Ezra Titus

1966 – 2009

JANE IN PHASE IV

When I met Jane in Phase IV, she was decked out in paper hospital pants, trembling, waiting on the med line. Looking through her obvious hysteria and probable delirium tremens, I could see that she was a kind of cute blonde.

 

“How ya’ doin?” I asked, like a comedian beginning his routine.

 

“Not so well” she answered meekly.

 

“Well,” I said, “If you feel any better, come hang out with us.” I pointed toward the cafeteria, which I regarded as my business office, and in which I had already found my place as King of the ward. I had even begun a secret gambling operation from which I skimmed small profits. I called it “Little Las Vegas”.

 

On my way to the pay phone (which only I answered responsibly) I’d walk by her room, but she slept endlessly. When other patients answered the phone and were told who the caller was seeking, they would say, “OK,” set the receiver down, and walk away, never to deliver the message or return. I might’ve been missing important phone calls. So, when I heard the phone ring, I took it upon myself to run down the hall past the nurse’s station and pick up the receiver before Lucinda or one of her 99 personalities got to it first. The nurses said “No running!” but at the same time appreciated the fact that I alone was acting as secretary for the entire ward, which was so long, we called it ‘The Green Mile’. The ‘high functioning’ patients never seemed to bother answering the phone at all. It was always the seriously impaired, mostly hunched-up mockeries of normal men and women, who picked up the phone, put it down and walked away.

 

I’d become a celebrity on the Mile. Even the nurses loved me. But the fact was, I had no idea where I was going to live when I left that place and I had to arrange something quickly. I’d called all my friends one after another, I heard their noncommittal, choked responses when I asked if I could live there for a while: “We’re going skiing, but we’ll call you next Friday”; “All the kids are sick and there’s really no room, but I’ll think about it.” Scott would have thrown me in his basement, but his brother-in-law Ed, who had just been released from the same hospital I was in after ‘brandishing a weapon’ during a marital argument, was staying there. Scott and his wife couldn’t become a refugee camp for the dysfunctional. The alternative was that I be released to a halfway house in Kingston that had recently been cited for 67 Health Code violations. There was an article about it in the local paper, which was in the cafeteria for everyone to see, like, this is where you’re going next, losers.

 

Indeed, it looked very much as though that would be the next chapter in my life. The halfway house was called Franklin Manor. I thought it sounded classy. However, I was told by other patients who had been there that it was extraordinarily squalid and generally so intolerable that they’d chosen to live on the streets of Kingston instead. I knew that if these people, many of them quite slovenly, had found Franklin Manor less preferable than sleeping on a bench in the freezing cold with lice crawling through their hair, I probably wouldn’t like it either. I was desperate, and I suppose that’s part of the reason I thought about hooking up with Jane.

 

After a few days, Jane finally woke up and walked into the cafeteria. She had light blonde hair and blue eyes. She was a little old for my taste, but if I squinted, I could see a little bit of youthful beauty left over in the aftermath of her having blown her life into an arid dust bowl. Her body was nothing to freak out over compared to other girlfriends I’d had, but it wasn’t deformed or scarred in any way. In fact, because I was suffering from some prison-style sex deprivation syndrome, Jane looked absolutely succulent. I poured on the charm, and very quickly, Jane and I were holding hands and watching television, laughing about the stratospherically overblown exclamations of two manic girls playing ping-pong behind us.

 

If you’re not hallucinating, or maybe even if you are, romance does live in psychiatric wards. One is most often in a small area with a variety of headcases and a few “normal” people who simply made incredibly bad mistakes. After a few days, I was in must, so I seduced Jane while we played board games. We laughed about the irony in playing “Life,” and about the other people in the ward. We laughed about Lucinda, the girl with 99 personalities who, although usually polite, once screamed at me to “Get the fuck off the phone or I’ll kill you.” Once in the cafeteria, Jane and I asked Lucinda where she lived and she said, “In Hell.” Jane asked “Why Hell?” There was a long, frightening silence, so I interjected, “Well, why Hopewell Junction? Why anywhere?” and Jane laughed.

