in such pain. I had once left her alone in pain, and I knew, because she’d told me, that she would never forget it.
We had met almost ten years earlier. I was running a psychiatric unit in one of the old city hospitals then, and one of my responsibilities was to sit in with a group of vets. One night a young woman lingered in the doorway after the meeting ended. The vets had all dispersed, and I was writing up my notes. When I became aware of her I stood up and asked if I could help her, and she told me she was Danny Magill’s sister. She said he didn’t know she was there.
She was leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded. I could see the resemblance, physically at least. She was about 22, and like her brother she had a watchful kind of reserve. Bony physique, pale skin, dishwater blond hair with thick bangs covering her forehead and falling over her eyes. She seemed to be inspecting me. She was grinning, I remember, as though I amused her.
“You want to talk?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
But she pushed herself off the doorframe and sat down. She was wearing a short denim skirt and cowboy boots, and a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones on it. I remember a lot of women like that in those days, tall, self-reliant women, skeptical and independent. Back then I was less cautious than I became later. A woman like this I wanted to get close to. She was my type. The gray eyes were direct, aggressively so, and I liked that. It was a humid summer night. The traffic on First Avenue was heavy. An ambulance siren grew piercingly shrill, then suddenly fell silent.
“You think he’s getting anything out of it?”
“He keeps showing up.”
I leaned against the table, watching her. She stood up and wandered around the room.
“Does he talk to you?”
“No,” I said.
All at once she contracted her facial muscles as though to rid herself of an unwelcome thought. What was it? Her brother, of course. Danny. What did she want from me? Reassurance, some platitude regarding his eventual recovery. Back like he was before.
“We were close once. He won’t talk to me at all now. What’s your name?”
I told her. We stared at each other for a few seconds. There was a clarity, a frankness between us, and I felt I’d known her for years. I also felt she didn’t want platitudes but something more substantial.
“I just don’t get it,” she said.
“You just have to wait till he’s ready.”
Why! Yes, she wanted to know. She wanted to hear me talk about him. I told her these men had been profoundly traumatized by what they’d been through.
“What does that mean?”
“A shock to the mind so intense you can’t get rid of it. You can force it out of your consciousness but you never forget it. And it comes back.”
She asked me more questions, I tried to answer them. I remember sitting forward on the edge of a chair, one hand on my knee and the other chopping at the air, giving emphasis, trying to make it all clear for her. Her posture mirrored mine. She too sat forward, listening intently, frowning, elbows on her knees. We were both tall and skinny, both long-haired, earnest, serious. From the start we were like a pair of twins.
“So we wait.”
I shrugged. “Long as it takes.”
“Have you done a lot of this stuff?”
“We’re making it up as we go along.”
Now she laughed, a short bark like a cork exploding from a bottle. She sat back, pushed her hand into her bag and pulled out rolling tobacco and papers. I was tired. I wanted to go home. I had to be on the ward first thing in the morning. But I didn’t want to let her out of my sight.
“You know what they call you?” she said.
“What do they call me?”
“You don’t know?”
She was fully alive to me now. We were fully alive to each other.
“I knew that.”
She thought it was flattering. “And Christ,” she said, “those guys have, nightmares. Don’t they?”
“Oh, they have nightmare all right.”
“So what do I do, Captain Nightmare?”
“I think you just have to give him room,” I said.
She nodded, then lit her cigarette with a Zippo. It is an image I have always held on to, for some reason, how she sat with her fingers cupped around the cigarette, frowning, her hair falling forward, the flare of the Zippo and the tobacco catching. Outside, the low rumble of traffic, a muted car horn, a blast of rock music, the Doors. She snapped the lighter shut.
“I feel better.” She blew smoke at the ceiling.
I locked up. She walked down the corridor beside me, her boots clanking on the floor. The strip lighting cast a harsh glare on the green walls. A janitor slipped by and murmured good night. From somewhere high in the building we heard someone shouting.
Out on the sidewalk she threw away the cigarette. “You want to go for a beer, Captain?”
Second Avenue on a hot summer night. Cabs, cop cars, long-hooded Cadillacs with their windows rolled down, some guy screaming, horns honking, the sidewalk crowded. We went to Smithy’s, a seedy joint with its doors wide open to the street and rock music spilling out. We got our beers and found a corner and talked some more about her brother. They’d grown up in a town out on the island. Their father was a builder, also a drunk. She was a grad student at NYU in sociology. She’d won a scholarship. Later, after a couple of beers, on the steps of an apartment building, she stood with her back to the wall, hips canted forward and her hands behind her head, and let me kiss her. I covered her body as headlights raked the doorway. I kissed her again. Then she pushed herself off the wall and kissed me back, spreading her fingers across my cheeks. We stared at each other, very close now, in that clear-eyed, candid way we’d been looking at each other for the last hour. We were both panting slightly, and grinning like a pair of conspirators. We were in this together, whatever it was. Compadres. The mood suddenly broke.
“Okay, I’m headed uptown,” she said.
She stuck out her arm and we shook hands. Hers was a thin, strong, bony hand. I crossed the street, then turned and watched her stride away, contained and imperturbable. Emphatically not one of my haunted women.