 

We were fascinated by the man we called “Templeton,” after the rat in Charlotte’s Web. We whispered about the way he hid food and traded it to newly admitted patients for their coffee. We fell into hysteria when he told us that, when he woke up after jumping off a building, his parents were signing the papers to harvest his organs. We laughed about the girl who tried to smother herself to death with a pillow. In a psych ward, suicide often becomes a very funny subject among the patients. We giggled about the guy who forced down 500 Advil or the woman who threatened a neighbor’s pet. We were reprimanded twice for holding hands.

 

On the outside, I would never have tried to seduce Jane. We became friends, but I knew from the start that I was more or less deceiving her in order to use her. I had to do it.

 

Jane got out five days before I did. I spent Thanksgiving in Phase IV, which was the most depressing thing ever. Jane visited and brought me food every day, along with lots of quarters for phone calls. We talked for hours on end about her concern for me, and where I would go when I got out of the hospital. Jane thought moving in with my dad in Amsterdam was a bad idea. Jane wanted me to move in with her and take a job at the bank she co-managed. So, unorthodox as it was for the people who managed Phase IV, they released me into Jane’s care. I took a job at the bank, initially as her personal assistant.

 

Jane had a cozy little house decorated with antiques and family photos. I got along excellently with her children, almost as one of their peers, helping them with their homework and laughing together at television shows. Somehow I couldn’t really be myself around the kids. I had to pretend I had never had a table dance or snorted cat tranquilizer. It felt almost as though I couldn’t breathe. I fed the longhaired black cat and it slept beside me, purring at night. I’m allergic to cats, but befriending the wretched little beast was scoring me points with the family. So, though I’d like to have killed it, wrapped it in plastic and thrown it in a dumpster, I continued stroking the cat’s noxious hair and letting it sleep beside me, as Jane was accustomed to having it in the bed at night.

 

I told Jane I didn’t want to have sex while her kids were in the next room. I said it made me uncomfortable. When I’d lived with Tammy, I made her scream all night with her six and eight year olds on the other side of a thin wall. I knew it was bad, but I couldn’t help it. She made all the noise. Sometimes I’d put my hand over Tammy’s mouth because, even though I’d tell her to be quiet, she just couldn’t stop. Smothering Tammy was as far as I went in protecting her children from the trauma of hearing their mother having sex.

 

The truth was, I didn’t find Jane attractive. I didn’t really want to have sex with her, and her breath, which was like the bouquet of a thousand rancid hams, sealed the deal. When she was close to me, it was overwhelming. I came up with a million excuses to avoid sex: I hadn’t done it in a long time; I wanted it to be special; I was tired, I was sick. I’d say anything to avoid it, and I told Jane that I simply didn’t like kissing. I knew that was the beginning of the end of our relationship, which she had so quickly configured as a marriage. But I had no place else to go. So – maybe twice – I actually did it. I just forced myself, during which I’d think about someone else. It was the first time I’d traded sex for food and shelter. I actually thought it was kind of neat that I could even manage it. I bought a huge bottle of Listerine and put it in the bathroom, hoping Jane would use it, and tried to make the best of a nasty situation.

 

In the mornings, I put on a business suit and went to work where I sat behind a computer condensing stock reports for managers all day. At six, I’d get home, and Jane would start cooking dinner as we greeted the kids and the cat. I would change into sweatpants and a football jersey for the evening. At the dinner table, candles would be lit, and Jane’s two teenagers would tell us about the A’s they’d gotten and be praised. I dropped all my laundry down the laundry chute and Jane took care of it, as well as my dry-cleaning. We were a respectable couple in the town, working honest jobs and making sure the kids told us where they’d be.

 

There were toy soldiers and a prayer plaque on the mantle piece in the living room. The house was thoroughly decked out for Christmas, which turned out to be a magical day on which everyone was thrilled with their gifts. I had never lived that way – straight and normal. It seemed like everything one would want: a regular job and a stable family, a naturally servile if unattractive wife. I settled into the routine, strangely comfortable with my newly acquired children, my job, the cat, my professional girlfriend and our dysfunctional sex life. I was feeling pretty good about it and thought I could make it last for a while. I had no clue amidst all this wholesome family activity that a disaster of monumental proportions was welling up under my feet, preparing to destroy everything. The last thing I needed was another shakeup, especially one that came from the very center of my little, perfect family fantasy.

 

For Christmas, Jane’s sister, her sister’s husband and their three shrieking children came to stay with us for a few days. Jane’s sister, Caroline, was from Dogfish Harbor, Maine, or something like that. It was some island near the Southeast corner of Canada, where they had little contact with the rest of the world. One day after work, I changed into sweatpants and a Black Sabbath T-shirt. When Caroline saw me, she asked, “What does that say.” I said, “Black Sabbath ruined my life,” laughing a little. I told her I’d gotten it at a concert a few years back. I noticed that she looked really disturbed by that. I realized she was one of those people who are a bit too superstitious and have no sense of humor. Our conversation ended and I continued folding my laundry. She stood there, fat and white in her bathrobe, eating a bowl of peas, looking at me suspiciously. She was constantly eating bowls of peas. I guess it was some kind of a diet. I tried not to offend her by wearing any more T-shirts that depicted Halloween-like imagery, but she didn’t like me and I could tell. She thought I was evil, which was kind of funny. It’s happened to me before. There is no defense once someone thinks of you that way, so you resolve that it’s the way things are going to be. Then, one day it occurs to you that it might be funny to put a wooden statue of a screaming, Hawaiian god on the mantle piece, next to the family photos. It’s fun to imagine what the superstitious person will think when they see it.

 

So, Caroline and I had to endure each other for a little while, she, thinking I was The Antichrist. I wrote a country song from her point of view: “We Don’t Listen To Black Sabbath In Dog Harbor, Maine”. Then, one morning, she angrily spewed, “Whose Listerine is this?” Wondering why she was so incensed, I admitted it was mine. “So this is what Jane’s been drinking,” she said. I laughed, thinking this was all some Dog Harbor kind of joke. Then, Caroline started opening drawers and looking inside little hiding places, pulling out bottle after bottle of mouthwash and vanilla extract. Caroline even showed me receipts she found, showing that Jane had purchased loads of vanilla extract at the supermarket. Of course, I ‘d heard stories about hoboes drinking lighter fluid and Sterno, but I’d never imagined that someone I knew, especially Jane, would actually drink methyl or isopropyl alcohol.

 

Drinking stuff like that can lead to a spectrum of disastrous physical and psychological effects, ranging from blindness and insanity to death. Apparently, it also gives one a different sort of high. That’s one I’ve never tried. Tragically, Jane enjoyed it. I’d never smelled alcohol on Jane’s breath, only rotten flesh. She’d never seemed drunk, though now that I was confronted with the horrific evidence of her addiction, it occurred to me that she did act a bit strangely at times. The next minute, I was in the midst of Caroline’s living room intervention. Caroline and her husband were confronting Jane with her problem, and not for the first time. It hadn’t been mentioned up until then, but apparently this had been a habit of Jane’s for years. I sat there on the couch, confounded and shocked, not knowing what to say.

 

Caroline wanted Jane to check herself back into the hospital immediately. Jane didn’t want that, saying she’d lose her job. I was confused so, almost arbitrarily, I chose to stick up for Jane. I asked her if she thought she could stop, and what I could do to help her. I wanted to give her one more chance. I told her the next day, privately, that if she really wanted to drink so badly, I would be more than happy to buy her wine. I lectured her on the perils of drinking the suburban moonshine she had hidden all over the house. She agreed, and for a few days, things went smoothly. I reluctantly agreed that Jane’s sister, Caroline, would stay a while longer to help monitor the situation.  Oh, and I wasn’t allowed to have Listerine in the house anymore. I locked it in the trunk of my car, took a mouthful in the morning before work and spit it out in the snow, leaving a green stain. Caroline saw me gargling in the driveway one morning it and confronted me regarding my continued use of mouthwash, given the tragic state of things. I said, “Look. I keep it locked in the car, and Jane doesn’t have the keys, all right?” I was sick of her, this fat police dog supervising my life.