She turned toward me in the bed and propped her head on her chin to gaze at me where I lay staring at the shifting patterns of light on the ceiling. Somewhere on Tenth Avenue a garbage truck rumbled to life and moved off with a hiss and a clatter. A distant siren was audible to the east, a wail within the indistinct constant restless murmur of the city late at night.
“What will they say at home?”
“Nobody’s at home. I’m a free woman tonight.”
“You knew, did you, that this would be the worst night?”
She nodded. She reached over to me, stroked my cheek and ran her finger along my lips. “Charlie,” she said.
“Will you come here again?”
I reached for her. I believed that this “maybe” meant we might have some sort of private arrangement. But I feared that her tentative acquiescence could vanish as suddenly as it had materialized. For although Agnes was at that moment as open and tender toward me as she’d ever been, I doubted she would be the same woman in the morning. So I said nothing more. A little later we fell asleep, still tangled in each other’s limbs.
Her brother was one of the worst damaged of the vets in the group, although I didn’t tell her that the night we met. I’d just completed my residency at Johns Hopkins when I was offered the psych unit, and despite the squalid condition of the facilities and the evident demoralization of the staff, I’d accepted the job at once. I was young for such an appointment but I was ambitious, I was qualified, and I was deeply relieved to be back home after the years in Baltimore.
But New York had deteriorated in my absence. I was horrified at the decay into which the city had sunk, and if the worst of it fell on the poor—garbage everywhere, street lights broken, phone booths smashed up, crime out of control, people at each other’s throats, on and on—that was nothing compared to what was happening to the mentally ill. It was too late for most of the pathetic creatures who shuffled up and down the wards, who for years had been so completely dependent on the institution that there was no possibility of their ever getting out again, though many had got out, had been thrown out, in fact, and were wandering the city in rags, babbling to themselves and living in filth, truly the wretched of the earth. At the end of my first day I sat exhausted in my office and asked myself what possible point there was in carrying on.
But I was young, and I refused to be disheartened: I would make a difference. With the support of my boss, a man called Sam Pike, I planned to turn the unit into a model of the sort of progressive mental health treatment I’d been exposed to at Johns Hopkins. I suppose I was no different from tens of thousands of young Americans then, disgusted by not only the political establishment but all social institutions, orthodox psychiatry not least, and committed to the idea that without radical change our society was done for. Central to this movement, if that’s what it was, was our opposition to the war. For this reason I was determined to do what I could for the men returning from southeast Asia with severe psychological damage, what was once called combat fatigue, and before that shell shock.
I will not forget the stuffy, smoke-filled room where we met in the basement of the hospital; the room where I met Agnes. I remember a dozen or more vets sitting in a rough circle. I see them grinning as though for a group photo, each of those emotionally shattered but still defiant men in their T-shirts and blue jeans, their baseball caps, their tattoos, men in their twenties mostly who’d seen what no human being should ever have to see and the pain of it stamped on their faces like bootprints. They looked old beyond their years, sitting forward with elbows on knees, or with legs flung out, an arm over the back of the chair, eyes turned up to the ceiling and a cigarette always burning between their fingers. They startled easily and sought refuge in street drugs and alcohol, and their symptoms would later be tied to post-traumatic stress disorder—a term that didn’t exist then. They’d seen their buddies die and wanted to know why it wasn’t them. They felt defiled. They felt, many of them, that they were already dead.
It was three weeks before she visited me again. I had not tried to contact her. I preferred to test my solitude to the limits of endurance, and those I had yet to reach. But the hours I’d spent with her the night of my mother’s funeral had awoken in me what I could only think of as a hunger: Agnes was the only woman I had ever properly loved. I had often thought about what I meant by the word love with regard to Agnes, and found it easier to discard other competing emotions and define it in the negative. For sure it had something to do with sex, but my desire for Agnes was also driven by a further wealth of feeling that wasn’t affinity, or not merely affinity, nor was it a twinning, although this idea did at least begin to approximate what I was after. There was a feeling of twinship, not least because we resembled each other physically, and could have passed for brother and sister. So what was I to make of the fact that it was the death of her real brother that destroyed our marriage? I remembered telling her, in the immediate aftermath of Danny’s death, that she would be better off without me, better able to get on with her life. The inadequacy of this as justification for leaving her was made very clear to me. I tried to explain how corrosive it would be, her conviction of my responsibility for Danny’s death.
“Then change my conviction,” she said.
I was silent. I opened my hands, a gesture of helplessness. I couldn’t do it, I told her. It was during that conversation, or one identical to it, they blur together in my memory now, that I remember her pummeling my chest with her fists, weeping with frustration, and me standing there with my arms by my side in a posture of stoic mortification.
That was all behind us now. The most potent charge of emotion weakens over time, unless it’s repressed. Then it can wreak havoc in the psyche for years to come, which was what had happened to Danny and his buddies. Their buried material was throwing up nightmares and other symptoms, and would continue to do so until the trauma could be translated into a narrative and assimilated into the self; this was our working assumption, Sam Pike’s and mine. But Agnes didn’t repress. She remembered in vivid detail the events surrounding Danny’s death and my own subsequent departure, for it had kept her effectively out of touch with me for seven years.
But the day I buried my mother she had waited for me afterwards and then come home with me.
Patrick McGrath is the author of two story collections and seven novels, including Asylum and Port Mungo. His screen adaptation of his novel Spider was filmed by David Cronenberg in 2002. He lives in New York City.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.