 

One night, Jane didn’t come home from an after-work Christmas party. She’d told me to skip it, as I wouldn’t know anyone, and I gladly did. Corporate Christmas parties are squalid, degenerate affairs. Jane called and told me she’d checked into a hotel where she was now overdosing on vanilla extract and Prozac. She told me her room number. Then she said, “Tell the kids I’m sorry” and hung up. Caroline called the police, who found Jane’s car, and Jane, at the Golden Bough Hotel. An hour later, I saw her in ICU, open mouthed with glazed, drifting eyes, staring into death.

 

Though having ingested so much poison she could barely speak, she insisted that she not be taken to a hospital. I told her she already was in a hospital. She then asked for an Advil.

 

I visited her every day for six hours at Dutchess Psychiatric, and brought her phone cards and coffee. The kids moved across town to their father’s house. Crown Financial called to tell me Jane was fired, because they’d found “prohibited substances” in her office. As for me, they simply had no more work to do. I was let go. So, without the kids, I sat in Jane’s house for a couple of weeks with only the cat to keep me company. When she was transferred to a long-term rehab, it appeared I’d be in the haunted house for months. Jane wanted me to stay, and actually sent me money. For a little while, it was a dream come true. I could do thing’s I could never have done around Jane or the kids, like drink beer and listen to loud music. Soon, I realized that I was actually celebrating. I could understand how real husbands might do the same under similar circumstances.

 

One night I was pacing around Jane’s house, drinking beer and listening to the Rolling Stones when Scott called. Fred had called him, and somehow, he and my mom knew that I’d been hospitalized. Scott sounded irritated, as Fred had interrogated him as to my whereabouts. Calmed by the beer, I told Scott that if Fred called again, he could give him Jane’s number. I planned on telling Fred and my mother that no, I didn’t want anything to do with them, but when my mom called she was so concerned and worried that I had to allay her anxieties. We had a civil conversation, she told me she loved me, and over the next week, she called more often. We laughed on the phone about stories of things we’d seen that only we would ever understand. She was as angry as I was about what Fred had done with Sara, and told me funny stories about Terry and Artimus, and it was clear that no matter what had happened between us, we shared part of each other’s soul. She said I could stay at her house in Woodstock if I wanted to. Jane wasn’t allowed to make phone calls while she was at the rehab and I was bored, so eventually, I went over to the house, where I hadn’t been since Christmas 2002.

 

It’s a nice house, really big, and every corner is beautifully decorated. There’s a huge TV, a steam bath and a jacuzzi. My mom and Fred were in Kauai, but they suggested I stay over in the house for a few nights. While I did, my mom hired a young girl to cook for me and, the second we met, we went to bed. I started to forget about Jane, who still couldn’t call. When she finally did come home, I had been staying at my mom’s house for weeks.

 

Back at Jane’s, she told me all about the rehab. She tried to be funny, but the joke was getting old. She gave me some sedatives she’d gotten upon being discharged; I took two and fell asleep on the couch. When I woke up, Jane, with uncanny intuition,  said, “I want a monogamous relationship.” I thought, well, we don’t have one, but said nothing.

 

That night, Jane went out driving behind those incredibly powerful sedatives and totalled her car. She was uninjured but, because she was intoxicated, they checked her back into the psych ward, the third time in as many months. The day she was released, she went to a funeral where she slipped on the ice and broke her wrist. The next week, she was arrested for driving drunk. It had turned into a sick comedy, and I visited her less and less.

 

I spent months at my mom and Fred’s house while they remained in Kauai, just getting over all that had happened. All alone in the enormous house, I listened to music, wrote and enjoyed drinking beer once a week with the girl my mom had hired to cook. That winter, we had more snow that anyone had seen in years, and I nested like a hibernating squirrel, stocked up on beer and food, waiting out the snow.

 

 

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